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Banff Travel Tips: 30+ Things to Know BEFORE Traveling to Banff

There are a lot of things to know about visiting Banff National Park. These are frequently asked questions about Banff National Park and the surrounding area. So if you’ve ever had questions about visiting Banff National Park, you’ll find the answer in these Banff travel tips.

Within these travel tips for Banff National Park, you’ll also find more information on the park, getting around and how to stay safe in the Canadian Rockies. I also include plenty of links to other pages that go more in depth on several of Banff tips.

The view from the top of Sulphur Mountain - home of the two 5-star hotels in Banff - the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel and the Rimrock Hotel

This post contains compensated links.

How old is Banff National Park?

Banff was established in 1885 as Canada’s first national park, two years after three Canadian Pacific Railway workers discovered a cave containing hot springs. We know this as the Cave and Basin National Historic Site today, the birth place of Banff National Park.

Cave and Basin Historic Site in Banff National Park

Banff National Park is known for its stunning mountain landscapes, pristine alpine lakes, diverse wildlife, and an abundance of outdoor activities.

What is the elevation of Banff National Park?

Banff National Park is at an elevation of around 1,380 meters (4,530 feet). The nearby town of Canmore is similar at 1,400 meters (4,593 feet) and the hamlet of Lake Louise is at 1,540 meters (5,052 feet).

How do you get to Banff National Park?

For anyone flying, you would fly into Calgary International Airport then drive the 1.5 – 2 hours to Banff. Most visitors rent a car in Calgary and drive themselves to Banff. It’s possible to get to Banff from Calgary without a car.

A second alternative that’s popular in the summer months is to fly into Vancouver and get an RV rental to road trip from Vancouver to Banff National Park.

Do you need reservations to enter Banff National Park?

You do not need reservations to enter Banff National Park. However, a park pass is required for the national parks in Canada and Banff is no exception.

You can either pay a daily admission fee which is good for Banff National Park, Jasper National Park, Kootenay National Park, Yoho National Park, Mount Revelstoke National Park, Glacier National Park, Waterton National Park and Elk Island National Park. This day pass is good until 4pm the following day, regardless of time of purchase.

If you plan to spend 7 or more days in Banff National Park, then the Annual Discovery Pass is the best value. The Discovery Pass is for an entire year and will get you entry into ALL national parks in Canada plus National Marine Conservation Areas and National Historic Sites.

Read everything you need to know about the Banff Park Pass here.

How many days do you need in Banff National Park?

I see this question asked a lot and the answer is that it depends. While it’s entirely possible to visit Banff and just see the highlights in 2-3 days, there’s so much more you can see and do. I frequently see people plan a 5-6 day trip, where they spend 2-3 days in Banff then drive up the Icefields Parkway to Jasper National Park for 2-3 days before returning to the Banff area before flying home.

If you want to just see the highlights, you can spend one day around the town of Banff and the nearby lakes (Lake Minnewanka, Two Jack Lake, and Johnson Lake). One day should be dedicated to visiting Lake Louise and Moraine Lake. A third day can be spend visiting Johnston Canyon and anything else missed around Banff. This really only gives a day to drive to Jasper National Park (stopping at all the places on the Icefields Parkway) with one full day before driving back to Banff.

Trust me when I say there’s so much more to do in Banff National park and the surrounding area, if you want to spend more time.

Standish-Viewing-Deck-Sunshine-Meadows-Banff-960x720.jpg

What time of year is best to visit Banff?

There are two distinct high seasons in Banff with shoulder seasons in between. The summer months (starting in June through September) are the busiest months. They are also the months with the best weather. The second high season is ski season from December through March.

April/May and October/November are the shoulder seasons when the seasons are in transition. In April and May, you can still ski but many of the trails are still icy and there can still be some avalanche risks. The trails are starting to dry out enough for some biking at lower elevations.

Snow surrounding Lake Louise in November.

