Banff!!! When people from abroad think of Canada, this is one of the places they think of. A picturesque place with stunning wildlife, brilliantly blue lakes, amazing hikes, world class skiing and so much more. This is a tourist destination and traveler’s paradise no matter what time of the year, and people flock from all over the world to get the perfect Instagram photo. I live four hours away and make trips to Banff all of the time because it is world class.
I have been trying off and on again to write this post, because I want to do the little town, that I call a home away from home, justice. This bustling place has magic down to its core, and even just sitting on Banff Ave (probably at Banff Ave Brewing) you can feel it to your core.
So, whether it is your first time to Banff or your hundredth, this is a place that never ever gets old. From the moment you start to get close to Banff National Park your breath is taken away with the mountain peaks. There is so much to do in Banff National Park, and I wanted to lay it all out for you in this ultimate guide to 3 Days in Banff National Park! (Yes, the entire national park!)
A Little Bit of Banff History
Banff National Park is Canada’s oldest national park, having been established in 1885! It spreads through the lower Canadian Rocky Mountains for a sprawling 6641 square kilometers. With towns and sights ranging from Lake Louise, to Cave and Basin, to Castle Mountain, this beautiful place is part of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is truly a place where you can choose your own adventure, from luxury to backcountry to everything in between!
Getting to Banff National Park
Banff is around 120 kilometers west of Calgary and an easy 1.5 hour drive in any season (pending blizzards). Whether you are coming from somewhere in North America, or from a distant corner of the world, if you are flying in, you will be coming through Calgary. This bustling city is a great place to check out if you have the time!
Driving in, you can get to Banff National Park from multiple directions. You can drive 9.5 hours from Vancouver through the scenery of Kelowna and the Okanagan, make your way from Montana in roughly 10 hours, or come down from Jasper in 4 hours down the amazing Icefields parkway.
Wherever your adventure starts or ends, exploring Banff is a must do if you are in Canada!
Getting Around Banff and Banff National Park
There are plenty of ways you can choose to explore this amazing destination, and how you choose to do it all depends on how much freedom you want to have. There are so many tours to go through Banff that it is easy to just pay and go. But the best way to get around is by car! Whether you choose to rent or you drive down yourself, having a car will give you the ability to get off the beaten path and get out of the tourist stops and explore!
In the actual town of Banff, you will find it easy to walk around, bus or take a cab. Since the center of town can get quite busy these options give you the ability to have a more casual visit, instead of trying to find a parking spot! You will even find free bus shuttles from the campgrounds in the summer!
Where to Stay in Banff National Park
There are so many places to stay in Banff. From ski lodges to luxury hotels to backpackers, there is something for everyone and every budget. I’ve compiled a few of my favourites to give you a little taste of where you should stay in Banff!
Luxury in Banff: The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel
It is hard to beat the Banff Springs Hotel in Banff. You get to stay in a literal castle! This hotel is absolutely the picture of perfection. Built again in the early 1900s, you are greeted with spiral staircases and sweeping chandeliers as you walk through the doors. The hotel offers a variety of rooms and suites that cater to your every need. Stay Fairmont Gold Class for the ultimate experience.
An Authentic Mountain Stay: Brewsters Hotel
I love Brewsters because they took “mountain style” and hit it on its head! This hotel absolutely “wows” as you walk through the door of your room. Wooden features range from the furniture to the staircases. You feel like you have stepped into a movie scene. My favourite rooms are the loft rooms, where you get a wooden staircase to your bed, and can enjoy stunning mountain views.
A Nice Hotel For the Family: Banff Park Lodge
Banff Park Lodge is often my go-to when staying at a hotel in Banff. It is reasonably priced, clean and welcoming. The beds are comfortable and you often have a view of the mountain peaks around you. It is just off of Banff Ave so you distance yourself from the hustle and bustle of the main street while still immersing yourself into the “Banff” vibe.
Camping in Banff: Two Jack Lakeside
I’ve camped at all of the campgrounds in and around Banff and this is by-far my favourite. You get stunning water views and quiet campsites, with showers, ample firewood and running water! There are a variety of accommodations available from walk-in campsites through to Park Canada’s OTENTiks. But reserve this campsite early to avoid disappointment!
