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How to Plan a Trip to Banff

Banff National Park, located in the Canadian Rockies, is a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers. Its stunning mountains, glaciers, lakes, and forests offer an endless array of activities and sights to explore. To make the most of your visit, it's important to plan and know what to expect. From choosing the right time to visit to deciding what activities to do, this guide will help you plan a trip to Banff National Park.

Turquoise glacier Peyto Lake surrounded by mountains and gleams under the sun

Banff is home to stunning landscapes, beautiful lakes, and various outdoor activities. Whether you are looking for a relaxing getaway or an action-packed adventure, Banff has something for everyone. With its world-class skiing, winding trails, and incredible views, planning a trip to Banff can seem a bit overwhelming. But with a few simple steps, you can make sure that your trip to Banff is one you’ll never forget.

The travel experts at Canadian Train Vacations help visitors plan their trips to Canada. Whether you're planning a one-day visit or a week-long adventure, this guide will provide you with tips and advice on how to plan a trip to Banff. With information on the seasons, activity round-ups and packing lists, this guide will help make sure that your trip is as smooth and enjoyable as possible. So grab your bags and get ready for an amazing journey to Banff!

How to Get to Banff?

Getting to Banff is relatively easy.

  • By Car: Banff National Park is easily accessible by car, as it is located just over an hour from Calgary, Alberta. Several main highways lead to the park, including the Trans-Canada Highway, which runs directly through the park. Once you are in the park, several main roads will take you to different areas and destinations, including the Bow Valley Parkway, which leads to Johnston Canyon, and the Icefields Parkway, which will take you to Jasper.
  • By Bus: Banff is also accessible by bus. Several bus companies offer regular service to Banff National Park from Calgary, including Brewster, Parks Canada, and Roam. These buses will take you directly to the park and drop you off at various locations.
  • By Train: The Rocky Mountaineer Train operates a luxury sightseeing train between Vancouver and Banff, with stops in Kamloops and Lake Louise. This scenic journey allows you to take in stunning views of the Canadian Rockies.
  • By Plane: The nearest airport to Banff is Calgary International Airport (YYC), located about 140km (87 miles). From the airport, you can travel to Banff by car, shuttle, or train. Some hotels and tour operators also offer airport transfer services.
  • By Shuttle: Several shuttle services operate between Calgary International Airport and Banff. These shuttles are a convenient and cost-effective option for getting to Banff, but they may involve multiple stops along the way.

Insider Tip: During the peak season, traffic can be heavy in the park, so it's a good idea to plan your route and allow extra time for traveling to Banff. Additionally, some roads in the park may be closed during the winter months due to snow and ice, so it's important to check the current road conditions before you depart for foolproof Banff trip planning.

Explore: Rocky Mountaineer Train Trips

Rocky Mountaineer train travels through Banff near turquoise lake and rows upon rows of green trees

Choose When to Visit Banff

Banff is a destination for all seasons and all types of travelers. Choosing when to visit is important for Banff trip planning. The park is open year-round, but the weather and activities available vary depending on the season.

Read: Best Time to Visit Banff

Plan your Banff Adventures

When planning your trip to Banff National Park, it's important to consider the activities you're interested in and when they are available. Here are some popular activities for the summer and winter seasons:

Summer Activities:

  • Hiking: Banff National Park offers abundant hiking trails, ranging from easy strolls to challenging mountain climbs. Some popular trails include Johnston Canyon, Plain of Six Glaciers, and Mount Norquay.
  • Swimming: The park's many lakes and rivers are perfect for swimming, including the famous Lake Louise, Moraine Lake, and Johnson Lake.
  • Whitewater Rafting: Take a guided rafting trip down the Bow River, Kicking Horse River, or the Kananaskis River.
  • Wildlife Viewing: Keep an eye out for the Park's wildlife, such as Elk, Bighorn Sheep, Grizzly bears, and many more.

Winter Activities:

  • Skiing and Snowboarding:The park has three ski resorts, Mt Norquay, Lake Louise Ski Resort, and Mt. Banff Ski Resort, which offer a variety of terrain for skiers and snowboarders of all levels.
  • Snowshoeing and Cross-Country Skiing: Explore the park's winter wonderland on snowshoes or cross-country skis. Guided tours are available, or you can explore on your own.
  • Ice-Skating: Some of the park's lakes are maintained for ice-skating, including the famous Lake Louise.
  • Hot Springs: Soak in the park's hot springs, such as the Upper Hot Springs, Banff Hot Springs, and Miette Hot Springs.

These are just a few examples of the many activities available in Banff National Park. Be sure to check with Parks Canada or local tour operators for additional options.

