Updated: Jun 12
Banff was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984 and is home to mountains that are between 45 and 120 million years old!
Table of Contents
What not to miss in Banff National Park
1. Johnston Canyon
Johnston Canyon is one of the most popular trails in Banff due to its accessibility, variety, and unique appeal. This trail winds through a canyon, offering scenic panoramic views around every turn. Venture to the lower falls (1.6 miles round-trip), upper falls (3.4 miles round-trip), or ink pots (7.3 miles round-trip) depending on your available time and skill level.
J&L Tip: Arrive to Johnston Canyon early in the morning for minimal crowds and available parking. This trail becomes heavily trafficked by the afternoon.
Completing the entire Johnston Canyon trail is 7.3 miles round-trip with 1,994 feet in elevation gain. The trail is out and back and is rated as "Moderate" difficulty. Plan at least four hours to complete the entire trail. For more information and to download the trail offline on your mobile device, visit AllTrails.
When driving to Johnston Canyon from Banff, take the Bow Valley Parkway instead of Highway 1, the drive is much more scenic! There are several turn-outs with bathrooms, viewpoints, and opportunities to spot wildlife.
2. Lake Louise & Plain of Six Glaciers
Lake Louise is home to awe-inspiring views of a pristine glacier lake. There are 33 hiking trails that start from Lake Louise and lead to panoramic vistas and backcountry tea houses. Some of the most popular trails at Lake Louise are Lake Agnes Trail [4.6 Miles; Moderate], Plain of Six Glaciers Trail [9.1 Miles; Moderate], and The Big Beehive [6.8 Miles; Hard].
The daily parking fee at Lake Louise public lot is CAD $12.15 (as of 2022). The fee can be paid at the parking lot pay stations and is valid for the full day. We strongly recommend arriving prior to 9am if you would like to park in this lot. If you plan to arrive after 9am, you will need to book a shuttle to Lake Louise.
Each of these trails allow a visit to one of Lake Louise's ever-so-popular backcountry tea houses, yet each of these trails also provides a completely unique experience. It was so hard for us to choose which experience we wanted to preference on our day-trip to the Lake Louise area. So difficult, in fact, that we decided not to choose at all. We combined all of these popular hiking trails into one EPIC day-long hiking excursion. Call us crazy, but we did not regret a single second.
3. Moraine Lake & Sentinel Pass
Deciding which glacier-fed lake in Banff is most beautiful can only be determined by the eye of the beholder. Each lake provides its own unique wonder and beauty. Among these, is Moraine Lake. It may take some additional prep work to access this lake (due to its small parking lot), however, it is certainly worth a visit during your trip to Banff.
Trail & Shuttle Information
As of 2022, booking a shuttle is required to access Moraine Lake unless you plan to arrive prior to 6am and park in the very limited parking lot.
While at Moraine Lake, explore one of the numerous hikes departing from the lodge, or dip your toes in along the shoreline. We chose to hike Sentinel Pass via Larch Valley [6.9 Miles], a challenging trail that offers rewarding views.
Less strenuous trails you might consider include Consolation Lakes Trail [4.7 Miles], that takes you to the nearby Consolation Lakes, and the Moraine Lake Shoreline Trail [3.2 Miles], that sets you on a nice stroll around the lake.
Whether heading out on a long hike or just visiting Moraine Lake for the views, do not leave the area without ascending to the top of the Rock Piles for a phenomenal vantage point of this glacier-fed lake!
Don't Forget: Bear Spray is an essential item when hiking at Moraine Lake
4. Kootenay National Park
Located only a 30 minute drive from downtown Banff, Kootenay National Park offers magnificent nature that is easily accessible and the perfect addition to any Banff National Park itinerary.
One of our favorite stops within Kootenay was the Marble Canyon Trail [1 Mile]. This trail was very comparable to Johnston Canyon as it traverses over numerous bridges and ends with a majestic waterfall. However, we had this trail nearly to ourselves! A true hidden gem.
