From world class snow mountains to the pristine Lake Louise, the best hikes in all of the Canadian Rockies, our article to the most amazing things to do in Banff Canada is the perfect guide to your time up north.
If you’ve never set eyes on the Canadian Rockies then you’re missing out on a whole treasure chest of epic travel.
Downtown Banff and it’s surrounds are home to insanely beautiful mountainous landscapes, North American wildlife and the best hot springs in the world.
The real gem however is the town of Banff, and in the winter time Mount Rundle and Mount Cascade rising at either end of banff ave makes for a scene out of a disney movie.
READ MORE: Dive deeper into everything Canada has to offer by checking out our article on Canada’s best lakes in the Rockies.
The most picturesque town in all of Alberta, Canada as well as the canadian rockies lakes and the national parks that accompany it, is our favourite town in Canada to visit at any time of the year.
There really is something for everyone in Banff, whether you’re travelling with a loved one, taking the family on a vacation or getting away from the city lights and smells, Banff national park caters for all seasons hot or cold.
Using Banff as a base, you’ll have access to the best hikes, hot springs, restaurants, mountains and of course snow in the winter.
If this guide is not enough for you, you can always download or pick up a Banff national park map from the visitors centre located in banff downtown.
Check the link to the Parks Canada website to check local restrictions and passes you might need.
The Best Things to do in Banff
1) Fairmont Banff springs hotel
Located at the furthest southern end of Banff, the Fairmont hotel is about as castle as they come – literally a castle in the mountains of Canada!
During the winter months when the pine trees are laiden in frosty snow and Mount Rundle sits in the background with a layer of snow on her peaks there really is nothing more beautiful to see.
This charming hotel of a time gone by has been accommodating guests for 130 years, but it’s so much more than a hotel.
For the golf enthusiasts you can play 18 holes on the Fairmont banff springs golf course, their day spa programs or retreats for the kids.
We’re just getting started in our list of things to do in Banff and we’ve already started with the best and brightest.
If you’d like to find out how much it costs to stay a night at the Fairmont Banff then we recommend the most competitive prices right here on Agoda
2) Canada’s most famous – Lake Louise
Attracting thousands of visitors to her emerald green frozen lake every year, Lake Louise is a gem amongst some of the best lakes in the Canadian Rockies, nestled below mountain ranges such as Fairview mountain, Lake Louise is seriously one of the best places to visit in all of Alberta.
The drive from Banff city centre to lake louise is all but an hour away passing other monumental lakes like the famous Moraine Lake as you drive down the Icefields parkway surrounded by miles of hikes in Banff national park.
Lake Louise tourism thrives all year round, with many visitors choosing to live and work in the town of Banff or reside close by in Canmore just to be near this gorgeous lake.
Lake Louise is undoubtedly the most famous lake in all of the Rockies, just don’t mind the hoards of crowds that flock here during the summer for the outdoor adventure.
You can also enjoy a warm tea and enjoy the views from the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise that looks out over the lake and mountain peaks.
Why not have a look at this 5 star rated – 4 hour tour of the Bow Valley parkway that takes you to places like Lake Louise, Moraine Lake and the incredible Valley of the Ten Peaks!
3) Explore the trails in Lake Louise
It might not be obvious to the naked eye but Lake Louise has some amazing hikes that surround the lake, hidden amongst incredible scenery and mountain ranges.
It’s generally speaking too cold to go for a leisurely swim in the glacial fed waters but hiking and canoeing is one of the best attractions in banff.
A great outdoor adventure is to hire a canoe from the lake louise canoe rentals for a steep $135/hour for visitors who aren’t staying at the chateau lake louise and admire Mount Victoria in the background.
Hidden along the hikes are tea houses where you can pick yourself up a cup of coffee or tea to enjoy, unique only to the Lake Louise area.
The most popular route is the Lake Agnes trail to the lake agnes tea house, a fairly easy trek that takes about an hour.
A little further west is the Plain of the Six glaciers tea house which will extend your hike by about 7 hours if you have the time for the most epic mountain trails and seriously one of the best things to do in Banff.
When visiting Banff it’s important to remember that Lake Louise may get over crowded and cramped during the summer months.
However if you’re considering spending a lot of time in banff and/or Lake Louise then we’d personally recommend staying in absolute luxury and comfort and get a room of the Fairmont Chateau lake Louise.
With insane morning views over Lake Louise you’d be staying at one of the most famous hotels in Banff national park and indeed the world.
4) Lake Louise ski resort
The Lake Louise ski resort is a main tourist attraction to the national park and a highlight of a Canadian Winter.
