Experience the Canadian Rockies with Kids
Updated: Jun 6, 2021
Leg 3: A Canadian Itinerary – Follow our journey to help plan your best family road trip to Western Canada.
Visiting the Canadian Rockies with kids is a non-negotiable on any Canadian road trip itinerary. The soaring ice capped peaks and glacial fed lakes as blue as blue that reflect the mountain scenes at the right time of day will be entrenched in your memory long after you return home.
The area is perfect for epic walks and sightseeing and the Canadian Rocky Mountains in summer is a bucket list destination for exciting family adventures.
Getting your family to Banff and Canada to experience the jaw-dropping scenery combined with extraordinary wild animals and amazing outdoor scenery will be the trip of a lifetime.
Stay in Banff or Canmore?
Most visitors to the Rocky Mountains in Canada choose to stay in either Banff or Canmore which are only 20 minutes away from each other. The distance between Banff and Canmore is only 26 kms so staying in Banff is not essential.
There are pros and cons to both options however here is a guide to help you decide which may suit your travel style better.
Banff is the tourism hub of the mountains and has loads to do and lots of places to visit close by. Banff is the most stunning of towns with a bustling town centre, a lovely river location and looming Sulphur Mountain back-dropping the town (a photographers’ dream!)
It truly is a super gorgeous town and warrants all the attention it gets.
A word of warning – hotels and resorts in Banff are extremely expensive so you need to be organised and book ahead to score a decent deal and find availability. You can use the search box below to look at your options for Banff family accommodation.
In the peak summer period from June to August Banff is extremely busy and the line just to drive in and out of town can be very long. If you don’t mind things bustling then Banff is a good central option with a choice of resorts, hotels, vacation rentals and hostel options.
If you want the mountain scenery and easy accessibility to everything in the region but without the crowds then I highly recommend neighbouring Canmore. Much smaller in size, Canmore still has loads of convenience with a large supermarket and service stations along with a good tourism office.
Canmore also has top-quality restaurants and a great range of accommodation options that will suit travelling families at a much friendlier price point in the peak summer season. We loved the stroll into town for food and the easy access to the National Parks as well as strolling the river in the evenings.
We have stayed in both towns on separate visits and given the popularity and crowds in Banff we now much prefer the beautiful option of Canmore. It is relaxed, friendly and still has beautiful scenery and lots to do for families in the immediate area.
Canmore Vacation Rentals and Hotels
We stayed in this condo on our last visit to Canada and really loved the homely comforts along with the perfect location. This two bedroom, two bathroom condo with full kitchen and laundry facilities has lovely mountain views and overlooks the creek.
It is located across the road from the Safeway supermarket and the Elevation Place recreation facility. Within easy walking distance is also the main street with restaurants and cafes aplenty. See if this Canmore condo is available for your travel dates by clicking here.
This place is a great option if you want a resort style accommodation with apartment facilities - perfect for families. Offering one and two bedroom suites with cozy, warm styling and extras like an outdoor swimming pool and spa this place is a great Canmore option. Click to find prices for your travel dates here.
Another resort offering with one and two bedroom suites. Fully equipped kitchens and resort facilities close to Canmore town. Book via this link or check out the rooms on offer.
How Long to Stay in Banff or Canmore?
If this is your bucket list trip to Canada then it is essential to spend at least one full week in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. It is an absolute highlight of a Canada trip and there are loads of day tours and things to do to keep you busy for a month if you really wanted.
If your goal is to tick off a list to say you have stood at Lake Louise, seen a grizzly in the Canadian wilderness and walked down Banff’s main street then you can cover this with a 3 day stay but do yourself a favour and allow yourself waaaay more time.
Getting to Banff and Canmore
The majority of International travellers will arrive into Canada via Vancouver and the road trip via the Trans-Canada Highway 1 to Banff is an epic road trip in itself. The most direct route is approximately 850kms or 9-10 hours but it is worth breaking it up with some stops along the way.
You can read more about all the incredible places to visit on a Canadian road trip here. If you feel like getting off the main route consider visiting Whistler and then take the back roads from Whistler via Revelstoke for a beautiful and varied drive with awesome stopover options. Otherwise consider stopover points on the direct road trip between Vancouver and Calgary.
A closer option for driving is to arrive into Calgary International and drive the much shorter 128 kms to reach Banff. If you aren’t a local then a good car hire can be found via this link.
