The 3 best viewpoints in Banff National Park

There is no shortage of amazing scenery to see in Banff National Park. But gaining some elevation and travelling up the mountain is the absolute best place to take in all the lakes, mountains and glaciers there are to see. Below are three spots that provide amazing views whether you want to hike, drive or take a chairlift to the top.

 

HIKE: Fairview Mountain

Elevation: 2,744 meters (9000 feet)

This hike gains over 1000m (3000 feet) of elevation so you know you’re going to get amazing views. It’s a 5 to 6 hour round trip that is half-hiking, half-scrambling but once you reach the summit, the reward is absolutely worth it.

The hiking leaflet recommends starting this trail from the upper car parking lot, but as there is a lack of signposts, it’s easier to begin the hike from the canoe rental hut at Lake Louise and follow the trailhead for Saddleback Pass.

The first few kilometers are on a well-trod path through the trees with one or two avalanche paths to clamber over. As you gain elevation the views open up across the beautiful Bow Valley and the carved runs of the Lake Louise ski resort. There is a point where the path forks into two; they both lead to the same place, but taking the steeper switchback route is shorter and quicker.

Once you are on Saddleback Pass, Saddleback Mountain is to the left with Fairview Mountain on your right. This area holds remains snow-covered well into July, so you may well be trudging through knee-deep snow, even in the summer. We just followed the footprints through the snow until we stumbled on the trail again, at which point the scramble began. At this point, we thought we were 20 minutes from the summit. In fact, you still have around 450m of elevation to climb that will take about one hour. There are worn sections of the scramble that provide a more obvious route. It’s tiring and a little sketchy at times with loose scree making it hard to find your footing, but going quickly, gaining some momentum and then taking a break on a more stable section makes it easier. The final 5-10 minutes to the summit flattens out slightly, so you can walk rather than scramble.

You know you’ve reached the top when you have breathtaking 360 vistas of the northern half of Banff National Park, including a glimpse of the turquoise Lake Louise that looks even more dazzling from above. You also have unobstructed views across Temple, Haddo Peak, Mount Aberdeen, Mount Victoria, and the Bow Valley.

Bolted to a large boulder at the summit is a metal plaque warning you to return the same way down, rather than taking an alternative route that appears a shortcut down the northeast side. Don’t do it. Many hikers have found themselves stranded on a ridge and had to await helicopter rescue.

View of Lake Louise, Big Beehive and the mountains on the eastern side of Banff National Park from the summit of Fairview Mountain 

View of Lake Louise, Big Beehive and the mountains on the eastern side of Banff National Park from the summit of Fairview Mountain 

 

RIDE: Lake Louise Summer Gondola

Elevation: 2,042 meters (6700 feet)

Take in the breathtaking views of the northern section of Banff National Park from the best patio in the Canadian Rockies.

There is no hiking involved to get to this viewpoint. It’s a relaxing 12-minute gondola ride up in summer or a cruisey green-slope ski down in winter. Either way, you do need to buy a lift pass. It’s not possible to hike up this mountain as it is a designated wildlife corridor and is closed to the public. However, that makes it a great place to spot grizzly bears from as you journey above them whilst the bears graze on the grasses of the Lake Louise ski hill.

Once you reach the top of the chairlift, you have the option to hike further up the mountain or enjoy the views from the deck of Whitehorn Bistro whether you stop for a coffee or a cocktail or stay a little longer for lunch. The menu changes every season but the cheese fondue remains a staple, what with it being the locals favourite. 

Two young grizzly bears graze on the Lake Louise Ski Hill, spotted whilst riding the gondola

Two young grizzly bears graze on the Lake Louise Ski Hill, spotted whilst riding the gondola

 

DRIVE: Mount Norquay Viewpoint

Elevation: 1,630 meters (5,350 feet)

In Banff you have a choice from where you can view this beautiful town. Taking the Banff gondola or hiking up Sulphur Mountain is the most popular place to observe Banff from. However, if you’re on a budget, short of time, or not a fan of hiking, drive the winding 2km up Norquay Drive for a fantastic free view.

On the last switchback on your right, there's a pull out and stone wall. From here you can see Banff town, the Bow Valley, Vermilion Lakes, Sulphur Mountain and Mount Rundle. You may even spot big horn sheep on your journey. Venture out your car to the meadow and sit back in the iconic Parks Canada red chairs. If you want to turn this trip to the viewpoint into more of a challenge, it’s possible to cycle up the road and then free-wheel down.

Banff town and the Bow River from the Mount Norquay viewpoint 

Banff town and the Bow River from the Mount Norquay viewpoint 

Looking for more fun in around Banff National Park? Check out Alamo Rent-A-Car’s Banff and Jasper travel guide here.

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