Both Canadians and international travellers venture to the Canadian rocky mountains in search of epic powdery snow, incredible cross country skiing throughout Revelstoke to suit all ages and experience levels.
The Lake Louise ski resort takes the cake when it comes to world-class slopes however, with over 4200 acres of slopes and 10 chair lifts in operation its one of the best attractions in Banff national park.
If skiing is a little too out of your depth, mid-December to March Lake Louise freezes over and turns into a giant ice-skating rink perfect for all the Banff winter activities and an awesome family fun adventure.
5) Surround yourself in beauty in the town of Banff
With the construction of the Canadian pacific railway in 1885, a little over a hundred years ago now, what was once known as just Banff Avenue has been transformed into the incredibly beautiful town of Banff.
Our favourite local eatery on a chilly winter’s night on banff ave is Bear Street tavern where you can pick yourself up a delicious pizza for around $20CAD.
We personally recommend the classic margherita or the Wheeler hut.
Wondering what to do in banff after your delicious meal? Why not head into Park Distillery on the opposite side of Bear St tavern on Banff ave and try their signature liquor cocktails, beers, ciders and park spirits.
These guys have been exploring the world of mixing and experimenting liquors and have established themselves as one of the best Banff attractions around.
Burn off those calories after dinner and visit one of the only family run mountain bikes rental store in downtown banff as they’ve got a full collection of hybrids, e bikes and traditional mountain bikes.
6) Drive the epic Icefields parkway
One road trip that you’re not going to want to miss driving and undoubtedly one of the most beautiful roads in the world and the “drive of a lifetime” as voted by National Geographic.
This 230 km stretch of road connects the towns of Banff and jasper through the Rocky mountains, passing surreal an breathtaking landscapes the entire way.
A lot of Banff national parks main attractions are strategically places the entire drive so you never have to worry about not seeing famous landmarks.
You can choose to start in either Banff or in Jasper national park and work your way south.
The Icefields parkway and its attractions can be separated into miles, starting from mile zero in Jasper, you’ll come across these particular stops along the way.
- The Jasper Skytram (km 2)
- Valley of the 5 lakes (km 9)
- Athabasca Falls (km 31)
- Sunwapta falls (km 54)
- Tangle falls (km96)
- Jasper Glacier Skywalk (km 97)
- Columbia Icefield (km 104)
- Wilcox Pass red chairs (km 106)
We personally recommend this incredible tour of the Athabasca Glacier on the Columbia Icefields that stretches right across Banff National Park for a full day of magic
You have the option of joining this tour from Banff to help you see the best sights if you’re unsure of what to do in Banff, but we personally hire our own car when we arrive.
7) Johnston Canyon Upper falls hike
If you love outdoor adventure then look no further than the Johnston Canyon hike.
Only 30 minutes from the town of banff this 5 hour return hike to Johnston canyon upper falls cascades along the Bow River Valley along a series of boardwalks and ungroomed trails.
Johnston Canyon is easily accessible via the Trans Canada Highway in both winter and the summer period.
Drive here to see the most amazing views of frozen waterfalls, one of the best Banff hikes you can can do and if you head here in winter in particular, strap on some snow shoes and go hiking in the snow to Johnston Canyon in what is one of the best things to do in Banff.
8) Take a drive to Lake Minnewanka
One of the closets and largest lakes in the Canadian Rockies, Lake Minnewanka is a glacier fed lake by the on the outskirts of downtown banff.
A short 15 minute drive following Lake Minnewanka scenic drive road will also take you past Two Jack lake on your way out.
Lake Minnewanka feels like it holds the most activities of all the lakes in Banff, everything from scuba diving a hidden underwater world, picnics by the river, rental boat hire, a number of world class hikes and lookouts, and epic mountain biking trails.
If you’re the adventurous type, you can certainly fill your day with epic outdoor day activities like Kayaking along the lake, fishing for lake trout on some of the more popular fishing tours on Lake MInnewanka, camping in the many designated campgrounds in the national park, and ice-skating during the winter months.
If you’re a mountain biking fanatic, Banff has some of the best trails in Canada.
The lake Minnewanka route is a super popular route that takes you along the easy 3 km Rocky Mountain Legacy Trail from the town of Banff, to the Cascade Ponds connector at the beginning of the lake.
Get some extra calories burnt by continuing a further 6 km to the Lake Minnewanka parking lot from the Cascade ponds to see more of Canada’s first park.
READ NEXT: Check out our recently published guide on the best spots to visit in downtown Edmonton Alberta
9) Soak in the Banff Upper Hot Springs
Nothing says peace and serenity more than an a frosty early morning dip at the world famous Banff Upper Hot Springs on the southern outskirts of town. The Unesco world heritage site is a top attraction in the Rockies.
