If you’re traveling to Alberta, Canada, Banff National Park is a must-visit! The stunning beauty of the Canadian Rockies has been drawing tourists from all over the world to Banff for more than a century. The population of the town of Banff is less than 9,000; however, the area attracted over 4 million visitors last year!
Banff National Park (established in 1885) is the oldest and most popular national park in Canada. It is one of four national parks in the Canadian province of Alberta and is located along the Alberta-British Columbia border in the Rocky Mountains. The park spreads across 2,564 square miles and features turquoise lakes, snow-capped mountains and pristine wilderness that is home to a variety of wildlife.
The stunning scenery and endless options for recreational activities make Banff a great year-round destination for your next vacation. However, most of Banff’s visitors arrive during the short summer season, as we did (July 2018). Summer in the Canadian Rockies brings warm days, extended daylight hours and wildflowers. If you are looking to hit the trails, the mild weather expands your options. Banff National Park has over 1,000 miles of trails for your hiking pleasure!
There is so much to see and do in and around Banff National Park in the summertime. An adventurous family could easily spend weeks here and still have things left on their list!
We put together a list of what to see and do in Banff National Park as well as some tips on how to plan a great trip. If you’ve always dreamed of visiting the Canadian Rockies, it’s never too late! Just Go to Banff National Park!
WHAT TO DO WHEN VISITING BANFF NATIONAL PARK
NEAR THE TOWN OF BANFF
Located in the southern part of Banff National Park, the town of Banff is located along the Trans-Canada Highway, about 125 miles west of Calgary and 35 miles southeast of Lake Louise. The town of Banff was the first municipality in Canada to be incorporated inside a national park. At an elevation of 4,537 feet, it is the highest town in Canada and is flanked on all sides by mountains, including Mount Rundle, Sulphur Mountain, Cascade Mountain and Mount Norquay.
The bustling streets of this resort town are lined with restaurants, bars, shops and art galleries. Banff also offers a variety of accommodations, though most are pricey due the town’s prime location and proximity to various attractions in the park. Whether staying in town or not, plan to spend a full day exploring the area.
While visiting the town of Banff and the surrounding area, our recommendations include:
- Drive the Bow Valley Parkway. The Bow Valley Parkway (Highway 1A) offers more than just an alternate route to the Trans-Canada Highway; it is an attraction in itself! Built in 1920, it was the first road that connected Banff and Lake Louise. The Trans-Canada Highway now offers the faster route between the two. However, the scenic 27-mile Bow Valley Parkway is much quieter and offers some of the best opportunities for wildlife sightings in Banff. This route also offers scenic pullouts with interpretive displays, several picnic areas and access to some popular hiking trails. Be sure to drive slowly and keep your eyes peeled for wildlife (especially black bears!) right along the roadside.
Early mornings and evenings are the best time to spot animals. The parkway is open year-round; however, seasonal closures (March 1-June 25) occur between the hours of 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. to allow wildlife to feed and move about when they are most active in this wildlife corridor. If you’re just passing through, the drive between Banff and Lake Louise takes about an hour. However, if you are planning to take in all the sights and a hiking trail or two, allow at least a half day.
Experience Johnston Canyon. If you are planning to drive the Bow Valley Parkway, you should also plan to stop and check out dramatic Johnston Canyon. This family-friendly hike is one of the most popular in Banff National Park. There are several options for this hike depending on how much time you have and how far you’d like to hike:
- Lower Falls. The first part of the trail is paved and climbs gradually through the forest. It then takes you over catwalks affixed to limestone cliffs. As you follow the catwalk through the canyon, you walk alongside and over Johnston Creek’s rushing waters until you reach a bridge with views of the Lower Falls. If you don’t mind getting a little wet, cross the bridge and duck under a tunnel to feel the power at the base of the falls! (easy, 0.5-mile hike, ~30 minutes to reach the lower falls)
- Upper Falls. Continue another mile to the Upper Falls. This part of the hike has a bit more incline as it climbs out of the lower canyon and into the forest before working its way back toward the creek. The Upper Falls can be seen from two viewing areas. The first is accessed by a side trail to a catwalk with a view from the base of the falls. The second is reached by climbing a steep trail to a platform that looks across to the top of the falls. (easy/moderate, 1.5-mile hike to reach Upper Falls, allow about 2-2.5 hours for the round-trip hike)
- Ink Pots. If you have more time and prefer to leave the crowds behind, continue to the Ink Pots where several cold mineral springs bubble from the earth. (moderate, 6.7-mile round trip hike, ~5-6 hours)
Traveler Tip: Plan to arrive early in the morning or late in the afternoon to find parking and avoid the crowds and tour buses. If you hike early morning, wear or bring layers, since the shady canyon is quite cold, even on a summer morning. Johnston Falls is accessible year-round. Be sure to bring ice cleats in the winter to hike to Johnston Canyon’s frozen waterfalls.
