Traveling to Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada?
Canada’s first national park, Banff is one of the most scenic spots in the entire country, and it has enough activities to keep you occupied for weeks on end.
How do I know? Because I lived in Alberta for an entire year! That’s right — living in Alberta, not too far from Banff, gave me the opportunity to scour the land and find the best this region has to offer.
In this article, we’re not only going to cover the best things to do in Banff National Park, but I’ll also give you my insider tips on where to stay, how to get to Banff, and so much more! Oh, and before we start, be sure to bookmark my perfect Alberta Road Trip Itinerary to help plan your visit.
Ready? Let’s dive in!
The Best Things to do in Banff National Park
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#1 – Visit the Fairmont Banff Springs
I know, I know, placing a hotel as the first thing to do on this list seems a little strange, but hear me out.
The (arguably) most historic hotel in all of Canada, The Fairmont Banff Springs was built between 1911 and 1928 and is located at the foot of Sulphur Mountain. Known as “Canada’s Castle in the Rockies”, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is great for a history lesson and a day of luxury alike.
While I absolutely recommend staying at least one night at the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, if you choose to have other accommodations then I’d still suggest visiting the spa, the golf course, the art galleries, or one of the award-winning restaurants.
This is going to sound bougie, but having afternoon tea in the hotel’s Rundle Bar is an absolute highlight and the perfect day to warm up after a day spent outside.
#2 – Ride a Gondola
Ever dreamed of gliding high through the mountains and taking in the views of Banff from the comfort of a large metal box?
Well then do I have news for you!
Banff, Alberta is home to a few Gondola experiences which will have you taking in amazing views while having a rush of an experience at the same time.
Gondola #1 – The Banff Gondola
The most famous of the Gondolas, The Banff Gondola is a glass-enclosed 8-minute ride that will take you up Sulphur Mountain and drop you off at one of the best viewpoints in the whole park.
At the top, you’ll find an Interpretive Centre, fantastic restaurants, and a scenic boardwalk.
The Banff Gondola is located in Banff at the end of Mountain Avenue. If you don’t have a car, then you can easily get to it by taking the Bow Valley ROAM Transit bus, on Route 1.
This gondola is easily one of the most famous things to do in Banff!
Gondola #2 – The Lake Louise Gondola
A 14-minute ride located at the Lake Louise Ski Resort, the Lake Louise Gondola gives you two riding options: a classic enclosed gondola experience, or an open-air chairlift ride.
When you get to the top (2088m / 6850 ft), there are restaurants, coffee bars, and views to soak up.
Gondola #3 – Banff Norquay Sightseeing Chairlift
While not a gondola per se, the Banff Norquay Sightseeing Chairlift is a 15-minute ride that will give you an entirely new perspective of Banff.
From the chairlift, you’ll get views of the Town of Banff, Bow River, and the towering cliffs of Mt. Rundle.
When the chairlift gets to the top, you’ll find the Cliff House Bistro where you can have a meal or a drink and take in the magnificent views.
#3 – Take a Soak in the Hot Springs
Located near the top of Sulphur Mountain, the geothermally-heated Banff Upper Hot Springs is a completely natural mineral water spring. This is the highest elevation hot spring in all of Canada, and the only spring open to public bathing in the park.
Nice and toasty all year round, the temperature of the hot springs depends on the season, yet generally stays between 27°and 47° C (80° – 116 °F)
A tourism staple of Banff, Alberta, the springs offer amenities such as a cafe, lockers for your things, and towels.
Banff Upper Hot Springs is located at 1 Mountain Ave. There isn’t a ton of parking here, so I recommend taking the ROAM bus Route 1.
#4 – Explore the Town of Banff
If you’re looking for a nature break and want a relatively more urban experience for a day, then consider all that downtown Banff has to offer.
No matter your budget, there are plenty of attractions in Banff including shopping, restaurants, art galleries, and museums.
Speaking of museums, if you want to learn a little bit more about the Rocky Mountains then check out the Banff Park Museum, the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, or the Buffalo Nations Luxton Museum.
As for Banff art galleries, The Carter – Ryan gallery is not to be missed. Showcasing the art of indigenous artist Jason Carter, this art gallery is a staple in Canmore and the town of Banff.
