The Complete Guide to Banff National Park in Canada

Banff National Park
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From its soaring Rocky Mountain peaks to turquoise glacial lakes, Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada, features some of the world’s most stunning mountain landscapes. As Canada’s oldest national park, Banff has attracted tourists for nearly 150 years.

Today, the park has around 4 million annual visitors and tops the bucket lists of many hikers, backpackers, and other outdoor enthusiasts. In this article, we’ll cover the park’s history and key facts and provide you with all the essential details you’ll need to start planning your visit.

History

Early History

Archaeological evidence has documented human activity in Banff dating to more than 10,000 years ago. Before Europeans arrived, many indigenous peoples hunted, fished, trapped, traded, gathered medicines, and sought the hot springs’ healing powers in the area that is now the park. These groups included the Kootenay, Siksika, Stoney Nakoda, Tsuu T’ina, Blood, and Peigan First Nations peoples.

As European settlers and explorers moved westward into Canada’s more remote territories in the 1700s to early 1800s, they began trading with indigenous peoples and exploring the land for commercial interests. As word spread of the region’s immense natural beauty and natural resources, more surveyors and entrepreneurs traveled to the area to explore its economic potential throughout the 1800s.

Becoming a National Park

While many Canadian mountain towns were established as mining settlements, Banff traces its roots to the tourism industry.

In 1883, two Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) employees claimed to have discovered hot springs on Sulphur Mountain. Following their reported discovery, various groups began to argue over ownership of the land, as local First Nations peoples had known about the springs long before.

These quarrels ultimately led the Canadian government to protect a 26km2 area around the hot springs in 1885, calling it Hot Springs Reserve. Together with the CPR, the government promoted the hot springs as a tourist destination to boost rider traffic on the railway and make the venture profitable. A year later, Banff town was formed as a service center and transportation hub for the region’s budding tourism sector.

In 1887, the reserve was expanded to cover 674 km2 and renamed Rocky Mountains Park. It wasn’t until 1930 that Banff got its current name, and only in 1949 was the park expanded to its present size – 6,641 km2.

Key Facts about Banff National Park

Size: 6,641 km2 (2,564 square miles)

Number of visitors: around 4 million a year

Established on: 25 November 1885

Length of hiking trails: over 1,600 km (around 1,000 miles)

Highest peak: Mt. Forbes 3,612 meters (11,850 ft)

Entry fees: $10 per adult; $8.40 per senior; $20 per family or group; youth 17 and under free (all prices are listed in Canadian dollars)

Lake Louise in Banff National Park

Other interesting facts about Banff:

  • Banff was the first national park in Canada and the third national park in North America (after Yellowstone National Park and Mackinac National Park in the United States). It remains one of the oldest national parks in the world.
  • The park was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984, along with other parks in the Canadian Rockies, due to its stunning natural scenery and geology.
  • Although Mt. Forbes is the highest peak located entirely within the national park, Mt. Assiniboine (3,618 meters/11,870 feet above sea level) crosses Banff’s border with Assiniboine Provincial Park in British Columbia, which technically makes Mt. Assiniboine the highest point in Banff.
  • There are over 1,000 glaciers located within Banff National Park.
  • Banff is the highest town in Canada, with an elevation of 1,383 meters (4,537 feet).
  • There are more than 2,468 campsites in the park, making it an excellent destination for campers.
  • The park got its name from Banffshire, Scotland, a county where two of the Canadian Pacific Railway’s original directors were born.
  • Swiss and Austrian mountain guides first introduced skiing to Banff in the early 1900s, with winter tourism formally beginning in February 1917 with the first Banff Winter Carnival. The event included a large ice palace and winter sporting events, including ski jumping, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and skijoring.
  • The park is home to seven national historic sites: Banff Museum Park, Cave and Basin, Skoki Ski Lodge, Howse Pass, Abbot Pass Refuge Cabin, Sulphur Mountain Cosmic Ray Station, and Banff Springs Hotel.
  • In the 1960s, construction of the TransCanada Highway significantly increased park visitation numbers.
  • Banff has consistently upheld its mandate of conservation and has allowed very little development. Even today, residents of the town of Banff are not allowed to live there unless they can demonstrate a clear “need to reside.”

