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There are two Banffs — summer Banff and winter Banff — and both are equally spectacular. Built as a resort town in the 1880s in the middle of Banff National Park, this picturesque western village, ringed by mountains, is the ideal base for a Canadian Rockies adventure.
In summer, hikers wander up Tunnel Mountain for a few hours or head deep into the backcountry for days. Canoes skate across the spectacular blue-green Lake Louise and Moraine Lake, whose waters are fed by glacier. Biking, mountain climbing, golfing, and outdoor sports may be the main draw, but they aren’t the only activities to enjoy: The Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity hosts concerts and plays, and the Whyte Museum brings together art and local history. When snow covers the mountains and valleys, Banff becomes a ski and snowboard town, with three resorts nearby. A snowshoe stroll around one of the lakes may bring you close to native flora and fauna.
Although Banff itself is easy to navigate on foot, driving may be your best option for getting there and around the park. Flights from all over North America connect with the Calgary International Airport (YYC), 90 miles east, and you can rent a car at the airport. From there, it’s a straight shot on the Trans-Canada Highway. Because you’re staying in a national park, every visitor needs to purchase a Park Pass (free for children under 18), either online or at the gate to the park.
But a car isn’t required. You can take a Banff Airporter shuttle bus from Calgary or catch a Greyhound bus. In Banff, Roam buses transport visitors to surrounding attractions from morning to late at night, and in the winter, all the ski resorts provide shuttles.
You’ll want to wear active clothes for an activity-rich destination, but keep each season’s demands in mind. Summer lasts from June through September and peaks in July, when daytime temperatures regularly hit the 70s and 80s Fahrenheit. Remember: You’re high in the Rockies, so keep sweaters and light jackets on you to protect against the evening chill.
From January through March, Banff is covered in snow and ice — temperatures can easily plummet below zero Fahrenheit. The cold is dry, too, so be prepared with plenty of heavy layers and warm boots with good treads. In spring and fall, the temperature varies wildly, so pack for a wide range of conditions and check the local forecasts before you go.
It takes eight minutes for the Banff Gondola aerial lift to sweep up the tree-covered slope of Sulphur Mountain to the upper platform, at an altitude of 7,500 feet, where mountain peaks stretch to the horizon. Cafes and restaurants allow you to linger at the heights, or if you prefer to stay outdoors, take a short hike along the ridge or gather around a fire pit in winter.
Geothermal hot springs emerging out of a massive fault in Sulphur Mountain brought visitors to Banff for the water cure in the late 19th century, and this outdoor pool, which averages 100 degrees Fahrenheit in winter and summer, continues to instill restorative bliss. (Bring a swimsuit, or rent one.)
This gorgeous lake is almost as big a draw as Banff — even the spectacular 35-mile drive between the two cities is a must-do. The turquoise lake is cradled by a host of peaks. You can kayak or canoe in its glacial waters, hike up the domed Beehive mountains, or meander around the town of Lake Louise.