View of the Three Sisters Peaks from Canmore

Canmore, a Gateway to Banff National Park

Just outside Banff National park’s boundaries, Canmore is close enough to the Park to drive in daily, but still away from the main tourist zone. It is our choice to stay every time we visit the Park. Besides being a gateway to the park, the town itself is quaint and unique enough to warrant a visit.

The first time we stayed in Canmore, we rented a small home in the outskirts of town. We had a playground next to the house, and trails leading up to the mountains at the end of the street. We saw deer in the street and an occasional elk. But each morning we left for Banff National Park; that’s what we were there for. The little time we spent around the house it was in the nearby woods or watching our daughter on the playground. We only went into town for groceries, but it was enough to realize that it has a lot to offer.

Canmore. view of the Three Sisters peaks from the center of town
View of the Three Sisters peaks from the center of Canmore

So next time we returned, we rented an apartment in the center of town. We had a perfect view of the Three Sisters, three mountain peaks by the town. If we walked out of the apartment, we were on the main street on one side, or on a trail by the river on the other.
Though we still used Canmore as a gateway to Banff NP, we also had time to explore the town and its vicinity.

Canmore – A Bit of History

Although Canmore is five minutes away from Banff National Park, it is not a huge tourist magnet. Crossed by miles of forest trails, this small town is one of the most beautiful places I’ve visited.

The story of Canmore is like the story of hundreds, if not thousands of mining towns, all over the world. Established in 1884, around a coal mine, its first inhabitants named it after a town in Scotland, in honor of King Malcolm III of Canmore. The first mine operated between 1887 and 1979, quite a long time. Other coal mines in the vicinity closed down much sooner, which meant that Canmore grew, incorporating the inhabitants of the nearby mining towns by 1965.

But eventually, even Canmore’s mines closed, and the town was on the way of disappearing, like all the others. We would visit it as a ghost town attraction if it wasn’t for the 1988 Winter Olympics.

Only about an hour from Calgary, the host city of those Winter Olympics Calgary, the small community of Canmore, struggling to survive, came back to life. They built the Nordic Center where they hosted the Nordic events of the Olympics. Almost overnight, the number of Canmore’s inhabitants more than tripled.

Since then, Canmore became a tourist town, a gateway to Banff National Park, though it still has great opportunities for both winter sports and summer recreational activities. The Nordic Center still stands, operating as a fitness center and hosting both winter and summer activities, but the town doesn’t depend on it. The old mining town reinvented itself, and it stands in its own right and as a gateway to Banff National Park.

What to do in Canmore

Boutique stores, tourist shops, cafes and a museum fill the streets in the center of town. Browse the stores, sit for a cup of coffee and some cakes or cookies, or just walk around the town and enjoy the surroundings.

But Canmore offers a lot more than small-town stops. Surrounded by mountains, with the Bow River flowing right through it, the best activities in and around town include walks or hikes by the river or in the woods.

River Walks

Walking on the trails by the Bow River became a daily ritual for us while we stayed in Canmore. After returning from Banff, by dinnertime, we would eat at the apartment then take a stroll by the river. We did it even on the rainy days, even when we got wet while walking, which happened a few times.

Canmore. View from Trestle Bridge
View from Trestle Bridge

We had two different routes we could take, and we alternated between them, depending on how we felt. One trail took us to the old train bridge or Trestle Bridge. We crossed the bridge and followed the trail on the other side of the river. It was quiet here, following the river, we rarely met anyone on this side, most people stayed on the trail closest to town. A few bridges connected it to the town side, and when we got to the first one, we crossed it and walked back into town.

The Three Sisters Peaks. View from Canmore
View from the Bow River’s shore with the Three Sisters

Though in the middle of the town, on the trail we felt like we were in the wilderness. The river was flowing by us, the smell of pines surrounded us, and we always encountered a deer or two. On the Bow River Trail Loop, we always had different views of the river and the surrounding mountains.

Sometimes we stayed on the town side, enjoyed the short walk to Riverside Park, a good place for meeting people – and their dogs.

