30 Best Things to Do in Banff in the Summer and Winter
Banff National Park offers something for everyone. This blog will show you all the best things to do in Banff National Park
Nestled in the Canadian Rockies, Banff National Park is the oldest and most famous national park in Canada. Banff National Park attracts millions of visitors every year with its breathing taking landscape.
Most people think of the famous turquoise colored lakes when they think about Banff National Park, but in reality there are so many things to do in Banff outside of the touristy spots that are suitable for everyone.
At Banff National Park you can find incredible hiking trails for hikers, fun activities for families and kids, amazing slopes for snowboarders/skiers, romantic viewpoints for couples and relaxing spas and hot springs for everyone.
Banff Town is also delightful to walk around and explore, with colorful stores and great restaurants, bars and ice cream shop.
This blog will show you some of the best things to do in Banff all year round.
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Where Is Banff Located?
Banff National Park is located on the west side of Canada in the province of Alberta.
Banff is easily accessible by flying, car and train. It is only about 2 hours drive from Calgary and about 4 hours drive from Edmonton.
Alternatively you can fly into Edmonton and drive 4 hours down. If you decide to drive, make sure to rent your cars from Calgary Airport ahead of time to get the best prices during peak summer season.
Can I go to Banff Outside of Summer Months?
There is something to do in Banff National Park any time of the year. But most people visit in the summer to see the lakes.
In the summer time, all the roads in Banff National Park should be open (unless there is construction work going on). From mid June to September, all the lakes are unfrozen, so you can see the postcard famous turquoise colors or enjoy the amazing hiking trails.
Due to its popularity, summer is of course the busiest time to visit Banff especially in July and August. This is when hotels are super expensive (and also booked up) and hard to get rental cars.
Spring and fall season are less crowded but in the spring the lakes are still frozen and there may already be snow fall in the fall. But you can expect a lot less crowd during these shoulder seasons at Banff.
Many people also visit Banff in the winter for winter sports and activities. If you decide to visit Banff in the winter, make sure you are comfortable driving in a snowy environment (and have the appropriate cars and tires).
Best Things to Do in Banff in the Summer
Lake hop in Banff National Park
The number one best thing to do in Banff is to visit all the beautiful and famous lakes in the summer.
The most famous lakes in Banff National Park are Lake Louise and Moraine Lake. You will see a large crowd there when you visit these two lakes, so try to visit early if possible (like really early).
Otherwise you will most likely not get a parking spot at Lake Louise if you visit after 8am. There are park shuttles that you can book to get to Lake Louise and Moraine Lake and you will need to book them in advance.
There are a number of other lakes that are definitely worth visiting when you are in Banff National Park. These lakes include Vermillion Lake, Peyto Lake, Bow Lake, Johnson Lake, Lake Minnewanka, Two Jack Lake, and Consolation Lakes.
Canoe on Lake Louise in Banff
Lake Louise is the most famous lake in Banff National Park if not the entire Canada. Its turquoise color attracts over 4 million visitors every year.
A visit to Lake Louise is almost like stepping into a fairy tale, with the beautiful chateau overlooking the lake and the surrounding peaks. It is no wonder tourists think visiting Lake Louise is truly one of the best things to do in Banff.
Most people walk around Lake Louise or take some photos then leave.
But a visit to Lake Louise is not complete without a paddle across this world-famous lake while enjoying the stunning scenery and the dramatic peaks of the Victoria Glacier.
Hike the amazing trails in Banff
If you are an avid hiker, then Banff National Park is the right place for you.
While most people visit Banff for its lakes, hiking is actually one of the best things to do in Banff because you get to see jaw dropping views and alpine lakes most tourists don’t see.
Banff has some pretty short/easy but rewarding hikes, such as Lake Agnes Teahouse at Lake Louise, Johnston Canyon, Consolation Lakes Trail, Moraine Lake Lakeshore walk, Bow Summit Lookout and Parker Ridge.
