Introduction

Nestled in the heart of the Canadian Rockies lies Banff National Park. Established in 1885, Banff is not only Canada’s first national park but also one of the most breathtakingly beautiful protected areas in the world.

Home to famous turquoise lakes like Lake Louise and Moraine Lake, Banff is more than just mountains, hiking and skiing. It is also a great destination for wildlife lovers.

Wildlife in Banff National Park

Banff might be famous for its bears, both the black and grizzly varieties, but many other animals are often and easily seen here. Chipmunks, deer and squirrels are found all over, as are larger animals like elk. In Alpine areas, Marmots and Pika are quite common.

When hiking, these animals are frequently encountered, but a bit more effort is required to discover the other animals in the park. Going off the beaten track, and exploring where others are less likely to go reveals another side to Banff National Park and its wildlife.

From the alpine peaks to the valley floor, the park is quite biodiverse. It is also full of people, and the wildlife tends to avoid human contact, except for the aforementioned most numerous animals, which are regularly seen.

With a bit of effort and patience, it is possible to see quite a number of species within the park. Most visitors who put in a bit of time see pine martins, porcupines, coyotes, and foxes. On the Icefields Parkway, it isn’t hard to see bighorn sheep if you head off to the side a little.

Mountain goats are less common, but visitors sometimes get a glimpse of them, especially at Borgeau Lake, near the Sunshine Village Ski Area. Moose are also reasonably common in the park, but not in the more commonly visited areas.

Lastly, wolves are rarely seen. This is mostly because they stay out of the way of people and hide quickly. The same goes for the two cats. The Mountain Lion and Canada Lynx (links to cat information pages) are found within the national park but, like the wolf, are wary of human contact, and are most active at night. Sightings are possible, but you do need to be lucky.

Best areas to visit for wildlife in Banff National Park

  • Bow Valley Parkway: especially between Castle Mountain and Banff
  • Vermilion Lakes: just outside Banff Town for waterfowl and maybe moose.
  • Lake Minnewanka: You might see wolves, but coyotes, elk and deer are more likely. Mountain goats are also a possibility.
  • Colombia Icefields: The area near the icefields often has bighorn sheep near the main road.
  • Jasper National Park: Definitely try to combine the two parks, the less famous Jasper National Park probably has more wildlife opportunities.

Description of Banff National Park

The first of Canada’s National Parks, Banff, was founded by the railroad influence to attract people to its famous Banff Springs Hotel. Since then the town of Banff has expanded and is a major tourist destination. The town of Banff is a great base for exploring the park.

The park extends for the most part along the Bow River Valley. The main road through, the park is the Trans Canada Highway, which follows the river and the train line to Lake Louise, home of another great period railroad hotel. Lake Louise is today, of course, a famous ski resort, as is the town of Banff.

Lake Louise is near the Continental Divide, so the mountains here are the highest in the park. Driving northward along the Icefields Parkway, you aren’t far from the Colombia Icefields, one of the largest non-polar icecaps in the world. It is in this part of the park that we often find Bighorn Sheep.

Along the Bow River between Banff Town and Lake Louise, there are two roads: the main highway and the back road to the north of the river. This road, the Bow-Valley Parkway, often has great wildlife sightings. In the evenings, towards sunset, bears often come down from the hills and are found near the road. This can cause traffic jams, so be careful.

Also, during the spring, many bears are found feeding on grain along the train tracks. The grain cars heading west from the prairies are still sometimes open, and loose grain falls out along the tracks. The bears who have recently woken up from hibernation enjoy this easy and nutritious food. Spring shoots are good but last autumn’s grain is better.

This actually causes many wildlife problems, not least bears (especially the cubs) climbing onto stopped trains. Train Bear interactions are not always the best for bears.

Best Time to Visit Banff National Park

Banff can be visited year-round. Each season has its pros and cons.

Spring is ideal for bear sightings and vibrant landscapes. The alpine meadows are often blooming at this time and make for good photography. The bears are also quite active, having recently woken up from hibernation. They need to put back on the weight they lost over the winter.

Summer in the mountains is relatively short. This is a busy period in Banf National Park and accommodation needs to be booked well in advance. However, the days are long, and the animals are quite active, so there are plenty of opportunities for wildlife sightings.

Fall in Banff National Park is a magical time. The colors of the larch trees and elk rutting season are highlights. Bears are often more active during the fall and try to fatten up for the winter. With less crowds to deal with in the more popular areas, animals are often a bit more visible.

Winter can be harsh; temperatures are low, and there is snow everywhere. While wildlife sightings are not easy during the winter, fresh tracks in the snow can lead to sightings of the more elusive animals.

Getting to and from Banff National Park

The town of Banff is about an hour and a half from Calgary and its international airport. The best way to get there is by hiring a car or driving yourself. Camping is a great way of staying close to nature, so an RV or campervan is a great idea.

