Banff, Alberta is one of the busiest resort towns in Canada – approximately 4.09 million people visited Banff National Park in 2018/19. Most visitors come during the peak seasons (mid-June to mid-September for the summer attractions, and mid-December to mid-March for winter attractions). But if you want to enjoy a quiet getaway in the mountains without a lot of tourists around, I have two recommendations: go during off-season, and consider Canmore as your alternate resort getaway to Banff.
I have no beef with Banff – in fact my husband and I spend almost every Valentine’s weekend in Banff. But it doesn’t really change that much from year to year. A few restaurants may close and re-open with a new concept, but the kitschy shops full of brightly-patterned thermal leggings and souvenir snow globes remain the same.
There’s a certain comfort going to Banff and popping into the Hudson’s Bay store – one of the most unique iterations of this iconic chain store I’ve seen anywhere in Canada – and having a pint at the St. James’s Gate, an authentic Irish pub. But sometimes, it’s nice to mix things up a bit and try something new. So this year, my husband and I decided to spend a November weekend in Canmore instead.
We’ve often stopped in Canmore to pop into a few shops, fill up with gas, and grab a Tim Horton’s coffee before heading back home to Edmonton from Banff. But we’ve never actually stayed there before. It has a different vibe from Banff or Jasper – a bit more… I don’t know, practical? – for lack of a better description.
Mid-November is considered off-season for most attractions in Canmore. The town was surprisingly quiet. I’d assumed that it was busy all year round, but this was a pleasant surprise.
Canmore is growing by leaps and bounds, though. When we visited, there were brand new condo builds, hotels, and commercial strips popping up left and right. There are several reasons for this.
Canmore is just outside the Banff National Park border, (it’s actually surrounded by the protected park on three sides, but isn’t in the park itself) so the building restrictions are much more relaxed than in Banff. But Canmore still offers many of the same outdoor attractions that Banff provides – skiing, snowshoeing, hiking trails, lakes, mountains, etc. And because Canmore is outside of Banff National Park, there’s no need for a National Park Pass.
Even though we visited in November, there was no shortage of things to do. Here’s a quick list of activities and attractions you can enjoy in and around Canmore, even during the off-season months:
Walking and Hiking Trails
For a town of only approximately 14,000 people, Canmore has a surprisingly extensive web of walking and hiking trails. In fact, the town boasts over 160 km of walking and biking trails! We only explored a few paths in town, but we loved the combination of nature and connectivity they offered.
The Rocky Mountains surround the town of Canmore, so the views are lovely from every direction.
We even came across a bit of wildlife along the trail right by our hotel!
If you have a bit more time, you can try the Rocky Mountain Legacy Trail. This 4.5 km multi-use trail (including horses!) connects the town of Canmore to the Banff Park East Gate. Or, if you want to go further, you can follow it all the way to the town of Banff (approximately 20 km).
For the more adventurous, there are several hiking trails around Canmore with varying degrees of difficulty. There’s a handy list here, which includes approximate durations and levels of difficulty.
Most trails are open all year round, just be aware that some paths might be slippery during the winter months.
Canmore may be small, but it has some pretty cool shops to explore. There aren’t as many souvenir shops here as there are in Banff, which isn’t a bad thing. What you will find, though, are some really unique, one-of-a-kind boutique shops, clothing stores, and art galleries.
My favourite shop for locally made soaps and bath products is O’Canada Soapworks. The sheer variety of scents, colours and shapes is mind-boggling (over 70 soap products alone!). Everything is locally made, and the shop is located in this enchanting little wooden house right on Main Street:
Another favourite store to poke around in on Main Street is Stonewaters Home Elements. Here you’ll find everything from statement furniture pieces, to tableware, cabin-themed decor, candles and more. There’s no high-pressure sales and the store feels homey and inviting.
We also love Armadillo Games, (also located on Main Street. There’s a theme here!) which, for a small store, boasts an impressive array of board games, card games, and puzzles.
