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Avoid These 35 Mistakes when Visiting Banff National Park

Nestled in the heart of the Canadian Rockies, Banff National Park will amaze you with its awe-inspiring vistas, emerald lakes, and abundant wildlife. It’s a playground for adventurers, a sanctuary for nature lovers, and a bucket-list destination for many travelers from around the globe. Unfortunately, I see visitors making some of the same mistakes over and over when visiting Banff.

Whether you’re dreaming of hiking trails through meadows of alpine wildflowers or yearning to capture the perfect sunrise over the Rockies, avoid these mistakes on your trip to Banff.

Wildflowers along Marsh Loop in Banff National Park

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35 Mistakes You Shouldn’t Make on Your Trip to Banff

In this list, you’ll see frequent mistakes people make when visiting Banff. The great thing is that most of these are easily avoidable and the others just require a little research. I’ve also included some mistakes to avoid when visiting Banff in the winter.

1. Not Keeping up with Changes in the Park

People who have visited Banff National Park before assume that it’s going to be the same every time they visit. That’s simply not true. Well sure, the mountains don’t change but our access to them is constantly changing.

There are places in Banff National Park where Parks Canada has to make changes on how we access them for the good of the eco-system, the wildlife or the visitor experience.

Moraine Lake - Banff

Moraine Lake Road can no longer be accessed by private vehicle. Unless you are staying at Moraine Lake Lodge or have a disability tag, you will not be able to drive to Moraine Lake. I too remember the days when it was a hidden gem that could easily be visited even on a weekend afternoon, but that’s no longer the case. You’ll want to bookmark this page on the best ways to get to Moraine Lake.

The Bow Valley Parkway is part of a pilot project where the eastern section from Fireside Day Use to Johnston Canyon is closed to private vehicles in May, June and September. Johnston Canyon can still be accessed by the western section of the Bow Valley Parkway.

How can you find out about these changes? Being on our email list is the best way to be notified of changes in Banff National Park! Just Click Here and fill out the form.

2. Disturbing the Wildlife

Disturbing the wildlife is one of the most frustrating things I see visitors doing when they visit Banff National Park. People are constantly getting too close to the wildlife. It’s crucial to remember that this is a national park and NOT A ZOO.

You should never get out of your car to take a picture of a bear. In fact, you should just admire it as you KEEP DRIVING slowly past it. Most people are not aware that when bears have a negative interaction with a human, get access to human food or get too comfortable around humans, it usually means a death sentence for the bear. Please don’t be the cause of a bear needing to be killed.

I’ve seen tourists try to put their child next to an elk or a bighorn sheep. These animals are dangerous and unpredictable. Please don’t endanger yourself or your child by getting too close. Keep your distance and NEVER feed the animals.

Bear along Bow Valley Parkway in Banff National Park.

3. Expecting to See Animals Everywhere

It’s true, we do have an abundance of wildlife in Banff National Park and the other nearby national parks (Yoho NP, Kootenay NP and Jasper National Park), but it’s still important to set your expectations accordingly. These are wild animals and they, like mother nature, are unpredictable.

It might seem like everyone is getting to see a bear, except you, because you see a few people posting about it in a Facebook group. Sometimes you’ll get lucky spotting wildlife and other times you won’t. It’s just how it goes with wild animals. Don’t let it ruin your trip if you don’t see a bear or a moose.

We live here in the Bow Valley and sometimes we will go an entire season without seeing a bear.

Read our article on spotting wildlife in Banff to heighten your chances.

Bighorn sheep at Two Jack Lake in Banff National Park

4. Only Visiting in the Summer

While Banff in the Summer is one of the best times to visit, it is also the busiest time in the park. Keep in mind that Banff National Park is a year round destination. While the activities change and not everything is open in the shoulder months, there’s still plenty to see outside of peak summer months.

In fact, you might just enjoy visiting Banff in the spring or fall even more thanks to the lesser crowds and cheaper accommodations.

The setting for the Town of Banff as seen from the Tunnel Mountain Trail

5. Not Booking Accommodations (Well in Advance)

Once you know you are coming to Banff National Park, it’s best to get your accommodations booked as soon as possible. Place will start to book up very quickly for the summer months.