In October and November, the season is transitioning from fall to winter. Some years you can still do plenty of hiking or biking in October and in others we’ll get a lot of snow at this time. November has colder temperatures and the ski hills begin to open for the ski season in Banff. There isn’t quite enough snow for many of the Banff winter activities like snowshoeing, cross country skiing or dog sledding, which typically start in December. Some lakes may freeze enough for skating around Banff in November.

Read our full post on the Best Time to Visit Banff

Should you stay in Banff or Canmore?

If you are trying to decide on whether to stay in Banff or Canmore, here’s a quick run down.

Canmore is located 20 minutes from the town of Banff. While it’s a little quieter and accommodations are a little cheaper, it will require more driving each day. Canmore is a great place for anyone looking for a vacation rental instead of a hotel. You’ll find plenty to do and great restaurants in Canmore as well.

views of the canmore railway bridge in front of ha ling on the canmore walking path network

Staying in the town of Banff is right in the heart of the action. If you want less driving, more shopping and restaurants, then you should stay in Banff. It is typically more expensive and busier in the peak seasons.

One alternative is to stay in Lake Louise, but while it’s much closer and easier to visit Moraine Lake and Lake Louise there are fewer restaurant options. Another option is to stay in one of these Banff Cabins, which is a great way to stay closer to nature.

Should you bring cash for Banff National Park?

You don’t need to bring cash for Banff National Park. Credit cards are widely accepted. If you are from the United States and want to use your cash, just know that it will be accepted but at par, so you’ll be losing out on the exchange rate. If you want to carry some cash around, the easiest way is to just visit an ATM once you get to the airport or the town of Banff.

What animals can you see in Banff?

In the summer months, there’s a chance to see bears in Banff National Park. Throughout the year, it’s possible to see deer, bighorn sheep and elk. When hiking at higher altitudes, it’s possible to spot mountain goats.

You’ll need to go into Kananaskis or closer to Jasper National Park to see a moose, since they aren’t frequently seen near the town of Banff or Canmore. We’ve also been fortunate to see foxes and a lynx in recent years.

Bear along Bow Valley Parkway in Banff National Park.

Read the best tips for spotting wildlife in Banff.

Can you swim in Lake Louise?

Yes, you are allowed to swim in Lake Louise, but it’s a glacier fed lake that’s extremely cold at any time of the year. Even at the height of summer the water temperature of Lake Louise will range from 4°C to 8°C (39°F to 46°F). Typically when someone decides to swim in Lake Louise, it’s more like a cold water plunge!

If that’s not your thing, you can enjoy the water by renting a canoe at Lake Louise.

Johnson Lake is more popular for swimming in Banff National Park.

Can you swim in Banff National Park?

While most lakes are glacier-fed and very cold, there are a few lakes that are more popular for swimming in Banff National Park and the surrounding area. In Banff, Johnson Lake and Herbert Lake are better for swimming. In the nearby town of Canmore, locals typically flock to Quarry Lake on a hot summer day.

Quarry Lake paddle boarding in Canmore

Do you need a car for visiting Banff National Park?

While I frequently see people saying that you absolutely need a car for a trip to Banff, I would say that this answer depends. You absolutely can get around (especially when visiting Banff in the Summer) without a car and still get to all the popular Banff attractions. It’s a little more difficult in the winter because a lot of the public transportation schedules are reduced or routes only operate in the spring/summer and fall.

If you are visiting between May and September, there’s a good likelihood that you can visit without needing a car. Unless you want to visit places outside of Banff or do hikes further off the beaten track, you can still do a bunch of hikes in Banff without a car. There are also plenty of shuttles and the Roam public bus that can get you to almost anywhere you want to go.

Red Chairs at Tunnel Mountain Summit Banff

Read more in our post on getting around Banff without a car.

Can I visit Lake Louise and Moraine Lake in the same day?

Yes, you can visit Lake Louise and Moraine Lake in the same day. The easiest way to do this is by making a reservation on the Parks Canada shuttle to either of the lakes. When you are done visiting one lake, take the Parks Canada Lake Connector Shuttle to the other lake.

