Canoeing really is a great way to enjoy yourself on a Canadian Rockies vacation. No, it doesn’t have quite the adrenaline punch you get from rafting, skiing or whizzing over the Rockies on a helicopter tour. But there’s something special about it. It offers a way to get around Banff and the Rockies quickly and quietly. They give you a chance to see wildlife, view some of the Rockies amazing sites, and enjoy the peace and quality that the park offers on it’s waters.
Before taking your trip, you can check out the towns of Canmore and Banff, as well as local weather conditions. Below you’ll find a detailed breakdown on our favorite Canadian Rockies canoe trips in and around Banff National Park.
Bow Falls to Canmore
Distance: 23 km (about 4 hours)
This amazing section of river starts downstream from Bow Falls takes you into the shadow of Mount Rundle and on to Canmore. Start at either the east end of the Golf Course Road, or from the Bow Falls parking lot. Do not block any roads when parking.
From Bow Falls
The main channel here is generally to the right, although smaller channels on river left can be run by canoes when water levels are high. But the side channels are smaller, with tight turns and are likelier to be blocked by dangerous sweepers and logjams. Approaching the end of the golf course and can see the Hoodoos glacial till pinnacles just ahead. Here the river makes several tight bends and corners. All channels here have sweepers and strainers, so canoeists should exercise extreme caution.
From the end of the Golf Course
Shortly after launching or passing this site, the river forks. The channel on river right is the safest. River left leads to a dangerous strainer logjam completely blocks the entrance to a small channel. From here on, the river is generally wide, as it flows along Mount Rundle’s base. As you approach the confluence of Cascade River, the river widens and braided channels and gravel bars appear. Care must be taken, as numerous channels are available, with the possibility of sweepers and logjams in all of them.
After the park boundary (a small sign is found on the river right bank) the river becomes narrower again, with tight corners and numerous sweepers and strainers. This area demands precise control and maneuvering and canoeists are advised to proceed with extra caution.
On river left at the park boundary, a trail leads for 200 metres to the highway at the park gates. In Canmore, take out on river right, just downstream of the first pedestrian bridge.
Castle Junction to Banff
Distance: 32 km (takes about 5 – 6 hours)
This segment of Alberta’s Bow River sits on the east side of the Trans-Canada Highway and the west side of the Canadian Pacific Railway line and Highway 1A (Bow Valley Parkway). The Bow River flows steadily down the valley, with several islands and side channels you’ll want give yourself time to check out. There are plenty of riffles and Class 1 rapids, along with one Class 3 rapid at Redearth Creek, some tight corners, sweepers and logjams, that will keep it interesting. Be sure to take care when canoeing this section.
Put in at the parking lot downstream from the bridge over the Bow River at Castle Junction. After 6km of river you’ll reach Johnston Creek, flowing in from river left. On the downstream side of Johnston Creek you’ll find a sign for a backcountry campsite. Another 3km past Johnston Creek, a right bend in the river leads you towards the Trans-Canada Highway and the Castle Mountain Viewpoint.
This landmark indicates you are nearing Redearth Creek Rapids. As you paddle under the viewpoint, the river bends left, away from the highway. In just a few hundred metres, the river turns sharply right into the area of Redearth Creek Rapids. Rated Class 3, these rapids are a long section of fast water moving over rocks. The waves are non-stop, getting larger as you approach the end. Man a canoe has capsized or swamped here, but proper scouting and safety procedures, this rapid can be run by experienced canoeists.
If you have any doubts, portage the rapid. There is no marked portage route. But from the top of the rapid on river right, you can make your way along the shore to where Redearth Creek enters the Bow River. From there, wade across the creek and carry your canoe along the riverside trail to the end of the rapids.
A few km below Redearth Creek, the river becomes convoluted. It may not be obvious, but the river here branches into two or three channels. This is a risky section, with tight corners, endless sweepers and dangerous logjams. Pay attention and be safe!
The large gravel fan at the Wolverine Creek entrance on river right, is where you can finally rest a little, knowing the hardest parts are behind you. Another 5.5 km brings you back to the Trans-Canada Highway. This is a good place to take out as there is a gate through the fence to access a roadside parking area off the westbound lane of the highway.
Another 0.5 km brings you to the Trans-Canada Highway bridge over the Bow River. Careful going under the bridge as there are several sweepers on the left side of the river. From it’s a pleasant, 1.5 – 2 hour paddle to Banff. The river is broad and calm, allowing beautiful views of the lower Bow Valley. Take out at the canoe docks, at the junction of the Bow River and Echo Creek. Do not paddle past the canoe docks as Bow Falls is just around the corner.
Lake Louise to Castle Junction
Distance: 22 km (usually a 3-4 hour long trip)
This segment of the Bow River begins downstream of Alberta’s hamlet of Lake Louise. It sits between the Trans-Canada Highway on the west, and the Canadian Pacific Railway line and Highway 1A (Bow Valley Parkway) on the side. The Bow River flows steadily on its way through the valley. There are plenty of riffles and Class 1 rapids on the way, and you may encounter logjams and sweepers. Although this section contains many islands and side channels, finding your way is pretty easy.
Put your canoe in at a small side channel approximately 750 metres east of the Trans-Canada Highway bridge over the Bow River, east of Lake Louise. You can park at the service road turnoff, just don’t block the road when you park your car. This channel flows into the main river in about 100 metres. The first 3k are fast with tight corners, so be prepared for some skillful maneuvering. At the viewpoint, you’ll find a continuous section of quick water, with waves, and tight bends. These high-risk areas should be approached with care and after scouting for dangers.
The next big landmark is river left at the confluence with Baker Creek, about 5k downstream from Moraine Creek. From here out, the river slows a bit. For the next 14.5 km, the river winds down the valley below the cliffs of Castle Mountain. This brings you to the end of this section at the bridge at Castle Junction. Take out on river left at the parking lot just downstream of the bridge.
- Make sure you pick a suitable river or lake based on your and fellow paddlers’ experiences.
- Do not drink unfiltered water in a lake or river. The water in Banff contains glacial silt, fecal streptococci or giardia, so it must be boiled or treated accordingly before its drinkable.
- Hypothermia is a risk in Banff National Park waters as the water temperature rarely rises above 10° C (50° F). Be careful when spilling your canoe into any of these waters.
- The Park Information Centres can answer questions you might have about routes, river levels, obstacles and other questions concerning canoeing in Banff.
- Please let someone know where you and your companions are going and when you plan on retuning.
What to Bring on Your Trip
- Bring a change of clothing that is in a waterproof bag. If the canoe flips, all paddlers can change clothing before hypothermia sets in.
- Wet weather gear is strongly recommended. The weather in Banff can changes rapidly and adventurers will need protection from the wind.
- A drysuit or wetsuit is strongly recommended because there are several sections of whitewater.
- Bring a waterproof bag or case that has a first aid kit and waterproof matches.
One of my favorite ways to get some quiet time out in nature is by canoe. There are several great canoeing areas throughout the Canadian Rockies, and Banff National Park certainly doesn’t lack for them. Before going, be sure to scope out Banff, Lake Louise, Canmore and the weather conditions. Afterward, come back to town for great lodging, restaurants and brewpubs.