If you’re considering a trip to Banff, Alberta…DO IT! If you’ve already booked, prepare to experience one of the most beautiful places on the planet. I had the privilege of living in Banff for 6 months and am thrilled to share with you the highlights and hidden gems that this incredible National Park has to offer. As a freelance photographer, I was truly living in a photographer’s paradise.
*Please note: aside from the occasional photo taken by friends or family, all photos were taken by me: Monica Healy Photography*
Banff Travel Recommendations:
- RENT A CAR! There are great distances to travel; having a car will save you time and give you the freedom to make stops along the way…some of my best photos have been shot at impromptu moments along the road.
- Where to stay: Make sure to book your hotel/hostel/Airbnb well in advance as Banff is super busy all-year round. I highly recommend staying at the Juniper Hotel, it has a stunning view of the town, a fantastic restaurant, and an outdoor hot tub that overlooks the mountains. If you’re having trouble finding somewhere to stay, take a look at hotels or Airbnb’s in Canmore (located a 20 minute drive from Banff). If you’re new to Airbnb, click here to get a $45 credit.
Banff Packing List:
- Prepare for different seasons as the weather changes quickly in the mountains! It can snow anytime between September and May. From June to August it can be sunny and warm, however, it tends to get cool at night…sweaters and pants are necessary.
- Bug Spray
- Reusable water bottle
- Running shoes/hiking boots
- Portable charger
- A camera/GoPro (Heads up: Banff National Park is a no drone zone)
Where To See Wildlife:
While you’re in the car, always keep an eye out for animals; they’re often roaming around in wooded areas and open fields. If there are multiple cars pulled over on the side of the road, chances are there may be wildlife nearby. FRIENDLY BUT SERIOUS REMINDER: Do not get out of your car if you are close to wildlife, remember these are wild animals and they are unpredictable. Respect their space and enjoy the moment.
*If you’re on foot and you encounter a bear, be prepared and learn what to do ahead of time by clicking here.
Lake Louise is world renowned - this is a must see during your Banff voyage. It’s a 45 minute drive from downtown Banff. There’s many activities to choose from: hiking, horseback riding, and canoeing to name a few. Canoeing on Lake Louise can be pricey, but it’s totally worth it - I paid $105 CAN for 3 adults for a one-hour rental. I would also suggest doing the polar dip in Lake Louise. Yes, it is FREEZING, but it is so much fun!! You won’t be able to swim more than 30 seconds, but you will come out feeling rejuvenated. I went in when I was hungover (don’t judge me), and I swear it cured my hangover. Also, don’t forget to explore the Fairmont Chateau.
Lake Agnes Teahouse Hike at Lake Louise:
The Lake Agnes hike is a favourite of mine and a popular trail, but remember to bring your bug spray. You must also stop at the Lake Anges Teahouse for some tea and delicious snacks. The Teahouse is open from 8am-5pm and you can pay with CAD or USD cash; credit and debit is not accepted. The hike takes approximately 2.5 hours to complete!
Moraine Lake is absolute paradise and in my opinion it’s more spectacular than Lake Louise. When visiting it’s important to go early to avoid the large summer crowds as Moraine Lake is only open during the summer. Parks Canada will close the road to Moraine Lake when the parking lot reaches capacity (can last a few hours), thus I would recommend a sunrise or early morning visit. There’s many activities to do here including climbing the rock pile or hiking the trail to the lookout. If you didn’t get a chance to canoe at Lake Louise, I would suggest going here.
Visiting Peyto Lake is highly recommended. It is a 1 hour and 15 minute drive from Banff. You won’t need to spend too much time here (I’d say no more than 30 minutes), as the lookout is a 10 minute walk from the parking lot.
