Are you planning a trip to Banff? Use this complete guide to help organize an amazing vacation. In addition to things to do and places to eat, at the bottom of this guide, you will find a free printable map of Banff National Park. Some of the things we will cover here include:
- Moraine Lake
- Takakkaw Falls
- Peyto Lake
- Johnston Canyon
- Ink Pots Trail
- Lake Louise
- Stanley Glacier
- Banff Gondola
- Lake Minnewanka
- Mistaya Canyon
- Bow Falls
- Banff Hot Springs
- Take a Day Trip to Jasper National Park
- Columbia Icefields
My trip to Banff was sponsored by my long-time sponsor Vero Social Network. Vero – which is translated from Latin as “truth,” is all about connecting genuine people around the world. You won’t find any algorithms here and your data is never stored or sold. Join me on Vero, and discover social the way it was meant to be.
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How To Get to Banff National Park
The airport closest to Banff is YYC – Calgary. I know many of you guys who read my blog are traveling from NYC. Unfortunately, as of this post, there are NO direct flights from JFK or Laguardia to YYC. Which is, I admit a huge pain. The most efficient way to fly to Banff from NYC is through Toronto. The two flights are actually fast, but because of connections, you’ll probably take 8 or more hours to get here. You can, however, fly from Newark to YYC direct. The flight is about 4 hours.
Once you land in YYC, you’ll need to drive about 2 hours to get to the border of the National Park. The drive is really not bad and the traffic is light.
If you are driving in the summer, book a car in advance. The prices are high in peak season, and I paid close to $600 USD for a small rental (8 days). Gas is inexpensive, and you do not need a four-wheel drive to explore Banff.
If you are not driving, pick from several public transport options. The Brewster Express takes you from the airport straight to Banff Town. The Banff Airporter does the same route and can be a little bit cheaper. Finally, the public On It Transit is the cheapest option but you’ll need to get to center Calgary to hop on this bus.
How to Get Around Banff National Park
There are many ways to get around Banff National Park – let’s take a look at the four most popular options.
The first, and the most flexible is to rent a car. Although this is the most expensive option, it gives you easy access to less popular areas – such as Takakkaw Falls and Jasper National Park. Alternatively, look at renting a camper van. This is a very popular option in Banff and gives you both accommodations and transportation in one shot.
The second way to get around Banff is via Roam Public Transport. This one is both budget and environmentally friendly. Roam covers many of the most popular locations – Lake Louise, Johnson Canyon and Banff Town local. Multi-day passes are available. Roam does not cover Jasper National Park and other less popular locations.
The third option to get around Banff is to take day trips via tour companies. These are great for individuals with limited mobility and to access areas aren’t available by public transport. Check out Viator for all the different tours in the area. Most will pick you up in Banff town.
The fourth, and most adventurous is hitchhiking. Although generally safe, Canada is a big country so this one is a “go at your own risk.” I picked up a few hitchhikers, and they told me they usually have to wait twenty or more minutes for a pickup. This could be a good option to combine with public transit for younger travelers.
Where to Stay in Banff National Park
This was quite a head-scratcher for me while doing research. Many of the best camping sites (like Lake Louise) book out a year in advance. In Jasper too, only a few options are available, and they were all booked. The easiest place to find accommodations in Banff Town. However, Banff town is located at the southern entry point to the park – and far from many major attractions. Still, the drive is easy and traffic is low, so for most people, Banff Town is a good base.
Although I was booking months in advance, it took me over a day to find accommodations in Banff. Everything was booked! So you can imagine my surprise when I actually got in and saw almost every hotel with a “Vacancy” sign lit up. Why? Your answer is as good as mine. Perhaps they expect people to book by calling the hotel directly? I am not sure. But if you don’t find accommodations on major sites, try calling. First, check out the following sites to find hotels:
Things To Do In Banff National Park
Moraine Lake at sunrise is easily one of the most famous scenes in Banff National Park. Framed by pines and surrounded by mountains, the lake is a stunning sight and a must-visit in Banff. A must-visit for you – and everyone else who comes to Banff. Today, many people believe that the days of isolated beauty at Moraine lake are long gone. No matter how early you get up, you’ll be surrounded by throngs of other tourists right? Well, the answer is yes – and no. Keep reading.
