How to Spend 1 Day in Banff National Park
Only have one day to visit Banff? This guide shows you the best things to do in Banff in 1 amazing day.
There is something magical about Banff, with the turquoise colored lakes, the snow capped mountains, the gushing waterfalls and amazing wildlife. If there is one day trip you need to do in Canada, Banff National Park is the one.
Banff National Park offers something for everyone every season: amazing trails for hikers, fun activities for families and incredible slopes for snowboarders/skiers. The town itself is also delightful to walk around and explore, with colorful stores and great restaurants and bars. Most importantly, the best ice cream shop is in Banff!
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About Banff National Park
Banff National Park is the first national park in Canada and probably one of the most famous. Located in the Rockies Mountains, the park spans over 2500 square miles of mountainous terrain, packed with spectacularly scenic valleys, peaks, glaciers, forests, meadows and rivers.
Banff National Park welcomes over 3 million visitors each year. With its breathtaking scenery and proximity to Calgary, it is no wonder Banff receives so many visitors every year.
Best Time to Visit Banff + Weather in Banff Chart
Banff is amazing to visit any time of the year, but if you are looking for the famous emerald lakes and hiking trails then the best time to visit Banff is in the summer between mid/late June to mid September.
During the summer time the lakes melt and hiking trails open up. If you visit before mid June then you run the risk of lakes still being frozen, then you won’t see the incredible turquoise color in post cards. Days in the summer are long so you have more day light to do a lot of things (sunset is around 10pm).
If you are interested in winter sports in Banff, then of course the best time to visit Banff would be in the winter. Banff is known for its ski slopes, hot springs and ice climbing up a waterfall.
If you visit Banff in the fall, you may be able to avoid the summer crowds while still enjoying the park without snow. Hotel prices in Banff National Park may also be cheaper during the fall so September would be a great time to visit.
If you are visiting Banff National Park during the high time in the summer, make sure to book your hotels and rental car at least a couple of months in advance so you can get the cheapest deal. Hotels and cars do get very expensive during the summer.
How Many Days do You Need in Banff National Park?
How many days you should spend in Banff is a tricky question to answer because this entirely depends on how much time you have.
If you just want to see the highlights of Banff and you are limited on time, then spending one day in Banff is perfect for you. You will get to see the famous Lake Louise, Moraine Lake and Johnston Canyon in an action packed day.
How to Get to Banff National Park
From Edmonton: Banff National Park is about a 4 hour drive from Edmonton. However most people don’t really drive directly from Edmonton to Banff.
What to Bring for One Day in Banff
Before I get into the one day Banff itinerary, I want to make sure you are prepared to visit this amazing place! Here are some of the essential items you should have when visiting Banff National Park for one day:
Cash: It never hurts to have cash with you. Most shops in Banff accepts credit cards but I always have some cash just in case.
Camera/ Lens (wide angle + Zoom lens): If you are an iPhone camera user then great! You already have this covered. If you are an avid photographer, I recommend bringing a zoom lens as well as a wide angle lens to capture the amazing landscape.
Layers: The temperature fluctuation within one day in Banff National Park can vary a lot! I remember visiting in the summer and had to wear a jacket after sunset. So be sure to bring a jacket even if you are visiting in the summer.
Best Things to Do in Banff for One Day
Now comes to the most important thing on your mind! What are some of the best things to do in Banff for one day?
This one day Banff itinerary assumes you will be able to get to Banff National Park by 8am (if you can’t, don’t worry, you can push the itinerary out and remove some of the items).
I will try to cover all the things you can do at each of places I mention below so it is applicable to both avid hikers and non-hikers or those traveling with small children or elders.
This itinerary also assumes you are visiting Banff for one day during the summer month between June and end of September as we will utilize the shuttles (because parking can be a huge pain during the summer months).
Start your 1 amazing day in Banff National Park at the world renowned Lake Louise.
If there is only one lake you can visit in Banff National Park then it would be Lake Louise. All the tour buses also stop by Lake Louise so you can expect a lot of crowd.
Some of the best things to do at Lake Louise include the following:
- Take the reflective photo of the lake early in the morning when there is no wind
- Walk around Lake Louise: 2-3km if you want to walk to the end of the lake and back, suitable for all ages and probably the most popular thing to do in Banff National Park
- Hiking: there are 2 trails at Lake Louise – Lake Agnes (2 hour but steep) & Plain of Six Glaciers (5 hours). Both hikes end up at a tea house (cash only)
Moraine Lake is another must-see lake during your one day in Banff National Park.
It is my favorite lake in Banff (yes even more than Lake Louise). I love the turquoise color of Moraine Lake and the backdrop of glaciers and snowcapped mountain tops are even more stunning than that of Lake Louise.
As you may expect, Moraine Lake is another extremely popular spot not too far from Lake Louise.
When I visited last summer, it was essentially impossible to find parking at Moraine Lake. We only got parking because we visited 10 minutes before sunset. But our friends told us they were going to sleep in the parking lot so they got there at 2:30am, which is insane.
Seeing how this is a problem, Parks Canada decided to completely ban personal vehicle from going to Moraine Lake. Part of the reason is that workers were required 24 hours to direct traffic which if you think about it, is pretty crazy!!
Starting 2023, you must take a shuttle bus, Roam transit, commercial transport or bike 25km round trip to access Moraine Lake.