Explore: Canadian Rockies Train Trips

Two people snowshoe on trail covered in blankets of fresh white snow by green trees, located in Banff National Park, on a bright winter's day

Things to do in Banff

Boat travels through open waters in Lake Minnewanka and beside forested slopes

Banff National Park offers a wide range of activities for visitors of all ages and interests. Here are a few popular things to do in Banff:

Hangout Spots in Banff

  • Watch the sunset from the Norquay patch (just off Norquay drive) or the docks at Vermillion Lakes
  • Party at Johnson Lake
  • Have a bonfire at Banff’s Rec Grounds or Cascade Ponds
  • Have a drink at the best patios in Banff: Peak Patio (Banff Gondola), Rose & Crown, Elk & Oarsman

Visit Banff’s Lakes

  • Lake Louise: One of the most famous lakes in the Canadian Rockies, Lake Louise is known for its stunning turquoise waters and the picturesque Chateau Lake Louise.
  • Moraine Lake: Known for its vibrant blue color, Moraine Lake is located in the Valley of the Ten Peaks. Visitors can hike the surrounding trails, go canoeing, or simply admire the view.
  • Peyto Lake: Known for its vibrant blue color, it is located on the Icefields Parkway.
  • Johnson Lake: Located in the heart of the town of Banff, Johnson Lake is an easy walk or bike ride from the town center. Visitors can rent canoes or simply enjoy the scenery.
  • Two Jack Lake: This lake is located just a short drive from the town of Banff. Two Jack Lake offers visitors a chance for a peaceful paddle or hike around the lake.

Biking Trails

  • Rent bikes at Bactrax in town
  • The Banff Springs golf course loop
  • Bike to Lake Minnewanka from town
  • Highway 1A to Johnston Canyon
  • Bike the Legacy trail (from Banff to Canmore)

Other Ideas

  • Try rock climbing or a Via Ferrata
  • Take the Banff Gondola up Sulphur Mountain
  • Do a sunrise hike (Tunnel Mountain)
  • Try horseback riding through the mountains
  • Embark on the Lake Minnewanka boat cruise
  • Rent canoes on the Bow River/Lake Minnewanka

Explore: Vancouver to Banff Train Tours

Camping in Banff

Man near yellow tent crouches on grass and splashes fresh water from stream of rushing water onto face in forested area in Banff National Park Campground

There are several options for camping in the park, including front-country, back-country, and group camping.

  • Front-Country Camping: Front-country campsites are mostly located near major roads. Banff's most popular front-country camping areas include Tunnel Mountain Village I and II, Two Jack Lake Main Campground, and Johnston Canyon Campground.
  • Backcountry Camping: Backcountry campsites are located in more remote areas of the park and require hikers to carry in all their gear. Permits are required for backcountry camping and can be obtained from Parks Canada. Banff's popular backcountry camping areas include the Plain of Six Glaciers, Shadow Lake, and Mount Assiniboine.
  • Group Camping: Group camping is available for groups of 7 or more people and is available at several campgrounds in the park. Group campsites offer amenities such as picnic tables, fire pits, and toilets.

Visitors should also be aware of the park's regulations and guidelines for camping, such as fire bans and bear safety. Additionally, it's essential to be prepared and bring the necessary equipment and supplies.

Find a Place to Stay in Banff

Fairmont Banff Springs on a sunny day with mountains and river

When it comes to how to plan your trip to Banff, finding a place to stay in Banff is one of the most important things to consider. Visitors have various options, including iconic hotels, popular hotels, and budget accommodations.

Iconic Banff Hotels:

  • The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel: The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel is a luxurious mountain retreat nestled in the stunning Rocky Mountains of Alberta, Canada. Located in the heart of Banff National Park, this majestic resort is the perfect spot for an alpine getaway. 
  • The Rimrock Resort Hotel: The Rimrock Resort Hotel is a breathtaking resort that offers guests a unique experience that blends modern amenities with traditional hospitality. From the picturesque views of the mountaintops to the cozy lodge ambiance, this hotel is sure to impress any traveler. 
  • The Moose Hotel and Suites: The Moose Hotel and Suites is an excellent choice for those looking for a luxurious mountain getaway with plenty of outdoor activities, breathtaking views, and top-notch service.

Popular Hotels in Banff:

  • The Banff Caribou Lodge & Spa: The Banff Caribou Lodge & Spa is a luxury mountain retreat located in the heart of Banff National Park. Whether you're looking for a romantic retreat or a family vacation, this hotel is a perfect choice.
  • The Banff Centre Mountain Lodge: The Banff Centre Mountain Lodge is a picturesque mountain retreat located in the heart of Banff National Park in the Canadian Rockies.
  • The Fox Hotel and Suites: Set in the rugged Canadian Rockies, the Fox Hotel and Suites is the perfect place to escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life. The hotel features a wide range of accommodations, from standard guest rooms to spacious suites, all of which are beautifully appointed and offer breathtaking views.

