A Grizzly Bear in the Forest. On the Bow River Parkway, Banff National Park, Canada

5 Amazing Things to Do Along the Bow River Parkway

A slower paced entrance into Banff National Park, the Bow River Parkway parallels to the Trans-Canada Highway between Banff and Lake Louise. This 30-miles-long narrow, winding road offers not only a slower pace, but plenty of opportunities for scenic stops, hiking, and wildlife viewing.

Though it’s been a few years since out last visit, we used to spend spent considerable time in Canada, while our home in the desert was baking in over 105 degrees. More often than not, we chose Banff National Park as our destination.

And in the park, one of our favorite things to do was to drive the Bow River Parkway. We used Canmore as a gateway and drove into the park daily. More often than not, we chose the Bow River Parkway, especially if we drove that stretch of the road early or late in the day. This was the time we knew we would most likely see wildlife. We often did.

1. Watch for Wildlife

Wildlife abounds in Banff National Park, and it’s easiest to spot along the Bow River Parkway, where the road passes through forested wilderness areas. The best time to see them is early morning and dusk. We knew this, and since we couldn’t be there early enough, we always tried to time our exit at dusk. More often than not, this strategy worked. We often saw deer, elk and bighorn sheep along the road.

Elk on the Bow Valley Parkway. Banff National Park, Canada
A large elk was grazing by the road, along the Bow River Parkway.

But none of the encounters compared to the time we saw a grizzly bear.

Watching the Teen Grizzly Cross the Road

As we were driving back towards Canmore after a day of exploring, we noticed a line of cars stopped on the road. On the Bow River Parkway, this is not unusual, people stop for wildlife often.

But this time we noticed the bear sighting van. Yes, they have a van that the park rangers dedicate just to go out to places where bear sighting are reported. We’ve seen the van often enough to recognize it, but this was the first time we saw it stopped. Then I noticed the ranger walking on the road, telling people to stay in their vehicles.

But even before we noticed the van and the ranger, we saw the bear by the train tracks, though we weren’t sure of what we it was. Hidden among the trees, we only caught glimpses of him as he was moving. A few people were getting out of their cars to take pictures that’s why the ranger was walking around making sure everyone still stayed in the cars. As cute as they are and as harmless as they seem, you don’t want to startle or get too close to a grizzly.

A Grizzly Bear in the Forest. On the Bow River Parkway, Banff National Park, Canada
We spotted the grizzly among the trees, walking towards the train tracks.

This grizzly was cute. We found out from the ranger he was a “teenage” cub who wandered off from his family. I guess bear teens are no better than human teens, they don’t listen to their parents either. His family was living around Lake Louise, the Rangers knew them since they keep track of all the bears in the park.

We were hoping the bear wouldn’t get hurt while away from his mother. I was worried when I heard a train whistle, and saw that he was still by the tracks. The train came, and it scared the bear but fortunately he had the sense to run in the opposite direction.

So, he made a beeline for the road, and crossed it a few cars behind us. Once on the other side, he disappeared into the denser forest. We were close enough for Lake Louise, I was hoping he’d get back to his family safely.

Grizzly Bear Crossing the Bow River Parkway. Banff National Park, Canada
The teen grizzly crossed the road.

We’ve seen many other animals that year, but this one was the most spectacular, unexpected and rare sightings for us.

2. Hike to the Popular Johnston Canyon Falls

A slower pace and wildlife viewing are not the only reasons to drive on the Bow River Parkway. Though we have many favorite trails in Banff National Park, some of the easiest and more spectacular hikes are off this road.

One of the most spectacular, but also the most popular hike off this road is the one to Johnston Canyon Falls. You’ll find two parking lots that access the trail, and in the middle of the summer, they might both be full.

If we stopped early enough in the morning, we found a spot to park, and the trail was not too crowded. Later in the day we usually had to pass. Not only the parking lots were both full, but the road between them was full of parked cars. I can’t imagine how crowded the trail is during those times – and didn’t try to find out.

This hike is so popular for good reason. An easy walk through the canyon, it’s great for families with young children, and people of all ages. But the spectacular destinations at the end of the trail make it a not-to-be-missed spot, since it gets close to one of the most spectacular waterfalls in the park.

Banff NP. Johnston Canyon. View from the trail to the Falls
Johnston Canyon Falls. View from the trail.

The trail is fun to walk on, especially for kids. A catwalk of wooden planks leading above the canyon is one of its highlights. Reaching the Lower Falls, a short trail allows you to walk down to it and pass through a low tunnel to stand in front of the waterfall. You’ll get wet from the mist in there, but the experience is absolutely worth it.

Be aware though that this is a spot where it gets crowded even when the trail is quiet. We had to wait every time to get through the tunnel, but we didn’t mind, it was always worth it.

When you had enough of the Lower Falls, you can hike another half mile to the Upper Falls. Fewer people do this, so we like this quieter stretch of the trail.