Some of the longer or more difficult hikes at Banff are equally as amazing and you can expect fewer people on the trail.
Some of the most noteworthy ones include Plain of Six Glaciers at Lake Louise, Cory Pass, Sentinel Pass/Larch Valley and East End of Rundle.
If you are willing to venture a little bit outside of Banff National Park, there are a lot of nice hikes near by in the surrounding areas. Some of the ones I think look amazing include Mount Jimmy Simpson, Mt. Smutwood, Vision Quest, Sarrail Ridge, etc.
When hiking in Banff, be sure to bring bear spray with you and go in groups. Some hikes even require that you have a group of 4 (minimum) to go together because of frequent bear sightings.
Take a stroll at Johnston Canyon
Even if you are not a hiker, you can still take a leisurely in Johnston Canyon, one of the most popular natural attractions and best things to do in Banff National Park.
Johnston Canyon is popular among all sorts of visitors. It is peaceful, beautiful, and family friendly. You can experience walking along the limestone cliffs in the deep canyon that’s formed by thousands of years of water erosion.
You don’t have to make too much of an effort to see the two beautiful waterfalls and deep pools at Johnston Canyon.
The Lower falls is only about 1.1km walk on a very flat ground and the walk to the Upper Falls is about 2.7km. The path is mostly paved and I’ve seen people with strollers on it. The ease of access makes Johnston Canyon one of the most popular destinations in Banff.
There is limited parking at Johnson Canyon so be sure to try to get there before 9am to avoid disappointment.
Paddle across Moraine Lake
Moraine Lake is one of the most visited lakes in Banff National Park in the summer.
Set in the rugged Valley of the Ten Peaks, Moraine Lake is surrounded by snow capped mountains, majestic peaks, waterfalls and rock piles. Its beauty is so stunning that it almost feels unreal when you see it in person.
There are a number of activities you can do at Moraine Lake in the summer, such as taking a stroll along the lake, hike up the rock pile to see the lake in all its beauty, rent a canoe, hike a variety of trails, sip on beverages on a bench and relax.
It is impossible to visit Moraine Lake in the winter due to road closure (it is at a higher elevation than Lake Louise), so the lake can only be visited in the summer and early fall. During the summer the small parking lot at Moraine Lake fills up by 7am if not earlier since everyone wants to see Moraine Lake.
Drive the Icefields Parkway
The Icefields Parkway is no ordinary highway, it is the most stunning drive in Canada if not in the world.
Generally people drive the entire Icefields Parkway when they travel from Banff to Jasper National Park. When you drive on Icefields Parkway, you will be surrounded by majestic snow capped peaks, green hills and turquoise lakes.
You don’t have to drive the entire Icefields Parkway to enjoy it. Even just an hour or two drive from Lake Louise will show you plenty, namely the famous and Instagram worthy Peyto Lake (stop is called Bow Summit).
If you do plan on spending some time in Jasper National Park, you should definitely budget an entire day on Icefields parkway because there are just so much to see (the actual drive is only 4 hours).
Enjoy horseback riding in Banff
Horseback riding is a popular activity among those who visit Banff National Park.
There are a number of ranches around Banff and Lake Louise area that offer lessons to multi-day tours in the Rockies backcountry. You can now explore the mountains, rivers and the wilderness with a guide while enjoying the tranquility around you.
Visit Cave and Basin in Banff National Park
If you want a family friendly and educational activity in Banff, then you definitely need to check out Cave and Basin, a museum located in the town of Banff.
Banff National Park is the first national park in Canada, and the creation of Banff National Park traces all the way back to 1883, when 3 railway workers found thermal springs in Banff.
Cave and Basin is a place dedicated to preserve the history and stories of the beginning of Banff National Park. In here you will find interactive exhibits, short films, seasonal activities and visit the Cave and Thermal Water Basin. This is one of the best things to do in Banff with children.