You can also visit both Lake Louise and Moraine on many of the other Moraine Lake transportation options but your time may be more limited at each of the lakes.

This only applies to when the Moraine Lake Road is open from June 1 to early October.

Moraine Lake in Banff seen from Rockpile hike

Can I drive to Moraine Lake?

No, private vehicles are no longer allowed on Moraine Lake Road. Unless you have a disability tag or are staying at the Moraine Lake Lodge, you will need to take the Parks Canada Moraine Lake Shuttle (with advance reservations) or book a shuttle through one of the other private operators.

Do I need to carry bear spray?

This is another question where are there differing opinions, but the answer really is that YOU SHOULD carry bear spray when hiking Banff National Park. If you are just visiting the town and going no further than the shores of the Banff Lakes, then you don’t need it. However, bears can be even on the busiest trails (we’ve seen a bear at Johnston Canyon on a busy afternoon).

You should carry bear spray and know how to use it. My recommendation is to stop in at the visitor centre in the town of Banff and learn how to use it. You can buy bear spray at several places in Banff or Canmore.

Also, check trail reports before heading out since popular trails can be closed due to wildlife activity.

Local Tip: Two other ways for getting bear spray are to ask if anyone is leaving theirs behind (our locally run Facebook group is an excellent place for this) or ask you hotel if they keep cans from past guests that you can borrow. You should always check the expiry date on the bear spray.

Bear in Banff National Park

Is the Banff Gondola worth it?

The Banff Gondola is the perfect way to see the town of Banff from a different perspective. The boardwalk up top is really lovely and has some incredible views. While it might be busy, I think the Banff Gondola is definitely worth it. If you can, make reservations for a meal at Sky Bistro for one of the best views.

Dan Brewer owner of Travel Banff Canada at Sulphur Mountain and Banff Gondola.

There are also three other gondolas/chairlifts in Banff that offer different experiences from the Banff Gondola. The Lake Louise Summer Gondola is your best chance to see bears from a chairlift. There is also some short hikes and an interpretive centre at the top. The Whitehorn Bistro also has some stunning views!

The Norquay Chairlift provides incredible views and the Cliffhouse Bistro is the perfect place for lunch!

Our favourite is taking the Sunshine Gondola and hiking the trails at Sunshine Meadows. It’s a great opportunity to get to hiking trails in the high alpine without doing all the work to get up there.

mountain lake with rock island at Sunshine Meadows called Rock Isle Lake

How far in advance should I book my Banff hotel?

Accommodations are going to fill up fast for the summer months. As soon as you know you are coming for sure, you should start looking into your accommodations. If you have some uncertainty around your trip, look for rooms you can book with free cancellation.

Here are our recommendations on where to stay in Banff:

Here are our recommendations on where to stay in Lake Louise:

Here are our recommendations on where to stay in Canmore:

Should I visit the other national parks near Banff?

If you look at a map of the area, you’ll see that the boundaries for Banff National Park meet up with three other Canadian National Parks. As you cross into British Columbia on the Trans Canada highway you’ll enter Yoho National Park. Yoho is where you’ll find Emerald Lake, Natural Bridge, Spiral Tunnels and Takkakaw Falls. Emerald Lake is only an hour from Banff and can easily be done as a day trip from Banff.

Taking the Icefields Parkway, you’ll enter into Jasper National Park. Sunwapta Pass is the boundary between Banff National Park and Jasper National Park. The entire Icefields Parkway has plenty of places that are worth a stop. You should plan an entire day for the Icefields Parkway, even though the entire drive is only 232 km, you’ll be making a lot of stops. Further to that, Jasper National Park would need a few days to be explored properly!

Taking highway 93S and at the Continental Divide you’ll leave Banff National Park and enter Kootenay National Park (which is also the boundary between Alberta and British Columbia). You can find some great hiking trails along highway 93S like Marble Canyon and Stanley Glacier. These can be done on a day trip from Banff town.

Takakkaw Falls in Yoho National Park

Do I need to make dinner reservations?

