Are you planning a trip to Banff? Do you want to know when is the best time to visit Banff National Park, one of the most popular places in Canada? It’s understandable choosing your travel date is not an easy task. Worry no more. This is exactly what you need to read.
We’ve lived in Banff for a brief time when we moved to Canada and the Canadian Rockies have been our playground for more than 4 years. Therefore we understand it might be frustrating to find out when to visit and what to expect. After reading this informative post, you will have a clear idea how Banff national park looks and feels like all year round. It covers everything from detailing:
- all seasons of the year
- road conditions
- when does Banff offer best deals
- busiest times & how to avoid crowds
- the best time for a wide range of outdoor activities
When is the best time to visit Banff National Park in Canada
First, let’s talk briefly about Banff National Park and the hub of the park, town of Banff.Why and when was this park created? The main reason for exploration of this area was railway construction to western Canada. Because of the land disputes, government set up a small area of only 26 square km around Cave & Basin hot springs. And that is how the national park was created.
Banff National Park is the oldest national park in Canada and third oldest in the world. It was established in 1885 to protect nature and setting up rules for land exploitation mainly around Bow Valley.
Weather and seasons in Banff National Park
Ask anybody in the world about the weather in Canada and the first answer you will get: Canada is cold. That is not really an accurate answer. The Canadian Rockies have longer winter than you would think but summers are also quite hot. You can also have -15C in the morning and +15C in the afternoon on the same day!
To find out when is the best time to visit Banff, let’s find out more about seasons in the Canadian Rockies. When you are high in the mountains weather and conditions can change significantly within a short period of time. You can have snow in July but also + 15°C in January thanks to Chinook wind which affects southern Canadian Rockies. Leonardo DiCaprio mistakenly thought the warm wind in the winter is a consequence of global warming when he was filming the Revenant.
Note: all of the below periods are long-term average and each year can be different by as much as 30 days. See temperature charts for monthly temperature averages.
Winter (mid-November to mid-May)
Winter in Banff usually starts around November 15 when first solid freeze period come and snow starts to stick to the ground. Ski resorts start to open. In the end of November, Lake Louise ski resort hosts World Cup in skiing.
November and December is the period when lakes start to freeze and therefore you might have options for skating on lakes. With ideal weather conditions when is really cold (-20°C) for a short period of time and doesn’t snow you may have a clear ice for skating or pond hockey, a favourite activity of Canadians. At the end of December pretty much every bit of land in the park is covered with snow.
January and February have the best conditions for skiing, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. This time of the year Banff usually gets two streaks of cold weather lasting about a week to 10 days, when the highest temperature drops to -25°C or less, which is great for ice climbing. One of the reasons for cold weather in the Rockies is that days are quite short with only 9 hours of daylight.
March is the best time to go skiing in Banff National Park. Days are longer and temperatures are getting above freezing during the day. It’s also a really good time for dogsledding or fat biking. April is the last month of the winter season to do some proper skiing around Banff. Days are warm and many areas are missing a bit of snow. Rivers are not frozen anymore.
April and first half of May is the time when ski resorts close down and you won’t see any snow in towns. You will already have options for shorter hikes in valleys or hikes which don’t reach higher peaks. In April there is a chance you will see bears on slopes waking up from hibernation.
Spring (May to mid-June)
As I mentioned earlier, spring in Banff National Park starts a little later than you would normally expect but has everything that spring should have. Green meadows covered with flowers and bears feasting on them, great smell of pine trees, warm afternoons. And also the time when animals have their offspring born and teach them first lessons of life.
Almost every summer activity is possible to do during this time. Only some lakes at the beginning of June might still have some ice on them. By June, there is no more ice in Banff National Park, but trails can still be quite muddy. On the other hand, crowds start to fill up the streets and you will need to wait in lines especially during weekends.
Summer in Banff (mid-June to August)
During summer time you have plenty of daylight. In June, there are more than 16 hours of daylight and you can do anything, especially hiking and biking is very popular. June and July get most rainfall and a lot of thunderstorms occurs with some heavy rainfall. Temperatures in the valley can easily surpass 25 or 30°C. Best weather in Banff National Park is in August as fewer thunderstorms occur and weather conditions are stable.
Summer holidays and warm weather bring tourist masses to the park. Canada Day, Heritage Day in Alberta and Labour Day are holidays when by far most people come to Banff National Park. I doubt you want to be there at this time. Hotels are sold out, crowds everywhere, traffic is collapsing, parking lots are full, restaurants are full. Please don’t make a mistake and check these holidays before you visit Banff.Other days are pretty busy also, and the weather is favourable for plenty of water activities such as kayaking, paddle boarding, rafting or even swimming in the lakes.
Fall (September to mid-November)
From September as the school year starts, the park will become quite empty compared to summer months. The first half of the fall can have really great weather but also is a time for first snowfall in Banff. That doesn’t mean it will stay. This time of year is great to see wildlife in the lower valleys and towns as they slowly start to come down from upper meadows to stay in warmer parts of the park during winter. Nights are getting longer but the temperatures are still good for camping.
September is the absolute best time to visit Banff.
The second half of the fall significantly changes the weather with snowfall occurring more often and freezing mornings with chilly and windy afternoons. From October, Parks Canada closes some roads to important places such as Moraine Lake or Spiral Tunnel parking lot (outside Banff National Park) and also many campgrounds. Many areas are in a transition period while it is cold but not cold enough for winter activities. End of October is also the time when Banff Mountain Film Festival is held.
When do people visit Banff?
