No surprise if I tell you that Banff National Park is the most famous National park in all of Canada, right? Actually, for travelers, Banff National Park is most often the park that defines the Rockies (and I understand why!). Indeed, it’s the perfect place to see glistening lakes, beautiful mountains, and glaciers, with intense flora. In addition to the most beautiful scenery in Canada, Banff National Park offers numerous hiking possibilities. This is why, in this blog post, I share with you all the must-sees and best hikes in Banff National Park, Canada.
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How to get to Banff National Park?
- from Calgary (1,5 hours)
- from Radium Hot Springs (1,5 hours)
- from Jasper (3,5 hours)
- from Golden (1,5 hours)
How to move around Banff National Park?
As you can imagine, all of the National Parks across Canada is huge and vast, with no exception for Banff National Park. Moreover, the trailheads start almost all of them start in different places and the distance from your accommodation to the point of interest (hikes, must-sees, etc) can be long. As a result, to be able to discover the region in depth, it seems to me essential to have your means of transportation. Not to mention, this is always nice to explore the park at your own pace.
However, Banff National Park is one of the only National Parks in the Rockies that offers more options regarding public transportation such as shuttles or buses. Check out here for more details.
This is why, as per my own experience, you have four different options on how to explore the park:
- by car
- by camper or van
- by electric bikes or normal bikes (it may surprise you but we saw so many bikers on the roads!)
- shuttle or bus from Banff Village or Lake Louise village
“Good news, gas is cheaper in Alberta than in British Columbia (which is the other state part of the Canadian Rockies. So take advantage of it by filling up at Petro Canada in Lake Louise Village because it is the cheapest place we found in all the Rockies mountains.”
How long to stay in Banff National Park?
As mentioned above, Banff National Park is packed with a variety of day hikes and even multi-day hikes. On top of that, there a various must-sees sites to discover such as Lake Louise and Moraine lake (to name a few). Honestly, Banff National Park is the place where we spent most of our time while in the Canadian Rockies.
With more than 100 day hikes and multi-day hikes ranging from 2 to 7 days, I advise you to stay a minimum of a week inside Banff National Park. For all travelers with more time on their hands, I can only recommend you to stay longer, you will not be bored for sure.
Where to stay in Banff National Park?
Banff National Park is home to two main villages called respectively Banff and Lake Louise. In my opinion, Banff is the ideal hub to explore the entire park. In addition to its great location, Banff village offers many dining options and a big supermarket called IGA (with great prices).
Alternatively, you can stay at Lake Louise Village but the place hasn’t many options for dining and only a small supermarket (with expensive food). However, the big positive point is that it’s ideally located if you want to visit the Northern part of the park, namely the Icefields Parkway. Anyway, you have different options depending on your travel style:
- in case you’re traveling through the Canadian Rockies by staying in hotels/Airbnb, it may be a good option to stay at Banff Village. Moreover, this will also allow visiting Kootenay National Park without changing accommodations.
- in case you’re traveling through the Canadian Rockies by staying in campings, it may be better to stay in one of the many campgrounds available throughout Banff National Park. Check the availability here.
Things to know before visiting Banff National Park
- as with any mountain environment, there is a risk of avalanches. It may surprise you, but avalanche warnings can still be active until the end of the summer (August). It’s therefore essential to check the condition of the trail before each hike. To do so, click here to get the trail conditions.
- trails are not maintained between October and May. In other words, trails are most likely not in good condition or even not practicable with fallen trees, avalanche debris, etc.
- campings operate from mid-May to early October only.
- if you want to camp in a backcountry campground, you need to book your spot way in advance to avoid any disappointment. Usually, the spots are open in a 3-month advance window. To book, go to the government website, create an account with your data and that’s it. Check it out here.
- wild camping is prohibited in Canada. You must camp only in a designated area with a valid pass, always.
- as its name indicates, Banff is a National Park. As a result, you must use a pass to enter the park. The price for a day pass is CAD 10,50 per adult, free for youth until 12 years old, and CAD 21 for a family in the same vehicle (up to 7 people). Therefore, if you plan to visit the Rockies mountains and its National Parks, I highly suggest you buy an annual pass (also called a “discovery pass”). The discovery pass will be paid off after 7 days of use in any national park. This pass gives you access for a full year to all the National Parks and historical sites of Canada. You can either buy a family pass, which works for 7 people in the same vehicle (CAD 145,25), or an individual pass (CAD 72,25). The pass needs to be displayed in front of the windshield at all times. In addition to saving money, you will save time at the park entrances by using the fast line.
