10 Things You Can't Miss When Visiting Banff National Park

People flock to Banff for the stunning scenery, epic hikes, various wildlife, and quaint downtown area. And I can confirm, the location is worth all the hype. After all, Banff was Canada’s first National Park for a reason!

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How to get to Banff

The closest airport to Banff is in Calgary, 1.5-2 hours drive away. I will always avoid renting a car when I can get away with doing so, but Banff is one vacation where I recommend biting the bullet and driving yourself around. If you don’t want to, there is a bus you can take from the Calgary Airport to Banff, but then you’ll have to use a taxi service to get around – Uber and Lyft do not operate here. Something to note though, is that you do need a park pass to visit Banff no matter how you get there.

There’s not a Banff-specific pass, which is both good and bad. Good, because it’s a national pass that gets you into all Canadian National Parks. Bad, because there’s no discount for just going to Banff (or any other single park). You can enter the details of your trip into the park pass website, and they will suggest either day passes, or a “discovery pass” that’s good for a year, to get you the best value. For a trip 7 days or longer, the discovery pass will be the better choice.

Where to Stay

Banff is a huge park, and since you benefit from being places early to avoid the crowds, it might make sense to stay at a couple different hotels while you’re there; that way sometimes you can save some money, and sometimes you can be closer to the action. Here are some great options:

Banff Boutique Hotel – located between downtown and the Cave and Basin National Historic site, this hotel is far enough from the hustle and bustle of downtown to give you peaceful chalet vibes in the evening, but close enough that you can quickly walk there whenever you want. It’s an adult-only hotel, with a free coffee brewing setup laid out for guests in the mornings to reinforce those vibes. Another perk is the free on-site parking and the relatively low price per night.

The Juniper Hotel – The Juniper Hotel is right down the road from downtown Banff, which makes it easy to get to or from your hotel when exploring other parts of the park. The free shuttle offered to and from downtown or the bike rentals that they offer make sure that you don’t miss out on anything during your stay though! Their restaurant is known to have excellent breakfast and they also have a hot tub, outdoor fireplace, gardens, and outdoor seating available for all guests.

Elk + Avenue Hotel – This hotel is right downtown, on Banff Avenue! In addition to being in the heart of Banff, the hotel offers parking in an underground garage right around the corner, has a sought-after restaurant on-site, sauna and hot tub available for guests, and nice, spacious rooms. You’ll obviously pay a premium for the location, but it can be worth it for a few nights of your trip.

Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise – For extreme luxury, check out the Fairmont Chateau of Lake Louise! During peak season, you’ll pay upwards of $1000/night because it is the only hotel available on the lake. However, guests at the Fairmont have exclusive access that makes it worth that price for a single night. You get a guaranteed spot for your rental car there, access to a bathroom without a huge line during your stay, access to the pool and fitness center, gorgeous panoramic views from the rooms, and a much shorter line than everyone else with discounted rates for canoeing on the lake. I highly recommend splurging for this part of your trip.  

1.     Hike Johnston Canyon and the Ink Pots

One of the most popular things to do at Banff at any time of year is to hike Johnston Canyon. The trail is paved and easy to follow, but some parts are catwalks that are built onto the side of the canyon and is only wide enough for 2 people to use at a time (1 walking in each direction). That’s fine if you get there pretty early in the day. But once the crowds start arriving after about 9am in the summer, you can easily get stuck behind a slow group, and that can be annoying. I don’t usually worry about crowds, but I made an exception and set an alarm to get to Johnston Canyon around 8:30am to avoid that whole situation.

At the lower falls of Johnston Canyon (~0.75 miles from the parking lot), there’s a small cave you can walk through to get right up next to the waterfall. Even before there were crowds on the trail, there was a line at the cave. I chose to wait in it, but it’s the same waterfall you see from other vantage points higher up the trail – if the line is too long, you can skip that part without really missing much.

There’s also an upper fall up the same paved trail, another mile or so away from the lower falls. In the winter, you’re able to go to into a giant cave between the two falls (it’s closed in the summer to protect certain wildlife that nests there) and ice climb up the upper falls if you’d like. If you hike to the upper falls and then back down, the whole trip will take probably 2 to 3 hours. Or, you can choose to continue on to the ink pots!