- Explore the Lake Minnewanka Loop. The Minnewanka Loop Road is located just northeast of the town of Banff. Lake Minnewanka is the biggest lake in Banff National Park and is a popular day-use area for picnicking and boating. It is the only lake in Banff where motor boats are allowed. The short Stewart Canyon hike can also be accessed via the Lake Minnewanka day-use area.
Just beyond the Lake Minnewanka day-use area is the smaller and quieter Two Jack Lake day-use area. We thought this was the perfect spot for a picnic dinner on a warm summer evening. Johnson Lake, located just off the loop road, is apparently the best place in Banff for a swim on a hot summer day. This man-made lake has Banff’s only beach—not surprising since the other lakes are glacial-fed and frigid! A 2.1-mile trail circles Johnson Lake, if you’d rather hike than swim.
The Lake Minnewanka Loop can also be a great spot to view wildlife. Watch for bighorn sheep grazing along the road between Lake Minnewanka and Two Jack Lake. We also spotted a large herd of elk in a field towards the end of the loop.
If you have more time, here are some other things to do near the town of Banff:
- Visit Cave and Basin National Historic Site, the site that led to the creation of Banff National Park.
- Catch sunrise at Two Jack Lake.
- Bike the Banff Legacy Trail.
- Get away from the crowds and take in views of Mount Rundle at Vermillion Lakes.
- Summit Tunnel Mountain.
- Wander through the streets in the town of Banff and grab a bite to eat.
- Relax after a day of hiking and soak in the Banff Upper Hot Springs.
- Hike up Sulphur Mountain and take the Banff Gondola down.
- Watch the sunset at Vermillion Lakes.
See the Parks Canada website for more information on hiking trails in the Banff area.
NEAR THE VILLAGE OF LAKE LOUISE
Lake Louise is a hamlet within Banff National Park, which is separated into two communities—an area called The Village and the area centered on the Chateau Lake Louise which is adjacent to the lake. The village of Lake Louise is located about 40 minutes northwest of the town of Banff at the junction of the Trans-Canada Highway and the Icefields Parkway. An assortment of hotels, restaurants, gas stations and shops centered at the Samson Mall make up the village of Lake Louise. The Parks Canada Information Center (visitor center) is also located just behind the shopping plaza.
The second community, centered on the Chateau Lake Louise, is located at an elevation of 5,249 feet (a couple hundred feet higher than The Village). Fairmont’s Chateau Lake Louise is a luxury resort hotel located on Lake Louise’s eastern shore. The original hotel was developed at the turn of the century by the Canadian Pacific Railway.
The main attractions in the Lake Louise area are two stunning glacial lakes-Lake Louise and nearby Moraine Lake. The Lake Louise area offers a wide variety of outdoor activities in the summer. Plan to spend a full day exploring Lake Louise and the surrounding area.
Lake Louise is an icon of the Canadian Rockies and one of the most visited and photographed locations in the area. The lake is framed by a stunning mountainous backdrop which includes Mount Victoria and Mount Victoria Glacier. Lake Louise’s striking turquoise color comes from rock flour carried into the lake by glacial runoff.
While visiting Lake Louise, our recommendations include:
- Take a stroll on the Lake Louise Lakeshore Trail. This wide, flat trail allows visitors of all abilities to explore the Lake Louise shoreline. It leads away from the crowded Chateau Lake Louise area, around the north shore of the lake to the base of Mount Victoria. At the end of the trail, you’ll find a milky creek and a beach of silt. This is where meltwater from Victoria Glacier flows into this glacially-carved basin. From just above the “beach”, there is a good view of the hotel across the lake. You may also be able to see rock climbers scaling the steep cliffs above! Return the way you came, unless you are connecting with one of the more demanding hikes into the mountains. (easy, 2.5-mile out-and-back hike).
