There are few places in the world that are quite as beautiful as Banff! The Rocky Mountains are spectacular and the rugged peaks, glacial blue lakes, endless green forests, and amazing wildlife all combine to make this one of the coolest places in the world to visit. Are you planning a trip to Banff National Park? We wanted to put together an epic 4 day Banff itinerary to make sure you make the absolute most of your time here.
Even if you aren’t spending 4 days in Banff, you can adapt this Banff travel guide for a shorter or longer trip. From accommodation to all of the best things to do in Banff, we’ve got you covered. Having lived in Calgary for 7 years and having visited here throughout the years we think this guide covers everything you need to know when planning a trip to Banff.
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How to Get to Banff
Banff is located on the Western edge of Alberta, on the border with British Columbia. One of the most common routes to get here is to fly into Calgary International Airport (YYC) and then either drive or take a shuttle bus to Banff town centre. Banff is 140 kilometres west of Calgary and it takes around 1.5 hours to drive here.
There are several shuttle busses from downtown Calgary and Calgary International Airport but we highly recommend renting a car for your trip otherwise you will find it a bit trickier to explore Banff and visit all of the cool places.
If you are driving from the west coast, the drive from Vancouver is 850 kilometres and takes over 10 hours without stopping. We have driven this route on several occasions and it is a sensational road trip. While flying may be the quickest option, a drive through interior BC is amazing if you have the time. You can also include Banff as part of an epic road trip through Alberta.
The final option, which may be the pick of the bunch, is to take the Rocky Mountaineer train that stops in Banff. This is not a cheap way to get here but it is one of the world’s best train journeys that will offer almost non-stop jaw-dropping views and is the perfect start to your Banff vacation.
Best Places to Stay in Banff
Banff is a notoriously expensive place to stay as it is so popular. If you visit during the summer, camping can be a great option. For those that want a proper bed to sleep in, we have listed some excellent choices below for all budgets. As it is such a popular destination we recommend booking your accommodation early as things tend to book up quickly here, almost year-round.
Budget: Samesun Banff – Banff is such an expensive place to stay so the only real budget option is to stay in a hostel. If you want to know where to stay near Banff town centre then Samesun Banff is an awesome choice. It is located on the edge of town with spacious rooms, some of which even have mountain views. Plus the on-site bar is a great way to unwind at the end of the day. For those looking to travel here on a budget, this is an easy go-to choice.
Mid-Range: Banff Caribou Lodge and Spa – Stay just a few minutes walk from downtown Banff in the rustic Caribou Lodge. With spacious, clean rooms and an on-site spa, you’ll have a nice and relaxing stay here. The Keg Steakhouse and Bar is also located on-site so you don’t have to travel too far for dinner and drinks at the end of a long day of adventures.
Luxury: Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise – When considering a luxury option in Banff National Park, one perfect place springs to mind and that is the Chateau on the edge of Lake Louise. Enjoy panoramic views from your bedroom window over the lake and take full advantage of their full-service spa and fitness centre. If you are looking for the ultimate Banff experience this is the way to do it.
Getting Around Banff National Park
There is no shortage of awesome Banff activities for you to enjoy during your trip here but they are spread out over a large area. While there are busses to some of the main attractions, you will really want the freedom of having your own car. It’s relatively inexpensive to rent a car and it will allow you to explore so many more Banff highlights as you don’t have to work around bus schedules.
It is possible to visit without a car and only use busses and local shuttle services but it will make getting around a lot more difficult. If you aren’t able to rent a car you can get tickets for the hop-on-hop-off bus service here.
Best Time to Visit Banff National Park
Wondering when to visit Banff or what is the best time of year to visit Banff? The good news is that this is a year-round destination. With lots of lakes, hikes and other outdoor activities in the summer and three ski resorts in the winter, you genuinely can visit at any time.
For this guide and our 4-day itinerary in Banff, we recommend visiting in the summer. You’ll get hot sunny days and all of the main Banff attractions are open throughout the summer making this the best time to travel to Banff.
Plus you have a really good chance of seeing bears throughout the national park in the summer (please make sure you are bear aware and very careful around these wild animals). The official summer season in Banff runs from June until September.
Some of our favourite places, such as Moraine Lake, are closed throughout the winter months and this is why we have focused our guide around a Banff summer vacation rather than a winter one. The shoulder season, in between summer and winter, can be a great time to visit as it is quieter and the accommodation can often be cheaper.
Banff National Park Pass
If you are planning to explore Banff and the surrounding area, then you will need to buy a national park pass. These passes can be bought for single days or you can also buy a yearly Parks Canada Discovery Pass that will give you access to all of the national parks in Canada. If you plan on spending more than 7 days in Canadian national parks within 1 year, then the Discovery Pass is a better value.
