If you have ever been to Banff National Park or even just seen an image of the town of Banff, you can attest to its dramatic setting and breathtaking beauty. It is by far the crown jewel of the Canadian Rockies, and while the mountains haven’t changed during COVID-19, visiting Banff has — just slightly. We discover the best ways to see Banff this year with its number one fan, blogger and avid outdoors-woman Leigh McAdam.
“Banff. It never gets old. It’s always a soul-stirring sight,” Leigh tells us.
Leigh first discovered Banff when she was a teen. Her dad took her skiing in May to Sunshine Village. She was in awe of the mountains and the fact that she was skiing in May.
“I thought it was just beyond cool. After that experience, I spent every possible minute that summer in the mountains. That was decades ago. And the start of my whole love affair with the mountains.”
Should you have had the occasion to look up a hike in Banff, it is highly probable that you have already come across Leigh’s site, HikeBikeTravel. With an almost evangelical zeal, Leigh expounds on all the particulars of each journey she takes, giving the reader a perfect dose of pertinent details peppered with interesting anecdotes. Leigh has travelled all around the world, but Banff will always be her favourite place to explore.
Even if you’re not as adventurous as Leigh, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t visit Banff. In fact, Banff is one of the most accommodating outdoor destinations in the world.
“This is a good year to go and do some of those more touristy ‘classic Banff’ things, especially on weekdays when the area isn’t as busy — like take a cruise on Lake Minnewanka, or go up Sulphur Mountain on the Banff Gondola,“ Leigh tells us. “Once you get up the Gondola, you can then go for a nice long hike without having to actually hike up,” which is a great choice for families with various levels of fitness.
For those who are looking for comfort and opulence, the gorgeous Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel has all the amenities of luxury lodging while being perfectly situated close to moderate in-town hikes like Tunnel Mountain. Although the hotel is operating at a lower capacity, the spa remains open and the hotel’s cutest employee — Bear, a black Labrador and the canine ambassador — is still available to accompany guests on these short outings.
For those seeking a more adventurous view of the town of Banff or an opportunity to test their skills in the pristine backcountry, there are a number of ACMG-certified mountain guide services such as Can-Rock Mountain Guides, Great Divide Mountaineering and Yamnuska Adventures that can guide you up into the clouds. Climbing a mountain with a guide is one of Banff’s signature experiences and is on many people’s bucket lists.
Like everywhere, the town of Banff has had to make changes during the pandemic; however, its new social-distancing measures have given the downtown area an almost European feel. The town has closed off part of Banff Avenue, allowing restaurants to expand their patio seating and offer guests spectacular 360-degree views of the surrounding mountains. It is a treat for visitors and tourists to walk down the iconic street with no cars.
“I am pleased to see that Banff has made their main street pedestrian-friendly. I think that’s an extremely creative way to adapt around COVID-19,” says Leigh, who still loves to get her coffee at Wild Flour Bakery, located on the quieter Bear Street, just one block over from Banff Avenue.
“Even though Banff is one of the most sought-after places in the world, its community is that of a close-knit town,” says Leigh. “The residents know that they live in a tourist destination and are proud of their home and are very welcoming. There is a warm vibe to town since the reopening — whether it is a vendor at Banff’s Wednesday Farmers Market or a sales clerk at Monod Sports, you can feel that they love their home and are glad you are there.”
A fairly organized traveller by nature, Leigh has been especially so since COVID-19. Normally, she mostly checks the weather for where she is headed, but due to closures and reduced capacities, she is now regularly checking the Banff Lake Louise Tourism site and the Banff National Park website to get updates.
Leigh has been extremely impressed with the Town of Banff and Parks Canada, whose teams have been working diligently to facilitate a smooth flow of visitors. Leigh is proud to pitch in, following guidelines to wear a mask in indoor public spaces and on Banff Avenue, along with respecting wildlife and doing her part to protect the beauty of the park.
“Banff is such a special place and home to thousands of bears and other animals,” says Leigh. “It is always fantastic to see wildlife, but I am always respectful to keep my distance and carry out my garbage and dispose of it properly. And I always try to engage with the locals.”
One favourite Banff experience is cycling the Legacy Trail, which is a paved pathway that spans 22.3 kilometres from Banff National Park’s East Gate to the Bow Valley Parkway.
“The Legacy Trail has gone crazy this year — in a good way! I think that is a superb outing for families and for really anybody,” Leigh tells us. “You can go at your own pace, practise social distancing, see the mountains, and if you rent a bike, you’re putting some money into the local economy.”
A unique opportunity during the pandemic has resulted from the closure of the Bow Valley Parkway, which is currently bike-access only. Cyclists can now enjoy the impressively stunning road traffic-free between Banff and Castle Junction, including access to the spectacular hiking trail, Johnston Canyon. Also, the popular Lake Minnewanka Loop is open to vehicles in one direction only, with the other lane devoted exclusively to cyclists.
There are so many incredible experiences available in Banff National Park that you'd be hard-pressed to fit them all into one trip. However, finding your own adventure is easy when you poke around. This summer is the perfect time to explore Canada’s oldest and most coveted national park.
“I think as autumn rolls in and the days get shorter, we need to look back on some happy memories from the summer,” says Leigh. “And memories made in Banff last forever.”