3 Days at Banff National Park
Banff National Park may be the prettiest place in the world. From it’s beautiful mountains, to stunning blue lakes, to glaciers, to waterfalls, it’s truly a slice of heaven. We had dreamt of visiting Banff for years and made the long drive from Seattle this summer to explore its beauty (you can read all about our trip here). It really is as gorgeous as it appears in photos and we cannot wait to go back and explore more!For those of you looking to plan a trip to Banff, we created a 3 day guide that covers the highlights of Banff National Park, as well as a few gorgeous spots in Jasper National Park. Our Banff National Park itinerary is based off of our experience at the park, as well as lots of research (we were only there for two full days, so we did not do everything on this guide), and we hope it helps you plan a magical vacation to Banff!
Tips for Banff
We learned a few things before and during our trip that are good to know when planning your Banff adventure!
- Bring bug spray: One thing we didn’t expect at Banff were the mosquitos! They were everywhere and we left with lots of bites as souvenirs.
- Carry Canadian cash: Most places accept US credit cards, but the Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House highly prefers Canadian cash and we were glad we had some on us.
- Buy (or rent) bear spray: Banff is home to both grizzlies and black bears. Grizzlies are the much more aggressive of the two and it’s highly recommended to carry bear spray in case you encounter one and get into a tricky situation.
- Buy your Banff pass in advance: You have to display your pass on your car at all parking spots and it will save you time to buy the pass in advance, print it, and bring it on your trip.
- Have an international phone plan: If your current plan doesn’t give you free data and service in Canada, make sure to buy a plan! This will make it much easier to use Google maps and get around. Service can be a bit spotty in Banff though, so be prepared!
- Pack layers: In the summer the temperature can range from 40 degrees to 70+ degrees, so make sure to bring a few different layers for the mornings and evenings.
We drove to Banff from Seattle (10.5 hours) and HIGHLY recommend it! The drive was beautiful and went by super fast. However, if you are not a big fan of driving or do not live close enough to drive, you can fly into the Calgary airport, which is 1.5 hours from Banff. Once you land in Calgary you have two options: rent a car or take the shuttle to Banff. We personally loved having our own car to drive around, especially since we were able to beat the crowds by going places early, but the park does have shuttles that can transport you around too!
Where to Stay
Warning: getting a campsite at Banff was like getting concert tickets, especially for a weekend in the summer. We got online the second it opened for the season and got our 5th choice campsite (which was still amazing!). Make sure you research when the reservations open for the season and get online right away!
- Two Jack Lakeside–this is where we camped and it was amazing! We didn’t have privacy (the sites were close together), but we had the most beautiful view of the lake and everyone that was camping near us was super respectful and followed the rules. The bathrooms and showers were pretty nice and it’s only about a 15 minute drive from town.
- Johnston Canyon–this campground is a bit farther from town (30 minutes), but closer to Moraine Lake and Lake Louise. However, it’s right by Johnston Canyon, a beautiful canyon with waterfalls. Johnston Canyon Resort is also nearby and has a little store and restaurant if you need food, snacks, souvenirs, etc.
- Johnston Canyon Lodge & Bungalows–we walked by these bungalows when we were visiting Johnston Canyon and they looked SO cute!
- Rimrock Resort
- Moose Hotel and Suites
- If you want to spend the big bucks, the Fairmont Banff Springs and Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise are two gorgeous hotels in awesome locations.
- Pack breakfast to enjoy during sunrise.
- Sunrise at Moraine Lake. We recommend getting there about 45 minutes-1 hour before sunrise to get a good spot (it gets busy!) and to get the full experience of seeing the light hit the lake.
- After Moraine Lake, make your way to Lake Louise to grab a highly coveted parking spot and kick off your hike for the day!
- For your hike, we recommend the Plain of the Six Glaciers Trail–14 km/8.7 miles, 587 m/1925 ft elevation gain. This trail starts out alongside Lake Louise before taking you up through the mountains and on rocky terrain. Remember that glacier you saw from the shore of Lake Louise? You’ll be hiking right alongside of it! This trail is super unique and beautiful!