On the one hand, Moraine Lake is far too crowded. To get a parking spot you should get here by five am on the weekend and six on a weekday. When I took this shot, I was surrounded by close to several hundred people. On the other hand, most people do not actually spend much time enjoying the lake’s true beauty. Many people park, run out of their car, snap a few shots from this very spot and leave. Why? I honestly have no idea.
However, instead of cutting your trip short after a few snapshots, why not enjoy Moraine Lakeshore Trail. On this easy, flat hike you’ll walk the entire length of the lake over to the glacier waterfall that fills Moraine. And if you start right after sunrise you are almost guaranteed to see only a few “adventurous” souls.
Banff Travel Tip:
Midday is the worst time to go to almost any popular attraction. Parking is virtually nonexistent and crowds are enormous. Instead, tour the most popular sights early in the morning (before nine) and in the evening (after five). Leave the middle of the day for long hikes such as the Ink Pots, Big Beehive and Stanley Glacier.
The 254 meters (833 foot) Takakkaw Falls aren’t actually located in Banff. If you take a close look at the map of Banff National Park, you’ll see that these falls are located in the nearby Yoho National Park. However, Banff and Yoho’s proximity means that the falls are easily accessible from Banff.
Although few people actually make it out here, the falls are an impressive sight. The closer you get, the windier than conditions. Eventually, you’ll feel as though the wind is about to lift you off your feet. But that’s not all – the powerful waterfall envelopes you in rain. And consequently, it becomes almost impossible to take a good picture from up close. Walking towards the falls can feel a little like walking into a hurricane. A fantastic experience, but one that requires a rain jacket and a steady step.
The views of the stunning Peyto Lake are easy to access. Located just off the Icefield Parkway, it’s only a ten-minute walk from the lot to the Bow Summit viewpoint. This is the highest point of the Icefield Parkway (6,840 feet) and the view is impressive.
However, in my opinion, most people who visit Peyto are missing the best part. Yes – you can opt for the “almost the parking lot” Bow Summit viewpoint and take a few snapshots. Or, you can set out on the easy to moderate Timberline Trail. Along the way, you’ll find interpretive signs that help you learn more about the area. But most importantly, you can explore the mountain practically on your own if you chose the hike. Views accessible to few others are only part of the reward.
Update: Bow Summit and access to Timberline Trail will close to visitors mid-August 2019. They are scheduled to reopen in the Spring of 2020.
Johnson Canyon is often described as the “worst kept secret in Banff.” Once you get here you’ll see why. Stunning but also crowded, the canyon is worth a visit. But pick your time wisely. When I got here, about 9 am on Saturday cars had parked for miles on the road outside of the canyon. I decided to risk it and approached the lot – to my surprise several spots were still available. Inside, however, the place was packed. The lines to see the lower and upper falls extended for about 45 minutes each.
In the Canyon, you’ll find two easy hikes. The first, the hike to Lower Falls, is 1.2 km each way and almost entirely flat. The paths are well maintained and the dangerous spots are protected with a guardrail. After the lower falls hike, continue to the second, Upper Falls hike. This additional 1.3 km and offers a bit more elevation. Both are safe and easy. Try to come here on a weekday before 9 or after 5 for the least crowded experience. If you are looking for a bit of a challenge, from the Upper Falls proceed to the Ink Pots hike.
Ink Pots Trail
You can start the moderate Ink Pots Trail in Johnson Canyon. Whereas Johnson Canyon is packed with people in the summer, the Ink Pots is secluded enough to require bear spray. I hiked here on a long weekend and one of the busiest weekends of the year. While I did see other tourists, it was far from crowded.
An alternative way to get to the trail is by parking in Moose Meadows. Here you’ll miss the Johnson Canyon waterfalls – but you’ll also miss the big crowds. The waterfalls are worth seeing though, so I would advise parking at the Johnston Canyon instead.
The Ink Pots trail is 5.7 km each way and takes a few hours to complete. The elevation is only 330 meters but feels like more due to the hilly nature of the trail. The “five ink pots” or pools of water, fill from an underground reserve. The pools are all different colors, from light aquamarine to dark blue. If you watch carefully you can see the air bubbling beneath as more water fills the reserve.