Climate and Weather

The climate in Banff National Park is subarctic. The area experiences mild summers and cold winters with large amounts of snow. The weather is known for being unpredictable in all seasons, so visitors should be prepared for a wide range of temperatures and weather conditions.

Summer (July to mid-September)

Summers in Banff are often warm and sunny during the day, but cold, rainy weather is also possible. July is the warmest month, with an average high temperature of 23°C (73°F) and an average low of 7°C (45°F). The long daylight hours and mild temperatures make this the perfect time of year to visit for outdoor activities like hiking and canoeing.

Fall (late September to December)

Early fall visitors should expect crisp days, cold nights, and cool mornings with frosts, while late fall visitors will likely experience snow. Nighttime temperatures begin to drop below freezing by October, with daytime highs ranging from 10°C (50°F) in early fall to -5°C (23°F) in December. October is the best month to view Banff’s fall colors, but cold snaps can result in fall blizzards that quickly blow the leaves away.

Winter (January to March)

Winters are cold and snowy, with seasonal snow accumulations reaching over 3 meters (10 feet) in many areas, with higher elevations experiencing even more. Nighttime lows usually dip to around −15°C (5°F) in December, January, and February, but occasional cold fronts can result in significantly lower temperatures. The warm Chinook winds can sometimes bring warmer, spring-like temperatures during the winter months. These warm spells can last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks.

Spring (April to June)

Spring in Banff is a bit of a gamble. The weather can be very pleasant with mild, sunny days, or it can be cold, snowy, and rainy. Typical daytime highs are around 10°C (50°F), with temperatures dropping below freezing overnight. June is the wettest month of the year in Banff, with nine rainy days on average. Since there are many trail closures this time of year due to avalanche risk, spring is not an ideal time to visit for hikers.

When to Visit

There is no bad time of year to visit Banff National Park. The park is open year-round, and when you decide to go will depend on what activities you want to do there.

June to mid-September is the most popular time of the year to visit Banff and is best for hiking, biking, and other outdoor activities (excluding snow sports). Many of Banff’s alpine passes are snow-covered through late June and have avalanche risks. If you want to hike any of the high altitude trails, you should plan your visit between July and mid-September.

December to March is the best time of year in Banff for those interested in snow sports, including downhill skiing, snowboarding, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing. December tends to get the most snow, but snowfall is possible throughout the year and often remains in higher elevation areas year-round. Ski season typically begins in late November and winds down in late May.

If you want to see some of Banff’s iconic attractions, including the Columbia Icefield and Moraine Lake, you should avoid a winter visit – the roads to these sites are closed through the winter months because of potential avalanches. The Columbia Icefield usually opens up to visitors around mid-April, while Moraine Lake becomes accessible in late May.

In spring and fall, the weather is very unpredictable and may not be ideal for outdoor activities; however, these seasons are a great option for those seeking a less crowded visit to Banff. Average high temperatures remain above freezing, but nighttime lows can dip well below 0°C (32°F), especially in early spring and late fall. Skiing is possible through most of the spring, while fall features many different festivals, including the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival (October-November) and Banff Craft Beer Festival (November).

Parks Canada chairs Banff national park

Recommended Gear

Many of the items you’ll want to bring on a trip to Banff National Park are consistent with those you would pack for a typical outdoor adventure, which we’ve covered in detail in our Backpacking Checklist post.

Keep in mind that what you pack will ultimately depend on the expected weather and your planned activities. As a result, the list of recommended gear below is not exhaustive. You should always check the forecast before your trip and pack accordingly.

That said, here are some specific things to keep in mind when preparing for your trip to Banff.

Year-round Items

Sun Protection

Banff has high UV ratings throughout the year due to the high altitude. Whether you’re hiking, kayaking, or skiing, you’ll want to make sure to protect yourself from damaging rays by wearing sunscreen, sunglasses, a hat, and clothing with a UPF rating of at least 30.

Plenty of Layers and Cold Weather Gear

No matter when you’re planning to visit Banff, it’s important to pack plenty of layers since the weather can be very erratic, with large fluctuations in temperature possible even on the same day. In spring and fall, for example, you may experience all four seasons in a single week!

Swimwear

This is an item you should bring to Banff no matter what time of year you visit. The park and surrounding area have some hot springs that are accessible year-round, and many hotels and resorts have pools and hot tubs.

