For the first time, at 34 years old, I have finally set foot on North American soil. I am excluding the stopovers in “LA” (Los Angeles) while waiting for another flight! Today I’m writing my first article on Canada, a beautiful country that I had the opportunity to discover during my road trip to the USA in the summer of 2018. In fact, to be honest, I only discovered a tiny part of Canada, on the Alberta-British Columbia border. Today I’m talking about a great place, which I absolutely loved: Banff National Park.
This park is located not far from the American border and I was very lucky to spend a whole week there. At that time I was visiting Glacier National Park, in America, and after meeting a lovely couple and their 2 children, was convinced to cross the border. A few hours later, I found myself in, what I consider, a postcard setting at the foot of the Canadian Rockies.
Please also check out our in-depth article on what to do in Montreal, a wonderful city to discover.
This article is all about the unmissable things found in Banff Park. This article will give you lots of useful information for visiting the park with some extra tips too!
I only spent a week in the park and honestly I would have stayed another week, without a problem, to hike and discover more of the turquoise lakes…Hold on, talking of beautiful lakes… Take a look at some of the outdoor activities you can enjoy during your stay in Banff.
Let’s start at the beginning; this is one of the two most famous spots in the park, one of the most photographed and one of the most visited. When you get to the edge of the lake you’ll see why! If the 3 billion tourists who are already at the lake can be ignored, even at 7am (if I can do it you can too …), the setting is simply magical.
Simply imagine a lake of the most magical colour with, at sunrise, the reflections of the mountains set just behind glistening in the water, all next to a sublime 19th century castle. It’s very beautiful to see. So yes, there are a lot of people there and you would have to be there very early or very late to avoid them, say 6:30 in the morning or around 9 or 10 pm. That will not only give you a little space before the crowds arrive but will have the added bonus of providing you with beautiful light for your photographs.
It should be noted that it is possible to go on some beautiful walks and hikes around the lake and see lots of other panoramas of the lake and the castle. Even though it’s very touristy, these paths around the lake, and the views you see in the park are a real must.
Another must in Banff National Park. Many people come to the park just to see the lakes, Moraine Lake and Lake Louise, and then continue on their way. In fact, pictures of them even appear on the country’s $20 bills! Generally, people visit Moraine Lake and Lake Louise on the same day, as they are only 14 km apart.
So what makes Moraine Lake different from Lake Louise? The latter has a magnificent turquoise colour and this particular shade of blue/green makes the lake almost look like a lagoon, depending on the brightness of the day when you happen to visit it. The reflections in the lake of the mountains and the fir-covered slopes are simply extraordinary.
Moraine Lake is, like Lake Louise, a victim of its own success… There are a lot of people who visit it every day. The road leading to the lake is only open from 6:30 am from May to October. I recommend that you get there very early in the morning or late at night if you don’t want to be disappointed. I went to the lake one morning at around 8am and when I arrived at the entrance to the road which takes you to the lake, I found it was already closed because there were no more space in the parking lot! Another day, cars were already queuing at 6:00 am waiting for the road to be opened. Therefore, there are definitely many people. I eventually decided to go to the lake in the evening at 10pm and still spent 30 minutes in a traffic jam….
Do take the time to climb the pebble mound on the left when you arrive, the view from above is truly breathtaking.
Yet another lake, and for me this is the real beauty of the park! This lake has a particular history, as it’s semi-artificial. Since the start of the 20th century dams were used to create this lake and achieve the result we see today. The spot is really superb even if it is still quite busy with tourists and locals coming to fish and relax in this amazing setting. The surrounding mountains and endless forest are breathtaking.
The old village has been completely submerged by the rising waters and scuba diving enthusiasts have a great time here. Note that you can also take a boat trip on the lake. I didn’t but I’m sure it’s a wonderful experience considering the location….
And yes, it’s also nice to spend a day in the city of Banff, or even just a morning, to soak up a little of the local atmosphere. If you are visiting in the summer, sit on one of the terraces in the sun and enjoy a tasty coffee!
The streets are still very touristy between June and September and I must admit, there were too many people for my liking. But I still liked being in a small town nestled at the foot of the mountains and, in particular, Sulphur Mountain.