The earlier you can book a car the cheaper the deal and if you are okay with collecting a vehicle from a depot away from the airport this can literally save you hundreds of dollars on a longer rental.
Of course the Rocky Mountaineer train is a splurge that is well worth the money for spectacular views of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Passing through some of the most pristine scenery you can sit back and enjoy the ride without worrying about driving.
The train is a slower mode of transport but it is all about the journey rather than getting to the destination too quickly.
Transport in the Rocky Mountains
Once you have arrived in Banff or Canmore it really is essential to have a vehicle to see the best sights of the area. If you don't have a car then you will need to join lots of tours but your own car will have you zipping to all the best bits with the minimum of hassle with kids.
Use the link below to book yourself a car in Banff if you arrive via another mode of transport.
Due to increasing numbers of tourists there are now shuttles operating from the Highway into both Lake Louise and Moraine Lakes. Unless you are planning on a very early morning visit it is best to use these shuttles as car parking is a nightmare otherwise.
Banff and Canmore Alberta Summer Weather
With elevations above 1400m Canada's Rocky Mountains region experiences sunny and warm summers with the average top daily temperature being around 22 degrees Celsius. Nights can be pretty chilly still so you will need to dress in layers and be prepared for quick weather changes even in the midst of summer.
On our last visit in mid-July we did experience an unfortunate wet spell with 4-5 days of consistent heavy rain, fog and cold temperatures so it is best to pack expecting any weather. Fingers crossed for you that you get crystal clear skies and warmth to take in the views at their most stunning.
Banff National Park Information
To visit any of the National Parks in the Rocky Mountains area you will need to purchase a National Parks Pass. If like us you take an extended trip through Canada and its National Parks you may find it useful to purchase a Family Discovery Pass which gives you up to a year of access to many of the most popular parks. In 2020 this pass cost $139 CAD.
You can also purchase shorter stay passes depending on the parks and dates of your visit. Best to stop in at a tourism information office on arrival to determine your best option.
19 Things to Do and Places to Visit in Banff and Canmore in Summer
There are loads of beautiful places to visit in Canada and Banff and the Rocky Mountains certainly come close to topping the list. Read on to discover the best things to do in the region.
Experience the 360 degree views of the Banff National Park from the scenic Banff Gondola which takes you to the summit of Sulphur Mountain. On a clear day the views are spectacular with birds-eye sight over Cascade and Rundle Mountains as well as many of the surrounding ranges.
To avoid the crowds (this is Banff's most popular tourist attraction) aim for first thing in the morning as soon as the lift opens at 8.00am in the summer peak or even late in the afternoon. Many of the large groups will visit through the middle of the day.
Tip for families: the Banff Gondola is free for children under 5. Tickets can be purchased by clicking here.
At the top you have lots of options to keep yourself busy or to relax and enjoy the scenery. The Sky Bistro is a stunning place to have a meal particularly in the evening with the sun setting.
Take a leisurely walk along the Sulphur Mountain Boardwalk which stretches for 2 kilometres out to Sanson's Peak. Or for the educational perspective have a wander through the Above Banff Interpretive Centre to learn about the surrounding environment and visit the eagle eye cinema.
If your family loves hiking and you have older kids you can opt for the switchback hike to the top of Sulphur Mountain instead. The climb is 5.5kms and will take approximately 2 hours and you can take the gondola back down for half the ticket cost if you don't want to walk both directions.
Lake Louise is one of the jewels of a visit to the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Situated just outside of Banff it is easily reached by car or via an organised tour if you would like an experienced guide and driver for the day.
If you are wondering how to get those reflective photos showing the mountains bouncing back on the turquoise waters then the trick is in the timing of your visit. We captured this by arriving right as the sun was rising over the mountains. This is also the most relaxing time of day to capture Lake Louise and it's surrounds before the masses arrive.
The Chateau Lake Louise is a sight to see in itself perched on the edge of the lake.
Once you have snapped your perfect shot you can take the Lake Louise gondola for higher views of the lake and its surroundings. It can be a great way to spot a bear as well.
You can choose between the open chairlifts or an enclosed gondola but children under 106cm tall need to travel in the enclosed version.
There are some beautiful hikes of varying difficulty from the Lake Louise area. The Banff website provides great advice on options.