One thing to note is that it is impossible to visit Moraine Lake in the winter/early spring when there is snow (you can still visit Lake Louise in the winter). With the new shuttle requirement, you can only visit Moraine Lake from June to mid-October.
Moraine Lake is situated in a higher altitude than Lake Louise and the road to Moraine Lake is completely snowed in/blocked in the winter. The lake also does not melt until mid June to July so plan your trip accordingly to avoid disappointment.
Some of the best things to do at Moraine Lake include the following:
- Walk up to the view point and take it all in (5 minute walk to the top of the pile)
- Hike around Moraine Lake: There are some really nice hiking trails starting at Moraine Lake. These trails include Consolation Lake Hike, Eiffel Lake Hike, Moraine Lake Shoreline Trail, Sentinel Pass (very famous), Larch Valley, and Wenkchemna Pass. One thing to note is that most of the hikes starting at Moraine Lake require a party of 4+ due to bear risk. You should also bring bear mace with you for these hikes.
Stop by View Points On Your Drive to Johnston Canyon
After you finish visiting Moraine Lake and Lake Louise, you will drive back down south towards Johnson Canyon and Banff (the town).
Most people would drive on the Trans Canada Hwy, but I suggest that you take the Bow Valley Parkway (Route 1A) instead because there are a couple of nice view points I don’t want you to miss.
Morant’s Curve is not too far from Lake Louise and it is one of photographers’ favorite spots on Bow Valley Parkway. The spot itself is not super special but photographers wait there to capture the perfect photo of when a train passes by. You can see the photo and judge for yourself.
Castle Cliff View Point & Castle Mountain Viewpoint
As you continue to drive along the 1A route, you will come to two viewpoints (close to each other but different), these two view point essentially give you a perfect view of Castle Mountain and it’s the perfect 10 minute quick stop.
Continue the drive after the view points and you will soon reach the famous Johnston Canyon, which is an amazing stroll suitable for all age groups and fitness level.
Johnston Canyon is located about 30 minutes drive from the town of Banff (so it is pretty much between Banff and Lake Louise). Formed by erosion of Johnston Creek as it approaches the Bow River, Johnston Canyon is the result of the creek cutting through limestones over thousands of years.
There are 2 waterfalls (Lower and Upper Falls) at Johnston Canyon that are easy to walk to. To reach the Lower Falls, you will follow the catwalk along the Canyon wall and it is very flat walk (also paved) and short walk (1.1km).
To reach the Upper Falls you will continue to follow the path after Lower Falls for another 1.6km and there is slight elevation as you walk further along the path (but it’s really not bad at all).
Most people stop at the Upper Falls and turn back to the parking lot, but for the adventurous or avid hikers, you can continue your hike to the Ink Pots at Johnston Canyon. The Ink Pots are 5 pristine pools and is about a 3km hike from the Upper Falls.
Parking at Johnson Canyon can be a pain just like at Lake Louise. There are 2 parking lots at Johnston Canyon and if those are full, you will need to find parking on the side of Bow Valley Parkway or take a shuttle bus.
After you are done with Johnston Canyon and heading towards Banff, you will see a few other really nice view points along the way, such as Hillsdale Meadow Viewpoint, Backswamp Viewpoint, Vermilion Lakes Viewpoint, Banff Town Sign and Bow Falls Viewpoint.
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 you reach the summit, you will have a sweeping panoramic view of Banff as well as the surrounding mountain peaks. There are restaurants, cafes, an interpretive center as well as short hiking trails at the Sulphur Mountain Board Walk.
Kids age 5 and under can ride the Banff Gondola for free but still require a ticket. Tickets are refundable until 2 days before the actual ride which is great for flexibility.
Dinner and Bars at Banff Town
After a long day exploring the most famous spots of Banff National Park, now it’s time to walk around the wonderful town of Banff and grab some dinner.
The town of Banff is very lively with shops, restaurants and bars even at night. There are some pretty good restaurants and bars there with reasonable prices. Some of my favorite restaurants in the town of Banff include the following:
During the summer months you should check to see if reservations are required at some of these restaurants to avoid disappointment.
Bonus: Sunset at Mount Norquay Lookout
The wonderful thing about visiting Banff in the summer is that the days are long, like very long. Sunset in July in Banff is usually around 10pm, so you have A LOT of time to explore.
If you still have energy after spending a long day in Banff National Park, then you definitely should drive up to Mount Norquay Lookout, about 6.5km from the town of Banff. The road up is steep and windy but it should be in good condition in the summer.
There is a pull out where you can park and enjoy the view. From Mount Norquay you can see the breathtaking view of Mount Rundle and Sulphur Mountain.
Other Useful Information Before You Visit Banff National Park
Most stores and restaurants in Banff take credit cards and offer bill splitting services. But bring cash to all the tea houses on the hikes near Lake Louise
Most restaurants, hotels and shops offer bilingual services (English & French)
There are bathrooms EVERYWHERE in Banff, usually in parking lots or at the start of a hike
Toilet papers are provided in these public bathrooms, sometimes there are also hand sanitizer
Some parking lots in Banff offers 2 hour parking, find the parking structure that allows you to park for unlimited amount of time on Bear Street
There is generally minimal bear risk if you stick to the super popular spots like Lake Louise, Moraine Lake, etc since bears are scared of loud noises that humans make. However there has been instances of bear spotting at Lake Louise. If you plan to hike some of the less popular trails, it is best to bring a bear mace (can be purchased at the visitors center) just to be safe.
Additional Banff Travel Guides
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