See Banff from a helicopter ride
The Canadian Rockies is not only stunning from the ground level but also from the air.
If you are looking for a different perspective of Banff National Park and also see things that even hikers cannot see, then a helicopter tour is an amazing activity in Banff for you.
There are various Helicopter tours that are offered in Banff, some are shorter while others are longer.
You can admire the panoramic views of the entire area, see stunning glaciers and the famous Columbia Icefields as well as waterfalls, lakes and snow capped peaks.
Paddle boarding in Banff
You don’t have to be an avid hiker to enjoy Banff, there are a ton of activities for water lovers in Banff as well.
One of the most underrated experience in Banff is stand up paddle boarding. Most people don’t even know they could paddle board on the lakes and rivers in Banff National Park! Well you sure can.
You will have to bring your own stand up paddle board to the many lakes and rivers in Banff National Park, but there are a number of paddle board rental places all over Banff.
Once you have your board, you can enjoy an incredible stand up paddle board experience on any of these lakes in Banff: Lake Louise, Lake Moraine, Vermillion Lake, Johnson Lake, Lake Minnewanka, Two Jack Lake, Herbert Lake, Quarry Lake, Bow River, etc.
However make sure you know your own ability and the whether and water condition before attempting to paddle board in Banff.
Enjoy the view From Banff Gondola
As the name implies, the Banff Gondola is a gondola located near Banff town center that takes you to the summit of Sulphur Mountain.
The Banff Sighting Seeing Gondola is an 8 minute ride that takes you 2281m (~7500ft) above ground to the summit of Sulphur Mountain in a 4 people cabin. Once on top, you can enjoy the 360 degree views of Bow Valley and a sweeping scene of 6 mountain ranges.
We went after dinner and there weren’t as many people so we didn’t actually have to book tickets ahead of time.
Open air adventure with Mt. Norquay chairlift
Norquay’s famous Sightseeing Chairlift is an open air chairlift that takes you 7000 ft in elevation to the natural bear habitat at Mount Norquay.
During this 10 minute open air ride, you will get one of the best views of Banff and Bow Valley from above. You will discover the legendary panoramic view above the clouds during the ride and get a chance to indulge yourself in the delicious food, cocktails, craft beer at the historic Cliffhouse Bistro.
Play golf in Banff and Lake Louise
Golf? In a national park? The best thing about Banff is that it really is for everybody.
The famous Fairmont Banff Springs Golf Course is the perfect golf vacation in a fairytale like environment. It really is the ultimate luxury experience in Banff with breathtaking view in every direction and a magnificent layout for all golf lovers.
You can challenge yourself with the award-winning design but watchout for the intriguing optical illusions created by the surrounding mountains.
See wildlife in Banff
The Rocky Mountains are home to an array of wild animals and birds. Banff National Park is home to over 300 species of birds, over 800 species of plants, and over 50 types of animals.
The most common wildlife you will see in Banff National Park includes grizzly bears, wolves, cougars, elks, deer, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, etc.
Even as you are driving around Banff National Park, you may oftentimes come across animals on the side of the road. It is fine to look at these animals from afar but try not to approach them or feed them. You definitely should not get out of your car trying to take photos of them up close.
Walk on Athabasca Glacier at Columbia Icefield
Walking on Athabasca Glacier was one of the most memorable experiences I had the first time I visited Banff so this place holds a special place in my heart.
Do a Via Ferrata climb
Now Via Ferratas are used for guided tours for those who are seeking adrenaline adventures.
Even if you don’t have any climbing experience you can still enjoy this climb and see the panoramic mountain views. You will cross suspension bridges and climb buttresses, all while being safely harnessed to a steel cable.
Stop by Yoho National Park
Yoho National Park is a national park in the Canadian Rockies just west of Banff that is known for its geological features, beautiful alpine lakes, amazing hiking slopes and wildlife. It is much more secluded and quiet than the popular Banff National Park.