3. Moraine Lake
Nestled in the Valley of the Ten Peaks is gorgeous Moraine Lake. I think Moraine Lake is a little more rugged and untouched compared to Lake Louise. It is simply stunning to visit and will provide for postcard photo memories.
To avoid the crowds try and arrive before 9am or stop by late in the afternoon and enjoy the 1.4km lakeshore walk in relative peace.
If you would like to visit with an organised tour jump onto this option visiting Lake Louise and Moraine Lake.
4. Emerald Lake and Yoho National Park
Whilst Lake Louise and Moraine Lake steal a lot of the attention my favourite Rockies Lake is Emerald Lake in Yoho National Park, BC. It is a little further out of the way and many visitors pass by unknowingly making it a much quieter lake to visit but the word is definitely getting out!
Emerald Lake sits at a higher altitude meaning it remains frozen until June and the degree of glacial silt washing into the water means it has the most stunning of emerald (hence the name) colours.
Most tour bus visitors will stop, take a picture and then continue on their way. This means the 5.3km Emerald Lake circuit trail is a brilliant way to take in the pristine allure of this place. This easy, family-friendly walk is flat and meanders through the pretty greenery on the edge of the lake.
Our kids loved that it was a bit muddy in parts as they were climbing along logs, jumping over obstacles and sometimes just jumping in the muddy puddles which meant they didn't complain once about the walk.
We visited very late in the afternoon and had a lovely quiet visit - for the walk itself we barely passed any other groups which was awesome.
Not cheap but canoes and kayaks can be rented for a gentle paddle across Emerald Lake. The cost at the time of our visit was a whopping $70 per hour but hey it is a bucket list thing to do in Canada.
Consider a short stay at the Emerald Lake Lodge if you want to truly immerse yourself. This place was beautifully positioned at the end of the lake with amazing views from all angles.
5. Takkakaw Falls
Claiming the title for being the highest waterfalls in the Canadian Rockies the Takkakaw Falls in Yoho National Park are well worthy of a visit. Plummeting over the rock wall into a long vertical drop these falls are super pretty.
Getting to Takkakaw Falls is pretty straightforward. Just follow the signs off the Trans Canada highway and take your time along the road in as there are a couple of hair pin bends that need caution.
Once at the carpark you have an easy walk for about 10 minutes across the Yoho River up to the base of the falls. There are also some nice places to wander up and down the river as well.
The day we visited was a little overcast and drizzly so there weren't too many people about. There are picnic tables provided near the falls so its a great place for a picnic lunch.
The diverse and intriguing array of wildlife that live in the Rockies is a major drawcard for many visitors. There are a number of animals that are reasonably easy to spot without trying too hard and others that can be quite elusive.
For some reason we noticed a really significant reduction in the amount of wildlife spot-able from the roadside between our first Canada trip in 2003 to now (more than 15 years later). Unfortunately I fear this is due to the mass amount of people and traffic now arriving in the region each year which could be driving the animals further out of their original habitat. Essentially it feels a little like we are loving these national parks to death.
It could also be due to the wildlife fences now installed all the way along Canada's highways.
Whatever the reason it can be tricky to spot many animals. A great way to overcome this is to utilise local knowledge and consider an evening wildlife tour. Not only will your guide be knowledgeable on the best places to find the animals but you are taken out on dusk when the animals are on the move and active. You can sit back, relax and keep your eyes on the landscape rather than trying to drive at the same time.
Elk, deer and big horn sheep can be spotted in many places. We stumbled across a herd of elk along the bow valley parkway with the large antlers which the kids thought were pretty cool.
The animal that a lot of visitors want to spot are bears - both black bears and brown (grizzly) bears are found in the rockies. We did come across a couple of these guys on our last trip - both times on the side of the road. The first we came across right on the edge of the Icefields Parkway. By pure chance a black bear crossed the road in front of us and was making his way back into the scrub so we got a nice minute or so watching him.
A couple days later a very large brown bear was following the wildlife fence along the highway near Lake Louise.
The elusive Canadian moose is the only animal we haven't managed to sneak a peak at in our visits to Banff and Canmore. We read reports that moose sightings can be found near to Emerald Lake but no luck for us.
What better way to experience the wilderness than on horseback. Fun for the whole family book onto a horse trail along the beautiful Bow River. This is an easy, slow ride for inexperienced riders.
