Banff is an insanely gorgeous national park in the Canadian Rockies of Alberta, Canada. You could spend weeks just exploring this park, but here’s everything you need to know to experience Banff in just 4 days.
First, you should know that Banff gets crowded. Think Yellowstone or Zion National Park in the States. Don’t let the crowds keep you away though! The park is popular for good reason. You can visit Banff year-round, but July and August are peak tourist season. I went in mid-August, which is basically the peak of peak tourist season. My best tips for exploring Banff in the busy season:
There are 2 towns outside of the park: the town of Banff, and the town of Canmore. Both are good options, but the town of Banff can get crowded. I stayed in Canmore, which is about 30 minutes outside of the park entrance. It was a cute town that was a little less busy than Banff. There are tons of hotels and Airbnbs throughout the town.
Banff National Park is a mecca for outdoor recreation and adventure. Here are my favorite things that we did in just 3 days:
This popular trail takes you into the canyon on a series of metal walkways and catwalks that are attached to the limestone canyon walls. You won’t see any alpine lakes or mountains, but the trail is a relatively easy walk with nice scenery. Both the upper and lower falls are beautiful, and the trail is worth doing. However, the trail does get very busy, so be prepared to park on the street and walk to the trailhead, or go early/late in the day.
Once you reach Lower Falls, you can continue on a short walk through the rocks for a closer look at the water. Warning: you will likely get a little wet.
Some great info on Johnston Falls: http://banffandbeyond.com/johnston-canyon-hiking-in-spring-summer-and-fall/
Lake Louise is probably THE most popular attraction in all of Banff. You really must see it. The lake is famous for its bright turquoise color, which comes from rock flour entering the lake from melting glaciers above. The lake gets EXTREMELY crowded, and if you’re visiting in the summer, I highly recommend going either before 9am or after 6pm. We went around 8:30pm and were able to find parking in the main lot. If the parking lot is full, there is a shuttle during most of the day.
While you’re at the lake, you can take a trail around the lake, and take a step inside the famous hotel known as Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. For the best photos, go at sunrise or sunset. I did sunset, and while it was pretty cloudy, the light was still pretty nice.
Lake Moraine is the other extremely famous lake in Banff National Park. I actually preferred this lake to Lake Louise. Lake Moraine is also fed by glaciers, but the water is a brighter blue because there is a lower amount of rock flour in the water. There were fewer crowds, and I liked the view better. I still recommend visiting Lake Moraine in the early morning or later evening. We went around 8:30pm, and it was relatively quiet! Make sure you climb the rockpile for the best view.
Columbia Icefield Adventure
Columbia Icefield Adventure is a tour that takes you on top of the Athabasca Glacier, and allows you to walk on the ice. First, you board vehicle called an Ice Explorer that drives you onto the glacier. After walking around on the ice, you get on a charter bus for transport to the glass-bottomed Skywalk for more view.
I have mixed feelings about this tour. While it is amazing to be able to walk on a glacier, the area that you get to walk on is pretty small. The whole operation feels a little like being herded through Disney World, but we did learn things, and the glacier was really neat. It was super foggy when we visited the Skywalk, so we didn’t see much. It turns out that you can actually walk on the glacier on your own. There is a path near the tour center that will take you to the edge of the glacier. I’m not sure how safe it is to walk on the glacier on your own, but people were walking on the edge of the glacier when we were there.
Despite mixed feelings, I do recommend the tour, because you will learn about glaciers, and it is the best way to get up close to the ice. The tour center is about 3 hours north of Canmore, so we also probably would not have visited this area of Banff if we had not done the tour. I’m so glad we drove this far north, because the road, the Icefield Parkway, offers INCREDIBLE views of mountains, lake, and glaciers. Even if you don’t do the Columbia Icefield Adventure, at least drive the Icefield Parkway to see glaciers!
Parker Ridge Trail
If you drive the Icefield Parkway, Parker Ridge is a great trail. This 3.2 mile out-and-back trail takes you through the forest and ends with a spectacular view of Saskatchewan Glacier. The trail is strenuous with steep elevation, but the view is 100% worth it. We loved this trail, and I highly recommend a stop while driving along the Parkway!
This was probably my favorite thing I did while visiting Banff. This trail is a difficult, 9 miles loop with wicked elevation, but the views are unbelievable. If you Google this trail, you will see information and reviews that say the trail is for experienced hikers only. It is rough, but I was able to do it with minimal problems. The trail starts by climbing straight up through the forest then winds along the side of a mountain until finally reaching Gargoyle Valley, a massive valley carved by a glacier. Then you get to hike THROUGH the valley. It’s an incredible experience, and I cannot say enough about this trail.
The entire circuit took us about 8 hours, but we only saw 2 other people the entire time. If you are able DO THIS TRAIL.
The Banff Gondola is a scenic gondola ride that takes you to the summit of Sulphur Mountain for some insane views. Once at the top, you can hike around a series of walkways with dramatic views in every direction. The summit also used to be used as a cosmic ray research site, and you can see the remnants of the old research station. The gondola gets crowded, so buy your tickets ahead of time and be prepared to walk to the parking lot!
Day 1: Drive from Calgary (nearest Airport) to Banff or Canmore. hike the Johnston Canyon trail in the late afternoon. See Lake Louise in the evening.
Day 2: Start with the Columbia Icefield Adventure in the late morning or early afternoon. After the Icefield, drive back to Canmore and stop to hike Parker Ridge and Peyto Lake on the way back. See Lake Moraine in the evening once you get back. Alternatively, start at Lake Moraine for sunrise, the continue to the Icefield.
Day 3: Hike Cory Pass
Day 4: Take the Banff Gondola in the morning, then drive back to Calgary.
I'm Abby, a traveling photographer and writer, and I'm most passionate about connecting people with the outdoors, and I started this blog because I believe in the power of visual communication to move people from awareness of the outdoors all the way to stewardship of natural resources.