Looking to plan a trip that combines adventures for everyone in the family? Point your compass to Alberta, where Canmore, Banff National Park and Lake Louise await. Having recently taken my family on a vacation in the area, here’s my cheat sheet to help you plan an easy trip the whole crew will love.
Approximately 50 miles west of Calgary at the southeast boundary of Banff National Park, Canmore is the perfect base for exploring some of the popular sites in the region. The prices are more reasonable than other nearby towns, the restaurants offer 360-degrees of the Canadian Rockies and many of the local excursions start here, so the flow from activity to activity is much simpler, especially with young kids. You can also take relaxing hikes from the base of Three Sisters.
We rented a condo from Solara Resorts in Canmore. It was well-located and our one-bedroom condo had a full kitchen and a pull-out bed in the living area.
In Canmore, the Range is a great spot for lunch; other than the bread, they make all their own food. My favorite was the quinoa salad. The kids loved the Alberta Beef sandwich. Murrieta’s in Canmore is the place for dinner. It has an awesome atmosphere, great service and delicious dishes like scallops and beef (when you are in Alberta, how can you not have beef?).
Anyone entering the national parks needs to have a permit, even if you are just driving through. So it’s a good idea to purchase a Discovery Pass before your trip. The Discovery Pass reduces the amount of time you have to spend in line waiting to purchase a park permit.
We knew we wanted to do a boat tour and decided on Canmore River Adventures, which offers float trips on the Bow River. A great feature: Pickup and drop-off from your hotel is included in the price. The morning of our tour, it rained a little, but Canmore River Adventures is very flexible. If we wanted to, we could have changed our tour to a sunnier day, but we opted to keep our original plans, since the company has rain jackets for everyone on board. Besides, it’s the Rockies, so it’s gorgeous no matter the weather. And as the locals say, “If you don’t like the weather in the mountains, just wait a few minutes.” The tour itself lasted about 45 minutes, just the right amount of time to hear a bit about the area and take in the beauty without the kids getting bored. The guide was great with the kids and even allowed them to row for a bit.
A tour of the Rockies with Alpine Helicopter was the excursion of a lifetime and a must-do for anyone visiting the area. On our 30-minute Mount Assiniboine Glacier Tour, we got an up-close view of the Three Sisters Peaks, soared over beautiful glacial lakes and took in stunning panoramas of the mountains, which rise to 11,870 feet along the great divide. The highlight of the tour was seeing the awe-inspiring Gloria Glacier. Our guide took us so close to the glacier that it felt like we were standing directly on it: You get the feeling that you could reach out and touch the crevices in the rocks. On the way back, we got to see views of the Bow River and the town of Canmore. Our kids were so excited they kept talking over the microphone, and the look of pure joy on our son’s face was priceless. The tour is great for families and couples alike.
The Banff Gondola is a modern, fully enclosed four-passenger cabin that provides a fun way to get to the top of Sulphur Mountain, where you can see six mountain ranges. Once at the top, you can take the easy ridge-top boardwalk to explore more. I highly recommend this excursion if you are traveling with young children or for anyone who does not want to tackle the three-hour hike to the top. Once you’re at the top, you can enjoy the incredible views and try to spot wildlife. Be sure to say “hi” to the resident mountain goat.
We encountered one of the best free activities in the area on our drive from the town of Banff to Lake Louise: checking out the train going by. There were lots of people lined up along the side of the road waiting for the train to pass and snapping pics. It’s definitely the longest train we’ve ever seen and it was the highlight of the trip for my 5-year-old.
Banff Upper Hot Springs is a public outdoor pool located in Banff National Park, with beautiful views of Mount Rundle and reasonable rates. It’s a nice spot to spend few hours with the family. The water is warm, and there’s a shallow area for kids. If you are out and about and don’t want to bring a lot of things with you, they offer full rental services including towel, swimsuits and lockers. Because it’s a public pool and a popular spot, the lines can be long, so consider going during non-peak times. You can also combine this activity with the Banff Gondola since they are in the same location.
Known for its glacier-fed lake and the impressive Victoria glacier, Lake Louise is legendary for a reason. From canoeing across the emerald-colored lake to various hiking trails to the beautiful Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, it’s easy to see why so many people flock here throughout the year. A word of caution: If you expect to be out in nature taking in the beautiful view and enjoying a bit of solitude, you will be sorely disappointed. This is a very busy destination. Getting a parking spot can be difficult or closed because too many people are already there. It might even be difficult to reach the lake because of the crowds. One of the easiest ways to see Lake Louise is to hop on one of the shuttle bus. Yes, it’s costly. Yes, you have a car and could drive. But to avoid the frustration of driving around and around trying to find a way in, it’s the best way to go.
Everyone knows Lake Louise, but Moraine Lake is a hidden gem. Be sure to go to the top of the hill and look down on the river, which is the only way to truly appreciate the vivid color of the water. You can get there by climbing the rocks at the front. Or if you are feeling less adventurous or traveling with little kids, you can take the scenic trail path toward the Consolation Lakes Trail. From the lower parking lot, cross the bridge over the outlet stream and continue to Consolation Lakes. Follow the rock pile that passes through a quartzite boulder field.
Claire Zlobin is the founder of Life with a Baby, a community and resource for parents with children up to age six.