Hidden Gem: Scenic views comparable to the famous Johnston Canyon
A second favorite was the Paint Pots [1.3 Miles] due to its unique colors and natural wonders. We did encounter a black bear on this trail so keep your eyes peeled for wildlife and know your bear safety prior to visiting these Canadian parks.
Kootenay Admission: Included in your Banff Discovery Pass
5. Town of Banff
There are many activities within the town of Banff. Whether you are in search of outdoor adventures or local amenities, this town nestled in the mountains is worth a stop. Below outlines our favorite stops within Banff.
Tunnel Mountain Hike
Tunnel Mountain is one of the top hikes in the town of Banff due to its short duration for stunning views. Along the hike witness wildflowers, the remarkable Bow River, and of course, Banff's iconic mountain ranges. After you have reached the top, rest in one of Parks Canada's classic red chairs.
Prefer Epic Views with Minimal Effort?: Book a Gondola Ride in Banff
Completing the Tunnel Mountain Hike is 2.8 miles round-trip with 875 feet in elevation gain. The trail is out and back and is rated as "Moderate" difficulty. Plan at least two hours to complete the entire trail. For more information and to download the trail offline on your mobile device, visit AllTrails.
Bow Falls & Pedestrian Bridge
Bow Falls can be viewed from several different viewpoints. We found the ideal viewpoint to be located here. From this parking lot, you can view the impressive Bow Falls, as well as, walk the 0.8-mile path to Banff's iconic Pedestrian Bridge and downtown.
Did you Know? Banff is Canada's very first national park
Cascade of Time Garden
Also located within walking distance of the Pedestrian Bridge is the Cascade of Time Garden. This free garden is open to the public. It has spectacular views of downtown and its mountainous backdrop.
Tip: The Cascade of Time Garden offers free public parking
9. Lake Minnewanka
Lake Minnewanka is a spectacular turquoise glacial lake located only a 15 minute drive from downtown Banff. This popular lake offers hiking, sightseeing, wildlife, and even boat cruises.
Popular trails from the Lake Minnewanka parking lot include the Lake Minnewanka Lakeside Trail [9.7 Miles, however, most hikers stop after the first bridge], and C-Level Cirque [5.8 Miles, Strenuous].
Book your boat tour of Lake Minnewanka here!
10. Icefields Parkway
The Icefields Parkway is one of the most scenic drives in the world. Stretching roughly 145 miles, the Icefields Parkway is filled with breathtaking lookouts, glaciers, lakes, wildlife, and surreal hiking opportunities. Traveling the Icefields Parkway is most commonly done as you journey from Banff National Park to Jasper National Park. We have pinned all of the top stops along this highway on our Canada Mobile Guide.
Prefer a Guided Tour?
With additional time in Banff...
11. Yoho National Park
Yoho National Park is roughly a 30 minute drive from Lake Louise and borders Banff National Park. There are several noteworthy experiences within Yoho National Park that we have outlined below.
Emerald Lake is yet another breathtaking turquoise-hued lake situated among vibrant natural colors. Take the easy, 3.2-mile loop trail around Emerald Lake in order to witness all of its natural beauty.
Yoho Admission: Included in your Banff Discovery Pass
This soaring waterfall in Yoho National Park offers dramatic vistas. Take the easy, 0.4-mile trail to this 1,200 ft. waterfall or start your journey on the difficult 9.6-mile Iceline Summit Trail for panoramic views of the falls and the surrounding Canadian Rockies.
Interested in seeing 500 million year-old fossils? Book your hiking tour with Parks Canada in Yoho National Park to witness Burgess Shale Fossil Beds (limited spots, book well in advance).
Lake O'Hara is a beautiful turquoise lake located in the backcountry with hikes to stunning meadows and grizzly bear habitats. If you are looking to escape the touristy areas of the Canadian Rockies and truly enjoy nature, Lake O'Hara is the place for you.