Additionally, if you’re looking for something a little different, I recommend paying a visit to the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity where you’ll find art, festivals, concerts, and workshops.
Note: If you’re looking for more things to do in Alberta as a whole, then check out our full Alberta Travel Guide!
#5 – Go Hiking
Given Banff’s renowned natural beauty, I’m sure a big reason for your trip is to experience nature up close and personal.
One of the best things to do in Banff, there are so many hiking trails that are worthy of your attention (like, so, so many). However, if you have limited time in the park, then check out a few of these trusty gems:
Hike #1 – Johnston Canyon
An extremely popular day hike, Johnston Canyon is an easy trek that will take you through a towering canyon and to the Lower Falls (1.1 km/0.68mi), Upper Falls (2.7km/1.67mi), and the Ink Pots (11.7km/7.27mi).
If tours are more your speed, then check out this popular Johnston Canyon Icewalk tour.
Hike #2 – Tunnel Mountain
For a hike that’s a little bit more moderate (and with fewer people), check out Tunnel Mountain. This 2-hour hike is easily accessible from downtown Banff and features trail switchbacks. From this hike, you’ll get great views of Bow Valley and Mt. Rundle.
Hike #3 – Via Ferrata
While the Via Ferrata is not for the faint of heart, if you’re looking to get your adrenaline flowing then this is the hike for you. This assisted hiking experience will take you along Mount Norquay, and you can expect suspension bridges, ladders, and being fastened in a harness while attached to the side of a mountain.
Hike #4 – Rock Isle Lake via Sunshine Meadows
This is a great easy-moderate hiking option. An 8-km (4.97mi) loop trail along the continental divide and Kootenay National Park, this trek will take you past rolling hills, lakes, valleys, and mountains at Simpson viewpoint.
#6 – Take a Helicopter Tour
Want to experience the best possible views of Banff?
Then book a helicopter tour!
A ride unlike any other, a Banff helicopter tour is a great way to get jaw-dropping views of mountain peaks, towns, lakes, valleys, and so much more.
While the launch point is just outside the park, this Abraham Lake Ice Bubbles Helicopter Tour is highly-rated and will give you great views of the area.
#7 – Dog Sledding
First used as a means of transport by the Inuit people in Northern Canada, dog sledding is one of the most popular things to do in Banff.
If you’re an animal lover who wants to spend a day around a pack of some of the sweetest, most energetic, dogs you’ll ever meet, then this is for you.
To go dog sledding, you’ll have to take a tour.
Note: Because dog sledding obviously involves animals, I want to note that most of the dogsledding companies in Banff are highly vetted and are held to the highest ethical standards.
The animals are treated with dignity and respect, and helping the dogs use up some of their energy is actually really good for them. That said, absolutely do your due diligence when picking a dog sledding company to go with.
I’d list some options here but quite frankly, personally researching is the best way to go. Ask questions and only spend your money where you feel comfortable.
#8 – Take a Sleigh Ride
Looking for some winter magic on your trip to Banff?
Then take a Winter Wonderland sleigh ride!
Each winter, Banff and Lake Louise become blanketed in snow, and as such companies offer up public and private sleigh rides.
Each experience will begin with you visiting the stables to meet the horses and the staff, and from there, your guides will entertain you with historical stories and identify any points of interest you pass.
Check out this highly-rated family-friendly horsedrawn sleigh ride tour.
#9 – Go Tubing and Tobogganing
Zooming down a snowy mountain with just a flimsy tube or toboggan under your body may not be for the faint of heart, but it’s definitely one of the most unforgettable things to do in Banff.
While any hill can technically be used for tobogganing (you can rent toboggans downtown Banff) if you’re looking for more of a thrill I highly recommend tubing.
With facilities running at both Mount Norquay and Lake Louise, the tubing experience in Banff features inflatable tubes, towing systems (yay for not having to trudge up the hill after you’ve slid down), and organized slides.
No matter what age you are, I guarantee you’ll have a blast tubing down the mountain.
#10 – Plan a Wellness Weekend
Well known for its rejuvenating qualities, planning a wellness retreat is one of the best things to do in Banff.