The Johnston Canyon hike is pretty easy, but the ink pots... not so much. The pavement totally ends, and there are fairly steep slopes and declines that you have to traverse both to and from the ink pots. It also changes a couple hour escapade into at least a half day affair, because the ink pots are almost 2 miles past the upper falls. However, the beautiful springs bubbling up among the mountainous landscape is absolutely stunning. So, I recommend wearing good hiking shoes and attire, packing a solid snack or portable lunch, bringing plenty of water along, leaving behind the crowds in the main Johnston Canyon area, and setting out for the ink pots after checking out the falls!

2.     Check Out Lake Louise

 Lake Louise is a gorgeous turquoise glacier-fed lake surrounded by mountains. There’s very limited parking, so you’ll need to arrive around 7am, plan to have transportation drop you off, or stay at the Fairmont to access this gem. If you want to see the crazy color of the water or join the “Lake Louise Canoe Club” (meaning you took one of the iconic red canoes out on the lake), obviously you’ll have to visit during the summer months. During the winter, you can ice skate or cross-country ski on the lake instead.

Lake Louise also has some of the most popular hiking trails in Banff. The Lakeshore Trail will take you to both the Lake Agnes Teahouse hike and the Plain of Six Glaciers hike (which also has a teahouse sitting at the end of the trail).

3.     Visit Moraine Lake

The views of Moraine Lake are so iconic that they were on the back of the Canadian twenty-dollar bill for a while! It’s about half the size of Lake Louise and twice as difficult to get to because no personal vehicles are allowed there anymore (as of 2023), and the access road is entirely closed from mid-October to June because of the risk of avalanches in the area.

Once you arrive via shuttle, bus, taxi, or bicycle, climb up the Rockpile trail for the best views of the Lake. Most people that visit Moraine Lake will climb the Rockpile and/or rent a canoe to go out on the Lake, and I highly recommend both of these, despite how busy they may be. Then, to get away from most of the crowds, you can take a walk along the Moraine Lakeshore Trail, or embark on a longer hike to Consolation Lakes, Larch Valley or Sentinel Pass.

When scheduling your transportation to and from Moraine Lake, plan on spending an hour canoeing, at least 30 minutes climbing the Rockpile Trail and admiring the views from it, an hour for the Lakeshore Trail, and several hours for any of the longer hikes. 

4.     Picnic at Mt. Norquay Viewpoint or Cascade Ponds

There is no shortage of showstopping views that would make for excellent picnic locations in Banff. However, I like Mt. Norquay Viewpoint or Cascade Ponds in particular, because you can drive right up to them and not need to hike with your food. Both spots are close to downtown Banff, so that means you can easily grab some take-out or save a little money by grabbing a to-go option from the local grocery store before venturing over to your lunch destination.

5.     See Cave and Basin National Historic Site

Cave and Basin National Historic Site was built around the hot spring that started it all. If you bought a discovery pass for your Banff trip, take it with you to get completely free entry into the site! After entry, there’s an area that gives you the history of the creation of Banff National Park, the cave hot spring, a hall with displays that talk about native people and conservation efforts in the area, the basin hot spring (outside), and boardwalk paths surrounding the site.

Swimming is no longer allowed in the hot springs because there is an endangered snail that lives in them that isn’t found anywhere else on the planet. The tiny creature is only 3-5mm large, so you likely won’t even notice them during your visit.

6.     Spend an Afternoon at the Lake: Johnson Lake, Lake Minnewanka, Two Jack Lake, or the Vermilion Lakes

Less known than Lake Louise or Moraine Lake, there are several lakes close to the city of Banff that are still stunning. Johnson Lake, Lake Minnewanka, Two Jack Lake, or the Vermilion are all options in the summer for canoeing, kayaking, stand-up-paddleboarding, and/or an easy lakeshore hike.

The lakes in Banff are typically ice cold, which would make swimming an unpleasant experience. But Johnson Lake is the exception to the rule – it’s smaller, and not warm, but much warmer than the other lakes in the park, making it a favorite for locals to take a dip in on a summer afternoon.

On the other end of the spectrum, Lake Minnewanka is fairly large; about 13 miles long, and pretty deep. That makes it large enough for motorized boats, and this is the only lake in Banff that allows them. There are even companies at Lake Minnewanka that offer panoramic cruises or "Beer Voyage Cruises" if you want to take a break from navigating Banff yourself!

