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Banff National Park is the oldest and most popular national park in Canada. Located in the province of Alberta in the Canadian Rockies, it attracts millions of visitors every year due to its mountainous landscape, turquoise lakes, waterfalls, glaciers, and wildlife.
Whether you are an adventure seeker looking for hikes or you love road trips and stopping at scenic lookouts, this guide has it all. Stay at least four days in Banff National Park if you’re a first time visitor. Then take the scenic Icefields Parkway and explore Banff’s picturesque neighbors—Jasper, Yoho, and Kootenay National Parks. The beauty will leave you speechless.
This travel guide highlights the best things to do in Banff National Park, both popular attractions and little known local secrets.
1. Walk around Banff
The little town of Banff, lying in the heart of Banff National Park, is completely surrounded by mountains and offers plenty of activities. You can take a stroll along the main street where restaurants and gift shops are located. For a quieter walk, take the trail along the Bow River to Bow Falls. Another great option is an easy hike to Tunnel Mountain or Banff View Point on Mount Norquay Scenic Drive for a unique view of Banff from above.
To appreciate and learn about the history of the mountains, visit Cave and Basin National Historic Site, the birthplace of Banff National Park. You will enter a small cave with a natural hot spring and a museum. In the evening, walk the Fenland Loop Trail for a chance to spot wildlife.
2. Hike up the Sulphur Mountain
One of the most popular attractions in Banff is taking the gondola up to the Sulphur Mountain. While many visitors choose this option, there’s a little known and more adventurous alternative. You can hike to the top of the Sulphur Mountain instead. Take the public Roam bus from Banff or drive to the Upper Hot Springs Parking Lot where the trailhead starts.
The trail is well-trodden, wide and climbs through the forest on many switchbacks. It’s only 4.5 km to the top with occasional glimpses of Rundle Mountain, Banff and Bow Valley. When you arrive at the top, continue 1 km further on a boardwalk to the Cosmic Ray Station. Then you can visit the interpretative centre, gift shop or restaurant inside the gondola terminal.
Tips for hiking the Sulphur Mountain:
- In summer, you can hike up in the afternoon and take the gondola down for free after 7 p.m.
- In winter, the gondola ride down the mountain is free all day and you can warm up by the campfire on the observation deck at the upper terminal.
- If you will hike in winter, bring or rent in town microspikes for your shoes as the trail might be icy.
3. Visit hot springs
While Banff National Park has plenty of cold lakes you can jump into, some people prefer warmer options. In that case, visit Upper Hot Springs, located by the gondola. The hot springs feature one big hot outdoor pool overlooking Rundle Mountain. It’s open year-round and you can even rent a towel and old-school swimming suit worn in the 1920s. It’s especially popular in the evenings and during winter.
4. Explore Lake Minnewanka
The largest lake in Banff is only 15 km from the town. Take in the dramatic landscape of the Rockies on a boat cruise and you might see some wildlife on the shore, so keep your eyes wide open. Another experience would be renting a motorboat or canoe. It is best to arrive early in the morning to beat the crowds and have the calmest waters.
For adventure travellers, a special view awaits from Aylmer Lookout on a bike and hike trip. Rent a mountain bike in one of the many outdoor stores in Banff and head to Lake Minnewanka by car or take a bus. You can bike the first 8.5 km of the trail along the lake and then hike 4 km uphill to the lookout. The panoramic view of Lake Minnewanka from the top is one of the most rewarding in Banff National Park.
Tips for bike and hike trip to Lake Minnewanka:
- This is a prime grizzly bear area and sightings are very common. It’s recommended to make noise while hiking or biking and carry a bear spray (can be purchased or rented in outdoor stores).
- Due to the feeding of bears during summer, a seasonal trail restriction is in place—from July 10 to September 15 no bikes or camping is allowed along Lake Minnewanka and hiking only in a group of 4 or more.
