Banff National Park is the most popular national park in Canada, attracting over 4 million people each year. The park, which spans a section of the Rocky Mountains, is home to stunning turquoise lakes that mirror the snow-capped peaks, as well as glaciers and forests. It has been on the UNESCO list of safeguarded natural and cultural sites since 1985.
Things to do in Banff National Park
The charming little town of Banff is the park’s lone township and the center of activities. This stunning excursion along the Parkway highlights the world-famous Lake Louise, the aristocratic-looking Canadian Pacific hotel Château Lake Louise, and the massive Columbia Ice field. There’s also a decent possibility you’ll get to view some of Canada’s animals. Many black bears, caribou, elk, wolves, grizzly bears, and beavers live in the park.
Are you planning a trip Canada’s most popular national park? Banff National Park in Alberta is a must-see for its soaring peaks, dazzling lakes, and plentiful animals.
Review our list of attractions and activities to do in Banff National Park to get a jump start on your trip.
Things to do in Banff:
#1 Explore the Banff Town
Nestled in the south end of Banff National Park and surrounded by mountains, this small town is one of Alberta’s most popular tourist destinations. It is committed to the tourism business, with various lodging alternatives, intriguing shops, and casual to high-end restaurants.
The streets of Banff are busy with tourists from all over the world who come to view the Canadian Rockies in the summer, and the town maintains its lively atmosphere in the winter as skiers descend on the neighboring slopes.
#2 Stay at the Fairmont Banff Hotel
This Hotel is one of Banff’s principal attractions. Built in 1888, this historic hotel has become a symbol of Banff. This conventionally constructed, castle-like great hotel, which was once supposed to be the world’s largest hotel complex, nevertheless retains much of the grandeur of the early days of railway tourism.
#3 Visit Sulphur Mountain
This is one of the top sites to visit in Banff for spectacular views of the town of Banff and the entire valley. There is a way to hike to the top from the town, but most people just take the gondola.
The three terrace decks offer a spectacular outlook with the mountain-top restaurant on a clear day. The Banff Skywalk is an easy .62 mile (one kilometer) trail that connects to the Cosmic Ray Station National Historic Site of Canada and the Sanson’s Peak Meteorological Station, which is one of the walking alternatives at the top.
#4 Relax at Lake Louise
With its beautiful blue-green water and surrounding snow-capped mountains reaching 9843 feet (3,000 meters), Lake Louise is Banff National Park’s crown treasure. The water is too cold to swim in (unless you’re very daring!), but it is perfect for canoeing. Mount Victoria at 11381 feet (3,469 meters) stands majestically at the western edge of Lake Louise.
#5 Stay at the Fairmont Château Lake Louise
The iconic Fairmont Château Lake Louise or the shoreline in front of the hotel provides a spectacular vista. This is one of Alberta’s best resorts. Even if you don’t plan on staying here, it’s a great spot to eat.
Château Lake Louise: This historic hotel is a lovely place to have lunch overlooking the lake and is part of the Lake Louise scene. At the lake’s end, the Canadian Pacific Railway built the first Château Lake Louise in 1890.
Lake Louise and the surrounding region grew quickly as a tourist destination because it was easily accessible by rail. Expeditions set out on horseback to investigate the rocky region from here. The unexplored peaks were scaled by mountaineers from England and the United States.
#6 Hike at Lake Louise
Famous for its many photographs and postcards, Lake Louise is the starting point for several rewarding hiking trails. The best of which is possibly the Plain of Six Glaciers.
Another famous hike leads to Lake Agnes (altitude difference is 1197.51 feet or 365 meters), which is nestled between the two circular hills known as the Beehives in a lovely setting. The difficult walk to the top of one of the Beehives is rewarded with a magnificent view of the surrounding area. Hikers can have meals and drinks at the Lake Agnes Teahouse in the summer.
#7 Scenic Drive through the Icefield’s Parkway
The Icefields Parkway is one of Canada’s most beautiful roadways. It connects Trans-Canada Highway 1 and Yellowhead Highway 16 by passing through the southern half of Jasper National Park and the northern section of Banff National Park. Unlike the popular Trans-Canada Highway, the Icefields Parkway is entirely a scenic path through breathtaking high mountain terrain.
