Backpackers Guide to Banff – Canada

Things to do in Banff Canada

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Banff is a small town located within Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada. Banff offers some of the most amazing alpine scenery in the world, making it a popular destination for mountain activities such as hiking, skiing, snowboarding and rock climbing. The chance of spotting wildlife in Banff, including bear and elk is very high. If you love nature and the great outdoors, you will LOVE Banff. This is a guide on things to do in Banff, places to stay, eat and other travel tips.

 

Things to do in Banff

 

Banff Gondola: The Banff Gondola takes you up 2300 feet and offers incredible views of Banff township and the surrounding mountains.  It’s open daily in the summer from 8:30 am until 8 or 9 pm. Tickets cost around $30 CAD. At the top of Sulfur Mountain, you will find an interpretive walk, unbeatable views of the area and you may even spot wildlife if you’re lucky.

 

Banff Hot Springs: Located up Sulpher Mountain, overlooking Rundle Mountains and Banff National Parks spectacular alpine scenery. The Banff hot springs are a great place to relax after a day of hiking or skiing. The hot springs are open year round and cost around $8CAD. This is one of the most popular things to do in Banff, so don’t expect to have the hot springs to yourself.

 

Drive up Mount Norquay – Yet another place in Banff offering stunning views, and a high chance of spotting wildlife. In the winter you can ski at Mount Norquay.

 

Visit Lake Minnewanka – Lake Minnewanka is one of the largest lakes in the rocky mountains. You can take an interpretive boat tour around Lake Minnewanka, or you can hire your own boat and go cliff jumping – an experience I will never forget. Lake Minnewanka is also home to hiking and mountain biking trail around the northern shore of the lake, as well as six backcountry camping sites for the extra adventurous visitors to Banff. The lake is made from a dam that was built in 1941 which flooded the resort village of Minnewanka Landing, and the submerged townsite is now popular with scuba divers.

 

Party: Banff is renowned for its nightlife. Some popular clubs include Dancing Sasquatch, Aurora and Hoodoo.

 

Walk around Banff Town – The town of Banff is filled with restaurants, cafes and shops, in particular, souvenir shops. You could easily spend a full day or more walking around the town, getting a taste for all it has to offer.

 

Explore Bow River and Bow Falls: Bow Falls is within walking distance from downtown Banff. You could easily spend a few hours exploring the Bow River and admiring the falls. Visiting the Bow River and Bow Falls is one of the free things to do in Banff.

 

Explore Vermilion Lakes: This is a great thing to do in Banff because it is within walking distance from Banff Town. The Vermillion lakes are a great place to get a photo of the lake with Rundle Mountain in the background.

 

Visit Johnstons Canyon – Half an hour (driving) out of Banff, along the Bow Valley Parkway is Johnstons Canyon, an impressive canyon and series of waterfalls. This trail is suitable for families and all fitness types.

 

Visit the Banff Museum – A great free thing to do in Banff is visit the museum. Here you will find stuffed animals such as moose, bears, foxes and birds. It’s Canada’s oldest natural history museum, built in 1903.

 

Check out the Cave and Basin Historic Site – The Cave and Basin National Historic Site is the birthplace of the Canadian National Parks system, which started with Banff National Park in 1885. You can choose from a variety of cave tours, including Saturday night lantern tours, or explore the historic site on your own. The site features interactive exhibits, mineral pools where you can feel the warm water coming from the ground, walks and boardwalks through the caves and nearby woods and marshes, plus a gift shop and a snack bar.

 

Hike or bike in Banff – There are so many hiking and biking trails to choose from in Banff. I suggest visiting the visitor centre to find out the best trail for you – based on your fitness level and time.

 

Explore Lake Louise: Located 40 minutes from Banff is the picturesque town of Lake Louise. See more things to do in Lake Louise here. 

 

See The Ultimate Banff Itinerary – Four Iconic Parks in Five Days

Things to do in Banff in Summer

 

Hiking: One of the best things to do in Banff is hiking, there are endless hiking trails with views of electric blue glacier-fed lakes, rocky mountains in every direction and if your lucky, wildlife. I suggest visiting the visitor centre to find out the best trail for you – based on your fitness level and time.

 

 Some hiking trails in Banff

 

Tunnel Mountain – The trailhead for Tunnel Mountain is located on the outskirts of Banff town so you could walk from downtown. The views from the top are amazing and totally worth the effort.