During the peak seasons, you should make dinner reservations for the restaurants you don’t want to miss out on. Dinner reservations are less necessary during the shoulder season months. For places like Sky Bistro at the Banff Gondola, I recommend making reservations.

When can I see the turquoise color of the lakes?

This comes as a surprise to many, but if you come in early spring many of the lakes will still be frozen and you won’t get to see that turquoise hue. The unfreezing of lakes like Lake Louise and Moraine Lake (which are at higher elevations) varies from year to year.

This past year, we were able to canoe on Lake Louise early in June but the previous year the lake was still frozen until closer to mid-June. After mid to late June is your best bet to ensure you see the Banff lakes unfrozen.

Rental canoes on Lake Louise - seen from Fairview Lookout.

What’s the best way to learn more about Banff National Park?

There are several ways you can learn more about Banff National Park during your visit:

  • Use the Guide Along app while you drive. This GPS enabled app gives you information about the park on-the-go. It starts and stops as you do at the different places to stop along the park.
  • Visit the Banff Park Museum – the largest natural history museum in Western Canada.
  • Do a self-guided walking tour in the town of Banff – The Walking Through Banff’s History Tour has five online tours to choose from.
  • Visit the Cave and Basin Historic Site, the birthplace of Canada’s first national park.
  • Use the Parks Canada app to listen to stories from the park rangers.
  • Read interpretive signs you find throughout the park as you explore (like at Lower Bankhead, Johnston Canyon and C-Level Cirque).
  • Visit interpretive centres at the Lake Louise Gondola and Sunshine Village.
  • Visit the Visitor Centre in the town of Banff.
listening to the Banff audioguide with Gypsy Guide app

Banff National Park Tips for Winter

Is Banff worth visiting in the winter?

Yes, Banff National Park is definitely worth visiting in the winter. You’ll be transported to a winter wonderland with so many winter activities to enjoy. The mountain views are spectacular on a bluebird sky day with the peaks covered in snow.

Similar to summer, winter is peak season in Banff National Park. From skiing/snowboarding, tubing, snowshoeing, dog sledding, cross country skiing, fat biking, horse drawn carriage rides, hiking to frozen waterfalls, and more means there’s really no shortage of things to do in Banff in the winter.

You’ll want to ensure you pack for Banff in winter which means you should wear layers and make sure your prepared for really cold temperatures.

Celine Brewer winter hiking in Banff National Park

Can I drive the Icefields Parkway in the winter?

For the Icefields Parkway (starting Nov 1 to Apr 1) you need either all season M+S (mud + snow) tires or winter tires (mountain peak with snowflake). True winter tires with the snowflake are the best option and what most people will switch over to in the winter months here in Alberta.

I highly recommend you read this page from Parks Canada about the Icefields Parkway in the winter.

if you plan to go to BC, the rules are the same. You need tires with either the M+S or Snowflake symbol. The snowflake tires are designed specifically for winter conditions. The all season M+S are designed for year round usage as well, but they will not perform as well under 7degC.

Icefields Parkway in Winter - Scenic Drive in Banff.

Can I visit Moraine Lake in the winter?

Unless you are trained and have the equipment to enter avalanche terrain, you should not visit Moraine Lake in the winter. The only way to get to Moraine Lake in the winter is by skiing or snowshoeing up the Moraine Lake Road. The Moraine Lake Road is groomed and trackset for cross-country skiing in the winter.

The grooming of the Moraine Lake Road stops well before the lake with a sign warning that going past that area enters dangerous avalanche terrain.

Can I visit Lake Louise in the winter?

Yes, you can visit Lake Louise in the winter. Lake Louise is a year-round destination that offers something for everyone. In the winter, you can walk the lakeshore to see the frozen Louise Falls (continuing past the end Lake Louise enters avalanche terrain). You can also snowshoe or do a winter hike up to Mirror Lake (going past Mirror Lake to Lake Agnes enters avalanche terrain). To get a great view of the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, hike or snowshoe up to Fairview Lookout.

