The Tunnel Mountain hike in Banff is arguably one of the best Banff hikes and it’s a classic! It’s beloved by locals for its accessibility and you can hike it year-round. It may be one of the smallest mountains in Banff National Park, but it still offers tremendous views of the surrounding valleys and the town of Banff.
The hike moves slowly up the mountain through a number of switchbacks and offers various viewpoints out into the Bow and Spray Valleys. It’s great for sunrise or sunset and it rarely disappoints. It’s just one of those things you need to do in Banff.
Tunnel Mountain Hike Guide
Tunnel Mountain Route Description
There are a number of start points for the hike up Tunnel Mountain and that includes from the center of town. Other start points begin from three separate parking lots designated for the hike. It’s a pretty simple route that follows a series of well-graded switchbacks. It’s pretty easy for anyone of reasonable fitness and makes for a great morning or evening hike from the town. Most of the trail moves through the forest and provides several viewpoints out over the Bow River, Banff Springs Hotel, Banff Town, Banff Springs Golf Course, Mount Rundle, and the Bow Valley.
It may be the smallest mountain in Banff, but it’s still a mountain and has a few steep sections to climb on the way to the summit. The trail starts uphill on long switchbacks with the occasional glimpse of the town. As it climbs in elevation the trail does narrow but remains easy to walk along.
Towards the summit, a series of large viewpoints overlook several limestone cliffs famous for rock climbers in the park. Do take care not to knock anything from the top on unsuspecting climbers down below. From the viewpoints, you get some tremendous views of Mount Rundle. Viewpoints make for a great spot for photographers looking for early morning or evening light as it’s a safe trail to climb in the dark with a headlamp.
Tunnel Mountain’s summit is only a few hundred meters past these viewpoints where you can find several small meadows and more viewpoints back towards town. In the distance, you can Vermillion Lakes, Sulphur Mountain, Mount Bourgeau, and the ever-present Cascade Mountain to the North of town.
Tunnel Mountain Has No Tunnel
The mountain’s original name was Sleeping Buffalo given by the natives as it has a similar appearance from a distance. However, the name Tunnel Mountain was given in 1882 when the Canadian Pacific Railway put forward plans to blast a tunnel through the mountain. However, the plans were never set and they choose the more cost-effective route around the mountain.
When Can You Hike Tunnel Mountain?
Tunnel Mountain is good all year round and we’ve made the hike in both the winter and the summer. We actually prefer the trail in the winter months as it’s very popular in the summer months. Unless it’s a very fresh snowfall the trail has enough traffic to keep the snow compacted and easy to walk on.
Keep in mind that in the early mornings during springtime the trail can get icy as the snow melts and refreezes so it helps to have microspikes. You can even rent microspikes at several shops in town and it can really help on other trails around Banff during this time.
How Long Does Take To Hike Tunnel Mountain?
The trail length is pretty subjective due to its accessibility to a wide range of fitness levels. In general, I’d say between one to three hours to complete the hike. However, the hike is great for a jog in the early morning or late evening and can be completed in around thirty minutes or less. On our last hike, we completed it in 45 minutes at an easy constant pace.
How Hard is Tunnel Mountain?
It’s an easy hike, but not the easiest in Banff as it does have 266m in elevation gain. If you’re seeking something more simple try the trails around one of the lakes such as Lake Louise, Moraine Lake, or Lake Minnewanka. Other simple hikes include Johnston Canyon, Grassi Lakes, and the Bow River loop in town.
How Busy is the Tunnel Mountain Hike?
AllTrails rates this as a heavily trafficked trail, and it very popular. Tunnel Mountain is considered one of the best Banff hikes and you’ll pass people frequently on the trail.
Don’t come here expecting to be alone. Your best bet at having a crowd-free experience is coming mid-week at either sunrise or sunset. Our last climb up Tunnel Mountain was on Christmas Eve and we still passed a few people on the trail
Dogs and Kids on Tunnel Mountain?
The Tunnel Mountain hike is totally appropriate for dogs, in fact, it may be one of the best in the park. That being said, although you’re just outside of town it’s still bear country so keep your dog on a leash and carry bear spray. The Bow Valley wolf pack and cougars have even been spotted around Tunnel Mountain.
We’d say all kids should be okay for the hike to Helen Lake for the hike up to Tunnel Mountain. Of course, every kid is different it’s an hour of sustained walking uphill so if you think they’re up for it there shouldn’t be any issues.
Wildlife Awareness on The Hike
If you’re on any hikes in Banff National Park you should practice proper wildlife awareness. In the region, there are frequent sightings of black bears, grizzly bears, moose, coyotes, and cougars. They all a potential threat to humans and we should reduce our impact on their natural lives.
