The best thing about the jaw-dropping beauty of Banff National Park is how accessible it is to all types of travellers. Regardless of the time of year, scenic drives are a comfortable and convenient way to enjoy the exquisite landscapes of Banff and Lake Louise.
During your drive, please be considerate of wildlife. You should never attempt to feed animals, or exit your vehicle while they're in the vicinity.
1. Minnewanka Loop
Those in search of a quick drive after dinner should think about the Minnewanka Loop. Keep your eyes peeled for sheep along the road, as well as plenty of elk and mule deer. The loop will take you past Cascade Ponds (great viewpoint for Cascade Falls), Johnson Lake, Two Jack Lake (a great stop for sunrise photos), and around to the shores of Lake Minnewanka. Dark sky lovers should also take note - keep your eyes on the updated aurora alerts and you might just catch the Northern Lights dancing over Lake Minnewanka.
Time: 25 minutes
Distance: 14.5km, loop.
Highlights: Plenty of wildlife, scenic views at Lake Minnewanka and great sunrise shots at Two Jack Lake.
*Note - A portion of the loop is closed to vehicles during the winter, so you’ll need to double back the way you came.
2. Bow Valley Parkway
Locals know that often the best place to spot wildlife is along the Bow Valley Parkway (BVP). The parkway is an alternate way to get to Lake Louise but is also a beautiful scenic drive. Stop at one of several picnic areas for lunch or explore one of the many fantastic day hikes in the area. Those looking to spend even more time on the BVP can stay at a Parks Canada campground or cozy up in a cabin at Baker Creek Resort of Castle Mountain Chalets.
Time: 60 minutes, one way.
Distance: 49.2km, one way.
Highlights: Waterfalls at Johnston Canyon, Silverton Falls, interpretive plaque at Sawback Burn and river views of Castle Mountain.
*Note From Parks Canada - From March 1st to June 25th, travel is not permitted between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. on the 17km section of the parkway from Johnston Canyon Campground to the Fireside Picnic Area. This is to ensure the area remains a high-quality home for wildlife.
3. Icefields Parkway
Considered by many to be the holy grail of scenic drives, the Icefields Parkway connects travellers with Lake Louise and Jasper. There are several campgrounds for both tent camping and RV camping spread across the parkway. All sites are first-come, first-serve, so plan to stop a little early to secure a spot. Be sure not to miss Icefields classics like Parker Ridge, The Athabasca Glacier and Mistaya Canyon.
Time: 1 hour (Lake Louise to Saskatchewan Crossing), 3 hours Lake Louise to Jasper
Distance: 78km (one way, Lake Louise to Saskatchewan Crossing), 232km (one way, Lake Louise to Jasper)
Highlights: Too many to list! Plan to visit Bow Lake, Mistaya Canyon and many pull-offs with panoramic vistas.
BONUS: Vermilion Lakes Road
Although it’s a little short to be a scenic drive, in many ways Vermilion Lakes offers one of the best bang-for-your-buck drives in the park. Be sure to bring a camera for your quintessential Mt Rundle sunrise or sunset shot. Vermilion Lakes is fed by a number of very small natural springs, so take a few minutes to get out of your car and look for (and smell!) the small springs bubbling up near the road.
Time: 25 minutes, round trip.
Distance: 8.6km, round trip
Bring a Guide
If you’re looking for an interpretive view of Banff National Park, consider bringing a guide.
GyPSy Guide: This downloadable app will give you a fantastic rolling commentary of the natural and historical world of Banff National Park. GyPSy offers programs for Banff Townsite and Area, The Icefields Parkway, Jasper National Park and combo package that includes Banff, Lake Louise and Yoho. If you’re looking to try it out, download the free tour from Calgary to Banff.
Hop On Banff: Designed with the goal of reducing unnecessary road traffic in Banff National Park, Hop On Banff makes it easy for you to leave your car at home and still visit all of the gems. Each shuttle includes a guide who will be happy to answer all of your questions about the area.
Please drive responsibly
All of these drives travel through areas with an abundance of wildlife. Although it is thrilling to spot bear or elk, please keep their safety at top of mind. Never leave your car and under no circumstances should you ever approach or feed wildlife. If you have pulled over to watch safely, please be considerate and move on quickly. Many cars stopped near wildlife can be stressful on the animals and will also have major implications for others looking to enjoy their drive. Please also consider carpooling when possible to reduce your footprint.