Majestic, magical, surreal and serene: these are the types of words people fall back on when it comes time to describe the waterways of Banff National Park. Anywhere else, such adjectives would feel trite and overused. Here, they’re the most accurate words for the job.
From canoeing across flat glacial lakes of nearly neon-blue, to kayaking beneath glaciers and waterfalls, paddling offers an unparalleled way to explore the park. Ready to head out on a Banff canoe ride? Here’s our guide to Banff National Park canoeing and Banff kayaking.
[This article is part of our Ultimate Outdoor Adventurer’s Guide To Banff. Find all the resources you need to plan an adventurous trip to Banff National Park.]
Where to canoe, kayak & paddleboard in Banff
With glaciers providing fast-flowing water that moves through much of Banff’s 6,641 square kilometers, there are countless waterways in Canada’s first national park, including rivers, streams, waterfalls and high-alpine lakes.
Non-motorized boats are allowed on all lakes in the park, meaning you can get out and paddleboard anywhere you can get your board to (or kayak anywhere you can get your kayak… you get the idea). Here are some of the best places to dip your paddle blade in Banff.
Widely considered one of the most enviable and best places to kayak in Banff, Moraine Lake is located just 14 km from the bigger and slightly more well-known Lake Louise. If you’re eager to paddle across Moraine’s waters, check out our full Guide To Paddling At Moraine Lake.
Lake Minnewanka is a favorite spot with Banff locals, owing to the fact that it’s only a short drive from town. At 21 km long, it’s also the largest lake in the park and the only one where motorized boats are allowed. Given its size, it’s best to paddle on this lake in the morning, as strong winds and bigger waves can appear on Lake Minnewanka later in the day.
Canoe, single kayak and double kayak rentals are available on-site from the Lake Minnewanka docks, on a first-come, first-serve basis, starting at $45 CAD per hour.
Located on the western edges of Banff’s townsite, the Vermilion Lakes feature in countless photos of Banff National Park, owing to the way the light reflects off the surrounding peaks during sunrise and sunset.
From the Banff Canoe Club’s rental docks (see below for more info) paddlers can follow Forty Mile Creek directly into the Vermilion Lakes. These are technically public docks, so you can also launch your own canoe from here. Another option is to put in at the lakes themselves—there are docks at the first and second lakes, accessible via Vermilion Lakes Road.
Peyto, Herbert, Hector, Bow & Waterfowl lakes
This little cluster of lakes is located about an hour north of Banff along the Icefields Parkway. All are good places for paddling, although you’ll need to arrive with your own watercraft since there’s nowhere to rent a canoe, kayak or SUP nearby.
Like Minnewanka, the bigger Hector Lake is best tackled earlier in the day as it can develop whitecaps when the wind picks up in the afternoon.
Two Jack Lake & Johnson Lake
One of Banff National Park’s only lakeside frontcountry campgrounds sits right next to Two Jack Lake, which makes launching your watercraft easy. Also down the Minnewanka Loop Road is Johnson Lake, notable for having Banff’s only sandy beach and the only tolerable swimming waters (it’ll still be pretty chilly, though).
Although most of the whitewater rafting takes place on rapids outside the park in nearby Kananaskis Country, canoeing and kayaking the Bow River in Banff is best for intermediate to advanced paddlers due to its tight curves, debris (including log jams) and strong currents.
Parks Canada has produced a full guide to paddling the Bow River from Lake Louise through to Canmore (complete with a map with put-in spots and backcountry campsites) but here is a run-down of the most popular sections:
Lake Louise to Banff
Two of the most popular paddling routes along this section of the river are Lake Louise to Castle Junction (a 22-km journey that takes about four hours) and Castle Junction to Banff (at 32 km, budget an additional six hours).
Of course, if you choose, you can also canoe Lake Louise to Banff in its entirety, which is an overnight trip.
Banff to Canmore
For those who want to canoe Banff to Canmore, the most popular section of the river here is from Bow Falls to Canmore. Starting downstream from Bow Falls, this 23-km stretch of water should take about four hours.
