Fortunately, we found a great beginner section on the Bow River from just upstream of downtown Banff heading back into town and ending at the canoe docks. The trip took us 2 hours, parking was easy to figure out both at the put in and take out locations, and it was calm enough for me to feel safe on my stand up paddleboard.
|Family-friendly paddling on the Bow River towards downtown Banff|
The Shuttle: Where to park for the put in and take out
The put in location is located approximately 6 km west of the Town of Banff. Continue on the TransCanada Highway past the Mount Norquay/Banff Townsite turnoff in the direction of Lake Louise.You will come to the junction for the Hwy 1A (Bow Valley Parkway) and this is where you start paying attention. Shortly after this junction, you will cross the Bow River on the TransCanada Hwy bridge and then see a pull out on the right hand side of the highway. This is where you park and access the river via a gate in the wildlife fence.
|Paddling near the put in spot, just past the TransCanada Bridge|
It's very straight forward and as long as you are going westbound on the Transcanada Hwy, the parking pullout is easy to find as soon as you cross the bridge over the river.
If you want to leave a second vehicle in Banff, park wherever you can find a spot near the Banff canoe docks on Bow Ave or near Central Park in the large parking lot there. You can also park at the Banff Recreation Grounds which is a great spot to take your boat out of the water. Just make sure you take out before going under the Banff Ave bridge in town lest you go over Bow Falls!
|This was where we took out at the Banff Recreation Grounds|
The paddle had a few tricky spots in the first 20 minutes as we navigated a few tight corners with sweepers around the TransCanada Highway bridge. After that it was a fun little float and my son could have done the trip in his own kayak for 90% of the trip. We did have one child in fact who joined us in her own boat and she did just fine! (so definitely a good float for novice paddlers.)
|Our kayak Crew on the Bow River|
The Banff National Park website describes the paddle with these words:
"Take care passing under the bridge as there are many sweepers along the left side of the river. From here to Banff is a pleasant, 1.5 - 2 hour paddle. The river is broad and calm, allowing beautiful views of the lower Bow Valley."That sums it up nicely. After we cleared the first few corners, we pretty much had to paddle or the trip would have taken 4 hours. It's one of those float trips where you could actually paddle upstream from the canoe docks in town and then float back down afterwards. (Something people do all the time!)
|Calm paddling on the Bow River through Banff National Park|
Why I LOVED this Paddle
I loved that we could do this trip as a family and nobody was worried about falling in the river. It was a good stretch for children to try their first solo river paddle (provided they have plenty of lake experience) and we had lots of time to just chill and float along. When we got tired of floating, we picked up our paddles and slowly moved along towards town.
Opportunities were plentiful for wildlife sightings on the river but we weren't fortunate enough to see anything on this trip. I did see a cute little frog swim by my board though. :)
|Paddling the Mighty Bow River through Banff|
Where to Rent Boats
If you don't have a boat, you can rent a kayak, canoe, or inflatable stand up paddleboard from the Banff Canoe Club. From here, just paddle upstream until you get tired, turn around, and float back to the docks in town. This is a great activity for families on vacation in Banff. In fact, I would say this is one of the top 5 things you should do while visiting Banff!
Note that on the Banff Canoe Club website it still mentions that the stand up paddleboards are for "off site rental only." This has changed for the 2015 season though and you can jump on a board right from the dock to paddle up the river.
|Approaching downtown Banff on the Bow River|
The Next Step: Banff to Canmore
If you complete this easy section of the Bow River and want a bit more of an adventure, try the section from downtown Banff to Canmore for some intermediate paddling. We just did this section and I was too scared to do it on my board. Now that I've done it, I'm still too scared to do it on my board. :)
|Paddling the Wild Bow River towards Canmore|
For a full description of the Banff to Canmore section, visit the Banff National Park website where all information is carefully provided in great detail.
We started at the end of the Golf Course and it only took us 2 hours to reach Canmore. I didn't think we are paddling all that hard (the trip normally takes up to 4 hours) but we had to paddle fairly aggressively at every corner to navigate around the sweepers - and there was a corner or turn every 5 minutes. Needless to say, we paddled a LOT.
|Canoeing on the Bow River from Banff to Canmore|
The trip was definitely challenging but experienced paddlers would enjoy this section with children in the middle of a canoe or riding in the bow of a tandem kayak. My son didn't get to come this time unfortunately because his scared mom kicked him out of his usual seat in the front of our kayak so that she could play "princess in the bow of the boat" for the day. And I loved every minute of it!! Now I know why Noah loves riding in the front of the kayak so much.
|Princess in the bow of the boat|
Overall Trip Summary
|Banff to Canmore on the Bow River|
Start with the easier section from upstream of Banff back into town and work your way up to the next section towards Canmore. If in doubt, take a river kayak or canoe lesson to ensure you have the skills necessary for remote backcountry paddling. A rescue would be hard to pull off on this stretch of water with roads hard to access.
If you aren't sure of your paddling abilities for the full trip from Banff to Canmore with kids, do as we did and take a solo trip (without kids) first to scout out the river. Next time we would bring our son and I "may" take my board.
I absolutely loved both trips we did this month on the Bow River and I would have to say that paddling the Bow River through Banff National Park should go on every Rocky Mountain Bucket List! There's no finer way of exploring backcountry Banff.