The current fees for day passes for Banff National Park are:
- Adults (18 – 64) – $10.00
- Seniors (65+) – $8.40
- Youths (0 – 17) – Free
You can buy your national park passes ahead of time through the Banff and Lake Louise Tourism website here.
4 Day Banff Itinerary Overview
- Lake Louise
- Hike to Lake Agnes Tea House, Big Beehive and the Devils Thumb
- Sunrise at Moraine Lake
- Explore Banff Town
- Lake Minnewanka & Two Jack Lake
- Drive Along the Icefields Parkway
- Peyto Lake
- Go Grizzly Bear Watching
- Ride the Banff Gondola
- Johnston Canyon
- Sunset at Vermilion Lakes
Best Things to Do in Banff, Canada
There’s no need to fret about what to do in Banff once you get here. This part of the world has a whole host of amazing activities to choose from, the best of which are listed below. Whether you want to spend your days out hiking mountains, paddling across glacial blue lakes or just sitting on a patio sipping beers, there’s something for everyone on this list.
While we do recommend completing our Banff itinerary in 4 days, you can easily adapt it to make it longer or shorter depending on the length of time you have.
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Lake Louise is one of the most iconic glacial lakes in the world and is often the picture-perfect image that springs to mind when you think of Banff. This huge glacial blue lake is surrounded on 3 sides by towering mountains, with glaciers off in the distance providing a stunning backdrop.
The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise sits right on the edge of the lake and we aren’t sure of any hotels in the world that will offer you a view as good as this one to wake up to in the morning. It genuinely is a bucket list hotel to stay at and one that you will remember for a lifetime. You can check rates and availability for the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise here.
Walking along the edge of the lake, with the Chateau behind you and the Rocky Mountains surrounding you, it’s hard not to have your mind blown. The Lake Louise Lakeshore path is an easy, 4 km trail, with little elevation gain that goes around the lake. At the end of the lake, you will see the milky creek that gives the lake its incredible colour.
One of the big bucket list items that many travelers want to tick off their list here is canoeing across the milky blue water and enjoying the views from the water. Canoeing across one of the best lakes in Banff, Alberta is extremely popular so you may have to wait in line to get your chance to get out on the water.
Rentals for the year run from June, when the lake thaws, until late September or October depending on the weather. The cost to rent a canoe for 1 hour is $125 + tax. Canoes can be rented from the small boathouse on the left side of Lake Louise.
Hike to Lake Agnes Tea House, Big Beehive and the Devils Thumb
Lake Louise looks beautiful even as you see it from ground level, but to fully appreciate how incredible it really is you need to see it from above. Hiking to the Lake Agnes Tea House, Big Beehive and Little Beehive and all the way up to the Devil’s Thumb if you are feeling up for a challenging hike, is the absolute best way to see Lake Louise and are some of the best hikes in Banff National Park.
Even if you don’t feel like embarking on a long and difficult hike you should at least hike to Lake Agnes Tea House and to the lookout at Big Beehive. It’s a fairly moderate hike for the most part and the views you get at the top are absolutely jaw-dropping and it is one of the most popular and best day hikes in Banff, Alberta.
Follow the path around Lake Louise to the right and you’ll see signs pointing up the hill at the fork in the trail. The path to Lake Agnes is fairly moderate the entire way and you’ll pass Mirror Lake on your way up. You can choose to go to Little Beehive shortly after Mirror Lake and while we think it is worth the extra effort, this is a viewpoint you could skip out on if you are pressed for time.
The Tea House is situated on the shores of the emerald green Lake Agnes and is a great spot to grab a warm cup of tea, snack or sandwich. It does tend to be quite busy so you may have to wait a while to get a table but it is worth it to sit and enjoy the view.
Follow the trail around the right side of the lake before making your ascent up towards Big Beehive. This is the steepest part of the hike (unless you go all the way to the Devil’s Thumb) but once you reach the viewpoint you will get the most breathtaking views over Lake Louise. The milky blue water looks like an even more impressive shade of blue from above. This is easily one of the best day hikes in Banff National Park and can be done in half a day.
While we highly recommend completing this part of the hike, the Devil’s Thumb is only for those who really want to challenge themselves. There is one ridiculously steep section that will require you to climb using all fours before you reach the main viewpoint. Once here though you’ll get views over both Lake Agnes and Lake Louise and in the other direction to Victoria Glacier.
Start the second day of your trip at what is our personal favourite of all the lakes near Banff. While Lake Louise is often considered as the best of the lakes in Banff, Alberta, we think Moraine Lake takes the top spot. We have travelled around the world throughout the years and this is still one of the single most beautiful places I have ever seen with my own two eyes.
As the sun starts to rise it basks the jagged peaks that tower above Moraine Lake in golden light and the blue colour of the lake starts to pop when the sun comes up. While Lake Louise is a milky blue this is a much clearer but deeper blue that really has to be seen to be believed. We’ve been here many times and it never fails to disappoint and is our favourite of the numerous lakes around Banff, Alberta.