While nature is a natural rejuvenator, Banff is also home to spa treatments, yoga festivals, saunas, massages, meditation retreats, the aforementioned hot springs, and so much more.
Whether you plan one day of pampering, a weekend, or longer, you won’t run out of relaxation in Banff, Alberta.
#11 – Go Horseback Riding
Horse lovers unite!
Whether you are a seasoned equestrian or are new to the experience, horseback riding in the Canadian Rockies is not an activity you’ll soon forget.
There are plenty of riding experiences to choose from — from just a couple of hours to week-long adventures — and this is an activity that can be tailored to your taste and budget.
This 1-hour Banff horseback riding tour will take you across the Spray River and give you views of Bow Falls.
#12 – Go Rafting
Ever dreamt about sailing down some rapids in Banff, Alberta?
Well then you’re in luck — with rivers and streams galore, there are tons of options for rafting in the park.
If raging rivers are your thing and you want to go for the craziest rapids, then definitely go to Banff in the spring when the snow is melting in the mountains.
That said, if you’re a first-timer or looking for something a little tamer, then there are options for that too.
Either way, I highly recommend booking a tour as the guides will take you to the best spots and help you avoid falling snow (a real hazard in these parts).
Check out this Whitewater rafting tour in Horseshoe Canyon.
#13 – Drive the Icefields Parkway
The 230km drive that connects Banff National Park to Jasper National Park, Icefields Parkway is often regarded as one of the most beautiful highways in the world.
To experience it in all its glory, I recommend taking a self-guided Icefields Parkway photo tour and making an effort to visit all of the most popular stops along the way.
This includes Peyto lake, The Columbia Icefield (visit the Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Center, the Glacier Skywalk, and the Athabasca Glacier), Sunwapta Falls, and Athabasca Falls.
Be sure to book at least a full day for this drive!
#14 – Hit the Lakes
When you think of Banff National Park, you probably have a mental image of a beautiful turquoise lake surrounded by mountains and trees, am I right?
Well, that mental image is spot on because the pristine lakes are one of the biggest draws for visitors to the area.
Here are a few of the best lakes in Banff National Park:
Lake #1 – Lake Minnewanka
Lake Minnewanka (pictured above) is the second largest lake in all of the Canadian Rockies’ National Parks.
A true gem, you’ll see photos of this lake plastered across every Banff article (including this one), but did you know that there is more to Lake Minnewanka than meets the eye?
Back in the day, Lake Minnewanka was home to a resort town that drew tons of visitors but, due to the construction of a new dam in 1941, that resort town is now well beneath the lake’s surface.
It’s still fairly well preserved though so if you’re into Scuba diving, then rent some gear and visit this amazing underwater ghost town.
Around 8,000 divers make the plunge annually!
Lake #2 – Lake Louise
What is perhaps the most famous lake in all of Canada, Banff Lake Louise is a glacier-fed turquoise lake that’s an absolute dream to kayak, canoe, swim, skate, or snowshoe.
Nestled on the shore of Lake Louise you’ll find the beautiful Chateau Lake Louise, another Fairmont Hotel. If you plan to stay close, then this is an easy accommodation spot.
Lake #3 – Moraine Lake
Another one of the most photographed and popular lakes in Banff National Park, Moraine Lake isn’t too far from Lake Louise and is great for all the usual lake activities.
This lake is also glacier-fed, and as such has that bright turquoise color we all love.
However, while Moraine is truly beautiful, it’s also very popular.
In order to get a parking spot and not have crowds of people in your photos, I recommend coming here at the crack of dawn or in a shoulder season.
On that note, keep in mind that the road to Moraine Lake is closed in the wintertime, and can only be accessed by cross country skiing or snowshoeing.
Lake #4 – Peyto Lake
Yet another glacier-fed lake, Peyto Lake is accessible from the Icefields Parkway followed by a 20-minute hike. Again, this lake is turquoise in color and is one of the most photographed spots in Canada.
#15 – Go Canoeing / Kayaking
As you’ve just read, part of the outdoorsy charm of Banff National Park is the amazing glacier-fed lakes. However, they’re more than just picture backdrops.