If you are camping in Banff, be ready to make your reservations as soon as they open (Friday, January 26 2024 at 8:00 am MT) before the campgrounds are all booked up.

Not sure what type of Banff accommodations you are looking for?

6. Coming to Banff too Early

While I think it’s great to visit Banff outside of the summer, I see a lot of visitors planning a trip to Banff National Park in April and May to avoid the crowds without realizing some places aren’t accessible yet in Banff and in adjacent national parks.

If it’s been your dream to visit Moraine Lake in Banff to see that stunning turquoise-blue color, then it’s best to plan your visit in mid to late June, September or early October. This will still allow you to see Moraine Lake and avoid the busiest times.

The Moraine Lake Road typically opens June 1st, but that’s not always the case. It can open earlier or later depending on when the road is cleared of snow and the snow conditions. Canoeing on Lake Louise may also be delayed depending on how long the lake stays frozen.

Similarly, the Yoho Valley Road to Takakkaw Falls (in Yoho National Park) won’t open until June 1st. In Jasper National Park, the Cavell Road to Mount Edith Cavell opens around June 23rd until early October. Both are also weather dependent.

So while it’s nice to escape the crowds, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, just make sure the places you really want to visit will be open when you come!

Read more in our post on Finding the Best Time to Visit Banff National Park.

Celine Brewer at Ink Pots in Banff at the end of April

7. Not Knowing Driving Distances

When choosing where you want to stay in Banff National Park, it’s important to understand the driving distances between the locations. You really don’t want to waste valuable time driving further than you need to.

I don’t recommend staying in Calgary, even though it will be cheaper. You’ll just spend far too much time driving each way. The highway can get very congested in the summer months and especially on weekends.

Driving from Calgary to Banff will take roughly 1.5 hours. It’s just over an hour to get from Calgary to Canmore. From Calgary to Lake Louise is 2 hours of driving. Calgary to Kananaskis Village is an hour and to get further into Kananaskis, you could be looking at up to 2 hours of driving each way.

Local Tip: Make good use of your driving time with the Banff audio guide by GuideAlong. This entertaining and educational GPS activated audio tour will greatly enhance your visit to Banff National Park.

kananaskis highway 40 in autumn with fall colors.

Similarly, Canmore to Lake Louise is an hour. While Canmore can offer vacation rentals and possibly some savings, if you plan to spend a lot of time in Lake Louise, then you’ll also need to account for that driving time every day.

Many people want to know if they can visit Jasper National Park in a day. I don’t recommend it. It’s over 230 km each way (roughly 2.75 hours of driving each way) and this doesn’t account for any stops. You’ll enjoy your time so much more if you leave enough days to see Banff National Park and Jasper National Park properly.

8. Coming to Banff too Late

Similar to visiting Banff too early, if you come too late you will be faced with the same issue! Sure October can be fall in many other places, but it can also be the transition into winter. Many of the places that close in Banff during the winter months will close down around Canadian Thanksgiving.

In our post on visiting Banff in October, we share all you need know about the transition from fall to winter in Banff National Park.

Partially frozen Lake Agnes with mountain peaks surrounding it

9. Assuming September Will be Quiet

I often see people giving advice to wait until September to visit Banff because it will be less busy than summer in Banff. While this is partially true and the crowds may die down slightly for the first part of September when families return home for the start of school, the last part of September will be very busy.

Mid to late September is larch season in Banff. So while not everywhere in the park will be as busy, the areas with the best larch hikes in Banff will be extremely busy. This includes both Moraine Lake and Lake Louise. Some of the best larch hikes in Alberta are also in Kananaskis so many of those hiking trails will see a lot of hikers in September.

Golden larch trees surround Egypt Lake and Scarab Lake in Banff in September

10. Not Booking Shuttles in Advance

Many visitors come to Banff unaware that Moraine Lake can not be visited by private vehicles. They also don’t know that Lake Louise is so busy that it’s nearly impossible to find parking in the summer (unless you arrive very early or late in the day).