Most first time visitors do not know about Yoho National Park and they are definitely missing out! There are many wonderful things to do and see in Yoho National Park that you could dedicate at least a day there.
The most famous lakes in Yoho National Park are Emerald Lake and Lake O’Hara.
Emerald Lake is a family friendly area that you can easily drive to. Many people walk around the lake, canoe on the lake and do some light hiking near the lake.
There are a variety of powerful waterfalls at Yoho National Park, such as Wapta Falls, Takakkaw Falls, and the natural bridge at Kicking Horse River.
White water rafting in Banff
Another adrenaline inducing fun activity in Banff National Park is to raft through class 2-4 rapids in the Canadian Rockies.
There are several white water rafting tours that operate in Banff through the picturesque landscape of the Canadian Rockies. There are family-friendly rapids as well as exciting class 3-4 rapids with big waves. You can keep your eyes peeled for local wildlife sightings and enjoy the beautiful outdoor beautify during these trips.
Some of the tours even offer cliff jumping into the glacier-fed waters and also includes snack. Here are the whitewater rafting trip I would recommend:
Immerse in the history of Banff
Banff National Park is the oldest national park in Canada so there is a lot of historical and cultural site for visitors to explore.
There are several museums in Banff where the entire family can immerse themselves in the history and culture of Banff with interesting collections, exhibitions and interactive plays.
Visit Bankhead Ghost Town
A fun way to immerse yourself in the history of Banff is to pay a visit to the Bankhead Ghost town, located just south of Lake Minnewanka in Banff National Park. Most people don’t know about this ghost town but it’s a really fun thing to do in Banff for the entire family.
Bankhead is called a ghost town because this flourishing mining town once had nearly 1000 citizens but now it’s empty with the remains of what the town once was.
In the 1900s, Bandhead was the center of a mining operation due to the discovery of high quality coal. Unfortunately in 1922 the Bankhead coal mine closed and companies and its residents all moved to Banff, Canmore and Calgary.
Today you can walk through this abandoned ming town and even do an easy hike at the Lower Bankhead trail and learn about the history of the town.
Stop by Cascade of Time Gardens
Cascade of Times Gardens is one of the best free things to do in Banff. This oasis is walking distance from the busy downtown Banff and it is the perfect place to enjoy the view of the mountains and beautiful flowers during blooming season.
Cascade of Times Garden is a free 4-acre park that was built in the 1930s and features gardens terraced into the hillside with rocky steps . It is located just behind the Park Administrative building.
During the summer months you can see the beauty of blooming flowers set against the back drop of the towering peaks. There are ticketed performances during the summer that the entire family can enjoy.
The park features many water features, various species of flowers, stone pavilions and several gazebos. It generally takes about an hour to explore the entire park.
Walk on Canada’s highest suspension bridge and zip line across the canyon
Approximately one hour from Lake Louise, the Golden Skybridge is actually 2 suspension bridges that offer jaw-dropping views along with thrilling adventure for the entire family.
There are Canyon Edge challenge courses that test your strength, balance and stamina while there are also mini-adventure parks including tree forts and slides for kids to run around in.
For those who are seeking more adventure, Gold Skybridge also offers 4 thrilling zip lines that are 500 feet in the air. You can zip line 1000 feet across canyon with an incredible birds-eye view. They also offer a giant Canyon Swing experience (designed for two) that sends brave adventurers free-falling over the canyon edge.
If you are an adrenaline junky, then a visit to the Golden Skybridge area is the best things to do in Banff.
Best Things to Do in Banff in the Winter
Relax in a spa in Banff
Whether you are skiing/ snowboarding in Banff in the winter or hiking in Banff in the summer, there is always room for some relaxation!
Take an ice climbing course in Banff
While most people visit Banff in the summer, Banff in winter holds its own magical charm. Surrounded entirely by snow and ice, Banff turns into a winter wonderland between November to April.
