Summer lets you explore one of Canada’s most beautiful ski destinations—without the snow
By Lola Augustine Brown
When we drove into the Two Jack Main campground just outside of Banff, AB, the Parks Canada employee who checked us in warned us that this was a “high bear activity campground” and that we were to leave all food and toiletries in our cars or in the designated bear lockers. I raised my eyebrows at my husband and said that I understood. Having lived in Canada for more than 20 years without having had a bear encounter, I couldn’t believe it could happen. But it did—on our first morning at the campsite.
We’d spent the night in an equipped campsite, for which Parks Canada provides the tent, sleeping mats, camp stove, lantern, and bear locker. At $70 a night, this seemed like a bargain compared with summer hotel rates in Banff that were upwards of $450 a night. Besides, camping would be fun, I thought.
After a wretched night’s sleep with torrential rain beating on the tent’s canvas walls, we woke to a gorgeous morning and I headed to the washrooms to brush my teeth. A few minutes later, my husband burst into the ladies room and hissed, “There’s a bear!” “What? Where?” I asked. “Thirty feet away!” He disappeared back outside and then came back a few minutes later, looking a little pale. We decided to walk slowly over to our car and get out of there. We headed to a McDonald’s restaurant in Banff, with me still in my PJs.
On our way out of the park, we told a security guard—the only person around at 5:45 a.m.—about the bear situation, so he went to check it out, and we watched as other campers hightailed it out of there. “Do we just leave our gear in the tent and never return?” I asked a Parks Canada employee we saw when we were almost out of the park. She laughed, “Oh, no, it’s all good. By the time you get back, the bear will be gone.” And it was.
We learned that it was a habituated bear wearing a collar (a habituated bear is a non-aggressive animal that’s used to being around people) who’d been seen snuffling around there many times before. Our encounter definitely got the blood pumping, though!
We slept like babies in our tents the next two nights and I enjoyed the experience—despite the bear—and can recommend camping as a budget-conscious way to stay in a rather expensive place like Banff. We cooked a few meals on the propane stove provided and liked the way the site was set up. There was free firewood, but no showers—something we hadn’t realized beforehand. Most other Parks Canada campsites in Banff National Park do have showers, though, so don’t let that put you off.
Visiting Banff in the summer is definitely a bucket-list adventure worth splurging on, so if the idea of camping doesn’t appeal, one of the many beautiful hotels in Banff is an option worth exploring, despite the higher cost.
The Town of Banff, situated in Canada’s first National Park, is one of the most beautiful places in the world. Banff offers many ways to explore the natural splendour of the Rockies, but the town has a wealth of cultural attractions and fabulous dining, drinking, and entertainment options, too. I’d previously visited Banff twice, both times in the winter, and loved the destination. Visiting in the summer was even better, which I hadn’t expected, as the skiing there had been superb and I had considered that the main reason to go there.
Climb Every Mountain
Surrounded by mountains, everywhere you glance in Banff offers a sweeping vista to make you ooh and ahh—whether it’s the sun hitting the side of the mountains in a way that makes them glow, the tracts of snow still carving lines through the trees, or huge waterfalls tumbling down craggy cliffs. The area is alive in the summer. We saw herds of elk every time we drove from our campsite into town, deer and comical marmots everywhere, more birds than we could count, and, when we rode the chairlift up Mount Norquay for the amazing views, a baby bear ambling along below our swinging feet.
Taking the Banff Gondola to the top of Sulphur Mountain is the best way to appreciate how stunning the area is. As you ascend, the town is laid out before you, with the mountains all around, and at the top, you’re rewarded with a museum/visitors’ centre with viewing decks offering jaw-dropping panoramas. You can hike trails at the top of the mountain or climb the boardwalk to the cosmic ray station, a weather station built in 1902 and now a designated National Historic Site. You can’t go inside the tiny rock building, but a clear panel lets you see inside; it’s set up as though mountaineers had just left for the day, with their stuff spread out across the table and the narrow bunk.
