Canmore, Alberta. A place we’ve both been to, or through, or past, numerous times, yet never really spent much time. But we knew enough about it to know that the list of things to do in Canmore was long enough to keep us busy during our month there. Perfectly located on the edge of the Canadian Rockies, it has many of the things we look for in a longer stay – spectacular scenery, accessible hiking, a good range of accommodation, a Pizza Hut.
Plus, it’s just such an active, outdoorsy city. It seems that everyone here – both residents and visitors – are constantly up to something physical, be it hiking, biking, climbing, golfing, or even just chasing some of the rabbits around that have taken over the joint since some soft-hearted soul decided to bestow glorious freedom on their pets back a decade or so ago.
With so much to do, and such easy access from home (i.e. no need for flights, COVID tests, quarantines or suspicious immigration officials) Canmore fit perfectly as the first leg of our “slow travel in Canada” fall trip. These days we lean more toward longer stays in fewer destinations, giving us a chance to explore more thoroughly, familiarize ourselves and, of course, not have a long, tiring travel day twice a week.
In this bizarre, uncertain travel landscape international travel involves a lot of difficult decisions, and long treks in distant lands sharing accommodation with multiple strangers seem particularly unwise, so we decided it was smarter to stay within our borders and look a little closer to home for our 2020 hiking fix.
And, considering the size of Canada, that really isn’t such a problematic restriction, so heading off to the mountains seemed like a pretty decent Plan B. And, after a month in Canmore, it wasn’t hard to come up with our personal list of the best things to do.
The 10 Best Things to Do in Canmore
Our list of the 10 best things to do in Canmore starts off with hiking. Obviously, this area features incredible scenery and an almost endless list of amazing hiking trails. Between Canmore, Kananaskis, Banff, Lake Louise and even Kootenay and Yoho, the hard part isn’t finding a great trail, it’s narrowing down the list.
Throw in the volatility of fall weather and we’ve spent our time here frantically tackling as many of the top hikes as possible, each one seemingly leading us to another idea or recommendation. Tough problem to have, I know.
Go for an Easy Hike or Stroll
There are many choices for an easy walk or stroll in the town of Canmore. More details are on our list of 15 Easy Hikes Near Canmore. Our three favourites in Canmore are the following:
Policeman Creek Boardwalk
It’s in the middle of the town of Canmore but is surprisingly scenic and peaceful. Anyone in Canmore should take the time to wander down this trail.
Bow River West Path to Three Sisters Pathway
This path starts in Canmore and follows along the Bow River on the west side. You can go all the way to the end of the Three Sisters Pathway. River and mountain views are the main features of this flat walk.
The Grassi Lakes trail is very popular due to both its close proximity to Canmore and the view of the startingly coloured lakes. It is 4 km and can be made into a loop.
See Sunrise at the Three Sisters Viewpoint
The Three Sisters mountains are include 3 individual mountains – Faith, Hope, and Charity. This viewpoint is a good place to get an iconic photo from Canmore. It rated highly on Laynni’s list of best photo spots around Canmore where she describes how to find this spot. It’s best to get here for sunrise as it is more serene and increases the chance of the river being calm for capturing the reflection.
Tackle One of the Epic Day Hikes Near Canmore
Canmore is a hiking wonderland, surrounded by world class day hikes due to its central location in the Canadian Rockies. It is within an hour or two of the best hikes in Banff National Park, Yoho National Park and Kananaskis Country. We went into depth on our favourite hikes in the area in our Best Hikes Near Canmore, but these were our top choices:
Even with less than ideal weather the tremendous Smutwood Peak hike made it to the top of our list. The views after the pass of the two alpine lakes and surrounding mountains were spectacular and only got better as we climbed higher.
Tent Ridge Horseshoe Hike
The Tent Ridge Horseshoe hike was different than most in the area as it didn’t require at least an hour of steady uphill hiking to get past the treeline and into the view stage of the hike. After a short hike in and a scramble up the views continued for hours as we traversed up and down the narrow horseshoe shaped ridge. The views of the reflections in Spray Lakes were particularly impressive.
Devil’s Thumb in Lake Louise
This hike starts on Lake Louise then follows the popular path to Lake Agnes and its classic teahouse, up the switchbacks to the Big Beehive viewpoint over Lake Louise and finally another 200 meters of elevation gain up to Devil’s Thumb. This hike gives the best viewpoint of any hike in this area as it looks over the amazing blue of Lake Louise and Lake Agnes at the same time.
Go See the Larches
Larch season is a pretty big deal, let me tell you, and only lasts for about 2 weeks in the fall. Considering that up until a few weeks ago I didn’t even know what a larch was (it’s a tree in the tamarack family with needles that turn yellow and fall off like leaves), I guess it’s sort of weird that for 2 weeks we spent every waking hour searching out our next “great larch hike”.
