Banff feels bigger than an ordinary resort town. Situated just over an hour west of Calgary, Alberta, the eastern side of Banff wraps around Tunnel Mountain, whose ridgeline resembles the profile of a sleeping buffalo. The Stoney Nakoda First Nation, one of many tribes with thousands of years of history in this area, calls the mountain Sacred Buffalo Guardian. It acts as sentinel over the waters, herbs and medicines that grow below it.
And that greater sense of the mountains being very much alive is indisputable. An energetic force that also runs through the water ,trees and wildlife connects you to the jagged spires and limestone walls of the Canadian Rockies. Towering peaks that have stood for more than 50 million years make you feel at once invigorated and diminished.
The powerful landscape’s ability to inspire both interconnection and humility also fuels a huge amount of visitation. More than 4 million people from around the world visit Banff and surrounding Banff National Park each year. They come to tap into this energy, and to see the alpine lakes, expansive glaciers and steaming hot springs that make this 2,500-square-mile park a much-deserving UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In the summer, hiking trails can resemble lines at Disneyland, and famous vistas are overrun by shoulder-to-shoulder crowds. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t visit Banff; it’s just a matter of timing your visit so you can hike, bike, climb, and more, without the overwhelming crowds.
Plan a visit for late October/early November during the Banff Mountain Film Festival, a 45-year-old celebration of mountain culture that showcases over 100 films each year and includes panels and workshops with professional athletes like Sasha DiGiulian and legendary adventurers like Reinhold Messner. Many attendees have been coming to the festival for 20 or 30 years, and the enthusiasm for the outdoors is palpable and contagious. Buy your passes early – premiere events sell out early and eager patrons line up an hour or more in advance to get seats.
The festival takes place at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, a modern campus tucked into the side of Tunnel Mountain and walking distance from downtown Banff. Spend the mornings adventuring outside and then settle in for the evening’s films to get pumped up for the next day of exploration.
This time of year can run the full gamut of weather: One day you might be hiking in short sleeves, the next you’re donning a snow jacket. But with an open mind, weather shifts provide spontaneity and variety. Surrender to what the weather has in store, and embrace whichever activities the elements allow.
A great way to explore the park is with a mountain guide. Banff was the first place to bring the Swiss Mountain Guide tradition to North America back in 1899. The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise’s Mountain Heritage Program pays tribute to these guides, and offers half- and full-day excursions throughout the park. Depending on the weather, guides can take you hiking into the alpine, canoeing on Lake Louise or stargazing via snowshoe.
If you can swing it, stay a night or two at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, to enjoy its otherworldly location overlooking the piercing turquoise waters of Lake Louise. When the glaciers above Lake Louise melt in the spring, the water feeds the lake and deposits glacier silt that gives it an electric teal hue.
Early November is often the perfect time to walk or even skate on Lake Louise — as the temperatures drop below freezing but snow has not yet covered the lake’s surface. It’s also a great time to hike popular trails like Lake Agnes or Plain of Six Glaciers without crowds. Both trailheads begin at the lake and climb into the mountainside for dramatic overhead views.
If the Fairmont is out of reach, grab a room at Moose Hotel and Suites, an unpretentious, reasonably priced 4-star hotel in Banff. It’s walking distance from everything in town and features a rooftop hot pool with mountain views that can be enjoyed year round.
You’ll want to rent a car so as not to miss some other must-sees, like the Icefields Parkway that connects Banff to Jasper National Park and passes more than 100 glaciers, or to descend into part of the longest cave system in Canada, at Canmore Caves. Animal lovers might venture out of the park to visit the Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary, although you’re sure to see plenty of wildlife no matter what, including elk, bighorn sheep, and maybe even a grizzly bear.
Make sure you don’t miss a hike through Johnston Canyon, where waterfalls freeze in the late fall, and cascading water is suspended as ice that reaches down into a river, where crystal-clear water rushes under thick layers of ice.
Rock climbers from beginner to advanced can link up with Yamnuska Mountain Adventures for guided climbing trips, and those who want to gain more distance than elevation can rent fat bikes from outfitter Snowtips-Backtrax to ride on lakeside roads closed to cars in the winter.
There are plenty of worthy food options in Banff, many of which are affordable and feature vegan and vegetarian options. For breakfast, try Touloulou’s for heaping portions of Canadian-Creole (it’s a thing) or Juniper Bistro to enjoy dramatic views and a cozy fireplace. Vegans will appreciate Nourish’s plant-based comfort food for lunch, and at dinnertime Bear Street Tavern boasts 11 creative pizzas (“The Three Pigs” includes pulled pork, smoked bacon and pork belly), while Park Distillery offers free distillery tours before a flannel-clad server brings you house-made cornbread and a bison burger.
There is more to do in Banff than you’ll be able to fit into one trip, and so don’t focus too much on checking things off your itinerary. As you pass through town, look up at the Sleeping Buffalo, and just let yourself feel the spirit of a place that will always be bigger than the crowds who flock to it.
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