Banff National Park is a travel destination on the rise. People from all over the world visit for its majestic mountains, spectacularly blue lakes, various hiking trails, and wildlife sighting opportunities. It has something for everyone, even if you are not an avid hiker or skier. I first wanted to visit after coming across Canadian photographer Callum Snape’s instagram account and the beautiful shots he took of Banff. We decided to go during Memorial Weekend. It was shoulder season and the weather varied from sun to rain to hail in a single day – but even the cloudiness brought out a different type of beauty in Banff.
Day 1 – Arrive in Banff town
Fly into Calgary airport, it is the closest airport to Banff National Park. Make sure to rent a car as driving is the best way to explore Banff. The roads are wide and easy to navigate. From Calgary it is about a 1.5 hour drive to Banff town. We chose Banff Aspen Lodge as our base for the first two nights – it’s right in the heart of town and easy for us to get familiar with the area. When you arrive, head over to Discover Banff Tour downtown office. There are many local guides that can provide you with the latest information and suggestions on how to explore Banff. Make sure to pick up maps and brochures as those can be helpful once you drive out of town. Reception can get spotty once you go further north. If you have time before dinner, walk down Banff Ave. There are many art galleries and stores selling locally made goods. Most of the shopping in Banff is on Banff Ave, so think about what souvenirs you want to bring home at the end of your trip (maple syrup, chocolate moose) while browsing. Have dinner at the Bison, which offers an innovative menu featuring local ingredients. You can’t visit Banff without eating Alberta beef or bison meat!
Day 2 – In and Around Banff
Start your day on the Lake Minnewanka loop. Before you leave town, download the GyPSy guide app on your phone. It is an app that provides automated commentary as you drive along Trans-Canada Highway, offering information on wildlife, scenic points, and history of Banff National Park. Stop and hike at Johnston Canyon – get there early as parking can get crazy later in the day. It’s an easy hike to the lower or upper falls, 0.7 and 1.7 miles respectively. If you have enough time, do both! I’m not a regular hiker but didn’t think the trail was too challenging as it was very well-maintained with clear signs. There are also platforms for you to get close to the waterfalls.
After driving through Minnewanka loop, head back to town for lunch. Hoodoos Trail is an easy trail to do if you want to work off lunch. Another choice is Bow Trails starting in Banff town and leading to Bow Falls and Surprise Corner. At Surprise Corner, you will see the famous Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel standing in between the woods like a majestic castle. If it’s not dark yet, head over to Banff Canoe Club to rent a kayak or canoe. It is so serene to paddle on clear water with view of Mount Rundle ahead, I could’ve spend hours out here.
We had dinner at Maple Leaf restaurant, but the food was quite average for the price. Other restaurant choices are Eddie Burger Bar or Earl’s.
Day 3 – Icefields Parkway
Icefields Parkway is rated as one of the most scenic drives in the world by Conde Nast Traveler. You can spend a whole day here sightseeing and stopping at scenic points. I highly recommend going to the Columbia Icefield Glacier Discovery Center and booking a tour to go on the Athabasca Glacier. You’ll ride in a massive all-terrain Ice Explorer, with enthusiastic drivers providing guided commentary up to the glacier. Remember to pack an empty water bottle to bring back some pristine glacier water! They take you to the glacier skywalk post-tour, which is a glass-floored observation platform 918ft above the valley. We continued our day by driving up towards Jasper National Park, turning back when we reached Sunwapta Falls.
On the way back, stop at Peyto Lake. Peyto Lake is one of the bluest lake we stopped at on this trip. It is a short hike up to the platform which gives you a great view of the whole lake, and you can hear everyone’s sharp intake of breath once they get to the platform. The lakes in Banff all have bright, brilliant blue colors due to glacial melt leaving rock flour in the water, which then reflects blue light while deflecting other colors. The old joke was that every few years workers would drain the lake and paint the bottom turquoise, but travelers actually started to believe it. Even now, staff in Banff area still get asked what time of the year the lakes get painted, and need to clear up the misconception.
Juniper Hotel was our base at night and my favorite lodging of the trip. Just a quick 3-5min drive from Banff townsite, this hotel is perched on the hills so it has an amazing view of Mount Rundle and Vermillion Lakes. Have dinner at Park Distillery, which serves campfire inspired food.
Day 4 – Moraine Lake/Lake Louise
Spend your fourth day in Banff up north in the Moraine Lake and Lake Louise area. Our base tonight in this area was the famous Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. We drove further north into Yoho National Park before checking into the hotel. Stop by Spiral Tunnels, an engineering wonder for heavy trains to go up and down the Rockies. You can see the same train looping in and out of tunnels while gaining elevation. Then continue further to Takkakaw Falls, one of the highest waterfalls in Canada. Unfortunately, when we went there was a small landslide and the road up the Takkakaw Falls was closed. This was still a great drive with many animals sightings, we saw black bears as well as elks in the area.
Start heading back down to Lake Louise, making stops at Emerald Lake and Natural Bridge. Emerald Lake is one of the most famous lakes in Banff, and if we return to Banff in the future I’d want to stay at Emerald Lake Lodge. The water is incredibly clear, and it was a bit cloudy when we arrived, but I can imagine how beautiful it must be when the sun is out.
Natural Bridge is an impressive rock formation that was sculpted by the rushing water. It overlooks the Kicking Horse River, and if you bring boots you can step down to the powdery blue water.
Moraine Lake is my favorite lake in Banff, it’s just so romantic and postcard perfect that you can’t help but keep snapping pictures. If you are short on time, hike the short trail behind the Rock Pile to a vantage point for the lake.
At Lake Louise, check if Lake Agnes tea house is open during your visit. If so, hike up (about 1.5 hour up and 1 hour down) to enjoy the amazing view while having delicious pastries. You’ll pass by Mirror Lake on the hike, a small lake in the mountain, at 1100ft. It was snowing when we reached it!
Dinner options are limited in the Lake Louise area. We made reservations to dine at Post Hotel, a Relais & Châteaux property. The atmosphere was very romantic, with top level service and delicious food.
Day 5 – Kayak at Lake Louise/Head home
We ended our trip kayaking on the beautiful Lake Louise, steps away from the Fairmont Chateau. The photos below aren’t edited, the lake really is that color. I couldn’t believe how blue it was, I even stuck my hand into the water while kayaking. Our flight back was in the afternoon so we had to start heading south after lunch.
If you have extra days, you can easily spend it by returning to one of your favorite hikes or lakes. When the view is this beautiful, it never gets old. There is also the Banff sightseeing Gondola that takes you up more than 7,000ft above sea level for an unobstructed view of the Rockies. Or if you’re feeling like you need some rejuvenation, head to Banff Upper Hot Springs. It’s open year round, with the views of Mount Rundle.
While five days was enough for us to see all the main sights at Banff National Park, I’d love to stay for longer next time to do more trails and spend more time at each lake. If you have a favorite lake, let me know!