Banff National Park: The Complete Guide

Valley of Ten Peaks

TripSavvy / Anna Haines

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Banff National Park

Address
Improvement District No. 9, AB T0L, Canada
Phone +1 403-762-1550

Founded in 1885 after the discovery of the Cave and Basin Hot Springs, Banff National Park is Canada's first and most famous national park. Located in the province of Alberta about an hour west of Calgary, it is home to an outstanding variety of geological and ecological features like mountains, glaciers, icefields, lakes, alpine meadows, mineral hot springs, and canyons. In 1984, Banff was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with the other national and provincial parks that form the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks.

Things to Do

Nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts can take their pick of activities at Banff National Park. Whether it's skiing in the winter, springtime hikes to see the wildflowers, canoeing through one of the many rivers and streams, or even scuba diving in one of the alpine lakes, Banff has it all and much more. The park is also well-known for its diverse wildlife including bighorn sheep, wolves, bears (black and grizzly), elk, coyotes, caribou, and mountain lions.

One of the most popular attractions inside the park is the stunning Lake Louise. This glacial lake was named after Princess Louise Caroline Alberta and is famous for its unbelievably emerald water that reflects the surrounding glaciers that formed it.

For a relaxing excursion with natural healing properties, visit the Banff Upper Hot Springs. This 1930s heritage bathhouse has been restored to include all the amenities of a modern spa. Enjoy a steam bath, massage, or other wellness treatment while taking in the views of the mountains. It’s open year-round and includes a cafe, gift shop, and children’s wading pool.

For unbeatable panoramic views without the intense hiking, take 8 minutes out of your day to go up in the Banff Gondola. You will travel to the top of Sulphur Mountain at an elevation of 7,495 feet where you can see the surrounding peaks, Lake Minnewanka, the Town of Banff, and the Bow Valley stretching from east to west.

Any drive through Banff National Park is sure to be scenic, but one route does stand out above the rest. The Icefield Parkway runs north-south between Banff and Jasper national parks and is considered one of the most scenic drives in all of Canada. The entire route is about 144 miles, but you'll want to take your time to fully enjoy this striking drive.

Best Hikes & Trails

With over 1,000 miles of maintained trails in the park and endless options for backcountry hiking, there are few better places to connect with nature in all of North America. It also means that even though some popular trails get busy in the summer, you can always find somewhere to go if you're seeking solitude. The best time of year for hiking around Banff National Park is from July to mid-September. Many trails are still covered in snow through the end of June, and the melting ice can cause muddy conditions or even avalanches.

  • Lake Agnes & Big Beehive Trails: Not far from Lake Louise is another scenic lake, Lake Agnes. The hike to reach it is 4.5 miles roundtrip and considered an easy trail, and one of the highlights is the Lake Agnes Teahouse at the shore serving drinks and baked pastries. For an added challenge, hike an additional mile of switchbacks from Lake Agnes to the Big Beehive, which offers sweeping views of Lake Louise.
  • Larch Valley & Sentinal Pass: This moderately difficult hike is just over 7 miles roundtrip and you'll see amazing views of the Ten Peaks. This trail is particularly popular in the autumn when the larch trees change and turn a bright and fiery gold color. Expect crowds if you're hiking this trail in September.
  • Cory Pass: The hike to Cory Pass is one of the more difficult trails in the park, but those with the stamina to take it on are well-rewarded with some of the most breathtaking views in the park. It's an 8-mile loop with over 3,200 feet of elevation gain, so make sure you're prepared before heading out.

Winter Sports

Situated in the middle of the Canadian Rockies, Banff National Park is one of the premier skiing and snowboarding destinations not just in Canada, but in all of North America. There are three ski resorts in the national park, Banff Sunshine, Lake Louise, and Mt. Norquay, known together as the Big 3. Buying a lift ticket gives you access to all three of the resorts, so you could plan a multi-day trip to try them all.

The ski season in Banff can start as early as November and the early season before Christmas break is the best time for avoiding crowds. January and February are the coldest months on the mountains, but frequent storms mean there's nearly always fresh powder. Temperatures start to rise in March and by April the conditions are pure spring skiing with clear sunny days.

Other winter activities include cross-country skiing, ice skating on frozen lakes, or hikes through the snow.

Paddling and Boating

Once the weather warms up, nothing beats heading out to the lakes and rivers and enjoying Banff National Park from the water. Kayaks, rowboats, canoes, and sailboats are allowed on all bodies of water in the park, while motorized boats are only allowed on Lake Minnewanka.

Lake Louise is the most visited lake at Banff, but other lakes in the park include Vermillion Lakes, Moraine Lake, Hector Lake, and Waterfowl Lake. Experienced canoeists can ride down the Bow River, which alternates between tranquil rafting and rapid white waters, so beginners shouldn't start here. The river is split into three sections for paddlers starting at Lake Louise and ending at Canmore, and to canoe down the entire thing would be a 48-mile journey.

