Where to View Wildlife Around Banff National Park
by ampmlimo, on Mar 21, 2021 8:40:00 PM
Many tourists visit Banff National Park from around the world for its beauty. But they also hope to see wildlife during their visit and wonder where they can spot the animals. In this article you can learn the most popular places in Banff National Park where you can view wildlife. Sometimes you don’t have to go far. Even in the town of Banff, you can see mule deer and elk making themselves at home on the local’s lawns.
Commonly seen animals are bighorn sheep, elk, and deer. You’re actually lucky if you see a grizzly bear, wolf or moose. Go buy a lottery ticket if you spot a mountain lion (sometimes their tracks can be seen in winter along the Bow River west of the Cave and Basin area) lynx, or wolverine.
Don’t discount the bird life. If you’re out hiking, you’ll often be startled by a white-tailed ptarmigan or spruce grouse. But there are ravens, stellar jays, swallows, and Clark’s nutcrackers in addition to migrants and waterfowl. Check out the Parks Canada website for detailed information on where to go for the best birding.
Consider yourself lucky if you see a grizzly or black bear but give them lots of space
When is the best time of year to spot wildlife in Banff National Park?
The absolute best time to see wildlife throughout Banff National Park is in the off-season - spring, fall, and winter. Summertime can still a good time of the year, but it is a little too warm for many animals, especially during the heat of the day.
You have a better chance of viewing the larger mountain animals in the summertime near dusk or dawn.
Wildlife viewing tips for Banff National Park
Whether in a vehicle or out hiking, never harass or try to get close to wildlife. In fact, if you happen on an animal, give them space so they can move away from you. Never feed wildlife either. This is especially true for bears as they can be habituated to human food and then they become nuisance bears.
The bottom line – go prepared. Talk in a loud voice if you are in a known area of animal activity. Ditch the bear bells as your voice works better. Take bear spray that is easy to access and know how to use it. A hiking stick, and a cellphone are also useful.
A good zoom lens and binoculars are great for viewing and photographing, and it also lets us humans stay a good distance away, so as not to ‘invade’ the wilderness’ privacy of the animals.
Before any adventure into the wilderness of the Canadian Rocky Mountains, no matter the time of year, check weather conditions. Storms can move fast through the Rockies, as most weather systems come from the west coast and join the normally cooler air of the Rockies. Be smart and use common sense to stay safe.
Bighorn sheep can look a little mangey at times
The Buffalo Paddock beside the Trans-Canada Highway
If you’re driving west on the Trans-Canada Highway, just past the turnoff to Lake Minnewanka, look for elk gathered on the ground in the grasses. Sometimes you’ll see upwards of twenty at a time.
Elk seen at the side of the road in winter at the Buffalo Paddock
There is a very accessible hike to take you to the top of Sulphur Mountain - located on the outskirts of the town of Banff. Or you can do as many do and opt for the ever-popular, much less grueling gondola ride to get to the top of Sulphur Mountain.
The hike will expose you to more opportunities to see wildlife as you are in their terrain. The gondola ride is surprisingly great for viewing wildlife from above.
Once at the top, there is a boardwalk from the upper summit Gondola Terminal to Sanson Peak. Bighorn sheep are a common sight at the top of the gondola. Marmots, ground squirrels, chipmunks, grey jays, eagles, and many other birds, all make this area home as well.
Golden-mantled ground squirrels are happy to steal your lunch if left unattended
VERMILLION LAKES DRIVE
Located just five minutes west of Banff, the Vermillion Lakes road is a 4.3 km section that gives greater opportunities to see mountain wildlife in its natural habitat. Once at the lake, get out of the car and enjoy the scenery.
In early spring you might see elk, mule deer and white-tailed deer. Come the fall, elk are sometimes visible during the rut. Occasionally you’ll see moose, especially if you’re biking or walking west on the Banff Legacy Trail.
You might spot a moose in the Vermillion Lakes area
BOW VALLEY PARKWAY
Also known as Highway 1A, the Bow Valley Parkway is an alternate route from Cochrane to Canmore. You can also pick up the highway just west of Banff and take it as far as Lake Louise, with an access point at Castle Junction. In 2021 Highway 1A is closed to traffic from the Banff area access point to Castle Junction. You can still drive the section to Lake Louise.
This is renowned as being one of the best drive-by locations to see wildlife. Winding through the mountains, without having to deal with the busy highway traffic, makes this route a favourite.
Bears, elk, moose, deer, wolves, and bighorn sheep are some of the more commonly seen larger animals especially early in the morning, but one never knows what is out and about on any given day.
The Bow Valley Parkway is a particularly good spot for seeing wildlife in winter
BANFF SPRINGS GOLF COURSE
The Banff Springs Golf Course is an important wildlife-corridor that connects the Banff townsite to the eastern section of the Bow Valley. Not only is it one of the world’s most scenic golf courses but there’s a high probability of seeing wildlife on the greens, particularly mule deer, white-tailed deer and elk.
The elk rutting season takes place from September to October. It’s the time to hear plenty of elk-bugling and the chance to see the antlered males trying to show off for the ladies.
Even through elk don’t often look threatening, they can be dangerous especially during the fall mating season and the spring calving season. It is imperative that you give elk space – at least 30 m. In the fall never get between a female and male elk!