There’s a café in the visitors’ centre with overpriced so-so food, but I highly recommend that you time your visit for sunset and dine at the gorgeous Sky Bistro, where floor-to-ceiling windows provide uninterrupted alpine views. The food is excellent, with locally produced ingredients used to create an exciting menu that includes confit duck wings and bison tartar to start (both delicious), along with perfect steaks. As we left the restaurant at dusk, we saw s’mores set up by the firepits on the viewing deck, which perfectly capped off a lovely evening on top of the mountain. Seeing the twinkling lights of the town as we rode the gondola back down was exceptionally pretty.
Taking the chairlift up Mount Norquay was lots of fun, too, and dismounting was much easier than when you’re riding a lift wearing skis. We set out first thing in the morning when there was nobody else around, which was perfect. There’s a café at the top, so we stopped there for coffee to enjoy the view before we rode back down, wildlife-spotting all the way.
Sulphur and Snails
People have been coming to Banff for the sulphuric waters of its hot springs since 1884, with the bathhouse of the Parks Canada-operated Banff Upper Hot Springs opened in 1932. It is adorably retro, with the most wonderful views out over the mountains and with the waters delightfully invigorating. (You can even rent a vintage-style bathing suit for $1.90 if you really want to get into the spirit of things.) As much as I love hot springs, I don’t enjoy sharing the waters with hundreds of people, and on both my winter visits, they had been ridiculously busy. But this time, we visited as soon as they opened, making for a much more civilized experience, with only a few other people in there with us.
Farther down Sulphur Mountain is the site of the original Cave and Basin hot springs, whose discovery by railway workers in 1883 was what ultimately led to the development of Banff National Park, Canada’s first national park.
Visiting the site, you get to explore this history, walk the narrow passage to the cave where it all began (you’ll have to pardon the smell), and explore the site of the original baths, which has since been turned into a learning centre staffed by helpful Parks Canada employees and costumed interpreters explaining how Banff began. Also interesting is the Banff Springs snail—a tiny endangered air-breathing snail that lives in the thermal waters and is found only at this location. While they are able to survive in the harsh environment of the springs, their numbers have declined since they were discovered in 1926.
Buffalo Nations Luxton Museum is also well worth a stop. Housed in a fortlike building, it has old-school dioramas depicting the lives of local First Nations, as well as traditional museum displays, but it has also embraced technology in order to offer unique perspectives on the Indigenous experience. Wearing a virtual-reality headset, I got to be among buffalo on the plains—and jumped when one virtually licked at my face!
Food and Fun
Downtown Banff is a gorgeous mountain resort town full of quirky stores selling gems and minerals, outdoor-equipment stores, chain stores, galleries, and lots of excellent places to eat and drink. We enjoyed a lot of great food, but our favourite night out was at High Rollers, a jazzed-up bowling alley with a fantastic menu of elevated pub grub and pizzas, and 48 craft beers on tap. We ordered the sweet-potato tater tots and deep-fried cubes of mac ’n’ cheese, which were exceptional, and followed up with their Canadian pizza, topped with bacon and cheese curds and served with maple syrup to drizzle over it. We bowled, stuffed our faces, and had a lot of fun. High Rollers is a great concept.
I can truthfully report that we didn’t have a bad meal in Banff, which, considering how much things cost there, is good news. We loved the coffee and treats at Wild Flour Bakery. We had the most beautiful splurge of a meal at The Bison, starting with cured steelhead so soft it melted on the tongue, and shared the bison trio—a Jack Daniels bison sausage, a bison steak, and short ribs so tender that the plate came with a spoon with which to push the meat off the bone. At Banff Ave Brewing Co., we sampled coconut cream ale and “Head Smashed IPA” while chowing down on poutine, rich bison chili, and warm pretzels.