5. Swim in Johnson Lake
Most of the mountain lakes in Banff National Park are cold year-round because they are deep and located in high elevation. Therefore not many visitors have swimming in Banff on their bucket list. However, Johnson Lake is a great option. It gets quite warm in summer and you can see whole families enjoying their day on the shores, picnicking, swimming, kayaking or walking around the lake. The nearby forest provides enough shade to rest and admire the surrounding mountain views. Johnson Lake is 11 km from Banff and can be reached by car, bike or a public bus.
6. Have a morning picnic by the lake
What is a better way to start your day than watching a sunrise with a cup of hot tea in your hand? Whether you’re staying in a hotel or in the campground, wake up early, make a tea or grab one on the go at popular Tim Hortons and head out of town. The best options for sunrise are Vermilion Lakes and Two Jack Lake. At Vermilion Lakes, there’s even a wooden dock, a perfect spot for watching the mountains wake up. At Two Jack Lakes, the sun hits the Rundle Mountain first, then create a perfect mirror-like reflection.
7. Float down the Bow River
Because swimming in cold lakes is not everyone’s idea of a fun vacation, kayaking on lakes and floating down the rivers is a very popular activity. If you visit the Banff Canoe Club by the Bow River, you can rent a kayak, canoe or stand up paddleboard and explore a slower part of Bow River. If you take it a bit further, you will get to Vermilion Lakes where a lot of wildlife likes to hang out. Watch for elks and bald eagles.
8. Try wild ice skating
One of the best-kept winter secrets of locals in the Rockies is wild ice skating on frozen lakes. When lakes start to freeze over in November, and before they are covered with snow, an amazing opportunity opens up for a truly Canadian activity. Rent skates and hockey sticks in Banff and enjoy the crystal clear ice and mountains from a different perspective. Popular lakes for wild ice skating are Johnson Lake, Vermilion Lakes, Two Jack Lake, and Lake Louise. Ice skating on Lake Louise is available all winter as they maintain a clear patch of ice for the public.
Tips for wild ice skating:
- The ice is safe for skating when the thickness is at least 6 inches. Because Parks Canada is not monitoring the thickness, evaluating safety is your responsibility. You can either measure the thickness where you see ice cracks or ask locals in Banff.
9. Visit Johnston Canyon
Johnston Canyon, located between Banff and Lake Louise, is a stunning place to visit year-round. While you walk the easy trail in the canyon, you will pass several waterfalls. The first part of the trail is paved and leads to Lower Falls. You can walk through a short rock tunnel to see the waterfalls up close. The second part is even more rewarding when you reach the bigger Upper Falls, a popular place for ice climbers in winter.
If you’re willing to hike 3 km further, that’s where the real magic is hiding. Once you clear the forest and arrive at a large meadow, you will see 5 blue-green mineral pools called Ink Pots. Notice the changing colour of the pools and the water bubbles released from the bottom of the pools.
10. Photograph the Moraine Lake
The most famous lake in Banff National Park is without a doubt the Moraine Lake, a truly picturesque turquoise lake surrounded by Ten Peaks. You will see the lake on all postcards or websites mentioning the Canadian Rockies. There’s also a trail along the lake leading to popular hikes, such as Sentinel Pass.
Tips for visiting Moraine Lake:
- Moraine Lake became so popular in recent years that it sometimes takes a miracle to enter the road leading to Moraine Lake. Parks Canada closes the road when the small parking lot by the lake is full, which is usually at 6 a.m. during the summer.
- For a more comfortable visit, you can use a shuttle bus leaving from Lake Louise or overflow parking lot.
- The Moraine Lake Road is only open mid-May to mid-October because it passes an avalanche zone and it’s inaccessible in winter.
11. See the famous Lake Louise from above
Lake Louise is another popular lake and only a short drive away from Moraine Lake. The historic Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise overlooks the lake and offers very luxurious accommodation and dining. In summer, visitors like to go canoeing on the lake to have a closer look at the Victoria Glacier or hike up one of the mountains for a bird’s eye view. You can hike to Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse, Agnes Teahouse, Big Beehive, Devils Thumb, Fairview Lookout or my favourite, Mount St. Piran.