Additionally, there are several lakes that are warm enough for swimming in the summer.

Trekking Poles and Traction Devices

If you’re planning to do any hiking in the higher elevation areas, you should be prepared to encounter ice and snow on the trails even in the summer. Pack trekking poles to improve your balance on icy trails and crampons or other traction devices for your boots to help prevent slipping on ice and snow.

Seasonal Items

In addition to the usual outdoor essentials, consider bringing the following seasonal items with you on your trip to Banff.

For a summer visit:

Even in the summer, Banff rarely sees hot weather. It’s possible that you’ll get a week filled with warm, sunny days, but you should come prepared for cold nights and potential rain. You’ll want to bring:

  • A warm-weather layering system, including: a moisture-wicking base layer or t-shirt, lightweight long-sleeved shirt, fleece or other midweight insulating layer, rain shell, and a lightweight down jacket.
  • Bug spray: mosquitoes can be bothersome in Banff from the late spring to early summer, and remain a nuisance in areas near lakes, wetlands, and on many of the hiking trails until the early fall.
  • Bear safety gear, including a bear canister, bear spray, and air horn in case of a run-in with a grizzly or black bear

For a spring/fall visit:

You won’t need clothing to protect you from the extreme cold seen in the winter, but you should be prepared for fluctuating weather with variable conditions and sudden changes. You’ll want to bring:

  • Lightly insulating gloves, hat, scarf or neck gaiter, a warm, midweight jacket designed for moderately cold temperatures
  • Cool-weather layering system, including: midweight base layer, midweight insulating layer, water-resistant and wind-resistant shell
  • Comfortable pants and long-sleeved shirts
  • Waterproof footwear
  • Bear safety gear

For a winter visit:

If you’re planning to visit Banff in the winter, you should prepare for frigid temperatures, snowy and icy trails, and biting winds. You’ll want to bring:

  • Warm, waterproof boots and gaiters
  • A solid layering system, including: a warm, moisture-wicking base layer, insulating mid-layer(s), and a weatherproof shell with good wind and water resistance
  • A warm heavyweight jacket designed for freezing temperatures
  • Face mask or balaclava, neck gaiter, hat, and gloves
  • Hand and foot warmers that you can tuck inside your boots and gloves
  • Winter emergency kit and shelter in case you’re caught in a sudden snowstorm or other inclement weather
  • Skiis, snowboard, snowshoes, or other winter sports equipment: if you don’t have your own, there are many places to rent gear in Banff, or you can book a guided tour with equipment rental included in the price. You may want to bring your own ski goggles and helmet.
  • Waterproof ski pants: even if you don’t plan on skiing, a warm, waterproof pair of pants is an essential item for winters in Banff that will keep you dry and comfortable while playing in the snow, sledding, hiking, or sightseeing.

Vermillion Lakes in Banff National Park

What to Do in Banff National Park

Hiking, Camping, and Backpacking

Thanks to its 1,600+ km (around 1,000 miles) of hiking trails, nearly 2,500 campsites, and many remote backcountry areas, Banff is an incredible destination for hikers, campers, and backpackers.

The best months for these activities are July and August, but the season runs from around May to September or October. Most frontcountry campgrounds in Banff open in mid-May and close by mid-September.

In some of the more accessible parts of Banff’s backcountry, there are designated campsites with outhouses, food storage cables, metal fire rings (only in areas where fires are permitted), tent pads, and well-maintained hiking trails. Other more remote areas lack these amenities and may require additional gear and advance planning.

No permits are required for day hikes, but you’ll need a permit if you’re planning an overnight trip in the backcountry and a reservation for frontcountry campgrounds. All permits can be purchased online on the Parks Canada website.

Best Hikes in Banff National Park

With so many incredible trails to choose from, it can be hard to figure out which hikes to add to your Banff itinerary. Here are some of the best and most popular hikes in Banff to help you plan your adventure.

