The first time I drove into Alberta’s Banff National Park with my family, I was literally awestruck, even a little intimidated, by the sheer scale of the mountains around me. The second time, on my way to backpack through adjacent Jasper National Park, I still felt breathless. For my third visit, I came at it from a slightly different angle on a train from Edmonton, but that first glimpse of those enormous slabs of Rocky Mountain granite still astounded me.
I’ve no doubt your family will be similarly amazed, as this is just an incredible part of the world. Better yet, the popular town of Banff is one of the world’s great adventure base camps. Highlights for things to do in and around town include riding the gondola to the top of Sulphur Mountain, wallowing in the Banff Upper Hot Springs on the way back home, mild-to-wild whitewater rafting on the Bow River, and day trips to photogenic Lake Louise and Lake Minnewanka. Should you need more, 2,564-square-mile Banff National Park stretches on and on — and on — in terms of places to discover.
Of course, Banff does get incredibly crowded in the summer season, so plan on escaping the throngs of tourists by getting onto the trails around town. Remarkably, of the park’s four million annual visitors, fewer than 5 percent actually get much further than several hundred yards from their cars. Meaning? It won’t be too hard to find your own slice of backcountry solitude, even if you’re a family of two adults and three lollygagging youngsters. You can also rent bikes for an easy way to get around — and escape — downtown Banff.
The town has over 100 different hotels and lodging choices, not least of which is the historic Fairmont Banff Springs, a 768-room hotel modeled after a Scottish castle that’s been in operation since 1888. On-site amenities include a pool and spa complex, a bowling alley and plentiful dining. Off-site options extend to mountain biking, horseback riding, guided nature hikes, canoeing, fishing, and winter sports including dogsledding, snowshoeing, and skiing and snowboarding. Families should check out the hotel’s FamilyCastle Adventure Package, which includes milk and cookies on arrival, a free in-room movie and pizza night, and passes for the Banff Gondola.
For something a little more affordable downtown, try the comfortable 135-room Mount Royal Hotel, close to Banff’s bustling hive of shops, restaurants, and cafes (locals rate Cafe Soleil for good tapas and fusion food, or Evelyns for on-the-money pre-hike java and pastries). The Buffalo Mountain Lodge is also a good out-of-town alternative for those seeking a quintessential — and quieter — Rockies retreat. Lodging choices are more limited in Lake Louise (35 miles west), although it doesn’t get much more spectacular than the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, standing proudly on the shores of this World Heritage-listed lake. Like Fairmont’s sister property in Banff, outdoor options are virtually unlimited and include canoeing, hiking, horseback riding, and ice skating on the lake in winter.
Another popular day trip from Banff is to drive the 143-mile-long Icefields Parkway, an insanely scenic stretch of roadway flanked by towering mountains and mighty glaciers. Most people drive as far as the Athabasca Glacier, the largest icefield south of Alaska, before turning home, although you should plan on driving the final 63 miles north to the town of Jasper. Feeling more like a frontier outpost than well-heeled Banff, Jasper packs on the action some more to complete the ultimate familyadventure.
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Alistair Wearmouth is an editor at Away.com. With two
young children now in tow, his travel perspective has shifted
seismically from digging out the best backpacker hostel in Kathmandu to
coping strategies for toddlers on a trans-Atlantic flight. His world
travels have taken him through Europe, India, Nepal, Japan, Southeast
Asia, the Canadian Rockies and beyond.