However, getting here requires a bit of preparation:
Reserve a spot on the shuttle for CAD $15 (very limited, reserve far in advance)
Hike to Lake O'Hara via the service road (6.8 Miles)
12. Kananaskis Village
Located roughly an hour drive south of the town of Banff (1 hour 15 min from Calgary) is Kananaskis Village, home to Kananaskis County Parks System, which requires a separate pass from Banff/Jasper/Yoho/Kootenay. You can buy your pass online (CAD $15), in-person at the Kananaskis Visitor's Center, or in person at the Peter Lougheed Parks Discovery Center.
Why visit Kananaskis? This is home to three EPIC day-hikes.
The second is Chester Lake [5.8 Miles, Moderate]
The third is King Creek Ridge [4.2 Miles, Hard]
Lodging: If you are looking to spend several days in Kananaskis, we recommend staying at Sundance Lodges, where you can spend the night in a tipi! (Starting at CAD $89/night)
14. Sunshine Meadows
Located a 15 minute drive from Banff is the Sunshine Village. This village offers gondola rides up to the top of Mount Standish and its surrounding meadows, aka "Banff's Rooftop". While you can hike up Mount Standish, it adds roughly 8 miles (round-trip) of intense elevation gain while people pass you overhead on a gondola. We personally recommend that if you decide to add Sunshine Meadows to your itinerary, take the gondola and save your energy for the hikes at the top.
Book your gondola ride to Sunshine Meadows here!
15. Jasper National Park
Jasper is the largest national park in the Canadian Rockies and is home to over 2,000 lakes. Located a three and a half drive from downtown Banff via the iconic Icefields Parkway, Jasper is the perfect addition to Banff for a week long trip in the Canadian Rockies.
Also Read: Top Things To Do in Jasper National Park
This top-rated pizza restaurant is located in the heart of Canmore which is a quaint mountain town with loads of character. Watch your flatbread cook in their giant wood-fire oven and order a local craft brew to pair!
Try: the "farmers market" flatbread for delicious goat cheese and local, seasonal veggies.
Not unique to Banff, as there are locations all throughout Canada, however, BeaverTails should certainly be on your Canada bucket-list! BeaverTails are so popular, in fact, they have two locations within a block of each other in downtown Banff. What's not to love? A deep-fried pastry topped with your favorite spreads and candies.
Try: Triple Trip (chocolate hazelnut spread, peanut butter, and Reese's Pieces®)
The ideal treat after a long hike, COWS offers a variety of unique ice cream flavors. Some of our favorites include Wowie Cowie, Royal Cownadian Mint, Moo York Cheesecake, and Fluff 'N Udder.
Also Read: 1 Week National Park Road Trip
Poutine is a classic Canadian dish that consists of fresh-cut fries, topped with cheese curds and gravy. The ultimate comfort food and an acquired taste. However, when in Canada, Poutine is a must-try! Some poutine you may come across is served with a heavy gravy and melty cheese curds that lead to soggy fries. Not Banff Poutine! This was the best Poutine we have tasted to date due to its light, sweet gravy, quality cheese curds, and crispy fries. If you have tried Poutine in the past, reset your expectations with Banff Poutine!
Must-try food in Canada!
This affordable café is located minutes from Lake Louise and is the ideal place to stop for a warm breakfast or pre-hike coffee. Their breakfast sandwiches and wraps are delicious, filling, and are served with exceptional customer service.
Try: Their Amber Ale Mac n Cheese with BBQ pulled pork!
This woodsy brew pub offers tasty brews and foods to pair, located in downtown Banff. Try their Wishing Tree IPA for a crisp, floral and citrus finish or their 'The Boss' Brown Ale that contains notes of biscuit, caramel, and chocolate.
Did you Know? Banff has an annual craft beer festival!