Banff, though developed by the Canadian Pacific Rail Company, is no longer accessible by scheduled train. The luxurious Rocky Mountaineer does, however, bring you to Banff and Lake Louise. Having a car is recommended, though, for flexibility in exploring the park. Shuttle services are available within the park for transportation to key locations if you are traveling without a vehicle.

Accommodation in Banff National Park:

Accommodation options range from camping to luxury resorts in Banff and Lake Louise and in between. Banff National Park offers accommodation that caters to every preference and budget. Eco-friendly options are also available for environmentally conscious travelers.

At the top end, there are the two famous railroad hotels, Bannf Springs and Lake Louise, run currently by the Fairmont brand. There are quite a few smaller, more personal lodges around the park. Baker Creek Chalets, for example, is in a beautiful setting beside the train tracks. I spent a summer working there and regularly saw bears wandering along the tracks between the lodge and the river.

Both Lake Louise and Banff towns have backpacker hostels and plenty of mid-range places for those who can’t afford luxury. The hostel network in the park is great, with a few ‘off-grid’ hostels also offering good bases for those who want more than camping.

Of course, if getting close to nature is a must, camping is the answer – either in an RV or in a tent. For the intrepid explorers, there are also backcountry campgrounds. These do need to be booked/reserved with the park authorities, as the places are limited to protect the wilderness. With regards to a wildlife experience, nothing compares to camping in the wild backcountry of Banff National Park. When there is nobody else around, the animals are much more visible.

Special Equipment for Banff National Park

Any trip to Banff needs some preparation. Travel in the mountains doesn’t always work out as planned. That said, it isn’t a difficult destination and most people don’t have a flawless trip.

What you need to note:

  • The weather in the mountains is very changeable. Bring layers even in the summer, and know that snowfall and cold temperatures can occur even in July/August (but it is unlikely).
  • Good rain gear is a must.
  • Good shoes for hiking are a must. Getting away from the overtouristed areas really helps and isn’t difficult.
  • Bring a tripod for photography. Sometimes, wildlife sightings can be right alongside the road and setting up with a tripod while waiting for a better image prevents your arms from getting tired while holding a heavy long lens.
  • Your tripod is great for evening light. The sun often disappears behind mountains before the actual sunset. Animals like deer become active but are not in direct sunlight in the evenings, so a tripod helps with slower shutter speeds.
  • Bring a wide-angle lens for capturing landscapes. There is more to Banff than just wildlife. The mountains are gorgeous.
  • If you are off the beaten track, bear spray is necessary for hiking in Bear Country. Pay attention to official postings about closed areas due to bear activity.

Fees for Banff National Park

Check out the official fees page for more information: Parks Canada Fees

Park fees are not expensive like in Africa, only about USD 10 a day, but if you are there for a few days then an annual pass is worth the investment.

Conservation Efforts in Banff National Park

Parks Canada has implemented numerous conservation strategies to preserve the biodiversity and natural beauty of the park.

One key area of focus is managing tourist-wildlife interactions to ensure the safety of both animals and visitors. The park offers educational programs that emphasize the importance of keeping a safe distance from wildlife, discouraging feeding, and understanding the natural behaviors of the park’s inhabitants.

Despite many people traveling to Banff for the wildlife, a huge number of visitors are still under-educated about the needs of wildlife and their habitats. These initiatives aim to reduce human impact on wildlife and the environment. Hopefully, visitors will bring this learning back home with them.

Over-tourism poses a significant challenge, leading to habitat degradation and increased wildlife stress. To combat this, Banff has introduced measures such as visitor caps at popular sites, timed entry systems, and the promotion of less frequented areas within the park to distribute visitor impact more evenly. The park also invests in the restoration of trails and natural sites that have been affected by heavy tourist traffic.

These efforts are crucial for making Banff National Park a sustainable destination and ensuring the park’s natural beauty remains for future generations. As always the parks authorities strive to balance human enjoyment with environmental preservation. We need to do the same when we visit.

Other Information about Banff National Park

Canada’s history is intimately tied to that of the railroad, and Banff National Park was effectively founded by the Canadian Pacific Railroad.

Due to the mountains at the edge of the tectonic plates, there is some volcanic activity. Banff has hot springs if you need to relax after a hard day hiking.

Of note, outside of Banff Town, the park offers incredible stargazing opportunities due to minimal light pollution.

Conclusion

Banff National Park is more than just a wildlife destination. It has something to offer everybody who loves nature. From the mountain peaks to the wide open vistas, the natural landscapes take center stage.

However, if you dig deep, move away from the over-touristed areas, and head out into the backcountry, Banff offers a wonderful experience for wildlife enthusiasts.

The more time you spend there, the more you will uncover. My six months living in the park turned me from a hiker and landscape photographer into a wildlife lover and wildlife photographer.

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