  • Helen Lake/Dolomite Pass: Climb from pine forests to gorgeous alpine terrain below Cirque Peak on this moderate 12-km (7.5-mile) trail. You can take a break for lunch at Helen Lake, then continue to Dolomite Pass for views of Lake Katherine and Mt. Assiniboine, a towering peak that resembles the Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps.
  • Valley of the Ten Peaks – Larch Valley/Sentinel Pass: This moderate 11.6-km (7.2-mile) trail features breathtaking scenery, including the emerald waters of Moraine Lake and ten towering peaks, all of which reach heights of over 3,000 meters (10,000 feet).
  • Aylmer Pass: This challenging 26-km (16-mile) hike takes you above stunning Lake Minnewanka to an alpine pass at 7,500 feet above sea level. This trail is one of the park’s first high-elevation routes to become passable in the early summer due to snowmelt.
  • Cory Pass to Mt. Edith Circuit: From lush forests to dry mountain passes, this difficult 13-km (8-mile) hike includes varied terrain and ecosystems. Enjoy unforgettable views of Mt. Louis, a majestic limestone monolith.
  • Plain of the Six Glaciers Trail: This popular 14.6-km (9-mile) out-and-back trail is one of Banff’s most accessible and beautiful hikes. The easy to moderate hike features jaw-dropping views of the mountains around Lake Louise and Abbot Pass.
  • Lake Agnes Teahouse/Big Beehive Trail: This easy 7.2-km (4.5-mile) hike will take you through an old-growth forest to the Lake Agnes Teahouse. Continue to the top of the Big Beehive and be rewarded with views of the Bow Valley and Lake Louise’s turquoise waters.
  • Johnston Canyon to Ink Pots: This moderate trail is 12 km (7.5 miles) long and includes the stunning cascading waterfalls of Johnston Canyon. Continue to Ink Pots to see a series of five aquamarine pools fed by mineral springs and gorgeous mountain scenery.
  • Banff Highline Trail: If you’re looking for an incredible backpacking trip in the Canadian Rockies, consider hiking the more than 100-km long Banff Highline, considered one of the best hikes in the world. The journey will take you past turquoise glacial lakes, craggy peaks, white glaciers, alpine meadows, and forests teeming with wildlife. Allow at least 5-6 days for the trip.

Hiking Safety in Banff

Taking proper precautions to protect yourself and others is essential whenever you recreate outdoors, especially in a rugged and remote area like Banff. Here are some safety tips to follow when hiking in the national park.

  • Make sure to check the current trail conditions, closures and other warnings, and weather forecast before your hike. You can also contact or stop by a Parks Canada visitor center for additional information and guidance.
  • Prepare for potential rain, snow, and high winds even if you are hiking in the summer.
  • Check yourself and any pets you have with you for ticks, as there is a risk of tick-borne Lyme disease when visiting Banff. Read our hiking hacks article for tips on protecting yourself from ticks.
  • Many areas of the park lack reliable cell phone coverage. Make sure to plan and prepare ahead, and consider bringing a two-way radio or satellite phone to use in the event of an emergency.
  • If hiking in the winter, make sure to take winter safety precautions and be aware of avalanche hazards. Avalanches can strike areas above the treeline (2,000 meters) any time of year, but the risk is highest from November through June. Steep, snow-covered slopes pose the greatest avalanche risk.
  • Carry potable water with you or bring a water purification and filtration system, as surface water in Banff may be unsafe for drinking.
  • Bring bear spray and the 10 essentials for hiking with you: navigation, headlamp, sun protection, first aid kit, knife, lighter or matches and tinder, shelter, extra food, extra water, and extra clothes.
  • Make sure you’re familiar with wilderness first aid, outdoor navigation, and wilderness survival techniques.
  • Choose a trail suitable for your group’s abilities and study the trail maps and descriptions before heading out.
  • Before setting out, tell someone where you are going and when you expect to return and ask them to contact Banff Dispatch at +1 403-762-1470 if you do not come back.

Biking

There is excellent road cycling as well as mountain biking in Banff National Park and the surrounding area. The numerous trails range from easy to very challenging. Several companies rent bikes in the town of Banff, and guided tours with bike rentals included in the price are available.

Skiing, Snowboarding, and Other Winter Sports

With 8,000 acres of accessible ski terrain and up to 9 meters (30 feet) of powder, Banff is a popular destination for skiers and winter sports enthusiasts. There are three main ski resorts in the area (Banff Sunshine Village, Lake Louise Ski Resort, and Mt. Norquay), all of which offer Swiss-style mountain charm.