Budget Accommodations in Banff:

  • The Banff International Hostel: One of the main draws of the Banff International Hostel is its proximity to the many outdoor activities that Banff National Park offers. The hostel is just a short distance from popular hiking trails, ski slopes, and hot springs.
  • The YWCA Banff Hotel: This budget-friendly hotel offers comfortable accommodations, an on-site restaurant, and a convenient location in the town of Banff.
  • The HI-Banff Alpine Centre: The HI-Banff Alpine Centre is an excellent choice for budget-conscious travelers looking for a unique and affordable accommodation option in the Canadian Rockies. With comfortable rooms, a great location, and plenty of outdoor activities to choose from, it is a great base for an adventure-filled vacation.

Iconic hotels near Banff:

  • The Jasper Park Lodge: This historic hotel, built in 1922, is located in Jasper National Park and offers luxurious accommodations and stunning views of the surrounding mountains.
  • The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise: Located in the heart of Banff National Park in the Canadian Rockies, this majestic hotel overlooks the breathtaking Lake Louise. Whether you’re planning a romantic getaway, a family vacation, or a business retreat, the hotel offers a luxurious and unforgettable experience.

Plan Where to Eat in Banff

The town of Banff offers a wide range of dining options for visitors, from casual cafes and pubs to fine-dining restaurants. Here are a few popular places to eat in Banff:

  • The Bison Restaurant and Terrace: This restaurant features a seasonal menu emphasizing Canadian cuisine, using locally sourced ingredients. It offers a great view of the mountains, and it's located in the heart of the town of Banff.
  • The Maple Leaf Grille and Lounge: This restaurant offers a casual dining experience with an extensive menu that includes Canadian favorites, such as bison burgers and poutine.
  • The Balkan Restaurant: The Balkan Restaurant is a must-visit destination for foodies traveling to the area. This cozy eatery offers a delicious array of traditional Balkan dishes like shawarma, gyros, and souvlaki.
  • The El Toro: If you're looking for a unique dining experience on this next trip, you won't want to miss El Toro. This restaurant has been a favorite of locals and visitors alike. It offers an extensive menu of traditional Mexican favorites, from tacos, burritos, and enchiladas to fajitas and chimichangas.

These are just a few examples of the many dining options available in Banff. Be sure to check with local tour operators or other locals for additional options.

Serving of Souvlaki with meat skewer, French fries, lemon and dressed salad on a plate

Choose What to Pack for Banff

Three people wearing hiking shoes in Athabasca Glacier

The weather in the mountains can change rapidly, so be prepared for a range of conditions out there. It's important to pack appropriately for the activities you plan to do. Here are some packing lists to consider:

Banff Packing List, Hiking:

  • Hiking boots or shoes
  • Hiking pants or shorts
  • Quick-dry shirt
  • Lightweight jacket or fleece
  • Sunglasses
  • Sunscreen
  • Insect repellent
  • Water bottle
  • Maps and compass
  • First-aid kit

Banff Packing List, Summer:

  • Comfortable shoes
  • Lightweight clothing
  • Sunhat
  • Sunglasses
  • Sunscreen
  • Insect repellent
  • Lightweight jacket or fleece
  • Swimwear
  • Water bottle
  • Daypack

Banff Packing List, Winter:

  • Warm jacket
  • Waterproof boots
  • Warm gloves
  • Warm hat
  • Thermal layers
  • Waterproof pants
  • Goggles or sunglasses
  • Sunscreen
  • Water bottle
  • Daypack
  • Skis or snowboard
  • Ski poles or snowshoes

Always check the weather before your trip and plan accordingly. Keep in mind that during the summer months, it can be hot during the day but cool at night. Similarly, during winter, it can be below freezing during the day and night.

Canada Discovery Pass

The Canada Discovery Pass is an admission pass that grants visitors access to Canada's national parks, national marine conservation areas, and national historic sites managed by Parks Canada.

The pass is valid for one year from the date of purchase and provides unlimited access for the pass holder and any accompanying children or youths aged 17 and under.

The pass allows travelers to visit iconic destinations like Banff National Park and Niagara Falls while saving money on admission fees. It is also an easy way to plan a hassle-free vacation. It allows access to the parks' facilities and services, including hiking trails, campgrounds, and more. This means that visitors can plan their trips efficiently and cost-effectively.

Frequently Asked Questions

How many days do I need in Banff?

It depends on what you plan to do and see. Generally, two to three days is enough time to explore the town, take in some of the scenic attractions, and enjoy some of the activities the area has to offer.

Do you need a car for Banff?

A car is recommended for getting around Banff, as the town is spread out and public transportation is limited. If you book with Canadian Train Vacations, we arrange all your transfers and accommodation.

How far in advance should I plan Banff?

It's recommended that you plan your trip at least two months in advance to ensure you get the best deals on flights and accommodations and have enough time to research activities and attractions.

Is Banff worth the money?

Banff is a popular tourist destination, and the area offers a variety of activities and attractions that are worth the money for many people. It is considered one of the most beautiful places in the world.

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