Thursday, May 28, 2020

Easy Family Paddling Day Trip on the Bow River through Banff

The Bow River can be challenging for novice paddlers, but there is a great beginner section upriver of the Town of Banff heading back into town. It's a beautiful day trip and a shuttle is easy to set up. Largely a float trip, you can even use a stand up paddleboard on this section of the river if you have experience with gentle moving water.

Easy floating down the Bow River in Banff National Park

Let's Talk "Beginner-friendly"

Before I get to the big questions you'll have on where to put in and take out, I want to quickly start with a safety disclaimer.

When I say that this is an "easy" paddling day trip, I mean that this is an easy river trip compared to other sections of the Bow River that are much more challenging. I don't mean that this should be your very first paddling trip ever.

You'll enjoy this trip if:

  • You have some experience on gentle moving water. (There are no rapids and it's class 1 paddling, but it's still moving water.)

  • You know how to launch a boat and steer to shore in moving water.

  • You know how to navigate corners, bends, and twists in a river, you know how to avoid the occasional sweeper, and you can avoid the pillars on a bridge while passing under.

  • You have previous river experience in a canoe or kayak, and want to try using a stand up paddleboard on moving water (and you are not new to stand up paddle boarding.)

  • You are a novice paddler going in a group of stronger paddlers willing to assist and guide you on the river.

Children should either be in a canoe or kayak with an adult, or else they should be strong paddlers on flat water if they're going to use their own kayak or stand up paddleboard. When in doubt, paddle this section of the Bow River as adults first before bringing your kids. 

My son first did this trip in a tandem kayak while building his skills in a sit on top kayak (which he used on lakes and very gentle moving water.) We were in a large supportive group the first time he tried paddling the river on his own in his kayak. Now at age 12, he uses a stand up paddleboard (which he learned to use on flat water first.)

Strong youth can use stand up paddleboards with previous experience 

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.

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.

This is the link to the put in spot on Google Maps.

Paddling near the put in spot, just past the TransCanada Highway Bridge

For the take out, there are a few options:

  1. Leave a second vehicle wherever you can find a spot near the Banff Canoe Club on Bow Ave in the Town of Banff 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 (with a large parking lot.) Just make sure you take out before going under the Banff Ave bridge in town lest you go over Bow Falls!

  2. Leave a second vehicle parked beside the First Vermilion Lake on Vermilion Lakes Road in the Town of Banff. (This is the first lake you'll come to.) If you're parking here, you'll be able to extend your paddle from the Bow River to Vermilion Lake via Echo and 40 Mile Creeks. (more information below.)

  3. Leave a bike at either option above and have an adult bike back for the vehicle. If doing this, I'd recommend leaving the bike on Vermilion Lakes Road. From here you continue biking to the end of the road, and hop on the Legacy Trail which ends at the junction with the Highway 1A. There's a short 0.5 km section of highway riding from there to reach your put in spot. (So send an adult ahead for this part and leave the kids with a second adult in town.)

This is the take out spot at the Banff Recreation Grounds near the Banff Avenue Bridge in town

Paddling the Bow River into the Town of Banff 

There are a few tricky spots in the first 15 minutes as you navigate a few tight corners with sweepers (logs that stick out from the corners) before passing under the TransCanada Highway bridge. This first part of the trip actually has fast moving water and can be scary for novice paddlers. You also have to be able to steer around the bridge pillars and then make a sharp turn.

After that it is a fun little float back into town and we've had lots of children use sit on top kayaks or even stand up paddleboards.

The trip is easy enough for kids in sit on top kayaks 

After you clear the first few corners, you pretty much have to paddle the entire time or the trip will take many hours.  It's one of those float trips where you could actually paddle upstream from the Canoe Club in town and then float back down afterwards. (Something people do all the time!)

My son has said this paddle is "boring" in the past which is good news for novice paddlers. It means there are no rapids and there's no fast moving water.

For more excitement, try it with a tail wind from the west. Our fastest time was 90 minutes when we were surfing down the river on our paddle boards. (We didn't have to do much actual paddling this time.) 

The river also upgrades to "moderate" when the river is high. Pay attention to river advisories because the first 15 minutes can be tricky when the water is moving quickly.

Stand up paddling down the Bow River into the town of Banff 

I love that we can do this trip as a family and nobody is worried about falling in the river. It's a good stretch for children to try their first solo river paddle (provided they have plenty of lake experience) and you'll have lots of time to just chill and float along. When you get tired of floating, pick up your paddles and slowly move towards town.