If you are feeling like a longer but still comfortable you can opt for the two hour version through Sundance Valley.
8. Bow Valley Parkway
Winding for 48 kilometres through the Bow Valley this scenic drive is worth allocating at least a half to full day for sightseeing and hiking. Due to its lower altitude and warm sunny location the Bow Valley is a common place to find wildlife that come to the lush rivers and pastures in the summer time.
It is a lovely drive and speed limits are reduced to keep wildlife safe and allow people to enjoy the drive at leisure. Before heading out stop into a Parks Canada tourism office to pick up the interpretive map. It will mark out the interesting stops and places to visit.
There are some awesome photos opportunities of Castle Mountain which is an iconic sight in the area. Perched with two levels it almost looks like a double layered cake.
If you are feeling energetic a popular hike with amazing views is the Castle Hill Lookout trail. Approximately 6.5 kms out and back this walk is easily achievable with kids and has amazing views.
Pack a picnic and hiking gear for the day and go exploring. Don't forget to stop in at Johnston Canyon - see next.
9. Johnston Canyon
Johnston Canyon is regularly listed in the top things to do from Banff and is certainly an interesting place to visit in summer when the waters are gushing, or during winter when it freezes.
Canyon's are not somewhere that you are able to walk easily but with the custom built trail, Johnston Canyon is a cool walk. Unfortunately we really underestimated the popularity of this hike.
We had intended to go all the way to the ink pots but after battling through the congested walkways to the lower falls we opted to escape the jostling and give it a miss to head somewhere more tranquil.
Such a pity as it is a lovely spot. I HIGHLY recommend only visiting here early in the morning or late in the day. Use your instinct to gauge how busy the carpark is and give it a miss if it looks too busy.
An alternate option to visit the ink pots and upper falls but approaching from a different direction is to take the trail from Moose Meadows but this is a 4 hour return walk.
10. Guided Hikes
If you are keen to have the experience and reassurance of a guide there are plenty of tour operators in Banff offering guided hikes. It's a great way to learn more about the ecology, wildlife and history of the rockies and you have the added safety of travelling in a group (if you do chance out and stumble across a bear).
Hilariously we headed out on a few hikes over the days where we felt like there was nobody else around us and the kids (and hubby!!!) started to stress that we were going to stumble across a bear. Even though we had bear spray with us it did feel a little confronting.
Here are some guided hike options to suit all interests:
11. Snowy Owl Sled Dog Tours
If you are looking for something unique and fun to do in Canmore then I highly recommend a visit to Snowy Owl Sled Dog Tours. In winter they offer sledding tours (which I would love to return and try) but in summer they continue the opportunity to meet their huskies and be immersed in the culture of dog sledding.
Suitable for kids 5 years and older the summer tour includes a full tour of the kennels and loads of fun information about the sport of dog sledding and the dogs themselves. Many of the dogs from this kennel have also starred in hollywood movies so know a trick or two.
You get plenty of time for photos and cuddles with the dogs as well which is a nice bonus.
12. Explore the Icefields Parkway
Connecting Lake Louise and Jasper, the Icefields Parkway is easily one of the most stunning drives in the world. Snaking through the valley, around and over mountains and brimming with amazing highlights and stopping points. Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife particularly for bears along the rivers that may be visible in summer.
The journey is 232 kms and can be done in a day trip but to cover everything and enjoy some of the hikes and activities along the way we found a great option is to stop a night or two in Jasper before returning. You can then take the time to discover the highlights of Jasper National Park as well. Maligne Lake is a far quieter and lovely alpine lake located near Jasper. There are many other spectacular lakes in Jasper that are well worth visiting as well.
Tip: Avoid the crowds and head out early in the morning!
Highlights of the Icefields Parkway include:
Bow Lake and Crowsfoot Glacier
Peyto Lake and the Bow Summit - awesome aerial views from the lookout
The weeping wall viewpoint featuring cascading waterfalls from Cirrus Mountain
The Columbia Icefields which are the largest glaciers south of the Arctic Circle
The Glacier Skywalk will take you out to breathtaking views of the glacier
There are loads of amazing hiking opportunities along the Parkway as well to stretch your legs.
To amp up the fun factor for kids consider taking a family-friendly whitewater rafting trip on the Kananaskis River. This tamer river is perfect for confident swimming kids and will teach them resilience and give them a sense of adventure.
