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If you’ve heard anything about Banff, you know there are some amazing things to do here! I mean hello stunning Rocky Mountain views and turquoise blue lakes that don’t even look real. It’s no wonder there are so many Instagrammable places in Banff National Park!
Of course, the wildlife in Banff is a huge draw too. From different species of bears to big cats and birds, Banff National Park has a variety of creatures that you don’t want to miss!
In the national park alone, there are 53 species of mammals and over 280 species of birds – just imagine what you might see on your way to the park, as well.
With so many majestic creatures to see, it might be difficult to find the right starting place. You might see some animals without even trying, while others need some searching for.
So, that’s why we are here! After countless visits to Banff, we’ve narrowed down the must-see creatures. Whether you’re spending 1, 2, or 3 days in Banff, this guide to the 15 must-see animals in Banff National Park should make your search easier.
We include where to find these creatures, and even go into detail on the top Banff tours that give you the best chance at spotting certain species. Stick with us for a bit, and you’ll be a pro before you even go!
Animals in Banff National Park
1. Black bear
Black bears are one of the most sought-after animals to see in Banff National Park – we have seen so many over the years. Sadly, there are only 35-40 black bears left in the park, making them a threatened species in Banff.
Did you know that black bears aren’t always black? This species comes in a variety of shades, from cream to brown to black.
These creatures have a diet that consists mainly of plants, like blackberries, grass, and dandelions, but they also eat ants and smaller animals like elk and deer. Of course, bears also tend to get into human food and garbage…so keep your things locked up if you intend to stay overnight in the park.
Related read: While the bears may be hibernating, Christmas in Banff is one of my favorite times of year to visit!
2. Grizzly bear
In most places, black bears tend to outnumber grizzly bears. This isn’t the case in Banff National Park, though, because there are nearly 70 grizzlies to be found. Yes, that’s twice the number of black bears!
You can see the difference between black bears and grizzly bears in the structure of their bodies more than anything else. Grizzlies have a huge hump made of muscle between their shoulders, and a face that is broader and much rounder than that of a black bear.
Grizzlies still eat plants like berries and grasses, but they also hunt a wider range of prey from fish to squirrels, and even larger animals like elk, deer, moose, and more. They tend to avoid humans unless they need to make their way to a source of food, but you can spot them near the Icefields and Bow Valley Parkways from time to time.
If grizzly bears rank high on your must-see list, there are lots of great wildlife tours in Banff that give you a good chance of seeing them!
There may only be a few dozen bears when it comes down to it, but the elk population in Banff National Park happens to be in the thousands! We almost always spot a few when we’re exploring the park.
You can find these large creatures (they weigh between 500-700 pounds) near the Bow Valley Parkway, close to many lakes, and even at the Banff Springs Golf Course!
You’ll likely see elk foraging for greenery around the park, as vegetarians, and they look gentle but can get territorial. They’ve been called the most dangerous animal in the park, by Parks Canada. So, give them their space as you watch from a distance.
Elk are seen most often during winter in Banff and early spring near Vermilion Lakes. But if you visit Banff in September, you can expect to see the males battling during their breeding season. I’d recommend keeping lots of distance at this time of year, especially, while tensions are higher than usual.
4. Bighorn sheep
Most commonly found along the Bow Valley Parkway and near Lake Minnewanka and Mount Norquay roads, bighorn sheep are an abundant fixture in Banff National Park. You might even see them from above while taking a ride on the Mt Norquay Sightseeing Chairlift!
In the summer, you can find the large rams and many ewes on hikes to the high alpine meadows. It’s a little easier to catch a glimpse of them in the winter when they are at lower elevations, though.
As of a few years ago, there were over 400 bighorn sheep in the park, and the numbers seem to have stayed steady since then. You’ll probably spot these animals in groups of about a dozen, as they browse grass, clover, woody plants, and hedges.
You’ll notice these sheep’s horns, before anything else, shaped in a nearly circular way on both sides of their heads. It was more amazing than I expected to see these guys up close!
There are an estimated 65 moose in Banff National Park because they don’t tend to be afraid of traffic and are involved in several highway and railroad accidents. Add these accidents to a deadly liver fluke, and the reintroduction of wolves after quite a long absence from the park, and moose are on a decline.