The banff upper hot springs are so unique because they are fed from the natural geothermal spring water heated deep from under Sulphur mountain – of which the water has not seen daylight for hundreds of years before it comes to the surface.
To this day the Banff upper hot springs are the only natural hot springs open to the public within Banff national park.
On site is available wheelchair access, a cafe and store with public hire towels, locker and change rooms afterwards.
If you visit Banff during the winter time (especially winter) and you’re wondering what to do in Banff to curb the cold then we highly recommend a trip to the hot springs for half a day.
10) Ride the Gondola up Sulphur Mountain
This awesome outdoor adventure includes 360 panoramic views over the Banff landscapes all from the top of Sulphur Mountain.
Banff gondola has been rated the number one attraction in all Banff national park.
Traverse the 7500 ft tall Banff Gondola ride that sits at the base of Sulphur mountain in 4 person gondolas admiring the snow covered peaks of the mountains, pine trees and wildlife that live below.
Once at the top you can enjoy the cafe, restaurant and short hiking trails and even visit the new Cosmic ray station, an historic site that was built for tourists to observe the cosmic rays over the Canadian Rocky mountains.
The boardwalk at the top of the mountain gives you insane panoramic views over much of the national park.
If you’re climbing this high to get something to eat then why not try the Northern Lights Alpine kitchen or the Sky Bistro instead.
The number one attraction in Banff also attracts a hefty ticket price of $61 CAD and free for kids 5 and under.
11) Go for a drive on an actual Glacier
Something Laura and myself didn’t get to do whilst visiting Alberta was to take a tour of Icefields in the Albertan Rockies, in particular the Columbia Icefield.
Halfway between Jasper and Banff is, the Columbia icefield -one of the largest and most visited Glaciers in North America that can be explored in a number of ways.
The Athabasca Glacier is one of the ‘toes’ of the Columbia icefield, or the point at which the larger glacial shelf appears to end.
In reality these ‘toes’ are never really ending or beginning, they are in constant motion and have been so for hundreds of years and make an outstanding banff winter activity to be a part of.
The most popular way is by joining a tour of the icefields and ride the Ice Explorer, a huge snow coach with wheels larger than your body to help traverse the icy terrain for an hour.
Why not try the Athabasca glacier walk on either half day or full day tours of Athabasca glacier.
Upon your return to the Glacier discovery centre we highly recommend going for a short walk along the Glacier Skywalk – a glass balustrade with glass floors that juts out from the cliffs with views of the Sunwapta valley.
The walkway tells a story of the rich natural history of the region through geology, hydrology and indigenous culture all from 280m in the air.
12) Cave and basin national historic site
Have you ever wondered how Banff national park was placed on the map?
The cave and basin national historic site is where it all first started, as it depicts a story of human occupation of the area 10,000 years ago.
Banff was the first of Canada’s national parks designated in 1855 and this had much to do with the natural hot spring that exists inside the Cave and Basin.
The beauty of visiting the Cave and basin national historic site is the interactive visual display created within the heritage building that teaches visitors about the importance of the cave and basin.
13) Admire the views over Peyto Lake
It comes as no surprise that one of our favourite not so little lakes is Peyto Lake, situated on the Icefields parkway between Jasper and banff national park respectively at the Bow pass.
Peyto Lake is literally one of the most blue lakes we have ever seen and most certainly the most blue lake in the Rockies, and is remarkably shaped like a wolf or a fox..you be the judge.
Only 1 hours drive north of Banff on the Icefields parkway, the best way to view the Peyto is by entering via the Upper viewpoint beyond the public restrooms and the carpark at the top.
The elevation gain you get from climbing to the viewpoint means both sunrise and sunset will give you awesome golden hour light, and if you’re an astrophotography enthusiast then waiting for a clear night for the stars to appear will produce some fascinating results.
If you’re just starting out on your photography adventure and you’re keen to learn more about astro and the basics then this article should have you covered.
14) Skiing in the highest mountains in Banff
Nestled on the continental divide between British Columbia and Alberta lies Banff Sunshine Village and Meadows, a unique high altitude natural garden set at 2300m above sea level.
During November to May, Banff Sunshine village transforms into a 3000 acre ski resort with 12 chair lifts making this one of the best things to do in Banff.
Come the summer months however the landscape changes revealing Sunshine meadows’ world class hiking trails, mountain biking and scenic chair lifts that take you to the top of Mt.Standish at 8000 ft, the highest accessible chair lift anywhere in the Banff and lake louise region.
