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Banff National Park is one of Canada’s most valuable treasures – spanning 6,641 sq km across a stunning natural landscape, complete with emerald lakes, abundant wildlife, staggering peaks and spectacular views. Banff began as a 27 sq km (6670 acres) hot springs reserve (and Canada’s first national park). Today, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was just named one of National Geographic’s “Best of the World” 2017 destinations. In winter, it’s a skier’s paradise, and in summer the pristine waters beckon all that pass by. The park also boasts more than 1,600km (994mi) of maintained trails—perfect for adventurous hikers. Need we say more?
One of the best parts about Banff, is that it’s a section of a larger region, blessed with a number of other natural attractions, namely other hiking areas on our site: Canmore, Lake Louise and the Icefields. Banff, however, is the tourist centre. While you can stay in any of these areas, you’ll find the most variety and activity in Banff.
Banff is located just a 90 minute drive (140km or 87mi) from Calgary and roughly 850km (530mi) from Vancouver. The main roads in Banff are the Icefields Parkway (Route 93 North), running nearly the entire length of Banff National Park from north to south, the Trans-Canada Highway (Route 1) running into Banff from Calgary in the east, the Bow Valley Parkway (Route 1A), a more scenic alternative to the Trans-Canada Highway, and the Lake Minnewanka Drive, a scenic route beginning on the Trans-Canada Highway, taking you through Banff township and a number of popular sights. With all roads, snowfall can limit accessibility and wildlife crossings are frequent. Keep an eye out. Also, if you’re driving into the park, you’ll need to purchase a park pass(bonus: the Discovery Pass is free in 2017 due to the 150th anniversary of the park opening! This is valid for ALL Parks Canada locations).
Here we’ll take you through the basic overview of hiking in Banff National Park—including how to get there, where to stay, where to eat, what to see and what to watch out for.
Banff is essentially a year-round destination, but the more popular times to visit are from June to August and December to March. The warmest months draw the biggest crowds, but promise an unforgettable experience—the mountain lakes are at their most stunning, whereas the majority of the year they are still frozen. As well, during this time you’ll have the best access to hiking and biking routes.
We find the best time to visit is late-June as well as September and early-October. These times combine good weather, limited snow in the alpine and lower crowds.
From December to March, Banff’s cold weather (it rarely gets above freezing) doesn’t deter visitors. Rather, they are drawn the regions first-class skiing and winter activities for a wide variety of ages and levels. Winter is also a great time for hiking and snow-shoeing – complete with enchanting waterfalls, towering glaciers and much more.
During the spring (April and May) the weather is highly volatile. You may get caught in a blizzard or be able to bask in the warm sun. This is the best time of year to spot wildlife, especially bears, and is one of the least expensive. And if you’re willing to experience the chill of winter without the guaranteed blanket of snow, late-October through November is a good time to visit Banff. Again, the weather is very unpredictable, but the crowds are the smallest and the hotels the cheapest.
Average monthly temperature and precipitation:
There are a few options to get around Banff National Park. The best option is to drive your own vehicle or rent a car at the airport or in the town of Banff. You will also need to make sure you purchase a Park Pass online or when entering the park.
You can also take public transit within the town of Banff—known as the “Roam”—which offers regular trips throughout the town itself and Bow Valley. There are also taxi services in Banff and Lake Louise area 24-hours a day and can be hailed on the street, called by phone, or found at one of several taxi stands throughout the town.
Banff boasts a wide variety of accommodation options – whether you’re looking for a complete indulgence and luxury, a dash of design and history, or simply a place to rest your head at night. For families, we suggest the Banff Hidden Ridge Resort. Tucked into a ridge that overlooks Banff town, these condos can fit up to eight people – complete with open fireplaces, outdoor hot tubs and swimming pools, spectacular mountain views and a full kitchen.
If you’re looking for luxury, the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel is just the ticket. Nicknamed the “Castle in the Rockies” – as this is literally located inside of an old castle – this hotel is packed with everything you would want: a full spa and fitness centre, world-class dining, a golf course, and – of course – beautiful scenery in the heart of Banff National Park.
We also suggest the brand new Moose Hotel and Suites. Just minutes from Banff centre, this accommodation also boasts two rooftop pools. As well, The Juniper is a rustic, cozy, and newly renovated locally-owned hotel in the heart of Banff National Park.
If you’re on a budget, we definitely suggest one of the hostels from HI Hostels such as the HI-Banff Alpine Centre. Dorm beds start around $30 and include the City Transport Pass, free WiFi, nightly activities and quick access to a popular onsite bar, the Storm Cellar – the perfect spot to carouse with fellow travelers – and budget-friendly restaurant Cougar Pete’s Restaurant & Lookout.
There are also more than 2,400 campsites located within 14 campgrounds in Banff National Park. Demand is the highest from June to September, so ensure that you either reserve a campground or arrive early as sites are assigned on a first-come, first-serve basis. You can reserve your campground here.
Also, as we mentioned at first, Banff is the tourist center of the region, but it’s also possible to stay in some of the other nearby towns such as Canmore and Lake Louise, as well as some of the wood cabins located along the way to Lake Louise.
