Banff National Park is the most popular national park in Canada. With picturesque alpine lakes, hiking trails to the Canadian Rockies peaks, easy to visit glaciers and many more outdoor possibilities, it’s easy to understand why people want to visit Banff at least once in their life.
Since living in Banff when we moved to Canada, to visiting countless times over the years, it’s about time we help others to have an unforgettable time.
If you’re new to our blog, you will see that it’s all about outdoor adventures and budget-friendly options – Banff travel guide at its best!
Going to Banff? Read these:
Table of Contents
Why you should come to Banff
- To visit the oldest national park in Canada
- To see the wildlife – bears, deer, moose, mountain goats, deer
- To road trip Icefields Parkway, one of the most scenic drives in the world
- To visit the famous turquoise lakes surrounded by mountains
- To hike to the mountain peaks
- To see grizzly bears in the wild
- To kayak or stand up paddle board on any lake you like
- To visit 3 other national parks neighbouring with Banff
Get excited for your visit – our post Canadian Rockies from above includes many mountain photos (taken from a small plane), and video as well. Enjoy!
Where is Banff
A small resort town Banff is the main hub when visiting Banff National Park. It’s located in the province of Alberta, 127 km from Calgary. The downtown’s main street is where hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops are. While Cascade Mountain is dominating one end of the street, Sulphur Mountain is the other.
Banff National Parks is neighbouring with three other national parks – Kootenay, Yoho, and Jasper.
*In the spirit of full disclosure: Some links in this post are affiliate links, which means that if you purchase through them, we receive a small commission at no extra costs to you. We appreciate your support!
How to get to Banff
The closest airport to Banff is in Calgary, 145 km away. They are connected by a toll-free Trans-Canada Highway and it usually takes 1,5 hours by car or 2 hours by bus.
There is no public transport (bus or train) to Banff. You can go by shuttle bus operating by private companies, rent a car or rent a campervan in Calgary.
The On-It bus can take you to Banff for 10 CAD one-way during weekends and holidays from May to September.
Another option available is the Banff Express shuttle which departs from downtown Calgary and has 2 daily departures (morning and evening) for 30 CAD one-way.
The most budget-friendly option would be renting a campervan. The fuel from Calgary to Banff would cost around 20 CAD. You can rent a Smile Campervan from us and also save on accommodation by sleeping in the campervan and using campgrounds (read more below in Camping section).
Renting a car can be budget friendly as well. The basic rental car usually costs around 45 CAD a day (+insurance and GST). Use Rentalcars to compare different car rental companies to find the best deal.
This is a quick overview of the options. For even more options (and transport to Canmore and Jasper) including a complete breakdown of costs, read our post how to get from Calgary to Banff.
How to travel within Banff National Park
Town of Banff is small and you can get around just by walking. From one end of Banff Avenue to the other (to the bridge across Bow River) it’s roughly 5 km. We like to get around on the bikes. You can rent bikes in outdoor/rental stores in Banff.
But they also provide Roam public transport. The bus drives around Banff and can also take you to Canmore, Sulphur Mountain (read about the hike below), Lake Minnewanka and Lake Louise (seasonal).
In recent years, Parks Canada finally started running a few shuttle buses which can take you to the most popular places in the park – Johnston Canyon, Moraine Lake, Lake Louise.
Daily shuttle buses available in Banff National Park:
- Banff to Lake Louise, seasonal schedule, Roam public bus route #8, 8S, 8X (8 CAD one-way)
- Banff to Johnston Canyon, several times daily June 21 – September 15, Roam public bus route #9 (4 CAD one-way)
- Banff to Canmore, daily year-round, Roam public bus route #3 (6 CAD one-way)
- Banff to Lake Minnewanka, from May 17, Roam public bus route #6 (2 CAD one-way)
- Lake Louise to Moraine Lake, May 24 – October 14 (6 CAD one-way, starting 8:40am)
- Lake Louise to Moraine Lake ‘early bird’ for hiking, June 24 – September 29 (8 CAD one-way, from 6 am – 7:30 am)
- Lake Louise overflow camping to Moraine Lake, September 10 – October 8 (free)
- Lake Louise Gondola to Lake Louise village & Lake Louise, in summer (free)
The bus schedule was updated in April 2019; check out this website for the most recent schedule as Parks Canada is adding more.
