The Complete Guide to Banff National Park
Your complete guide to Banff National Park! First of all, I am very excited that you are going to Banff. It is very high on my list of top-places I have seen and the ol’ cliche’ “pictures don’t do it justice” really is true in Banff National Park. However, there are some valuable things to know before you go and to help with planning our trip!
What to do
1. Explore Lake Louise
There are a few things on the list of can’t-miss places to see in Banff National park and Lake Louise is one of them. The lakes of Banff are glacier-fed and make for crystal clear, turquoise waters that are unbelievable. During the warmer months you can rent canoes to explore the lake and during the winter the lake freezes and you can go ice skating! There are tons of hiking trails that offer views of the lake from above. Undoubtedly, there is no shortage of outdoor activities to do at Lake Louise!
When you arrive to the lake you will notice the huge Fairmont Chateau that overlooks the lake. It is beautiful to see, but you’ll pay for the views if you decide to stay there $!
Travel planning pearl: the parking at Lake Louise is limited. Even during off-season and early in the morning the parking lot was starting to fill up. They now have a separate parking area where you have to shuttle to get to the lake. It is a good alternative option. However, if you want to avoid having to wait on the shuttle from the separate lot, GET TO THE LAKE EARLY!
2. Hike the Plain of Six Glaciers Tea house Trail
Hiking trails are everywhere around Banff and Lake Louise. One that was highly recommended to me and that I will recommend to you is the Plain of Six Glaciers Tea house trail. Now, with the recommendation I got, I did not get a lot of details on the actual trail. I found the trailhead on a map and moseyed on down to it. However, I will give you some of the information I wish I had known prior to hiking:
- The trail is 6.8 miles round-trip (11 km)
- Elevation gain is 1,180 ft (360 metres)
- The trailhead is located at the far end of the busy lakeshore trail that starts at the Fairmont Chateau
- Weather at the bottom of the trail can vary greatly compared to the top of the trail; wear snow-proof shoes and dress in layers!
- Don’t be surprised if you hear and/or see an avalanche; they are frequently thundering off Mounts Lefroy and Victoria
3. Visit Moraine lake
With its draw-dropping backdrop of the peaked Canadian rockies, Moraine Lake is one of the most iconic scenes of Banff National Park. There is a good chance if you google Banff, this is the first picture you will see, and for good reason. Moraine Lake is located in the Valley of Ten Peaks about 8.7 miles (14 km) southeast of Lake Louise. Like the other lakes of Banff, it is glacier-fed with brilliant-blue waters.
Like Lake Louise, Moraine Lake is a very popular destination within Banff. The crowds line up quickly and I can’t imagine trying to find parking in the summer. Therefore, I recommend going in the early morning. I know that sucks, but you will get your best pictures and peaceful views. And, when the sun rises, it splashes colors of pink and gold on the peaks behind the lake.
If you are looking for the famous view of the lake and its full peak backdrop, take the Rockpile trail located to the left of the parking lot. The trail tis only about 0.5 miles and takes about 25 minutes. However, this trail is HIGHLY trafficked and you will likely not finding parking in the middle of the day, ESPECIALLY during peak season. There are also several other hiking trails near Moraine Lake; I recommend the AllTrails app to find the perfect hiking trail for you!
4. Drive along the Icefields Parkway
This is one of the most beautiful drives I have driven. Connecting Banff to Jasper, you drive along winding roads that overlook the Canadian Rockies. We actually drove the road in an unexpected snow-storm. It made for a snow-globe experience that was unbelievable. But, if you are traveling in the summer, don’t expect to see the snow-filled trees of the pictures below. However, you will likely see way more peaks of the Canadian Rockies that were hidden from us!
There are several lakes and trailheads to waterfalls along the parkway. Stop and enjoy the views and stretch your legs!
The Athabasca Glacier is located just off the Icefields Parkway. You can walk to the foot of the glacier from a parking lot nearby or you can pay to take a 90-minute tour in a 6-wheeled all-terrain vehicle for $80-100 dollars. We opted to walk to the foot, so I don’t have personal experience of the tour. Click here to book and learn more about the tour to decide for yourself 🙂
5. Shop downtown
Downtown Banff is your typical ski-resort town. Restaurants, shops and bars are within walking distance along the main road. However, like any ski town, expect prices to be higher, especially during ski season or peak tourist season.
P.S. → this photo isn’t mine. Shout out to stock photos!
