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A First-Timer’s Guide to Banff National Park

By Juliette Recompsat

Nov 16, 2021

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Few bodies of water are as photogenic as Moraine Lake.

Photo by Rowan Sims Photography / Shutterstock

Few bodies of water are as photogenic as Moraine Lake.

Banff National Park is full of rugged mountain peaks, emerald lakes, and vast glaciers. Here’s what you need to know to make the most of your time there.

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Canada’s first national park encompasses 2,564 square miles of pristine wilderness along the eastern edge of the spine of the Rocky Mountains. To put it all into perspective, only 4 percent of that wild terrain is accessible by road. The scenic highways that wind between towering peaks are well maintained, but even the most popular roadways in the park feel far removed from civilization.

Unlike many national parks, there are two small communities nestled amid the subalpine forests of the park’s Bow Valley. The town of Banff—the highest incorporated town in Canada at 4,537 feet above sea level—sits just a few miles past the iconic Banff Park Gate at the eastern boundary. Less than an hour’s drive west is the hamlet of Lake Louise, a base camp for exploring the hiking trails and vistas surrounding the intensely turquoise waters of Lake Louise itself. From there, the Icefields Parkway leads northwest into truly remote territory and the border with neighboring Jasper National Park.

The Trans-Canada Highway leads through the heart of the park, making it simple to connect Banff with Lake Louise and the Icefields Parkway. The Bow Valley Parkway provides an alternate route between the two communities (and a perfect way to make the trip into a loop).

To get your bearings when you arrive in Banff, visit the Banff Visitor Centre for local advice. There are also park visitor information services in Lake Louise and at the Cave and Basin in Banff—the birthplace of the park and a living display of the human and natural history of the Rockies.

From here, it’s a real-life choose-your-own-adventure story.

What to do in Banff National Park in summer

Banff National Park changes with the seasons and is a natural playground all year round. Summer, when alpine flowers bloom and lakes are free of ice, is the most popular time to visit, and it’s worth getting out early in the day while bucket-list spots are quiet. We suggest timing your trip for June or September to boost your chances of sharing the trails with wildlife rather than people.

Marvel at scenic lakes

When the Canadian Rockies were formed millennia ago, retreating glaciers left behind vivid blue lakes colored by glacial silt and canyons carved by water. On the must-see list (heading from east to west) are Lake MinnewankaLake LouiseMoraine Lake in the famed Valley of the Ten Peaks, and Peyto Lake up at the highest point of the Icefields Parkway.

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Jump into a canoe at Lake Louise or Moraine Lake for a quintessentially Canadian experience paddling the waters. To discover the untouched shores of the Bow River flowing the length of the valley, join a float trip that meanders gently down the river on a passenger raft.

Hikers treat themselves to a mountain bar at Lake Agnes Teahouse

Leave mountain footprints

More than 1,000 miles of hiking trails criss-cross Banff National Park, and exploring them is undoubtedly the best way to get up close and personal with the spirit of the mountains. There are hikes for every age and ability within town boundaries and further afield.

To start, follow the trail right from downtown Banff up Tunnel Mountain—the park’s smallest official summit—for a sweeping view over the valley. Other options include the lakeshore trail to Stewart Canyon on the Lake Minnewanka Loop near Banff and the tree-lined path from Lake Louise up to the historic (and still operating!) Lake Agnes Teahouse. Bring cash to treat yourself to the daily soup or “mountain bar” and enjoy the view from the original Teahouse windows, where hikers have been refueling for over a century.

The top of the Banff Gondola commands spectacular views.

Reach the summits

To really wrap your head around the grandeur of the Rockies, it’s best to get up high for a view of the endless peaks. Luckily there are summit shortcuts available at the Banff GondolaLake Louise Summer Gondola, and Mount Norquay Sightseeing Chairlift. Hiking trails lead out along the ridgelines from each gondola or lift and the vistas extend to the horizon. Thrill-seekers can get an added adrenaline rush by clipping into the iron ladder rungs and cable suspension bridges of Mount Norquay’s guided Via Ferrata.

What to do in Banff National Park in winter

Falling snow blankets the mountains in winter and brings a sense of renewal. Those willing to explore this winter wonderland are rewarded with exclusive access and distinctive experiences.

Stretch your snow legs

There are plenty of ways to stay warm and discover the rosy-cheeked excitement of good old-fashioned winter fun. The snowy trails of the park remain accessible all winter thanks to snowshoes, which can be rented in both Lake Louise and Banff. Skate rentals are also available and highly recommended to glide across the sparkling, frozen surface of Lake Louise.

Another experience that’s not to be missed is a guided icewalk into the glacial realms of Johnston Canyon, where pillars of cascading ice form a surreal frozen world.  

Slide on snow

Skiers and snowboarders from around the world are drawn to the three world-class ski resorts of Banff National Park. There’s a combined 7, 748 acres of skiable terrain at Banff’s local Mount Norquay, the nearby Banff Sunshine and Lake Louise Ski Resort.

Go snow tubing

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Nonskiers won’t be disappointed either. Mount Norquay and Lake Louise ski resorts both offer snow tubing, which is the ultimate version of your childhood tobogganing experiences. Horse-drawn sleigh rides and dogsledding are also great options for anyone looking to immerse themselves in winter outdoor activities.

Soak in the elements

A visit to Banff isn’t complete without a trip to the Banff Upper Hot Springs. Human history at the naturally heated mineral hot springs dates back thousands of years to the Siksika, Kainai, Piikani, Tsuut’ina, and Stoney Nakoda First Nations people who first called these mountains home. Open year round, the experience is undeniably best in wintertime when falling snowflakes melt into the rising steam.

Tips for visiting Banff

Mother Nature rules here. Layering in warm clothing is the locals’ rule of thumb–especially early or late in the day, which are optimal times for wildlife viewing. Here are a few other key insights to make the most of your time in the mountains.

Get your park pass

Entry to Banff National Park is via a paid permit system, which supports the preservation of the park. Considering it's $10/adult (or $20/family) per day, it’s often worth getting the $140 Discovery Pass, which provides entry to all Canadian national parks for your family or group for a year. Passes are available at the park gates and visitor centers, but we recommend getting yours online in advance.

Travel by tour or transit

Parking areas at popular sights fill up early on busy summer days. Hop on a guided tour for hassle-free sightseeing with the added bonus of interpretive entertainment, or use the park’s accessible transit system.

Make time to wander

The streets of Banff are home to a vibrant dining scene and artisan shops that are locally owned and inspired by the surroundings. Each is unique, from the regional artwork at Canada House Gallery to Park Distillery that produces craft spirits “from glacier to glass.”

The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel is worth investigating, even if you're not staying the night.

Banff National Park’s best hotels

Accommodation options abound in the park, from luxury lodges to backcountry cabins. Here are a handful of our favorite hotels in Banff National Park.

Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel

The “Castle in the Rockies” is a Banff landmark and as rich in character as it is in history.

Book now: from $366/night; expedia.com

Mount Royal Hotel

In the heart of downtown Banff, renovated rooms offer comfort in a classic setting dating back over a century.

Book now: from $85/night; expedia.com

Baker Creek Mountain Resort

Located between Banff and Lake Louise, the rustic cabins at Baker Creek Mountain Resort offer a peaceful getaway.

Book now: from $179/night; expedia.com

Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise

Rising up on the shores of Lake Louise, the hotel’s lakeside rooms offer expansive views across the water to the hanging Victoria Glacier.

Book now: from $270/night; expedia.com

>>Next: How to Beat the Crowds at Banff National Park

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