October 7, 2019

The Ultimate Banff, Alberta Travel Guide

Banff is a magical place and is probably on everyone's travel bucket list! So if you get the opportunity to visit the Rocky Mountains, then here is your guide from things to do, to places to stay to the many hikes and places surrounding Banff to visit as well. Since Banff is only an hour drive away from Calgary, I've gone to Banff quite a few times, but I've learned some less busy, secret gems that mainly "locals" know about surrounding Banff that I've truly fell in love with!

Best Time to Visit Banff

Depending on the goal of your trip into the mountains, you can pick to go a couple different times a year. Since Banff has many activities to participate in, you should plan the activities you want to do in Banff the most and then pick a time to go based on your itinerary. 

Hiking & Camping: For summer type activities I’d recommend visiting Banff between June and August. This is when they have the nicest weather and the least chance of rain. The weather will get up to thirty-ish degrees in the summertime (especially July/August), so if you plan on doing lots of hiking, June can stay a bit cooler. 

Winter Sports: There are a ton of great winter activities in Banff as well since it’s home to some of the best ski mountains in the world! If you’re into ski mountain activities such as tubing, skating, snowmobiling, etc., then it would be great to visit November-March. 

Hot Tip: my personal favourite time to visit Banff is the middle or end of September when the weather is still nice, but you avoid the massive summer crowds since the kids are all back in school. 

Hotels in Banff National Park

Hotels in Banff can become very pricey, especially in peak season. But, if you visit Banff during their offseason then you might be able to get a good deal! Of course, you can always grab a fairly cheap Airbnb if you can’t find a good hotel in your price range. 

  • Rimrock Hotel
  • Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise 
  • Fairmont Banff Springs
  • Mount Royal Hotel
  • Canalta Lodge
  • Baker Creek Mountain Resort

Best Things To Do in Banff

Lake Louise

This is the infamous lake of Banff, so if you’re visiting, you should definitely try to see it! The Fairmont hotel sits right on the blue lake, and there are a ton of stunning hikes you can take from Lake Louise too. Another fun activity that you don’t get to do everyday is you can rent a canoe and paddle around the stunning blue Lake Louise (this is seasonal and is not open in the winter). In the winter you can skate on the lake recreationally or play some ice hockey as well. 

  • Lake Agnes Teahouse: this unique hike takes about one hour up to get to the top, where you’re greeted by a beautiful turquoise lake called Lake Agnes and a teahouse that uses no electricity! They use a wood-burning stove to boil the water and make the tea. Remember to bring cash with you if you’re planning on eating/drinking at the teahouse (they only take cash). 
  • Little Beehive Trail: this hike is a continuation of the Lake Agnes trail. If you follow the signs at Lake Agnes, it’ll take you up a little beehive which overlooks Lake Louise and the Fairmont hotel. 
  • Big Beehive Trail: this trail is about 1.6km up from Lake Agnes and has even more of a view of Lake Louise at the top. The reason these hikes are named “Big Beehive” and “Little Beehive” is because they’re shaped like big and little beehives ironically!

Moraine Lake

This is probably the most picturesque place is Banff National Park, and therefore it’s always very busy! If you’d like to guarantee you get a parking spot, I’d recommend getting to the lake by 5am, or else you should expect to possibly be turned away at the parking lot due to lack of space. A lot of photographers and bloggers recommended getting there for sunrise, but as you all know, I’m not an early riser so this wasn’t really an option for me. So instead, I decided to go to the lake during September when it was less busy in Banff altogether. But, as more years go by, more people find out about Moraine Lake and that makes it busier and busier every year, so be aware of that for sure. 

  • Canoeing: You can rent a canoe (similar to Lake Louise) and paddle on the beautiful blue lake (for a steep charge of course, but totally worth it). 
  • Rockpile Trail: This hike is only 0.8km and is an easy trail up to beautiful views overlooking Moraine Lake (this is definitely a great photo op).
  • Shoreline Trail: this hike is very flat, but is a good distance of 3km and allows for an easy-stroll along the shoreline of Moraine Lake.
  • Larch Valley: this hike is very popular in the Fall when the larches are in full bloom. This hike takes around three hours and is about 4.3km, with the trailhead starting near Moraine Lake Lodge 

The Banff Gondola

This is a must do experience while you’re in Banff National Park to truly experience the mountains. The gondola takes you up to the top of Sulphur Mountain where you can explore, dine, and learn when you get to the top. The views from the top of the gondola are seriously some of the most breath-taking views in Banff. If you’re feeling hungry when you get to the top, you can dine beside floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the mountains as the Sky Bistro restaurant. 