 

Johnstons Canyon/ Inkpots, located along the Bow Valley Parkway – Waterfalls meet narrow stone gorges in this beautiful and easy hike, which is perfect for solo hikers and groups alike. There are a few different options for this hike, including a short version that takes hikers right up to the first set of falls, or the longer version that extends all the way to the “Ink Pots,” a colourful phenomenon that occurs in some natural pools in Banff National Park.

Distance: 2.7 to 5.8 km

 

Fairview Lookout and Fairview Peak in Lake Louise – I lived in Lake Louise for 2 years and this was my favourite hiking trail. For families and those looking for a shorter trail, visit Fairview lookout. For those looking for an epic adventure, and challenge, I recommend Fairview Peak. The views are incredible.

 

Moraine Lake Trail – Lake Louise – The picturesque image of snow-capped, rocky mountains reflecting off a teal-glue glacial lake is one of the most iconic sights of Banff National Park. Moraine Lake is the name of that famous scene. Needless to say, the Moraine Lake “rockpile” is not only an Instagram-famous spot, but it’s also one of the best hikes in Banff National Park.

 

Rocky Mountain Legacy Trail – This is a longer trail for those with a good level of fitness. The trail starts in Banff and leads to Canmore, covering 22 kilometres. This is a paved and popular trail amongst cyclists and hikers. The trail is a great way to see the Canadian Rockies, with many scenic viewpoints along the way.

 

**For more information on hiking trails, visit the visitor centre and talk to a park ranger. 

 

Whitewater rafting: Banff National Park is a perfect destination to go white water rafting due to the surrounding scenery and flowing glacier-fed rivers. You can choose a gentle scenic float trip or an adrenaline-pumping Class IV rapids on a Horseshoe Canyon trip. Be warned, even in Summer in Banff, the water is cold.

 

Explore Lake Minnewanka: Summer is the perfect time to explore Lake Minnewanka – as previously mentioned.

 

Mountain biking: The Rocky Mountains surrounding Banff are popular for mountain biking (strictly for the daredevils).

 

Canoeing: Hire a canoe on Lake Louise or Moraine Lake for a unique experience.

 

Horseback riding:  If you don’t feel like hiking, you can see just as much on horseback. There are several horseriding tours in Banff and Lake Louise.

Things to do in Banff winter

 

Skiing/Snowboarding: You can easily access 3 ski areas from Banff; Lake Louise, Sunshine Village and Mount Norway, listed in order of preference. If you do visit Banff in the winter, skiing and snowboarding is something you must try!

Things to do in Banff Canada

 

Snowshoeing: I led snowshoe tours through this area for a winter season (13/14). Snowshoeing is always alot of fun, and an adventurous and a great way to explore in the winter. Read more about my job as a tour guide. Some of my favourite snowshoeing adventures included Johnstons Canyon (Bow Valley Parkway), Saddleback Peak  (Lake Louise),  Lake Agnes(Lake Louise) and Fairview Lookout (Lake Louise).

 

Ice Skating: Nothing beats ice skating in the fresh air on a frozen lake, pond or river. In Banff, you can ice skate Downtown in the rink at Banff High School and on the Bow River… both for FREE, how good is that.

 

Cross Country Skiing: Not as much fun as downhill skiing, but a great way to get around hiking trails and through the mountains.

 

Dog Sledding: A unique experience that shouldn’t be missed in Banff is dog sledding.

 

Things to do in Banff Canada

 

Ice Climbing: Johnstons Canyon makes the perfect place to Ice Climb, but you must take a tour as it can be extremely dangerous.

 

Things to do in Banff Canada

 

With all these things to do in Banff, I am sure you will have plenty to do. If you are looking for more, you could take a road trip from Banff.

Road trips from Banff

 

Drive along the Bow Valley Parkway to Lake Louise: This is a scenic drive connecting Banff and Lake Louise, running parallel to the Trans Canada Highway. There is incredible scenery along the Bow Valley Parkway and a high chance of spotting wildlife.

Things to do in Banff Canada

 

Go on a Glacier Adventure along the Icefields Parkway: You can explore ancient glaciers just 90 minutes from Banff along the Icefields Parkway. The Columbia Icefields can be viewed from the base, or you can explore the glacier by bus. Athabasca Glacier is very impressive but also shrinking due to climate change, so get there quickly. You can continue along the Icefield Parkway all the way to Jasper if you would like.