The access roads to Mount Norquay and Sunshine Village
If you’re driving the road up to Mt. Norquay, look for bighorn sheep, elk, mule deer and coyotes. On the Sunshine Road along with the Norquay Road, there have been rare sightings of cougars.
LAKE MINNEWANKA LOOP – one of the top places for wildlife sightings in Banff
You are almost guaranteed wildlife sightings on the Lake Minnewanka loop. On the approach, shortly after leaving the Trans-Canada Highway, grizzly bears can occasionally be spotted off in the open meadow. The same goes for elk, coyote and rarely wolves. It’s one of the best areas in Banff National Park for seeing big-game – but never be that person that tries to get a selfie with the animals.
If you continue the drive as a counter-clockwise loop, stop in at Two Jack Lake – not with the expectation of seeing anything, but because it’s so pretty. The Cascade Ponds are also a worthwhile stop on the return.
As you approach Lake Minnewanka there is a good chance you’ll be stopped so the bighorn sheep can pass you by. Slow down here as they are fun to watch. They tend to dart about, and the last thing you want to do is hit one of them, so drive very slowly.
Lake Minnewanka itself is a glacial lake and the largest in Banff National Park. It’s 21 km long (13 mi) and 142 m (466 feet) deep and is a beautiful colour of blue. The lake hides an underwater ghost town, which happened because of a dam in the second world war.
The warm months of the year make it easier to enjoy the variety of activities in the area including wildlife, but winter-play is alive and well at Lake Minnewanka with cross-country skiing and wild skating options.
Note that in July certain hikes around Lake Minnewanka are closed because of heavy grizzly bear activity. Buffaloberries, their main food source is found in the area so be sure to check trail closures in the park before you go.
The Lake Minnewanka area is also great for picnicking, canoeing, diving, hiking swimming if you’re a fan of icy cold water (brr) and biking. Part of the road is closed from mid-November because wildlife travels through the area.
Biking on the Lake Minnewanka Road beside bighorn sheep
TUNNEL MOUNTAIN (also know as Sleeping Buffalo) HIKE AND DRIVE
Because of the mountain’s lesser grade and location (in the heart of Banff Townsite), it is an extremely popular place to visit. It is only 4.8 kilometres (2.5 mi) round trip along the trail – and it offers a fantastic, panoramic view of both the Banff townsite and the Bow Valley.
The drive – which consists of a section along Tunnel Mountain Road and Banff Avenue can be slow-moving as it is well used with bicyclists. There is a good chance of seeing elk in grassy areas close to the road.
BANFF LEGACY TRAIL
Bicyclists and walkers have the chance to see plenty along this 22.3 kilometre (14 mi) paved pathway and parkway between Canmore and Banff. A single bicycle ride one way could be 90 minutes, so a round trip could be close to 3 hours. It’s harder cycling to Banff than it is to Canmore.
There are multiple rest stops and picnic areas along the way.
Take your camera, binoculars, some snacks, something to drink, and enjoy the wildlife that is found along the way. Since you’re still in the wild, but close to the Trans-Canada Highway, keep your ears and eyes open for elk, moose, deer, birds, and bears.
Pretty scenery along the Banff Legacy bike trail
Wild bison reintroduction in Banff National Park
Wild bison were reintroduced to Banff National Park in 2017 and for everyone involved from the indigenous communities to locals it has been a smashing success. They live on 1200 square kilometres on the remote, less visited eastern slopes of Banff National Park in the Panther Valley. You can read more about the Plains Bison, but its unlikely visitors will have a chance to see them for some time yet.
Aside from being one of the world’s most beautiful drives, the Icefield Parkway is also a top spot for seeing Canadian wildlife from the comfort of your vehicle.
It is often described as a Rocky Mountain Safari by those who have checked this world-class scenic drive off their bucket list. There is no Bwana leading this safari, just you and your wheels.
While still in Banff National Park, just west of Lake Louise, hop onto Highway 93 north from the Trans-Canada Highway.
The key to seeing wildlife is to take your time. Absorbing the ambiance of driving through this mountain-wilderness is part of what makes the scenery more memorable – and you’ll spot more wildlife with more patience.
Grizzly and black bears, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, cougars, elk, moose, and wolves are some of the animals you might see on this drive.
A zoom lens for the camera, good binoculars, and checking the side of the road and off the side into the woods will increase your chances of spotting wildlife.
The wildlife of the Canadian Rockies is something to behold.
If you’re driving from Calgary consider driving through Kananaskis Country, as this is also a very popular Drive for viewing wildlife in Canadian Rockies.
It is rare to see a lynx!
Private Tours Available
If you are visiting from out of town and you are not familiar with the area, we can arrange day trips for 2 – 30 passengers. Let our experienced drivers take you on a private tour of the area. Banff National Park wildlife is alive and plentiful, just waiting for you to see them!
Sightseeing from a luxury vehicle without the stress of driving and directions can make for a more relaxing and memorable experience. Sit back and enjoy the ride while a professional chauffeur takes you on a tour to spot Banff wildlife.
We can arrange tours in sedans, limousines and tour buses. Whatever your group size, book with AM PM Limo for an outstanding, unforgettable tour.