15 Natural Wonders of Banff and the Canadian Rockies

When I was 23, my friend and I did a 2-month roadtrip down the coast from Vancouver to Baja California and then back up through the Rockies where my friend dropped me off to start a new life in Banff. I can still vividly remember stepping out of the car and even after all the amazing natural beauty that I'd seen on the roadtrip, being absolutely awestruck by sheer majesty of the epic mountains on all sides of the town of Banff.

While I originally planned to just stay for the ski season, I completely fell in love with Banff and I couldn't bring myself to leave. That summer, I convinced a bunch of friends to move out and we spent the warm summer days exploring and camping in the epic backcountry of Canada's 5 Rocky Mountain National Parks: Banff, Kootenay, Yoho, Waterton and Jasper.

There are cozy tea houses nestled deep in the mountains, communal cabins overlooking the highest mountains in the Canadian Rockies and a trail system that goes for thousands of miles. The scenery is spectacular everywhere you go and the massive glaciers, lakes, waterfalls and mountain peaks are the stuff of travel legends.

If you haven't been to Banff and the Canadian Rockies, I highly recommend making the trip. I still believe Banff is the most beautiful town in Canada, if not the entire world. Even though today I'm back in my home of Vancouver, I still make a regular pilgrimage back to the Canadian Rockies (it's an 8-10 hour drive).

I've had the opportunity to explore all over the Canadian Rockies and in this travel guide I want to share with you what I think are the most beautiful places in Banff and the Canadian Rockies:

1. Moraine Lake

Morraine Lake

Photo Credit: Sebastian Guettler

The surreal blue waters of Moraine Lake and the backdrop of snow-capped peaks in the Valley of Ten Peaks are a sight to see. The colour of the water is due to the refraction of light off the glacial rock flour that is continually deposited in the lake. The ten mountain peaks behind the lake run along the Continental Divide, which marks the border of British Columbia and Alberta.

Moraine Lake graced the back of the Canadian Twenty Dollar Bill until the early 1990s.  Since the lake is at such a high elevation, approximately 1,885 m (6,183 feet), the road is only open from June to September. The rest of the year you have to ski in, which takes about two hours (no snowmobiles are allowed in Canada's National Parks). This may be the most beautiful single place that I've ever visited in Canada.

2. Mount Robson

2453 Mt. Robson, B.C.

Photo Credit: John Wiley

Mount Robson is the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies at 3,954 m (12,972 ft). What's remarkable about this mountain is how incredibly high it rises above the valley floor. The vertical rise is almost 3 km from the base to the summit.

The glaciers around Mount Robson are very important to the province of British Columbia because tehy provide the headwaters of the mighty Fraser River, which flows 1,375 miles (2,213 km) hereto the city of Vancouver where it reaches the Pacific Ocean. There is an excellent hike around the back called the Berg Lake Trail that allows you to get away from the crowds in the summer.

3. The Columbia Icefield

Columbia Icefield / Athabasca Glacier/ Canada

Photo Credit: Glenn Meyer

The Columbia Icefield is a massive icefield along the Continental Divide. It covers 325 km² in area, is 100 to 365 metres (328 to 1,197 ft) in depth and receives up to seven metres (275 in) of snowfall per year. It's meltwaters flow into three oceans, the Arctic Ocean to the north, Hudson Bay to the east (Atlantic Ocean) and south and west to the Pacific Ocean.

There is excellent hiking in the area and you can take an 80-minute tour on the king-sized Brewster Ice Explorers that are specially designed for glacial adventure travel. The best time to experience the icefield is on the Full Moon Treks, which guided are by the National Park Rangers.

4. Spirit Island on Maligne Lake

Spirit Island, Maligne Lake Jasper National Park

Photo Credit: Jolanta Kucharska

Maligne Lake is one of the most beautiful sites in Jasper National Park. The 22 km lake is world renowned for the colour of its water and the three beautiful glaciers surrounding the lake.