Rather than wasting precious time circling the lot waiting for someone to leave or worse, not getting to visit either place, book your Lake Louise and Moraine Lake shuttles in advance.

You only need to book one shuttle, either the Lake Louise Shuttle or the Moraine Lake Shuttle. Parks Canada has a separate Lake Connector Shuttle that runs between the two lakes and allows visitors to visit both Lake Louise and Moraine Lake in the same day.

Moraine Lake Shuttle at Park and Ride (Lake Louise Ski Resort)

Local Tip: Long weekends are extremely busy and often the road into the village of Lake Louise will get shut down to limit the number of visitors. Plan ahead and book your shuttles if you’ll be visiting on a long weekend in the summer.

11. Expecting to See the Northern Lights

While the winter can be a great time to see the Northern Lights in Banff National Park thanks to our long dark nights, there’s no guarantee. The Northern Lights are a natural phenomenon that require clear, dark skies and solar activity. While you can’t guarantee that you’ll get to see them while visiting Banff, you an set yourself up for success by watching the aurora forecasts and being ready to head out at night away from the lights.


Need Help Planning Your Trip?

Our Banff Travel Guide has everything you need to get the MOST out of your trip to Banff!

Banff Travel Guide - Ebook

12. Only Visiting the Popular Spots

With roughly 4.5 million people visiting Banff National Park every year, you are bound to run into crowds at the most popular spots. And while I don’t recommend skipping those popular spots, you’ll miss out on what makes Banff truly special if you spend your entire time fighting the crowds.

Banff National Park has over 1,600 kilometers (1000 miles) of maintained trails. It’s not hard to find some solitude where you can enjoy the scenery and peacefulness of nature.

Rather than rushing from popular spot to popular spot then just hopping out of the car for a quick picture, take some time to enjoy where you are. Don’t just stop at the lakeshore where everyone else is, go for a walk along it. Better yet, find a less popular hike and enjoy being out on the trail.

The Lake Louise Lakeshore Trail is one of the best easy hikes in Banff National PArk

13. Filling Your Days with Driving

I know it’s tempting to try to see as much as possible, but these natural landscapes and mountains views are best appreciated at a slower pace. You’ll enjoy your time so much more if you aren’t hopping out of the car for a quick picture before moving on to the next place.

Instead, go on a hike, find a place for a picnic, or walk along a lakeshore. When planning your trip, make sure you have enough days to properly enjoy the area.

Local Tip: Inevitably, you’ll be spending time in the car. Keep your entire family entertained with the Banff audio guide by GuideAlong. This entertaining and educational GPS activated audio tour will greatly enhance your visit to Canmore and Banff National Park.

Bow Valley Parkway Road cycling in Banff National Park

14. Assuming you NEED a Rental Car

Ask in any Facebook group whether you need a rental car when you visit Banff and you are bound to get numerous responses that having a rental car is a MUST.

I disagree with this. Instead, I would say that in some circumstances, you absolutely can get by visiting Banff National Park without a car. It depends on what you want to see and do, how long you are visiting for and where you stay.

If you stay in Canmore, I’d recommend a car so that you aren’t constantly waiting/transferring on buses (and wasting time).

But if you stay in one of these Best Banff Hotels without a car, then taking public transportation is much easier! Plus it’s quite easy to get from the airport in Calgary to Banff.

Roam Transit is the public bus system that runs in Canmore, Banff and Lake Louise. If you wanted to go to Johnston Canyon – there’s a bus from Banff to Johnston Canyon (Roam Route 9). The Banff Gondola can be reached using Roam Route 1. You can get to Lake Louise using Roam Route 8 (in the summer, there’s both a scenic route and express route).

Roam bus that goes from Banff to Johnston Canyon.

If you buy a super pass (system wide day pass), you can also take the Parks Canada lake connector shuttle from Lake Louise to Moraine Lake. There’s a bus to Lake Minnewanka (Roam Route 6) where you can do the boat cruise. You can even take the bus to Canmore and enjoy the town for the day (or ride bikes on the Legacy Trail which connects the two towns).