7.    Visit Cascade of Time Gardens

At the end of Banff Ave, just outside of the downtown area, you’ll find the Cascade of Time Gardens. Once in the garden, turn around and take in the epic views of the downtown area tucked among the surrounding mountains. Then you can wander the trails of the garden year-round for as long as you want, and admission is completely free – just walk in the front gates during opening hours!

In the summer, you’ll find groups of perfectly manicured flower beds wrapped around gazebos, ponds, bridges, and a small waterfall. All these other features mean that the gardens are still beautiful in the fall and the spring, despite the flowers not being in full bloom. In the winter, when there is no hope of any flowers being alive, the groundskeepers instead install lit up animal structures to tell a story called “In Search of Christmas Spirit”.  

8.     Go Shopping Downtown and Grab a Beaver Tail

Banff avenue includes high-end, specialty, outdoor, art, and souvenir stores galore dispersed among the restaurants and snack shops. Some that I enjoyed were Big Bear Trading Co., Roots Canada Ltd., Rocky Mountain Flannel Company, and Rocky Mountain Soap Company. Just make sure you leave plenty of room in your suitcase for all the things you’ll “need” to bring home with you!

Two Canadian food shops that are especially popular are Cows for ice cream, and BeaverTails for the namesake fried pastries (a giant fried dough sort of shaped like a beaver tail with all sorts of optional toppings). Lines for both are likely to be out the door during busy periods. Pro tip – if you plan on going to Jasper too, get your beaver tail there to try the treat without dealing with anywhere near as large of a crowd.

9.     Take a Stroll to Bow Falls

Bow falls is a relatively short walk from the Banff downtown area via the Bow River Trail. On the edge of Central Park is the Bow River Bridge, and you’ll see a trail running off along the river to the East. The trail is mostly flat and shaded and will take you directly to the Bow Falls lookout after about a 30-minute stroll. It may not be the biggest, most impressive water fall in the area, but it’s probably the easiest one to get to. During the summer months there are even art installations from local artists along the trail for you to enjoy on your way to and from the falls (called the “Art in Nature Trail”).

10.  Explore the Icefields Parkway

The Icefields Parkway is one of the most scenic drives in the world, running from Lake Louise (in Banff) to Jasper, with tons of stops worth making along the way. Some of the most popular stops are Peyto Lake, the Glacier Skywalk, the Columbia Icefield, Sunwapta Falls, and Athabasca Falls, but there are options for short, medium, or long hikes, waterfalls, lakes, canyons, glaciers, and rivers to explore. Not to mention plenty of wildlife - during our drive up and down the parkway, we ended up seeing a bear on 3 different occasions!

Where Else to Go Near Banff

If you travel all the way to Banff and rented a car to get around, try to venture out to Jasper National Park (via the Icefields Parkway), and Yoho National Park while you’re there too! Jasper is approximately 2 hours away, but there are so many things to see along the Icefields Parkway that you should make plenty of stops and dedicate a day to getting there. Yoho is also pretty close by – only about an hour away by car. This itinerary shows how to visit the best that all 4 locations have to offer!

How Long Should You Stay in Banff?

You can see most of the Banff highlights listed above in 4 days. More days are definitely better though, to alternate some of the longer hikes in the area with some good relaxation and recovery. 5 to 7 days just for Banff would be ideal to do and see everything at a reasonable pace.

With more days, you can venture out to some of the nearby locations. I highly recommend allocating a week or more to a Canadian Rockies vacation and spending 1-2 days on the Icefield Parkway, 2-3 days in Jasper, 3-4 days in Banff, and at least a half day in Yoho National Park.

When is the Best Time to Visit Banff?

Any time of year is a good time to visit, but summer is the high season. Long daylight hours and cool-to-warm temperatures make for excellent hiking conditions from June to August.

Keep in mind that the “shoulder seasons” of spring and fall tend to lean towards winter conditions because of the latitude and elevation of the area. Bring warm clothes, and expect to see some snow even in May and September. Then from November/December to March/April Banff becomes a winter wonderland, drawing skiers and people looking for other cold-weather experiences against a magical background. 

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