Those that are still left seem to be thriving, and other nearby national parks have larger populations of healthy moose.
These giants used to be found primarily in the Bow Valley but have since disappeared. You’ll see them north of Saskatchewan Crossing, at Waterfowl Lake, and near the Icefields Parkway, these days.
Moose are vegetarians, or herbivores, and survive on the leaves and twigs of woody plants and trees like aspen, birch, ash, willow, and other popular plant species in the park. You have a good chance of spotting these creatures as they browse for food.
Related read: Spotting wildlife is only one of the top free activities to do in Banff! Check our list for more ideas.
After a long absence starting in the 1950s, wolves returned to the park in 1982. Today you can find 5 different packs, made up of about 45 wolves.
Two of the packs are seen way more than the other 3, and the Cascade pack resides near Lake Minnewanka while the Bow Valley pack is found between Banff and Lake Louise along the, you guessed it, Bow Valley Parkway.
The wolves look a little like German Shepherds, with longer legs and feet, a larger muzzle, and a more rounded face. They range in color from white to gray to black, though most of the individuals found in Banff National Park are on the darker end.
Wolves are carnivores and like to eat mammals like deer and elk, but will also snack on some rabbits and mice.
This is one animal that you’ll likely have to seek out unless you get extremely lucky and stumble across one of the 10-15 caribou located in Banff National Park. It’s a small number, but significantly more than the once estimated 4 or 5 caribou that populated the park.
With dark brown bodies, white beards, and curved antlers, they are the size of a large deer but easily distinguishable. It’s likely that you’ll see caribou only in the northernmost regions of the park, munching primarily on lichens, but sometimes foraging on other tundra plants and leaves.
More often, sightings occur in Jasper National Park to the north during winter and spring. You might get lucky, though, so it is always worth a shot to look for these horned creatures!
8. Mountain goat
There are tons of mountain goats in Banff National Park, but the Icefields Parkway and the hike toward Bourgeau Lake are really the main two locations you’ll be able to view them from. It’s not as easy to spot these guys from the roads, because they are commonly found trekking along the sides of hills and cliffs.
It’s easy to distinguish these goats from the bighorn sheep because they have horns that are black and dagger-like that sit on top of their heads, all-white coats, and beards. I was so excited to spot a few of these guys on one of our day hikes in Banff. They are so much cooler to see in person!
Another herbivore, the goats tend to eat plants, mosses, and any other alpine vegetation that they come across. They are sort of like nature’s lawnmowers, but way cuter.
You can expect to spot both whitetail and mule deer in Banff National Park, primarily along Vermilion Lakes Drive and the Bow Valley Parkway. If you hadn’t noticed by now, Bow Valley is quite a popular spot for animals to gather.
There are about half as many whitetails as there are mule deer, but you can plan to easily spot both species in the spring months.
Whitetails have a white underside to their tail and are smaller and slenderer than mule deer, who are larger and have a black spot on the end of their tails.
Deer will browse for crops, grasses, plants, and nuts. This creates a good opportunity for you to see them, as they wander around trying to meet their daily food intake of about 6-8% of their body weight.
Related read: You might spot wildlife (and you’ll definitely enjoy the view regardless!) on a trip up the Banff Gondola!
Coyotes look a little like foxes and are built similarly to medium-sized dogs with thick, bushy tails. You can spot them patrolling the Bow Valley Parkway, Vermilion Lakes, and Bankhead area…probably in search of small rodents and roadkill.
Banff National Park’s coyote population has actually been struggling in recent years, mostly due to more road traffic and accidents.
You should give these guys some space if you are viewing them because there have been a few cases where coyotes have approached people, which is not exactly safe. They’re beautiful creatures and are most often calm unless they feel threatened or are instigated.
Coyotes mostly eat small rodents and scavenge, but they also like to munch on flowers, insects, and other small animals. They are omnivores but favor meat.
11. Mountain lion or cougar
Mountain lions and cougars are the same animal, in case you didn’t realize. It’s a common mix-up to think that these are two different species, but the big cats are one and the same.
It is extremely rare to catch a glimpse of these big cats here (I still haven’t seen one yet), because a much larger population lives in an area south of the park.
Banff National Park does support a small population of cougars, though, and you’ll hear about cougars heading into Banff or its outskirts from time to time. It’s probably best that you don’t see too many cougars roaming around, because they can be dangerous to humans, however elusive and calm they might be.
