Canada’s oldest national park, Banff National Park, covers over 2,500 square miles of Canadian wilderness that includes mountains, glaciers, dense forest, alpine landscapes, and stunning ice fields. The views are breathtaking and the change in elevation and climate is remarkable, but for lovers of wild creatures, it is the park’s wildlife that reveals its true glory. Fifty-six mammal species, a handful of hearty reptiles and amphibians, and over 280 species of bird call Banff home. If you love the outdoors and want abundant opportunities to observe wild animals, Banff is a wonderful place to grab a vacation in Canada. Here is a tiny taste of what you’ll find in this stellar national park.
Northern River Otter
The Northern River Otter is a stocky, semi-aquatic mammal endemic to North America. A member of the weasel family, otters are known to be playful and friendly. At home in the water or on the land, this furry creature lives in burrows close to the edges of waterways, where they construct underwater tunnel openings for coming and going. These excellent swimmers are easiest to spy in marshy areas where, if you’re lucky, you’ll catch a group of younger otters engaging in a game of chase. Otters are active all year long, meaning you can visit the park at any time.
One of the primary predators in Banff National Park, wolves have been a part of Banff since before it was set aside for conversation. From the 1850s through the 1930s, the wolf population was intentionally reduced, but these days, they’re protected and measures are taken to try and ensure their numbers continue to climb. Essential to keeping elk populations in the park under control, healthy wolf pack numbers are essential to Banff’s balance. While it can be tough to get a good look at these impressive animals, one of the larger packs — the Red Deer pack — routinely roams the area between Ya Ha Tinda, the Upper Peninsula, and Bow Summit.
King of the park’s predators, the chances are slim that anyone visiting Banff hopes to run into one of these impressive animals. A grown grizzly bear typically weighs between 400 and 900 pounds, though a few massive males have been recorded at weights as high as 1,500 pounds. When these creatures are standing upright on hind legs — a terrifying and magnificent sight — they can be as tall as 10 feet. No longer considered a threatened species, grizzlies in Banff are still protected, but some of the development of the area has disrupted their way of life and population. The construction of the Trans-Canada Highway, in particular, has had negative consequences for these animals’ movement, mating, and way of life, which has led to numerous constructions of wildlife crossings and underpasses.
The pika is a cute, small creature about the size of a gopher. Normally found in rocky areas between 5,800 and 7,700 feet, these sun-loving animals are shy but relatively easy to watch once you’ve spied one if you’re patient, still, and quiet. One of their most fascinating habits is their practice of “cutting” grass and leaving it in the sun to dry in order to make “hay” for their winter homes beneath the rocks.
Bighorn sheep are a popular resident of the national park. Weighing up to 300 pounds, the number of these nimble animals plummeted to dangerously low levels around the turn of the 20th century, but thanks to conservation efforts, they are no longer in danger. In Banff, they’re most readily seen along the Bow Valley Parkway at Backswamp and on Mount Norquay Road and Lake Minnewanka Road. You can also spot them near the top of the Sulphur Mountain gondola ride.
These beautiful sea birds are small and elaborately colored. They take their name from the Harlequin—a type of character in Italian theater that dresses colorfully and is often masked. The males are a deep grayish blue with golden brown sides and white markings, including a white patch on the head around their eyes. The females are less colorful, but still striking.
The only species in their genus, these ducks eat mollusks, insects, and crustaceans, which they snag by diving and swimming under the water. Prime bird and duck watching time at Banff is during the spring and early summer months from just before sunrise until about midmorning. Harlequin ducks, and other birds, are most readily found around the Banff Townsite area, Basin Marsh, and the Vermilion Lakes.
Any visit to Banff National Park will spark your appreciation of the natural world, especially because of the abundant wildlife found there. So, set aside some time, book a flight, and remember to take your binoculars for an unforgettable experience of wild things.