What’s worse than planning a vacation and saving up money to travel, only to reach your destination and realize you have to pay even more to experience all the best activities?
Traveling can already be an expensive endeavour, making free activities a highly sought-after commodity for many eager explorers. Yet, destinations with ample free things to do can be hard to come by.
Luckily, the Canadian town of Canmore, Alberta is one such place where you can experience endless hours of fun and excitement at no additional cost. Located near famous national parks, such as Banff National Park, and just an hour away from the major urban hub of Calgary, the charming mountain town is a bucket list destination.
In this article, we cover 12 of the best free things to do when visiting Canmore to help you plan your next nature-filled getaway.
Where is Canmore?
Canmore is a Canadian town located in the province of Alberta.
Just 22 kilometers to the west of Canmore is Banff National Park, home to the widely acclaimed Banff Film Festival and a part of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is also just over an hour away from the famous Lake Louise Ski Resort.
Along with its close proximity to Banff, Canmore is also just over an hour’s drive to the west of Calgary, which is Alberta’s largest city. The quaint mountain town is set against the backdrop of the Kananaskis Country wildlands, home to many ski slopes, hiking and walking trails, and other outdoor adventures.
Canmore is a small mountain town with a population of 15,990 permanent residents. The town has a rich cultural history and the surrounding area is home to many indigenous nations, including the Bearspaw First Nation, Chiniki First Nation, and Goodstoney First Nation, according to the Town of Canmore.
As far as the weather goes, Canmore enjoys four well-defined seasons, with comfortably warm summers and snowy winters. It is always important to consider the weather when traveling to Canmore, especially if you plan on visiting in the winter when freezing and below-freezing temperatures are common.
12 Free Things to Do in Canmore
Now that we have properly introduced you to Canmore, let’s begin our exploration of the many exciting and memorable activities to experience in the town.
One important consideration before we jump into our list of free activities is that many of these involve outdoor adventures, like hiking.
The majority of Canmore’s hiking locations reside within the Kananaskis Country and Bow Valley parks, which require you to purchase a Conservation Pass if you plan on driving to these locations. Pass fees go towards the conservation of Grassi Lakes and all other trails and natural zones in this area.
You can also take public transportation to these areas to bypass the Conservation Pass fees.
Here are 12 excellent activities you can enjoy for free when visiting Canmore:
1. Grassi Lakes Trail
This trail is an interpretive, out-and-back style trail that stretches 1.9 km in one direction (roughly 4 km to complete the trail in both directions). Along the walking trails, you will encounter the Grassi Lakes themselves, which are shallow lakes known for their aquamarine-colored waters.
After entering the trail via the trailhead, visitors have the option to choose between two different hiking trails — the Grassi Lake Upper and the Grassi Lakes Interpretive. The Upper version of the trail offers an easier route, while the Interpretive follows a more rugged trail terrain with a very steep section.
On the Grassi Lakes Interpretive trail, the steep climb up rewards you with stunning views of a nearby waterfall and the town of Canmore.
If you are visiting in the wintertime, the Interpretive trail will be closed due to icy conditions.
Grassi Lakes Trail was closed for construction in 2022 but will reopen in 2023.
2. Kananaskis Country Hikes
Kananaskis Country is a multi-use area home to hundreds of unique trails and parks. There are plenty of outdoor activities to enjoy while taking in the breathtaking views of the Canadian Rockies.
The parks found in Kananaskis Country are open to a variety of different activities including hiking, camping, biking, horseback riding, and skiing. You can check out the full list of parks and the amenities offered at each on the Alberta Parks website.
As for the trails in Kananaskis Country, there are several single trails as well as larger trail systems to discover in the multi-use natural area.
In total, there are more than 380 trails that you can access in Kananaskis Country. These trails range in difficulty from easy to more strenuous hikes.
Some of the most popular trails in this area include the Grotto Canyon Hiking Trail, the Rocky Mountain Legacy Trail, the Goat Creek Trail, and the Ribbon Falls Hiking & Mountain Biking Trail.
For winter visitors, it is important to note that Alberta Parks does not monitor ice conditions. If you plan on hiking in Kananaskis Country during the winter, make sure to bring the proper gear and take necessary precautions for potentially icy conditions.
You can learn more about practicing ice safety through the Canadian Red Cross website.
A Conservation Pass is required for anyone parking in Kananaskis Country.
3. Ha Ling Trail
The Ha Ling Trail is an out-and-back style trail that takes you up the slope of Ha Ling Peak, one of the peaks found on the northwestern side of Mount Lawrence Grassi.