Go for a hike to a Lake Louise Tea House. A variety of hiking trails exist around the lake and are accessible from the Upper Lake Louise parking area. However, the most popular are the two that lead to mountainside tea houses! From July to September, hiking is at its prime in the Lake Louise area. Some trails may be closed November through early spring due to dangerous avalanche hazards. Be sure to check the trail report before departing for any of these hikes.
- The Lake Agnes Trail is a good choice if you have a few hours and you’re looking for a good workout with a big pay-off. Travel from the lakeshore up the forested switchbacks. Stop at Mirror Lake to enjoy views of the small emerald lake/pond backed by Big Beehive. Then follow one of two trails to Lake Agnes, where you’ll also find the Lake Agnes Teahouse (open seasonally). Most opt for the shorter, more direct route to the right of Mirror Lake, which is a half-mile climb. This is one of the most popular hikes in the area, so get an early start to avoid the crowds. (moderate/strenuous, 4.5-mile out-and-back hike, 1,312 feet elevation gain, 2.5-2 hours round trip) Extend your hike: Continue on to the Beehive Circuit. Beyond Lake Agnes, travel about a mile up steep switchbacks to get to Big Beehive for panoramic views of Lake Louise. Or hike an additional 0.6 miles to Little Beehive which offers views of the Bow Valley.
- The Plain of Six Glaciers Trail is physically challenging but our favorite hike in Banff! This moderately, strenuous hike begins at the end of the Lakeshore Trail. A steady uphill climb offers breathtaking views of surrounding mountains and glaciers. Rewards include a birds-eye view of Lake Louise and close-up views of the Victoria Glacier. Recharge at the Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse or bring a snack, take a rest and enjoy the view from one of the benches near the viewpoint. From the teahouse, you can walk another 30-40 minutes to get a better view of the glaciers. However, the trail is narrow and steep in sections and the area carries the risk of an avalanche. With three kids along, we chose to enjoy the view from the teahouse! (moderate/strenuous, 4.5-mile out-and-back hike, 1,263 feet elevation gain, 4 hours round trip) Extend your hike: Instead of retracing your steps back to the lakeshore, connect the Plain of Six Glaciers Trail with the Lake Agnes Trail, via the Highline Trail to form a 9.2-mile loop (5-6 hours round trip).
- Paddle across Lake Louise. Canoeing on Lake Louise’s turquoise waters is an iconic experience. Due to the expense to rent two canoes for our family of five, we decided to take a pass and spend our time at Lake Louise hiking. Lake Louise canoe rentals are available at the boathouse, located on the west shore of the lake. Hourly rates for Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise guests: $75 per hour; non-hotel guests: $115 per hour. (mid-June to end of September) You can use your own canoe or kayak, but there’s no public boat launch. So, you’ll have to carry it from the parking area and launch from the edge of the lake.
If you have more time, here are some other things to do in the Lake Louise area:
- Hike the Fairview Lookout Trail.
- Go for a horseback ride.
- Have afternoon tea at the Lakeview Lounge at Chateau Lake Louise.
- Go rock climbing.
- Take a ride on the Lake Louise Sightseeing Gondola.
- Go for a stroll on the Bow River Loop or the Louise Creek Trail.
- If seeing Lake Louise has you wanting more stunning views, then there are also plenty of other lakes near the town of Banff that are definitely worth your time!
See the Parks Canada website for more information on day hikes in the Lake Louise area.
Traveler Tip: Lake Louise is one of the most popular areas in all of Banff National Park. During the busy summer months (July through September), the best time to visit is early morning (by 8 a.m.) or in the evening (after 6 p.m.). Prefer to avoid the crowds and experience the park at its quietest? Arrive by 7 a.m. and set out on one of the many trails around the lake. If the parking lot is full, you can park in the overflow lot and catch a shuttle to the lake.
Nearby Moraine Lake (9.3 miles from Lake Louise), is another popular destination in the Lake Louise area. This glacial rock flour gives this lake its blue-green color, which is at its most intense after the glacier begins to melt in early summer. Moraine Lake sits in the stunning Valley of Ten Peaks and is surrounded by snow-capped mountains and pine forests.