Being able to visit without a car will also depend on when you are visiting. Many of the Roam Transit routes are either stopped in the winter or the schedule changes. However, if you plan to ski your entire trip, you don’t need a car. Each ski resort in Banff has a bus that runs each day.

For hikes, there are way more than you could do in 5 or 6 days that you can reach without having a car! Here’s a great list of Banff hikes you can access without a car.

view of Rock Isle Lake from the Rock Isle Lake Viewpoint at Banff's Sunshine Meadows

What’s the downside of not having a car in Banff?

Here’s a what you will miss out on by not having a car in Banff:

  • Exploring Kananaskis (a provincial park with plenty of hiking)
  • Driving the Bow Valley Parkway (secondary highway between Banff and Lake Louise) or the Icefields Parkway (highway between Lake Louise and Jasper National Park)
  • Ability to stop where and when you want (more flexibility)
  • Getting out earlier in the morning for a chance to see wildlife
  • Getting to hikes in Banff that are less popular that aren’t served by any public transportation.

15. Not Having a Backup Plan

When visiting Banff in the summer or trying to hike during Larch season, you should always have a backup plan. Parking lots will fill up and rather than trying to park illegally along a highway, it’s best to just move on to a different hike or attraction.

If you are worried about parking, consider taking the Roam Transit bus and leaving your car and the stress of finding parking behind!

Similarly, I would avoid trying to visit popular spots on a weekend (and especially on a long weekend) in the summer. Save those spots for weekdays and try to visit them early in the day.

Parking Lake Minnewanka Banff

16. Not Being Prepared for a Hike

I see it time and time again, people take on hikes that they aren’t prepared for. Before heading out on a hike, you should always do your research and know your capabilities. Understand the distance and elevation gain of the hike. You should be able to figure out how long it’s going to take you to do a particular hike.

For summer hikes, start earlier in the day when it’s cooler and always pack enough water and snacks. Similarly, winter days are short so you should make sure you can finish the hike during the daylight hours. The temperature will drop significantly once the sun goes down.

In addition, always plan for changes in the weather or anything unexpected.

Hiking with kids to Larch Valley in Banff National Park

17. Not Respecting the Land

This is another one that I wish I didn’t need to say, but I see it happening all the time around Banff National Park. People pick wildflowers (and leave them dead along the trail), they don’t stay on the designated trails and they even feed animals. Please don’t do any of these when visiting Banff.

Instead follow the Leave No Trace Principals to minimize your impact on this special place and ensure it’s around to be enjoyed for generations to come.

A massive forest of golden larch trees rests in front of the Monarch and Mt. Assiniboine as seen from the Healy Pass Trail

18. Using American Dollars

If the only cash you have on hand is American Dollars, there’s a good chance that they will be accepted but only at face value. This means that you’ll lose any benefit of the exchange rate.

Other denominations won’t be accepted. It’s best to just visit an ATM to grab some colourful Canadian money if you want to have some cash in your pocket. Almost all places accept credit or debit cars. I can’t really remember the last time I needed to carry cash around.

19. Expecting the Banff Upper Hot Springs to be Natural

Many visitors are unaware that the Upper Hot Springs in Banff are not a natural pool. While you can still enjoy a good soak in the warm mineral rich water, it’s important to know that the Banff hot springs are really just a big pool. Don’t not visit because of this, it’s just better to know before you go!

Banff-Springs-Hotel-and-Rimrock-Hotel-are-near-the-Banff-Upper-Hot-Springs-photo-by-Noel-Hendrickson-960x639.jpg

20. Not Carrying Bear Spray

Do you need to carry bear spray when you are hiking? Yes! You should carry bear spray and know how to use it.

It’s likely you aren’t going to need it, but you’ll be glad you have it if you ever have a negative close encounter with a bear or other wildlife. It’s just like your seatbelt in your car. You likely won’t need it but you wear it every time.

Bears and other wildlife can be encountered anywhere, even on busy trails.

Local tip: Before buying bear spray, you can check with your hotel if they have any bear spray left over from previous guests that you can borrow during your stay.

