There is no doubt about it, Banff is the jewel of the Candian Rockies. Situated in Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada, the town of Banff is surrounded by majestic Rocky Mountain peaks and beckons everyone who loves the outdoors to explore its surroundings.
Being Canadian, we have been lucky enough to visit Banff many times over the years in all different seasons. From the famed turquoise waters of Lake Louise to the slopes of Sunshine Village Ski Resort, we have been able to see it all and want to share our expertise with you.
Regardless of when you decide to visit, Banff is a place that will leave you with the feeling of wanting to plan a return visit right away. There are a lot of things to do in Banff, from hiking and canoeing in the summer to skiing, ice climbing, and dogsledding in the winter. This incredible landscape is the playground for all sorts of activities.
Top Things to do in Banff
The town of Banff itself is actually quite small, and you only need a couple of days to explore, but the surrounding Banff National Park, which is the oldest of Canada’s National Parks, is where this region comes alive. A lot of the sights here are known around the world, like Moraine Lake, the world-famous Lake Louise, and the Columbia Icefield to name a few.
Choosing the best things to do in Banff can be a challenge, so these are our suggestions of things we think you should not miss when visiting Banff, Alberta.
Explore the Town of Banff
Obviously, a great place to start things off is by exploring the town of Banff itself. This beautiful mountain town has grown over the years from a one-street town into a world-class destination. Most people base themselves in downtown Banff to experience all the great things to do in Banff Nationational Park and for good reason.
Downtown Banff has a great food scene, terrific shopping, and hotels that can be a little easier on your budget than staying at places like the Fairmont Lake Louise. Don’t miss taking in some of the local culture at the Whyte Museum and the Mount royal Hotel which has a small museum inside and a great art display outdoors.
Gaze across Moraine Lake
You cannot come to Banff National Park and not visit Moraine Lake. Canadians know this lake as it was famously on the back of our old $20 bill and let me tell you it is a sight to behold.
It is not far from Lake Louise and is just an hour’s drive from the town of Banff. The best time to visit Moraine Lake is definitely at sunrise. When the sun hits the Valley of the Ten Peaks and reflects off of the mirror-like lake you know why this is one of the most photographed locations in North America.
Don’t miss our guide to Hiking in Banff for all the best trails in the park.
After grabbing your sunrise shot we do suggest hitting the hiking trails. There are so many great trails in this area, but you should at least do the Moraine Lake Shore Trail. It is only 2.9km long, easy, and offers some of the most incredible views of the Canadian Rockies in the park. Most people stick to the Rockpile Trails, but you will often find this one less busy.
Walk through Johnston Canyon
Walking the path through Johnston Canyon is one of the most exciting things to do in Banff. You can do this year-round and it takes on a whole different feeling in the different seasons.
The trail features iron walkways overhanging the canyon, which offer some great views. There are two trails and suggest doing both. The full walk will take you to six different frozen waterfalls and a deep pool of swirling water that is reached by walking through a stone arch.
The Upper Falls, where at the end of the trail you are rewarded with the magical scene of the falls plunging down into a pool that is surrounded by the canyon walls. And the Lower Falls which puts you right down in the canyon itself, with magnificent walls surrounding you as well as the falls.
The hike itself is pretty moderate and is about a 5 km round trip. If you are driving the Bow Valley Parkway, then make sure to add this to your itinerary.
Cave and Basin National Historic Site
The Cave and Basin National Historic Site is a really cool experience in Banff. It was the original Banff Hot Springs. This national historic site takes you on a tour through a cave towards an underwater hot spring.
Unfortunately, you can’t swim in the spring anymore, but it is amazing to walk in the path of the birthplace of the Canadian National Parks system. You can learn all about how and why it became the first Canadian National Park, which gives you a lot of appreciation for the ones who discovered this area.
Banff Upper Hot Springs
When looking for things to do in Banff, you don’t have to stick to adventure. There are a lot of romantic options too! Like a couples massage, outdoor hot springs, luxury lodges, and cozy hideaways.
Not far from the Banff Gondola, is the Upper Hot Springs. Located at an elevation of 1585m the views of Mount Rundle and the surrounding valley are to die for. Couple that with the soaking in the natural mineral water springs that are kept at a comfortable 98-104 F and you have a perfect afternoon activity.
