With countless backcountry trails, it’s easy to step off the beaten path and discover solitude and serenity in the Canadian Rockies.
Add two young children, and the equation changes dramatically. If you’re not careful, that long-sought tranquility will be harder to find than a weekend parking spot at Lake Louise.
But with the right balance of patience, humor, and snacks, you can experience the best of the Canadian Rockies on short, scenic hikes that leave you jumping for joy.
These short (1-5 miles round-trip) hikes pack jaw-dropping scenery into every step. Perfect for young families, they leave plenty of time to enjoy everything else the parks have to offer. Without high mileage and excessive whining wearing us down, we effortlessly transitioned from the trails to serene paddles across pristine lakes, roadside picnics beneath towering peaks, and lazy soaks in spring-fed pools.
Hit these popular trails early to avoid the crowds, and visit on weekdays for less traffic.
1. Grassi Lakes, Canmore
1.2 miles, one-way
Only 64 miles west of Calgary, the town of Canmore is the gateway to the Canadian Rockies. The first stop on our 10-day vacation, we picked up camping gear from the super friendly and knowledgeable team at Rent-a-Tent, rented an inflatable SUP board from Bow Valley SUP, and stocked up on groceries. But, before any of that, we headed to Grassi Lakes.
Nestled beneath Ha Ling Peak (Chinaman’s Peak), the two crystal clear, spring-fed lakes make an easy and rewarding destination. Park at the lot off Spray Lakes Road, and take the left fork when the trail splits. Meander along the quiet forest trail before beginning the steady climb to the lakes. Look back for views of Spray Lakes, Canmore, and the Bow Valley.
After passing an impressive waterfall, continue up stairs cut into the cliff face and to the bridge over Canmore Creek. A flat, figure-8 trail loops around the lakes. The color and clarity of the water are indescribable, and pictures simply don’t do justice.
Beyond the upper lake, an easy scramble up a scree slope leads to ancient petroglyphs on the first large boulder.
This area is popular for climbing, and if you continue up the canyon, you’ll pass climbers of all abilities. The girls loved scrambling, so we continued to the trail’s end at the dam.
On the way down, we took the fire road for a quick return to the parking lot and a tasty lunch at Canmore’s kid-friendly Rocky Mountain Flatbread Company.
2. Johnston Canyon, Banff National Park
1.2 miles, one-way to Upper Falls
Knowing Johnston Canyon is one of the most popular day hikes in Banff National Park, we left our campsite at Two Jack Lake right after breakfast. The 32-mile Bow Valley Parkway links Banff to Lake Louise and boasts breathtaking views of the Bow River and surrounding mountains. The parking lot for Johnston Canyon is 11 miles from the Banff entrance to the Parkway.
Johnston Creek has carved deep chasms out of the limestone bedrock, creating a series of spectacular waterfalls that tumble through Johnston Canyon. Catwalks built into the cliffs allow access deep into the canyon for an experience unlike any other.
Only 0.6 miles to the lower falls, the trail gently climbs through the forest before returning to the creek and canyon. As you approach the lower falls, you’ll see a deep pool created by the plunging water.
The next bridge crossing is an excellent viewing spot, but continue through the tunnel for a close – and wet – look of the falls.
Past the lower falls, the trail continues to climb, gaining more elevation as it leaves the lower canyon. As you work your way back to the creek, you’ll see small sets of cascades before approaching the upper falls. View the 100-foot falls from the bottom and top for different perspectives.
Advanced hikers can continue 2 miles past the upper falls to a series of pools called the Ink Pots. We knew an additional 4 miles would be a stretch, so we found a quiet spot to enjoy a snack before returning to our car.
Sister Hike: Maligne Canyon, Jasper National Park
Deeper than Johnston Canyon but without catwalks, this trail follows the lip of Maligne Canyon for stunning views of mother nature’s handiwork. The fast-flowing water of the Maligne River has carved the limestone 165 feet deep in spots.
