I will never forget my first experience on a stand-up paddleboard (SUP). I’d been hearing about the new paddle sport for a couple of years and had been longing to try it. I finally got the opportunity to rent a board on a summer vacation in British Columbia. I hopped on the board after a very brief demonstration on how to hold the paddle and was pushed off into the lake with a personal flotation device (PFD) strapped to the board and instructions to stay within sight. While perhaps not the best introduction to the sport (and certainly far from a lesson), I quickly discovered that I could stand on the board with ease and that paddling was relatively simple. Within five minutes, I had my child on the board with me, and we had found a new favorite activity.
I bought my first stand up paddleboard within a month of renting one on vacation, and by the end of the summer, I had already paddled a river. I was also looking into lessons for the following year so that I could tour all of the lakes and rivers in the Canadian Rockies where I live. Fast forward a few years, and I have now paddled over 25 lakes, eight rivers (complete with class I rapids), and even tried my hand at paddling on the Pacific Ocean along with SUP surfing in Mexico.
Of all the places I’ve paddled, and given a choice between rivers, oceans, and lakes, I would choose a river in the Canadian Rockies any day. While I am still far from considering myself an expert paddler, I love the thrill of running a river, navigating around sweepers and tight corners, and keeping my balance as I ride over small riffles and rapids. The scenery found along the Bow River in Banff National Park is also a significant selling point for learning to SUP rivers, and one gets plenty of opportunities to watch for wildlife while paddling on the river.
Starting: Where to Rent a Board and Learn to SUP in the Canadian Rockies
Travelers and locals alike will want to stop at the Banff Canoe Club in downtown Banff, Alberta, to rent a board and get some practice paddling on a calm section of the Bow River. From the Canoe Club dock, it is possible to paddle upstream on the river as far as you want to go, and then let the gentle current carry you back to the dock. This route is beginner paddling at its finest, and you’ll enjoy a new perspective of Mount Rundle and Cascade Mountain from the water. You can expect to see deer drinking from the water and maybe even a bear or elk standing on the riverbank.
The other paddling option from the Banff Canoe Club is to paddle up Forty Mile Creek to Vermilion Lake. This option is a scenic paddle and allows you to practice some tight turns on the small narrow creek. On your way back, it is a gentle float downstream right back to the docks.
The Banff Canoe Club can get busy, so it is recommended that you show up early in the day if you want to rent one of their inflatable boards. Once you receive a stand-up paddleboard, though, the staff will make sure you know how to use it, how to paddle, and will outfit you with PFDs and all necessary gear for your outing. For more information on rentals through the Canoe Club, visit their website at the Banff Canoe Club. For current information on rental rates, it is best to contact the Canoe Club directly.
Other Options for Novice Paddlers and Locations to Rent Boards
Kananaskis Outfitters has stand-up paddleboards for rent on Barrier Lake in nearby Kananaskis, Alberta, on weekends during the summer season. This area is an excellent introduction to flat-water paddling before you attempt larger outings on the Bow River. Barrier Lake will also test your skills if it’s windy while you are there. Expect small waves and white caps that will challenge the most experienced paddler if conditions are not calm.
All information on renting boards and other boats from Kananaskis Outfitters are on their website. It’s always wise to call in advance as well to ensure that the lakeside rentals are open on the day that you plan to visit.
Bow Valley SUP has a rental shop set up in downtown Canmore, Alberta, during the summer months. Advanced reservations are recommended, and you will have to transport your board to the nearest body of water on your own. The company has both inflatable and hard boards for rent, and they can also get you set up with tie-down straps and foam blocks for your vehicle. From here, you can SUP on the Canmore Reservoir or transport your board to Banff and float back to Canmore on the Bow River in a two- to four-hour paddle.
SUP Touring on the Bow River
The beginner stretch for this river runs from just outside the town of Banff, Alberta, back into town in a short two-hour paddle. Parking is available right off the TransCanada Highway at a pull-off just past the turnoff for the Hwy 1A. From here, it is a short 2-hour paddle back into Banff to the canoe docks at the Banff Canoe Club.
You can park a second vehicle here or stash a bike for a quick ride back to your car. To bike back, follow Vermillion Lakes Drive and the Legacy Trail past the Vermillion Lakes to the Highway 1A turnoff. After that, it is a short ride on the highway back to your vehicle.
This section of the river is scenic and great for beginners. There are a couple of sharp corners with sweepers near the put-in spot, but after the first 20 minutes, the outing quickly turns into a float trip, and you’ll have to paddle if you don’t want to spend four hours on the river.
For an intermediate “trail,” start at the end of the Banff Golf Course or below Bow Falls in downtown Banff, and paddle to nearby Canmore in a 14-mile trip. Full information on what to expect from this stretch along with put-in and take out directions are on the Parks Canada website. The site says to expect a four-hour paddle, but it only took us two hours to do the run in kayaks.
Extreme caution should be taken on this stretch of the Bow River from Banff to Canmore as we encountered sweepers at every corner. Functional navigation abilities are crucial to make it around the tight corners while avoiding the trees and logs sticking out into the water. There are also a few sections with class I rapids to negotiate. I chose to kayak this section of the river so that I could get a good glimpse of what to expect next time I bring my board.
Advanced SUP paddlers can also run the full stretch from Lake Louise to Banff or Canmore (portaging around Bow Falls in Banff) with complete information found on the Parks Canada website.
A great video of the Lake Louise to Canmore run by stand up paddleboard can be found here at SUP Bow River Expedition – Down by the River by Milky Chance. If this video doesn’t get you packing your bags for a paddle trip to the Rockies, nothing else I write will.
Additional Information for Travelers and Visitors to the Rockies
Please visit the Banff Lake Louise Tourism website for additional trip planning resources and information on where to stay while in the area. Other useful information is also on the Tourism Canmore website.