Back in the 1950s, Banff’s Bow Falls was the scene of many Hollywood stars being swept away, including Marilyn Monroe. The only thing is, the scenes were faked. With jagged rocks and a section called “the coffin” (due to the likelihood of being trapped underwater), kayaking Bow Falls isn’t something most would tackle. Only two locals have even been reported to complete this feat, back in 2012.
This is “the” place to paddle in Banff National Park. It’s popular for good reason—there’s no question this is one of the most epic spots, offering up some of the best canoeing in Banff.
As your paddle hits the calm water, you’ll hear the sound of glaciers cracking in the mountain peaks above and maybe even see elk drinking from the water’s edge. Best of all, paddling at Lake Louise is made easy with the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise’s canoe dock. Use our Guide To Canoeing Lake Louise to get the most out of your day on the water.
Banff canoe docks
Lake Louise, Moraine Lake and Lake Minnewanka all have existing canoe docks, from which you can rent canoes, kayaks or SUPs.
Banff Canoe Club also has its own dock at the corner of Wolf Street and Bow Avenue, providing direct access to the Bow River.
Glacier kayaking Banff
No operators offer glacier kayaking in Banff. But with glaciers sitting in the mountaintops above the turquoise waters of many of the region’s lakes, we promise you won’t feel like you’re missing out.
Banff canoe rental
If you’re interested in renting canoes in Banff, on-site canoe hire is available from the docks at Lake Minnewanka, Moraine Lake and Lake Louise. All operate on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Banff canoe rental prices generally range from $45 to $100 CAD per hour.
Banff Canoe Club rentals
With its own canoe dock right on the Bow River, the Banff Canoe Club is the ideal spot to rent a canoe in Banff. From here, you can explore a gentle leg of the Bow River, or access Vermilion Lakes from Forty Mile Creek. It also fits the bill for a cheap canoe rental in Banff; prices start at just $45 CAD per hour.
You can’t book your Bow River canoe rental online in advance though; this outfitter is first-come, first-serve.
Kayak rental Banff
As far as Banff National Park kayaking goes, anywhere you can canoe, you can kayak. The Banff Canoe Club and Bow Valley SUP in Canmore both offer Banff kayak rentals.
Bow Valley SUP
Bow Valley SUP offers half-day and full-day inflatable one- and two-persons kayaks, which can be reserved online in advance, with prices starting at $39 CAD for the day.
Paddleboarding in Banff is increasing in popularity, but rental options remain limited.
As implied by its name, Bow Valley SUP is the best place to get a standup paddleboard rental near Banff. Inflatable boards are available for half days ($39 CAD) or full days ($55 CAD). Tandem SUP boards are also available, but none of the rentals are suitable for use on the Bow River.
Banff Canoe Club also offers SUP rentals for $30 CAD per hour.
SkiBig3 Adventure Hub
If you want to rent a SUP board directly in town, but the Banff Canoe Club is sold out, head over to SkiBig3 Adventure Hub. Located right off Banff’s main street, this is where you can rent an inflatable standup paddleboard. Strap your rental to an e-bike (also available for hire) and head to one of the nearby lakes for the ultimate outdoor excursion.
Rentals can be booked online in advance—and you’ll save 15% by doing so.
Banff canoe tours
Banff Canoe Club
In addition to being the go-to spot in downtown Banff for kayak, SUP and canoe rentals, Banff Canoe Club offers guided tours on the Bow River. If you’ve seen pictures of the voyageur canoe tour in Banff, these are the folks who offer them.
“Big Canoe” (as the club refers to its voyageur canoes) tours include a 90-minute River Explorer tour ($56 CAD for adults; $25 CAD children aged 6 to 12) and a Wildlife On The Bow tour, which focuses on wildlife and conservation.
Kayak tours in Banff
During the summer months, the Banff Canoe Club also offers guided group kayaking trips to the Vermilion Lakes ($60 CAD for a single kayak; $75 CAD for a double kayak). Tours show visitors the best kayaking in Banff and typically depart Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday mornings from downtown Banff.
Paddling Lake Louise is a quintessential experience in Banff. | Photo courtesy of: Travel Alberta