Stroll Around Downtown Banff

Explore the quaint shops in downtown Banff that have many shops that show off Canada. There are some great souvenir shops, fudge shops, candy shops, and of course a Rocky Mountain Soap Co., plus much more! You’ll also see some other awesome hotels that are located right downtown!

Banff Upper Hot Springs

This was my first time experiencing a natural hot spring, and it was beautiful to be surrounded by mountains while doing so. There are usually a lot of people that like to experience the hot springs, so be aware of this before going. It’s a very romantic activity to do with your S/O and is super relaxing to experience in the wintertime when there’s snow on the ground!

Visit Canmore

The town of Canmore is only 25 minutes away from Banff and has hotels and accommodations that are much cheaper than Banff, so this is a great option if you have a vehicle with you. Plus, since you’re still in the rockies there are some great hikes here as well. I also personally enjoy downtown Canmore more than downtown Banff because it’s less known by tourists so therefore overall less busy. 

  • Grassi Lakes Hike: This hike is one of my favourite hikes because of the beautiful views and how easy it is! It’s a 4.3km loop and has two routes you can take; an easy route and a more difficult route. I’d recommend taking the more difficult route up (it’s actually not that difficult) since you get to view a beautiful waterfall and some other scenery lookout points on your way up. It’s also important to note that there is running water that can be on parts of the trail sometimes, so I’d recommend wearing shoes that are okay to get a little wet. At the top you’ll see a couple of stunning green/turquoise lakes that will knock your socks off! I’d recommend taking the easy route down, it’s a lot faster, but there are no views or lookout points at all, so if you want to see the waterfall and scenery again, you do have the option to take the difficult way down if you’d like. 

Kananaskis Country

I didn’t do a lot of exploring through Kananaskis until this past summer, but I think it’s one of the most underrated areas in the Rockies! This past summer we went camping in the middle of Kananaskis Country and I honestly fell in love with it and how quiet it is compared to Banff. If you’re looking for less traveled-by spots, Kananaskis will be your favourite area for sure! 

  • Troll Falls: This hike is at a very easy difficulty level (which I liked lol) and you get to reach a pretty waterfall at the top! We enjoyed the easiness of this hike since we did it in August and it was super hot, but a great way to get moving (especially while camping). 
  • Wedge Pond: This little hidden gem was a great little swimming hole for us in the summertime! The pictures from this spot almost looked like a green screen because of how close the mountains are to the pond. We were shocked when we got there and it was not busy at all on a Saturday in the Summer, so it’s definitely one of our favourite spots! There is a little trail around the pond that’s about 1km in length that lets you get some different perspectives of the pond. 
  • Mount Kidd Campground: This is the campground that we stayed at this Summer and it didn’t disappoint! Since this was my first time tent camping, I was a little nervous but Mount Kidd has a guest centre that sells a bunch of supplies and snacks as well as big fields where you can throw a football or frisbee round. There was also a good amount of space between the campgrounds which made it feel like we were all alone in the forest, which apparently is what one strives for when tent camping (lol). But all in all, we loved Mount Kidd campground because of the location and how close it was to all the hikes and such, so I definitely recommend! 
  • Kananaskis Nordic Spa: This very unique experience that Kananaskis has for its visitors where they have a full spa experience in the Rocky Mountains where you go through a couple different steam rooms and saunas and some outdoor hot tubs! If you’re looking for a more relaxing activity rather than all the hiking, this is just for you!

Emerald Lake

Although this isn’t truly in Banff National Park, this lake is truly magic and I’d say a secret gem that not many tourists know about and it’s just an hour outside of Banff! The lake has a beautiful lodge sitting on it where you can stay (but it can get very pricey), but it is very picturesque. Similarly to Moraine Lake and Lake Louise, you can also rent a canoe and explore the lake by water passage, or you can stroll around the Emerald Lake shoreline and get a different look at the lake as you walk. I truly loved this lake because of how calm it was compared to the other lakes since it’s farther outside of Banff, so there’s a lot less people. Don’t miss the many photo ops this lake gives you! I’d definitely recommend visiting this lake in mid to late September if you can since the leaves are changing and it’s even more stunning than normal.

Enjoy Your Visit!

The Rocky Mountains are definitely a breathtaking experience, so take it all in and try to stay present as much as you can. There are so many things to do and see so don’t worry about trying to get everything done while you’re there for one weekend. Getting to see Banff completely definitely takes a few trips, and trust me, you’ll be counting down the days until you can come back again!