6. Watch for wildlife!
Animal sights are sporadic and unpredictable, so keep your eyes peeled everywhere you go! We saw the elk bugling along Lake Minnewanka and the big horn sheep in the middle of the Icefields Parkway. Keep your cameras at the ready! However, remember to keep your distance from the wildlife, especially in the fall when animals like the elk are in rut.
P.S. → These ARE my photos 😂 You can have some of these animals too!
Best time to visit
A guide to Banff and the best time to visit. The best time to visit Banff depends on what you would like to do. Banff is well-known for its skiing in the winter and has tons of hiking trails to do in the summer. Banff has great summer weather; so, if you are looking to do a lot of outdoor activities and hiking, summer is your best time to go. However, Banff’s popularity has exploded in the last several years and the crowds have gotten out of control in some areas during the summer peak season.
My personal recommendation, for whatever it is worth, is that the best time to visit Banff National Park is during late May or early September.
- Crowds are way more manageable
- The weather is still good enough to enjoy the outdoor activities
However, the weather during these seasons are also more unpredictable, so be prepared for quick weather changes!
- We visited Banff during the third week of September.
- Somehow we experienced winter and a beautiful autumn day in our two days in Banff.
- The day we arrived it was foggy and overcast; we woke up to the first snow of the season! However, the next day the snow was gone and by the afternoon we had beautiful, sunny skies and upper 60 degree F weather!
Although it was beautiful to see the snowfall, your outdoor options are greatly diminished if the weather is not ideal AND your views are also limited. The perks of clear weather outweigh the prettiness of the snow unless you are there to ski. However, if you decide you want to see a wintery wonderland, know that many of the roads such as the Icefields Parkway may close if the weather gets too bad.
As I mentioned, the weather varies greatly in Banff; they get all of their seasons! The summers have great weather and the winters have low and quite unpleasant temperatures. Spring and Autumn temperatures are unpredictable, but can be great. Approximate seasonal temps below:
- Highs: 40’s-50’s F (5-15’s C)
- Lows: 20’s F (-3 C)
- Highs: 70’s F (20’s C)
- Lows: Mid- 40’s F ( 7 C)
- Highs: 50’s-60’s F (10-20’s C)
- Lows: Upper 20’s-30’s F (around freezing)
- Highs: 20’s F (0 to -5 C)
- Lows: 8-10 F (-12 to -14 C)
If you decide to visit Banff in the Spring or Autumn (which is your best option to avoid crowds), be prepared for quick weather changes! As I said before, we experienced a snowstorm one day and then 60 degree F weather the next. Also, if you plan to go hiking while you are in Banff, many of the trails climb to pretty high altitudes. Then, even if the weather is good at the trailhead, chances are you will experience cooler temps and possibly snow at the top. Check the weather frequently and dress accordingly!
Click here for a packing guide to Canada!
Pictures taken ONE day apart at Lake Louise
Try not to get too bummed when you start looking for a place to stay in Banff. The prices are just more expensive than many places you have visited; it’s a ski town after all. We combatted the price by staying in a hostel while here:
- We stayed at the Banff International Hostel
- It was clean during our stay.
- They offer female only, male only, mixed-dorms or private rooms with a minimum of 4 beds.
- The hostel was in walking distance of many restaurants and shops.
- However, a downfall was that there was LIMITED parking.
- (Not getting paid to say this 🙃 )
Take a look around and see what accommodation would work best for you and your budget! If you plan early enough, you shouldn’t have to pay TOO much. But if you wait, you will.
Guide to navigating Banff. The best way to see Banff National Park is to rent a car.
- We flew into Calgary Airport and rented a car from there and drove from Calgary to Banff.
- There are buses that will take you from downtown Banff to the major destinations like Lake Louise and Moraine Lake.
- However, this is not the best option.
- There is so much to see in Banff and we made so many random stops when we spotted something we wanted to see or take pictures of.
Travel Tip: BEWARE of the gas prices inside Banff National Park!
We found a cute little gas station to stop for a snack and fuel up on our way back from the Icefields Parkway. When we pulled up to the pump a nice gentleman was there to pump the gas for us. However, we soon learned there was probably a reason. He filled us to the top with $100 worth of fuel. The prices are in Canadian dollars per litre which equalled something like $6 USD per gallon. SO, fill up in the bigger towns like Calgary or even in Banff.
Your Guide to Banff Recap!
Your guide to Banff National Park! I feel lucky to have seen the park during the shoulder season in 2018 when the crowds were manageable and we were able to see everything we wanted with little hassle. But, as usual, when the beauty of a place spreads and becomes known, the crowds grow with it. It really is a beautiful park and if you plan it right, you will have one of the best trips of your life!