Banff National Park is Canada’s very first National Park, making it Canadian park royalty. Spread throughout 6,641 square kilometers of the Canadian Rocky Mountains, Banff offers its visitors breathtaking mountain views, turquoise glacial lakes, incredible wildlife and more. In our Banff National Park Guide and podcast episode, we’ll help you navigate through planning a trip, where to stay, summer and winter activities, wildlife tips, and more.
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National Parks in Canada
All National Parks are managed by Parks Canada. You need a permit to visit each national park, and you can get them when you arrive at the park. You don’t need to register in advance. You can also buy a Discovery Pass, which gives unlimited access to all National Parks across Canada for one year. For a family of up to 7 people, the cost of a Discovery Pass is $139.40, and individually per adult, it’s $69.19. If you’re looking to camp at a National Park, you do need to register as soon as it’s open – at the beginning of the year for summer camping.
Banff National Park
Banff National Park is Canada’s first and most visited National Park. It is located in Alberta and the border of British Columbia and is one of the 7 National Parks in the Canadian Rockies. Four are located quite close to each other – Banff, Jasper, Yoho, and Kootenay National Parks. It’s a great way to see more National Parks near Banff. There’s also Waterton Lakes National Park, which is called Glacier in the US and is on the US/Canada border, just north of Montana. It’s about a 5-hour drive from Banff National Park to Montana.
Banff National Park initially became a National Park to preserve the sulfur hot springs. There are many hot springs throughout Banff, Jasper, and Kootenay National Park, protected for public use and not simply private use. Radium Hot Springs in British Columbia is a fantastic place to enjoy the springs – about a 2-hour drive from Lake Louise.
Planning a Trip to Banff
Planning a trip to Banff definitely requires advance planning. From lodging to camping, overstays should be booked at least a month in advance, and camping should be booked at the beginning of the year.
Parking at the park also fills up fast. Typically, by 6 am, the parking lot is full, and the shuttle service is required. Lines inside the park for photos can be quite long as well.
What do I need to bring with me to Banff National Park?
Banff weather is always unpredictable any time of the year, so always dress in layers and bring extra clothes wherever you go! Bring bathing suits, hiking shoes, and don’t forget your bear spray.
Do I need bear spray for Banff ?
You can get bear spray in any local sports store or MEC Calgary. Make sure you’re buying an official bear spray that comes with signing a waiver. You can also rent bear spray for a day at certain hotels and at the parks. It comes with an explanation of how to use it, or you can watch a video on how to use it, how close to be in case you need to use it, and the wind parameters. And just hope you never have to use it!
Bear Spray Tip 1: During high seasons, bear spray can be difficult to find, so make sure you prepare in advance.
Bear Spray Tip 2: You cannot check bear spray on a plane, so don’t buy it before you fly in, buy it once you arrive.
When is the best time to visit Banff?
Because it’s a year-round destination, it’s busy throughout all months. Most people go during the summer, but the best time to travel to Banff is off-season. Late spring or early fall is a great time to go because it’s less crowded, and the weather is still nice. The winter is incredibly beautiful, but it’s super cold! Remember you’re in the mountains, so be prepared for extreme weather any time of the year.
What to See at Banff National Park
There are so many amazing things to see and experience at Banff that you won’t get anywhere else in the world, including:
- Banff Downtown -A cool aspect about Banff National Park is that it includes a town, which doesn’t happen at most parks. Banff Downtown is always a fun town to visit.
- Hot Springs – The springs are always popular destinations and worth the visit.
- Lake Louise is a must-stop area and is about 20-30 minutes away from downtown Banff.
- Johnston Canyon – one of the best hikes inside Banff
- Icefields Parkway – It’s about a 230 km (144 miles) drive with incredible views, including year-round glaciers, mountains, rivers with crystal-blue waters. You can stop at Columbia Icefield and walk on the ice.
Banff Hiking Tips
Hiking is the most popular activity inside Banff National Park, and the park doesn’t disappoint! There are many amazing hikes and trails, available for all ages and experience levels. For beginners, there are easy and shorter trails with amazing views, waterfalls, and mountain views.
Lake Louise Shoreline is a fantastic hike for little ones and beginner hikers. It’s an easy and flat hike. You’ll have incredible views and experience a waterfall. It’s a little less than 5km – 4.7 km in total.
Lake Agnes trail is a bit longer – around 7km round trip – is also an option at Lake Louise. There’s a small coffee/tea house along the trail, which is also popular.
Johnston Canyon is also a popular hike. It’s 2.5 km round-trip to the Lower Falls, and if you want to go a bit further to the extra 2.6 km to Upper Falls, it’s another 2.5km to get there. It’s also an easy, flat hike and great for all ages. And you get to experience the gorgeous waterfalls and canyons.
And Hoodoo Trail and Fenland Trail are also fantastic hiking trails to take that tend to be easier and shorter.
Another incredible hike is Marble Canyon, which is actually in Kootenay National Park – about a 30minute drive from Banff. It’s less than 1km to reach the top of the canyon, and it’s very easy as well. It’s very well secured, and you cross bridges along the way to experience both sides of the canyon.
Banff Hiking Tip: Always check the trail condition before heading out for seasonal closures, wildlife spottings, and weather conditions. And always carry bear spray!
Tips for Hiking with Kids at Banff
Lower your expectations. Instead of having goals of always reaching the summit, change your goal to just enjoy the experience and nature. Shoot for short hikes with great views – Alltrails is a great app to use – you can view accurate conditions of the trails in real-time – as well as the Park Canada website. Let the kids lead the way, and if they want to stop, let them stop – 2 km could take 30 minutes or two hours. And patience is the key to having fun and encouraging them to keep going.