When you’re exploring downtown Banff, be sure to check out what’s happening at Banff Avenue Square, located next to the visitors’ centre. We happened to be walking by as a demonstration of First Nations cultural dances was going on and got to watch the most adorable little girls dancing in jingle dresses, followed by their big sister and mom dancing in a swirl of brightly coloured tassels, all while their grandpa was singing and drumming. We felt lucky to watch them perform.
Also downtown is the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, which has a fine collection of art and artifacts that tell the story of the development of Banff as a tourist destination. There you’ll find a glass-domed helicopter used in the early days of heli-skiing (it wouldn’t look out of place in a James Bond movie, possibly with George Lazenby swinging from it over a mountaintop), cartography equipment used to map the mountains, memorabilia from locals who were sent to war, and lots of letters and notes that tell the story of the area. There’s also a large gallery showcasing contemporary works and a great little gift shop.
We toured Park Distillery, which, when it opened in 2015, was the first North American distillery to operate within a national park (technically, every business in Banff is operating within the confines of the park). Using glacier water and as many local ingredients as possible, Park Distillery puts out excellent vodka and gin, and is just starting to make whisky. “It’s an exploratory whisky project,” explained Matt Hendricks, the master distiller who helped set Park Distillery up. “The spirit needs to be in the barrels three years to be called ‘whisky,’ but just because it’s legal, that doesn’t mean it’s ready.”
There will be limited releases of whisky for now, but meanwhile, you can enjoy a flight of their existing spirits for $20 or even one of their cocktails—on trend and proving highly popular. I’m not much of a drinker, but my husband loved the gin, so we ended up sitting on the balcony sipping drinks and overlooking the mountains a lot longer than intended. This led to us ordering food there—a slow-roasted half-chicken with smashed baby Yukon potatoes and gravy so rich and delicious that it would have been a sin not to drag my finger over the plate and get every last drop (nobody saw, and at least I didn’t lick the plate).
Out on the Water
The lakes and waterways of Banff are the most beautiful turquoise and seem almost to glow. This characteristic of glacial lakes is caused by the sunlight hitting sediment at the bottom of the water—clearly not something that you get to experience on a winter trip when everything in Banff is frozen over.
We rented a canoe for an hour from The Banff Canoe Club, located right in the middle of town, and went out on the water. We paddled leisurely around on the Bow River, watching a long line of fluffy baby ducklings swim after their mother, plus an eagle swooping above (don’t worry, it left the ducklings alone) and some kind of water varmint plunging into holes in the bank. It was serene and, thankfully, not challenging, as I’m not an experienced paddler.
Taking a tour out on Lake Minnewanka, surrounded by mountains, is lovely. An engaging guide explained the history of the area while pointing out the spots that were currently closed to hikers and mountain bikers due to bear activity (at this point in the summer, berries were plentiful and consequently so were bears). The lake apparently is also a fantastic fishing spot, famous for its massive lake trout, and there were plenty of boat charters waiting for eager anglers.
We learned that the creation in 1941 of a hydroelectric dam raised the lake’s water level by 30 metres (98 feet) and inundated an existing village. Diving to the underwater ghost town is a popular Lake Minnewanka activity, and apparently the most important discovery for divers is always the one ceramic toilet that remains on the lake bed, with the objective being to snap a funny selfie of one pretending to answer the call of nature underwater.
On the outskirts of town, just before you get to Mount Norquay, is Vermilion Lakes, where you can hike or just take a slow drive to admire the scenery. We did that at sunset on our last night in Banff, loving the way the mountains reflected in the clear water and the noise of the long grasses swishing in the gentle breeze. It was a perfect way to end a wonderful trip, and we felt overwhelmed by how beautiful this part of the world is and how lucky we Canadians are to have so many exciting destinations at our doorsteps. Banff is incredible—summer and winter. Now I want to visit in spring and fall, just to even things out.
Photo: Banff & Lake Louise Tourism/Paul Zizka.