Drive just a little over an hour west of Calgary to the towns of Canmore and Banff and you’ll see Alberta’s rolling foothills and ranches give way to majestic mountains, with glittering snow-capped peaks, swaying pines, trickling streams and vibrant wildlife.
Nestled in Western Alberta is a picturesque landscape of a vacation destination that feels like taking a trip into a Group of Seven masterpiece.
When construction of the railroad in the 1880s brought more immigrants to what would become Banff, three CP Railway workers discovered natural hot springs in the mountains. Coupled with the natural beauty of the area, the government saw an opportunity and Canada’s first-ever national park was born. Soon Banff became known around the world as a premier resort location.
Nearby, Canmore is a much newer tourist destination, having been a coal mining town for much of its history. During the 1980s, spillover from the Calgary Olympics and Banff’s visitors led to the growth of Canmore’s tourism in what is a vibrant, revitalized town today.
From Canmore to Banff — together, they make up some of the most memorable views and experiences in Canada. You could visit a hundred times and still not take in all they have to offer.
Why not start with our guide?
Getting to Canmore and Banff
From the East
If you’re anywhere east of Canmore and Banff, the Calgary International Airport is your closest runway. From Calgary, head west — the Calgary to Canmore trip is only an hour drive and Canmore to Banff is less than half an hour.
Rent a car (or take your own) and hop on the Number 1 for a short-but-scenic drive. Just before Canmore, you’ll find Kananaskis Country, a park system that serves as a gateway to the Rockies. The quick driving time means you have a minute to stop and enjoy the stunning landscapes, lakes and even a chance to encounter all kinds of wildlife.
Not in the mood to drive yourself? Catch the Banff Express, a shuttle that runs all year from Calgary to Banff and makes multiple pickups a day. Tickets are affordable, but travel light — only your first bag is included in your fare.
From the West
From Vancouver, the most popular city in BC, you have a much longer drive — nearly ten hours! — so make the most of it. In the winter, the ski hills and mountain towns along the highway like Chilliwack and Revelstoke are lively breaks from the road. When the mountains aren’t blanketed in snow, British Columbia’s lakes make the drive shine.
Local tip: Stop at Shuswap Lake for some of the warmest freshwater lake swimming in BC!
If you’re really in the mood to take your time, treat yourself to a ticket on the Rocky Mountaineer. Two of the luxury passenger train’s routes end in Banff and take either 2 or 4 days.
Between the Two
Travelling from Canmore to Banff is quick. The distance from Banff to Canmore is only 26 kilometres.
You can drive, take one of the regional Roam buses, or hop on a bike. The Canmore to Banff bike trail — formally called the Rocky Mountain Legacy Trail — is an easy ride.
The Best Time to Visit Canmore and Banff
Canmore and Banff have two peak seasons and strong shoulder seasons between them.
The summer peak season attracts outdoor enthusiasts to the parks primarily between June and September. Campers, hikers, and kayakers congregate on the trails and waters between Canmore to Banff, while anyone in need of a little AC heads into town to browse the shops.
The winter peak season is all about the snow! From mid-December to March, the activity moves out of the valleys and onto the mountains. There are three big ski hills in the area — Banff, Lake Louise, and Sunshine — and the hot springs are a relaxing way to warm up after a long day outdoors.
Spring and fall are fantastic in Canmore and Banff, even though they’re the shoulder seasons! Smaller crowds — mind you, only slightly smaller — mean more space to explore at your leisure. Hikes in the fall take you through the turning leaves, and springtime is party time as the ski season winds down.
Things to do in Canmore and Banff
Every August, the town of Canmore hosts the Canmore Folk Festival. Held annually since 1978, the festival takes place over three days. It features concerts and jam sessions suitable for all ages, as well as kids play areas and craft workshops for the young ones.
If you travel to Banff and Canmore for hikes, there are many trails to pick from. For a hiking experience you can’t find anywhere else, go for the Tea House hikes — hiking routes that end at a rustic tea house on a calm lake. The Lake Agnes Tea House is a family-run cafe originally built in 1901 by the railway. It runs with no electricity and every summer it serves sandwiches and other bites that are brought in by staff every day.
Local tip: Lake Agnes is beautiful and their 100+ teas are to die for, but the crowds can get big. If you want a quieter tea house, the Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse, near Lake Louise, is a local secret that sees fewer visitors but is just as charming.
Another hike you shouldn’t miss is in Johnston Canyon. The soft moss, trickling creek, and clear waterfalls make the forest feel like a serene fairy tale, even when the crowds are thick. Bring a kayak if you’re brave enough to try some whitewater kayaking (though we recommend a canoe on the Bow River for a more peaceful paddle).
If you’re looking for things to do in Banff or Canmore in the winter, there’s the skiing, of course! We’ve already got our ultimate guide to downhill skiing in Banff, but did you know Banff and Canmore are famous for their cross-country skiing as well? If you’ve never tried it, Banff’s cross-country trails are an easy start to this unique winter activity.
Local tip: If you’re looking for more variety of trails (including more challenging ones) with less potential for tourists, detour to the Canmore Nordic Centre instead.
You can also hit the slopes in a tube at Mt. Norquay, the Banff ski resort. Banff boasts the largest tube park in Alberta at eight lanes. There is also a smaller play area for the kids who are too short for safe sliding on the big lanes. As of the 2018-19 ski season, Norquay has been keeping their tube park open on Friday and Saturday nights for night tubing.
After action-packed days of downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, and snow tubing, you’re going to need to warm up. The Banff hot springs are actually two springs, though only the Upper Hot Springs are open for bathing. They’re the iconic springs — you can even rent a retro bathing suit for Instagram worthy vacation shots.
Local tip: The lower Banff hot springs are closed for bathing to protect a rare species of snail, but they are still open for tours. Bring a camera!
In the spring, the ski resorts near Banff and Canmore host Slush Cup celebrations. Slush Cup parties and activities celebrate the melting snow and warming weather. Events tend to include swimsuit ski days, water-based obstacle races, live music, and a whole lot of party. Don’t forget your sunscreen!
In the fall, take a hike. Canmore’s cave tour, the Canyon Creek Ice Cave Trail, is a 13-kilometre long hike that takes you up into the mountains to see the local ice caves (and an abandoned mine!). Most of the trail is moderately easy, but the last stretch is steep.
Alternatively, why not take a Larch hike? Larch trees are the only pine trees that shed needles in the fall, turning a rich golden colour before they do. Larch trees are abundant in Canmore, but we think the best Larch hike is the route around Mt Lorette Ponds.
Where to Stay: Canmore or Banff?
Canmore and Banff are both unforgettable vacation spots. Staying in one means getting to experience the other. Picking between them has less to do with what you want to do and more with what vibe you want at the end of the day.
If you like lively nightlife, historical buildings, and are energized by meeting new people, consider staying in Banff. Our selection of vacation rentals in Banff gives you a choice between a resort near the town centre or cabins that are a little more secluded.
On the other hand, if you like charming cafes, quieter accommodations, and are looking to stay a little longer, Canmore is the place for you. It’s close enough to Banff that you can be in the action with just a short drive but ultimately is a little more laid back than the other with less international tourist scenes. Check out our selection of vacation rentals in the area!
No matter where you stay, from Canmore to Banff, Alberta’s gateway to the Rockies is waiting for you!