Larch Islands

If we continued the trail towards Trestle Bridge without crossing, we got to Larch Islands, a small wilderness area, protected by the city.

Canmore. River view from Larch Island
River view from Larch Island

Because of a high groundwater source, the area is sensitive also home to some unusual or rare plants. The ground is always moist. They only allow people to walk on the trail, no mountain bikes, and no camping. The town of Canmore put down gravel to protect the trail.

We crossed a tiny pedestrian bridge over to the island. The lush vegetation was amazing, and it seemed like we were the only ones there. In fact, we only encountered one other hiker on the way back.

What to do Around Canmore

Within a short driving distance from the town, the Nordic Center and higher up more wilderness areas offer opportunities for great outdoor activities, mostly hiking and mountain biking in the summer.

The Canmore Nordic Center

The Nordic Center, built for the 1988 Olympics, saved the town from oblivion. It remains a training facility for athletes from around the world in the winter, and during the summers local families use it as their playground.

We stopped there a few times, on our way up the mountain, and something interesting was going on there every time.

One weekend we saw a running race for school-age kids there. We stopped to watch the race for a short time, feeling like locals. The kids and their families had a lot of fun – and so did we.

Another day we saw a mountain bike race that started there. The racers had miles and miles of trails to compete, and they didn’t mind explaining the terrain and the rules to us. We watched for a short time, cheering them on.

But mostly, we passed the Nordic Center without stopping. We had other places to explore in the vicinity.

The Quarry Lake Park

Another favorite weekend destination of the locals, Quarry Lake Park always had a few families on a picnic though we have seen no one swim in the lake. Formed in the place of an old mining area, the lake is over 100 meters deep in some areas, and freezing cold; only suitable for swimming in July and August.

The town left the open space surrounding the lake to return to its wilderness state, keeping environmentally sensitive areas protected. They have designated habitat patches and a salamander pond. During certain times of the year, they close off certain areas to protect wildlife.

The park connects to an extensive trail system for hiking and biking in the summer, used also for cross-country skiing in the winter.

The Grassi Lakes Trails

My favorite place in and around Canmore is the area around Grassi Lakes. Though popular with locals, and a few informed visitors, we haven’t seen it still never gets too crowded.

Named after Lawrence Grassi, the trail builder who made them accessible, the two lakes are some of the clearest, with the most vivid turquoise color I’ve seen. Grassi, who settled in town to work in the coal mines, became instead one of the most skilled trail builders in the Rockies and built a roundtrip-trail to the lakes.

The easier trail is wide and well-maintained, taking the hiker through the forest. It is still strenuous since it climbs the whole time. I took this trail up, thinking it would be an easier walk with my young daughter, but it got boring after a while, we felt like we were on a road, climbing through the same forest forever. But a glimpse of the lake assured me it was worth it.

Grassi Lakes. Canmore
Grassi Lakes.

We walked around it, marveling at its clear blue color, with fish swimming undisturbed in it. Surrounded by pine trees, on the top of a mountain, it shouldn’t have reminded me of cenotes in Yucatan, but the color of the crystal-clear water did.

We enjoyed the cool shade of the pine trees surrounding the lake, then walked to the next one. Smaller than the first, this one is surrounded by sharp, jagged rocks on one side. A group of rock-climbers was hanging on the face of the rock.

View from the trail to Grassi Lakes
View from the harder trail to Grassi Lakes

Leaving the lakes, we came down on the harder trail. Though more rocky, with many turns, this one is a lot more scenic, worth the effort to take it both ways. We enjoyed a few gorgeous views of high waterfalls on the way.

A Gateway to Banff, and a Destination in Itself

With so much to offer, Canmore would warrant a visit with or without being so close to Banff National Park. But even if you don’t have time to explore it, staying here, instead of within the park’s boundaries, makes sense if you try to stay within a budget or away from the highest concentration of tourists.

How to Get There

On the Eastern slopes of the Canadian Rockies, Canmore is 55 miles West of Calgary. To get there from Calgary, take the Trans-Canada Highway #1; it is about an hour drive from the Western city limits. (From the airport it takes about 1.5 hours.)

Canmore pin

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