Of all the Banff activities to choose from, the highest mountains often produce the most beautiful views; like the ones you get when you reach the top of the Mt.Standish viewing platform and stare down at three distinct alpine lakes –Laryx, Grizzly and Rock Isle.
In fact Sunshine Village is a part of the Big Three Ski resorts in Banff, with lake Louise and Mount Norquay being the other two.
15) Watch sunrise or sunset at Moraine lake
Moraine lake has been photographed at least 4 trillion times and previously featured on the Canadian 20 dollar bill.
Only one hour from the centre of Banff and 20 minutes between Moraine lake and Lake Louise, following the trans canada highway north of Banff exactly 2.7km before the road turns into the Icefields parkway.
Arrive at Lake Moraine early enough to beat the crowds and secure your parking spot and a seat on the boulders that look out towards the mirror-like reflections of the pine trees and the Valley of Ten Peaks placed behind Moraine Lake.
If you want a hassle-free journey planned for you then you should consider taking a Lake Louise and Moraine Lake tour package that will show you the best of the region.
In summer there are plenty of family friendly activities to do around Moraine Lake like mountain bike riding.
The Moraine lake highline trail is a fun yet difficult trek to ride and rated one of the best trails in the lake louise area.
If hiking is your thing then there’s plenty of beginner options to choose from, like the 45 minute round trip Lakeshore path through to the Consolation lakes trail at around 2 hours return.
For more challenging hikes you can attempt Eiffel peak at around 3,077 metre ascent up a 11km heavily used trail, or Mount Temple.
Both of these hikes form a part of the Bow Range, which is a sub-range of Canada’s Rocky mountains.
16) Hire ice skates and enjoy the winter in Banff
Summer months are beautiful in the Albertan Rockies, but the winter season stands out the most here! Jam packed full of activities to suit both young and old, beginners through to the experienced, some of the best things to do in banff can be found throughout the lake louise area.
Banff winter activities really come alive here when most of the great lakes, waterfalls and rivers freeze over in temperatures dipping to -20 degrees (celcius) in the peak of winter.
The most popular lake to skate is Lake Louise, however we’d also personally recommend checking out Bow Lake, Vermillion lakes, Two jack lake, Johnson lake, and ever Bow River.
Lake Louise is the quintessence of ice-skating because it’s so well maintained and cleared of snow daily, and the thickness of the ice is safe enough to have lots of people at ay one time.
No need to worry if you don’t have your own gear, there’s many a rental company in both banff, Canmore and lake Louise that will give you great deals.
17) Hop on the Mount Norquay chairlift
For the most breathtaking views over the Bow valley parkway, take the 8 minute chairlift ride up Mount Norquay and ascend almost 7000 ft to the top of Grizzly bear habitat.
Being the closest ski resort to both Banff and Canmore, a short 7 minute drive from Banff town will get you to the chairlift access point.
Norquay lies NorthWest of Banff and serves as a fantastic winter resort in the cold and also reveals two of the more popular hiking trails during the summertime, the Amphitheatre (15.4km) and Upper stony trail (4.2km)
Mount Norquay is only one of 4 main mountains surrounding downtown Banff, the others being Sulphur mountain, Cascade mountain and Mount Rundle.
One of the best Banff tourist attractions is to take the chairlift at the base of the mountain to the lookout point up top for sweeping views across Banff national park, gaining almost 7000 ft of elevation.
While you’re up here make sure you check out the cliff house bistro for a delicious meal, and for the adventurous at heart climb the Via Ferrata – an assisted climbing experience along Mount Norquay.
18) Climb Banff’s best mountains
If you’ve ever stood in the middle of Banff and faced North you’ve definitely come face to face with the ever impressive peaks of Cascade Mountain.
For the most serious of hikers Cascade is the pinnacle of challenging hikes within Banff for a number of reasons.
Firstly it’s seriously high, with an elevation gain of 1563m to the summit, this 5-9 hour hike covers 20km of hard terrain.
The best time to climb cascade mountain is during the warmer months of July to September – and we heard on the grape vine that if you can see snow on the false summit, it’s not a wise decision to climb as the snow poses a serious threat to climber safety.
Another great way to see the landscape and mountain peaks is a helicopter tour over the Canadian Rockies – it really is one of the best things to do in Banff.
For more information about closed hikes and trip passes visit Parks Canada website for local information.
19) Spot wildlife in Banff national park
In almost every corner of this incredible park is Canadian wildlife and no matter where we go is something we seek in every travel destination.
Wildlife spotting and in particular photographing is best achieved with a long telephoto lens to really separate your subject and fill your frame.