Most often cougars will stay away unless they feel threatened or accidentally wander into a busy area.
12. Bald eagle
There are tons of birds in Banff National Park but larger, soaring birds are easier to spot and make for a cooler viewing experience.
Bald eagles are frequently seen coasting above the park, especially during their mating season during the early spring as they make their nests above the park.
Characterized by the brown body and white head and tail, bald eagles have a wingspan of over 7 feet (2.1 meters). It’s hard to imagine just how grand that is until you see it in person, but it is a sight to behold I promise!
My favorite way to watch them is while these birds search for prey from above, and then dive down to complete the hunt.
Ever heard of a pika? I hadn’t, either, until I visited the park and got to see (and hear!) some of these adorable guys up close!
They are related to rabbits and look similar except for their round, short ears. They look a bit like a hamster, with a tiny round body and tan fur that helps them stay hidden among rocks and dirt.
You’ll often hear them before you ever see them, as they sound a shrill noise when they notice danger approaching.
We noticed on our hikes that there were small piles of vegetation sitting on rocks and learned that these are called “pika piles” that the little critters leave to dry before bringing them into their burrows.
There are plenty around the park, and you may spot them gathering up some grasses and flowers if you watch closely.
Related read: You can also see pikas and fields full of wildflowers with a visit to Mount Edith Cavell in nearby Jasper!
14. Hoary marmot
Another rodent-like creature, the hoary marmot, is also referred to as a “whistle pig” because you also hear this one whistle before you ever catch sight of it.
A type of ground squirrel, they are large, bulky, and have reddish-brown fur everywhere except on their shoulders where the fur is a silver-grey color.
Hoary marmots love warming in the morning summer sun but can also be found in the evening.
Their hibernation period can be super long, nearing 8 months, so you shouldn’t expect to see these animals at all during mid-fall to mid-spring, or maybe even beyond. During the summer, they spend plenty of time eating flowers, grass, and leaves.
You can spot them on hikes, just like pikas, if you keep your eyes peeled for them.
Porcupines are primarily nocturnal, but you can still expect to see some of them out during the day, especially in the alpine forests.
Their sharp hairs, or quills, that are mixed in with fur create quite the defense mechanism from predators and may be found on the ground near a porcupine. They can help indicate where these mammals might be if you’re hiking through the forest and begin to notice some quills here and there.
Though their large, round bodies can reach over 30 pounds, they are wonderful climbers and forage not only on the ground but among the branches of trees. They collect twigs and plants like clover and herbs.
Wildlife Tours in Banff National Park
While it’s amazing to stumble across these animals on your own, it can be such a treat to know that you’ll have a better chance of seeing some wildlife – either with a guide or by going to the right areas.
There are a few tours in the Canadian Rockies that we have experience with and would recommend trying out if animal sightseeing is a big goal for you during your time at Banff National Park.
Discover grizzly bears from Banff
The best way to see grizzly bears if you’re staying in Banff is on this tour around the Banff and Yoho National Parks. This 10-hour tour takes you through both national parks and gives you a view from 7,700 feet in the air on a gondola ride up the Rocky Mountains. You’ll enjoy a mountain-top lunch at Eagle’s Eye, Canada’s highest restaurant, before seeing Boo the Bear, a resident at the world’s largest enclosed and protected grizzly bear habitat.
The tour also takes you through Yoho National Park to Emerald Lake, Takakkaw Falls, and the Spiral Tunnels, as if the other components weren’t already cool enough. Transportation, a local guide, and refreshments are also included in this full-day tour for $275 CAD.
Evening wildlife safari
So many animals come back out during the evening, after spending their days in different ways from sunbathing to foraging to sleeping. If you’re a night owl and want to see what creatures you can spot, hop aboard a wildlife bus tour!
The 2-hour tour is among the top bus tours in Banff and takes place on a coach with large viewing windows so that you can enjoy the landscape as you look for elk, deer, bears, and other animals. The success rate of seeing animals is 95%, and you learn all about the park’s conservation efforts from your expert guide on this $66 CAD tour.
The group maxes out at 24 guests and includes round-trip transportation and admission to the national park. It’s a fun way to spend an evening and learn a little bit while you’re at it.