The Banff Hot Springs is the most famous natural hot springs in Banff, and you can even rent an old-timers bathing suit to feel like you are in a bathhouse of the roaring twenties. This is also is one of the cheaper things to do in Banff at just $10-15 CAD.
Lake Minnewanka is located just outside the town of Banff. It is a relatively large lake at 27km long and is the perfect place to take a cruise. It gives you a great insight into the history of the area and is the perfect way to appreciate the beauty of this lake.
For those who are a little more adventurous, we suggest hopping on one of the many hiking trails that surround the lake. Some of our favorites are the Lake Minnewanka to Devil’s Gap trail and the hike to Stewart Canyon.
If you don’t have a lot of time here you can take a drive along the Lake Minnewanka Scenic Derive, which takes you right along the edge of the lake before making its way back to the town of Banff. This is one area of Banff that you don’t want to miss.
See the Bow Valley Parkway
There are a couple of drives you shouldn’t miss when visiting Banff and the Bow Valley Parkway is one of them. Located off the Trans-Canada Highway this two-lane scenic drive offers some spectacular viewpoints. There is the Castle Mountain Trail, Johnston Canyon, and the famous Morant’s Curve.
If you are looking for an alternative way to explore Banff National Park that is not the typical highway that everyone takes, the Bow Valley Parkway is the perfect road to take. This scenic drive is great in both the summer and winter.
Walk on the Athabasca Glacier
The Athabasca Glacier, which is part of the Columbia Icefield is the most-visited glacier in North America. Every year thousands of people flock here to get a chance to walk on the famous glacier and witness the beauty of the surrounding mountains.
Located around the halfway point of the Icefield’s parkway between Banff and Jasper, the Athabasca Glacier is one of those things to do in Banff that you can really brag about. Most people visit the glacier on the 1 hr expedition bust the Ice Explorer, which drives right on the glacier itself. But we suggest actually jumping on a tour that takes you out to walk on the glacier, gaze into crevasses, and feel the power of mother nature beneath your feet.
there are a couple of options, a 3-hour tour, and a 5-hour tour, depending on how much time you have and how fit you are. It does take an average fitness level but it is an experience you will never forget.
Paddle, hike or relax at Lake Louise
Lake Louise is probably the most popular attraction in Banff National Park. Tourists flock here in droves in the summer months to paddle a canoe on the pristine emerald lake and take in the beauty of the Victoria Glacier which feeds Lake Louise itself.
Lake Louise was first discovered in 1882 when surveyors followed First Nations guides to the glacier. They instantly knew just how special this particular location was and built the first chalet on the site in 1890. The popularity of Lake Louise has continued to grow from that day forward.
As with most sights in Banff National Park, the world-famous Lake Louise can be visited year-round. You can jump in the legendary red canoes and paddle on the lake in the summer, or you can grab your skates and glide across the ice in the winter. If you are feeling adventurous you could also jump in on a game of pond hockey as we did.
We recommend the shoulder seasons here to avoid the crowds. Mid-summer it can get overwhelming with all of the people. The shoulder seasons offer fewer crowds and if you are into hiking, make for a more comfortable experience around the lake.
Ski at Sunshine Village Ski Resort
If you choose to visit in the wintertime, one of the best things to do in Banff is to hit the slopes and go skiing or snowboarding. Banff has 3 ski resorts (Sunshine Village, Lake Louise Ski Resort, and Norquay) that are relatively close together and the conditions here are ideal.
Sunshine Village is only a 30-minute drive from downtown Banff and is usually the first to get snow, so it naturally has the longest ski season. It has 12 Chairlifts and over 3000 acres of skiable terrain, making it perfect for every level of skier or snowboarder.
When we snowboarded here we stayed right on the mountain at Sunshine Mountain Lodge which has Banff’s largest hotel hot tub so, after a day on the boards, we could soothe your aching muscles in the tub. Not a cheap option but definitely worth it if you want to splurge.
In the summertime, Sunshine village transforms into one of the premier hiking destinations in the park. There are so many hikes in this area, that you will want to give yourself a few days to explore a few for yourself.