The town doesn’t have the same attraction for me as the park, but it’s perfect for a little shopping and to enjoy some everyday life in beautiful surroundings. Definitely nice to spend a morning there…
I must admit that I hesitated to put this in an article about Banff National Park however the Banff Gondola ride, up on the funicular of Sulphur Mountain on the outskirts of the town of Banff, offers visitors the chance to see breathtaking panoramic views from way up high. An opportunity I didn’t want to miss! By the way, I’ve since found out that there is another one of these rides at Lake Louise, which I don’t know about at the time.
When I climbed to the top of Sulphur Mountain, the weather was not ideal and there were a lot of people there. So overall, the conditions for me were not great, however, the idea is a good one: a large funicular with an amazing view of the town of Banff and surrounding mountains. In good weather, I’m sure it must be magical! At the top, you will find everything you need; things to eat, read, and of course souvenirs to buy, etc.
From a financial point of view, the ride was a little pricey for my liking, $64/adult and $32 for children. I think that’s too much to pay to see a view, no matter how amazing. The funicular at Lake Louise is cheaper, and I’m sure just as spectacular. It’s definitely a must so do try to take one or the other of these rides when you go there.
If there is one thing you must do in Banff National Park, it is to walk. A bit like going to the Maldives and not going diving, it’s unthinkable! The park is perfect for all nature lovers to discover the local fauna and flora. On the agenda: rivers, waterfalls, snow-covered peaks, gorges, abundant wildlife and all of that in a dream setting.
I was able to go on a few short hikes and walks in the park, mainly around the more known areas, but if you have the time, I’m sure you would appreciate getting off the tourist track and doing a little exploring of your own. Having my 3-year-old with me made it a bit difficult to go on long hikes, but I hope to come back one day and take a little more time to really see the park.
For lovers of walking, it is the perfect opportunity to get up close and personal with nature in a truly beautiful setting. However, do be careful around the wildlife (bears, etc.) and respect the instructions given about care and safety in the park. There’s a good summary, given here on the Canadian government website, of what you need to know and also a list of all the walks/hikes in the different sections of the park.
What could be better after a good day’s hiking than relaxing in the city’s hot springs?! There are several of these springs in the park but the Upper Hot Springs are the most famous and closest to the city.
It’s a great spot and a really affordable one. At the time when this article was written it cost only $8 C so it is definitely worth taking a look around and spending an hour or two relaxing in these beautiful hot springs.
These lakes are one of the other wonders I was fortunate to see during my stay in Canada. Located just outside the town of Banff, and easily accessible, is another perfect opportunity to enjoy a quiet walk, especially if you are travelling with your family.
I recommend that you make time to go at least once in the late evening, as I did, in order to admire the magnificent reflections in the lakes, which are once again surrounded by mountains and their peaks. In good weather, Mount Rundle is one of the most beautiful in the area. The scenic road is only 4 km long, and easily travelled on foot!
A very beautiful stroll in a fairy tale setting, at least that’s how I would describe it!
This is another wonderful place I visited in Banff Park. You can access it via the road between Banff and Lake Louise (it is signposted). The valley is famous, as are many places in the park, for its splendid landscapes, wildlife and hiking trails. The trail goes on for 48 km!
You can easily spend a day in this beautiful valley. With a little luck (which we didn’t have), you can meet some of the wildlife (bighorn sheep or black bears, for example). All along the road are areas in which to stop and observe the scenery, which is absolutely breathtaking in some places.
One of the best-known areas of the valley is the beautiful Johnston Canyon. It is better to be there early in the summer to really appreciate this valley. You might also like to take the time to drive around in your car looking at the scenery and searching for animals. The road is well laid out with a lot of picnic tables, etc. It’s perfect for taking it easy and relaxing with your family!
Otherwise known as the Glacier Route, this route is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen on my travels. It’s so beautiful; words just don’t do it justice! Icefields Parkway starts a little north of Lake Louise and ends at the entrance to the town of Jasper, about 230 km further north. The road offers breathtaking panoramic views of the glaciers.