Private sunset safari in Banff
Speaking of safaris, if you want a private wildlife viewing experience, you can arrange a tour from the heart of Banff to Lake Minnewanka, with a stop at Tunnel Mountain Drive. This 2.5-hour private wildlife viewing tour is just for your group, includes water and an expert guide for just $115 CAD – which is a great deal for a private tour.
Learn about the various Banff streets named for wildlife you’ll soon see with your own eyes, before taking golden hour photos at the iconic Mt. Rundle. Lake Minnewanka is where most of the action is at, and you’ll get to see the animals come to life again, as you get ready to reach the end of your day. Book your private tour here before the date you want to go sells out!
Winter tour: Banff and its wildlife
Combine the joys of the winter season with wildlife viewing on this 3-hour wildlife winter tour, which comes with hot chocolate and maple cookie snacks to help you wrap up your adventure. You begin the morning in Banff before stopping at Lake Minnewanka, Bow Falls, Surprise Corner, and the Hoodoos Trail, which are all part of your included admission to the National Park.
This is one of the best Banff winter tours as it operates from December through April (I highly recommend Banff in December – it’s magical!). It’s such a great way to see wildlife and the park without trekking through the snow if you don’t want to. You’ll have a professional guide to lead your small group and learn about the history and geology of Banff National Park with tickets available here for $84 CAD.
Best Places to Spot Wildlife in Banff National Park
There are a few places you probably noticed mentioned in most of the sections above, where you can expect to see the majority of animals in the area.
Each of these spots will guarantee that you see some wildlife! Not to mention that they are beautiful areas and worth the drive, or hike to explore them.
The Bow Valley Parkway
The Bow Valley Parkway is a road (Hwy-1A) that every visitor to Banff National Park should drive. There are hikes, cycling routes, and incredible wildlife that all stem from this road which connects Banff to Lake Louise.
It runs parallel to the Trans-Canada Highway but be aware that part of the eastern section closes to all vehicles from May 1 – June 25 and from September 1-30 for cyclists on the Bow Valley Parkway to have free reign of that route.
When it comes to wildlife, everything can be found in this area, thanks to its long span. Moose and bears frequent the area more than some others, but you will have noticed that the Bow Valley Parkway comes up often when talking about animal sightings near the national park. I mean, there’s even a wolf pack named after the area!
Black bears especially love this space, and you’ll see this threatened species with more ease than expected.
It’s nice to do it in a car or a bike if you have less time to hike but want to experience the wildlife and views that the parkway offers.
Related read: The Bow Valley Parkway is one of the most scenic parts of the drive from Calgary to Vancouver!
Around Lake Minnewanka
You can see bighorn sheep, wolves, eagles, bears, elk, and deer near Lake Minnewanka. You can even see wildlife while on a cruise on Lake Minnewanka! Bring along some binoculars and you’ll likely spot some animals while you enjoy the scenery from the water.
We didn’t get into talking about the fish of this region, but Lake Minnewanka happens to be one of the top 10 places in North America to catch one of Alberta’s largest game fish, lake trout.
The lake itself is stunning, with clear blue waters framed by snow-capped mountains and vibrant evergreen trees.
The Icefields Parkway is rated by Condé Nast Traveller as one of the top drives in the world. If that isn’t enough reason not to skip out on this double-lane highway, think of the bears, mountain goats, elk, eagles, and moose that you’ll see!
Mountain goats are very rarely seen from roadways, but this so happens to be one area that might allow you to catch a glimpse.
On top of that, the parkway is situated between soaring mountains, clear blue lakes, deep green forests, and has wonderful views of the sky, where you’ll see eagles coasting above you.
This stretch of road connects Jasper to Lake Louise and is one of the major drives in the Banff region or you can join an Icefields Parkway tour. Do yourself a favor and don’t miss out on this incredible route.
Related read: Whether you’re camping or looking for a hotel, check out the best places to stay along the Icefields Parkway before you go!
Canmore isn’t technically inside the bounds of Banff National Park but is a town near its southeast boundary.
What else was located south of the park, again? Cougars.
This is a great place to see cougars, from a safe distance. You’ll also see tons of elk roaming around, and might catch a glimpse of some other animals, whether it’s on your drive from the national park or while you relax in town.