- most of the parking at the trailhead is small. Thus, I can recommend you enough to start the hike early as possible. As per my experience, the parking lots get full starting from 9:00 am.
- wildlife is everywhere in Canada. While encountering a wild animal, always keep a safe distance. Remember you are in their home, you are only a visitor.
- remember you are hiking in a bear country. So always make noise while hiking and have your bear spray with you at all times. You can find bear spray at the MEC store (around CAD 50). If you don’t want to buy bear spray, you can rent one in some tourist places like Banff or Lake Louise Visitor Center.
- Mosquitos are terrible during the summer months. Wear long sleeves and pants and put on mosquito spray.
- water is drinkable everywhere in dedicated points (unless it’s written the opposite).
What to do in Banff National Park?
As mentioned before, in addition to the hundreds of hikes that Banff National Park has to offer, it also offers all the typical scenery you look for when visiting this part of Canada.
Please check always the trail conditions here before you go hiking.
Moraine Lake and Lake Louise Area
Moraine Lake is one of the most emblematic places in the Canadian Rockies (if not in all of Canada). And you know what? It was one of our favorite spots despite the fact we’ve seen it hundreds of times on social media.
Moraine Lake is accessible directly from the parking lot. Therefore, you won’t have to hike to be able to see this wonder. However, the best observation point is from the rocks on the Rockpile trail. This very short trail (800 m) starts at the exit of the parking and goes around the boulders at the end of the lake. There are some stairs along the way, so not suitable for everyone. Apart from this point of view, there is no other place that allows you to see the lake from above. Nevertheless, I advise you to hike the Moraine Lakeshore trail which goes along the lake. The trail is 3 km long (round trip), with minimal elevation gain. Unlike the rockpile trail, the Moraine Lakeshore trail is accessible to everyone.
One thing super important is that you have to plan your visit because the parking lot is limited in capacity. As a result, you need to be there at 3:30 am at the latest if you want to have a spot. No parking fee applies. On a side note, be aware that it’s forbidden to camp in Moraine Lake parking lot.
Having said that, I strongly recommend you visit Moraine Lake with the shuttle provided. This will allow you to choose your time of the visit and not have to worry about being able to access it or not. Shuttle runs every 20 minutes from Lake Louise Ski Resort. There is a park&ride at the departure where you can drop off your car for free. Note that it’s imperative to reserve your place on the website directly. The spots open 48 hours before, in other words, 2 days before the date you want to visit Moraine Lake. The price is CAD 8 per person + CAD 6 for the reservation fee. Click here to reserve your spot now.
“if you wish to have the lake completely lit by the sun, you will have to come around 11:30 am during the summer period.”
Rockpile trail: 800 m - 50 m elevation gain
Moraine Lakeshore trail: 3km - no elevation
Consolation Lakes trail
The Consolation Lake trail starts from Moraine Lake parking lot, so it’s a perfect hike to combine with your exploration of Moraine Lake as the trail is not long. In fact, the hike is a little less than 6 km (return), on a paved path with minimal elevation gain. Most of the hike is under the forest which will allow you to be in the shade during sunny days. In the end, you get a nice view of the first consolation lake and the surrounding mountains.
“If you wish, you can continue walking on the stones to reach the second lake of consolation. however, I found the path a bit tricky and not worth it.”
6 km - minimal elevation gain
Larch Valley via minnestimma lakes trail
Probably my favorite hike in the Moraine Lake area, the Larch Valley trail is a beautiful hike through a valley of Larch trees. In addition to stunning scenery, you can even spot Moraine lake from above through the intense forest. The first kilometers of the hike is quite steep as you pass the mountain pass. But your effort will be rewarded once you reach the immense Larch valley with its glaciers and snowy peaks.
This hike officially ends when you reach Lake Minnestimma. However, if you wish to continue exploring, continue on the Sentinel Pass trail. Expect to have snow along the trail in the middle of summer, making the trail impassable at times.
“Since the trailhead is also from Moraine Lake parking lot and the hike is 8,6 km roundtrip, I advise you to choose between Consolation Lake trail (see below) or Larch Valley trail to combine with Rockpile trail and Moraine Lakeshore trail on your Moraine Lake day trip.”
