There are few places in this world that get us more excited than visiting the Canadian Rockies, and I’d like to share my knowledge and passion for this incredible place by helping you plan your Banff Itinerary in 3 days.
Seriously though, we travel to Banff most years from June to August to hit up our favourite coffee shops, the best lakes in the Canadian Rockies like Lake Louise and Moraine lake and soaking up the short lived hiking season.
Of course we could spend the entire 3 months here and still not cover the best things to do in Banff, however if you only have 3 days in Banff then this is the perfect itinerary for you.
Banff national park itself covers 6,641 square kms of land in the south of Alberta where the Canadian Rockies straddle two beautiful provinces, Alberta and British Columbia – and there are literally hundreds of kms of road that covers this – which is why we have condensed this epic destination down to 3 days.
In this guide we will cover our personal recommendations for activities, the best lakes to visit, accommodation reviews as well as detailed information about our experience here.
Laura grew up in Canada only a few hours from the Canadian Rockies so our expert guide is well researched and lived by yours truly!
READ NEXT: The best things to do in Banff national park
Quick reference guide
How do I get into Banff national park?
If you are flying into Alberta via Calgary or Edmonton international airport then driving into Banff national park is our recommended method.
The drive from Calgary international airport is just over an hour with no traffic, however the drive from Edmonton without traffic is about 4.5 hours south.
You can pick up your rental car using this link here
Do I need to pay to enter Banff national park?
Yes- there are two simple options using the Parks Canada website. The Single day pass or the Discovery Pass.
The Single day pass costs $10.50 per day/adult and can be purchased online using the Banff Tourism website, at the entrance gate to the park or at the Visitor Information Centre. This ticket limits you to ONE day only and you must purchase another pass every day you’re in the park.
The discovery pass is a 12 month ticket that gets you access to over 80 national parks to Canada, including Jasper national park. It costs $72.25 cad/adult.
NB: Be aware that this pass used to be called the Park Canada annual pass, it is simply called the Discovery Pass (updated 2023)
Hot Tip: If you plan on visiting more than one national park over more than 5-6 days it’s definitely worth going for the Discovery Pass; however if you are sticking to 3 days in Banff itinerary then 3 single day passes is perfect. This will cost you $31.50 cad per adult for 3 days.
Do I need a car in Banff?
Yes – especially for ticking off our 3 day Itinerary in Banff, this will give you the ultimate freedom to customise your journey on your schedule.
Particularly when you drive the Icefields parkway and want to stop for photographs every minute, you can’t get that freedom from tours.
Our Top recommendations for activities in Banff
Whilst there’s tons of activities in Banff, here is a short list of the best ones we think you will love.
Each of these can be booked within the 3 days visiting Banff national park, accessible from either the Bow Valley parkway or the Icefields parkway.
1) Athabasca Glacier tour – we’ve personally done this tour last year and loved the Ice walk along Columbia Icefield and the Jasper skywalk- well worth the money.
2) Johnston Canyon hike – this is a great option to choose no matter what season you’re in, however it doesn’t run in the dead of winter but is a great way to see the upper falls of Johnston Canyon.
3) Lake Minnewanka cruise – Take the 10 am tour and get a detailed guided tour learning about the rich history of Lake Minnewanka
Our 3 days in Banff Itinerary
So you’ve made your way to Banff town and have absolutely no idea what to do or where to go and you’re feeling a little overwhelmed by the hordes of tourists, surrounding mountains and a long list of lakes to visit.
Wondering how many days is enough for Banff? Technically you could explore here for a month and still not cover everything, but most people have time restraints so 3 full days in Banff is a great start and you won’t miss out on crucial destinations.
So we’ve made a 3 days in Banff itinerary for you to follow as closely as you like, or as gently as you please. Either way we think this will give you a fantastic overview of the best things to do in Banff national park.
Day 1: Explore down Banff Avenue
The tourist hub of the Rockies and the meeting place for most tours, buses and shuttles begins here. Each street here is named after Canadian wildlife like Bear street, wolf street or Otter st- how cool is that?
You should start the morning first by getting a coffee down at Good Earth coffee house corner of Elk and Banff st.
