Devote two days to Banff National Park:
Plan a day in Lake Louise:
Whether you stop en route between Banff and Jasper or stay overnight (the option we picked), Lake Louise deserves your undivided attention while in the Canadian Rockies! In summer, expect high crowds at the lake shore, but you can escape them by arriving early or setting out for some of the farther flung lakes via hiking trail.
Lake Louise hikes: From the shores of Lake Louise, families with very young kids can hike the circumference of the lake in an easy stroll, or more ambitious families can opt for the 7 km round-trip Agnes Lake Tea House hike. This hike is steadily uphill, but very accessible, and takes you to a beautiful tea house perched on the edge of Lake Agnes, where kids will want hot chocolate and parents coffee of tea. Note: bring cash; they cannot accept cards! If you want an even bigger hiking challenge with older kids, navigate the trail around the back of Lake Agnes to ascend ‘the Beehive’ to the lookout. The trail is short, but very steep with switchbacks and moderate drop offs.
If Lake Louise is too crowded for your taste, try Lake Moraine, which certainly rivals Louise’s beauty. From the shores, kids can wade in summer, and many area hiking trails depart from the Lake Moraine parking lot.
Where to stay:
The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise makes a big impression on the lake, but we loved the intimate atmosphere at Deer Lodge, located just a short walk from the shore. The historic Deer Lodge is log hewn and cozy, with a sitting room with fireplace and plenty of nooks and crannies to explore. A game room is great for the kids, and the rooftop hot tub offers views of the mountains that will take your breath away! The lodge dining room is a luxurious treat, but families can also grab sandwiches, breakfast items, and snacks from the counter-service establishment at the Fairmont. Expect older rooms and a lack of TVs at Deer Lodge, but WiFi is available and free.
The town of Banff is tucked under the shadow of towering rock formations, and definitely ready for tourists! You’ll find all the restaurants and souvenir shops you could want here, plus nice museums and tour operations to make the most of your time in the Banff region of the park. If you have more than one day here, start with a park tour from Brewsters; you’ll spend a morning on a tour bus, but get a great overview of all there is to do here, so you’ll know exactly what to explore further as a family.
This small museum packs a big punch! We enjoyed the art galleries with paintings of Banff’s iconic landmarks, but even more impressive to us were the historical galleries with exhibits on early settlement of the Bow Valley, various mountaineering endeavors, and current programs in the region. This is not a natural history museum (though there is one in town); rather, you’ll learn about human efforts and discoveries at Whyte. Best of all, admission is by donation. They definitely deserve your contribution!
Discover Banff Tours:
This three hour tour may be too slow-paced for small children, but for families with older kids, it’s a great way to get an overview of Banff National Park and it’s history, while touring some of its most iconic views and sites. Our guide was friendly and fun, and our tour van included only eight visitors (the van holds around 20). Even at full capacity, it would be a more intimate experience than a large tour. On our morning tour, we started at the Banff Springs Hotel to learn about the history of the park and its role with the Canadian railroad, then continued on to scenic points at Hoodoos, Two Jack Lake, Minnewanka Lake, and views of Bow Valley. Our guide was able to point out the best hikes for our family to return to, plus educated us on wildlife. For $49 for adults and $30 for kids, a tour doesn’t come cheap, so decide whether it’s a good use of time for your visit.
Upper Banff Hot Springs:
This historic bathhouse and hot springs pool is great fun (and a great way to warm up after a day in the snow or on the hiking trails). Entry is very affordable at under $10 for adults, and if you forget your bathing suit, you can rent old-fashioned ‘traditional’ swim wear for only $1.90 (you can rent towels as well). The pool is outdoors and a steamy 104 degrees (40 C). We spent about an hour here, but families wanting to spend more time can eat on site on the upper decks or indoors to lengthen their visit.
Cave and Basin National Historic Site:
Cave and Basin is worth a stop to see the birthplace of the Canadian park system. The discovery of hot springs at this site led to the creation of Banff National Park, and two hot springs (in a cave and in a basin, appropriately) can still be viewed (though not used for swimming, due to preservation of an aquatic snail found here). There’s also a nice display onsite about the park system, and history about the area. Admission is affordable, and there’s a short boardwalk trail onsite.
Banff family hikes:
For a view, head to Tunnel Mountain trailhead for a steep but short hike up Tunnel Mountain for great Banff views, or for a wooded hike, try the Hoodoos (trailhead at the Hoodoos overlook).
Where to stay:
Brewsters Mountain Lodge is located in the heart of downtown, with a bright, open, attractive atmosphere and friendly staff. Rooms are large and newly appointed, include fridges and large bathrooms with tubs, and underground parking and wifi is included. We loved the location (and didn’t find it noisy).
How to get to Jasper and Banff, and how to extend your trip:
Families can fly into Calgary, Alberta, and rent a car to explore the Canadian Rockies. From Calgary, travel to Canmore and stop for kid-friendly indoor activities ranging from rock climbing to swimming, then on to Banff. Jasper is a four-hour drive along the Icefields Parkway.
Via Rail alternative:
For families with school-aged or teen children, consider arriving to Jasper on Via Rail‘s Canadian line instead of flying. No, it’s not more economical (unless you opt to forego a sleeper cabin or berth), but greatly enhances the trip experience. Families can depart from Vancouver BC for a 20-hour trip to Jasper, or, on the opposite end of the Canadian route, from Toronto for a 3-day trip. En route, you’ll witness the Canadian Rockies in an intimate and relaxing manner, enjoy casual-yet-luxurious dining, and sleep cozily but comfortably in The Canadian’s 1-2 passenger cabins or upper-or-lower berths.
If you go: learn more about cabin options and bring entertainment for the kids, such as card games, books, or downloaded movies. The Sleeper Plus category includes all-inclusive dining and access to panoramic lounges for relaxing, comfortable viewing. Once in Jasper, rent a car to explore the area.
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