It also means that the whole area has been very busy and almost festive, teeming with eager hikers flocking out to enjoy the larches – seeing them, photographing them, touching them (the needles are surprisingly soft, like cat fur or a really old banana), smelling them (although they don’t smell like much of anything). Not at all the quiet, end of season wind-down feel we were expecting. Which hasn’t been a problem, other than a few more people on the trails (well, a lot more on some) and occasionally full parking lots at trailheads.
We were also pleasantly excited to discover “Larch Island” on Google Maps, located, as luck would have it, right in Canmore, and only about a 15-minute walk from our door. Ideal! Except for the fact that, as far as we can tell, it contains not a single larch. Other than that, it’s pretty cool. But there are other larches in the town of Canmore so a long hike is not necessary to see them.
Go for a Bike Ride
Of course, one of the great advantages of doing a trip close to home is having our own vehicle, meaning freedom of movement and, even better, freedom to pack a lot more than we can fit in a 45L backpack. Which means, in this case, golf clubs and bikes. Neither of which particularly interest Laynni, although she has reluctantly to use the latter a couple times.
Dad has many bikes kicking around and was graciously willing to part with one of them just as we were about to pull out of their yard to embark on our road trip, meaning Laynni now “has a bike” and somewhere deep down probably feels the slightest of obligations to use it occasionally if we are going to haul it all over Western Canada. So twice now she has reluctantly perched herself on Old Red.
The Banff Legacy Trail is a classic Rockies activity. It is an easy (we still disagree over this description) 20 km paved path between Banff and Canmore. If you don’t have bikes there are places in both Canmore and Banff to rent them and helmets. Our friends used Snowtips-Bactrax in Banff which had a better rate than the ones we checked out in Canmore.
You can cycle the trail both ways for a total of 40 km or use two vehicles to ferry the bikes/people as needed. The trail has more overall downhill when going from Banff to Canmore if that helps make your decision – it certainly helped Laynni. Another option is to rent the bike in Banff, bike to Canmore and take the bus back (they will transport bikes on a rack on the front). The trail goes mostly along the highway but is still very scenic with a rest stop in the middle.
Goat Creek Trail
I also biked the rougher, rockier Goat Creek Trail from the hills above Canmore all the way down to Banff, then back on the much simpler Legacy Trail. Fun, scenic, and informative in that I learned no matter how much we hike, 45 km on bike is more than enough to completely rubberize my legs and turn me into one big, waddling ache the next day.
The Bow Valley Parkway was closed in 2020 and partially closed in 2021 in an attempt to keep the number Johnston Canyon trail hikers down while still keeping it open. This meant that there was 12 km round trip along the Parkway to reach Johnston Canyon that you can either bike or hike.
Something to do with COVID, I think, or maybe they just get a kick out of watching out-of-shape tourists wobble down an empty highway huffing and puffing like they’re attempting the Tour du France with a nasty hangover. We chose to bike and it was a great experience to have the empty highway to ourselves and to share the normally very crowded Johnston Canyon hike with only about 10 other people.
Drive the Smith Dorrien Trail
This dirt road goes out the back of Canmore past Grassi Lakes. The Smith Dorrien Trail starts winding up to a pass between the Lawrence Grass and Rundle mountains and there are great views back over Canmore along the way. This part of the road is particularly narrow and you might get stuck behind someone who is not used to driving on gravel roads but after the pass the road gets wider. Although you will encounter rough washboarding occasionally along the entire road.
Some of the best hikes near Canmore are along this road including many of our favourites – Smutwood Peak, Tent Ridge and Chester Lake. Even if you don’t want to hike, the drive is still worth it as the views, mountains, lakes and reflections are spectacular.
Play a World-Class Golf Course
I golfed Stewart Creek, one of the top-ranked courses in the country, and it fully lived up to the billing, even if the weather didn’t really cooperate. It’s never great when the starter’s first tee briefing includes the phrase, “I’ve been here 6 years now and I’ve never seen wind like this”.
Throw in a bit of occasional rain and a few more beer than is ideal from an athletic standpoint and we were fully prepared to be terrible, even by our standards, but it actually went pretty well. I mean, not great, but we didn’t run out of balls or anything. I also got in a round at Kananaskis Golf Course, which only reopened fully last year after being almost completely wiped out by the 2013 flood. Basically the same weather – a little less wind, a little more rain – and kind of the same result.
Have a Drink on one of Canmore’s Decks
There are a lot of choices of outdoor decks on which to have a beverage after enjoying any of the other things to do in Canmore. We tried out a few ourselves and our favourites were The Grizzly Paw, The Wood, the Drake and, up on the hill for the best view of the options, Iron Goat Pub. But any of the many pubs and decks will do in a pinch.