They do freshly baked food every morning like their black forest muffin to take away, and because Banff is not very big it’s easily walkable from most hotels in downtown Banff.
Bow river and Bow falls
Walk off your morning desert and get the sunshine in your eyes by walking south down Banff Avenue and going for a stroll along the Bow River bridge and turn left along the Bow River trail towards Bow Falls.
There’s a popular view point at the end to see the falls and on the other side of the river is Surprise viewpoint where you can take an amazing shot of the Fairmont Banff Springs hotel.
Banff Upper hot springs
Next, hit the Banff Upper hot springs for a relaxing morning in rejuvenating spring water rising deep from Sulphur Mountain.
You’ll have epic views of Cascade mountain in the distance as you bathe, followed by a pack it yourself picnic on the deck overlooking the town and the iconic views of Banff national park.
Entry costs $16.50 and is open 10am to 10pm daily, including public holidays.
It’s time to slow down and unwind from your 3 days in Banff and this is the perfect way to do it.
Check out the Banff Upper hot springs here
See Lake Louise
You are undoubtedly visiting Banff to come right here to see the magnificently blue Lake Louise. The second most visited lake in all of Banff national park, lake Louise can get busy early on in the day so I recommend getting here as early as you can to either canoe, photograph or simply admire this stunning glacial fed lake.
Summer time in Banff creates a blueish-green hue on Lake Louise which is really pretty, but winter time can be just as exciting when lake Louise turns into a frozen lake and skiing and ice skating become popular.
The road to lake Louise is still open for private vehicles as of 2023 as it doesn’t get quite as much attention as Moraine lake but is still for us at least one of the best places to see in Banff national park.
Visiting Lake Louise is a must-do Banff Itinerary check off- how you get here and what you do when you’re here is up to you.
First things first, if you have rented a car and are doing a self-drive itinerary then there is public parking available at Lake Louise and costs $21 per vehicle for up to 9 hours, but you wont need to be here for that long unless you plan on doing some hikes around Lake Louise.
Hiking from Lake Louise
Lake Louise is surrounded by mountains and hiking trails of varying difficulty so it depends on your own ability, but some of the less challenging hikes only take an hour or two return like the lake Agnes tea house hike.
The Lake Agnes tea house hike, otherwise known as the Lake Agnes trail, is the most popular and busiest hiking route in the Lake Louise area.
The little and big beehive routes are less crowded because they are more difficult but no less exciting and still one of the best hikes in Banff.
Canoe on Lake Louise
You may have seen this on Tourism Canada brochures or advertised around the town of Banff, but hiring a Canoe and paddling across lake Louise is an insanely fun thing to do in Banff and one you should not skip out on your Banff itinerary.
The easiest way to do this is to hire a canoe from the boathouse to the left of lake Louise car park for 30 minutes of 1 hour.
The boathouse operates on a first come, first served basis and runs throughout the summer from late May, early June through to Canadian thanksgiving weekend.
The prices here however are NOT CHEAP; one hour will cost you $155 cad and $145 cad for 30 minutes, however if you are staying at Fairmont chateau lake Louise then you benefit from cheaper rates.
Fairmont guests receive 1 hour for $95 cad and $85 for 30 minutes. Not the cheapest venture but it is still ridiculously fun to paddle across a turquoise blue lake.
Visit Moraine Lake
One of our favourite lakes in all of Banff national park and indeed the Canadian Rockies is Moraine lake, a stunning glacial fed lake that attracts the largest crowd anywhere in Banff national park.
Visiting Moraine lake should be top of your Banff itinerary however the rules to get here have changed.
Use this guide to explain how to get to Moraine lake in 2023
To sum it up you can no longer drive a private vehicle up Moraine lake road and park yourself, you must use one of the designated public or private transportation systems in place by Parks Canada.
This includes either a private shuttle from Banff town, or the Park and Ride system using the parks Canada shunottle.
This was a necessary step to overcome the parking lot closing at 3am every morning due to capacity, so it’s a welcome change and means everybody can enjoy the lake and not miss out.
We are yet to use this system as it was only implemented at the beginning of the 2022 season but we have heard nothing but good things from it, but you can check it out for yourself and reserve your seat here.
