Banff, Alberta, is a popular destination in western Canada because of its scenic beauty. Tucked into the majestic Canadian Rocky Mountains, the town is actually in part of Banff National Park. Visitors come to Banff for winter sports, summer outdoor recreation and camping, and to soak in the hot springs.
Located off the #1 Trans Canada Highway, the town of Banff is in the southwestern corner of Banff National Park, Canada's first and most visited national park, and is home to about 8,000 residents. The town, which takes steps to control commercial growth in order to maintain the natural beauty of the area, is a good base for exploring the national park and has hotels, restaurants, shopping, and a hospital.
Banff is located 128 kilometers (80 miles) west of Calgary, 401 kilometers (250 miles) southwest of Edmonton, and 850 kilometers (530 miles) east of Vancouver, B.C.
Getting to Banff
Banff is most accessible by car but those flying in can rent a car or take a shuttle from the airport in Calgary.
Air: The Calgary International Airport is a modern international airport and the most convenient airport for those coming to Banff. Driving time from the airport to Banff is less than 90 minutes.
Car: Banff is easily accessible via Highway #1, the Trans Canada Highway. Because the town of Banff is inside Banff National Park, you will need to purchase a national park pass at the park gate.
Banff's climate varies with elevation, but the general seasonal variations range between far below freezing in the winter to a balmy and comfortable 70 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer.
The Winter average temperatures fall to about -12 degrees Centigrade (6 degrees Fahrenheit); however, it is not unusual to have a two-week cold snap during December or January where temperatures plummet to the -30 degrees Centigrade (-22 degrees Fahrenheit) range. Warm chinook winds may bring some relief. Lasting snow starts in November, with peak snowfall in December.
Fall daytime temperatures stay above zero with night-time temperatures hovering around freezing.
Spring temperatures are similar to fall. Rainy days begin in May and continue through August, with June getting the most precipitation.
Summers are warm with long daytime hours. Average highs are about 21 degrees Centigrade (70 degrees Fahrenheit) with night-time lows around 7 degrees Centigrade (45 degrees Fahrenheit). July is Banff's warmest month.
Established in 1885, Banff National Park is Canada's first and largest national park spanning 6,641 square kilometers (2,564 square miles) of lush valleys, rugged mountain peaks, ice fields and glaciers, limestone caves, green forests, meadows, and rushing glacial rivers.
Together with Jasper, Yoho, and Kootenay National Parks and four adjacent provincial parks, Banff National Park forms the UNESCO Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site, one of the largest protected areas in the world.
Banff National Park is visited by 4 million people every year for its wide range of outdoor activities, stunning natural beauty, and world-famous Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, Canada's "Castle in the Rockies."
Entry fees for the park are $19.80 CDN for adults, $8.30 CDN for seniors, and free for youth under 17 (2019). Within the park, there is a full range of activities whether you are camping, staying at the hotel, or doing a day trip.
Encounter Wildlife: Visitors may see any of 53 species of mammals, including bighorn sheep, wolves, black and grizzly bears, elk, caribou, and mountain lions. Local tour companies offer wildlife tours with expert guides which focus on seeing particular animals, such as bears, or on exploring the park at specific times, like at sunset.
Experience a Bit of Park History: The Banff Museum, built in 1903 by the Natural History Branch of the Geological Survey of Canada, showcases the diverse wildlife in a different way—preserved by vintage taxidermy. The museum, Canada's oldest natural history museum, is open in the summer and charges a few dollars for entrance (children under 17 get in free).
Take a Guided Walk: Parks Canada Interpreters lead guided walks in the park focusing on specific sites and their history such as the Bankhead, an old coal mine town, and along the Moraine Lake.
Explore Cave and Basin National Historic Site: This is where it all began. Cave and Basin is the site of the natural hot springs around which Canada's first national park, was established. You can visit the springs and walk the trails around the area. Tours are included in the site entry fee and are available October to April on Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. and twice daily in the summer at 11:00 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.
Soak in the Hot Springs: Banff Upper Hot Springs, where travelers have relaxed for over 100 years, has been commercially developed and is Banff National Park’s only hot springs pool. You can rent suits for your dip at the pool. The cost of admission is $8.30 CDN for an adult, seniors are charged $6.30 CDN, and children are free (2019 pricing).
