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


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.

Paddling near the put in spot, just past the TransCanada 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 docks 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 section of highway riding from there to reach your put in spot. (So I don't recommend having everybody bike back.)


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) around the TransCanada Highway bridge. After that it is a fun little float and we've had lots of children use 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 docks in town and then float back down afterwards. (Something people do all the time!)

My son says this paddle is "boring" which is good news for novice paddlers. It means there are no rapids, there's no fast moving water, and you won't just be floating down the river without using your paddles.

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

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.

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 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 adults who have experience with gentle moving water.

  • 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 canoe 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, but the current is very gentle so you'll have no problems making your way up the creek.


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 a calm lake 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.

  • Kids using sit on top kayaks should be dressed in rain pants and waterproof clothing (rain jackets, polyester pants and shirts, etc.)

  • 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.


Paddling the channel into the Second Vermilion Lake 


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