This is also a primary vacation spot and a great place to stay for the night if you want proximity to the mountains but the amenities of a city. It’s also closer to Calgary and the airport (the drive from Calgary to Canmore is only 90 minutes) if you’re at the tail end of your trip and want to have a shorter drive to Alberta’s largest city.
Wildlife Safety in Banff National Park
The wildlife in Banff National Park is truly a wonder. There are thousands of animals that call this place home and you’re certain to discover some newfound appreciation for them.
While this list covers the top 15 animals, there are more to be found within the park as well as in nearby areas.
Remember, that while the wildlife here is incredible, wild animals can be dangerous if interacted with. So, here are a few tips and tricks from Parks Canada to stay safe while enjoying the views:
- Supervise children and pets, keeping them away from dense vegetation
- Always lock up food and garbage in wildlife-proof garbage bins or boxes to avoid attracting animals
- If you see a cougar, do not approach it but face it and retreat slowly, with your arms above your head to make you appear larger. Be aggressive – shout, throw sticks, and wave to avoid an attack. Do not run.
- If you see a wolf, react in the same way as you would with a cougar. Make it clear that you are not potential prey by acting aggressively.
- Stay at least 100 meters (320 feet) away from wolves and cougars.
- If you see an elk, never approach it. Keep at least 30 meters (100 feet) away, and back off further if it begins to become nervous or send its ears back.
- Respect all wildlife. This is their home, and you are simply observing.
- Do not feed the animals.
- Keep your dogs on a leash and your kids within reach.
- Hike in the middle of the day, in groups when you can.
- Carry bear spray.
- Be alert and give animals their space.
- Don’t go off the designated trails, for your own safety.
Other Things to do While You’re in Banff
Looking for wildlife is just one of many things to do in Banff. But with so much to choose from, it might feel overwhelming. So below, I’ve picked some of my other favorite activities in the area to help you out!
- Hike Johnston Canyon – There are tons of amazing hikes in and around Banff, but I especially loved hiking Johnston Canyon and seeing its spectacular waterfalls. It’s also one of the easiest hikes in Banff! You can drive to the trailhead on your own or book a tour. This e-bike and hiking tour is excellent for those who want to combine both activities. Or if you just want transport, take the hop-on-hop-off bus that stops here. If you visit Johnston Canyon in winter, this Icewalk tour will show you ice formations and frozen falls!
- Visit Lake Louise and Moraine Lake – If you want to see more stunning lakes in the area, check out these two! Parking at Lake Louise can be tricky (and impossible at Moraine Lake!), so we’d recommend this Banff National Park Tour. You’ll get to visit Lake Louise as well as Moraine Lake in one go – with enough time to walk around, learn the local history, and snap postcard-worthy photos.
- Ride the Banff Gondola – If you want the best vantage point in town, ride up the Banff Gondola! You’ll climb 698 meters (2,292 feet) to the top of Sulphur Mountain where you’ll have a view of six different mountain ranges. Tickets do sell out in the busy season, so make sure to purchase yours ahead of time!
- Explore Banff town – While many nature-based activities are nearby, you shouldn’t neglect Banff town itself! Start your morning by visiting one of the cute local cafes, or grab patio drinks along Banff Avenue in the afternoon. To avoid traffic, check out the pedestrian-only Bear Street, with even more restaurants, cafes, and shops. And if that’s not enough, there’s also a Farmers Market every Wednesday in the summertime.
Where to Stay in Banff
This is one of the most important parts of your trip and in Banff, the selection can be overwhelming and expensive. There are lots of different areas to consider when it comes to deciding where to stay in Banff National Park. There are also plenty of great hotels in Banff town to consider. Below are some amazing hotels we recommend:
Samesun Banff Hostel – Budget-backpacker Hostel
A great budget hostel with dorm rooms. Perfect for those on a tight budget who want to stay in the heart of Banff town. This is only a backpacker place though, as there are no private rooms available. Dorms can be booked on either Booking.com or Hostelworld.
Banff Inn – Budget-friendly Hotel
The Banff Inn is the perfect mix of comfort and affordability. It has a budget-friendly price tag but also comes with lots of luxuries. The hotel is located right on Banff Ave and all rooms are air-conditioned. In the hotel, you’ll find a hot tub, steam room, and sauna, as well as a restaurant and bar. You should book the Banff Inn well in advance as this is one of the most popular hotels in Banff.