Spirit Island along the shore of the lake is one of the most photographed locations in the world. This is a great spot to run into the Great Canadian Moose who often feed along the shores by Spirit Island.

5. Lake Louise Ski Area

Lake Louise Gondola

Photo Credit: Pat O'Malley

Some of the best views in Banff National Park can be accessed by the year-round gondola at Lake Louise Ski Area. Lake Louise is often rated the most beautiful ski resort in the North America by major ski magazines.

In the winter, you can see the mountains along the Continental Divide across the valley and the smoke billowing from the chimney of the miniature-looking Chateau Lake Louise. In the summer, there is incredible hiking, the occasional grizzly bear encounters and amazing wildflowers in the alpine meadows.

6. Mount Assiniboine

Mount Assiniboine

Photo Credit: Bob Ludwar

Mount Assiniboine, also referred to as Canada's Matterhorn due to its pyramidal shape, is the highest peak in the Southern Rockies at 3,618 m (11,870 feet). It is a long trek to walk the 27 kilometres to Lake Magog at the base of the mountain. There are no roads in the area.

Once to make it to the meadows below the mountain, you will find a beautiful Assiniboine Lodge (make your reservations well in advance) and some spectacular camping spots. You can also get a good view of Mount Assiniboine from the top of Goat's Eye or Continental Divide at Sunshine Village Ski Resort.

7. Takakkaw Falls

Iceline Trail - Takakkaw Falls ~ Yoho National Park

Photo Credit: Benjamin Carlier

Takakkaw Falls is the largest waterfall in the Canadian Rockies at 384 m (1260 feet). This makes it the second-highest waterfall in Canada after Della Falls on Vancouver Island.

Takakkaw is a loose translation from Cree, meaning something like "it is magnificent." It is fed by the Daly Glacier which is part of the Waputik Icefield, which encompasses 40 km². Like most of the waterfalls in the Canadian Rockies, Takakkaw Falls is at its fiercest during the spring melt and in the hot summer months.

8. Cascade Mountain and the Banff Townsite

Banff and Cascade Mountain

Photo Credit: Derek Hank

Banff is a little piece of paradise. Sitting at an elevation of 1,463 m (4,800 ft), it is the town with the second highest elevation in Canada after Lake Louise. The town is located along the Bow River at the convergence of five major valleys and wildlife migration corridors. The town's main street Banff Ave. is aligned so that the view of Cascade Mountain (top left in the photo above) is right down the middle of the street. Cascade Mountain is 2,998 m (9,836 feet) high and it takes about 10 hours to hike to the summit and back.

The town of Banff is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Canada, attracting close to 5 million visitors a year. Some popular activities in the area include white water rafting, hiking, mountain biking, relaxing in the hot springs and skiing at the local resorts Sunshine Village, Norquay and Lake Louise. The town is renowned for having a wild nightlife.

9. Mount Rundle

Cascade Pond

Photo Credit: Jeremey Duguid

Along with Cascade Mountain to the north, Mount Rundle is one of the two most distinctive mountains around the town of Banff. It is a fun and grueling 9-hour hike to the summit at 2,948 m (9,672 ft). The top part of the mountain (above the treeline on the west side) is called the Dragon's Back and it is a sketchy scramble to the edge to peer over the side of the mountain where it drops 1000s of feet to Banff Springs Golf Course below.

Coming down Sulphur Mountain road from the Banff Upper Hot Springs and the RimRock Hotel where I worked when I live there, you will see a smaller peak near the Bow River that appears to be pointing to the heavens at a very interesting angle. Also, there is a beautiful waterfall coming off the mountain in the spring on the Banff Spring Golf Course side (which we called the local zoo for all wildlife you'll see on the golf course).

10. Lake Louise

Misty Reflection, Lake Louise

Photo Credit: Simon X

Lake Louise is a popular tourist town at the southern end of the Icefields Parkway. The town is very laid back and the Chateau Lake Louise is a beautiful resort to walk around and explore the history and art that decorates the fabled inner corridors.