A Perfect 3-Day Banff Itinerary in the Summer
Banff is perfectly conquered in 3 days! This gives you enough time for day hiking, lake viewing, beer drinking and all the rest! You can see the sights, hear the sounds and conquer the mountains of Banff. This itinerary will take you a little off the beaten track, and also let you know of the things you don’t need to waste your time on. But my favourite way to see Banff is to get up bright and early and head out on the road! You are truly in for an amazing experience.
Day 1: Banff Town and Beyond
Hopefully after a good sleep you are ready to jump out of bed when your alarm goes off. You don’t need to wake up before the sun rises today, but getting out on the road by 7:00 am means you will be golden!
Hike Johnston Canyon and Enjoying Sunrise!
Right away, put on your walking shoes, comfy clothes and head to Johnston Canyon! This will rev up your metabolism as you walk a short hike through the winding canyon. The upper falls, and the beautiful Johnston Canyon cave, require you to hike 2.7 kilometers each way. You want to allow yourself 45 minutes to an hour to reach the falls, especially if you are trying to get all the amazing photo ops. Now, if you aren’t feeling ambitious, you can stop 1.1 kilometers through at Johnston Canyon’s lower falls which are wonderful as well!
You want to arrive as early as possible to Johnston Canyon, because the two parking lots (over 300 spots) and the road fills up quickly (read: 10 AM quickly!). The earlier you get there, the more likely you are going to have a piece of the trail to yourself to experience. Getting there at 7:30 am, we only had to share the cave with 4 other people which was phenomenal for photo ops.
Reward Yourself With Breakfast At Tooloulous
After you are done your morning hike, head over to Tooloulous in Banff for brunch. This breakfast joint is small, quaint and easy to pass right by at every time but the mornings. During peak breakfast time you will be blocked on the sidewalks walking past with the lineup of people waiting to get a coveted spot, my favourite being the window seat where you can sit and watch people enjoying the mountain town feeling of Banff.
After a waffle, crepe or Benedict, you are off to explore more of Banff!
Head to Cave and Basin to Explore Banff’s History
After eating until you’re happily filled, you are ready to head over to smell the sulfur waters of Cave and Basin and explore a crazy place on which Banff was built. Entrance here is free if you have a annual national park pass, you just have to bring it into the building with you. Starting as a pool and recreation area, the Cave and Basin site, was a hot spring that flowed into the area. You will walk on the paths that wind through the springs and see how people discovered Banff. Give yourself about between and hour and two to explore!
Walk Through the Real Castle in the Rockies
As you head into the early afternoon, make your way to The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel to explore the Castle. This is something I love doing, as it is one of my favourite places, and I love that this was added to Lonely Planet’s guide to Banff this year too. Parking prices are steep, but worth it as you only need an hour or so, unless you stop for lunch!
I suggest grabbing a cup of coffee at Stock (which by my Aussie partner’s standards, serves the best coffee in Banff) and heading through to explore. You can walk through the halls, look over the grand rooms, grab a bite at one of the many lounges or restaurants, see the grounds and do so much more. It is a cool experience to go even if you aren’t staying there.
Head Back to Banff to Drink a Craft Beer
By this point in time, you are probably hungry, so grab yourself a spot at Banff Brewing. This restaurant is perfect for trying Banff made craft beers and the food is also amazing. Try some of the appetizers to graze on while enjoying a flight of craft beer. Banff Brewing Company is located at the end of Banff Ave towards the bridge.
Finish Your Night with a Beaver Tail
Nothing screams Canada like getting your paws on a beaver tail. With two locations on Banff Ave, you can grab a classic cinnamon and sugar or explore a crazy flavour like peanut butter or cheesecake!
Now get to bed!
After feeding your belly, head off for some sleep, you will need your alarm set and your car ready for the adventure that awaits you on Day 2 of your Banff Adventure!