If you are lucky enough to get parking in the early morning, plan to spend at least a half day here and take in one of many amazing hikes. Otherwise, try to return in the evening when many are leaving the lake. You might not have as much time, but it is still worth a visit!
While visiting Moraine Lake our recommendations include:
- Take a stroll on the Moraine Lake Lakeshore Trail. This easy, well-maintained trail is perfect for everyone in your family. A leisurely walk along the forested lakeshore provides numerous photo opportunities and quiet places to take in the views of this stunning lake and its surrounding peaks. Return the way you came. (easy, 1.8-mile out-and-back hike, 45 minutes round trip).
Go for a hike at Moraine Lake. Due to our inability to get parking in the morning, we had limited time during our evening visit to the lake. However, these are some hikes we’d suggest:
- Consolation Lakes: easy, 3.6-mile out-and-back hike, 836 ft elev. gain, 2 hr. round trip
- Eiffel Lake: moderate, 6.9-mile out-and-back hike, 1,791 ft elev. gain, 4.5 hr. round trip
- Sentinel Pass via Larch Valley: strenuous, 6.8-mile out-and-back hike, 2,598 feet elev. gain, 4.5-5.5 hr. round trip
- Head up the Rockpile Trail. This short, uphill trail is more of a walk than a hike. It starts at the shoreline of the lake and winds to the top of a giant pile of rocks. From the top, look out across Moraine Lake. This short, easy hike leads to amazing views and is a popular spot to take photos, so expect crowds throughout the day.
- Paddle across Moraine Lake. Moraine Lake canoe rentals are available at the Moraine Lake Lodge boat dock for $105 per hour. (mid-June to mid-September)
Traveler Tip: Moraine Lake is another incredibly popular area in Banff National Park. It doesn’t get quite as many visitors as Lake Louise but only due to its very limited parking. During the busy summer months (July through September), the best time to visit is early morning (we were later told by 6:30 a.m.!) or in the evening (after 8 p.m.). Once the parking lot is full, Moraine Lake Road is closed off, sometimes for hours or most of the day. We arrived just before 8 a.m. and the lot was already full. It was still closed at 1:30 p.m. when we left the Lake Louise area. We were glad to be staying nearby at the Post Hotel and Spa (Lake Louise) and gave it one last shot (with success!) at 8 p.m. Thank goodness for long daylight hours in the summer—it stays light until nearly 10 p.m.! NOTE: Moraine Lake Road is typically closed mid-October to late-May due to avalanche risk.
The Icefields Parkway is known as one of the world’s most spectacular scenic drives. The 144-mile drive along Highway 93 winds its way from Banff National Park to Jasper National Park. The jaw-dropping scenery of the Canadian Rockies will leave you speechless. Photos don’t do the Icefields Parkway justice. You truly must drive it and see it to understand the beauty of this scenic drive!
If your travels include continuing on to Jasper National Park, plan to spend a full day driving the entire length of the parkway. You’ll want plenty of time to take photos, explore roadside attractions and take a hike or two. However, even if your plans don’t include Jasper National Park, it is still worth a drive partway up the parkway to see what the Banff portion has to offer.
While visiting the Banff area, our recommendations include these nearby stops on Icefields Parkway:
- Herbert Lake is a small glacial lake along Icefields Parkway. Visit early morning to enjoy an incredible reflection of Mt. Temple on a calm day. It’s also a great spot for a canoe, picnic or swim on a hot day since the water here is warmer than most other lakes in Banff. (3 miles from Lake Louise)
- The Crowfoot Glacier Viewpoint is worth a quick stop to see the enormous Crowfoot Glacier clinging to the side of Crowfoot Mountain above Bow Lake. (23 miles from Lake Louise)
- Bow Lake was one of our favorite stops along Icefields Parkway (we visited twice since it is so close to Lake Louise!). Our early morning visit yielded amazing reflections on the calm lake and we beat the arrival of the tour buses—always a plus! Views around Bow Lake include Wapta Icefield, Bow Glacier and Crowfoot Glacier. (24 miles from Lake Louise)
- Be sure to stop at Peyto Lake & Bow Summit Viewpoint. A short uphill walk from the parking lot leads to the lookout with views of this turquoise, glacial fed lake. All the glacial lakes in the Canadian Rockies are stunning but the color of this one is truly unique! (28 miles from Lake Louise) NOTE: If you are planning to visit in 2019, there is an anticipated closure for the bow Summit and Peyto Lake day use area, including facilities, trails and viewing platforms. Be sure to check the Parks Canada website for updates on the status of this closure.