The Banff area enjoys one of the longest ski seasons in North America, from mid-November to late May. Banff and Lake Louise skiing is spread over three resorts: Mt. Norquay, Sunshine Village, and Lake Louise Mountain Resort. With a single tri-area lift ticket, you gain access to all three with free transportation to and from the resorts.
Mt. Norquay: The Mt. Norquay ski area lies directly northwest of the town of Banff. The mountain is known as a "powder paradise" for skiers, snowboarders, snowshoers, and tubers and historically has been an important mountain for ski racers. The resort offers runs, from beginner to expert, a ski school, restaurants, night skiing, and equipment rentals. The resort also has plenty to offer in the summer, too, with a sightseeing chairlift and hiking trails.
Sunshine Village: Sunshine Village boasts Banff's only ski-in, ski-out hotel, the Sunshine Mountain Lodge. Banff Sunshine Village is located a 15-minute drive from the town of Banff at 7,200 feet on the Continental Divide. Banff Sunshine offers runs suitable for skiers and snowboarders of all ability levels. During the seven-month ski season stretching from early November until late May, the resort receives up to 30 feet of snow. Sunshine offers equipment rentals, restaurants, and ski shops. In summer, take the sightseeing gondola for an amazing view and go hiking on the many trails.
Lake Louise Mountain Resort: Just 36 miles west of Banff, the Lake Louise Mountain Resort offers "endless chutes, glades, and gullies, gentle slopes, cruising runs, remote bowls and some of the most challenging terrain in the Rockies" on its 4,200 skiable acres. You can ski and snowboard, go backcountry skiing, and have fun in the tubing area. In the summer, take the sightseeing gondola, hike the trails, and see wildlife on the mountain. The restaurants provide a variety of dining options and are located in the base area lodges and near the top of the sightseeing gondola.
Ride the Banff Gondola
Get a panoramic view of six surrounding mountain ranges from the Banff Gondola just outside the town of Banff. There's a free shuttle which picks up from the Banff Visitor Information Centre, Elk and Avenue Hotel, and the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel in season. The return shuttles depart from the Banff Gondola parking lot, where parking is tight, every 20–40 minutes.
The eight-minute-long ride will transport you to the top of Sulphur Mountain where you'll enjoy a viewing deck with a stunning view of six snow-capped mountain ranges and the Bow Valley below you.
You can take a walk along the Sulphur Mountain Boardwalk, dine at one of the two restaurants, and visit the interpretive center and theatre. There are deals on tickets but, in general, tickets will run you $50–$70 CDN. Pricing differs according to demand and you'll find ticket prices higher on weekends.
Experience the Columbia Icefields
Giant ancient glaciers and a frozen mud-slide can be explored at the Columbia Icefields, the largest ice field in the Rocky Mountains, located within Jasper National Park, about 3 hours away from Banff.
One of the ice fields on the Icefields Parkway (Highway 93 North), the Columbia Icefields has one of the most accessible glaciers in the world. The six-kilometer long and one-kilometer wide arm of the Athabasca Glacier flows to the point where you can walk to it from the Icefields Parkway.
Dine at the Historic Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel
Stay, dine, or just have a drink or high tea at the beautiful Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. The hotel was originally one of a series of lavish resort hotels along the Canadian railway line through the Rocky and Selkirk Mountains. Now a National Historic Site of Canada and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Fairmont Banff Springs is a destination within the park and a place to visit for the architecture and to relax awhile.
On Friday afternoons, you can sign up for the "Eat The Castle" Culinary Tour and enjoy sumptuous food and beverage pairings with a small group while you listen to tales about the hotel and the scenic surroundings.
Drive to Lake Louise
Forty-five minutes away, Lake Louise offers a stunning lake, village, and ski resort. Take the Bow Valley Parkway (Hwy 1A), a 51-kilometer two-lane road that's an alternate route between Banff and Lake Louise. You'll probably see wildlife right along the road and there will be picture-perfect stops along the way.
At Lake Louise, the turquoise glacier-fed lake surrounded by high peaks, you'll want to savor the views and take a few scenic hikes like the one that winds up to the Lake Agnes Tea House (you'll love the view).