Think about starting your journey from Lake Louise and heading towards Jasper, or vice versa. Considering the position of the sun, I would say that it is better to start from the South, starting from Lake Louise, and heading north, especially for those photographers among you. To give you a little practical advice; set off early, very early! We set off around 6am, just before sunrise. Seeing the sun emerge from behind the mountains and glaciers was truly magical to see.
Words cannot describe the beauty of the road and the landscapes we encounter.
On the agenda of a very long day: breathtaking views of snow-covered mountains and their peaks, the white of the rivers, glaciers hanging from rocky peaks, a scattering of wildlife here and there. In short: it’s extraordinary.
The landscapes on this “glacier route” are impressive in their beauty. One of the most beautiful journeys of my life
Among the recommended and mandatory stops along the road is Peyto Lake. I saw this lake at 6:30 in the morning and there were only four of us at this viewpoint. It’s so truly beautiful that it’s almost enough to make you cry; the tranquility of the area before the onslaught of tourists, the fabulous lake with its turquoise colours, the breathtaking view… Just wow!
Other superb stops you can expect along the way: Bow Lake (magical in the early morning), the centre of the Icefields (a very nice walk along a glacier), the Sunwapta and Athabasca waterfalls, and a walk along the Skywalk Glacier, a footbridge set up in the void.
All the information you’ll need to take this route can be found on this government page, which summarizes everything for you perfectly.
Unfortunately, I was running out of time because I had to cross the border to go to Yellowstone, but it would have been good to spend a few days in a roadside inn or hotel. There are also campsites all along the route. I think you could happily spend 2 or 3 days just along those 230 kms of road.
If, like me, you don’t plan to stay somewhere along the road, you will either have to find accommodation in Jasper or return to your starting point at Lake Louise. Don’t forget, the road, although splendid, is very long! I made the round trip in one day and it was more than 450 km in total, leaving at 6:00 am and returning at 9:00 pm.
Since we wrote this article, we have been lucky enough to visit another part of Canada. We wrote our first article on when to go to Newfoundland!
For those who wish to plan their activities when in the park and surrounding areas in advance I recommend you take a look at this website which lists and compares all the activities in the area. On the agenda: helicopter rides, guided hiking, horseback riding, etc.
For those who are looking for good deals, I use this site to compare the price of car rentals !
In order to visit this superb national park, there will probably be one of two ways to make your journey. If you are travelling from another country (France, Europe, etc.) you will need to take a flight, if you are already in the States or Canada you may choose to fly but it will probably be more fun to go by via the road, especially if you’re in the North West of the United States.
In my case, I went on a road trip from Salt Lake City (SLC) and even if it wasn’t planned, it’s possible to drive up to Calgary from SLC. The road is still very long. According to estimations, it takes 15 hours of driving without stopping between the 2 cities, i.e. about 1500 Km. In other words, almost 3 days while only driving or almost driving (which is not the goal either, is it?). If you are coming from the Central United States, there are not many national parks on the road, except Yellowstone National Park and Grand Téton, but you will have to do a detour to Wyoming anyway… Another cheap option if you want to see the North West of the USA, take a flight to Seattle. You can look at this great flight comparator that I have been using for more than 10 years.
If you are farther down than Salt Lake City, it is really very (very) far away to imagine being able to see, for example, central and southern Utah (Grand Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, etc.) and then go all the way up to Banff. Or else I would say several months….
I have met a lot of people who have considered seeing Banff, Jasper and Yoho parks from Vancouver. There are really cheap flights from Europe for 350/400€ all year round. If you live in Canada, here are the cheapest flight to Calgary, the main near the park.
After all, it depends on how you see things. If you are on a road trip to Canada from Vancouver to see the surrounding parks, it’s a very good thing. If you are flying from Europe or other place to see only the area around Banff, you might as well take a flight directly to Calgary. Here are the cheapest flight. You are near the parks and it is the easiest. There are also some interesting flights to Edmonton, a large city north of Banff National Park.
For train enthusiasts, it is also possible to travel from Vancouver with VIA Rail Canada. To put it bluntly, it’s long (more than a day) and still expensive (about $200 on average). Knowing that the train stops as close as possible to Jasper or Edmonton (north of Banff) and that you will still have to take a bus or rent a car. Anyway, it’s essential to get around.