To the saddle of the peak, the trail stretches over 3.5 total km. As for the peak itself, you must hike a total of 3.9 km to reach the summit. The final stretch from the saddle to the summit jumps up in elevation and is an unmaintained trail spread out over loose and rocky terrain.
If you plan on hiking to the summit, make sure you wear appropriate footwear and proceed with caution.
From multiple points on this trail, you can enjoy incredible views of the surrounding mountains and the twinkling town of Canmore far below.
Ha Ling Trail is located in Kananaskis Country, so you will need a Conservation Pass if you plan to drive to this location. Though the trail is open year-round, like other trails found in Kananaskis Country, Alberta Parks does not monitor the ice conditions.
Thus, you should always prepare and wear the proper gear when hiking Ha Link Peak in the winter.
4. Kananaskis Scenic Drives
Some of Canmore’s lesser-known wonders are the scenic Kananaskis drives.
The two driving trails are fairly different in nature. Highwood Pass is a paved road that sits at 2,206 m. (7,273 ft) above sea level — one of the highest paved roads in all of Canada! From this road, you can view stunning Canadian Rockies and catch glimpses of the surrounding areas of Canmore, Banff, and Calgary.
As for Smith Dorrien Trail, this roadway is a bit more dangerous and rugged. It is a gravel road that takes you around a 154 km. loop, totaling a roughly 3-hour-long drive. This road has been nicknamed the Wildlife Trail Road thanks to the many wild animals you can encounter along your drive.
Smith Dorrien Trail can be dusty, so make sure to drive slowly or keep your windows rolled up.
Both of these scenic drives have stops along the way where you can stop to rest, hike, and explore nature.
5. Quarry Lake Loop
Quarry Lake Loop is a super easy and fun hike the whole family can enjoy.
This loop-style trail totals roughly 3 km in total length and takes around 30 minutes to complete. The trail meanders around Quarry Lake, with the trailhead located just off Highway 742.
If you are starting in Canmore, you can head to the Canmore Nordic Centre via the Three Sisters Parkway. The road is unmarked on the left-hand side and leads into the Quarry Lake Parking lot. The official address provided by Google Maps for this parking lot is Spray Lakes Rd.
Along with being a great hiking location, Quarry Lake is also a popular destination for swimming, paddle sports, birding, and snowshoeing in the winter.
Though dogs are not allowed on the trail itself, there is an adjacent off-leash dog park for any visitors who bring their furry friends along for their trip to Canmore.
Quarry Lake Loop is completely free to access and use.
6. Big Head Sculpture
Crafted by Canadian artist Alan Henderson, the Big Head sculpture is an iconic part of Canmore.
The sculpture is located at the entrance to the Town of Canmore, right beside the well-known Policeman Creek Trail. After the sculpture was installed in 2008, it quickly became a local landmark beloved by Canmore residents and tourists alike.
Though the sculpture is a marvel to look at on its own, its design is also deeply rooted in Canmore’s history. The sculpture’s name — Big Head — is inspired by the Gaelic origin of the word Canmore, which means “Great Head” or “Chief” in the Gaelic language.
The sculpture’s head is modeled after one of the artist’s friends and is sculpted from blue granite. It is built to look like the head is half-buried in the ground, with the lower jaw and lip missing.
During festivals and holidays, the Big Head sculpture is often decorated by locals. According to Atlas Obscura, Big Head is often adorned with a warm cap in the winter and a pirate’s outfit in the summer.
7. Canmore Mountain Market
The Canmore Mountain Market is a farmers’ market that takes place every Thursday from late May to early October. At this farmers’ market, you can discover more than 65 vendors offering a wide selection of locally and regionally produced goods.
Some of the items you can purchase at the Canmore Mountain Market include fresh produce, meats, jams, coffee, artwork, crafts, clothing, and other artisanal products.
This market is located at Elevation Place, a recreational facility that includes a variety of facilities for fitness and leisure. Restrooms at Elevation Place are open to the public during the Mountain Market, and sheltered areas are available during rainy days.
Canmore Mountain Market has been around for more than 20 years, making the market a cornerstone of Canmore’s summer traditions.
If you are interested in becoming a vendor at the Canmore Mountain Market, you can submit an application online once the 2023 market form becomes available.
You can visit the Canmore Mountain Market for free — though you may want to bring some money along to purchase any of the many wonderful local goods available at the market.
8. The Avens Gallery
The Avens Gallery is located on Main Street in Canmore and has been voted by locals as the “Best Gallery in Canmore” for three years in a row.