Bear in Banff National Park

21. Not Going on a Hike

The best views in all of Banff National Park are earned! If you are physically able to hike, you should incorporate a few hikes into your trip to Banff. There are plenty of short hikes or easy hikes in Banff that can yield some pretty incredible views.

A hike up Tunnel Mountain gives stunning views over the valley. At Lake Louise, the short (but steep in spots) climb up to Fairview Lookout gives a whole different perspective of this lake. Going past the Upper Falls at Johnston Canyon will take you to the Ink Pots and some pretty stunning mountain views.

If you are struggling with the incline, visit Sunshine Meadows (summer only) where you can take a gondola or chairlift to alpine meadows with easy hikes.

Local Tip: Always check for closures and trail conditions before heading out on a hike.

Alpine meadow with Sunshine Meadows hiking trail to Monarch Viewpoint

22. Not Visiting Popular Places

I don’t recommend skipping popular attractions in Banff National Park just because they are busy. There’s a reason why so many visitors flock to Lake Louise and Johnston Canyon, it’s because they are beautiful and worth seeing.

If you know going into it that they are going to be busy and set your expectations, then you’ll be less bothered by it. But it’s also important to plan your visit to make it the best it can be.

For Johnston Canyon, I recommend going earlier or later in the day. It may be hard to avoid the crowds while walking back through the canyon, but at least you’ll be able to enjoy it on the hike up with less people.

Two kids hiking Johnston Canyon in Banff National Park.

For Lake Louise, I highly recommend going further than the immediate shores of the lake where everyone stops to get pictures. Walk along the lakeshore trail or do a hike in the area. You’ll get so much more enjoyment out of your time at the lake.

Switchbacks on the Lake Louise Glacier hike

23. Leaving Trash Behind

I hate that I even need to include this one, but please don’t leave your garbage behind. Please do your part to keep the pristine wilderness of Banff National Park just like it is. If you find a trash receptacle and it’s already full, don’t just leave your garbage on the ground beside it. Bring it with you until you can properly dispose of it.

All the garbage bins in Banff and Canmore are bear safe, to keep the wildlife from getting at the garbage. When food containers are left beside the bins, it defeats the purpose.

24. Not Carrying Enough Water

The dry mountain air means you need to carry plenty of water with you. Especially when hiking in the summer in Banff, you’ll want to carry more than enough water. Don’t forget about water in the winter too. It’s important to stay hydrated while out on your mountain adventures.

25. Assuming You Don’t Need a Park Pass

Everyone who enters Banff National Park requires a park pass. Even if you don’t drive, you still require a park pass. Sure, it’s unlikely that you’ll be caught if you don’t buy one but if you are enjoying the park then wouldn’t you want to contribute to the maintenance and upkeep of it?

The proceeds from the park pass go right back into the park, which helps create this beautiful place for all of us to enjoy.

The only way you don’t need a park pass for Banff National Park is if you are driving straight through without stopping. Even a stop to eat, use a washroom, have a picnic or drive on a parkway requires a park pass.

Banff Park Pass

26. Not Getting Up Early or Staying Up Late

Our days are very long in the middle of the summer, but there’s something very special about catching a sunrise or sunset. Typically our sunrises are pretty spectacular with some stunning pink hues. They are worth getting up for. The middle of the summer usually means getting up around 4 am to catch a sunrise and if you can see the sunrise at Moraine Lake, even better.

Thankfully in the winter, it’s much easier to catch those sunrises and sunsets!

Seeing Moraine Lake at Sunrise with Kids

27. Not Going on a Bike Ride

While riding a bike may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you hear mountains, there are some really great bike trails around Banff. Getting to see the sights on two wheels is just one great way to experience Banff National Park.

In May, June and September, cycle the Bow Valley Parkway from Banff to Johnston Canyon without cars on the road. The Legacy Trail is a paved pathway that runs from the town of Banff to the town of Canmore. Riding to Sundance Canyon in Banff is a great way to do a hike and bike together.