NEW FOR SUMMER SEASON 2023! No personal vehicles are allowed at Moraine Lake. However, there are now 2 shuttle services available, and one that we recommend way above the other as it can still get you there for sunrise. The Moraine Lake Bus Company is the only way for you to see the sunrise at Moraine Lake. We highly recommend booking with them as we think sunrise here is one of the most special things you will ever see.
A shuttle is also available via Parks Canada and can be booked online ahead of time, although the service does not begin until after sunrise at 6.30 am. For more information go to the Parks Canada website.
Once you arrive you can head to the viewing area that sits right in front of the lake. It is a short climb up the path to get slightly elevated views above Moraine Lake. It will be busy, but there is plenty of space so you can spread out and find the best possible view at one of the best Banff scenic spots.
Much like Lake Louise, paddling across Moraine Lake in the canoes is very popular here and if we had to choose to do it on one of the lakes this would be our top choice. Canoe rental costs $95 per hour plus tax and can be rented from the edge of the lake. You can find more information on canoe rental here.
You will probably have seen a lot of cool photos of this lake but you can’t truly appreciate it until you see it for yourself. The blue colour of the water and the sheer size of the rugged peaks that provide the backdrop are absolutely beautiful and much like us, you’ll want to come back here again and again. This is easily one of the best places to visit in Banff!
Explore Banff Town
While exploring the national park is the main focus of any trip here, the town of Banff itself is also a cool town to explore. There are few towns that have such a fantastic setting, and the mountains that surround downtown can be seen from almost any point as you walk the streets here.
There are lots of cool things to do in Banff town including visiting all the local shops, eating at the many restaurants, drinking at the breweries, visiting Bow Falls and taking in the epic scenery all around the town.
If you are like us and love outdoor sports stores, then you’ll find plenty of chain and boutique shops to browse through with all the gear you could ever need to get you out into the mountains. We are so glad this is the case as we had to make some last-minute purchases before heading off to Mount Assiniboine last year.
They have done a great job of making the town feel like a mountain resort town as almost all of the buildings are built in a rustic, cabin-style which makes you truly feel like you are in the mountains even as you wander through downtown.
Lake Minnewanka & Two Jack Lake
Lake Minnewanka and Two Jack Lake are both excellent places to visit when you want to take it easy and relax for a few hours and chilling in the sun at these lakes is one of the best things to do in Banff in summer. Lake Minnewanka is a huge glacial lake that is 21 kilometres long and is lined on both sides by mountain peaks. This is the only lake in Banff National Park that allows limited access for motorized boats. There are picnic benches along the shore and several sandy areas where you can set up for a few hours of downtime.
Two Jack Lake, which is actually connected to Lake Minnewanka is possibly an even better place to come to enjoy a few hours in the sun and a refreshing swim. The Lake Minnewanka Scenic Drive will give you views down to the edge of the lake, where you will see a wide array of colours as the lake changes from blue to green due to the sandbanks along the edges of the water.
One of the main campgrounds is situated here, so if you are lucky you can camp here, but if not it is still worth visiting. Even if you don’t have the time to relax along the shores of either of these lakes, you should drive along the Lake Minnewanka Scenic Drive to enjoy the incredible views of both lakes.
Drive Along the Icefields Parkway
It seems that every road you drive along in Banff is special, and this is definitely the case, but a drive along the Icefields Parkway takes scenic drives to a whole other level. This is easily one of the most spectacular roads in the world as you wind through the valley, passing endless mountain peaks and colourful lakes along the way.
You’ll likely want to stop around every corner to enjoy the mind-blowing views but some of the main stops along the way that we recommend are Hector Lake, Bow Lake, and the best of all, Peyto Lake (read more on Peyto Lake below). You can drive the entire way to Jasper if you have the time or just drive a section of this road, but either way, this should be high up on your list of things to do in and around Banff.
Another great thing about this road is that bears are very common here. From black bears on the side of the road eating berries to grizzly bears traipsing through the meadows, keep your eyes peeled for some amazing wildlife. You genuinely have a great chance of seeing some wildlife along this route and they are usually easy to spot as you’ll see a bunch of cars pulled over on the side of the road when there are some cool animals nearby.
Peyto Lake is one of the stops along the Icefields Parkway but it is so good that we think it deserves its own section. In a part of the world where there are so many pretty lakes, it takes something special to stand out and Peyto Lake definitely fits the criteria.
The reason why it is one of our favourite lakes near Banff, Canada, is because you get to view it from above, rather than at the water level. As you get to see it from above you get to truly appreciate the bright blue glacial water of the lake plus you get to enjoy the breathtaking backdrop of mountains and forests that stretch out as far as the eye can see. Another cool thing about Peyto Lake is that the northern end looks like the head of a wolf from above.