There are also fantastic opportunities for other winter sports like ice skating, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing in Banff. Many of the park’s easier hiking trails become excellent snowshoeing and cross-country skiing routes in the winter.

Wildlife Viewing

Banff National Park is home to more than 50 mammal species, including elk, deer, moose, lynx, cougar, wolverine, grizzly bears, black bears, and northern river otters. As a result, the park is a prime destination for those interested in viewing wildlife. While you can see some of these animals year-round, the best time to see diverse wildlife is in the late spring and summer.

brown deer on brown grass during daytime

Canoeing and Kayaking

The numerous lakes and rivers in the Banff area are perfect for paddling in the summer. Popular canoeing locations include Bow River, Moraine Lake, and Lake Louise, with canoes available to rent at Lake Louise and Moraine Lake.

Kayakers can paddle the clear waters of Johnson Lake, Lake Minnewanka, Two Jack Lake, and Vermilion Lakes. There are also many options for more experienced whitewater kayakers, including Pipestone, Red Earth Creek, and Upper Bow River, with rapids ranging from Class III to Class V.

More information about paddling in Banff is available from Parks Canada here.

Where to Stay

Banff

Banff town is considered the best and most convenient place to stay when visiting the national park. It is located within the park’s borders, is pedestrian-friendly, and is close to Two Jack Lake, Mt. Norquay ski resort, and Lake Minnewanka. With a population of around 8,000 people, the lively mountain town has a fun vibe with decent nightlife. It is often crowded during the high season and does not offer much peace, quiet, or solitude.

Prices tend to be high even for basic facilities, especially in the summer months. Accommodation in Banff is limited, so you should plan on reserving your hotel room, apartment, or campsite at least three to six months ahead of your visit.

Lake Louise

40 minutes west of Banff town is Lake Louise, a picturesque mountain paradise and a popular place to stay when visiting Banff National Park. The town is more remote and quieter than Banff, but offers fewer places to eat and things to do. Lake Louise is closer to Moraine Lake and Icefields Parkway, and it offers easy access to the Lake Louise Ski Resort in the winter.

Like Banff town, accommodation is expensive and limited in Lake Louise and must be reserved well in advance.

Lake Louise in Banff National Park

Canmore

Located only 20 minutes from Banff, the mountain town of Canmore is a great option for active travelers. With a population of 14,000, there are a decent number of amenities available and many hiking and biking trails nearby. However, the town is not as easy to get around on foot as Banff is.

Accommodation in Canmore tends to provide better value than lodging in Banff and Lake Louise. While Canmore can get busy in the summer, it’s generally less crowded than Banff.

Calgary

For those that don’t mind a longer drive and want to combine some urban exploring with their wilderness adventure, Calgary is an ideal place to stay. The city is around 90 minutes from Banff by car. Whether you’re traveling alone, with friends, as a family, or with your partner, Calgary has a wide range of accommodation to suit various budgets and preferences.

Calgary offers the best of both worlds. As one of the biggest cities in the province of Alberta, Calgary has many lively restaurants and bars, cultural events, museums, and other points of interest. At the same time, outdoor activities like hiking, kayaking, rock climbing, and mountain biking are just a short drive away.

How to Get There

The closest airport to Banff National Park is Calgary International Airport (YYC). From there, it’s around a 1.5-hour drive along the TransCanada Highway to get to the park. Renting a car at the airport will provide you with the most flexibility on your visit, but there is also a shuttle bus from the airport to Banff and Lake Louise if you prefer.

Banff is also accessible by train, with regularly scheduled services from Rocky Mountaineer.

For those who prefer not to drive, there is a public bus service in Banff that runs to the town’s main attractions, as well as some other sites like Johnston Canyon, Lake Louise, Lake Minnewanka, and Cascade Ponds.

 

Conclusion

Visiting Banff National Park is an awe-inspiring experience that many adventurous travelers dream of. The park has something unique to offer every time of year, and when you decide to visit will ultimately depend on the activities that interest you the most.

Whether you’re planning a summertime alpine backpacking trip or a winter ski getaway, Banff and its majestic mountain scenery will leave you with unforgettable memories.

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The Complete Guide to Banff National Park in Canada

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