Banff offers a charming lakeside town and exquisite vistas, for a price

If you want to hike amid soaring mountains, canoe over mirrored waters, spy for bears, browse quaint shops and otherwise bask in the smugness of knowing you’re in an A-list destination, head to Banff. The Canadian town and its namesake national park in Alberta are so stacked with attractions that one could spend weeks exploring here.

Many of the more than 1,000 miles of hiking and mountain biking trails are accessible from Banff and the nearby hamlet of Lake Louise, cradle of that hypnotic indigo lake. Prefer a ride? The Banff Gondola rises 2,292 feet to nearly 7,500 feet above sea level and features absurdly magnificent views of six mountain ranges. Summer is high season but winter rocks, too, with skiing at Mount Norquay, Sunshine Village and Lake Louise and an adventurer’s palate of backcountry activities.

Anchoring this idyll is a town of around 7,850 residents, where stone-and-brick facades open to restaurants, bars and shops selling a gamut of goods, including native crafts, wellness products, clothing, sports gear and technical outerwear. The arts scene includes the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies and the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. (Opera pub, anyone?)

The Banff tourism bureau calls the area “one of the most precious, protected places in the world,” and therein lies the conundrum: The national park draws more than 3 million annual visitors, many of whom are your competition for lodging, dining and attractions, many of which are priced to capitalize on the area’s popularity.

Location: Banff is in western Alberta, about 78 miles west of Calgary.

In Nelson, you’ll have the space and funds to savor the lake, town and scenery

So: How about a similar checklist — hiking, paddling, skiing and grinning ever-so-smugly — in a slightly larger, more affordable and far less-trafficked locale? Nelson, a town of 11,000 people 140 miles southwest of Banff that rises from the shores of Kootenay Lake and into the evergreen foothills of the Selkirk Mountains, draws only 200,000 tourists annually.

The bounty that lured the Sinixt, Syilx and Ktunaxa peoples to settle here thousands of years ago remains, and today hikers and mountain bikers can tap world-class trails, some straight from town and many more in the 64,739-acre West Arm Provincial Park, which abuts the city.

When temperatures get “Canadian hot” (mid-80s!) in July and August, the locals shift their recreational focus to the Kootenay Lake, a 65-mile-long sanctuary for stand-up paddleboarders, canoeists, sailors, anglers, powerboaters and swimmers. (Nelson is on the lake’s west arm.)

Remnants of Nelson’s industrial history abound — this city at various times has been a railroad depot, mining and mill town, hydroelectric producer and shipyard — and five other towns in the broader regional district are home to another 10,000 residents. Its 80 restaurants are more per capita than Washington, D.C., or New York, with highlights ranging from Indian (Kootenay Tamil Kitchen) and American (Jackson’s Hole & Grill) to high-end international cuisine, barbecue and bakeries. As you’d expect in a mountain town, coffee shops and bars abound, many with live music, and the whimsical shops — no big boxes here — occupy early-to-high Victorian buildings.

Like Banff, Nelson is busier in summer but hums in winter, too, with some of the world’s best Alpine skiing luring powder hounds into the nearby Monashee, Purcell and Selkirk mountains. Fall, with brilliant colors adorning the larch, aspen, birch, cottonwood and other trees, is delightful as well.

Location: Nelson is in southeastern British Columbia, about 56 miles from the U.S. border and a three-hour drive north from Spokane, Wash.

Briley is a writer based in Takoma Park. His website is

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