If you’d like to visit a few of these places in one day, check out Hop on Banff. Their yellow shuttle bus operates end of May to October for 60 CAD/day (tax included). You can get on and off the bus anytime between Banff, Johnston Canyon, Moraine Lake, and Lake Louise.
If you’re driving a car or campervan, there are big parking lots at each of the mentioned places. Parking is free of charge but fills up quickly, especially during the summer.
For example, the road to Moraine Lake is open mid-May to mid-October and vehicles are allowed only when the parking spot is available. Cars were entering the road before 6am in summer 2019. Once the parking lot is full, it can take hours of waiting for a parking spot. Plan ahead with our Moraine Lake guide.
Best time to visit Banff
It’s really dependent on the activities you would like to do in Banff but you can visit all year round. The best skiing is from December to March and the hiking season starts differently every year (in 2019 it started very early in April). Most of the trails are dry from June to September.
There are plenty of activities you can do all year round. Just a few that popped in my head are hiking up the Sulphur Mountain, hiking/biking or cross country skiing the Spray River Loop, visiting hot springs and more.
April and May are great for wildlife watching, especially newborns. You will have a high chance of spotting bears while driving the Icefields Parkway. Read our post Wildlife in Canada to learn what types of wildlife you can see here (for example bison was recently introduced in Banff). Generally, you can see wildlife all year round, even right in town.
Be respectful of wildlife. Visit Banff Visitor Centre or Parks Canada website to learn how to behave around wildlife. You should never approach or feed wildlife (and of course not take selfies!). If the animal feels threatened it might charge you. In these cases, Parks Canada has to put the animal down and it’s the person’s fault. In better case, Parks Canada can give you a huge fine, they are regularly on patrol.
Banff is massively popular and crazy busy all summer. During the weekends, it’s difficult to even walk down the street or find parking. If you’d like to visit during the summer, I’d suggest staying away from Banff. Just stock up on groceries and take advantage of campgrounds within Banff National Park or in Canmore. That’s where all the magic happens. In nature. Without crowds.
Our suggestion is to visit in shoulder season June or September.
For a complete breakdown of all seasons and the best time for different outdoor activities (including seeing Northern Lights), read our post Best time to visit Banff National Park.
How much time to spend here
This is highly dependent on how much time you want to spend in the Rockies in general. If you’re traveling for 2 weeks, I’d recommend spending 2 days in Banff and 5 days in Banff National Park overall.
If you’re traveling through the Rockies for 3 weeks, you would be able to visit more places in Banff for 3 days and spend at least a week in Banff National Park. There are plenty of multi-day treks which are worth it but also don’t forget that you can visit the neighbouring parks – Kootenay, Yoho, and Jasper.
In any case, the absolute highlights in town you should visit are Sulphur Mountain, Tunnel Mountain, and Vermilion Lakes. In Banff National Park, visit Lake Minnewanka, Johnston Canyon, Moraine Lake, Lake Louise, and Peyto Lake (more ideas are in the below section).
What to do in Banff
We’ve compiled a huge list of activities in Banff in this post:100 things to do in Banff National Park
I will give you a quick overview of things you can do either in town our in Banff National Park in general:
Things to do in Banff
- Picnic by the Bow river – you can buy food, trays, and charcoal at the grocery store Nesters Market or IGA Banff. Then head to the river near Banff Indian Trading Post where you can find plenty of public BBQ grills.