If you have time to drive further, consider:
- Taking in the views at Howse Pass Viewpoint/Saskatchewan River Crossing (49 miles from Lake Louise)
- Hiking the Parker Ridge Trail for views of the Saskatchewan Glacier (75 miles from Lake Louise)
- Visiting the Columbia Icefield, one of the largest masses of glacial ice outside the Arctic Circle! (80 miles from Lake Louise)
See the Parks Canada website for more information on hiking trails on the Icefields Parkway.
HOW TO GET TO BANFF NATIONAL PARK AND OTHER TRAVEL INFORMATION
The closest airport to Banff National Park is in Calgary, which is about 90 minutes east of Banff. The easiest way to get to Banff is to rent a car since you’ll want one to freely explore areas of the park where public transportation may not go.
You will have to buy a day pass or Discovery Pass (annual pass to Canada’s national parks) upon entering Banff National Park. Passes can be purchased at park entrance booths, Banff visitor centers and online.
Basic directions on how to get to Banff can be found here:
Calgary to Banff (map)
- Distance from Banff to Lake Louise: 36 miles (~40 minutes)
- Distance from Banff to Jasper: 180 miles (~4 hours without stops)
- Distance from Lake Louise to Jasper National Park: 145 miles (~3 hours without stops)
- Distance from Glacier National Park to Banff (passing through Calgary): 254 miles (~4.5 hours)
A trip to the Canadian Rockies is not cheap, but you can do it economically if you put your mind to it. Check out Little Grey Box and their article: This is how much a trip to the Canadian Rockies actually costs for a detailed analysis on what you can expect to spend on your vacation.
If you are looking to for transportation services to and from the airport, then be sure to check out Airport Shuttle Express, as they have a number of options that you may want to consider as well.
Once in the town of Banff, there is a combination of street parking and some larger parking lots, all which are free. Banff Now shows parking and road status for areas throughout the park.
WHERE TO STAY BANFF NATIONAL PARK
Banff and Lake Louise Accommodations: There are numerous accommodation options inside Banff National Park including luxury hotels, bed and breakfasts, cabins and backpacker’s hostels. We recommend booking a year in advance, when possible. Reservations fill quickly for the busy summer season! Most lodging options in Banff and Lake Louise have higher than average prices. Consider staying in nearby Canmore for cheaper accommodations.
When we visited Banff, our stay included a night at the Post Hotel and Spa in Lake Louise. This was honestly one of the most beautiful settings we’ve ever stayed in. The inside of the Inn was immaculate, the staff was great and the location and rooms were incredible.
Camping in Banff: There are many amazing campgrounds to choose from within the park. Most are open from May or June through early October. See the Parks Canada website for information on campgrounds in Banff National Park. Make sure you have your Discovery Pass for national park entry and campground reservations are highly recommended (although some campgrounds are first-come, first-served basis).
BANFF NATIONAL PARK WEATHER AND SEASONS
When is the best time to visit Banff National Park? Although our blog focuses on the summer season, Banff National park is a popular year-round travel destination. The best time to visit really depends upon what types of activities you like to do!
Banff is a winter-enthusiast’s paradise with outdoor activities including skiing, ice-skating, snowshoeing, dog-sledding and ice-climbing. However, if cold weather and snow isn’t your thing, then we recommend a visit to Banff National Park between mid-June and mid-October. The summer and early fall months are also best for hiking since some of the hikes at higher elevations are not accessible until then. If you are hoping to photograph the glacial lakes in all their colorful glory, they don’t typically thaw until June.
If you choose a summer visit, just be prepared to share viewpoints and trails with LOTS of tourists! Even after having visited busy US National Parks in the summer, we were still shocked by the crowds in Banff. Usually anything longer than a mile hike is enough to thin the crowds, but don’t expect that in Banff.