2. Enjoy the Remote Silverton Falls

Though not as spectacular as Johnston Falls, the main reason we always stop at Silverton Falls is its remoteness. I’m not sure why, but few people stop there, and often we have the place for ourselves.

We start at the Rockbound Lake Trailhead and follow the trail through the forest and along the creek for a while. The climb to the Silverton Falls Lookout is steep but short and my kids could do it by the time they were seven.

Banff NP. Silverton Falls
Silverton Falls

The reward for this climb is reaching a high, though narrow, waterfall, surrounded by the forest, cascading through a few ledges before reaching the river below.

4. Stop at Castle Cliffs Lookout

Castle Cliff Lookout is a short stop with a gorgeous view of Castle Mountain. This stop is a perfect photo opportunity, but if you want to hike Castle Mountain, the trail starts a little farther.

Banff NP. Castle Mountain. View from the Bow Valley Parkway
View of Castle Mountain.

5. Hike on the Castle Lookout Trail

Once at the trailhead you can follow a short trail back from the parking lot towards the road. This short walk through a forest, leading to a small creek, is perfect for very young children who can’t yet climb or hike long distances. My youngest child loved exploring this area while the older ones went up the hill towards Castle Mountain.

In Banff National Park, Canada.
Enjoying the smell of pines, fresh, cool air on the Castle Mountain Lookout Trail.

The Castle Lookout Trail is relatively short, but steep and gets you up above the tree line, to a view of Bow Valley and the surrounding mountains. It leads through a dense forest, and even young kids enjoy it for a while.

Though not much longer than 2 miles, the trail never stops climbing, which can get tiring after a while. Since I was hiking it with young kids, and I was out of shape, we didn’t go all the way. My husband and son hiked it all the way and according to them, the view is spectacular.

Other Stops Along the Way

Other stops along the Bow River Parkway offer opportunities for picnics, short walks or scenic views. Sometimes it is worth stopping in hopes to see wildlife.

You’ll find picnic tables by large stands of aspens at the Mule Shoe Picnic Area, overlooking Mule Shoe Lake. A short half-mile trail leads into the forest to a viewpoint. The trail starts in the parking lot.

You have a good chance to see grazing elk at the Hilsdale Meadows stop. An open meadow surrounded by aspens and a view of Pilot Mountain make this stop worthwhile.

The next stop is called Moose Meadows, and according to this name, we expected to see moose here, at least once. We weren’t that lucky, but we spotted a herd of elk once, and we often saw deer. Even if you don’t see wildlife, the view of Pilot and Copper Mountain are worth a short stop.

Another pullout and picnic area offer a nice view of Storm Mountain, which got its name from the storm clouds that always gather around its summit.

More to Explore

The Bow River Parkway is only one gateway to Banff National Park, an alternative, a slower paced scenic route into some of the main areas of the park. We spent half a day driving it the first time, since we stopped and hiked in every possible spot. But when only driving through, we could get to Lake Louise from Banff in about 1 and ½ hours on this route.

No matter what route you take, you’ll find plenty of easy hiking trails in the park. You might also want to spend a day in the picturesque town of Banff. Though touristy, the town offers lots of hiking, shopping, dining and lodging opportunities.

Our favorite activity is walking along the Banff Riverwalk, a fun way to explore the town. Running from the center of Banff to Bow Falls and the Fairmont Historic Hotel, the trail follows the river. It eventually leaves the town and winds through a tall pine forest. Since it is flat and easy, it was always a favorite for the kids, with squirrels and birds getting close to the trail.

Banff NP. Lake Louise in early June
Lake Louise in early June

The Bow River Parkway stops at Lake Louise. The most famous lake in Banff National Park, it was named after Princess Louise Caroline Alberta, Queen Victoria’s daughter.

One of the most beautiful lakes in the Canadian Rockies, Lake Louise showcases a striking deep turquoise color. This color, often seen in glacier lakes, comes from the silt of the melting glaciers. Melting glaciers are also the same reason the lake is freezing cold year round.

When we visited in June, thick layers of ice still floated on it, though we saw it with no ice in early August, during a different trip. Though the lake was still too cold for swimming, in August they offered canoes for rent. Our favorite activity during any time is to walk the paved trail around the lake and enjoy the stunning views.

About Banff National Park

Established in 1885, Banff National Park was Canada’s first of its kind. By establishing the park, Canada has done wonders for protecting wildlife and wilderness. They have very strict limits on development, which had a great impact.

But what I found most amazing were the wildlife crossings. We drove under six overpasses, wide and filled with vegetation. In addition, they have 38 underpasses we don’t even notice. The combination of overpasses, underpasses, and fences protect the wildlife around the highway.

The essence of the park is the preservation and enjoyment of wilderness and wildlife. In 1985 the park was designated a World Heritage Site.

Bow River Parkway

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