Backpacking in Banff National Park: Trails and How to Prep

Updated July 9, 2021
A young woman taking in a scenic view

There's no better way to explore the Canadian Rockies then on foot, traversing across the waterways and through the lush, forested mountains. There are so many backpacking hikes in Banff National Park to enjoy by yourself, with friends, or even your family. Ranging from easy to difficult, the Canadian backcountry is just waiting for your arrival; but, before you hop on into the car to head out on your journey, take a look at some of the tips for doing the necessary planning for the trip of your dreams.

About Banff National Park

Banff National Park has over 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) of trails, 53 backcountry campgrounds, and two shelters - one in Bryant Creek and the other in Egypt Lake. With many guide services and helpful online resources, it's a super friendly park for hiking, backpacking, and camping. If you plan on taking one of their many hikes, you'll need to get a National Park Pass from Parks Canada, as well as a backcountry permit if you plan on camping out at a campground overnight.

Backpacking Trails to Consider in Banff National Park

There are dozens of backpacking hiking trails that run inside and around the park with an abundance of easy, moderate, and difficult hikes. Parks Canada breaks down the territory into four distinct sections which each have their own collection of varying trails: Banff Area, Lake Louise Area, Castle Junction Area, and Icefields Parkway.

Moraine Lake with Alpen Glow on Ten Peaks Banff National Park Canada

Sawback Trail

Perhaps the most famous and intensive trail that goes throughout the park is the Sawback Trail which spans from the Fish Creek Trailhead to the Cascade Amphitheatre Trailhead, connecting several hiking routes which you can take in either direction. Experienced hikers can travel the 74 km (46-mile) trail in four to six days. On the trail, you'll gain more than 730 km (about 2,400 feet) covering three mountain passes on a moderate to difficult hike. Permits are required.

Johnston Canyon to Ink Pots

This trail through Johnston Canyon may be the most popular trail in the park because of its picturesque views of the canyons and waterfalls. Near the Upper Falls, there is a tufa rock deposit and often there are black swifts nesting nearby. This beautiful hike ends at the seven quicksand-bottomed aquamarine colored ponds lovingly referred to as the Inkpots. The entire trail out and back is about 11.7 km (7.3 miles) of moderate hiking with about 600 meters (1990 feet) of elevation gain.

Sulphur Mountain

If you want a wide, well-graded switchback trail with an excellent overview of the whole region, take this trek to Sulphur Mountain. The trail is crowded, and it's an out and back hike. A gondola follows above the trail at 400 meters from Sanson Peak, and you can take it back down the mountain once you reach its peak if you've gotten your share of walking in. This trail is considered moderately difficult and takes most people about four hours to fully complete the 11 km (6.8 miles) round-trip trek.

Cascade Amphitheater

This out and back trail with more than 850 meters (nearly 3,000 feet) in elevation gain is one of the more difficult routes in the park. As you venture on grueling paths through pine forests, you'll eventually come to the park's amphitheater. Explore the lower ridge of Cascade Mountain at the south end of the amphitheater to see scenic views of Elk Valley. Up on the high slopes of the mountain, they are goats often presents, and bighorn sheep like to roam the Mount Norquay Road near the trail head. This daunting trail should take six hours round trip and amounts to 15.4 km (9.6 miles) hiked.

Aylmer Lookout

This out and back hiking trail takes you directly to the park's largest lake, Lake Minnewanka. It's a hefty trek at 24 km (about 15 miles) with an elevation gain of 1,093 meters (about 3,600 feet). The wildlife love to crowd the pass, and once you arrive at the lake, you'll be presented with the breathtaking views of the glacial-formed landscape. Be prepared for an exhausting trek when you set out on this path, though, as it takes between 7-8 hours to complete.

Bourgeau Lake to Harvey Pass Trail

This difficult hike is steep to Bourgeau Lake, where you steadily gain upwards of 700 meters (nearly 2,300 feet) of elevation, but the views of Harvey Pass make the trail worth the climb. Unfortunately, parking is limited at this area of the park, so get there early to set out on this 13.8 km (8.6 mile) out and back hike.

Rockbound Lake

Rockbound Lake is another steep climb of moderate difficulty, totaling at almost 17 km (nearly 11 miles) of distance out and back with an elevation gain of 1,021 meters (3,350 feet). However, on your journey you'll be able to see the Tower Lake, the impressive glacial cirque that has since been filled by Rockbound Lake, and Castle Mountain's cliffs.

Mountains reflecting in lake, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada

Sunshine Meadows

This steep and long hike will wind you through the open country of the park, and take you along an elevation of around 550 meters (1,800 feet) from the meadows to Simpson Pass, to Healey Pass where you'll be able to see three of the park's different lakes: Rock Isle Lake, Grizzly Lake, and Larix Lake. The full hike is 21 km (about 13 miles), but you can also take shorter guided hikes of 1 and 2 hours through Sunshine Meadows as well.

Eiffel Lake

Just over 11 km (about 7 miles) out and back, the trails that travel to Eiffel Lake takes you high above the side of the mountains to give you a panoramic view overlooking the lake itself and the Valley of the Ten Peaks, which is a famous valley in the park that shows notable peaks, including the beloved Moraine Lake. Expect around 610 meters (2,000 feet) elevation gain. This trek should take you a little less time than the previous treks will, at just between 4-5 hours there and back.

Twin Lakes

Taking the trail to the Twin Lakes via Gibbons Pass will take about seven hours to complete, amounting to nearly 16 km (10 miles) out and back. There are several elevation changes (around 1,160 meters or 3,800 feet gains) that occur across the hike, meaning you should be prepared to handle the different temperatures and weather conditions. However, it'll take you through a field of wildflowers and to another set of beautiful lakes that the park has to offer.

Preparation Tips for Backpacking in Banff

Assuming you're planning on staying at least one night in the park, you'll need to have the two aforementioned passes purchased before your stay, as well as understand that you're only allowed to stay in one campsite for up to three consecutive days. In addition, you want to check the weather and park conditions before you make your way to the park: you might find that the park itself is doing maintenance on the trail that you're supposed to be walking that day. These are some other things to consider in terms of equipment that you might need:

  • Tent and repair kit
  • Sleeping pad or bag and pillow
  • Hiking shoes
  • Extra socks and underwear
  • Insulating layers
  • Weather proof outer wear
  • Sunscreen
  • Water container
  • Water
  • Portable stove and fuel
  • Necessary ingredients for meals
  • Bear spray
  • Flash light and/or head lamp
  • Rope and carabiner
  • Trip plan
  • Topographic map of your route
  • GPS
  • First aid kit
  • Whistle
  • Extra batteries
  • Emergency kit
  • Basic toiletries and toilet paper
Man standing with hiking and fishing gear arranged on table at home

Plan Your Next Trip Today

The glacier-impacted landscape of Banff National Park is geologically significant and highly unique; and if you're not too much of a science fan, the views its left are breathtaking. Make sure you plan the right hiking routes for your situation, though. After all, while the landscape may be a product of the glaciers, your hike doesn't have to be glacial as well. Check out all that Banff National Park has to offer today.

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Backpacking in Banff National Park: Trails and How to Prep