The abundance of wildlife, especially big mammals, is a defining feature of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. There are few other places in the world where you can see black bears, elk and moose all during a one-hour drive down the highway.
Banff wildlife in particular is incredibly diverse, with 56 different mammal species calling the national park home. These include cougars, wolverines, wolves and grizzlies. In fact, there are more grizzly bears in Banff than there are black bears, which continue to be threatened.
THE BEST PLACES TO VIEW BANFF WILDLIFE
There’s always a good chance you’ll see some wildlife right within the town of Banff, especially elk grazing in the grass. For more wildlife sighting opportunities, head to Sulphur Mountain to maximize your chance of seeing bighorn sheep or cruise up Spray Lakes Road in Canmore to catch a glimpse of coyotes and cougars.
But perhaps the easiest way to spy wildlife is by driving along the Icefields Parkway, where you’ll likely spot an abundance of creatures not far from the road.
1. ICEFIELDS PARKWAY
The Icefields Parkway is one of the most beautiful roads in the world, taking you past vast rugged valleys and craggy snow-capped peaks that touch the sky.
Driving along this gorgeous road from Banff National Park to Jasper National Park is the Canadian equivalent of an African safari, where you will spot bighorn sheep instead of antelopes and grizzly bears instead of rhinos.
Other creatures that can be seen along this route include black bears, elk, mountain goats, cougars, caribou, wolves and moose. There is no need for a guide as you can drive this highway on your own.
Make sure that you drive slow and have your passengers keep an eye out for animals on the side of the road. If you see several cars stopped that is a good indication that a wild beast has been spotted. Take your photos from inside your car and remember to never approach wild animals.
- Check the weather before you drive as snow is possible at any time of the year on this highway
- The speed limit is 90km per hour and drivers should take caution and watch for animals crossing the road and vehicles stopped on the shoulder
2. SULPHUR MOUNTAIN
Sulphur Mountain is located just outside of the town of Banff and it is one of the most accessible hikes in the area.
Whether you reach the top via the popular gondola, or you huff and puff your way up the switchbacks, amazing views at the summit await you. While exploring this peak you will also have a chance to see some amazing alpine wildlife.
Along with the birds, ground squirrels, marmots, grey jays and adorable chipmunks, it is common to see bighorn sheep while walking around the boardwalk from the Upper Summit Gondola Terminal to Sanson Peak. This high altitude setting is the natural habitat for these large curly horned beasts. Remember to bring your zoom lens and binoculars so that you can keep your distance and won’t disturb them.
- If you want to hike up Sulphur Mountain, the trail begins at the parking lot of the Upper Hot Springs
- To ride the Gondola the rate is $49 for adults and $25 for children
3. MARSH BOARDWALK TRAIL (CAVE AND BASIN HISTORIC SITE)
Take an easy stroll along this marsh trail on a raised boardwalk so that you can see the fish and bird species that live in the wetlands below.
Along the way you can read the interpretive panels that explain the history of the area and provide detailed information about the flora and fauna of the region.
This trail is very popular with birdwatchers because the warm springs create a microclimate, enticing many species to flock here throughout the year. This is one of the few places in the area that you are likely to spot one of the only snake species of Banff – a completely harmless garter snake.
Also, make sure you bring a book about Alberta birds so that you can identify the various species you find on your walk.
- The trailhead is located at the parking lot of the Cave and Basin National Historic Site
- The best time of day to visit is as early in the morning as possible or in the twilight hours, as this is when the birds will be the most active
4. VERMILLION LAKES
Just west of Banff lie a series of three lakes that were formed in the Bow River Valley at the foot of Mount Norquay. These wetlands are an excellent place for viewing wildlife because of their unique bio-diversity. The shallow lakes have created a natural oasis for birds and other creatures.
The best time to visit is at sunrise or sunset, when the animals will be more active and you will be more likely to spot elk, deer, bald eagles and muskrats.
Hike along the 2.5 kilometre Fenland Trail Loop or take the longer 10 kilometre walk down Vermilion Lake Drive. You can also explore the Vermilion Lakes by canoe or a kayak. Gliding through the lakes gives you a chance to get up close with the aquatic environment, which means you’ll have a better chance of spotting birds and animals.
- To get there, take the Vermillion Lakes Road which runs parallel to Highway 1
- The boardwalk trail is wheelchair accessible
- There are guided nature walks around Vermilion Lakes available during the summer season
5. JOHNSTON CANYON
Attention birdwatching enthusiasts – did you know that this canyon is one of only three breeding sites for the Black Swift in Alberta?
The nests of this species can be seen high along the walls of the narrow and shady canyon. Watch for them around dusk, when they swoop from the walls to return to their nests. An elevated catwalk allows you to walk right through the canyon, feeling the cool and misty spray from the water on your face.
Also, the hiking trail through the surrounding spruce and pine forest is a great place to spot Yellow-rumped Warblers, Flycatchers, Winter Wrens, Cordilleran and many other species. The best time of year to look for birds here is between June and mid-September as you will see the greatest variety of species.
- To get there, take Highway 1A west from Banff and park at the Johnston Canyon trailhead. Follow the hiking trail up to Johnston Creek to the lower falls, or take the 5km trail to the upper falls
- Johnston Canyon is open all year round but the facilities (restaurant, gift shop, etc.) are not open in the winter
Be safe while wildlife watching
It’s an incredible thrill to see a bear munching on berries or to watch a pair of elk slam their antlers together in the rutting season. But wander too close to these creatures and you’re in trouble…
Wild animals get stressed when they are crowded by humans, which can make their behaviour unpredictable. Parks Canada advises visitors to stay at least 100 metres away from bears at all times and 30 metres away from all other large species.
Drop by the Parks Canada website for more tips on responsible wildlife viewing.
We offer a variety of wildlife viewing tours, like the popular Discover Grizzly Bears Wildlife Tour. Additionally visitors can book a day trip to the Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary where you can get up close and personal with wolfdogs in a safe and controlled environment. To learn more about the Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary, click here.
PLANNING A TRIP TO BANFF?
We have a variety of Banff vacation rentals located anywhere from downtown Banff, or outside in a more backcountry setting. Call our highly knowledgeable Destination Experts who can answer any questions you may have about Banff wildlife, or our selection of Banff accommodations. They’re available 7 days a week!