Banff Rocky Mountain Resort – Mid-range Hotel
Pushing up into the mid-range budget, this hotel has a swimming pool, hot tub, gym, and all the rooms have kitchenettes or full kitchens. It is the perfect place for families since two and three-bedroom units are also on offer. The location is peaceful on Tunnel Mountain but yet only a 5-minute drive from Banff town. You can check availability and book Banff Rocky Mountain Resort online here.
Fairmont Banff Springs – Luxury Hotel
This is easily the most luxurious hotel in Banff. It’s not cheap but the place is simply incredible – it seriously looks like a castle! Inside the hotel, you’ll find 11 restaurants, 14 shops, bowling, bars, a top-rated spa, a couple of pools, and so much more. It’s a luxury resort-like stay and the only one of its kind in Banff. If you’re visiting Banff on a honeymoon then this should be the hotel you choose! You can check prices and room availability for Fairmont online here.
Important info: Accommodation in Banff can be tricky. For starters, you need to book well in advance if you want to have a large selection.
I still suggest booking a place ASAP! Using Booking.com is great too because lots of hotels offer free cancellation so just lock in a place (or two) for now and make the final decision later!
Parks Canada Pass Quick Info
If you plan on spending time in Canada’s national parks (including Banff, Jasper, Yoho, Mount Revelstoke, Glacier, Kootenay, and more) then you’re going to have to pay for a Parks Pass.
Single Daily Admission:
This type of pass is valid for one person for one day. It is ONLY the best value if you are traveling alone and only plan to visit a national park for a couple of days.
- Adult (ages 18-64) is $11 CAD
- Senior (65+) is $9.50 CAD
- Youth/Child (17 or younger) is FREE
Group Daily Admission:
If you’re traveling in a group or with family, you can buy a single-day admission for your entire vehicle (up to 7 people in one vehicle.)
- $22.00 CAD gets your entire vehicle entry for one full day
Parks Canada Discovery Pass
The “Discovery Pass”Discovery Pass” is what Parks Canada calls their year-long (365 days from the purchase date), multi-park entry pass. This pass will give 365 days of access to all participating national parks in Canada. This includes the most popular parks like Banff, Jasper, Yoho, Kootenay, Glacier, Mount Revelstoke, and so much more.
- Adult (age 18-64) – $75.25 CAD
- Senior (65+) – $64.50 CAD
- Group/Family (up to 7 people in one vehicle) – $151.25 CAD
Hot Tip: Although more expensive up front, if you plan on spending more than 7 days in different parks in Canada within a 12-month period, then the Discovery Pass is actually the better deal!
Parks Canada Passes can be bought online here or at one of the Visitor Centers or booths at the entrance to many national parks.
Renting a Car in Alberta
If you’re arriving in Alberta via plane then I can’t recommend getting a rental car enough. Canada is a large country and traveling between cities and even just getting out to some of the best places to visit in Alberta requires transport. Although you can use public transport, on some occasions, it means your trip will not only require more time but more planning.
Renting a car will definitely make exploring all of the fun things to see and do in Alberta easier.
Car rental in Canada isn’t super cheap, but it isn’t overly expensive either, especially if you get a budget car. The cheapest car with pickup and drop-off in different locations is around $100 CAD per day. The price does vary though depending on the time of year and the type of car that you rent. For car rentals, I use the website DiscoverCars.com. It’s a search engine with lots of deals with good customer service. In fact, I’ve used them all over the world including in Chile, New Zealand, and Australia.
Another popular option is to rent a campervan or motorhome (only for the brave in winter.) Using Motorhome Republic you can search hundreds of deals across multiple companies to pick a great vehicle and the cheapest price. Having a motorhome is a stunning way to see Canada, and using crown land and campsites, you can often camp for free or very cheap in the most beautiful places imaginable!
Thanks for reading!
Spotting wildlife in Banff National Park is one of the best activities to do while you’re here! There’s nothing quite like that feeling when you spot a bald eagle soaring above you or a bear wandering around the trees. While it’s completely unpredictable about what you might see, I feel like that’s all part of the fun!
If you have any questions about traveling to Banff. please leave a comment below! Also, if you loved this travel guide, don’t miss all our other Canada travel guides here or these related articles below.