Last Updated on: 28th January 2022, 02:38 pm
Banff National Park is the oldest park in Canada, boasting many outdoor activities for all ages. Whether you’d like to visit in summer or winter, you find yourself in awe over the beauty of this breathtaking piece of the Canadian Rockies.
I’ve been living near Banff for almost a decade (and also used to live there), so in this guide, I gathered not only the most popular places to visit with insider tips but also lesser-known activities.
If you’d like to use this as an itinerary, I suggest spending a week in Banff. The ideal time would be two weeks, so you can visit the neighboring parks of Jasper and Yoho and get the most out of your Canadian Rockies road trip.
Prepare yourself for getting a hard case of the travel bug as I share the best things to do in Banff National Park, including wildlife watching, insanely turquoise lakes, glacier views, and more.
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Good to Know: This guide to the best things to do in Banff comes to us from Maya.
Maya is an adventure athlete and world traveler.
After her trip around the world, she returned to the Canadian Rockies.
Apart from adventure sports, she loves traveling to places beyond the beaten path which are not often visited.
She shares her travel stories and comprehensive adventure travel guides on her blog Travel with the Smile.
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The Top 10 Things to Do in Banff National Park & Banff Town
Here we go!
Visit the iconic viewpoints in Banff town
There’s no better introduction to beautiful Banff than seeing it from several impressive viewpoints.
To start, walk Banff Avenue with Cascade Mountain in the background.
For the most colorful pictures of this iconic street, visit the Cascade of Time Garden, located across the bridge on Banff Avenue.
I like to walk along the Bow River, cross the Banff Pedestrian Bridge, and continue on the other side of the river up until the Bow Falls.
It’s a quiet forest walk ending at a great picnic spot.
Best viewpoints in Banff
If you visit Banff during summer and would like to avoid the crowds, head up the Mount Norquay Scenic Drive to the lookout.
You see the whole town from a bird’s eye point of view, surrounded by majestic mountain peaks. Relax on the meadow or take a memorable photo in the famous red chairs.
For sunset, the best views are hands down at Vermilion Lakes.
They’re easily accessible from Banff by car or on foot when you follow the path along Mount Norquay Road.
The first two lakes have a pier, so bring your picnic snacks and show up well before the sunset to beat all the photographers who line up the shores.
Bike, hike or skate at Lake Minnewanka
With Banff’s several close by lakes, it’s hard to choose which one to visit.
Each lake is beautiful with lovely views.
Vermilion Lakes is great for canoeing; Johnson Lake is ideal for swimming; if you’re considering camping in Banff, Two Jack Lake has one of the best campgrounds in Banff and Lake Minnewanka has the most year-round activities.
While you can visit the shoreline of Lake Minnewanka for a picnic, there’s so much more. Take the cruise across the lake or rent a canoe on the shore for a better perspective of how huge the lake is.
Activities at Lake Minnewanka
To stretch your legs afterwards, follow the forest path along the lake to Stewart Canyon.
And if you’re feeling adventurous, hike to the Aylmer Lookout (25 km round-trip).
The trail is easy with not much elevation gain until the campground you hike up to the lookout.
A fantastic day trip is visiting Aylmer Lookout as a bike & hike combo. You hike to the campground and only hike to the lookout.
The panoramic views are out of this world. You realize how high you’re surrounded by mountain peaks when you spot the tiny cruise boat on the lake.
In winter, the lakes freeze over with an option for ice skating. It’s one of my dearest memories to be able to skate on Lake Minnewanka.
It’s usually the last lake to freeze over, and there’s a short weather window (usually in late December or January) before it’s covered by deep snow.
It’s important to add that you skate at your own risk. Accidents of falling through the ice happen if you underestimate your research before skating.
Hike up the Sulphur Mountain
Banff Gondola is the most popular attraction in town.
And I can see why – it takes you to the mountain top in just eight minutes in a fully enclosed gondola with views of Banff, Rundle Mountain, and Spray valley.
If you visit on a clear day, you can even see Lake Minnewanka.
However, one of the biggest factors to consider when visiting Banff is the cost.
You either don’t mind, spend a fortune for your trip (good for you if you can afford it), or you do some research before the trip to see where you can save.