- Visit Cave and Basin National Historic Site – the birthplace of Canada’s national parks
- Hike the Tunnel mountain
- Visit Bow Falls
- Hike up the Sulphur Mountain (instead of taking gondola)
- Relax in Banff Upper Hot Springs – with a gorgeous view of the mountains
- Enjoy the sunset/sunrise at Vermilion Lakes
- Wildlife watching – Fenland loop, Vermilion Lakes, Johnson Lake, golf course
- Hike/bike/cross country ski the Spray River Loop
- Canoe on Bow River – you can rent a canoe on Bow Avenue just by the river and go for a relaxing paddle session
- Visit Banff Mountain Film Festival – the 10-day festival of the best outdoor films in Oct/Nov every year
Things to do in Banff National Park (outside the town)
- Bike the Legacy Trail to Canmore, our choose other trail from our post Biking trails around Banff
- Swim in Johnson Lake – one of the very few lakes where the water is not cold
- Bike and hike to Aylmer Lookout above Lake Minnewanka for breathtaking views
- Watch Northern Lights – popular place is Lake Minnewanka
- Paddle on Moraine Lake or Lake Louise – rent a canoe for 105 CAD +GST for ½ hour or bring your own
- Stand up paddle board on Johnson Lake or Two Jack Lake
Things to do in Banff in winter
- Ice skate on Johnson Lake or Lake Minnewanka
- Cross country skiing to Moraine Lake, read our post Cross country ski trails in Banff National Park for more options
- Visit Ice Magic Festival in Lake Louise
- Johnston Canyon Ice Walk
Hikes in Banff
Below is a selection of the best hikes in Banff National Park. For more info about the trails, highlights and photos, read our post 20 best hikes in Banff National Park.
Before you go hiking, always check the trail report from Parks Canada for possible closures due to construction or wildlife presence.
Easy hikes in Banff National Park
- Tunnel Mountain
- Hoodoos Trail
- Along Lake Minnewanka
- Along Bow River
- Peyto Lake lookout– the whole area will be closed from mid-August in 2019 for construction
- Johnston Canyon to Ink Pots – trail goes through the canyon along a series of waterfalls and ending on a meadow with 5 blue/green pools called Ink Pots
- Spray River Loop
- Healy Pass
- Consolation Lakes
Moderate hikes in Banff National Park
- Sulphur Mountain – don’t pay for the overpriced gondola and hike up instead, all year round!
- Mount St. Piran, Little & Big Beehive in Lake Louise – hiking up Mount St. Piran is a quitter and less crowded option than Beehive hikes with a stunning birds eye’s view of the Lake Louise, Bow Valley & Lake Agnes
- Plain of Six Glaciers– teahouse above Lake Louise
- Glacier Lake – located along Icefields Parkway is a lesser known and quiet hike
Read our recommendation: Hiking packing list for summer in the mountains
Difficult hikes in Banff National Park
- Mount Rundle
- Aylmer Lookout above Lake Minnewanka (see above in section ‘Things to do in Banff National Park’ for the bike & hike option)
- Shadow Lake
- Rockbound Lake (it’s difficult if you hike above the lake, otherwise I would rate it moderate to the shore of the lake)
Always carry a bear spray and learn how and when to use it when hiking in the Canadian Rockies. You can buy one at many outdoor stores, the cheapest one would be at Banff Visitor Centre (224 Banff Avenue) where they can provide you with lots of bear safety tips.
Where to stay in Banff
Camping in Banff
A popular and budget-friendly option. There are 14 campgrounds within the park with over 2,400 sites and each one is equipped with (at least) drinking water and picnic tables. If you’d like to stay in town, you need book a campground months in advance.
Some of the campgrounds further from town are on a first come first serve basis. In Banff, price starts at 22 CAD/ night for a basic campground without showers (basic campsite further from town costs 15 CAD). You can shower at Fenlands Recreation Centre for 5 CAD. Check out Parks Canada website for locations, prices, and booking. Alternatively, you can stay in campgrounds in Canmore.
Banff National Park has more than 50 maintained backcountry campgrounds. Popular backcountry trips are Lake Minnewanka and Egypt Lake. You can reserve your backcountry permit here.
There are a few hostels right in town. The average price for a bed in a big dormitory is 30 CAD/night in low season and 75 CAD in high season. Not exactly a budget-friendly option but still on the cheaper side.
B&B, Lodges & Hotels
The main street in Banff is filled with hotels and there are many to choose from. One of the most budget-friendly hotels can be found for as little as 75 CAD/night for a Queen room during low season and from 300 CAD/night during high season. Many of the hotels are booked months in advance for summer. If you’re looking at this option and want to visit in summer, you need to book well in advance, some hotels almost a year in advance.
For cheaper options, you can stay in Canmore, only 25 km away. It’s a little town with fewer tourists than Banff and a lot of beautiful places to explore. Read our post 20 fun outdoor things to do in Canmore.