Winter Activities at Banff National Park
Banff is such a fantastic seasonal park, with many activities offerings in the winter.
- Skiing – Skiing is a prevalent winter activity in Banff. There are three great ski resorts in Banff National Park: Sunshine, Norquay, and Lake Louise.
- Winter Hiking – Don’t forget to get out and see those spectacular glaciers and snow-peaked mountain tops during a winter hike. Make sure you have the proper gear to be hiking in the winter.
- Downtown Banff – In the winter, walking around the downtown area is always a special atmosphere. (Think Hallmark Christmas movies). There’s even a holiday parade during the Christmas season. The Fairmont Banff Spring Hotel is spectacular to see during the holidays too.
- Ice skating – You can rent ice skates at Lake Louise and have a magical ice skating experience, complete with an ice sculpture on the lake.
- Cross-country Skiing – This has become a popular way to see the winter wonderland in Banff.
- Dog Sledding and Horse Sleigh – There are horse sleigh tours available around Lake Louise, and the dog sledding is located in Kenmore, about 20 minutes east of Banff.
- Sledding – Sledding is another fun way to experience the snowy area and a great family winter activity. And you can add it with hiking and just pull the kids on sleds during the hikes.
Summer Activities at Banff National Park
With summer being the most popular time of year to visit Banff, there are definitely awesome summer activities inside the park.
- Hiking – Hiking is probably the number one thing that most people do in Banff.
- Paddle Boarding – You can rent paddleboards at Vermillion Lakes, which is just outside the entrance of downtown Banff. In the summer, you’ll see many paddleboarders out on the lake.
- Canoeing & Kayaking – Lake Louise and Lake Moraine are popular destinations for canoers and kayakers. You can rent them there or bring your own.
- Camping – Banff is a fantastic place to camp in the summer. You can either camp in RVs or tents at Banff. Keep in mind the wildlife that is in the area during camping season.
- Summer drives through the park – You can also just take in the landscape and views while driving through the park, which is another opportunity to see the park in all its glory.
What Kind of Wildlife is at Banff?
One of the exciting aspects about visiting National Parks is the wildlife, especially seeing large predators that we’re not used to seeing in everyday life. But it’s also so important to remember that they can be extremely dangerous at the same time.
There’s tons of wildlife in the park, from elk, deer, bears, wolves, and even cougars. Remember to keep safe by keeping a distance. This is their home, and you don’t want to disturb their environment.
Wildlife Tips: Always stay on the trail, carry bear spray, read and head the warnings, and don’t go on closed paths.
Banff National Park Lodging
For a shorter trip (of 10 days), a nice way to see the park is by using home exchange. Housing can be quite expensive and are booking fast, so you have to plan in advance – especially when it comes to housing. Canmore – 20 minutes outside the park is a great option and more affordable than lodging right in the park.
During a long-term trip (6 months), a short-term lease right outside the park is a great option. In general, booking should be made at least a month in advance. Banff National Park is super touristy, and last-minute prices can be pretty expensive.
Camping is the most affordable way to stay at the park but needs to be booked early in the year to ensure a spot.
There are also hostels operated by HI Canada that are good options. Some are located deeper in the wild, which is a cool way to experience Banff.
Banff National Park Hidden Gems
There are so many hidden gems inside Banff, but one thing that shouldn’t be missed is driving along the Icefields Parkway. Although it’s not exactly a hidden gem, it’s still an experience that should be added to a visit to Banff.
The Fairmont Banff Spring Hotel patio restaurant is the one hidden gem that you should make time for. The iconic views from the balcony are some of the best views you’ll have of the valley.
What Can I Do in Downtown Banff?
Downtown Banff is a fabulous place to visit and great for shopping. There’s a fantastic candy store there that kids love and a Christmas Store that is extremely popular. There are many restaurants and a lovely park called Central Park that used to be a zoo and now is a great park with a playground and a path around the river. And there’s a garden around the river that’s an excellent place for a picnic.
There are also bars that come to life at night, so if you’re looking for a lively night, you can check out those as well.
You can also see wildlife in the town – there are often elk spotted walking through the middle of the town.
There are a few hikes that you can walk from downtown – Fenland and Bow Falls Trails are great walks. Fenland Trail is about 2km, and Bow Falls have the Falls at the end of the trail to see.
Fairmont Banff Spring Hotel is an iconic hotel to either stay at or stop in for a drink or snack on the patio. The views are simply breathtaking!
Favorite Banff Story
We asked Emilie to share a couple of her favorite Banff memories or stories with us, and here’s what she said:
“Just before the Christmas holidays, we decided to spend two nights in Lake Louise, so we rented a hotel. And the next day, we woke up super early in the morning and were the first and only ones to arrive at the Lake. We ice skated with our boots on the lake with the freshly fallen snow all around us, and it was a magical morning.”
“And our last night in Banff National Park, we stayed downtown and had a picnic at Central Park while the sun was setting, and on the way out of town, we saw at least ten elk walking down the street. So we just stayed there and soaked in the moment.”
About Our Featured Guest:
Emilie is a French Canadian, born and raised in Quebec City. Her husband is from California, and they have two toddler boys. They have lived in Canada, the US, and France. In 2020, they sold all of their belongings, started on a full-time travel adventure, and are now documenting their travels on their website and Instagram, @LoveLife_Abroad. They spent six months in the Canadian Rockies and Emilie also wrote an e-book, Canada Road Trip for Families, which is a guide for planning a family road trip across Canada.
National Trippers Podcast
Did you know we also have a podcast all about Banff National Park? Get ready for even more awesomeness of this incredible National Park!