The best way to view Moraine lake is from the rockpile at the rear of the lake with impressive views of the Valley of Ten Peaks and pine trees to the right. If you book a later return ticket you will be able to spend more time simply admiring one of Banff’s most famous lakes.
Hike the base of Moraine lake
Few people who have visited Banff ever do this relatively unknown hiking trail but if you want to make the most out of your time staying in Banff national park then the Moraine lake lakeshore trail is just for you.
The 5.15km return hike begins at the canoe dock and weaves its way in and out of the forest until you reach the boardwalk at the flowing waters of the Wenkchemna pass.
This is an easy hike with no scrambling involved but we would always recommend a good pair of hiking boots.
We use the Columbia Newton Ridge hiking boots because they are super comfortable, we don’t ever get cramped or sore feet and they look good too!
Hiking the Moraine lake lakeshore trail is free and requires no permit however we always carry bear spray with us no matter where we hike in the Canadian Rockies as a matter of precaution, and so should you.
Here’s a list of shops you can hire or buy bear spray from:
If you plan on doing lots of hikes over the 3 days, you may want to weigh up the cost of hiring vs buying a canister.
See Grizzly bears
Before you close out day 1 of your 3 days in Banff itinerary, if you’re staying in Banff town instead of driving back along the Trans Canada highway, take the scenic route via the Bow Valley parkway.
Travelling the bow valley parkway early morning or late afternoon is the best chance for spotting and photographing wildlife.
Grizzly bears and other wildlife use part of the national park to cross roads more frequently or even stop on the side to eat the wildflowers as it’s not as busy with vehicles, generally quieter and hidden.
It can be a great place for sunset driving, just make sure that if you do see any wildlife that you remain inside your car at all times.
Parks Canada ranges try very hard to prevent the loss of humans and wildlife by enforcing this rule, so don’t be that guy and take photos from your car.
Day 2: Drive the Icefields parkway
The Icefields parkway is considered to be one of the most scenic drives in the world – and you’re going to absolutely fall in love with day 2 of your Banff itinerary.
The road starts straight after Lake Louise and travels for 230 km connecting Banff National park to Jasper national park.
Whilst you could spend days travelling the Icefields parkway, if you follow our advice on the best places to stop you will get a lot out of your day.
Here are the places we recommend stopping at:
- Herbert lake
- Bow Lake
- Peyto Lake
- The Big Bend
- Panther Falls
- Athabasca Glacier
- Jasper Skywalk
Straight out of the gate (figuratively speaking) is Herbert Lake, easily missable if you blink because it’s so small but in the right light, the trees and water look so incredible.
It’s worth getting out to do a small walk through the forest to the shoreline for a few photographs here. There’s a small car park and washroom on site too if you need to pee before you continue your itinerary for Banff.
Not on the same scale (size wise) as Moraine lake and Lake Louise but big and beautiful nonetheless. The waters of Bow lake are known for their reflective abilities of the surrounding mountains of Mount Jimmy Simpson, Crowfoot Mountain and Bow Peak.
It’s worth noting this is one of the most intricate lakes along the Icefields parkway as it is the closest lake to the headwaters of the Bow River and sits at an altitude of 1920m above sea level.
Bow lake in Banff national park gets its colour from the melt water from the Bow glacier, but you can also see other glaciers like the Crowfoot Glacier.
There’s public access washrooms on site next to the fairly large, free car park before you go for a short walk around the base of Bow lake, crossing small rivers and boulders.
The Lodge at Bow Lake is rich in history having been here since 1922, the iconic red roof of The Lodge has been refurbished to its former glory and can be booked over at Booking.com
We’ve been to Bow lake every time we visit Banff but would suggest getting here early to capture sunrise before the crowds, or stay at the lake for sunset; easily done over 3 days in Banff.
Stand up paddle board at Bow Lake
There’s no better way to get some exercise in than by going for a Stand Up paddle board (SUP) across Bow lake.
Bow can get a little windy at times but on a calm day, the waters become translucent and there’s nothing better than looking like you’re gliding across a sheet of glass looking straight down to the bottom.
