As the threat of winter recedes, the snow on the valley floor gives way to the first tastes of greenery and the glacial lakes reveal those iconic turquoise waters that they’ve been shielding for many months.
Sure, you’ll get some wild days that go from foggy mornings to sunny, beer-on-a-patio-worthy afternoons, to then snowy evenings. But for those who aren’t made of sugar, the Spring is a great time to experience Banff on your own terms. And also at shoulder season prices!
We recently visited Banff for four days as we kicked off a cross-Canada road trip. As quite possibly our favourite place in the world, we’d visited many times before but this was our first time in the Spring, and we must say we enjoyed it just as much as any other time.
So we thought we’d put together some of our favourite parts of the trip that you could use to build out a long-weekend itinerary or sprinkle into a week-long trip during the Springtime.
Let’s get into it.
What to do
Possibly the best part of being in Banff during the Spring season is that you’re sharing the Park with much fewer people. This means that you get the chance to do more in a shorter period of time, enjoy more moments of solitude, and get away with not planning everything in advance (although that’s always a good idea).
Take a Helicopter Tour
One of the highlights of this trip had to be taking a helicopter tour over the Three Sisters and the Spray Valley. We did the Three Sisters Peaks Tour, which provided everything we were looking for, including a completely new view of the gorgeous Canadian Rockies. The ground crew was great at ensuring that we were comfortable and safe, and our Captain, Chris, was incredibly knowledgeable and friendly. Lauren even got to ride shotgun!
If you’re planning on doing a helicopter tour, we’d suggest that you book it for the first day or two of your trip. That way, if there’s a foggy day you can easily call and schedule for another day. This actually happened to us and it was no problem rescheduling for the next day.
Another bucket list Banff activity that we got the chance to experience was dogsledding with Snowy Owl Sled Dog Tours. From start to finish, we were incredibly impressed with the guides, the organization, instruction, and, most importantly, how happy and well-treated the dogs were. All the guides knew the names of each and every one of their 200+ huskies, and clearly had a strong rapport with them.
We did an out-and-back tour with them where we spent the first half of the trip sledding through a trail in the forest, and then returned across a frozen lake with a spectacular view of the Spray Valley. Our six new furry friends - Pistachio, Gaia, Be-Bop, Katana, Buretta, and Peach - were a great team and we had lots of fun cheering them on and hopping off the sled to run with them on the uphill portions.
There was plenty of time at the end of the tour to give lots of hard-earned ear scratches and belly rubs. The hot apple cider around the campfire was a nice touch too. Could not recommend these guys more, we want jobs here!
Although there isn’t much hiking to be done at this time of year, there are still plenty of sites to be seen by car, and plenty of trails to explore by winter modes of transportation.
Despite the fact that some of them remain frozen until May, the iconic views of Lake Minnewanka, Two Jack Lake, Lake Louise, Vermillion Lakes, and Peyto Lake are equally breathtaking in the Spring months and can all be accessed with just short walks from their respective parking lots. It’s actually a great time of year to see and shoot Vermillion Lakes at sunrise since the sunrise isn’t yet at some ungodly hour in the morning.
We enjoyed an entire morning of checking out all these spots, taking pictures and enjoying the quiet and calmness that you just don’t get during the peak of summer.
If you are looking to get out on some of the trails while the snow is still around, you can definitely do so on snowshoes, fat tire bikes, crampons, cross-country skis, or alpine touring skis. There are equipment rental spots in Banff and Lake Louise and lots of good trail information available through the Park’s website.
Trying to get your goggle tan on while shredding some gnarpow? Well, you’re in luck as there is great spring skiing to be had nearby at any of the Ski Big 3 resorts: Lake Louise, Sunshine Village, and Mt. Norquay. We didn’t ski this time around, but from past experience, out of the three, we’d recommend Lake Louise as our hands-down favourite. It offers long runs, varied terrain, and out-of-this-world views from just about everywhere on the mountain.
Catch a show at the Banff Centre
Last but most definitely not least, be sure to check out the events schedule at Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. Banff Centre is a hub of arts and culture nestled into the edge of the town of Banff. They offer programs to foster passion and appreciation of the arts and provide artists from around the world with the inspiration and resources they need to work on their projects.
Ever heard of the Banff Film Festival? Well, Banff Centre is the place that makes it happen.
We had the opportunity to stay at their campus during Creator House while in Banff and were inspired by campus and the passion of the people who were there. We were fortunate enough to go on a campus tour with Jim Olver, their Director of Customer Service where we got to learn about the history, purpose, and their dedication to the arts.