Hit the slopes at Lake Louise Ski Resort
If you are looking for what is considered the best ski resort in Alberta then you are going to want to head to Lake Louise Ski Resort. This is the premier ski destination in Banff National Park and when you see the views surrounding you on the slopes you know why.
Soaring mountain peaks surround you as you enjoy the over 400 acres of skiable terrain on the 10 chair lifts. The trails here cater to all levels and if hitting the slopes is what you love to do then we suggest adding the Lake Louise Ski Resort to your list.
Spot wildlife in Banff National Park
Great skiing, hiking, and outdoor activities are not the only things that Banff is famous for. A lot of people flock to the park to catch a glimpse of its abundant wildlife.
You are almost guaranteed to see deer wandering around the town of Banff itself, but if you are looking for the best wildlife experiences we suggest heading into the park to have the best chance of wildlife sightings. Now, this is not a zoo and the animals are not just waiting for you to arrive, but the more time you spend in the park the better your chances of seeing some of the more elusive animals. Grizzly bears, wolves, and cougars are all in the park and you be able to see one if you are lucky and patient.
Please remember that these are wild animals and never approach them or get out of your car for a closer look. If you are quiet, give them plenty of space and just observe you can often have a wildlife viewing you will remember for the rest of your life.
Make a Stop at Bow Lake
Bow Lake is probably one of our favorite places to visit when we are in Banff. Located along the Icefield’s parkway and fed by the Bow Glacier, Bow Lake is a picturesque stop you won’t want to miss.
It is a great stop when driving up to Jasper National Park from Banff and we suggest hiking along the shoreline, or taking the Bow Glacier Falls Trail in the summer and getting yourself some snowshoes in the winter. You can then drop into the Num-Ti-Ja Lodge to grab a drink or to take in the history of the area.
Drive the Icefields Parkway
The Icefields Parkway is one of the most beautiful drives in Canada. It starts in Banff National Park and ends at the other famous park in the area, Jasper National Park. You can drive this in one day, but we suggest giving yourself 2 and spending some time in Jasper as well.
The drive itself starts in Lake Louise and heads north for 293 km. It passes famous sights like Bow Lake, Peyto Lake, the Athabasca Glacier, and the Glacier Skywalk just to name a few.
If you choose to rent a car in Banff then this is a drive that will want to include in your itinerary. Not only will you be able to experience cool things to do in Banff but you will also end your journey in the beautiful Jasper National park where you can explore the Sunwapta Falls, Lake Annette, and check out the incredible Jasper Park Lodge.
Helicopter Tour over Banff National Park
If there is one helicopter tour that you do in your life, do it over the Rocky Mountains. It’s even better to see the Rocky Mountains in winter. Dave and I have had the privilege of taking scenic flights on 6 continents, but our flight over Banff National Park offered the most breathtaking views of our lives.
Seeing Banff National Park in winter from above was the most striking scene we’ve ever witnessed. The peaks covered in snow looked like the perfect winter wonderland. Each pass offered one magnificent view after another. Rockies Heli uses are state-of-the-art helicopters with bubble windows and plenty of space to give everyone the best possible views.
Snowshoe the Rocky Mountain Trails
We killed two birds with one stone during our helicopter flight with Rockies Heli, by booking the Heli Snowshoe experience. We landed on a mountain peak and hiked through the trails showcasing extraordinary mountain views.
We’ve done a few snowshoeing experiences in Banff, and this one was by far the best since it started at altitude and we were already high in the mountains. Nothing could compare to these views!
Take photos of the Starry Nights in Banff
Winter in Banff is the best time for night photography. The days are short so you can find dark skies as early at 6 pm.
The nights are clear revealing the milky way and the Aurora Borealis (The Northern Lights). Banff is known for its darks skies and places like Vermilion Lakes, Lake Minnewanka, and Bow Lake are just a few places to capture the imposing night skies.
Dog Sled to British Columbia
There’s only one place you can go dog sledding in Banff National Park and that is with KingMik Dog Sled Tours. Their team of dogs is fast and filled with pep and zip as they run through the Great Divide Trail all the way to the border of British Columbia.
As you are snuggled up inside a warm sleeping bag and zipped into the windproof canvas, you glide through the forest looking for lynx tracks while your guide tells you about the area, the dogs, and the scenery. On the way back, it’s your turn to drive the sled and you’ll feel like a true explorer as you mush through the old Trans Canada trail.