Day 2: The Lake Trilogy: Lake Louise, Moraine Lake and Peyto
This is the morning you’ve been training for! You better have your alarm set for 2 hours before sunrise! Read this as 4 am! You need to be up bright and early with your cameras ready for this amazing day of bright blue Rocky Mountain Canadian Lakes. Seriously, this is the best way to experience these lakes, however keep reading for what to do if you don’t want to wake up this early!
Off to Moraine Lake!
Moraine Lake is located near Lake Louise, approximately an hour from Banff down Highway 1. This lake is photographed endlessly on Instagram and is a must-see spot for everyone in Banff National Park!
You need to try to make it to Moraine well before sunrise, as the parking lot gets super full and it is regularly policed by Parks Canada employees! If you aren’t keen on waking up this early, during peak times (read: Summer!) there is a shuttle that takes you to Moraine Lake. This way you don’t have to worry about waking up before dawn and you can grab some breakfast first or have a sleep in. It is good to explore this area a little bit more, and there are a ton of little trails that make their way through the surrounding area!
Now to Lake Louise: The Famous One!
After heading to Moraine Lake make your way to Lake Louise! This lake is one of the most famous in the Banff area and cannot be missed. You will see what all the fuss is about the second you step out onto the boardwalk.
Hike to Lake Agnes Tea House for Tea
Many people take a few pictures of Lake Louise and then move on, but the best way to explore this area is to do the moderate hike up to Lake Agnes Tea House. This tea house was built in 1901 and serves over 100 different varieties of teas. This hike is fairly short, and you should be able to complete it in 1-2 hours!
Grab Some Late Lunch in Lake Louise
While I usually would recommend eating in Banff, you have a jam packed day and there are a few good pubs and lunch spots in Lake Louise Village. For views of the lake, head to the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise and eat at the Lakeview Lounge.
Drive A Piece of the Parkway: Head to Peyto Lake
Take a scenic drive up Highway 93 to the Peyto Lake viewpoint! There are actually two and the best idea is to explore the paths and areas around the viewpoint. Once you have parked in the parking lot, make your way through the 500m return hike to the viewing deck!
Back to Banff!
After exploring Peyto Lake, I’d recommend heading back to Banff. There you can chill out, grab some dinner and enjoy your night! You can check out places like Earls, Banff Distillery or Grizzly House for dinner. I love Earls, it is a chain, but the food is always on point and the cocktail selection can’t be beat. Whereas Banff Distillery offers a variety of Gin that is distilled right there. Grizzly House is a fancy night out of Canadian classics and fondue.
Day 3: Hike Your Day Away: Getting Off the Beaten Path
On your third day in Banff, you are ready to get off the beaten path and explore some of the amazing sites. Today, make sure you have a bag packed with all your day hiking essentials including water, snacks, a first aid kit, layers of clothing, waterproof matches, bear spray and a flashlight. The conditions in the mountains can change suddenly and heading out onto a trail means that you always need to be prepared!
Grab Breakfast at Melissa’s!
This little breakfast joint is a staple of Banff and the food portions are huge. Enjoy it before you head out adventuring!
Hike Off The Beaten Path
There are so many hikes to choose from in Banff but Helen Lake is definitely a must-do and gets you away from the Hustle and Bustle of the touristy spots! You can also do a longer day hike and start at sunshine village and hike to Healy Pass which is a steady incline on the way in. This hike is 7km each way! If you don’t want to hike this much, take a shorter hike up to Castle Mountain. You can also do Sunshine Meadows which starts at the top of the Banff Gondola and then the Standish Chairlift and has amazing views at an elevation of 2835m.
Check with the visitors center on where to head off to and the latest trail report. There are also tours that take you on a whole range of adventures!
Head to Banff Upper Hotsprings
After you have spent your morning hiking and working up a sweat, chill out at Banff Upper Hotsprings and let the soothing waters wash away your sore muscles. Your time is coming to an end.
Spend One Last Evening in Banff or Head to Canmore
Now you have some time to chill, and you can enjoy Banff, head to Canmore, or maybe you have a flight to catch!