Bow Valley Parkway Cycling with Mountain Views in background

Both the town of Banff and Canmore have a bunch of paved trails great for cycling. If you prefer single track, try some mountain biking in Banff. The Canmore Nordic Centre is a great place for mountain biking in Canmore.

Mountain Biking Canmore in the Fall

Banff Winter Mistakes

28. Not Researching Winter Hikes

Not all summer hikes make good winter hikes. Many of the safe summer hikes can cross dangerous avalanche terrain in the winter. You need to know how to research which hikes are safe in the winter and how to check the avalanche conditions. You should also check for any closures and trail conditions before heading out.

As an example, the Plain of Six Glaciers at Lake Louise enters dangerous avalanche terrain, as does going past Mirror Lake to Lake Agnes. Always do your research before heading out in the winter and don’t assume a hike is safe because you saw someone else do it.

Here are some suggested easy winter hikes in Banff National Park.

Woman snowshoeing to Mirror Lake in Banff National Park

29. Not Dressing in Layers

Dressing in layers is very important for getting the most enjoyment out of visiting Banff in the winter. Start with a moisture wicking base layer, add a mid layer for warmth then finish up with your winter jacket (that should be waterproof and windproof). When out doing an activity, you can shed your top layers so you don’t get too hot but then have them available when you aren’t working so hard or stop for lunch.

I often find that when I’m tackling an incline on a snowshoe that my jacket is just too warm. But as soon as we stop for a break I need to pull it back out.

What to wear on Banff snowshoe trails - dress in layers

30. Not Trying a New Winter Activity

As someone who is used to living through 8 months of winter every year (seriously, winters here can last forever or at least feel like it), I know that getting the most enjoyment out of winter is by getting outside and having some fun! There are so many fun winter activities, that you should try something new when you visit! Maybe it’s trying snowshoeing for the first time or booking dog sledding. Strap on some skates, even if it’s been a few years.

There’s no shortage of winter activities in Banff National Park and in most cases, easy to find some lessons to help you try something new!

Try out fatbiking around the town of Banff! It’s one of the best ways to see the sights around Banff on a winter day!

Tips to Visit Banff on a Budget

31. Not Driving for the Road Conditions

If the roads are icy or it’s getting slick because of the snow fall, you need to drive to the conditions. This usually means adjusting your speed and giving yourself more time to stop.

While many rentals cars will only come with all-season M+S tires, you can pay an additional price to get proper winter tires that offer more traction in colder temperatures on snow and ice.

Either way, make sure you are giving yourself more time to get there. It’s never a good idea to be rushing while driving in the winter! Thankfully, they do a pretty good job of keeping the Trans Canada Highway clear, but it might take a few days to get it in good shape after a big snowfall.

driving in winter

32. Not Checking the Road Conditions

In the winter, you should always check the road conditions before heading out. Be sure to check them for the area you are visiting, since different areas of the park can experience very different weather. In addition, the weather can be unpredictable so be prepared to have to drive in winter conditions at any time.

It’s never a bad idea to postpone plans if the roads aren’t in good driving condition or you aren’t comfortable driving in winter conditions.

33. Not Planning for Delays

Road conditions can change quickly. The Icefields Parkway can be closed due to avalanches in the winter. It’s important to leave yourself a lot of time for any delays. If driving between Lake Louise and Jasper is part of your itinerary, make sure you leave some flexibility in your schedule in case a winter storm rolls in and the road is closed.

34. Not Taking Advantage of Late Sunrises

We have some pretty spectacular sunrises that are almost always worth getting up to see. The best part is that in the winter, they happen much later! I highly recommend taking advantage of this to catch as many sunrises and sunsets as you can!

Sunrise in Canmore in fall.

35. Not Carrying Traction Devices

The trails can get very icy in early winter (and early spring). We always have our Kahtoola Microspikes in the car ready for those icy trails. There are even times when we bring our snowshoes then find the trails are packed hard enough to not need them, but tractions devices make walking on snow and ice not only easier (especially if there are any inclines) but also safer!

We recommend using traction devices for Chester Lake winter hiking

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Avoid these mistakes when 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.