Before any hike or walk-in Banff, you need to have bear spray. Remember that the bear spray is worthless if it’s in your pack, you’ll need to be able to grab this in two seconds or less in an emergency. We wear our bear sprays on our hip.
The likeliness of seeing wildlife on this trail is high. It is a heavily trafficked trail, but bear sightings have occurred. The meadow and valley is prime grizzly habitat and the trail has been closed in the past due to bear activity.
When you’re on the trail make noise by banging hiking poles, talking, whistling, clapping, or singing. This is particularly important around blind bends and corners. You’re through the deep woods during these times, and it’s prime time to sneak up on a bear. Once you’re at the summit, you’re safer as you can see wildlife from afar, but still, don’t let your guard down and keep the bear spray on you just in case.
As always while hiking, you need to stay alert, travel in a group, mind children and pets, and finally carrying bear spray and knowing how to use it. If you’ve come to the park without bear spray Valhalla Pure Outfitters in town sells spray and holders with employees who will demonstrate how to use properly.
Besides bears, it’s common to see hoary marmots and pika near the rock wall behind Helen Lake. We asked a marmot for directions, but they only gave us a whistle.
Advice on Hikes in Banff
If this is your first time hiking in the Rockies take a conservative approach. Pick an adequate hike for your fitness, plan for plenty of time, pack water and food, and don’t be afraid to turn around. If you want to learn more about what to wear hiking we have a great post.
For long hikes, set a turn around time at the departure. Any time we set out for an objective I determine a time at which we need to turn around in order to arrive at the parking lot or campsite by dark. I would recommend not hiking in the dark as it’s easy to get lost and it’s not fun in bear country.
On that note, always carry bear spray if you plan to hike in the park. We carry ours in the neighborhood and bears have been known to stroll through town and busy parking lots. Always practice wildlife awareness when you’re on a trail, and please give animals space.
In regards to times keep in mind your mountain fitness — different than the gym. The low end of the times in this post is a constant fast pace uphill with little to no breaks and a brisk pace downhill. Most hikers should plan for a middle of the road time with the estimated duration.
It’s also super important to know that there are limitations and to come prepared. These are very serious mountains and it easy to get in well over your head with life-threatening consequences.
What to Wear On a Hike?
The most basic principle of what to wear hiking is layering. Anyone that has spent time in wilderness or mountains can speak to the fact your temperature can fluctuate a lot on a hike. You can easily start off cool at the base of the mountain and get hot as soon as you begin moving.
The goal of hiking clothing is to help regulate your body temperature, element protection, and moisture management. Temperature management is best done through a layering system if you want to learn more about what to pack for a day hike or what to wear on a hike, you can see our full post!
Here is exactly what we take on hikes in the Canadian Rockies
Fjallraven’s Keb Pant
Both Cameron and I have Fjallraven’s well known Keb pants. Fjallraven’s Keb pants are a mountaineering staple, but they are heavyweight and not excellent for quick dry properties yet extremely durable.
They kept me warm throughout this entire hike and are windproof. When I was too hot at the base of the mountain, I was able to unzip the sides for airflow. These are, without a doubt, my favorite pants to hike in the Canadian Rockies. You can also check out the best hiking pants for women and the best hiking pants for men.
Outdoor Research Shirt Echo Series
I have six Outdoor Research Echo shirts and rotate them on all my hikes. They are lightweight and moisture wicking. Seriously, you don’t want to be stuck with a cotton shirt while hiking it traps all your sweat and then when you get cold it becomes a problem.
Outdoor Research shirts provide full coverage with their long sleeve collections, but you won’t get hot under the sun. These shirts are built with UPF sun protection, AirVent™ moisture management, and ActiveFresh™ odor control technology.
We ALWAYS have a down jacket with me on every single hike I go in the Rockies. It’s a just in case jacket that we usually end up wearing when we reach the summit, and it gets cold. Down jackets pack up light and small so there is no reason NOT to have one in your bag. Seriously it could save your life in a bad situation. We wrote a whole post on our favorites (hint – Arc’Teryx Cerium LT Hooded Jacket, Patagonia Down Sweater, REI Coop Down Jacket)
I also always have a water-resistant windbreaker/rain jacket in my hiking backpack. This is for if it rains (which it did on this hike) or if it gets windy. I have never regretted having a windbreaker in my back.
Again, it’s another piece of clothing that is super light and could save your life. The one I wore on this hike is by one my new favorite companies – Topo Designs. They make a Global Jacket that is waterproof, with a structured hood, and venting pockets.
I have a pair of Outdoor Research gloves in my hiking pack at all times. They are great for when you are scrambling and I always end up using them. I never want to come back with bloody hands and they protect against that.
