Looking for the top lakes in Banff National Park? Spanning a massive 6,641 square kilometers and with a 135-year history as a national park (although of course, its legacy extends well beyond that), Banff National Park is one of Canada’s prime attractions. Located in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta, Banff National Park is known for its incredible mountainscapes, glaciers and ice fields, dense forest brimming with wildlife, and serene sapphire-hued glacial lakes in Banff.
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Beautiful Must Visit Lakes in Banff National Park
Table of Contents
This guide covers some of the best lakes in Banff National Park to visit, from the most popular to the most off the beaten path: Moraine Lake, Lake Minnewanka, Peyto Lake, Lake Louise, Vermillion Lakes, Bow Lake, Lake Agnes, Hector Lake, and Emerald Lake. We’ll also cover the history of each lake, its geographical features, and things to do there, even in different seasons.
If you are planning a trip to Alberta then you might want to look at the Top Things to do in Jasper, Jasper Four Day Itinerary, Top Things to do in Banff, Guide to Visiting Moraine Lake, and Things to do in Lake Louise.
Good for: photography, hiking, views
Moraine Lake may be Banff’s most famous lake and if you Google “Banff National Park” or search Instagram you’ll likely be treated to impressive photos of the breathtaking lake. In fact, even if you don’t Google the words “Moraine Lake,” you may find you’re already looking at it on your screen, as this lake has been featured as the default background on Android systems, Windows, Blackberry, and Bing. The lake also had a brief stint on the back of the Canadian twenty-dollar bill.
Located in the Valley of the Ten Peaks, the lake is fed by the Fay Glacier and the Larch Glacier, and feeds Moraine Creek. As a glacial lake, it reaches its crest in June and when the waters are at their fullest, the lake turns a beautiful shade of azure blue.
There are plenty of hiking trails around the lake, with the most popular being The 300-meter Rockpile Lake, which leads trekkers up to the top of a rockpile that shows off the best view of the lake. Be warned that you’ll likely be sharing the view with many others, as Moraine Lake suffers a little from over-tourism. This. is one of the most beautiful lakes in Banff National Park.
Good for: hiking, canoeing, picnicking
Minnewanka is Nakoda for “Water of the Spirits” and with such natural beauty, it’s easy to see how this glacial lake gained the spiritual name. Located in the east of Banff National Park, Lake Minnewanka is fed by the Cascade River, measuring 21 kilometers wide (this makes Minnewanka the second-longest lake in the Canadian Rockies) and 142 meters deep.
In terms of activities, the lake can be explored by boat (Lake Minnewanka is also the only lake in Banff National Park that allows powerboats and boat tours are available near the parking lot), on foot via the many hiking trails, by canoe, underwater on a scuba diving excursion, on two wheels via bike, or overnight with stays at nearby campsites. In the winter, there’s shoeshoeing, ice skating and cross-country skiing.
The lake also has a fascinating history, as there have been human settlers living here for 10,000 years, as evidenced by archaeological discoveries such as ancient stone tools and spearheads. In more modern times, dams have been built to supply the town with hydro-electric power. These dams led to the elevation of the lake, which submerged the resort village of Minnewanka Landing in 1941 – meaning that there’s a mini-Atlantis lurking in the lake’s waters. This lake in Banff is wonderful for sunsets.
Two Jack Lake
Good for: picnics, sunrise and sunsets and swimming (but it’s cold)
Two Jack Lake is approximately is on the Lake Minnewanka loop road 12 km from the Banff townsite. It is a popular spot to catch the sunrise or sunset. If you are arriving for either sunrise or sunset I would recommend packing some bug spray.
The mountain creates a beautiful reflection on the lake during blue hour. If you enjoy hiking then head out on the 2-mile loop trail that offers scenic views and is good for all skill levels.
Good for: scenic drives, hiking, photography
Peyto Lake is a glacial lake found in a valley in the Waputik Range and was named for early Banff trail guide and trapper Bill Peyto (1869 – 1943). Described as “wolf-shaped,” the lake is fed by Peyto Creek and in turn is the origin of the Mistaya River.
Peyto is famed for its unique turquoise-blue color, which is caused by glacial rock flour flowing into the lake during the summer months when the nearby glacier is melting. Obviously, this makes Lake Peyto a popular spot for photographers and Instagrammers. One of the best views of the lake is from Bow Summit, which is the highest point on the Icefields Parkway (see below).
Peyto Lake is located close to the Icefield Parkway, which is a long, scenic road that trundles along the Canadian Rockies, linking Banff National Park to Jasper National Park and beyond. This drive is stunningly beautiful and is named for the Columbia Icefield, the largest icefield in the Rockies.
Good for: photography, canoeing, adventure activities in the summer, snow sports in the winter, winter ice festival
The lake is named for Princess Louise Caroline Alberta (1848 – 1939), who was the fourth daughter of Queen Victoria and married to John Campbell, the 9th Duke of Argyll and the Marquess of Lorne, who was the Governor General of Canada between 1878 and 1883. Of course, the lake also has a First Nations name, which is Ho-run-num-nay (Lake of the Little Fishes in Nakoda).
Louise is fed by the Lefroy Glacier and drains into the Louise Creek, which in turn feeds into the Bow River. Like Lake Peyto, Lake Louise also owes its brilliant turquoise hue to the rock flour carried into the lake by glacier melt-water.
Lake Louise can be explored in all seasons. For the warmer months, there are a plethora of hiking trails to choose from, plus mountain biking and horseback riding trails. Rock climbing, kayaking and canoeing are also available, or you can rent a boat to simply unwind out on the lake.