In this winter wonderland, you can have a truly unique experience of ice climbing up a frozen waterfall. In fact even a beginning can enjoy this unbelievably exhilarating sport, making waterfall ice climbing one of the best things to do in Banff in the winter.
Ice skate on Lake Louise
Ice skating on Lake Louise is one of the best things to do in Banff in the winter. Lake Louise has been labeled as one of the most beautiful ice skating rinks in the world and it is easy to see why. With the backdrop of snowcapped peaks and glaciers, you simply cannot find a better ice rink view anywhere else.
Every winter around mid/late December to early April, when the top layer of the ice reaches a certain thickness, Lake Louise opens to the public for ice skating.
If you visit Lake Louise during the Ice Magic Festival in January, you will see beautiful 3D ice sculptures on Lake Louise. Every year Fairmont invites ice-sculpture artists from around the world to create these ice masterpieces.
After ice skating on Lake Louise, you should grab a cup of hot coco or coffee and a slice of cheesecake at Fairmont Chateau and enjoy the amazing view.
Soak in a hot spring
One of the geological features of Banff National Park (as well as Jasper National Park) is that it sits on top of some of the best hot springs in the world.
Banff has the highest-elevation hot spring that’s open to the public in the world. After a long day of winter activities, you can soak in this historical hot spring while enjoying the majestic panoramic view of the surrounding mountains and valleys.
Get on the slope
Did you know that Banff and Lake Louise are home to some of the best world-class ski resorts? There are actually 3 amazing ski and snowboard resorts in Banff, making Banff a wonderful winter destination for those who love to get on the slope.
The Lake Louise Ski Resort, Sunshine Village and Mt. Norquay offer different terrain, scenery and experiences for those who want to ski or snowboard in Banff.
Take a sleigh ride in Banff
During the sleigh ride your guide will point out the peaks and wildlife while you learn the history of Banff. The ride can also take you along the shores of Lake Louise and through the snow-covered valley in this magical experience.
You can even get a 2 person private romantic ride and take in the breathtaking view of towering peaks during the holiday season.
Enjoy the restaurants and bars in Banff Town
Banff town has a number of great restaurants and bars for you to enjoy after a long day exploring the area regardless of the season.
Some of my favorite places include the following:
- Tooloulou’s: a popular brunch place but they also have Canjun seafood for dinner. It has an extensive brunch list so you will definitely find something you like.
- Eddie Burger & Bar: this is a cute burger joint with specialty burger and beer. Their truffle fries smell so delicious you can smell it from a block away.
- The Bison Restaurant: known for its dine dining, the Bison restaurant features locally grown, organic and sustainably farmed protein and produce.
- Whitebar Cafe: the best cafe in Banff town with tons of pastries and warm drinks.
Spend a night at Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise
Fairmont Chateau is a world-famous hotel located at the edge of Lake Louise. Originally built over 100 years ago, Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise is a year-round luxury mountain resort offering summer and winter activities, tours, luxury spa, kid’s camp and exceptional dining experiences.
By staying at Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, Lake Louise is literally in your backyard. You also get exclusive access to do a Sunrise Canoe Experience in the summer (till early September).
Other Things You Should Know Before Visiting Banff
There are so many amazing things you can do in Banff that you literally would need weeks in order to do them all. However, depending on your schedule, if you only have 1 day in Banff, you can still see some of the highlights like Lake Louise and Moraine Lake. If you have a little more time like 3 Days in Banff, you can definitely do a lot more including hiking and exploring more areas.
If you plan to hike in Banff, especially on the less popular hikes, be sure to bring bear mace with you and have a large group in case of bear encounters. If you do see a bear, stay back and leave the area as soon as possible. There are many hikes in Banff that require at least 4 people to be in a group to proceed.
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For more information on how to plan a trip to Banff, Banff itineraries and other information, be sure to check out my other Banff blogs:
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