Around Lake Louise, the must-do hike in the area is to the Beehives and the mellow atmosphere of the Lake Agnes Tea House in the mountain wilderness. I also recommend hiking up to the Victoria Glacier pictured behind the lake, the view back to the lake and tiny looking Chateau Lake Louse in the distance is breathtaking.

11. Castle Mountain

Castle Mountain Reflection

Photo Credit: Craig Shelley

Castle Mountain marks the halfway point between Banff and Lake Louise. Although it looks like a difficult hike from the front, it's an easy scrambled up the back side of the mountain to the summit. As you can imagine, the view on top is pretty amazing.

The river bend below Castle Mountain is a great starting point for rafting down the Bow River. It is a relatively smooth 3-hour raft in the summer from Castle Mountain back to the town of Banff. While not for faint of heart because it can be slightly dangerous, it's an adventure you will remember for the rest of your life.

12. The Northern Lights

Milky Way & Aurora Borealis over Ten Peaks, Moraine Lake

Photo Credit: Deepanshu Arora

The Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, is a natural light display in the sky caused by the collision of charged particles directed by the Earth's magnetic field. They are named after the Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora, and the Greek name for the north wind, Boreas, by Galileo in 1619.

People come from all over the world to see the Northern Lights in Alberta and British Columbia. While they are an elusive mystery, I find that you generally see them sometime after midnight. The best time to see them in Banff is in August and September.

13. Cave and Basin National Historic Site

Cave & Basin National Historic Site

Photo Credit: Jordon Cooper

This is an interesting historical place because it is where Canada's national park system began. The Cave and Basin natural hot springs were "discovered" in 1883 by two workers building the Canadian Pacific Railway who immediately saw its commercial potential. The fact that it was a sacred site to the local First Nations people didn't seem to bother the worker's conscience so they built a fence around the site and started constructing a cabin for tourists.

Conflicting claims on the site prompted the Canadian government to intervene and in 1885, Prime Minister John A. MacDonald declared a reserve of 26 square kilometres around the Cave and Basin, creating the Banff Hot Springs Reserve. This was the beginning of Canada's National Park system. There are nine natural hot springs along Sulphur Mountain in Banff and a number of other excellent hot springs in the park including Banff Upper Hot Springs, Radium Hot Spring and Miette Hot Springs.

People used to swim in the Cave and Basin until an exotic snail known as the Banff Springs snail was discovered and the government closed the swimming pools to protect this endangered species. The Willow Stream Spa at the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel is the best place to experience the healing mineral hot springs (it's the #1 rated Spa in Canada) but the best public place is the Upper Hot Springs on Sulphur Mountain.

14. The Wildlife

Bull Moose

Photo Credit: Andrew Lunt

Banff and the Canadian Rockies are one of the best places in the world to see wild animals in their natural environment. Parks Canada, which manages Canada's National Park system has created some interesting wildlife overpasses over some of the roads in the park to facilitate wild animal migration.

In and around the town of Banff you will regularly see elk and bighorn sheep. Hiking in the mountains you'll sometimes come across grizzly bears, black bears, mountain caribou, moose, wolves, hoary marmots, wolverines, bald eagles, beavers, owls and cougars.

15. The Icefields Parkway

Icefield Parkway towards Cirrus Mountain (Jasper National Park, Canada. Gustavo Thomas © 2013)

Photo Credit: Gustavo Thomas

Along the Icefields Parkway are some of the most jaw-droppingly beautiful lakes (Bow Lake and Peyto Lakes are highlights) and some of the most spectacular mountain vistas in the world. I'd say the 3-hour drive is the most beautiful drive in Canada, although the majesty of the Sea to Sky Highway from Vancouver to Whistler is a close second in terms of scenic beauty.

There you have it, the 15 natural wonders of the Canadian Rockies. Which is your favourite spot in the Canadian Rockies?