- Towards the end of the trail, you’ll reach the Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse, a family run restaurant that has been around since 1927! This is the perfect spot to grab lunch before continuing on to the glacier overlook. Make sure to bring Canadian cash! While they accept US cash, they charge 10% extra for it.
- Spend the rest of the afternoon canoeing on Lake Louise or Lake Moraine. The prices are a bit steep (remember–the prices are in Canadian), but we can’t imagine a more relaxing way to spend the afternoon than on the beautiful blue water. A cheaper option is to rent canoes at the Banff Canoe Club and canoe through the Bow River of Forty Mile Creek to Vermillion Lakes.
- After a long day, grab dinner at The Bear Street Tavern and enjoy some ice cream at COWS.
- Start the morning with breakfast and coffee at Wild Flour.
- Head to the Banff Gondola to view Banff from 2,281 m/7,486 ft above sea level! You can either hike to the top and take the gondola down, or take the gondola both ways. For a different (and cheaper) gondola experience, head to Sunshine Meadows to view the beautiful lakes and explore the trails.
- Pack lunch to enjoy at the end of your gondola adventure.
- Explore the beautiful Johnston Canyon. This is an easy, mostly paved 5 km/3.1 mile walk that takes you alongside many waterfalls! If you’re feeling adventurous, try to find the secret cave. 🙂 If you have some extra time, continue along the trail to the Ink Pots.
- Spend the rest of the afternoon and early evening walking around Banff Ave. You can also go explore Bow Falls, which is walkable from town.
- Have dinner at Eddie Burger Bar and get dessert at Beaver Tails, a Canadian delicacy!
- If you’re visiting in the summer when the sunset is later, watch the sunset at Lake Minnewanka or Two Jack Lake a quick 15 minute drive from town.
- Get an early start–this is a long, but beautiful, day of driving! We were constantly in awe of how beautiful the drive was.
- Grab breakfast and coffee at Whitebark Cafe. Make sure to pack a lunch for the road!
- Spend the day driving along Icefields Parkway. This is the road that connects Banff and Jasper National Parks. Here are our recommended stops:
- Herbert Lake–this is a quick stop at the beginning of the drive with a nice, quiet lake with beautiful reflections.
- Bow Lake–we suggest parking in the larger parking lot and walking along the lakeshore.
- Peyto Lake–this requires a quick hike to get to, but it’s crazy beautiful!
- Waterfowl Lakes–there is a pull out on the road where you can view the lakes.
- Big Bend viewpoint
- Mistaya Canyon—the parking area was closed and under construction when we went, but if it’s open this is a quick stop you can make.
- Columbia Icefield–this is technically in Jasper National Park and it’s incredible! We parked in the lot right by the glacier and walked up to the edge of the glacier. There’s also a big visitors center with food and a patio that overlooks the glaciers. You can also pay to do the Columbia Icefield Glacier Experience, where you get to ride on a big truck out to the glacier and walk on it.
- Athabasca Falls–there are so many great viewpoints here! It’s paved, easy to get around, and makes for an awesome quick stop.
- After a big day of exploring, head back to Banff for the evening and enjoy dinner at Block Kitchen and Bar.
If you have extra time…
- East End of Rundle Trail—5.8 km/3.6 miles, 870 m/2,854 ft elevation gain. We hear this one is a doozy!
- Beehive Circuit Trail—13 km/8.1 miles, 912 m/2,992 ft elevation gain.
- Sentinel Pass Trail–10.5 km/6.5 miles, 765 m/2,509 ft elevation gain.
- Tunnel Mountain Trail—3.9 km/2.4 miles, 261 m/856 ft elevation gain. This trail is super close to town and gives you views of the mountains and the town below.
- Larch Valley and Sentinel Pass Trail–10.5 km/6.5 miles, 765 m/2,509 ft elevation gain
- Spend more time along Icefields Parkway. There are some great trails to check out including the Parker Ridge Trail.
- Explore more of Jasper National Park.
- Enjoy the beautiful scenery at Emerald Lake at Yoho National Park.