The road from Lake Louise to Jasper follows a small valley that runs north-south for 143 miles (or 230 kilometers) between the glaciated peaks of the Rocky Mountain main range. Interpretive signs provide context on the terrain and local history, and several viewpoints with parking provide opportunities to enjoy the stunning views.
The Columbia Icefield is a popular attraction along the Icefields Parkway. The Athabasca Glacier descends from the heights above at this point, allowing you to stroll straight up to the toe. My favorite stops are Castle Junction, Moraine Lake and Petyo Lake. These are the most popular photo spots along the drive.
#8 Stay at Lake Louise Ski Resort
Lake Louise Ski Resort is Alberta’s most well-known ski resort and one of the greatest in Canada. It has terrain for skiers of all abilities, including open bowls, groomed runs, and tree skiing. The mountainside runs can be seen from the lake and Chateau Lake Louise.
The Summit Quad, a new chairlift at Lake Louise Ski Resort, makes it easy to access approximately 480 acres of new terrain. All of this new terrain, which was previously only accessible by an ancient (and difficult-to-ride) Poma lift, will delight skiers.
#9 Stay at Sunshine Village Ski Resort
Along with Lake Louise, Sunshine Village is a short drive outside of Banff and is one of Alberta’s top two ski resorts. The resort offers a range of terrain and runs to beginners as well as advanced skiers.
The gondola at Sunshine Village is currently operational during the summer. Long journeys in old school buses on the twisting, sandy approach route are no longer in fashion. You may now easily board the gondola and enjoy the view as you’re whisked to the top.
#10 Visit at Bow Lake
Bow Lake is located 21 miles (34 kilometers) north of Lake Louise, beneath the Crowfoot Glacier (shaped like a crow’s foot and can be seen from the road) and Bow Glacier. The quiet, pure waters of the lake reflect the Continental Divide’s high, snow-covered peaks.
The Waputik Icefield encompasses these glaciers. Beautiful treks along the lake lead to a waterfall at the bottom of the Bow Glacier or Helen Lake and Catherine Lake in the Dolomite Pass to the east.
#11 Visit Peyto Lake
Bow Pass, at 6785 feet (2,068 meters), is the highest point in Banff National Park and serves as a watershed between the North and South Saskatchewan River systems. The lovely Peyto Lake viewpoint is reached via a small branch road, and another fantastic viewpoint is about a kilometer away on foot.
Peyto Lake has the distinctive turquoise color of many of the glacier-fed lakes in this region, and it’s especially beautiful in the mid-to late-summer when the wildflowers carpet the Bow Summit’s mountain meadows.
#12 Visit The Johnston Canyon
The entrance of Johnston Canyon, with its two waterfalls, is about 16 miles (26 kilometers) along the Bow Valley Parkway. A trail winds its way through the canyon, with bridges spanning the sheer faces. On the other side of the canyon, the walk continues for another 3.7 (or 6 kilometers), going up to the Ink Pots, a series of springs.
The majority of visitors stick to the lower level, while those with more time and energy walk up to the Ink Pots. Johnston Canyon is a beautiful place to explore in the summer and winter, although it gets very few tourists outside of the summer.
BONUS Tip: Johnston Canyon is one of my favorite activities to do in Banff in the winter. The waterfalls are frozen and beautiful, and the surrounding mountains are snow capped. You can even go ice climbing!
#13 Visit Lake Minnewanka
The largest lake in the national park, Lake Minnewanka, is about 6.8 miles (11 kilometers) northeast of Banff and a picturesque site frequented by bighorn sheep. A popular walking track runs along the water’s edge and up into the nearby mountains.Motorboats are permitted on Lake Minnewanka, the park’s lone lake. Boat trips are available during the summer.
#14 Check out the Wildlife Attractions
Wildlife is one of the park’s most popular tourist attractions. This region’s national parks are home to more than fifty different species of mammals. The best times to see large animals are early in the morning and late in the evening. Elk, bighorn sheep, moose, deer, woodland caribou, mountain goats, and black bears are some of the most regularly sighted creatures in the area.
Now, it can be very difficult to find wildlife at many of the popular tourist spots because of how many people there are. But if you get off the beaten path a little and do some hiking, your chances of seeing something are dramatically increased.
#15 Do Some Hiking
There are dozens of excellent hiking trails throughout the area, making hiking one of the most popular things to do in Banff. At the east end of Rundle, Cascade Amphitheater, and Plain of Six Glaciers are all incredible trails.