Of course you can try Stand Up paddle boarding at Lake Minnewanka, Two jack lake, Lake Louise and Moraine Lake but there’s no other option for doing this along the Icefields parkway from here.
Admire Peyto Lake
We love Peyto lake.
Next to Lake Moraine it’s our favourite lake to visit along the Icefields parkway for its breathtaking landscape of lush green trees, the Mistaya Mountain range in the distance and the unbelievable blue waters of the lake that’s shaped like a fox.
Of all the lakes on this Banff itinerary, Peyto lake is one of the best things to see in Banff national park.
Getting here is very simple too, after parking your car in the very large car park there’s a short 10 minute walk up the hill through thick forest on a well defined track to the upper viewing deck of Peyto Lake.
You can walk past here and walk down over the boulders for epic views but it can be a little dangerous and there’s no rails or fences in place.
Escape the crowds and opt to see Peyto Lake from a higher viewpoint 2.8km away during golden hour for the best views.
We personally think this is the highlight of your 3 day Banff itinerary, certainly one we go to every time we visit Banff.
Big Bend and Panther falls
Stopping here doesn’t have to take too long but you’ll be greeted with impressive views back over the road towards the mountains. The road literally bends in on itself and is not too far from Panther falls and Bridal Veil falls.
It’s quite a large bend and I remember very distinctly being here and feeling so tiny next to the mountains, just make sure you orient yourself to where you need to go to view Panther falls and look both ways before crossing the road
Your 3 days in Banff are heralded by the halfway point of your journey through Banff national park by visiting the largest collection of ice south of the Arctic Circle.
The largest glacier in North America’s Rocky Mountains is the Columbia Icefield, of which the Athabasca Glacier is a ‘toe’ of and partly lies within the borders of Jasper national park.
The Athabasca glacier is the rough halfway point along the Icefields parkway travelling between Banff national park and Jasper national park and we highly recommend booking a tour of the Athabasca Glacier.
The Columbia Icefield skywalk and Ice Explorer tour is a one of a kind experience allowing you to take an ice explorer vehicle to the top of the glacier and walk along the ice sheet for roughly an hour.
last time we did this in 2022 we had such an amazing experience, although we had horrible weather it’s still one of best places to visit in Banff.
Book well in advance for this tour as it was booked over 35 times yesterday on Get Your Guide!
At the end of this tour your bus driver takes you across to the Jasper skywalk; a glass bottomed viewing deck with incredible 360 degree views over the Columbia Icefield and Mount Kitchener in the distance.
Alternatively you can look to book the Columbia Icefield Parkway tour that stops at more places like Crowfoot glacier viewpoint, Saskatchewan River crossing and Waterfowl lakes viewpoint.
Drive to Jasper national park
Round out your day by continuing onwards into Jasper national park and capping off the second day of your 3 day Banff itinerary.
You can’t get confused by driving along the Icefields parkway because it’s the only road between Jasper and Banff town, and once you’ve reached Sunwapta Falls you have officially crossed into Jasper National park.
This big and gorgeous waterfall is fed from the Athabasca Glacier and has an upper and lower falls section, the upper being the easiest to reach and therefore the busiest.
From here the town of Jasper is only a 42 minute drive away and you can use this to either re-fuel in town, grab some more snacks and food for the return journey back to Banff, or stay the night in Jasper before heading our first thing in the morning.
Day 3 of your Banff Itinerary
Congratulations on having driven one of the best roads in the world and you made it to Jasper, surely by now you have realised that you’re in one of the best places to visit in the Canadian rockies.
The reality is the perfect Banff itinerary is completely up to you and can be attempted in many different ways, either beginning in Banff or ending there.
We chose to start in Banff because it was easier to get to from Edmonton but that doesn’t mean you have to start here also.
Self drives are the easiest option when it comes to navigating your way through Banff national park and we always do so with rentalcars.com
Booked well enough in advance you can choose your car, where to pick it up and drop it off all really easily. We use them every time we need a rental car and rate them very highly.
Use this link to find the best deals on Rental Cars in Banff
Maligne lake cruise
Here’s where you can plan for some alternatives; if you’ve chosen to stay in Jasper for your last night then we suggest getting up at 6am in time for sunrise and drive down to the most visited lake in Jasper national park, Maligne lake.
