Banff National Park Itineraries
The following Banff National Park itineraries describe the best way to spend your time in Banff.
If you are planning to visit the Canadian Rockies, it is almost inevitable that your itinerary will include Banff National Park, both for its many and varied outdoor attractions and for its central location. The park can be anything you want it to be, depending on the time of year you visit and what your interests are. The main population centre is Banff, which has all the services of a large town, as well as attractions such as landmark Fairmont Banff Springs hotel and the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies.
The park holds three lakes that you won’t want to miss for their scenic beauty: Lake Louise, Moraine Lake, and Peyto. All three are easily accessible by road but also offer surrounding hiking, and the former two have canoe rentals. Hiking is the park’s biggest attraction, and many visitors plan their itinerary around it. I’d suggest mixing it up—choosing from the hikes that reflect your fitness level and combining them with visits to the major natural attractions. For example, when in the vicinity of Lake Louise, walk the Lake Agnes Trail, and while at Moraine Lake, plan on visiting Larch Valley. For the more adventurous, Bourgeau Lake is a stunning day-hike destination. Keen hikers with more time should also consider including Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, which is renowned for its network of trails.
You can book one accommodation for your entire stay or spend an equal number of nights in Banff and Lake Louise. If you have a family or like the convenience of staying put for your entire vacation, it is practical to book a room in either Banff or Lake Louise and use it as a base—spending your days in the park but also venturing farther afield, with, for example, one day scheduled for Yoho National Park and another for a Canmore/Kananaskis combo.
Unless you’re a die-hard skier or snowboarder, summer is definitely the best time of year to visit. The months of July and August are the busiest, with crowds decreasing exponentially in the weeks before and after these two months. June and September are wonderful times to visit the park. Aside from the crowd factor, in June, wildflowers start blooming and wildlife is abundant. September sees temperatures ripe for hiking, and the turning colours are at their peak. In either month, discounted accommodations are a welcome bonus. In May and October to November, the park is at its quietest. Temperatures in any of these three months are generally too cool for hiking (although welcome warm spells are common). The park’s three alpine resorts begin opening in December and remain in operation until April or May. While skiing and boarding are the big wintertime draw, plan on expanding your experience by joining a sleigh ride or trying snowshoeing.
One Week in Banff National Park
A week in Banff National Park will give you the opportunity to really get to know the park and its personality. You’ll see all the famous attractions, as well as some lesser-known ones. The focus should be on the outdoors, so pack your hiking boots.
Base yourself in one spot for the entire week. I’ve mentioned several lodging options below so you can find the place that matches your interests.
Check into your hotel. Spend an hour or so wandering around DOWNTOWN BANFF to get a lay of the land. Stop by the visitor centre, stroll along the river, explore local history at the WHYTE MUSEUM OF THE CANADIAN ROCKIES and wander the CASCADE OF TIME GARDEN. Take the BANFF GONDOLA to the top of Sulphur Mountain for magnificent views over the town to the lakes and mountains beyond.
Spend the day hiking through the SUNSHINE MEADOWS. Reached by gondola, these meadows are filled with wildflowers between mid-July and mid-August. Hikes range from easy strolls like to a full day outing to CITADEL PASS. Return to Banff and ride the chairlift to the CLIFFHOUSE BISTRO for evening drinks.
Take a tour boat across LAKE MINNEWANKA, then continue to nearby JOHNSON LAKE, keeping an eye out for bighorn sheep en route. Drive the BOW VALLEY PARKWAY, another wildlife hotspot, stopping at JOHNSTON CANYON, where metal catwalks allow you to get up close and personal with numerous waterfalls. Check into BAKER CREEK BY BASECAMP for two nights.
Rise early and you’ll enjoy the first rays of light hitting the Valley of the Ten Peaks at MORAINE LAKE, but you’ll need to catch a shuttle bus to ensure you make it up there, as parking is limited. From the lake, take the easy one-hour hike to LARCH VALLEY, a delightful place to spend the morning. Spend the afternoon exploring LAKE LOUISE—hopefully you’ll still have the energy to reach LAKE AGNES TEAHOUSE, where you can enjoy a snack.
Head north along the famously scenic ICEFIELDS PARKWAY. The nonstop highlights include Bow Lake, Peyto Lake, and the Weeping Wall, as well as a seemingly endless panorama of snow-capped mountains. Stay at the LODGE AT BOW LAKE to be well-positioned for tomorrow’s hike.
It’s worth spending the full day on the adventurous hike to HELEN LAKE. This subalpine lake is perfectly placed: high above the tree line and surrounded by rugged peaks, with wildflowers and lots of marmots as a bonus. If you’re reasonably fit, you can hike the trail in under three hours—and you’ll be glad you did. Stay at the Lodge at Bow Lake a second night.
Return to the town of Banff, enjoy lunch at the LOOKOUT PATIO at the FAIRMONT BANFF SPRINGS before heading downtown for some final souvenir shopping before heading home.