Recommended Itinerary For Covering Lake Louise, Moraine Lake, & Peyto Lake
Plan your day as such:
- Moraine Lake for sunrise or early morning
- Canoe on Moraine Lake
- Drive to Lake Louise and explore the area
- Lake Anges Teahouse Hike
- Head to Peyto Lake
- *If you decide to do a day trip to Jasper (see my suggestion later on), I would save Peyto Lake for then as it is directly on the way to Jasper
Johnston Canyon is another tourist hotspot because it’s a quick 20 minute drive from downtown Banff and is family-friendly. It’s more of a walk rather than a hike as there are guided paths. Johnston Canyon is on my list of suggestions because of a beautiful hidden secret; you can explore a cave and get close to a magnificent waterfall. It’s located after the lower falls, and located close, but BEFORE the upper falls. You’ll need to go off the path and climb down a muddy wall. It’s hard to locate, so watch for others walking down or scope out of the big rock and waterfall in the photos. This view will be less crowded and more spectacular! You should allow roughly 2.5 hours to stop at both the lower and upper falls, as well as the hidden cave/waterfall.
I seriously LOVE visiting Cascade Ponds! That’s because it’s relatively tourist free and you get a stunning view of Cascade Mountain. It’s less than a 5 minute drive from downtown Banff and located right past the Trans-Canada Highway. There are picnic benches, cool bridges to cross the ponds, and beautiful scenery.
After visiting Cascade Ponds, stop by Lake Minnewanka. It’s a 9 minute drive between the two locations and the drive is gorgeous. I actually had to stop my car one time as a massive grizzly bear walked directly in front of my car. On another trip to Lake Minnewanka, I saw a mama black bear grazing with her two cubs playing in the trees. Upon arrival to Lake Minnewanka there are plenty of places around the lake to explore away from the crowds. It’s a great place to relax by the water, take photos, enjoy a picnic, and even rent a boat or go on a boat cruise.
This lake is one of the rare non-glacier fed lakes in Banff, which means you can go SWIMMING! The water is warmest in July and August. Families hangout and swim fairly close to the parking lot, but if you walk on either side of the lake for about 5-10 minutes, you’ll find where the locals hangout. There’s a rope swing on one of the trees that will take you back to your childhood! Once you park and walk towards the lake, turn right and walk around the lake for about 10 minutes. You’ll most likely hear or see people by the rope swing. Spending a few hours here can be fun and relaxing. Don’t forget snacks, some (alcoholic) beverages, and a football/volleyball/frisebee.
You’ll want to explore Banff Ave. and hit the shops, enjoy some ice-cream or beaver tails, try some restaurants, and/or grab a drink on a rooftop patio. If you’re looking for a souvenir I would recommend Cool As A Moose on Banff Ave. as they have a fun and eclectic Banff themed clothing collection. There’s also a Roots store where they have an exclusive Banff Collection that you can only buy at this location.
Banff Farmer’s Market:
This market is SO much fun and a place I visited every week! It’s open every Wednesday (rain or shine) from May 23rd to October 3rd, 2018, 10am-6pm. The Banff Farmer’s Market is located at Banff Central Park. There are so many amazing vendors; you can buy delicious food, tasty coffee (my favourite is from the Rocky Bean Co van), fresh fruit, flowers, jewelry, vegan ice cream, popsicles, lemonade, and souvenirs. The market also has live music and tables to sit at to enjoy the great atmosphere.
The Surprise Corner has a stunning view of the Fairmont Banff Springs. This lookout is close to town. There isn’t a sign for the Surprise Corner, but there will be a little parking lot on the right hand side once you reach the destination. After parking, walk across the street to the stairs that lead to the viewing platform.
Fairmont Banff Springs:
I have never stayed overnight in the Banff Springs because unfortunately I don’t have $600+ a night to spend on a hotel. HOWEVER, I do recommend coming here for a couple of hours just to check the hotel out. It’s seriously stunning! I love anything that looks like a castle and it has some fascinating history behind it. Legend has it the hotel is haunted, so I recommend reading up on the stories beforehand and then roaming around the property once you arrive on the grounds. The Rundle Lounge has tasty food and drinks and it’s reasonably priced. I recommend trying the cauliflower wings because they are so darn good. The lounge is close to the balcony that overlooks the mountains, so be sure to check out the pretty view.
This spot is only a 5-10 minute drive from downtown. Turn left off Mt. Norquay Rd. onto Vermillion Lakes Rd. and drive for about 5 minutes until you find the docks. I would suggest coming here to watch a sunset (don’t forget a blanket, your camera, and some wine).