Where to eat & drink
Banff has only two grocery stores:
- Nesters Market
- IGA Banff
If you’d like more options, you can take a bus or drive to Canmore (25 km away) to:
- Save on Foods
Banff offers a lot of options for Canadian and international cuisine. For Canadian – steaks, and hamburgers – a good place is Tony Romas. There is also an Indian, Mexican, Korean restaurant and plenty of fast foods and bars.
If you’d like to buy a beer or other alcohol, you need to go to a liquor store. Alcohol is not sold in grocery stores in Alberta. You’re also not allowed to drink alcohol in public.
Our favourite budget-friendly options besides the grocery stores are:
- Tim Horton’s for hot soup
- Old Spaghetti Factory for affordable lunch/dinner menu
- Cascade mall for Chinese food
Tips for visiting Banff National Park
- National park fees
When you enter Banff National Park (or any national park in Canada), you are required to pay an entrance fee. You have a choice of either a daily pass or a yearly pass.
As of 2020, the fees are:
- 10 CAD per person for a daily pass, 20 CAD for a group/family
- 69.19 CAD per person for a yearly pass, 139.40 CAD for a group/family
The yearly Discovery Pass is valid for all National Parks in Canada. You can purchase it at the gate when you enter the national park, in the Visitor’s Centre or online here.
- Road closure
For seasonal road closures due to wildlife presence or avalanche dangers in Banff National Park, check out the report from Parks Canada.
Accurate road conditions can be checked here.
Moraine Lake Road – Moraine Lake, one of the prettiest lakes in the Canadian Rockies is only accessible through Moraine Lake Road which is open mid-May to mid-October every year. Outside of this time, the road passes an avalanche zone and can’t be accessed. You can only cross country ski until the viewpoint of Ten Peaks in winter. Visit this page for detailed info about the closure.
- Bear country
If you’re hiking in the Canadian Rockies, you’re hiking in a bear country. You should always carry a bear spray (can be purchased at Visitor’s Centre or outdoor stores), know when and how to use it and make noise while hiking (to let bears and other wildlife know that you’re there so you don’t scare them)! Carefully read these instructions on how to behave around bears.
Alberta province, where Banff National Park is located, has 5% GST. The reason I’m telling you is that it is not automatically added to the price shown. For example, for ½ hour rental of the canoe in Lake Louise, the price is shown 105 CAD + GST, which means you will pay 110,25 CAD. The same goes for all the tours, souvenirs or groceries.
The difference might seem minor but it goes up when you travel to British Columbia, their GST is 12%.
- Visitor Centre
Banff’s Visitor Centre is located at 224 Banff Avenue. They sell hiking maps, backcountry permits, souvenirs, bear sprays and provide invaluable information about Banff and other parks. You can ask the rangers about trail reports before hiking for possible closures or to help you book a campground.
It’s open daily 8 am to 8 pm from May 18 to October 8; and 9 am to 5 pm outside those dates. You can also reach them at +1 403-762-1550.
Lake Louise Visitor Centre is also open year round. You will see it along the main road Lake Louise Drive when you come to Lake Louise village.
- Public restrooms
One is located at the Central Park Parking Lot (corner of Buffalo Street & Banff Avenue), the other is close to the Banff Visitor Centre, just across the Wolf Street.
- Free Wi-Fi
You can access Wi-Fi in Banff’s Public Library (Bear Street), McDonald’s (Banff Avenue), and Tim Hortons (Gopher Street).
Banff has plenty of gas stations but the fuel is more expensive than in Canmore or Calgary. If you’re driving further north towards Lake Louise or Jasper, then fill up in Banff. The further you go up from Banff, the more expensive the gas is. Lake Louise and Saskatchewan River Crossing are the most expensive.
The biggest and free parking lot is by the Fenland Centre or train station. Central Park Parking Lot on the corner of Buffalo Street and Banff Avenue is limited to 3 hours. You can also park on the street but bear in mind that in summer, it’s a nightmare. You can find parking spots through the app Parking in Banff.
Read more about Canadian Rockies
When are you visiting Banff? Let us know if you have any questions.
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