One of the nice things about this stop is that it is only a few minutes walk from the parking lot to the wooden viewing platform that overlooks the lake. While it does get busy here, it is nowhere near as busy as the likes of Lake Louise and Moraine Lake and you will only need to stop for 15 – 20 minutes to enjoy the view.
Go Grizzly Bear Watching
Banff is home to a lot of amazing wildlife, but none more so than the grizzly bear. On the last two occasions, we have been to Banff we have been lucky enough to see wild grizzly bears in addition to seeing a black bear munching berries on the side of the road. If you take the right roads and keep your eyes peeled you actually have quite a good chance of seeing wild bears.
I know it seems like it should go without saying, but if you do see wild bears do not get out of your car, stay a safe distance away and make sure you are bear aware. There are numerous incidents every year with tourists not realizing how aggressive these animals can be.
To increase your chances of seeing wild bears we recommend taking the Bow Valley Parkway whenever possible instead of Highway 1. This road runs through rugged countryside and is much quieter than the highway making bear sightings more likely. We drove this road on several occasions and were lucky enough to spot 2 grizzly bears wandering just off the side of the road.
As mentioned above, the Icefields Parkway is another road that has lots of bear sightings every day and we have seen bears along this route on our last couple of visits.
If you don’t manage to see a bear yourself you can take a grizzly bear tour. A local guide will take you to several areas where bears are known to be active, including a ride up the Banff gondola where you can often see bears from above. If you don’t see any wild bears you will visit the world’s largest enclosed and protected grizzly bear habitat to see Boo the resident bear rescued as a cub.
Ride the Banff Gondola
If you want to get amazing 360 degree, aerial views of Banff and the surrounding mountains but you don’t want to go to all the effort of hiking to the top of a mountain, a trip up the Banff Gondola is the ultimate experience. Ride the gondola up to the peak of Sulphur Mountain where you can enjoy the views from the rooftop deck or as you stroll along the mountain boardwalk.
You can enjoy a meal at the top of the mountain, with several dining options to choose from or explore the interpretive centre and theatre instead. While we usually recommend hiking to get your mountain views it’s also great to get to enjoy these Banff views without having to put in the work.
Johnston Canyon has been carved into the limestone rock by thousands of years of water erosion and now stands as a very popular tourist attraction that you must do in Banff. The boardwalk will take you through the heart of the canyon and past waterfalls, crystal clear pools, and dense forest.
You can choose to only visit the lower falls, which is an easy 30-minute roundtrip that can be completed easily by most and is ideal for families. If you want to explore the area some more then we recommend making the slightly more difficult hike to the upper falls where you will get several awesome views as the falls drop 40 metres into the pool below. This is one of the most popular hikes to do in Banff but the reward makes it one of the best short day hikes in the Banff area.
Sunset at Vermilion Lakes
Finish off the day with an epic sunset along the edge of Vermilion Lakes. This is an awesome place to watch the sun go down as it is so close to the town centre but the scenery is still beautiful. The lake sits near the base of Mount Rundle, the mountain that provides the impressive backdrop to the town centre. On a calm night in the summer you can enjoy the reflections of Mount Rundle on the mirror-like surface of the lake.
There are several small docks scattered along the shores of the lake, which is the perfect place to sit and watch the sunset. Even though it is so close to town it does tend to be relatively quiet in the evening here so you should be able to find a quiet spot. You also have the chance to spot some wildlife in this area as elk and deer are quite common and the occasional moose and bear can be spotted here too.
Best Restaurants in Banff, Canada
Here is a short collection of the best Banff restaurants. It can be tricky to get a table at most places in peak season so if you have your heart set on a place you will probably want to book ahead.
The Eddie Burger Bar – Tuck into the best burger in town at this tiny restaurant. They also serve great milkshakes and poutine, the ultimate combo. As it is such a small space you may have to wait in line for a while.
Chuck’s Steakhouse – Enjoy delicious, locally sourced steaks in this rustic-style steakhouse. It won’t be the cheapest meal you’ll have, but the quality is top-notch.
The Bison – High quality, farm-to-table food with a rotating seasonal menu.
Banff Ave Brewing Co – Simple but tasty pub grub that you can wash down with one of their very own beers. It is also one of the restaurants that serves food later in the evening.
The Bear Street Tavern – Classic Canadian pub grub, thin crust pizzas, loads of craft beers on tap and an outdoor patio.
It’s tough not to oversell Banff before you visit but it is home to some of the most stunning places in the entire world. The number of beautiful places packed into such a small area is wild. Having visited on many occasions we wanted to put together this 4 day Banff itinerary to help you get the most out of your trip.
While you don’t have to match this itinerary completely you can use our Banff trip planner to put together your own epic adventure in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Have we missed your favourite Banff attraction off of our list? Let us know in the comments!
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