Banff National Park is one of the most visited places in Canada. There are only about 10,000 people living in the park. To compare, Banff visits in average about 11,000 tourists a day. With more than 25,000 people during August weekends and only about 1,000 tourists a day during November weekdays. This shows why we recommend visiting in September.
If you’re interested, read actual stats when people visit Banff National Park. Our advice for visiting Banff is avoiding weekends and staying as many weekdays as possible. Most importantly try to avoid long weekends (see a calendar of Canadian Holidays) as even more people visit from close by Calgary.
How to get to Banff National Park
Nowadays the vast majority of visitors get to park by car. There are two main directions, either from Calgary or Vancouver. Smaller amounts of tourist visit from Jasper or come from the US directly via road 93 and Kootenay National Park.
If driving from Calgary, take Trans-Canada Highway westward and you will reach National Park in about an hour of driving (110 km). From Vancouver, it takes longer, about 10 hours of driving as it is 900 km away. Canadian National Parks are very well maintained, and entry fees play a big part in that effort. You will have to buy a day pass or annual pass upon entry in Banff National Park. Coming from Calgary you will cross booths at the beginning of the park on the highway. Other entrances don’t have toll booths and you will have to buy a pass at visitor’s centers. Find out more about prices and passes.
Road conditions and driving in Banff National Park
Banff is a small town with good public transport network which gets you everywhere in town (and also to Canmore). It is reasonably priced and we recommend it to use during the high season. Roads within Banff National Park are well maintained and even during winter are drivable. You can expect some closures after big snow storms when maintenance crews have to plow big amounts of snow. Some roads also have seasonal closures to either protect the wildlife or tourists. See which closure may affect your plans.
Best time to visit Banff to get best deals
Services in Banff and Lake Louise are very expensive. Visiting Banff outside the main season pays off. Prices for accommodation in Banff and Lake Louise during summer months can be as much as triple the price compared to shoulder season. And that is definitely a lot. When visiting Banff National Park, consider staying in nearby town Canmore which is just outside of the park limits. Best prices on accommodation and car rental are in April-May and September-November.
Attractions in Banff National Park have stable (high) prices throughout the year. Some may have seasonal closures, for example, boat rides are not possible on frozen lakes (obviously) or Banff gondola doesn’t operate couple weeks in January. If you are planning to visit attractions, definitely avoid them during weekends and holidays as endless waiting in lines (2-4 hours on gondola) will ruin your trip.
Best time to visit Banff and Lake Louise for outdoor activities
Hiking is the most popular outdoor activity in Banff National Park. Best time to visit Banff for hiking is between June and end of October. Where in June you might still have some trails covered with snow and mud. October is last month for summer hiking and with snowshoes, it’s a year-round activity. A great example is Johnston Canyon where tourists come all year long – for summer waterfall walk or ice walk in winter. These are 20 hikes we recommend in the Banff area.
Downhill skiing and cross-country skiing are another popular activities in Banff. Park has three ski resorts Lake Louise, Sunshine Village and Mt. Norquay. Best skiing conditions are from December up to March. Outside of this period and during warmer winters you will have either not enough snow or icy conditions on the slopes. March would be the best time to ski in Banff as days are longer and temperatures are around zero. Early bird ski passes in November are usually half price. Cross-country skiing is a cheaper alternative and doesn’t require paying for ski passes. Read our post about cross-country ski trails in Banff.
Mountain biking in Banff
Banff and the Canadian Rockies offer conditions for mountain biking from the end of May to begging of October. Outside of this time frame, you won’t have many options to bike within park unless you bike on the roads. Most of the mountain biking trails are at the bottom of valleys but many great biking trails are just outside of Banff National Park border in Canmore and Kananaskis country.
Camping in Banff is mostly summer activity. Trailer campgrounds are usually open from the second or third weekend of May. The park is well equipped with campsites and during summer months we strongly suggest to book in advance as campsites fill up quickly.
Best time to visit Banff National Park for summer road trip is May to October. Otherwise, some campsites may be closed and then you will have to sleep in the car (which is an option we often took). If you are planning to stay in hotels or do only day trips come to Banff anytime. Every season has something to offer.
Best time to visit Banff for wildlife and photography
Banff is one of the best places to see many types of wildlife in the shortest amount of time. Animals live in a protective environment and mostly used to human presence. It is really easy to spot elk, bear or mountain goat. As Parks Canada reintroduced bison, the wildlife watching opportunities will increase in upcoming years.
You can see wildlife all year round. In winter many animals such as elks, goats, and sheep can be seen along the road licking salt. Baby animals are born in spring. Bear season is from April to November and wolves can be seen all year round although harder to spot. To increase your chance to see wildlife, go hiking further from town. Best time of the day is right after sunrise or before sunset. Most encounters happen during these times of the day.
Same rules apply for making pictures in Banff as for seeing wildlife. Any time of the year is good depends on what you want to take pictures of. Winter photography is great between December and April when many waterfalls are frozen and mountain peaks covered in snow.
Lakes, including famous Lake Louise and Moraine Lake, thaw in June. You shouldn’t expect to see them blue before that. When you want to take photos of Northern Lights/Aurora Borealis, winter is the best time as nights are longer and skies dark. You have to check space weather as Aurora is not commonly seen in Banff National Park.
As you could see the best time to visit Banff is always depending on your preferences. We spent almost every other weekend in Banff area and our suggestion is to come between the beginning of September and end of October as you will get the best value, the weather is still warm and most importantly you won’t feel like in a crowded shopping center.
Let us know when you would like to visit and why.
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