8,6 km (return) - 535 m elevation gain
As opposed to Moraine Lake, Lake Louise can be viewed from several different observation points, all accessible by hiking trails. Therefore, if you plan to visit Lake Louise, I sincerely that you don’t just stop at the parking lot to observe this other wonder of the Rockies. You will have understood, just like Moraine Lake, Lake Louise is accessible directly from the parking.
For once, you will be able to make a nice hiking loop for a total of about 10 km (whereas normally for all other hikes in the area, it is more of an out-and-back on the same trail). Follow the following signs to enjoy the different views of Lake Louise:
- From the parking lot, follow “Little Beehive”. Little Beehive offers a beautiful view of Bow valley and Lake Louise, with the Fairmont Hotel.
- Then, go back on your steps a little bit until you see the sign showing the direction to “Lake Agnes”. At this point, you will quickly arrive at Lake Agnes and its famous Tea house.
- Continue your way in direction of “Big Beehive” which offers an incredible sight on Lake Louise. Be aware that the climb from Lake Agnes to Big Beehive is very steep with many switchbacks.
- Finally, you will start your descent and return to Lake Louise by following “Plain of six glaciers”.
- With a little physical condition, the hike is accessible to all. If you want to avoid the big climb, turn around once you reach Lake Agnes.
As per my own experience, I would say that the hike can be accessible to everyone with a little bit of physical condition. Alternatively, If you want to avoid the big climb (from Lake Agnes to Big Beehive), just turn around once you reach Lake Agnes in direction of Lake Louise shore. Of course, if you don’t feel to hike, you can still do the Lake Louise Lakeshore trail which has no elevation gain at all.
Like Moraine Lake, the parking lot has limited spaces. However, if you plan to be there before 7:00 am, you should have a spot. The parking fee is CAD $12 for a day (you can’t pay less even if you stay one hour). Anyway, once again, I strongly advise you to visit Lake Louise by shuttle (as explained above under the Moraine Lake section). Click here to book your spot!
“I recommend you bring your food even if there is a tea house on the trail. Indeed, the tea house fills up quickly with people. You will have to wait for a long time to buy some things to take away.”
10 km (hiking loop) - 630 m elevation gain
Banff Town Area
SULFUR MOUNTAIN summit TRAIL
“As it’s a very touristic place, the parking is big enough. So you don’t normally need to rush in the morning to get parking spots. Nevertheless, since some parts of the trail are exposed to the sun, I recommend you to start your ascent at 10:00 am at the latest during summer months.”
11 km (return) - 655 m elevation gain
Johnston canyon - upper falls trail
If you’re looking for a nice and cool family hike, Johnston Canyon trail is ideal for it! Indeed, this short hike is an easy paved trail that follows the canyon and its river. The trailhead is located about 30 minutes away from Banff. As a result, due to its location and easy level of hiking, the trail is popular with families. It is big enough (and free),
In more detail, Johnston Canyon trail is divided into 3 main points:
- The lower falls – 2,4 km (return)
- the upper falls – 5 km (return)
- the Ink pots – 11,4 km (return)
“As Johnston Canyon trail is one of the crowdest hikes in Banff town area, I highly recommend being in the parking lot at 9:00 am at the latest, to beat the crowd on the trail!”
5 km (return) - 100 m elevation gain
Two Main Jake Lake
Two Main Jake Lake is probably one of the most romantic lakes in the Banff town area. There are many wedding photo shoots that take place here, and I understand why. The beauty of the place is incredible! There is a free parking lot right next to the lake.
In case you’re looking for a place to stay and camp, I advise you to book the Two Main Jake Lake campground to enjoy this view when you wake up!
“I strongly recommend coming for sunset. This is the time of day when the water is completely still which allows you to take beautiful reflection pictures with reflections.”
Tunnel mountain summit trail
Tunnel Mountain Summit trail is the perfect hike to do just before sunset. Located 5 minutes away from Banff village, there are 2 different parking lots at the trailhead. One is upper than the other one from 0,5 km, which will add 1 km of hiking in total.
The total trail is only 4 km (or 5 km if you park in the lower parking lot). The elevation is not a lot with a little bit more than 200 meters. As its name indicates, the trail reaches the top of the mountain called Tunnel. Therefore, this well-marked trail will offer you beautiful views of Banff valley.
4 km (return) - 260 m elevation gain
Icefields Parkway area
Parker Ridge trail
Without hesitation, this hike offers one of the most spectacular views of a glacier. Indeed, the trail takes you to the other side of the mountain for the most amazing view of the Saskatchewan Glacier. In addition, the hike is very short with a total of 5,4 km which makes it easy to do in combination with another activity/hike.