As winter progresses and the lake freezes, you can skate on Lake Louise and cross country ski across the lake and on various trails in the area.

Celine Brewer and kids skating on Lake Louise

Should I rent a car in the winter?

Before renting a car in the winter, make sure that you are going to use it. If you are planning on visiting Banff on a ski trip, you can easily take a ski shuttle to the ski resorts. Sunshine Village Ski Resort and Lake Louise ski resort offer ski shuttles from both Canmore and Banff. You can also take a free Mount Norquay shuttle from the town of Banff to ski at Mt. Norquay.

Even if you aren’t skiing, if you plan to stay in Banff, you can take several tours from the town of Banff without needing your own car. If you plan on doing more sightseeing, then having your own rental car is ideal so you aren’t waiting outside in the cold for a bus, just make sure you are prepared for winter driving conditions.

A skier enjoys the easy green run called Deer Run at the Lake Louise ski hill in Banff, Canada.

Can I get winter tires on my rental car?

You can get winter tires on your rental car if you request and pay an additional daily fee. Rental cars will come with all season M+S (mud + snow) tires which have less traction as it gets colder. Companies like Hertz charge an additional $20-25 per day for true winter tires.

Can I skate on Lake Louise?

Once Lake Louise is solidly frozen, you can skate on it. This typically happens by mid-December. Lake Louise is one of the best lakes for outdoor skating as it gets cleared of snow all winter long.

girl watching skating on Lake Louise

Read more on skating on Lake Louise.

When do the ski resorts open?

The opening day for the ski resorts in Banff is weather and snow dependent and varies from year-to-year. We’ve seen them open as early as late October. Around mid-November is pretty typical. Just keep in mind that often when they open really early, they only have a few runs open.

Lake-Louise-Ski-Resort-ski-resorts-near-Banff-960x640.jpg

Can I hike in Banff in the winter?

Yes, you can hike in Banff in the winter, but winter hiking in Banff does require more preparation and research. You should always check trail reports, know if you are entering avalanche terrain and be aware of any closures.

I highly recommend micro-spikes or snowshoes for winter hiking in Banff National Park. Even in early spring (April & May), the hiking trails can be snow covered or very icy.

Keep in mind that days are also much shorter in the winter, so it’s best to plan shorter adventures.

Read more on these winter hikes in Banff.

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Do I need to carry bear spray in the winter?

While it’s more unlikely that you’ll need your bear spray in the winter, the possibility is always there. Bears don’t go into a deep sleep for the entire winter like we imagine they do. They can still emerge from their dens on a warm winter day.

There are also other animals around throughout the winter like elk, wolves and cougars. It’s recommended that you carry bear spray when hiking all year round.

What closes in Banff in the winter?

Come early October (typically the day after Canadian Thanksgiving which is the second Monday in October), many things change or close in Banff and the surrounding area:

  • The Lake Louise Shuttles and Moraine Lake Shuttles stop.
  • Roam transit also has several changes to the routes and schedules. Some routes close all together.
  • Moraine Lake Road is closed for the season, though it will be groomed and trackset for cross country skiing once there’s enough snow.
  • Lake Louise teahouses are closed.
  • Canoeing on Lake Louise, Emerald Lake and Moraine Lake is done for the season.
  • Yoho Valley Road to Takkakaw Falls in Yoho National Park is closed.
  • Lake Minnewanka Boat Cruise is done for the season.
  • The Sightseeing Chairlift at Mt Norquay and the Sightseeing Chairlift at Lake Louise is closed as the ski resorts prepare for ski season.

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Banff Travel Tips - What you should know before visiting Banff National Park
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Celine Brewer, a local Canmore resident, is the co-owner of Travel Banff Canada. She has a passion for being out in the mountains any time of year. In the summer, you'll often find her hiking or mountain biking. In the winter, she enjoys cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and winter hiking the most.

As much as she loves the mountains, she also loves travel! When she's not playing outdoors at home, she's either traveling the world with her husband and two kids or working on their other two travel sites: Family Can Travel and Baby Can Travel.