Mount Norquay has a large opening with a grassy field; it’s a popular lookout for all of Banff. You can see Sulphur Mountain, Mount Rundle, Vermillion Lakes, and downtown Banff. I suggest renting mopeds from Snowtops Backtrax in town and driving them up there if you don’t already have a car. You’ll need to take Mt. Norquay Rd. past the Trans-Canada highway, drive up the mountain on a very windy road towards the Norquay ski area. If the Northern Lights are visible during your visit, I would recommend heading there to see them as it’s less crowded and it’s away from the light pollution, increasing the visibility of the Lights. I was lucky enough to see the Northern Lights in mid-May here, which is quite rare because they occur more frequently in the winter time. The lights can, however, be active in the summer so make sure to sign up to receive alerts once the Aurora becomes active by clicking here: Aurora Watch.
Day Trip To Jasper:
If you have enough time on your trip to spend a day driving from Banff to Jasper, make sure to go! It’s roughly a 3 hour drive one way, but I promise you, it will not disappoint. In my opinion, the best part is the spectacular drive along the Icefields Parkway. You’ll want to make many stops on the way, so give yourself extra time.
Here’s a list of stops form Banff:
- Bow Lake - Take a look at the beautiful lake and Num-Ti-Jah Lodge
- Peyto Lake
- Big Hill & Big Bend - a nice lookout
- Columbia Icefield
- Athabasca Falls
While you are in Jasper, here are a few things to do or see:
- Jasper Skytrax
- Edge of The World - Located on Marmot Basin Rd., at the last bend just before the Marmot gates - there is no official parking. It is under a 5 minute walk to the edge
- 6 Glaciers Helicopter Tour - a 20 minute ride for $195
- Walk around town and grab a bite
- Get ice-cream from Grandma’s Place
*Driving Home: I would avoid driving from Jasper to Banff in the dark because it’s a 3 hour drive with no cell service and no street lights. This can be scary especially with so much wildlife in the area. During the summer, the sun sets pretty late (sometimes as late as 10pm), so just make sure to check your weather app while planning timing.
Things To Do In Canmore:
- Grassi Lakes Hike/Trail - I suggest this quick and easy hike
- Hangout at Quarry Lake - you can go swimming, have a picnic, and there’s even an off-leash dog park
- Grab lunch or dinner at Rocky Mountain Flatbread - the pizza here is DELICIOUS! It’s always busy here for good reason, so you may have to wait a bit, but I’ve never waited more than 20 minutes
- Golf at Stewart Creek Golf & Country Club
I decided not to give too many suggestions for hikes, only because there are so many places to go hiking in Banff that all vary in length, difficulty, distance, elevation, route type, etc. There are many websites that list hikes and give you all the information you need. For a trail condition report, be sure to check out the Parks Canada page. I would suggest bringing bear spray and/or a bear bell during hikes, as I have encountered a grizzly bear on trail, which is obviously terrifying and something you should be prepared for.
Many come to Banff for the nature, but let me tell you, there are some amazing restaurants in Banff.
- Burgers: Eddie Burger Bar
- Pizza: High Rollers or Bear Street Tavern
- Mexican: Magpie & Stump
- Steak: Saltlik or Chuck’s Steakhouse
- Vegetarian/Vegan: Nourish Bistro
- Brunch: Juniper Hotel Bistro or Tooloulous
- Sushi: Banff Sushi House - the sushi is delivered on toy trains
- Elk & Oarsman Kitchen & Bar
- Magpie & Stump
- Rose & Crown
- High Rollers: this is where I worked while living in Banff. High Rollers has New York-style pizza, 48 craft beers on tap, a bowling alley, fishbowl cocktails, and live DJs some evenings
- The Devil’s Gap
- Rose & Crown
- Wild Bill’s
- Hoo Doo Lounge & Nightclub
- Tommy’s Neighbourhood Pub
- Dancing Sasquatch
For food & drink daily specials, check out Taxi Mike’s Guide to Restaurant Specials in Banff.
Thank you for taking the time to read my extended travel guide. Feel free to pass it along to any of your friends or family who will be visiting Banff in the future. Please leave a comment if you liked this post, have visited any of these places, have any questions, or have any constructive criticism :)
Banff holds a special place in my heart, so I truly hope these recommendations will help you while plan the trip of a lifetime. Enjoy your time in The Canadian Rockies!