The stunning Lake Louise is another get-here-early attraction. The parking lot usually fills up by 6 am on weekdays and 5 on weekends. You can take a shuttle from the nearby Lake Louise village, but the trip will add an hour to your commute. But for the early birds, the wake-up call is absolutely worth it. Unlike lake Moraine, the first viewpoint of Lake Louise wasn’t super crowded. I greeted the sunrise with only a few dozen people at the lookout.
Also See: Lake Louise and the Big Beehive Hike (A Complete Guide)
If, on the other hand, you are not an early morning person, the lot empties out again in the afternoon. Locals say after seven in the evening is the best time to get here.
After sunrise, continue on one of several hikes around the lake. One popular moderate to advanced hike is to the Big Beehive, a lookout point over the lake. As you start to trek up, first pass by the tiny Mirror Lake. Next, you find yourself at the bigger Lake Agnes. At Agnes, you’ll even found a mountainside teahouse – although it was a bit too crowded for my taste. Then, onwards to the Big or the Small Beehive where Lake Louise’s true milky color is most apparent. The entire journey is a little over 5 kilometers each way.
Although the Stanley Glacier is technically located in Kootenay National Park, this hike is easy to access from Baff. I came here on a busy holiday, while Banff was overwhelmed with throngs of tourists. At Kootenay, on the other hand, parking was plentiful and the trail so isolated, I was grateful for my bear spray. Altogether, the Stanley Glacier hike is a great experience, especially on a weekend.
This moderate to advanced hike is done in two stages. The first is the groomed trail – 5.5 km, 395 elevations. Mostly forested and shaded, this is doable by young hikers with good balance. Most people stop at the end of the groomed trail which finishes far from the glacier. The second stage is advanced but far more interesting. On the second stage, you can scramble to a giant waterfall, to caves and finally to the glacier. Coming down is a bit tough – so a walking stick is helpful, although I did the entire hike without sticks.
Banff Gondola, located only a few minutes from downtown Banff can get very busy. In fact, the first time I came out here was mid-day. I saw cars parked miles down the road and the ticket line that stretched for close to an hour. The second time I came was at sunset. Then, I found blissfully simple parking. Additionally, I found no ticket lines in the evening – and even a discount for afternoon rides. Needless to say, I recommend you come here after 6 pm.
Also See: Banff Gondola, The Complete Guide
The experience itself is far more than a traditional Gondola ride. In addition to multiple viewpoints, you’ll find a mini-museum dedicated to the area. Moreover, a bar and a restaurant welcome you to the top of the mountain. And some evenings, you can even enjoy a musical performance with views to die for – and a barbecue.
But the most impressive experience at Banff Gondola is no doubt the wooden walkway. Walk this kilometer-long path from the gondola stop to the summit of Sulphur Mountain. Particularly beautiful at sunset, this uncrowded attraction is a must-visit. But only when the time is right. For discounted tickets check out Viator.
Banff Travel Tip:
The company that runs the Banff Gondola offers “The Ultimate Explorer Pass.” This group ticket gets you into four attractions (I cover them all in the article). The attractions are: the Banff Gondola, Columbia Skywalk, Columbia Icefields and Lake Minnewaska Cruise. This could be a good deal – but only if you plan on going to them all. Alternatively, check Viator for other discounts. You can also buy the pass in person at the counter.
You’ll find the peaceful Lake Minnewanka only fifteen minutes by car from Banff Township. This little gem remains uncrowded even later in the day but is most charming in the early morning. From here you can take a one-hour kid-friendly cruise (included in the Ultimate Explorer pass). Alternatively, explore the lakes and its easy trails by foot. On the lake, you’ll even find deck chairs where you can just relax and take in the sights. Boat rentals are available here as well. The flat Stewart Canyon trail starts here and is 3 km roundtrip.
If you have four people or more with you, you can continue past the Stewart Canyon trail to the Aylmer Pass. A little over 11 km each way, four people and bear spray are required for this trail. Both grizzly and brown bear are very common here.