12. Drive scenic road Icefields Parkway
The highway connecting Lake Louise in Banff National Park and Jasper in Jasper National Park is one of the most scenic roads in the world. Icefields Parkway is only 230 km long but you need at least one full day to enjoy it to the fullest. Prepare for a rugged beauty where there’s no wifi but plenty of glaciers, lakes, waterfalls, and mountain peaks to leave you mesmerized.
Just a few stops I would recommend are Bow Lake, Peyto Lake, Waterfowl Lakes, Mistaya Canyon, Columbia Icefield and Athabasca Glacier, Parker Ridge Hike, Wilcox Pass Hike, and Valley of the Five Lakes Hike. The ideal length for driving Icefields Parkway would be two days.
Tips for driving Icefields Parkway:
- Pick up a copy of the Icefields Parkway map at the Visitor Centre in Banff or Lake Louise before the drive.
- For the most beautiful colour of the lakes, visit between June and October.
- There are 11 campgrounds on Icefields Parkway, a few hostels and even fewer lodges where you can stay to break up the drive for two days.
13. Go kayaking or stand up paddleboarding
With plenty of easily accessible lakes in the Rockies, people like to enjoy them on the water whenever possible. While there are canoe rentals on popular lakes, such as Lake Louise and Moraine Lake, be prepared to pay at least CAD 105 for 30 minutes.
A more economical option would be to rent an inflatable kayak, canoe or stand up paddleboard in Banff and visit as many lakes as you’d like, no permit required. My favourite lakes for stand up paddleboarding are Johnson Lake, Two Jack Lake, and Moraine Lake.
14. Visit Bow Summit and Peyto Lake
Bow Summit (2,027m) is the highest place on the Icefields Parkway and only a short walk from the parking lot is a lookout for the breathtaking Peyto Lake. If you’re short on time while driving the Icefields Parkway, this stop is a must. It’s the only place from which you will see a bird’s eye view of the insanely blue lake without the need for hiking to the mountain top.
15. Wildlife watching
Wildlife in Banff National Park is often the biggest highlight, especially for first-time visitors. You can spot elk, deer, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, black bears, grizzly bears, and more. For the best chance of spotting wildlife, drive the road around Banff’s golf course or Bow Valley Parkway early in the morning or in the evening.
Tips for wildlife watching:
- Never feed any wildlife. When animals become accustomed to human food, they will start approaching humans which can result in animal charging and subsequently its death. Remember, a fed bear is a dead bear.
- It is not allowed to approach or stalk any wildlife. Definitely, do not turn your back to any animal to take a selfie. It might seem to look unbothered by you but can charge within a few seconds. Accidents are becoming more common.
- Go to Visitor Centre for information about bears or visit the Parks Canada website.
Important Banff travel tips
- The closest international airport to Banff is in Calgary. Rent a car in Calgary and drive to Banff to explore on your own or in few instances you can take advantage of the shuttle buses.
- For visiting any national park, it is required to purchase a Park Pass, either at the booth when entering the park or online in advance. All the attractions are free to visit.
- Parks Canada recommends everyone hiking any trail in the Rockies to carry a bear spray. It is for your own safety and the last measure in case a bear charges you. The common misconception is that you do not need a bear spray when visiting popular and crowded places. This is not true and nobody can guarantee your safety if you hike unprepared. Make sure to make noise and carry a bear spray within arm’s reach on all trails.
- Hotels and lodges in Banff National Park are very expensive during summer and are often booked many months in advance. Therefore there’s an increasing trend of staying in one of the 14 campgrounds within Banff National Park.
- If you’d like to visit Banff on a budget and have complete freedom over your trip, rent a campervan. You will save on accommodation by using campgrounds and have your own home on wheels.
By Maya Steiningerova of Smile Campervans