Only 44 kms from the Jasper town and accessible by road, Maligne lake is revered by tourists trying to get a photo of spirit island, 13 km in as the crow flies. Maligne mountain, Queen Elizabeth ranges and Samson Peak all tower over this pristine lake.
One of the best ways to see Maligne lake is by joining a cruise to explore the scenery and wildlife of this stunning place. Here are some tours of Maligne lake we think fit perfectly into your Banff trip
Maligne lake cruise with an expert guide –learn about the wildlife that live here, First nations history and a trip to Spirit Island
Wildlife and waterfalls tour – A 5.5 hour day trip includes a 90 minute cruise looking for Bears, Elk and Moose and a 30 minute hike to Maligne canyon.
Maligne Valley wildlife watching and boat tour – An alternate to the previous activity, this is also 5.5 hours and includes wildlife watching, a hike through Maligne Canyon and includes pick up from your hotel in Jasper.
Saskatchewan River crossing
The next part of your journey is to drive back almost the entire length of the Icefields parkway and head closer into Lake Louise and Banff town. Unfortunately there is no quicker drive back to Banff but at least you get to see this epic road again.
And while you are back on the road you should definitely stop at places like the Saskatchewan River crossing on Google maps here.
Trappers and fur traders used this landmark to cross into British Columbia many years ago and provided awesome views of surrounding glaciers.
The other reason we mention this river crossing is because its an amazing place to base yourself for awesome day hikes in Banff to lesser known lakes like Glacier lake, Waterfowl lakes, Chephren lake, Cirque lake and Mistaya lake, places most people never see when they visit Banff national park.
Why not have a crack at the Glacier lake hike to the glacier lake, a 17.1 km return hike near lake Louise that shouldn’t take more than 4-6 hours to complete with 876m elevation gain.
The trailhead starts near the Saskatchewan River crossing just a short walk from the crossing gas and convenience store you can find here on maps.
The best time to visit Banff is for sure the summer months of June to the end of August before the fall arrives and the colours change.
August is by far the hottest month in the Canadian Rockies and the waters from frozen lakes and river streams flow through many of Banffs iconic attractions like Lake Louise and Moraine lake.
None more impressive than a day trip to Johnston canyon along the Bow Valley parkway that runs parallel to the Trans Canada highway.
Getting here is half the fun, follow the Bow Valley parkway towards Banff (if coming from Jasper) and get on from the Lake Louise ski resort. Here you will have the opportunity to stop at Morant’s Curve and watch the trains pass by the trees for an epic photograph as it makes its way through the rockies.
The turn off is well sign posted and is just after Castle mountain on the right hand side.
Johnston Canyon is one of the best places to spend your days in Banff national park, with the option to hike to the lower and upper falls, or continue onwards to the Ink Pots.
Two Jack lake
One of two local lakes in the Banff area, Two jack lake sits at the start of Lake Minnewanka just north of Banff town and is a great place to spend a few hours having a picnic, riding a bike along the lake or going for an SUP on a calm day.
It’s an amazing place to photograph during golden hour sunrise/sunset or even go stargazing at night time particularly during winter.
The largest lake and river system near to Banff is full of amazing adventures both free and paid. Two jack lake and Lake Minnewanka are both considered the ‘locals lakes’ so they are generally quieter than most.
If you hire bikes from town you could ride out here to enjoy a picnic by the water, or drive here yourself to go on a cruise along Lake Minnewanka.
We considered booking this tour ourselves last time we were in Banff but ran out of time, but if you’re following our guide to the perfect 3 days in Banff then you will have enough time to do this.
Pursuit runs their classic cruises from June 23rd to September 4th 9am to 7pm with regular departure times, a premium cruise at 10:40am and Beer Voyage at 5pm.
There is a high chance of seeing awesome wildlife like Grizzly bear, Elk and Coyote by visiting Lake Minnewanka, Two jack lake, Bow falls, Hoodoos viewpoint and Mt Norquay viewpoint over a 3 hour tour.