Go Horseback Riding
There are great horseback riding opportunities in the Kananaskis Valley, a short drive from Canmore. Boundary Ranch is a good choice offering a range of choices from 1 hour up to a full day’s ride. Riding through the spectacular natural beauty of the area is an opportunity that should not be missed.
Have Breakfast Out
Canmore has a lot of options for breakfast but our top recommendation to start your day out right is the Summit Cafe. It specializes in Mexican style breakfasts, baked goods and free trade coffee. If you want breakfast-to-go, a good choice is the Rocky Mountain Bagel Company. It’s very popular and often lined up down the street.
Bonus Thing to Do – Visit with Friends
Well maybe this isn’t a Canmore activity for everyone. But a benefit of staying in Canada is that we can catch up with friends in the area. First off, my old friend from, oh, Grade 1-ish, Greg Stone, and his girlfriend, Ainsley, were out here for a full week vacation just after we arrived.
Which provided a terrific opportunity to catch up with one of my oldest friends and make him do a lot of different things that made him sweat uncontrollably. Hiking, of course, but also biking (twice!) and golfing and eating wings and, well, I think maybe everything he does makes him sweat. It can’t be ruled out.
And then on Thanksgiving Weekend we journeyed into Calgary for a visit with both the Hosslis and Longs, a gorgeous fall day full of sun and rambunctious dogs (at both stops) and very nice backyards, but only the one koi pond. Step it up, Longs.
We also had a few visitors from Calgary – Walter and Sybille tricked us into a 25km hike to a very cool lake, Matt and Leigh ate deep fried food with us and helped us feel good about a 3km walk, then the Tisdale clan convinced us we needed to hike to a cave with a disturbing backstory, alarming graffiti and creepy spider piles. Topped off with A&W in the park.
Where to Stay in Canmore
A benefit of slow travel and staying for a month is that we can also rent a fully-equipped apartment, get a monthly rate and have plenty of space and all the comforts of home. We stayed at the Canadian Rockies Chalets and it was excellent – well-equipped, roomy and walking distance to grocery stores and downtown. A couple other good choices are Base Camp Chalets (next door) and the Lamphouse Inn, which is right downtown.
Mount Kidd RV Park is one of the best campgrounds in the Rockies and a great place to base yourself close to all the best Kananaskis hikes.
Other Canmore Lists
Now, back to hiking, our main focus during our time here, which has been one endless string of awesome viewpoints, spectacular lakes and grandiose valleys. Each and every one seemingly starting off with a couple hours trudging steeply uphill through the trees before reaching the good stuff. At least pee spots are easy to come by.
Anyway, for those interested in reading more about all the different hikes we’ve tackled in the area, we have grouped them into a series of separate posts with maps, descriptions, distances, times, difficulty and GPS links. And photos, lots of photos.
Not surprisingly, the most impressive hikes we found were all relatively difficult (i.e. 4+ hours). I guess great views and hike difficulty go hand in hand. Nobody wants to do a 15 km hike with 800 metres of elevation gain unless there is a pretty good payoff at the end. Well, except fitness freaks, of which there are many around here. But I assure you that all the hikes on this list are well worth the burning thighs, aching feet and stale trail-side sandwiches.
One word can change everything, can’t it? Since we know that there are a lot of people out there who aren’t interested in spending a whole day climbing a mountain, here is a list of shorter, more manageable hikes that still provide great scenery and mountain adventure without necessarily requiring you to sweat completely through your favourite pair of trip underwear. Excellent reward to effort ratios, all around.
Larch Season, baby, it’s quite a phenomenon. And for good reason, getting out onto the trails when the larches are at their brightest yellow, contrasting nicely with all the green firs and pines and the luminescent blue of the mountain lakes, well, it’s easy to see why people flock out here in late September like teachers to the free samples in Costco.
Laynni’s latest photographic obsession, she has dedicated herself to finding all the places where gorgeous mountain scenery is reflected off the glassy surface of a peaceful alpine lake or river like a too-good-to-be-true 2 for 1 pizza deal. Needless to say, I have to tread very lightly around her on windy days.
Other Places to See Around Canmore
Or if your next stop is on the other side of the border:
Peachland. Or basically Kelowna, to those not quite as acquainted with Okanagan geography (like me up until 5 minutes before we booked the place). Probably less hiking, maybe more biking, definitely good views from our rental apartment.
Maybe we’ll suddenly become wine people, availing ourselves of the vast array of wine tours in the area – be they fun, pretentious, informal or uncomfortably sloppy. I still have a few of the Original 16 lagers I brought from Saskatchewan, though, so probably not. Plus, most of my wardrobe clashes with purple teeth.
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