June 7, 2016
By Tanya Koob
The Minnewanka Loop Road contains the highest concentration of trailheads and day use areas in the Banff Townsite area. This 13.1 km loop road can be driven or biked and provides access to a wide range of recreational opportunities from camping to mountain biking, hiking, paddling, and backpacking. Feature attractions include Banff’s only beach, located at scenic Johnson Lake, an interpretive boat cruise on Lake Minnewanka, the longest lake in the mountain parks of the Canadian Rockies, and the Bankhead coal mining ghost town.
Boat cruise on Lake Minnewanka. Photo-Paul Zizka
My family has been exploring the Lake Minnewanka area over the past several years and we’ve come to love this corner of Banff National Park. We visit year round be it on foot hiking or in more creative ways on bikes, skis, or even skates.
Below are our favourite day use areas on the Minnewanka Loop Road with featured activities for the upcoming summer season.
Cascade Ponds Day Use Area
This is the first day use area you will reach on the loop road. There are tables for picnics and children will enjoy running around in the dry pond area. It is a great access point for biking the Legacy Trail between Banff and Canmore, and is also a popular starting point for road biking the Minnewanka Loop Road.
Biking the Legacy Trail. Photo-Paul Zizka
This is also the trailhead for mountain biking to the Lower Bankhead ghost town. The Bankhead Trail is a short 4.8 km out and back ride perfect for families and novice riders. Children will enjoy exploring the ghost town and locomotive on site.
Biking to Lower Bankhead. Photo-Tanya Koob
Johnson Lake Day Use Area
This is a popular day use area year round and you’ll want to arrive early to find parking on a hot summer day. Johnson Lake is home to Banff’s only beach complete with sand for the kids to play in. There are picnic tables on site and you’ll want to take a short hike around the lake in an easy 3 km circuit. On your hike, make sure you look out for the rope swing on the far side along with Billy Carver’s old abandoned cabin on the west end. Carver built the cabin in 1910 where he lived for 27 years in solitude.
Johnson Lake beach. Photo-Tanya Koob
For those not brave enough to swim in this glacial lake, canoeing and kayaking are very popular. You’ll also find stand up paddleboarders practicing here on the calm water. Boats and SUP boards can be rented in Banff at the Banff Canoe Club.
Billy Carver’s cabin. Find the Hermit of Inglismaldie in this video.
For the more adventurous, Johnson Lake is also the trailhead for the Water Tower mountain bike trail. This intermediate trail is 7.8 km return from Cascade Ponds to Johnson Lake but is best done as an out and back ride from Johnson Lake to the top of the stairs leading down to the dry pond. A great cross country ride, you’ll enjoy views of Cascade Mountain and the Bow Valley from a scenic bench above the TransCanada HWY.
The rope swing at Johnson Lake. Photo via @brigittahicks
Two Jack Lake Campgrounds and Day Use Area
Two Jack Lake is home to the Two Jack Lakeside Campground and the Two Jack Main Campground across the road. Both campgrounds are extremely popular and reservations are recommended. If you don’t get a spot at one of the campgrounds, you can still visit the day use area and launch a canoe or kayak for a beautiful paddle along the lake and up the canal towards Johnson Lake. (Here is a Real Banff video look at camping at Two Jack Lake.)
SUP’ing on Two Jack Lake
Two Jack Lake.
Lake Minnewanka Day Use Area
At the far end of the loop road, you come across the jewel of this drive, Lake Minnewanka itself. Options for recreation here are plentiful and there is something for every fitness level. The easiest way to explore the area is aboard the Banff Lake Cruise where you’ll enjoy a scenic tour across Lake Minnewanka to an opening called Devil’s Gap. From this vantage point you’ll catch a glimpse of the prairies in the distance before returning to the dock. Passengers should also be on the lookout for wildlife as you may be lucky enough to see big horn sheep, a bald eagle, or even a bear from your boat. (More in the boat cruise here.)
Boat cruising on Lake Minnewanka.
Whether you take the boat cruise or choose to explore on foot, it’s highly recommended that you take the short 1.5 km walk along the lakeshore to Stewart Canyon. Here you’ll cross the Cascade River on the same bridge where Marilyn Monroe kissed Robert Mitchum while filming “The River of No Return.”
Paddling under the Stewart Canyon bridge, Lake Minnewanka. Photo-Jeff Mitchell
Other options for recreation at Lake Minnewanka include canoeing or kayaking on the lake in your own boat (renting a boat in the Town of Banff,) backpacking to one of the campgrounds along the lakeshore, hiking on the Aylmer Pass and Lookout Trails, or mountain biking along the Lake Minnewanka trail. Note that the trail is closed to bikes between July 10th and September 15th. For other restrictions on hiking and backpacking, please visit the Banff National Park website.
Wildlife around Lake Minnewanka includes some mythical beasts.
Upper Bankhead and Lower Bankhead Trailheads
Finishing off your loop, you will come across the Upper and Lower Bankhead Trailheads leading to the old coal mining town of Bankhead, abandoned in 1922. The Upper Bankhead Trail travels through the residence section of the old town and continues on to C-Level Cirque in 4.2 km one way. You’ll gain 455 metres of elevation as you walk past old coal mine shafts en route to an alpine basin on the slopes of Cascade Mountain.
Exploring an old coal train at Lower Bankhead. Photo-Tanya Koob
The Lower Bankhead Trail takes you on a fun adventure through the coal town’s industrial complex in a 1.1 km interpretive hike. You’ll get to check out many historical buildings in your short walk with the highlight being the antique locomotive and coal cars. It is advisable not to wear new shoes on this hike as the trail is composed of dark coal dust that will definitely stain a pair of clean white shoes.
My family hopes to spend lots of time in the Lake Minnewanka area this summer and I hope to see you on the trails.