If you visit in the summer, then one of the best things to do in Banff is to get out on the water via canoe, kayak, or even a paddleboard.
Simply rent some gear and head out on the water!
#16 – Tour Cave and Basin National Historic Site
If you’re looking to dive into some local First Nations and natural history, as well as learn more about the origins of the Canada Park system, then I recommend taking the Cave and Basin National Historic Site Discovery Tour.
This tour will teach you all about natural hot springs, the history of the area’s indigenous people, and how Banff National Park became developed in the nineteenth century.
That said, if tours aren’t quite your thing then you can absolutely explore Cave and Basin National Historic Site without a guide.
Note: Banff is located on Treaty 7 territory — the traditional land of Stoney Nakoda Nations of Wesley, Bearspaw, and Chinink; the Tsuu T’ina of the Dene people; and three Nations of the Blackfoot Confederacy: the Pikani, Kainai, and Siksika. Banff is also shared with the Metis Nation of Alberta Region 3.
#17 – Go Skiing / Snowboarding
Looking to hit the slopes?
Then you’re in the right place!
The Rocky Mountains are one of the best places to go skiing and snowboarding in the country, and Banff itself is home to three big ski resorts: Banff Sunshine Village, Lake Louise Ski Resort, and Mount Norquay.
What’s cool about these resorts is that if you buy a lift ticket at one, you’ll have access to all three.
If you plan on traveling to Banff to shred some powder then you’re going to want to come during high ski season — November through May.
#18 – Go Skating
If skating on frozen Lake Louise isn’t on your winter Banff bucket list, then it absolutely should be.
One of the most popular things to do in Banff, you can easily rent some skates at Lake Louise and hit the ice.
Just keep in mind that the ice needs to have a certain level of thickness for it to be safe.
Ask someone at your accommodation how to find out if the ice is fit to skate on, or pay attention to any signage in the area.
How to get to Banff
Located just 127 km / 78.9mi west of Calgary, Banff is located in the middle of the Rocky Mountains and is the highest town in Canada at 1383m / 4537ft.
To get here, I recommend flying into Calgary, renting a car, and then driving to the park. Discover Cars is the best place to compare rates.
This is the easiest way to get around.
However, if you plan to travel to Banff from Calgary by bus or shuttle then you have a few options: the Brewster Express, Sundog Tours, the Banff Airporter, or the On-It Transit Service.
This private shuttle from Banff to the Calgary Airport is also a great option.
Further to this, if you plan on traveling Canada more extensively then something I highly recommend is to travel from Vancouver to Banff by train: The Rocky Mountaineer being the most famous option to choose from.
Keep in mind though that there is no train route between Banff and Calgary.
How to get around Banff
If you plan on going the rental car route, then you’ll find sourcing parking spots is a breeze. The town of Banff itself has a ton of street parking and parking lots and many of the hikes and attractions have parking as well.
That said if you don’t want to rent a car for your entire stay then Banff National Park does have shuttles that will take you to and from the most popular attractions.
If you plan on taking local transit, then ROAM Transit is your friend — you’ll be able to find transit routes online or at any of the visitor centers. ROAM will get you around Banff, Canmore, and Lake Louise.
Also, note that there are fees to get into Banff National Park. Check out the Banff Tourism Site for the most updated info.
Where to Stay in Banff
I mentioned a couple of accommodation options above, but here is a comprehensive rundown of where to stay in Banff National Park:
- Luxury – For excellent luxury accommodations, check out the Fairmont Banff Springs, Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, and the Rimrock Resort Hotel.
- Mid-Range – For highly-rated mid-range hotel options, check out the Banff Park Lodge, the Elk + Avenue Hotel, and Banff Inn.
- Budget – For great budget-friendly options, check out the Johnston Canyon Lodge & Bungalows, and the Banff Voyager Inn.
If you’re looking for an accommodation option that’s even easier on the wallet, then check out our guide to House Sitting!
That’s it for the best things to do in Banff National Park!
I hope this gave you a ton of great activity ideas for your next visit.
To help you prepare for your trip, read these articles next:
- The Secret to Cheap International Flights
- 5 Best Travel Backpacks
- 33 Things to do in Winnipeg Manitoba
Have fun in Banff!
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