Opportunities are plentiful for wildlife sightings on the river as well. We've seen both moose and elk along this stretch.

Floating down the Bow River into the Town of Banff 

Notes for choosing which kind of boat to use:

  • If you try to use a raft you'll have to paddle most of the time or else plan for a full day. Even then, I don't think you'll make it into town without using your paddles. If you want to use a raft, consider doing the next section from Banff to Canmore instead because it is much faster.

  • Sit on top kayaks are great for kids that have previous paddling experience. I'd recommend bringing a rope though because most children will get tired of paddling before they reach town. You'll end up towing them for sure!!

    Also, make sure your child knows how to steer and navigate a kayak before sending them down the river. They'll have to get around the bridge pillars passing under the highway bridge and they'll have to steer to shore to get off the river.

    And make sure you keep in mind that the water is glacial in temperature. I suggest the kids wear rain pants or wetsuits if using a sit on top kayak. And bring a change of clothes in case they fall in.

  • Stand up paddleboards are great for older youth or adults who have experience with gentle moving water. Again, remember that the water is glacial in temperature. Pack spare clothes, towels, and a rope in case you end up needing to tow a child.

  • Canoes or tandem kayaks are perfect for this trip.

This is a great family outing with friends 

Extending the trip to the First Vermilion Lake 

As you enter the Town of Banff, you'll see the boat docks along Bow Avenue where the Banff Canoe Club rents boats. Either head right towards the Banff Recreation Grounds to take out, take out at the canoe club, or continue past the canoe club where you'll be following a gentle creek.

Paddling up Echo Creek towards the First Vermilion Lake 

Echo Creek heads up stream at this point, connecting with 40 Mile Creek further up. The current is relatively gentle so you'll usually have no problems making your way up the creek. The exception would be if there is a head wind on the creek. 

I strongly recommend checking the wind direction before planning to paddle up the creek. We've had challenging times trying to get up the creek on paddleboards in the past when the wind was in our faces. It can also be hard to try to get into Vermilion Lake with a head wind.

Choose a calm day if you're going to do this extension.

We love paddling along peaceful Echo Creek towards the Vermilion Lakes 

Pass under the train bridge and you'll see 40 Mile Creek coming in from your right within 15 - 20 minutes. Head left as the creek empties you out into the First Vermilion Lake (where hopefully you have a car or a bike waiting.)

This channel takes you from the creek into Vermilion Lake 

Once you reach the lake, you can paddle around on the lake enjoying the views of Mount Rundle behind you. You can also follow a channel beside the road that takes you to the second lake. There is no way I've ever found to connect to the third lake.

The Vermilion Lakes are a great place to paddle with children

Safety Notes

  • While I've focused on this paddling adventure being "beginner friendly" I would advise practicing on calm lakes before heading out on moving water.

  • The Bow River is glacial fed and as such is freezing cold if you fall in. Be prepared with a change of clothes for each person in a dry bag. I also recommend bringing some warm socks in the dry bag in case anybody gets cold feet (especially those on paddleboards.)

  • Kids using sit on top kayaks should be dressed in rain pants and waterproof clothing (rain jackets, polyester pants and shirts, etc.) These boats tend to pool with water causing kids to get cold quickly. While this might not be necessary if it's 30 degrees outside, you'll appreciate the warm clothing on cool days.

  • Bring a rope for towing if you have children paddling in their own boats. (Don't use a rope until you're past the first bridge.)

  • Bring the normal safety gear required by the government (a throw rope, bailing device, and whistle is technically required in each vessel.)

  • Life jackets or PFDs should be worn by each person.

  • Paddle in a group so you can help one another in the event of an emergency.

  • Make sure any pets that come along feel comfortable in a boat! You don't want Fido to jump overboard.

  • Choose warm weather. I've done this paddle on a cold day before, and it's much more pleasant when you don't have to float down the river wearing a toque!

  • I always pack rain jackets in a dry bag just in case somebody falls in and needs to warm up - even if it's 30 degrees outside.

  • Watch the wind!!! This river has many twists and turns so you'll almost always have a head wind for one or two sections. On our last trip the wind was from the west which is about as good as you can get. We flew and felt like we were surfing on our boards. By contrast, we've had a wicked head wind in the past that was miserable to paddle against. 

Disclaimer: As of 2021 there are new restrictions for non-motorized vessels on all lakes and rivers in Banff National Park. Find more information on self-certification before your trip here. 

First SUP paddle down the Bow, age 11 

No comments:

Post a Comment