No matter what time of year you’re in Banff, be sure to check their calendar of events to see if there’s a show or exhibit that piques your interest. Also be sure to check out their on-site restaurant, Three Ravens Restaurant & Wine Bar, which is consistently rated one of the top restaurants in Banff. We only had time to have a glass of wine there, but that view alone was making us wish we had one more night.
Where to eat
Quite honestly, we’ve been to Banff enough times that we could probably lead eating tours throughout the town. And you know what the best part about dining out in Banff at this time of year is? You can get into all the best restaurants without reservations and without waiting in line.
Coffee is the first meal of the day, so let’s start there.
When it comes to coffee, it’s hard to beat Whitebark cafe. Although there’s not a lot of seating room, their fair-trade, organic roasts are a great thing to wake up to. Plus, at the current time, they’re the only place in town offering oat milk lattés, soooo you really can’t go wrong.
If we’re talking breakfast and brunch, Banff has no shortage of great options.
One of our favourites is Melissa’s Missteak which offers classic, diner-style breakfast options in a cosy, cabin-like environment, at probably the best prices in town, making it great for families. This is our go-to spot for breakfast after taking sunrise photos in the Park.
If you’re looking for something a little more “brunchy” then head around the corner to Tooloulou’s and laissez le bon temps rouler. They serve breakfast until 2pm, offering Cajun Creole flair with an outstanding selection of unique and delicious waffles, pancakes, omelettes, crepes, and sandwiches. Oh, and we’d be remised if we didn’t mention they also have the best selection of eggs bennies we’ve ever seen. If you’re up for a little spice, try the Eggs Shannon - spicy sausage benny smothered in a shrimp and lobster étouffée...mmm mmm mmm. Still not sure what étouffée means but hot diggity it is tasty.
If you’re out in the Lake Louise area and get an inkling for lunch, check out the Trailhead Café. They’ve got a great selection of sandwiches, baked goods, and coffees that are quick and delicious so you can grab and go. You really can’t go wrong with your choices here, but, like clockwork, Lauren always gets the Rocky Mountain Pizza Wrap. Oh, and like many cafés, bars, and restaurants in Banff, Trailhead Café is straw-free!
Did we mention straws suck?
Work up a thirst out there today? Time to grab a drink.
Grab a Drink
If craft beer is your thing (uh, whose thing isn’t it?), try out Bear Street Tavern, Banff Avenue Brewing Co, or High Rollers for pins and pints. or Grizzly Paw and Canmore Brewing Co are also great if you’re in the Canmore area.
Block Kitchen and Bar
For cocktails, don’t miss Block Kitchen + Bar. We had a lavender mule and a sinful sour, both of which were some of the best cocktails we’ve ever had. Plus, the sinful sour is an off-menu item so you’ll score some points with the bartender if you order one of those. Also, their appetizer menu is fuego, dive right in, you’ve earned it.
Another great place for drinks is Park Distillery. One of the few “spirit houses“ (where they distil on-site and also have a bar & restaurant) in North America and the only distillery located in a national park, Park Distillery offers free distillery tours at 3pm daily during the Spring. Be sure to call ahead to book your spot. They have a great bar in a very cool, modern cabin-style setting, where we enjoyed a Bow Hut and a Beehive before our tour.
Bear Street Tavern
Bear Street Tavern offers a fun environment, great pizza, fabulous fish tacos, and a wide selection of tasty craft beers and ciders. The recommended enjoying your pizza with a dual drizzle of chili oil and honey, which is an unexpected but winning combination.
Tavern 1883 is a popular spot among Canmore locals and tourists offering a delicious can’t-go-wrong menu of appetizers, mains, and drinks, along with live music a few nights of the week. No trip to the Tavern is complete without trying the fried brussel sprouts and the best sweet potato fries you have ever freakin’ had in your entire beautiful life. Seriously. When friends come to town, most people take them out for drinks. We take them out for sweet potato fries at the Tavern. Not even kidding. Order them. Please. For us.
Magpie and Stump
Another fun spot that we discovered this time around is Magpie and Stump, a low-key Mexican place with an old western saloon vibe. Check their specials, they’ve got some great ones most nights of the week! Tasty margaritas, especially the mezcal ones, and don’t even think about drinking them with a straw. They won’t give you one unless you ask for it. And you’re better than that. ;)
This post was made possible thanks to Travel Alberta who hosted us during Creator House for this trip to Banff.