We escaped the crowds by scrambling up the ridge next to the trail for a birds-eye view of the canyon and the town of Jasper. The Maligne Canyon trail is 2.3 miles one-way, but you can turn around at any point for a shorter hike.
3. Takakkaw Falls, Yoho National Park
After spending the morning paddling on stunning Emerald Lake, we drove the scenic and winding Yoho Valley Road to Takakkaw Falls.
Fed by the Daly and Des Poilus Glaciers, Takakkaw Falls tumbles 830 feet over a sheer rock wall. Loosely translated from Cree, Takakkaw means ‘magnificent’ or ‘wonderful.’
The torrent, issuing from an icy cavern, rushes tempestuously down a deep, winding chasm till it gains the verge of the unbroken cliff, leaps forth in sudden wildness for a hundred and fifty feet, and then in a stupendous column of pure white sparkling water, broken by giant jets descending rocketlike and wreathed in volumed spray, dashes upon the rocks almost a thousand feet below, and breaking into a milky series of cascading rushes for five hundred feet more, swirls into the swift current of the Yoho River.
~ Sir James Outram, In the Heart of the Canadian Rockies
This short, paved stroll to Canada’s highest (unbroken) waterfall is a must-see and perfect for kids. Adventurous hikers can access numerous trails from the Takakkaw Falls parking lot.
4. Valley of the Five Lakes, Jasper National Park
2.8 miles, round-trip
Six miles south of Jasper on the Icefields Parkway, this easy trail passes through a forest of lodgepole pine, crosses Wabasoo Creek, and climbs a ridge with panoramic views before dipping into an open valley. Nestled in the valley are five crystalline lakes in varying shades of sapphire and jade.
Descend into the valley and turn right or left to loop around the lakes. You can’t go wrong in either direction.
There’s also an alternate, longer loop that would be perfect for trail running; it can be linked to other trails and taken all the way back to town.
5. Lake Agnes Tea House, Lake Louise
2.2 miles, one-way; longer options to Little Beehive or Big Beehive
The Tea House hikes are the quintessential Lake Louise experience (and therefore very crowded). We were camping in the Lake Louise Campground, so we started early and were rewarded with an empty trail and a table at the tea house.
The Lake Agnes Tea House was built by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1901, and today the friendly staff serve specialty teas and delicious baked goods prepared in wood-burning stoves. The Mountain Bars – featuring chocolate chips, coconut flakes, raisins, and oats – are worth every step.
The trail begins in front of the chateau and quickly branches right, away from the Lakeshore Trail. For the first 1.6 miles, the paved trail switchbacks through a forest of subalpine fur and Engelmann spruce. Most guide books rate the hike as moderate, but we found the climb easy and very manageable for the kids.
After passing an overlook of Lake Louise, the trail levels out at tiny Mirror Lake before beginning the final climb past Bridal Veil Falls. A flight of steps leads to the tea house, which overlooks Lake Agnes, a subalpine lake nestled in a hanging valley.
After warming up with hot chocolate, we followed the 0.6 mile spur trail to Little Beehive and took in sweeping views of the Bow Valley.
Note: we’d originally planned to hike to the Plain of the Six Glaciers tea house (3.3 miles one-way) but opted for the shorter Lake Agnes route instead. We finished the hike mid-morning and used the extra time to escape the crowds at Lake Louise and explore Kootenay National Park and Radium Hot Springs. If you drive through Kootenay, the 0.6 mile trail to the Paint Pots is an easy hike right off Hwy 93.
Bonus Hike: Cascade Falls, Banff National Park
Easily accessible from a parking lot at the base of Cascade Mountain in Banff National Park, this short but steep hike takes you to the base of the shoestring Cascade Falls.
With great views of the valley, we had the falls to ourselves. My husband and oldest daughter scrambled higher, while my youngest happily played at the base of the falls and soaked up the scenery.
We did our fair share of glacier gawking during our trip, and our favorite hikes led to unbelievable views of the glittering remnants of the last Ice Age. These treks deserve a dedicated post, but here’s a sneak peek of the Saskatchewan Glacier.