“Since the start of the hike is at the very end of Banff National Park, I advise you to do this hike when you come back from Jasper National Park or on your way to Jasper National Park.”
5,4 km (return) - 250 m elevation gain
Peyto lake- observatory platform
Located only 0,6 km away from the parking lot, the wooden observatory platform offers a breathtaking view of Peyto Lake. Peyto Lake is a milky blue lake like I have never seen before. Oh, and you know what? You don’t need the sun to see its beautiful color! So you can visit Peyto Lake in any weather.
The parking lot is large and free, with toilets.
“Expect to be crowded, as this is a well-known spot for visitors driving on the Icefield Parkway. Then, if this is something that bothers you, continue along to Bow Summit (see above). You’ll be (almost) on your own to watch Peyto lake.”
0,6 km - 50 m elevation gain
Bow summit lookout trail (PEYTO lAKE)
Bow summit lookout is only 2,6 km away from the parking lot. As I said before, it’s the perfect place to get away from the crowd. Indeed, most people stop at the observation platform and do not continue further.
“It’s possible that during your visit, the trail to Bow Summit may be in poor condition or have an avalanche warning. It’s important to always check before hiking. If this is the case, don’t worry, just stop at the platform to avoid any trouble.”
2,6 km - 150 m elevation gain
Bow Lake is another lake of rare beauty. On top of that, its watercolor changes depending on the time of the day. Moreover, If you’re visiting Bow Lake at the beginning of the summer season, the lake will potentially still be frozen. Consequently, the place looks even more magical. In other words, Bow Lake is another wonderful stop to do while on the Icefields Parkway.
BOW GLACIER FALLS TRAIL
A beautiful hike to do starting from Bow Lake is the Bow Glacier Falls trail. In fact, the trail passes through great scenery along the way and ends at beautiful waterfalls. I highly recommend taking advantage of your visit to Bow Lake to do this hike, you won’t be disappointed. In addition to the fantastic scenery you will encounter, this 9,2 km trail is mostly flat, except for the last part of the hike where you will have to climb some stairs.
“The parking lot is not very large compared to the popularity of the place. Therefore, to avoid parking on the side of the road (which is forbidden), plan to start the hike in the morning (at 10:00 am at the latest).”
9,2 km (return) - 155 m elevation gain
Another gem on Icefields Parkway: Waterfowl Lake. In fact, due to its vibrant color, you can’t miss it, that’s for sure. Next to it, there is a lovely campground of the same name which is also the start of several hikes (including the Cirque Lake trail – see below).
Cirque Lake trail
Not as popular as the other lakes in Banff National Park, Cirque Lake is just as much a wonder! On top of that, you don’t have everyone around you. What more could you ask for?
The trailhead is from the Waterfowl Lakes campground. No worries, if you don’t camp there, there is a small parking lot for visitors only. Since the hike is not very famous, you won’t need to be there early in the morning. Therefore, it might be a perfect hike to combine with a morning activity/hike such as Peyto Lac or Bow Lake.
The trail is a total of 8,4 km back and forth on a rather flat path. However, there are many roots along the way which require concentration not to fall. During the trail, you will be immersed in the shelter of the forest and even come across some small rivers at times. At the end of the trail, you will be rewarded with the sight of this sublime turquoise lake.
“If you want to hike a bit more, you can add Chepren Lake to your hiking journey. In fact, on your way back to the parking lot, you will see a sign at a certain point showing the direction for Chepren lake (on your left hand side).”
8,4 km (return) - 150 m elevation gain
One thing is for sure when driving on the Icefields Parkway, you can’t miss these beautiful mountain cliffs and their glaciers. Crowfoot Glacier is easily accessible from the road, with a great view of the glacier directly from the parking lot.
To sum up, as you can see, Banff National Park is full of wonders and it alone will probably keep you busy during your entire vacation. In my opinion, this park is one of the most complete National Parks in the Canadian Rockies. Indeed, Banff National Park offers a variety of landscapes from turquoise lakes, glaciers, snowy peaks, and waterfalls.
I sincerely hope I have inspired you to add Banff National Park to your bucket list next time you visit Canada. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out! I would love to share more with you.
Anyway, don’t forget to check out all my posts related to Canada here to get more inspiration!
Sending you lots of love,