Breweries and Distilleries
The craft brewing industry in Alberta has exploded over the last few years. We’re even getting craft distilleries! Canmore currently boasts two breweries (Canmore Brewing Company and Grizzly Paw Brewing) and two distilleries (Raw Distillery and Wild Life Distillery), which is pretty impressive given its size. Some of them even offer tours, which I would highly recommend.
Since we were only in Canmore for the weekend, we couldn’t do every tour offered without sacrificing some time on other activities. So we decided to visit Wild Life Distillery.
Handily, we could pre-book a tour online through their website, and the reasonable $10 fee included a tasting.
We started with the tasting – a vodka, a gin, and a barrel-aged gin. The vodka was surprisingly smooth with a hint of sweetness. It would actually be a shame to mix it, it was so tasty all on its own! The gins were no slouches either. Amazingly, this distillery hasn’t even been open two years yet, but its products have already won numerous awards. After tasting their offerings, it’s easy to see why.
After the tasting we got the tour of the distillery area. It’s only about 1,000 square feet, and jam-packed, but it just goes to show you what can be accomplished in a small space.
Wild Life also has their own line of tonic syrup and bitters. After the tour I ordered a cocktail which used their Blood Orange Bitters. I love the flavour of blood oranges, so I couldn’t resist!
Address: 160-105 Bow Meadows Crescent
Hours of Operation: Wednesday-Saturday 12-8pm, Sunday 12-6pm
Eat and Drink
Canmore has a wide variety of restaurants for every palate. For supper, we tried out Grizzly Paw Brewing Co. on Main Street.
Grizzly Paw actually has two restaurants in Canmore – the original pub location on Main Street, and the newer Tank310, located in the brewery just off of the Trans Canada Highway. The food was impressively good, proving that you can be good both at brewing and serving decent eats. They also offer beer flights, so you can try a selection of four different Grizzly Paw beers if you can’t decide on just one.
There are also several options for breakfast. We got a lot of recommendations from friends to try the Rocky Mountain Bagel Co Ltd. The variety of fresh bagels, pastries and other goodies made it hard to choose, and the constant line of patrons was proof that this is a great place to grab a bite.
if you’re more of a brunch person, give Chez Francois a try. This is a great French restaurant that offers breakfast, lunch and dinner. Their brunch was outstanding, with a huge selection of options to choose from.
I went with the Mexican wrap. It was a lot of food, but delicious and hearty:
Canmore has a few museums to visit year round as well. The North West Mounted Police Barracks is conveniently located on Main Street. It was built in 1893, and served as the lodgings, office, and jail for the police officers of Canmore until 1929. It is the oldest North West Mounted Police site in Western Canada still standing on its original spot. Admission is by donation.
Note that opening hours are greatly reduced in the fall and winter months:
Hours of operation:
Victoria Day to Labour Day
Wednesday to Sunday: 10am -4:30pm
Monday and Tuesday: 1pm – 4pm
Labour Day to Thanksgiving
Saturday and Sunday: 1pm – 4pm
Monday to Friday: Closed
Thanksgiving to Victoria Day
Friday to Sunday: 1pm -4pm Monday to Thursday: Closed
There’s also the Canmore Museum & Geoscience Centre (same website address as the NWFP Barracks). It’s located inside the Canmore Civic Centre at 902b 7th Avenue. They also offer mining tours. Check their website in advance for dates/times.
If you’re into spelunking, you’re in luck. Canmore Cave Tours operate year round, although some tours aren’t available in the off-months. Tours can be as short as an hour, or as long as two days.
If you’re in need of relaxation, Canmore can easily become your regular de-stress destination. There are over 20 spas in Canmore, including spa hotels. You can easily melt your stress away with a glass of wine, a hot stone massage, and a mani-pedi, surrounded by the soothing sounds of nature and the beauty of the mountains all around you.
During our short weekend getaway, we quickly discovered that Canmore has more to offer than we had anticipated. We could have easily spent a week here or longer. I’d love to come back in the summer and spend more time in and around town. But visiting during shoulder season definitely gave us a greater appreciation for all the things to do Canmore when it’s not so busy.