While the COVID-19 pandemic may have put a stop to many travel plans this summer, there is no shortage of adventure for Albertans, especially Calgarians, right in our own backyard.
The mere one hour and 20 minute journey from Calgary to the town of Banff normally draws thousands of domestic and international visitors each year, especially in the summer. But with international travel at a standstill, and many Canadians still hesitant about crossing borders, Banff National Park is an attractive option for Calgarians looking to savour the rest of summer.
With added safety measures in place, a visit to Canada’s original national park right now is a little different than what Calgarians might be used to. But it’s still possible to enjoy the iconic Canadian rockies while practising safe physical distancing, according to Banff & Lake Louise Tourism.
Smattered between overflow patios in the town of Banff are information booths where you can get hand sanitizer and free masks (it’s currently mandatory to wear a face mask in enclosed public spaces and the pedestrian zone in Banff). And it’s recommended that all visitors to the national park, whether in town or on a trail, practice safe physical distancing of two metres whenever possible.
With that in mind, here are a few ways to experience Banff this summer.
Take a hike
Arguably one of the most popular hobbies for Calgarians, hiking offers something for everyone with its combination of breathtaking mountain views, beautiful nature and the sense of accomplishment you get when you reach your final destination, summit or otherwise.
If you want a quick day trip in the crisp mountain air that comes with a visual feast for the eyes, try one of the two popular Johnston Canyon trips. In just 2.7 km and two hours round trip, you can reach the Upper Falls, or take the full 5.8 km, four-hour trek to the Ink Pots, the deep pools of blue and green mineral springs.
Note that as of July 2020, the Johnston Canyon trailhead is closed to all cars except service vehicles. Grab your bike or, if you’re up for it, walk the paved 6.5 km path from the parking lot at Castle Junction on the Bow Valley Parkway. If the 6.5 km paved walk isn’t appealing, Silverton Falls is a 1.8 km stroll almost immediately to the left of the Rockbound Lake parking lot. While the parking lot itself may be overflowing with cars, Silverton Falls is a short and sparsely populated hike with a wonderful waterfall view and only 90 metres of elevation, making it a great option for social distancing.
Meander down the river on a raft
There’s no shortage of whitewater rafting adventures in Banff National Park. Many rafting and tour companies in Banff have switched to private raft bookings or sightseeing tours in order to safely operate within physical distancing guidelines. Chinook Rafting has switched to only private rafts and guides, and clients are required to have their own vehicle and face masks while travelling from the base office to the river. Banff Adventures is open again, and its Banff storefront is adhering to both physical distancing and sanitation procedures. If you’ve got a safe cohort to travel with, check out the plethora of activity options for groups and individuals on its website.
Pitch a tent
Banff National Park’s backcountry camping, as well as some front country sites, opened with restrictions in place on June 22. Amenities such as showers and kitchen shelters are closed, and front country campgrounds are operating at 75 percent capacity. On the bright side, it means your camping experience will be more stripped down and in tune with nature.
For a double dose of beauty, try Two Jack Lakeside or the main campgrounds, which both sit along Banff’s stunning Lake Minnewanka. Pitch your tent (and don’t forget to pack your bear spray) along one of the 64 tent sites at the lakeside, or 380 spots on the main campground.
According to Parks Canada, both of Two Jack’s campgrounds will only allow a maximum of two vehicles, two tents and six people per campsite, and only one RV per site (up to eight metres (27′) in length).
Grab a bite for you and your pooch
Wander to the centre of downtown Banff and you’ll find extensive patio seating for many of the cafes and restaurants set up in the road, which is blocked off for pedestrians. If you’re comfortable dining in, most eateries are operating at limited capacity with tables spaced out or blocked off between patrons, and providing takeout options as well.
Try newcomers Farm & Fire if you’re looking for wood-fired meals prepared with local Canadian ingredients, or Amu Ramen Bar if you’re craving a hot bowl of noodle soup (consider trying the “ramen of the month” on Amu’s Facebook page.)
Ride the gondola
Gondolas are a tried and true way to experience the mountains without breaking a sweat. And while the line-ups are usually teeming with tourists, strict COVID-19 guidelines are being enforced at both Banff and Lake Louise’s gondolas for tourists as well as staff. You’ll be able to have a more intimate ride up through the mountains as the Banff Gondola is only allowing single groups per ride, as well as limiting occupancy to 50 per cent at the gift shop, interpretive centre, lobby and all restaurants.