June 8, 2016
By Molly Segal
Banff National Park is full of possibilities, whether you’re venturing out on a day trip or planning a multi-week stay. The park is full of fun excursions to do by boat, so why not include some paddling in your trip planning? These breathtaking canoe destinations in Banff National Park will wow anyone, from the novice to the experienced paddler.
The Bow River
If you’re staying in downtown Banff, you don’t have to drive to find waters that feel wild. Just walk to the Banff Canoe Club to rent a boat, (by the hour or the day) and launch from their docks on Bow Ave, just off of Wolf St. Head upstream on the Bow River and within minutes you’re completely surrounded by mountain vistas, feeling like you’ve left the town far behind. You’ll be in good company with other paddlers, standup paddle boarders and kayakers on this stretch of the Bow. If you explore this section in the evening, you’re bound to see beavers hard at work building their dams along the shore. Remember to give wildlife enough distance and enjoy the view from afar.
Echo Creek and Vermilion Lakes
The Vermilion Lakes, nestled beside the Banff town site, is a great location for beginner paddlers looking to start their adventures by canoe in the mountains. Beginner paddling doesn’t mean this paddle is any less beautiful than a more challenging lake. If you take a moment to be still and look around you, the shallow, marshy lakes are rife with animals. You’ll see elk at the shores, muskrats and beavers in the water, all kinds of swallows weaving through the air, and even herons in the treetops. You can access the lakes from the canoe launch near the Banff Canoe Club, taking the right hand turn as you paddle upstream on the Bow to enter Echo Creek, a shallow narrow but scenic passage that meanders into the Vermilion Lakes. Of course, if you prefer to launch directly into the lakes, you can do so off of Vermilion Lakes Dr., which links up with Mt. Norquay Rd. Note that water levels vary and are at times low.
While throngs of people line the shores of Johnson Lake on a hot summer’s day, beat the crowds by hopping in a canoe and pulling away from shore to explore every corner of this lake. It’s a big enough lake to spend some time meandering, but small enough to feel safe for inexperienced paddlers. If you’re looking for a laid-back day, paddle out with a fishing rod and cast a line in. With a National Park Fishing License it’s worth trying your luck. Johnson Lake is home to trout (limit of one, except for bull trout which are catch and release), lake whitefish and mountain whitefish (limit of two each) – any time between May 21 and September 5. To access the lake, take the Lake Minnewanka Scenic Dr. off of the Trans-Canada Hwy 1. Follow the signage to Johnson Lake, where you will find a day use parking lot with a short carry to the beach.
Two Jack Lake
With Mount Rundle towering above the tree line, it’s safe to say you’ll want to bring a camera for photo-ops on this paddle. Two Jack Lake is next to Lake Minnewanka, but is significantly more intimate. It’s a sure bet if you’re not ready to brave the often choppy waters of Minnewanka. End your paddle with a lakeside picnic at one of the day use sites along Two Jack. Or, if you want to make this an overnight adventure, reserve one of the walk-in campsites. They book up quickly, so plan your trip in advance by calling: 1-877-737-3783. Access to the lake and parking is off of the Lake Minnewanka Scenic Dr. (Here is a Real Banff video look at camping at Two Jack Lake.)
Lake Minnewanka is not for the water shy. It takes some strategy to explore its shores as gusts of wind pick up quickly, often changing direction. The safest bet is to stay close to shore and explore a section of the lake. For more experienced paddlers, this lake well worth the visit, but be prepared for other boats, including tour boats and recreational motorboats. Not only is the lake striking in its vastness, it also has a rich history. The name Minnewanka comes from Minn-waki, meaning “Lake of the Spirits” in Stoney, who inhabited the area for centuries. Minnewanka is also known as a popular site for divers, with remains of old buildings hidden underwater from a time before man-made dams raised the lake’s water levels. There is parking near the lake – take the Lake Minnewanka Scenic Dr. off of the Trans-Canada Hwy 1. Your best bet is to drop your boat off near the dock, then grab a parking spot to avoid a long portage to the water. If you’re looking to make this an overnight trip, Parks Canada offers backcountry sites accessible by boat at the Aylmer Pass Junction Campground (and other campsites around the lake). To book backcountry, please visit a Banff or Lake Louise Visitor Centres in person, or call the backcountry reservation lines at 403-522-1263 (Lake Louise) or 403-762-1556 (Banff). More backcountry info from Parks Canada here.
Lake Louise lives up to its reputation as one of Banff National Park’s most iconic sights. In the winter, you can explore the frozen lake by cross-country ski. Once the ice melts by late May or into early June the best way to truly take in the beauty of Lake Louise is by canoe. Look down and the brilliant turquoise water, ahead at the glacier – everywhere there is a jaw-dropping sight. With rentals available from the Lake Louise boathouse by the hour, this lake is a great option if you’re visiting the national park without a canoe.
Summer is the only time of year you can drive up Moraine Lake Rd. and take in a view of this picturesque corner of the park – so why not explore it by boat? Moraine Lake Lodge boasts a fleet of candy-coloured canoes you can rent by the hour at the docks (open 10 AM – 6 PM) to explore the glacier-fed lake. Nestled in the Valley of the Ten Peaks, Moraine offers stunning vistas and paddling is a more relaxing way to contemplate the scenery than a hike. You can access the lake by taking the Moraine Lake Rd., open from late May – September, off of the Hwy 1 West and up Lake Louise Drive.
When you turn onto the Icefields Parkway (the 93 North) off of Hwy 1 West, you’ll have to keep a look out for the Herbert Lake turn off or you’ll miss it. Tucked away at the start of the Icefields Parkway, this lake is worth the stop. Less traveled than lakes Moraine and Louise, you’ll truly feel like you’ve stumbled across a local gem. Bring your canoe out and you’ll feel even more secluded on the water. It’s the perfect paddle if you’re travelling the Icefields Parkway with a canoe in tow. (Here is an aerial video tour of the Icefields Parkway).