 

Peyto Lake: A great road trip destination from Banff is Peyto Lake, a famous, picturesque Canadian Lake.

Things to do in Banff Canada

 

Yoho National Park – Just an hour from Banff is British Columbia’s Yoho National Park, making for a scenic road trip from Banff.  Yoho is a popular destination for campers and hikers. There are four campgrounds, two dozen peaks that exceed 3000 meters, and over 400 kilometres of hiking trails. Emerald Lake is the largest in the park, and one of the most popular. You can rent canoes at Emerald Lake, or head out on one of the several hiking trails. Lake O’Hara features a backcountry lodge for overnight hikers.

Weather in Banff

 

Summer: June August

Winter: December – February

 

Summer is Banff is unbeatable.  With warm temperatures and sunlight until 11 o clock, summer is definitely the time to visit Banff. Winter can get really cold, however, if you are visiting to ski or snowboard this won’t bother you. Spring is a great time to ski/snowboard.

Recommended trip length in Banff

 

I recommend staying in Banff for 4-7 Days. You could, however, easily spend months exploring the greater Banff region. If you have months to spare, I would stay as long as you can.

Getting to and around Banff

 

You can get to Banff from any location in Canada via Greyhound.

 

If you arrive via Calgary Airport… Brewster bus service takes you directly to Downtown Banff or your hotel. The drive from Calgary Airport to Banff takes close to 2 hours.

 

The town of Banff is relatively small and most things are within walking distance. There is also a public bus service connecting the town.

 

To get around the area with ease and explore destinations outside of Banff town, hiring a car is the best option.

 

During the winter, additional bus services run to help connect people to the Ski Areas. You can easily get a bus to Lake Louise Ski Area, Mount Norquay or Sunshine Village from downtown Banff.

Where to stay in Banff

 

For budget travellers, there are a number of hostels available in Banff:

 

Samesun hostel: Is centrally located, has a bar onsite and is my personal favourite. Samesun have a great activity program, free breakfast and in winter you can get a bus to the ski hill from the front door.

 

HI Banff: Is located 2 kms out of town (however is easily accessible via public transport). I would avoid staying at the HI due to its location, but it does have a great activity program and ice climbing wall set up during winter.

 

YMCA Banff: I have never stayed in the YMCA but it is central and the cheapest hostel. The YMCA offers weekly and monthly rates.

Cheap Hotels in Banff

 

King Edward: Located in the centre of Banff and costing around $60 a night for a standard hotel room with a double bed – makes for a great bargain.

 

And if money isn’t an object then I’d recommend a stay at the iconic Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. The present 778 room hotel was built in 1928 and styled after a Scottish baronial castle. It’s only minutes away from the hot springs too.

 

Search for accommodation options here.
Booking.com

Places to shop in Banff

 

Most of the shopping in Banff takes place on Banff Avenue. Shopping in Banff consists of a ridiculous amount of souvenir stores. I recommend avoiding the shops in Banff and spending your money on activities instead. In my opinion, photos are the best souvenirs.

 

Budget for Banff

 

Accommodation 

$ – Expect to pay around $30 CAD for a bed in a hostel dorm room.

$$ – Expect to pay around $150 + CAD for mid-range hotel room.

$$$ – Expect to pay $500 CAD for a luxury hotel room – the Fairmont Banff Spring Hotel.

Transport

Car hire starts from $60CAD per day in Banff.

Food

You could survive on $15 per day for food if you cook your own meals. One meal in a restaurant will generally cost $15CAD+ – more for drinks. If you are eating out 3 times a day you will spend around $50CAD on food per day.

 

Currency in Banff

 

The currency used in Banff is CAD – Canadian Dollars. Some businesses also accept USD.

Travel Insurance for Banff

 

I recommend getting travel insurance before your trip to Banff. I recommend World Nomads.  If you are still unsure if you should buy travel insurance or not, read this. 

 

Safety in Banff

 

Before setting off on a hiking or outdoor adventure in Banff, be sure to check the weather forecast and be aware of wildlife in the area. Bears are common and it is recommended that hikers carry bear spray. In winter, be aware of the snow and avalanche forecast as the area has a high risk. Always tell someone where you are going and carry a means of communication.

 

Vaccination for Banff

 

Check the Travel Doctor website to find out if you need any vaccinations for your trip to Banff.

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