If your kids are older and want a bit more adrenaline pumping then take the rafting to the next level on the Kicking Horse River. We did this rafting tour pre-kids and had a super fun day.
14. Stroll Banff Avenue
Banff Avenue is the main street of Banff and is loaded with shopping, eateries and pretty mountain buildings. Running from the Bow River Bridge it is a lovely place to wander and sightsee at any time of the day however it tends to be busier later in the day when people return from their day trips.
When visiting Banff Village take the opportunity to sample a beavers tail or the iconic pancakes with Canadian maple syrup as a sweet treat or purchase some cute souvenirs from the myriad of shopfronts.
If you happen to be in Banff on Canada Day (July 1) they hold a fun parade down Banff Avenue featuring the Mounties (mounted police) and it makes for a good day of celebrations for the whole family. It's a festive outing and the kids will find it fun and educational to learn about Canada.
15. Walk to the Banff Springs Hotel and Bow River Falls
Whilst you are in the vicinity of Banff Avenue, take the opportunity to extend your walk along to the Banff Fairmont Springs Resort. Fairytale castle inspired, the hotel is beautiful to visit with the towering mountains as its background.
Crossing the Bow River Bridge from town follow the southern trail along the Bow River past the Fairmont and beyond to the Bow Falls. The walk is only 1.2km in distance and is easily accessible. The view of the river and the rapids along the way is encased with dense forest and is a really beautiful and rewarding walk for minimal effort.
If you want to extend the walk further this trail connects to the Banff Upper Hot Springs.
16. Two Jack Lake - a hidden secret
Another perfect scenic drive is the Lake Minnewanka Loop just moment from Banff town. Two Jack Lake is a small extension to Lake Minnewanka and the perfect recreation spot to get away from the tourist trail. The day we visited there were only two other cars.
Flanked by mountains on all sides you can take a lakeside trail to walk around the picturesque little lake and then stop for a picnic. It's a great spot to see some deer and other small mammals.
The cascade ponds are another lovely stop along the same drive.
If you would like to explore the stunning Lake Minnewanka the best way to do so is via a boat cruise. You can pre-book your tickets for a Lake Minnewanka cruise here.
17. Watching Canada's Freight Trains
A special one for the kids and dads! The cargo trains in Canada are really fascinating as they can reach lengths of over 4 kilometres as they snake their way across the Canadian Wilderness.
With freight trains being the main form of cargo movement across Canada you will easily spot these beasts moving through the mountains. A great place to spot them is at many of the viewpoints along the Bow Valley Parkway that look back towards the river.
In particular Morant's curve is a rest stop with panoramic views over the mountains, river.... and passing trains.
Another train spotting highlight is a stop at the Spiral Tunnels Viewpoint on the Trans Canada Highway between Banff and Golden.
The steepness of Kicking Horse Mountain meant they had to build the Spiral Tunnels back in 1909 to allow safe passage through the mountain without navigating the steep descents.
You can watch from afar as up to 25-30 trains per day spiral their way through the pass.
18. Elevation Place, Canmore
In the heart of Canmore is the Elevation Place Recreation Centre offering a full host of exciting recreation activities perfect for a rainy day activity in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Sometimes an indoor activity is the best option.
Your entry pass of $18 for a family includes access to a schedule of activities held in the centre each day:
Indoor rock climbing is one of the most popular activities and it is recommended to book a time slot for your visit. Children over the age of 4 can use the climbing gym and any kids under 13 must be supervised by an adult. There is an additional surcharge for the hire of climbing gear - $8 per child for shoes, belay and harness.
The aquatic centre is loads of fun for kids with a lazy river to float around on, an inflatable course, a water slide and aquatic ball games set up. Our kids literally had to be dragged out of the water here.
For the adults you can also access the gym facility or I squeezed in a fabulous yoga class in the studio overlooking the mountain vistas.
19. Golden BC
Keep an eye out for my upcoming article on a family visit to Golden BC. Home to Boo the rescued grizzly bear in the bear refuge the Kicking Horse Resort is a great spot to visit with kids.
I hope you have enjoyed this in-depth look at all the fun things to do in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. It really is the perfect family destination and one of our favourite spots in Canada.
NEXT: Planning your Canadian Road Trip Itinerary? Check out my other Canada articles and useful travel with kids tips.
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