Note: Many parts of Banff are wilderness areas and don’t have reliable cell service. Remember to always pack good essentials, wear appropriate hiking clothing and give yourself enough time to safely complete the hike before dark.
Best Time to Visit Banff
So, what is the best time to visit Banff in order to have pleasant weather? It is debatable. Between December and February is the best time to visit if you want to see a winter wonderland. If sunshine and long days are important to you, July and August are the finest months to visit Banff.
The shoulder seasons are May, June, September, and October, and you can expect snow in any of these months. Although the weather will begin to change in June, you will be covered in white fluff once more by late September.
The best rates can be found during the low season months of March, April, and November.
Where to Stay
The lively town of Banff and the wonderfully tranquil hamlet of Lake Louise both provide a diverse choice of lodging options for all types of visitors. Luxurious hotels, family-friendly chalets and condos, cozy bed and breakfasts, and budget-friendly hostels are all available. Over the course of 5 visits to Banff, I’ve stayed in quite a few places. Here are my favourites:
- Samesun Banff – Hostel in downtown Banff, great vibe and close to everything.
- Royal Canadian Lodge – Mid-tier hotel in downtown Banff, excellent restaurant and close to everything.
- Fairmont Banff Springs – Luxury hotel, the best hot pools and spas, short drive to downtown Banff.
- Fairmont Lake Louise – Luxury hotel, amazing access to the lake, beautiful dining room and great rooms
If there is ever a time to splurge on a hotel stay, let it be in Banff National Park. The Fairmont hotels are beautiful historic and have the best amenities of any place I’ve stayed in the area. Fairmont Banff Springs is the best option if you want to be close to downtown or you like hot and cold pools (I do!).
On the other hand, Fairmont Lake Louise is a better option if you want to be right at the foot of the mountains. Also, Lake Louise gets very busy with foot traffic during the day and parking can be a nightmare – it’s so nice being able to walk out of your hotel and already be at the lake. There are several campgrounds to choose from if you prefer a tent or RV. There are also backcountry campsites for more experienced campers.
How to get to Banff
Banff National Park, is teeming with species and overflowing with natural delights. It should be on your bucket list (if it isn’t already)! It’s well worth the journey. But, How to get here?
Taking a flight to Banff
Calgary International Airport (YYC) is the closest international airport. The Calgary International Airport is about a 90-minute drive (145 km or 90 miles) from Banff. Calgary and Banff are connected by flights from all across Canada and the world, allowing visitors worldwide to visit.
The most convenient method to get to Banff from Calgary International Airport is to take the Brewster Express, which will take you directly from the airport to your front door. It’s a stress-free way to conclude your travel and relax when you arrive, with luxury seating, huge viewing windows, and complimentary Wi-Fi in their coaches! Brewster drivers are knowledgeable about the area and are often full of interesting facts about the Rockies, which will pique your interest right away.
Taking the Train to Banff
Getting to Banff by train is quite difficult. Rocky Mountaineer can take you on a magnificent train excursion. To the north, VIA Rail (Canada’s national passenger rail service) makes a stop, although not in Banff. However, there are transfers accessible between Jasper and Banff.
Using a Car to Banff
If you choose to drive yourself, you can pick up a rental car at the Calgary Airport. In peak season (the summer and around Christmas) you’ll definitely want to book your rental car far in advance.
Parking in Banff
Keep in mind that parking in Banff is restricted, especially during the summer. Most hotels have parking included, however, many of the most popular destinations will have their parking lots fill up in the early morning (i.e. Lake Louise and Moraine Lake). I still recommend driving to Banff so you have the flexibility – just ensure you arrive early and have a back up plan if the lot is full.
Banff Is Gorgeous, Just Go!
There are so many things to do in and around Banff that you’ll never be bored, and you’ll need several trips to Banff to feel completely satisfied! If you enjoy being outside, Banff is the place for you. Get your bags packed and enjoy the trip to Banff!
About the Author:
Mikaela is the voice behind Voyageur Tripper, a blog dedicated to outdoor adventure travel. After several seasons working as a hiking and canoeing guide throughout Canada, Mikaela now balances weekend adventuring with a full time job, and writes stories, resources and travel guides for her blog.