Unlike our home in Australia, Canada is known for its large wildlife encounters, and a walk through Banff national park, or on the trails around world famous lake louise will see you chance encounter with elk, Bighorn sheep and potentially Moose.
There’s always the chance of spotting wild animals like Black bears, Grizzly bears and mountain lions – just make sure you follow the trail heads and keep in mind you share the walking trails with these beautiful but potentially dangerous wild animals.
Here’s a great resource we use to help us prepare for encountering powerful wildlife.
If you do choose to get up close and personal then this wildlife safari tour is a fantastic way to do so with experts in a safe manner.
If photographing wildlife is something you’d like to do more of, we’ve created a guide to help you start your photography journey with the fundamentals of photography.
20) White water rafting on Kicking Horse river
An adrenaline fuelled adventure awaits on Kicking Horse river with class 5 white water rafting activities that are bound to get your heart pumping.
One of the coolest things to do in Banff takes just under an hour and a half to get to from Banff along the trans canada highway.
Whether your an experienced rafter, or a beginner – there are numerous companies that offer tours for a wide range of levels and experiences that extend into the Kananaskis river and Horseshoe canyon.
21) Drive along the Bow Valley parkway
For an alternative and equally enjoyable ride to the Trans canada highway, this stretch of road runs for 50 km parallel to the highway and provides some epic scenic stops along the way.
The Bow River crosses paths with the 1A many times, showcasing the best of Banff attractions like Bow Falls in downtown and the terminus, or where the mouth of the Bow River begins; Bow Lake.
Johnston Canyon is one stop along here you cannot miss by following the catwalk through the lower canyons and continuing a further 1.2km to the upper falls.
To see one of the most photographed spots in all of banff national park, head to Morant’s Curve where you might see a perfectly timed shot of the rail line passing through the shot snaking along the bow river, with rocky peaks in the distance.
This shot of the Rocky mountaineer is even more impressive in Banff in winter time when the trees covered in snow.
Your guide to the best Banff winter activities
When the landscape turns from green mountain side abundant with wildlife to a winter wonderland is one of nature’s most dramatic changes of all.
Hiking in Banff in winter is icy cold and sometimes a little dangerous due to the risk of avalanches and the extremes in weather changes; it’s also when the lakes of the Canadian Rockies freeze over and become the perfect playground.
Banff in winter is incredibly unique – the least not unique of all the winter activities is to hire ice-skates and skate across the frozen lakes from Abraham lake north west of Banff.
If hiking or skating isn’t for you in the winter wonderland then a helicopter tour over Abraham lake to see the frozen ice bubbles that form here every year is an amazing attraction outside of Banff.
How to get to Banff national park
There are only a few options to choose from when visiting Banff and that all depends on how you like to get around.
Firstly if you’re arriving into Alberta you will generally speaking arrive at either two of the international airports.
Edmonton International airport north of Banff is the provinces capital city and a popular choice when travelling interstate however you will be 4 hours from Banff.
The other option is to fly into Calgary international airport, leaving you 1 hour and 20 minutes from Banff.
From either of these cities we personally recommend doing your own road trip into downtown banff because it will give you the most freedom to see the best attractions in Banff national park, like the hot springs or banff gondola.
Where to stay in Banff
Now that you know all the top things to do in banff national park, you’re going to want to know about where the best accomodation is right?
First and foremost we should say that banff isn’t the cheapest of places to visit, but that doesn’t mean you cant find great deals or be comfortable for your stay here when you visit Banff.
Best Luxury Hotel in Banff
Well depending on your budget you can choose to stay at some incredibly beautiful and well known places like the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel to the south of the city.
This castle-like hotel has been welcoming guests for over 150 years and is the most sought after accomodation in Banff – which is why we highly recommend booking ahead of time to secure your room!
Best mid-range Hotel
If you’re not too fussed about complete luxury then head downtown and check out Moose Hotel and suites for the best mid-range hotel a short walk from the centre.
Moose Hotel offers guests a relaxation spa and thermal pool on the rooftop with incredible views of the mountain skyline at sunset.
Canalta lodge is another beautiful mid-range hotel that’s fairly new on the accommodation scene, with an incredible outdoor cabin lodge area complete with a fire pit, multiple hot tubs and insane views of Mount Norquay in the background
Best Hostel in Banff
If you’re a seasoned backpacker then the Samesun Hostel is the place to be.
A beautiful shared common area, modern dorm rooms and private beds this all inclusive dorm style hostel comes in at really affordable rates without breaking the bank.
Samesun have spread to a number of locations across western Canada and offer some of the best facilities of any hostel in Banff.