In the snowier months, there’s Lake Louise Ski Area. Here, you can enjoy both alpine and cross-country skiing, heli-skiing and snowboarding. Other winter activities available include ice fishing, snowmobiling, dog sledding, snowshoeing, ice climbing, and even ice skating. One of the most visited lakes in Banff.
Top tip: As Lake Louise is one of the most popular lakes to visit in Banff National Park, it can also be one of the most expensive if you want to do activities such as canoeing (canoe rental is up to twice the price of other lakes), therefore you may want to save your canoe activity for another destination in Banff.
The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise
When talking about a visit to Lake Louise, you have to mention the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. This historic luxury resort was built in the early 20th century by the Canadian Pacific Railway company and is one of the country’s grandest railway hotels.
Good for: sunrises and sunsets
The Vermillion Lakes are located in the Bow River Valley, immediately west of the town of Banff. The lakes are both fed by and feed the Bow River as it winds through the Canadian Rockies. The lakes are particularly picturesque at sunrise and sunset, when photographers come to get a glimpse of the scenic lighting, and the surrounding mounts (Mount Rundle and Sulphur Mountain) are reflected in the lakes’ tranquil waters.
The lakes have an incredible human history, as archaeologists have discovered remains of campsites and obsidian tools in the area that date back over 10,000 years.
Activities to enjoy at Vermillion Lakes include canoeing, hiking and wildlife watching, plus there’s also a hot spring at the third lake. In the winter, the lakes freeze over and they make for an excellent acting spot.
Good for: canoeing and kayaking, road trips
Bow Lake is a smaller mountain lake in Banff and has much in common with its neighbors. Like Peyto Lake and Lake Louise, it’s located along the Icefields Parkway; like the Vermillion Lakes, it’s both fed by and feeds the Bow River; and like many of the lakes in Banff National Park, its waters turn a turquoise blue in the summer when meltwater from the glaciers feed rock flour into the lake.
One thing that does set Bow Lake apart is Num-Ti-Jah Lodge, a historical landmark and guesthouse located on the shores of Bow Lake at the foot of Mount Jimmy Simpson. Jimmy Simpson was one of the last and greatest of the Canadian “mountain men” who explored the isolated Rockies.
The story goes that when Simpson camped at Bow Lake in 1898, he made a promise that he would return to build a home there. It took 25 years, but after that quarter of a century he returned to build the first log cabin in the area and named it Num-Ti-Jah, which comes from the Stoney Plain word for pine marten.
Originally used as a base for outfitting tours, when the Banff-Jasper Highway was completed in 1937, the Simpson family ran ice-skating tours and expanded their humble abode into a guesthouse of six, then later sixteen, rooms. The lodge passed down from father to son, and you can still visit and stay at Num-Ti-Jah Lodge today, to listen to the mountain stories.
Good for: beginner hikers, trail from Lake Louise to the Lake Agnes Tea House
Lake Agnes is also one of the smaller mountain lakes in Banff National Park and therefore makes for a great trip for Banff first-timers. The best way to explore the lake is via 3.5-kilometer hiking trail from neighboring Lake Louise.
The trail starts at Chateau Lake Louise, then branches off to right via the signposted Lake Agnes Trail, just past the bronze statue of a mountain guide. From here, the short, paved trail heads upwards towards forest, where the paving turns into a “horse trail.”
Although steep at first, follow the trail uphill past gorgeous views of Lake Louise, then onto Mirror Lake. At Mirror Lake, you’ll see the tea house to the right of the “Big Beehive” rock face. In total, the hike should only take around 90 minutes to complete and you’ll be rewarded with delicious drinks and snacks at the end!
Good for: off-the-beaten-path explorations
Hector Lake may be one of the most underrated lakes in Banff National Park. Located on the Bow River and fed by the Balfour creek in the Waputik Icefield, the lake is named for James Hector (1834 – 1907), a geologist and naturalist who was part of the historic Palliser Expedition – an expedition that involved exploring and surveying the western “wilderness” of Canada between 1857 and 1960.
Another of the lakes that line the Icefields Parkway, Hector is also one of the largest lakes in Banff National Park and is framed by Pulpit Peak and Crowfoot Mountain. An alternative to the busier Banff lakes, the Hector Lake Trail makes for a peaceful and scenic hike away from the crowds.
Good for: people who want to get away from Banff
Ok, so this is a bit of a cheeky inclusion, as Emerald Lake is not located in Banff National Park. Instead, it’s found in nearby Yoho National Park, so it’s good for those looking for something different. Emerald is the largest of Yoho’s 61 lakes and one of the park’s most popular attractions, yet receives significantly fewer visitors than lakes in Banff National Park, such as the famous Lake Louise.
The lake lives up to its name, with a stunning blue-green hue to rival its mates over in Banff and the jagged silhouette of Mount Burgess and the other peaks in the President Range in the background makes for a breathtaking backdrop. However, this topography can sometimes trap storms, so the area is prone to heavy summer rains and winter snowfall.
There’s a great 5.2-kilometer walking trail that runs around the lake’s periphery, though locals will tell you it’s best to go counter-clockwise to avoid pockets of other tourists. There are also canoes available to rent for around CAD70 per hour. If you’re planning to stay overnight, opt for the lakefront Emerald Lake Lodge.
Other Must-See Lakes in Banff National Park
And so culminates our recommendations of the best lakes to visit in Banff National Park during your Canada trip, even though there are plenty more in addition to those listed and detailed above. Some other, lesser-known Banff lakes include Two Jack Lake, Johnson Lake, Herbert Lake, Lake Helen, Boom Lake, Bourgeau Lake, Lake O’Hara, Eiffel Lake, Taylor Lake, Egypt Lake, and Rockbound Lake.
Did you find this Banff lakes guide helpful? Do you have any suggestions for other lakes or have any special tips for visiting the lakes mentioned here? Let us know in the comments.