On the border of Banff and Jasper National Park, you’ll find stunning Mistaya Canyon. The canyon parking lot is located right on the Icefields Parkway. From here, a short walk takes you to the bridge that leads to the canyon. The canyon is entirely unfenced and a “go at your own risk” facility. If you are brave (and have a good sense of balance) hang out on a rock close to rushing water. Alternatively, observe the canyon from a safe distance and solid ground. The water here is fast – you won’t have much time to react if you slip. The signs ask the hikers to stay on the bridge and solid round. Few follow the instructions, however, and most people prefer to hang out on the rocks.
Also See: Mistaya Canyon, The Complete Guide
Bow Falls is a small waterfall close to the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. This attraction is both accessible and family-friendly. The best way to get here is to walk from downtown Banff. Because Bow Falls are small and easy to access, I suggest a visit here on a rest day.
Also See: Bow Falls Hiking Trails
The Bow Falls river is cold enough to be covered with ice for at least six months of the year. But in short Albertan’s summers, the river is thick with glacier water. In August, the falls are an impressive display although they are only 30 feet tall.
The best way to see the falls is to stroll along the Bow Falls Trail. This easy hike runs parallel to the river. Although you’ll need to walk a few stairs, much of the trail is flat. Additionally, you can explore parts of the Bow Falls trail by bike. It takes about 20 minutes to finish the entire trail, which stops by Bow River Bridge.
Banff Hot Springs
I actually ended up not visiting this attraction. I was super excited about the relaxing experience and saving it for the last day. After all, a natural 39-degree celsius pool is a great way to restore after so many days hiking, right? Well, it looks like I wasn’t the only one with the bright idea. Although I came in the evening and parking was plentiful, there was barely any space left in the pool. At a cost of only 8 Canadian its a great bargain. But only if you don’t mind sharing the facilities with a hundred strangers. Perhaps another time, like early in the morning would be better. I did wait around a bit to see if people were leaving but the crowds only seemed to get thicker. This is an attraction you can probably skip in the summer. I think the shoulder season would be a better time to visit here.
Take a Day Trip to Jasper National Park
From the town of Banff drive north for a little over an hour and you’ll hit the beautiful Jasper National Park. Gone is the straight highway of Banff, in its stead, the open, winding road greets you in Jasper. Keep your eyes peeled – you are likely to see many animals right by the highway.
There are so many treasures to explore at Jasper. From the Athabasca Glacier to Maligne Canyon – the possibilities are endless. Unlike Banff, Jasper is rich in lookout points and that makes the drive even more exciting.
Some people split their time between Jasper and Banff. If you wish to stay in Jasper and explore it more, Jasper Township is a good place to stay. Similar to Banff, its a charming, walkable town and offers a variety of hotel and food options. However, since I only had one week I decided to stay in and explore Banff, but take a day trip to Jasper.
The Columbia Icefields in Jasper National Park is the largest ice field in the Rocky Mountains. From the Columbia Icefields visitors center, you can visit the Athabasca glacier in several ways.
The first is to walk or drive across the street. Here, the glacier is accessible via a flat road. Although caution tape is supposed to stop unaccompanied visitors from getting too close to the glaciers, few seem discouraged. The second way to access the glacier is by booking a glacier tour. You can book the tour at the information desk at the center. You do not need advanced reservations, although you may need to wait for a spot. The third is by booking a tour of the Icefields Skywalk. The skywalk is a specially constructed observation deck with a glass floor. It is fixed to a side of a cliff and from here you can see the ice fields. The Skywalk even swings in the wind! The advantage of the Skywalk is that you do not need special equipment. Additionally, the Skywalk does not have physical ability requirements.
If you want to do both the Skywalk and the glacier tour, the Ultimate explorer pass may be a good deal. Alternatively, check Viator for more discounts.
Places to Eat in Banff
I must confess, a lot of my meals in Banff involved energy bars. The drives are long, getting to key attraction early is well… key. So food was sort of secondary on this trip. I brought a box of energy bars from home, and they were ideal both for early drives and hiking snacks. Of course, I also had a water bottle, which I was often able to refill from a glacier. Glacier water and a power bar are actually way more delicious than it sounds. I would definitely suggest you bring the same with you. But yes, I ate some real food too – and some of it was awesome. Here are my favorites.