To my knowledge, there isn’t a Canadian national park pass, like the “America the Beautiful” pass in the USA. However, there is a “discovery card” which provides access to more than 80 Canadian places of interest, including more than 20 national parks across the country, for around $70 C (€45). However, as I was only going to be visiting the park for 6 days, it was not very economical for me. The longer your visit the more economical the pass and I believe you would start seeing savings about a week into your stay.
The entrance to the park is charged per day. The prices at the time of writing this article are:
- 6,50€ per day per adult,
- 3,20€ for a child,
- Free under 5 years old.
- There are also group/family rates (interesting for those travelling with children).
If you don’t know where Banff is yet, you’ll find it in the centre of Canada on the west, in the middle of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. The climate of the town of Banff is classified as “subarctic”, which means it can get really cold!
From the point of view of the climate, you will have to be very well equipped in you’re going any time after the summer, especially if you are camping or in a campervan for, example. I believe that June to September is pleasant enough but I was there in August and it wasn’t very hot. Daytime is fine, but you’ll need another layer for the evening. I camped in a tent in Banff park and the temperature was around 3 or 4°. Not hot but fortunately all camping areas are equipped with places to make a fire to get warmed up!
Another point to take into account: the tourists. Banff and Jasper are becoming more and more popular and a quick look on Instagram will show you that they’ve become almost fashionable destinations. Whatever the reason, you’ll find a huge number of people there. The same can be said for some of the American national parks I’ve visited, Yellowstone for example. My advice is, if you are not afraid of the cold and come well equipped, or plan to stay in one of the nearby hotels or lodges, try to arrange your visit for May or September. It shouldn’t be too cold and most of the tourists won’t have arrived yet.
This is an important question when planning a trip to Canada. In summer, it can be a real challenge to find cheap accommodation. If you are traveling around Canada on a budget, campsites are your best friends. You can also find quite a few places who will take your motorhome or campervan for the night.
There are quite a few campsites throughout the park, almost twenty of them in fact. Be aware that some of these are reserved for caravans only, and others for tents only. As in the USA, you can book your place in advance at some of the campsites (these are often booked months in advance) and others are on a “first come, first served” basis. Here is a list of campsites in the park. Expect to pay between 15 and 30$ for a pitch for a tent. When I was there, in August, everything was literally full to bursting. The trick is to either book your tent space months in advance, which may not be possible if you are on a road trip and not sure when you’ll be turning up, or to check every day for any last minute cancellations. That’s how I managed to get a night at Mountain Tunnel outside Banff. The struggle began the next day when we had to look for somewhere else!
After my experience in the park, I recommend that you book your first night at a campsite before arriving and then go off very early in the morning (5am) and go around the campsites which don’t accept bookings. If you are camping, this is your best option. I personally had to go as far as Yoho National Park, more than 40 minutes from the town of Banff, to find an available pitch in the early hours of the morning in temperatures of 2°… So, be prepared, you’ve been warned!
For those who aren’t camping there are several other options, including hotels and lodges, which you’ll find throughout the park.
Here are three personal recommendations in the vicinity of the Park.
Last but not least, how many days should you spend in Banff? This is a difficult question to answer, because it will depend on a lot of factors, including how much time you actually have.
Based on my experience, I would say that a week in the park is a good amount of time. That gives you a day to visit the town of Banff as well as having time to visit all the attractions mentioned in this article.
However, I didn’t see and do everything in the park and there are plenty more hikes giving access to other magnificent waterfalls and lakes. The fact is that travelling with a three-year-old child, while being a lovely experience, certainly has its restrictions, especially as you’ll probably end up carrying him!
In addition to the 10 points listed above, there are plenty more reasons to stay longer, especially if you love nature, walking and watching wildlife.
That’s it, I’ve come to the end of my adventure and I hope you enjoyed this article. If you know Canada, are there any other areas you recommend that you particularly liked? Banff National Park is certainly a real wonder, a pleasure for the eyes, and well worth visiting. I look forward to introducing you to other great places in this amazing country, but I’ll save them for another day! If you are travelling in the Northwestern United States, not far from the Canadian border, I invite you to read my article on Yellowstone National Park.
See you soon and have a good trip,