Sulphur Mountain Hike
Well, let me tell you that you can get to all the gorgeous views for free.
Simply by hiking up the Sulphur Mountain where the gondola is located.
The trail starts at Upper Hot Springs, and even though the mountain looks steep, the trail is not.
There are several switchbacks through the trees with a few lookout points.
The trail is 5.5 km one-way with about 700 m of elevation gain, and the best thing is, you can hike year-round.
I highly recommend wearing microspikes as the trail is covered in snow and sometimes ice.
The views are spectacular any time of the year.
Whether you see the greenery or white winter wonderland, you won’t be disappointed.
Once you reach the top of Sulphur Mountain, you get panoramic views of the surrounding peaks.
You can explore the indoor interpretative center, get a snack or lunch, walk the 1 km boardwalk to Sanson’s Peak and then hike down, or take a gondola for half price.
Explore the Lake Louise area
Lake Louise and Moraine Lake are neighbors, and they’re both beautiful. Most people visit Lake Louise because it’s easily accessible.
However, it became so crowded in recent years that there’s now a 12 CAD parking fee, and parking spots might be hard to come by.
I strongly recommend visiting outside the weekend and early in the morning before tour buses arrive.
Let me show you all the great activities you can do in Lake Louise to see it’s worth the visit.
The most popular is canoeing on the lake.
There are always lines in front of the boathouse so arrive at 8:30 when they open. It’s also most likely that the water will be calm in the morning.
The one-hour canoe rental costs 135 CAD.
Another option would be to bring your own water toy. You can rent a SUP, kayak or canoe in Banff if you’re on a budget.
Lake Louise from above
To experience the most out of Lake Louise, make sure to hike to a lookout for a bird’s eye view of Lake Louise.
The most leisurely hike with spectacular views is Fairview Lookout. Little Beehive, Big Beehive, or my favorite, Mount Saint Piran, are steeper hikes with even better views.
The trail is 13 km round-trip, and you most likely won’t see many people, a rare occurrence in Lake Louise.
On the other side of the valley is a ski resort with a gondola that operates in summer. You ride up the mountain to the viewing platform, interpretative center, restaurant, and hiking trails.
If you come to Lake Louise in winter, you can visit the ice sculpture festival, ice skate on the lake or go skiing in one of the best ski resorts in Canada.
Visit the magnificent Moraine Lake
Moraine Lake is the most beautiful lake in Canada, if not globally, in my opinion.
The insanely turquoise lake with Ten Peaks all around is picturesque and unforgettable.
Moraine Lake is located in the Valley of Ten Peaks at an elevation of 1,885 m.
The lake is glacial fed and completely freezes over in winter. In fact, you can’t even visit in winter.
The Moraine Lake Road leading to the lake is closed from mid-October to mid-May every year as it crosses an avalanche path.
The lake starts to thaw in late May, and the water level is very low.
When temperatures rise, the glacier begins to melt and feeds the lake.
So unless you’d like to see the debris in the lake with melting ice blocks, visit in late June to October.
You can canoe on the lake, visit the Moraine Lake Lodge for lunch or souvenirs, or hike in the area.
The trick to visiting Moraine Lake is parking. The parking lot is usually full by sunrise, the best time to see Moraine Lake.
How to visit Moraine Lake
Parking space is very limited, and therefore Parks Canada blocks the Moraine Lake Road if the parking lot is full, which leaves you driving around and sporadically checking if the gate is open.
Another hassle-free option would be taking the shuttle (8 CAD/round-trip). You need to reserve tickets in advance as no walk-ins are permitted.
When you head to Moraine Lake, park at Lake Louise Park and Ride, about 7 km south of Lake Louise village.
Then you take a shuttle to Moraine Lake, where you can spend as much time as you’d like. From here, you can take the Lake Connector shuttle to visit Lake Louise as well.
This guide is full of local tips for visiting the most beautiful places in Banff National Park. When you visit, you discover many more with an urge to come back again.
But don’t worry, the lakes will be there waiting for you, and you’ll be amazed wherever you go.
I hope this guide helps you plan a trip of a lifetime. Enjoy your visit to the fullest at these iconic spots.