Elk & Oarsman
Banff township boasts many bars with good food and Elk & Oarsman is well known for their frugal but delicious specials. The Tuesday night’s steak sandwich is a generously portioned, good steak, accompanied by a fresh salad and yummy fries. For 11 dollars Canadian its also a hell of a deal.
Block Kitchen & Bar
For a town located nowhere near the sea, Banff is strangely obsessed with seafood. Almost every well-known restaurant offers seafood specials. I opted for the Poke Salmon Bowl at Block Kitchen. It was ridiculously fresh and delicious. How did they do that? I have no idea. But it was an amazing light lunch.
Remember how I said Banff is irrationally obsessed with seafood even though its nowhere near the sea? Well, Earl’s is well known for traditional clam chowder and healthy bar food. Of course, they also offer a range of traditional options including burgers. But I have to say that clam chowder really was top notch. Pretty much as good as anything you’ll find in New England. Oh and their “traditional margarita” which is actually a mango margarita is a good happy hour special at only 6 bucks Canadian.
Banff National Park FAQs
What is the Banff National Park entry fee?
One day admission to a national park is a little under ten dollars. However, if you plan on spending more a week here, you’ll likely need an annual pass. With the “Discovery Pass,” you’ll get access to all the parks in Canada for a year. An annual pass for one person is 67 Candian dollars. For groups of 2 to 7 people, the cost is 136 Canadian Dollars. As you traverse the park you’ll find an occasional spot check of the pass. If you do not have one, the fine is very expensive. You can purchase the pass in many ranger stations and as you enter the park. And keep in mind, that children 17 and under are admitted free in all the national parks.
What is the closest airport to Banff National Park?
The closest airport to Banff is YYC, which stands for Calgary International Airport. From Calgary, it takes about two hours to actually get to Banff by car or bus.
What are the must-do attractions in Banff National Park?
This really depends on who you ask, but most people would say the followings are a must-do: Lake Louise, Moraine Lake, Johnston Canyon, and Banff Gondola.
When is the best time to visit Banff National Park?
The park is open year-round, but many trails do close in the colder months. Exploring the park in the winter has its own charms. However, most people visit Banff in the summer. The most popular months to visit Banff (and the warmest) are July and August. The shoulder season in Banff is May and June and September through October.
Do I really need Bear Spray and where do I get it?
Bear spray is like auto insurance. Hopefully, you’ll never need it, but you should have it. I didn’t have to use mine. You can purchase bear spray in many shops in Banff and in some ranger stations. Of course, after purchase, open your bottle and figure out how to use it. I’ve seen people sell unused bear spray still wrapped in plastic. Naturally, if it’s still wrapped in plastic it’s probably not useful in case of a bear attack. A bear can kill you in under four seconds – that’s definitely not enough time to unwrap a bottle.
Keep in mind that some trails are a minimum of four persons, even if you do have bear spray. For me, this meant I had to skip a few hikes. But if you chose to enter one of these trails on your own, the fine is more than $25,000. More importantly, this action can result in your own death – and the death of an animal.
What’s the Weather like in Banff?
The answer to that question is “yes.” There will be the weather, and chances are pretty good you’ll get to experience at least 3 seasons in one day. The better answer to that question is “prepare for anything.” Although I got very lucky with the weather, I still was grateful for my good rain jacket, a warm fleece sweatshirt, fleece layers. A pair of hiking sneakers is an absolute necessity.
My Banff Packing List:
- Rain Jacket
- Fleece Sweatshirt
- Water-Resistant Base Layers
- Gloves (perfect for early mornings)
- Hiking Socks
- Water-resistant hiking pants
- Hiking bag
- Water Bottle (you haven’t lived until you drank glacier water)
- Water-resistant hiking sneakers
Printable Map of Banff National Park
Banff Map – Downloadable Google Map
One Last Thing
I hope you have enjoyed this guide to Banff National Park and found it useful. If you have read this far, I have a favor to ask. Please leave a comment or a question – these are helpful to search engines. They also make me feel all warm and fuzzy. Thanks again for reading, and see you guys on the road, and on the mountain.
Viktoria aka Traveltipster