First opened in 1986, The Avens Gallery is a longtime landmark in downtown Canmore. The gallery is open every day of the week and features a variety of Western Canadian artists and an even wider variety of artistic mediums.
The artworks found at this gallery include materials such as oils, acrylics, mixed media, encaustic, mosaics, wood cellulose, copper, steel, bronze, and soapstone.
What’s truly special about this gallery is that the artworks you see are not just for show — you can become an art patron by purchasing artwork that catches your eye!
However, The Avens Gallery is open to visitors as well, no purchase required.
You can check out The Avens Gallery’s current selection of artworks on the gallery’s website.
9. Canmore Nordic Centre Provincial Park
At the Canmore Nordic Centre, you can enjoy a wide range of different outdoor activities. These include hiking, biking, swimming, geocaching, mountain biking, trail running, and picnicking. In the winter, the Canmore Nordic Centre also permits fat biking and cross-country skiing.
There is also a disc golf course located between the Mountain Bike Skills Park and the Biathlon Stadium.
A full list of trails — including which activities are permitted on each trail — can be found on the Canmore Nordic Centre website.
Along with standard restroom facilities, Canmore Nordic Centre also has a variety of indoor facilities that can be used for private rentals, meetings, and more.
There’s lots to do and discover at Canmore Nordic Centre, so make sure to visit the centre’s website for more information.
10. Canmore Museum (Free for Kids)
Though not free for the whole family, the Canmore Museum is a great place to visit where your kids can get in for free. The museum in downtown Canmore is open Thursday through Monday and offers special group and family rates.
At the Canmore Museum, you can discover cultural exhibits that dive into the rich history of Canmore. The museum features a permanent exhibit titled “From Coal to Community,” which takes you through the history of Canmore from the ancient times when indigenous First Nations controlled the lands all the way to the modern community found in Canmore today.
Along with traditional museum exhibits, the Museum also offers virtual reality experiences and real-life landmarks that you can visit as well.
One such landmark is the NWMP Barracks, a historical site built back in 1893 that served as the lodgings, office, and jailhouse for the Canmore police up until 1929.
In the summertime, the Canmore Museum presents its Indigenous Stories program, which takes you through the history, traditions, and cultures of the Stoney Nakoda — the indigenous people who are native to the land of Canmore.
Visit the Canmore Museum website today to learn more and plan your visit.
11. Canmore Folk Music Festival (free for kids)
Another great event to check out that is free for kids is the Canmore Folk Music Festival. This three-day festival takes place over Heritage Long Weekend in August and features over 30 artists from Canada and all over the world. It takes place a the beautiful Cenntenial Park which is in the heart of downtown Canmore.
This festival is fun for the entire family. The grounds feature a large play area for kids, arts and crafts, storytelling, a climbing wall, and delicious food and drinks for the adults.
While adults have to purchase tickets, kids get in for free! To learn more about the festival and to purchase tickets for the event visit the Canmore Folk Music Festival website.
12. Bow River Loop
The Bow River Loop is another beautiful walking trail that is great for the whole family. This trail is just over two kilometers long, generally takes around 30 minutes to complete, and is considered to be relatively easy. If you have a pup, you are also allowed to walk your dog on a leash through this loop.
In the summer, the area is also great for paddle boarding, canoeing, mountain biking, and rafting.
If you want to stay the night, you can book at the Bow River Campground which is inside Bow Valley Provincial Park, they offer camping spots for $30 a night. Some campgrounds offer electricity, showers, and all the basic comforts needed.
To learn more about Bow Valley and to book a campsite, visit their website.
Canmore has no shortage of free activities for the whole family to enjoy.
From exploring the breathtaking natural setting that surrounds Canmore to learning all about Canmore’s vast cultural history, you can have tons of fun without spending a dime.
As you visit the many sightseeing locations found around Canmore, don’t be shy to strike up a conversation with friendly locals. There are plenty of hidden gems found all around Canmore that can be discovered through a short conversation with one of the town’s residents.
Additionally, Explore Canmore offers a full online catalog of activities to look through, as well as trip planning assistance and travel tips. Along with outdoor adventures, galleries, and museums, Canmore also has a range of tours, sports, recreation, wellness, and other activities to enjoy (though not all are free!).
Plus, Explore Canmore’s events page can help you keep up with all the latest and upcoming happenings in this beautiful mountain town.
Now, it’s your turn to begin planning your trip and exploring all the fun activities Canmore has to offer!