Just a 15-minute drive from Banff, Canmore is less expensive and has a number of lodging options such as two-bedroom condos. A bit farther away you can enjoy a cozy cabin at Mount Engadine Lodge in the Kananaskis (near Canmore). Lake Louise is a small tourist villages and offers limited accommodation. We love the spectacular Chateau Lake Louise, offering jaw-dropping views of the Victoria Glacier on the banks of the world famous Lake Louise. As well, we recommend Emerald Lake Lodge, which is past the small-town of Field and the Post Hotel right on the Bow River in Lake Louise.
Banff has developed into one of Canada’s culinary hotspots, with local chefs serving up delicious dishes ranging from locally sourced “Canadian Rocky Mountain Cuisine”—typically featuring seasonal produce and beef and bison from Alberta—to meals from all over the world, from Japanese sushi to Swiss fondue, Italian pizza and pasta or spicy Thai curry, as well as anything from hearty pub fare to tasty vegan cuisine.
In Banff, we recommend the Park Restaurant and Distillery. With campfire-inspired cuisines such as rotisserie chicken chowder, cheese and whiskey fondue, tinfoil trout, bone-in rib eye and wood-fired broccoli this place is seriously delicious. Oh, and did we mention they also serve a variety of homemade spirits? How can you go wrong?
The Eden Restaurant is Banff’s finest dining experience. Based on French cuisine and influenced by local ingredients they offer elegant tasting menus as well at two, three and four course meals. Reservations are required and it’s very pricey—but it’s a five-diamond restaurant and spectacular all the same.
For something out of the ordinary, check out the highly recommended Balkan restaurant. They’ve been serving up traditional Greek recipes for three generations such as roasted lamb shank, charbroiled homemade pita and Greek shared platters—all with authentic Greek dancing, plate smashing and belly dancing every Tuesday night.
If you’re looking for comfort foods, check out The Eddie Burger Bar. They offer hearty burgers, hot dogs, wings, salads and “the best poutine in town”—as well as a milkshake bar, a variety of cocktails and beers. For a quick bite, we recommend the crispy, hand stretched crusts from Aardvark Pizza—which you can get in thin or thick! They also have a wide selection of subs and sides.
If you’re looking for a great cup of coffee freshly baked pastry, the Whitebark Café is the perfect choice. Located right on Banff Avenue they serve up fair-trade, organic roasts and teas from the Banff Tea Company. Another favourite is Evelynn’s Coffee Bar serving up premium blends from all over the world as well as delicious sandwiches.
Aside from spectacular hiking routes, Banff also offers visitors plenty of both indoor and outdoor activities. At the top of the list, we must include the Upper Banff Hot Springs. This naturally geothermally heated water begins bubbling roughly three meters into the earth’s crust. The emerging surface water can reach up to 47°C (116°F). Luckily, the springs are open year-round—and it’s a perfect place to watch sunrise or sunset.
Banff also boasts some sightseeing gondolas and chairlifts—providing exceptional bird’s eyes views of the landscape below without any hiking. To earn your views, check out the variety of climbing options—both in summer and winter—such as the Via Ferrata. Find out more information about climbing in Banff here.
For some arts and culture, visit the Banff Center for Arts and Creativity—home to galleries and theatres, hosting a variety of shows, art exhibitions and even offering art classes. You’ll be surprised at the quality of the musical acts the Banff Centre can get, and you may see a favourite band in a small intimate setting if you’re lucky.
You can also check out the Banff Park Museum, housed in a log cabin constructed in 1903, this is a spectacular museum designated as a Heritage Sight of Canada.
As well, companies such as Banff Adventures offer a number of activities such as whitewater rafting, horseback riding, fishing tours, skydiving, wildlife tours, canoeing, ATV rentals, cave tours and more.
- Never feed or approach wildlife. Always carry bear spray.
- When in the backcountry you must use the food storage cables or lockers provided to suspend or secure all food, garbage, toiletries (e.g. deodorant) and cooking equipment.
- Watch out for ticks and check yourself after every hike.
- Even though it may look pristine, make sure you boil, treat or filter all water before drinking it.
- Pay attention to avalanche conditions, especially at higher altitudes.
- Weather can change quickly. Make sure to bring multiple layers.
- The roads may be very crowded during peak seasons. Pay attention to wildlife, especially at dusk and dawn.
- Always bring sunglasses, a hat and wear sunscreen—even in winter. The sun at the alpine altitude is very strong.
- The nights can get very cold—even in summer. Pack a warm sleeping bag.
- To celebrate 150 years of Parks Canada entrance is free to all Parks Canada locations in 2017—that includes Banff!
- Campfires are only allowed on campgrounds with provided fireboxes. On all other campsites a backpacking stove is required.
- Law protects all rocks, fossils, horns, antlers, wildflowers, mushrooms, nests and any other natural or historic object within the park. Leave them in their nature setting.
- Make sure you bring bug spray—especially for long hiking trips.