Grizzly Paw Taproom & Brewery, located in Canmore, offers the noms, brews, & views trifecta. Sip their Rutting Elk Red or Grumpy Bear Honey Wheat with a side of pizza or poutine! Designed to drink brews with a view, gaze out into the stunning mountainous backdrop indoors and from their outdoor patios.
Also Read: Glacier National Park Complete Guide
3. Eighty-Eight Brewing Co.
Amazing brews, quirky atmosphere, and exceptional staff, Eighty-Eight Brewing Co. is an Alberta favorite located in Calgary. Not only are the brews tasty and experimental, but Eighty-Eight serves mouthwatering Portland street pizza to pair.
Try: Good Morning (A Vietnamese coffee stout) with sweetened condensed milk
Planning Your Trip
How many days do you need for Banff?
In order to complete our suggested activities, we recommend spending at least four full days in Banff. If you want to add Yoho National Park, Jasper National Park, or Kananaskis Village, you may consider staying in Banff for a full week.
J&L Recommended: 4-7 Full Days
What month is the best to visit Banff?
If you are in search of summer weather that is pleasant for outdoor camping, swimming, and boating, there is a narrow window in the Canadian Rockies with low chance of snowfall. That window is July and August, which to no surprise, are also the busiest months (with the most expensive lodging). Although the chance of snowfall increases in September, we recommend visiting late August to early September in order to avoid the crowds and higher prices.
J&L Recommended: July - September
Do you need to pay to enter Banff National Park?
A pass is required for entry to Banff National Park. Daily admission is CAD $10.50 / Adult, however, you can purchase a Discovery Pass at a value for groups and longer stays.
J&L Recommended: Use this calculator to determine what pass you should get.
Where is the best area to stay in Banff?
We lodged at Two Jacks Lakeside Campground in an oTENTik (canvas A-frame cabin). The oTENTiks offer the perfect mix of camping and comfort, with room to sleep six, a complimentary propane grill, and even an indoor heater for cold nights. Two Jacks Lakeside was the ideal location that offered a lakeside path around the campground, numerous swimming spots in Lake Minnewanka, and one of the most EPIC views we have ever had while camping.
How to Book
Availability is very limited with only 10 oTENTiks at Two Jacks Lakeside and a lottery system opening in January to reserve all bookings for the summer season (May onward). Check here for the upcoming season's reservation launch date and mark your calendars!
On the launch date, you will be selected at random to enter the portal and select your campsite. We recommend having several backup campsites given the low availability of oTENTiks. Our top choices (in order) of oTENKTik sites at Two Jacks Lakeside are #38 (we stayed here), #48, and #54.
J&L Recommended Location: O'Tentik at Two Jacks Lakeside; Site #38; CAD $128 / Night (2022 pricing); Below is the view from our campsite.
If you do not prefer camping or glamping, there are several additional affordable options for lodging near Banff. Our recommendation would be Samesun Banff, which offers hostel-style rooms and a few private double rooms.
Use the search box below to select your travel dates and find great deals on hotels in Banff.
Getting Around Banff
What is the best way to get around in Banff?
In order to cover the vast territory of Banff National Park efficiently, you will want to have a car. If you do not have your own car to explore, Banff offers several shuttle options to get you where you need to go. Additionally, there are a lot of backpacking trails that will allow you to explore certain sections of the park if you are looking for more seclusion.
What airport do you fly into to get to Banff?
From the Calgary International Airport [YYC], Banff is a hour and a half drive by car. You can also take the Banff Airporter or Brewster Express from Calgary Airport to downtown Banff (roughly CAD $75 and a two hour duration).
J&L Recommended: Use Rome2Rio to select your route in real-time.
Looking for affordable International Data?
Want to avoid roaming charges and $10/day international data fees? Airalo allows you to download an eSIM to your phone and activate while in Canada for a very affordable price. We bought 1 GB of data which was valid for 30 days from activation for only $7.50. It worked great throughout our entire trip and was very easy to install. Airalo offers eSIMs all around the world and we can validate that it works with ease in multiple countries.