Jumping out of your boat and going for a swim may sound tempting on a hot day, but the water in these mountain lakes stays frigid all year long. The temperature rarely rises above 50 degrees Fahrenheit and overexposure could quickly lead to hypothermia.

Where to Camp

Camping is a great way to stay in Banff with 13 campgrounds that are perfect for those looking to get away from civilization. Summer camping begins in early May, with all campgrounds open by mid to late June until September and October. Winter camping is also available at Tunnel Mountain Village II and Lake Louise Campground. Remember, campers must purchase a camping permit at the campground kiosk or at the self-registration kiosk. Some campgrounds accept reservations while others are first-come, first-served.

  • Tunnel Mountain Village Campground: This campground is split into Village 1 and Village 2, but both of them are next to each other and conveniently located right outside of the town of Banff. They're the largest campgrounds in the park with over 800 sites between the two of them. Village 1 is more for traditional tent camping, while Village 2 has sites with full electric hookups and can accommodate vehicles over 40 feet long.
  • Lake Louise Campground: Camping out near the shore of world-famous Lake Louise is a dream trip that you can make into a reality. The camp is split into a "hard-side" camp for cabins and RVs and a "soft-side" camp for tents. Tent campers must stay in the soft-side camp, which is fenced in to protect campers from wandering bears.
  • Rampart Creek Campground: Camping away from the crowds is possible at Rampart Creek, which only has 50 campsites and is located 55 miles north of Lake Louise on the scenic Icefields Parkway. You'll have easy access to the nearby trails away from the tourists who stay near Banff and Lake Louise.

Where to Stay Nearby

For those not interested in camping, there are many lodges, hotels, condos, and bed & breakfasts to choose from. Many of them are concentrated in the town of Banff, which is the main hub within the national park. For even more options or the amenities of a major city, Calgary is just an hour away.

  • Shadow Lake Lodge: For a backcountry experience with luxury accommodations, the Shadow Lake Lodge is perfect for those who want to rough it but still sleep in a cozy bed. You'll stay in a timber cabin with an ensuite bathroom and enjoy gourmet meals, but the only way to access the lodge is to arrive by hiking. Depending on which trail you choose, it takes between four and seven hours to get there.
  • Fairmont Banff Springs: With Fairmont, you already know to expect the utmost opulence. But the Fairmont Banff Springs isn't just luxurious, as the entire hotel feels like stepping into a fairytale. The castle-like building built in the 19th century is surrounded by forested mountains, and few places in the park are more magical.
  • Banff Samesun Hostel: Staying in Banff can be expensive, even camping if you don't already have the gear. Thankfully, the Samesun Hostel is a budget-friendly accommodation that's still comfortable and fun. Meet other travelers in this youth hostel setting, where you can book a shared dorm or a private room.

For more options on where to stay in the area, check out the best hotels in Banff.

How to Get There

Banff National Park is located in the province of Alberta in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. The Trans-Canada Highway runs right through the park for easy access, passing by the town of Banff, as well. Coming from Calgary, just drive west on the Trans-Canada Highway for about an hour to reach the park entrance. If you're coming from British Columbia or Vancouver from the west, you'll also use the Trans-Canada Highway but from the other direction (although coming from Vancouver is about a nine-hour drive).

The closest airport to Banff is Calgary International Airport, which has direct service to several other airports throughout Canada and the U.S.

Accessibility

Many parts of Banff National Park are fully accessible to all visitors. Several of the scenic viewpoints throughout the are reachable by car, including the entire Icefields Parkway route. Some of the shorter trails around the town of Banff and Lake Louise are wheelchair and stroller-friendly, such as the Banff Legacy Trail or the Bow Riverside Trail. Some of the main attractions at the national park—like the hot springs and the Banff Gondola—are also fully accessible.

Visitors with mobility impairments can also take part in downhill skiing or hikes that would otherwise be challenging by teaming up with Rocky Mountain Adaptive, an organization whose mission is to make these activities accessible to all.

Tips for Your Visit

  • Visitors who are just driving through Banff National Park do not need to pay the park entrance fee. If you're stopping in the park or getting out of your car, you must pay a fee at the entrance gate when you arrive. Rangers in the park may ask to see your pass, so don't forget to buy one on your way in.
  • When you decide to go all depends on what you want to do while you’re there. The summer brings warm, sunny days perfect for hiking, biking, camping, and climbing, while the winter offers snow for activities like tracking, skating, and alpine or nordic skiing. Keep in mind, the winter brings a high chance for wind chill, but don’t let that hinder your visit.
  • Remember, the length of the day in Banff varies greatly throughout the year. For example, in December, there can be as little as eight hours of daylight and by the end of June, the sun rises at 5:30 a.m. and sets at 10 p.m.
  • Double up your mountain experience by also making a visit to the neighboring Jasper National Park, which is just north of Banff and is the largest national park in the Canadian Rockies.
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Banff National Park: The Complete Guide