Read all about Dogsledding in Banff: There are videos and pictures too!
Stay in a Back Country Lodge
If you ever make it to the Rocky Mountains, you must make sure to go to a backcountry lodge. This is the epitome of things to do in Banff in winter. Why? Because it is where you completely get away from it all. Don’t fret too much about bears or cougars in the winter.
For the most part, they’re hibernating and if you are a party of two or three, they’ll be more afraid of you than you are of them. Imagine sitting in a log cabin heated by a wood-burning stove as the snow falls around you outside.
That is pure heaven. Sundance Lodge has an executive chef, hot water for showers, solar power, and cozy bedrooms. This is where luxury meets rustic living and if you go home and tell everyone that you trekked 16km into the Rocky Mountains to stay at a lodge, you will be the hero of all your friends. You can get to the Banff Alberta Back Country by snowshoeing or cross country skiing.
Take Sleigh Ride
The Fairmont Lake Louise offers sleigh rides along the edge of Lake Louise in the winter taking you out to the base of Victoria Glacier. It’s a beautiful ride through the forest offering mountain views and a romantic experience.
Sip hot chocolate as your driver takes the reins and tells you of the history of the Canadian Rockies.
Take the Banff Gondola to Sulphur Mountain
One of the top things to do in Banff is to take the gondola up to the top of Sulphur Mountain. The views from here really make you appreciate the location and beauty of Banff. There is a restaurant at the top and a fun interactive museum. There are also viewing platforms to take in different views of the Canadian Rockies and the Bow River Valley below.
Once at the top of the gondola, you can take a short hike out toward the summit of Sulphur Mountain on the boardwalk. You will be rewarded with stunning views over the Bow Valley as well as the surrounding peaks. The gondola ride itself is pretty expensive at $62 CAD per person, but you can definitely spend half a day up at Sulphur Mountain to get your money’s worth.
Stop in to See the Legendary Fairmont Hotels
The Fairmont Lake Louise and Fairmont Banff Hotels are the Grand Dames of Banff. Even if you are not staying in these hotels, they are worth stopping in for a look. The old hotels were originally built for CP Rail passengers connecting Canada.
They have been renovated over the years and are a luxurious experience in Banff. Book a night here for dinner or just stop in for a coffee. We always pick up a coffee at the Fairmont Lake Louise to take with us on a hike around the lake.
Enjoy the Food Scene in the Town of Banff
The Town of Banff has an excellent food scene. Nothing beats Alberta Grade A beef, so head out for the night and try some local cuisine. Most eateries serve farm to table and ingredients are all locally sourced.
Our recommendations for where to eat in Banff are:
- Sleeping Buffalo Dining Room at Buffalo Mountain Lodge
- Fine Dining at Buffalo Mountain Lodge
- The Bison Restaurant Downtown
- Park Distillery – Downtown
- Block Kitchen
Other Hotels in Banff
Most hotels have outdoor hot tubs and our favorite was the views at the Juniper Hotel and Deer Lodge.
But Sunshine Mountain Lodge at Sunshine Village has Banff’s largest hotel hot tub located right on the side of the ski hill where after a day on the boards, you can soothe your aching muscles in the tub. We also stayed at Deer Lodge located right next door to the Fairmont Lake Louise and it was excellent.
If you want to stay in the town of Banff, Buffalo Mountain Lodge and Fox Hotel and Suites are great options. And for a romantic winter getaway in a luxurious yet rustic cabin complete with a fireplace, we recommend Storm Mountain Lodge.
Frequently Asked Questions about Things to do in Banff
Lake Louise is 57km (35 miles) from Banff. It is an easy drive along Highway 1 or The Bow Valley Parkway which is the more scenic route.
It depends on what you want to do. Lake Louis is better for skiing and activities on the lake. The hotels are fully functioning with eateries and shops. But the town of Banff offers more amenities and it is closer to Banff’s main attractions like the Hot Springs and Banff Gondola.
Banff and Lake Louise are fully functional in the winter. Everything is open save for hiking trails to lakes that are snowed in and many lake and hiking parking lots are closed.
Banff is 130 km (80 miles) from Calgary or an hour and a half drive. It is 145 km (90 miles) from the Calgary Airport.