Banff Gondola ride
We’ve saved the best for last and the perfect way to round off an EPIC 3 days in Banff national park is by taking the sunset gondola ride up Sulphur mountain.
We highly recommend booking your admission ticket here as it is one of the most popular activities in Banff.
The Sulphur mountain Banff gondola holds 4 people and has large windows for looking out and admiring the view all the way to the 2281 metres top.
Here is the easiest way to get here:
Drive yourself with your rental car to the free parking lot on Mountain Avenue, just make sure you get here early enough as it fills up quickly or take the Bow Valley ROAM transit bus from town for $2.
Present your admission ticket that you can buy here at the entrance and enjoy the journey up Sulphur mountain, what’s more if you book your tickets after 5pm you get a small discount.
The mountain north of Banff is Mount Norquay, a popular spot for skiing in the summer and on the way up there’s a great lookout spot called the Mount Norquay lookout during the summer that gives awesome views over Tunnel mountain, Mount Rundle and Sulphur mountain.
You could be lucky and have Vermilion lakes all to yourself even in the height of summer, surprising being so close to the town of Banff.
This is a great spot to catch golden hour sunlight and on a still day Mount Rundle’s jagged peaks reflect nicely in the reedy waters.
You can either drive along highway 93 and see the lakes from the viewpoint attached here, or Vermilion lakes road that follows the shore line.
Banff packing list
Getting prepared for a summer spent hiking and exploring Banff national park? Ready to tackle the hikes of Lake Louise, explore Johnston Canyon, canoe on lake Minnewanka and marvel at Tunnel Mountain? Use these 5 tips below to be the most prepared
1- Carry bear Spray – Grizzly bears, Black bears and mountain lions call Banff national park home and in some areas every hiker is required to carry bear spray and travel in packs of at least 4.
2-Purchase your Parks Canada pass – Arrive to the gates prepared with a pre-purchased Single day or Discovery Pass on the left hand side of your dash ready to go
3- Pack layers – Even in summer the temperature can drop particularly at night and if you’re camping in the backcountry you will thank us later for being prepared.
4- Download offline maps – Most of Banff national park does not have reception, particularly when hiking so unless you prefer carrying a map with you, we recommend downloading offline maps on your smartphone, or downloading hiking apps like AllTrails, Gaia GPS or Peak Visor.
5- Wear comfy shoes – Not even the best trainers will get you through these hikes, which is why we wear Columbia Newton Ridge hiking boots. Not sponsored, just love them
Venture beyond Banff national park
Being so close to the border of BC, you’re a stone’s throw from other amazing national parks like Yoho national park where you can visit Emerald lake.
A super fun way to see the landscape and enjoy fresh BC air is to either go mountain biking or road cycling, and there’s a great road trail along Emerald lake road that leads to the lake. Once you’re here, cool yourself off with a dip in Emerald lake’s cold water before you return via the same road.
Banff Itinerary Travel guide
Now that you’re armed with a plan and know the best activities in Banff, here’s a quick overview of a few accommodation options that you should consider.
Best Budget accommodation – HI Banff Alpine Centre
If it’s cheap and comfy with the basic amenities you’re after then hostel is perfect for you.
A 30 minute walk to Banff town, or grab a free shuttle ticket from the front desk- this is a great way to maximise your budget by living cheaply and allowing more room in the budget for activities.
If you stay here then you should look at the Via Ferrata climbing experience because you will have more room in the budget for activities.
Best mid-range accommodation – Banff Park lodge and resort
Eco-certified, 3 star hotel right on Lynx Street in the town of Banff right next to the Bow River is a fully serviced resort hotel.
Super close to lots of restaurants and shops, bars and cafes, their rooms come with the standard hotel room amenities like free wifi, coffee and tea supplies, private bathroom and a cable TV.
Best luxury accommodation in Banff – Fairmont Banff springs
If you only plan on visiting Banff once, why not stay in true style in this iconic, historical building that sits right on the Bow river.
Close to everything you will need for an enjoyable and luxurious stay, the Fairmont has been serving guests for over 130 years and remains one of the best stays in Banff.
Your choice of luxurious world class suites that come with a warm and cosy fireplace next to a king size bed fit for a king in the ‘Castle in the mountains’
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