If you are planning a summer trip, visit Banff midweek and in either June or September to avoid the crowds (or experience smaller crowds, at least). If you visit during one of the shoulder months, be prepared for all types of weather since cold weather and snow are much more likely.
TIPS FOR VISITING BANFF NATIONAL PARK
- Stop by one of the Banff National Park visitor centers to pick up maps, travel and hiking guides, permits and park passes. Visitor centers also offer up-to-date information on trail conditions and closures.
- If you are planning to hike, be prepared for a possible wildlife encounter. Keep your distance and do not approach or feed any wildlife. Carry bear spray while hiking and know how to use it. Some trails require 4-person groups for hiking in areas frequented by bear.
- If traveling with a pet, keep your dog on a leash for its safety and for the comfort of wildlife. We didn’t have our dog with us on our trip.
- If you visit during the busy summer season and are feeling overwhelmed by the crowds, check out some of the amazing neighboring national parks like Kootenay National Park and Yoho National Park!
- Remember to bring snacks and plenty of water on hikes to keep hydrated! It can get hot in the summer! For longer hikes, we love our Platypus Big Zip hydration reservoirs which fit perfectly in our Osprey Talon and Osprey Tempest Otherwise, we use our Nalgene water bottles.
- Be sure to wear sunscreen and lip balm with SPF if headed out for any hiking or outdoor activities. We have to use sunscreen that is good for sensitive skin, and one we like that doesn’t break the bank is No-Ad SPF 45. Our new favorite sunscreen is Sun Bum SPF 30 Lotion which is hypoallergenic and made with reef friendly and vegan ingredients.
- Bring/wear layers of clothing. Temperatures in Banff vary throughout the day and weather can change quickly. So, it is helpful to be prepared with a variety of clothing for cool mornings and evenings plus warmer mid-day temperatures.
- Wear sturdy hiking shoes boots if headed
RELATED INFORMATION FROM JUST GO TRAVEL STUDIOS
- Be sure to check out our blog on Hiking the Plain of the Six Glaciers Trail.
- Just to the north of Banff National Park is the less-crowded but equally as amazing Jasper National Park. If you are going to one, you need to go to the other. Check out our blog, What to See and Do in Jasper National Park for details.
- An hour away from Lake Louise is Yoho and it would be a shame to miss this amazing place. Check out our blog on What to See and Do in Yoho National Park to help out with your planning! Also make sure you read What to See and Do in Kootenay National Park.
- If you are visiting Alberta, Canada, be sure to also visit Glacier National Park (just a few hours south). If you are on the fence, then you need to read our blog, 10 Reasons to Love Glacier National Park. You should also visit Waterton Lakes National Park, which is connected to Glacier.
- We’d love to work with you to take one of your photos and turn them into one of our unique, custom, vintage-style travel posters. If you haven’t tried this yet, we guarantee you won’t be disappointed!
OTHER INFORMATION ON BANFF AND THE SURROUNDING AREA
- Banff National Park is one of the many amazing places in Canada to visit. If you want a short-list on what to do in Canada with your family, Dawn (from “5 Lost Together”) wrote a fantastic blog on 14 Incredible Destinations for Families in Canada.
- As you can tell, the Banff area has a ton to offer. For further information on what to experience while you are here, Kirstie (from “Orange Girl”) wrote a phenomenal article on A Local’s Guide to visiting Banff National Park. Her photography is out of this world (you have to check out her wedding photography as well)!
- Maya and Michal (from “Travel With the Smile”) cover their hiking recommendation in Banff in their blog, 20 best hikes in Banff National Park.
- Winter is an incredible time to visit Banff, but you have to know where to go and how to prepare. Renee (from “Renee Roaming”) provides a great 7 day itinerary for winter travel in Alberta.
- If you are looking to go to Canada with kids, Banff is one of the many places that are worth going to. For more ideas, check out Catherine’s blog (from “We Go with Kids”) on great places to travel in Canada with Kids.
You could easily spend a couple weeks in Banff National Park and still not see it all, especially if you love to hit the trails like we do! However, if you are considering a trip to the Canadian Rockies and visiting other nearby parks, plan for at least three days in Banff National Park.
If you have been to Banff National Park and have favorite spots that we didn’t include in this post, please leave a comment or email us directly. We’re also happy to answer any questions that you might have!