We’ve learned to love our feet with a good pair of merino wool hiking socks. You will want to keep your feet nice and dry while you walk around. Most importantly wool socks stay fresh for several days as they have natural antimicrobial properties.
We travel with a couple pairs of the Darn Tough Merino socks and our feet have never felt cold or wet. As a bonus, they’re produced in Vermont!
We personally like to use between a 30-40L pack for most day hikes in the mountains as it allows for us to carry everything we could need. The major plus side is a large bag means we can bring things like a stove to make coffee or a hot meal for a nice rest on long hikes. We also love to use our Camelbak’s for easier objectives.
Make sure to protect your eyes from the sun since you’ll likely spend a lot of time hiking in the sun at elevation. There are a lot of options for sunglasses and everyone should own at least a pair. It’s best to make sure they do have UV protection for the health of your eyes. Sunglasses are particularly important if you plan to visit any glaciers or high alpine passes as sun reflection from the snow is damaging to your eyes.
We made our first investment in quality polarized sunglasses with a pair of SMITH Optics Lowdown 2. Truthfully, not everyone needs to invest $150 in a pair of sunglasses; however, we love ours and will never buy cheap ones again. Polarized glasses are great at enhancing vision in bright environments and removing glare from windshields and the water.
I always have a baseball cap in my bag in case the sun gets too intense. I’ve been out too many times without one and my forehead gets too toasty for my liking – even with sunscreen. A baseball cap protects against that and I highly recommend having one in your bag.
If you have plans to take part in a long day or multi-day hikes a pair of hiking poles are a great way to save your knees and prevent injuries. If you’re on a full day of hiking in the mountains you’ll gain and descend a lot of elevation. So, it’s easy for your legs to get tired so a pair of hiking poles will pay off. Although I don’t always need hiking poles, they are always in my pack. I ended up using them while hiking the ridge and descending on this hike.
Black Diamond is a company dedicated to mountain sports and has worked hard to craft wonderful products. I personally use the Black Diamond FLZ Hiking Poles, but there are some other great poles out there produced by companies like REI and MSR. “Z” poles are fantastic as they’re lightweight and can be stashed inside a backpack should you not need them.
Peak Design Capture Clip
This is has been one of our favorite additions to our camera equipment and hiking outfit. The Peak Design capture clip allows for a camera to be clipped on to your backpack strap or belt.It has to be one of the best accessories we’ve ever used for carrying our camera.
The clip feels secure and robust with a straight forward design that makes switching straps easy. We’ve brought it on several hikes around the Canadian Rockies now and it has changed the way in which we photograph hikes. The access it provides to your camera is so much better than a camera strap that allows a camera to swing and banging into everything.
It’s super handy and a must for anyone who want to carry their camera on hikes, but not have to fumble around in their bag every time they want to take a photo.
Camera (We have the Fujifilm X-T3)
This beautiful and reasonably priced camera is both weather-resistant and mirrorless. It is easily the best ASP-C camera on the market and gives a serious run at many of the full-frame cameras. After all, is a full-frame camera really a necessity? In my opinion, not at all! We love photography, posting to Instagram, and posting on this website so we always have a camera on us on any hike.
This is a non-negotiable item if you’re in bear country and in some parks, it’s actually required by law. Bear spray should be on your person and not in your pack. We each have a neoprene sleeve that holds our bear spray on our belt pocket. It’s easy to reach in case of an emergency which the most important detail.
It’s a good idea to make noise while hiking in bear country whether that is singing, ringing a bell, clapping, or banging your hiking poles. Be wary of blind spots on your hikes such as tight bends and forested sections of the trail.
On any trip where we’ll spend time outside, almost every trip, a headlamp is on our packing list. I typically don’t plan on using it on a day hike, but it’s always there just in case.
We have several, but one of our favorites is the Biolite 330. It took several recommendations online before settling on this one because of its affordable price and durability. It delivers 330 lumens, costs $60, and it’s rechargeable.
Pack some high-calorie snacks for your hike on the trail. Popular options are energy gels, bars, or balls, jerky, nuts, or even a Snickers. Hiking at elevation can burn a lot of calories so it’s important to maintain your glucose levels.
It’s advised to eat as much as 200-300 calories per hour of exercise. If it’s a long day on the mountain you can always bring a packed lunch with a sandwich and high calorie like dried fruits. (I’m pretty much a kid and still love a peanut butter and jelly sandwich). We fell in love with the Nut Butter filled Clif Bars.
This is where preparation for spending a night out in the wilderness comes into effect. If you’re on a short loop around town it’s probably not necessary, but any significant hike in a national park or wilderness area presents the risk of spending the night outside.
When temperatures drop at night it presents the very dangerous threat of hypothermia or frostbite. Every time I pack this thing the photo cracks me up, but I suppose it’s better than a smiling couple.
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