The first time I saw photos of its snow-capped mountain peaks, turquoise glacial lakes and alpine meadows, I knew I had to go and explore Banff National Park. So for my birthday last May, my sister and I planned a two week trip to the Canadian Rockies. We spent 4 days in Banff before heading up north to Jasper National Park.
Words can’t really describe how beautiful Banff is or the sense of awe that you feel as you enter the park. We spent four days hiking and exploring Banff and every day we were left speechless at its natural beauty.
You could spend weeks exploring the park but if you only have a few days then this 4 day itinerary will help you see the best of Banff.
4 days in Banff: planning your trip
How to get to Banff
We flew from London directly to Calgary International Airport (YYC) which is the closest airport to Banff. The national park is a 90 minute drive west of Calgary (140km or 87 miles) along the TransCanada Highway. The Banff Airporter shuttle runs every hour and takes you directly from the airport to Banff and Lake Louise. It takes 2 hours and costs $67.99. The other option is to hire a car from Calgary and drive to Banff. If you choose to do this you will need to purchase a Parks Pass to enter the national park. You can find all the details on their website.
How to get around Banff
The easiest way to get around Banff is by car but if you don’t want to drive then you can use public transport. This is what we did as we were a bit hesitant about driving out there, although in hindsight we didn’t need to worry as the roads are wide and easy to drive on. I’ve written a blog post on how we got around without a car which you can read here.
Where to stay in Banff
From hostels to hotels, there are plenty of places to choose from. However, Banff has become a very popular tourist destination so accommodation can be expensive and places tend to get booked up quickly so I would recommend booking as soon as you can. We stayed at A Good Nite’s Rest Bed and Breakfast which is a 15 minute walk from Banff Avenue. It is run by a lovely family who went above and beyond to make our stay as comfortable as possible. Wifi and breakfast are included and the rooms were very comfortable so I would highly recommend staying there if you are in Banff.
Your Banff Itinerary
Day 1: Explore Banff Avenue and hit the local trails
Although most of the shops don’t open until 9am, get up early and head down to Banff Avenue. It gets very busy from 10am so the best time to admire this picturesque street is early in the morning. The roads are very quiet and there is hardly anyone else about which means you can get some lovely shots looking down the avenue to the imposing Cascade Mountain. There are plenty of coffee shops where you can enjoy some breakfast and watch the town come to life. Banff has a wide variety of shops and although it can feel a little touristy at times, if you wander down some of the side streets you can find beautiful art galleries and shops selling genuine Canadian goods. There are lots of sports shops where you can hire bikes and outdoor gear for a reasonable price.
There are lots of lovely walking trails which start from the town. This map is really helpful and shows you all the different trails around Banff. Start with the Bow River trail as it begins at the end of Banff Avenue and leads to Surprise Corner. This is the viewpoint where most of the famous photos of the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel have been taken. At the end of the avenue, turn left just before the bridge and you’ll find the lovely trail with lots of benches and deer grazing on the grass. It’s so calm and peaceful that you can easily forget that the bustling Banff Avenue is only 5 minutes away.
Follow the trail along for about 1.2km (0.7 miles) until you come to some steps which take you up to the road (Buffalo Street). Carry on walking up the road until you get to Surprise Corner viewpoint on the corner of the road, and there in front of you is the historic Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. It’s a pretty dramatic sight with the rushing white water of Bow Falls.
The Hoodoos trail is another great trail. It starts from the car park next to Surprise Corner and runs along the river to Tunnel Mountain road.
If you want to really see how spectacular the falls are, head back down to the river and cross over the bridge at the south end of Banff Avenue onto the grassy embankment to the left. Follow the trail along the Bow River, up some steps to a point above the falls. The view looking down over the waterfall is mesmerising. If you follow the steps down, you’ll reach the south shore of the river where you can take in the views of the meandering river and listen to the roaring rapids.
Day 2: Hike up Sulphur Mountain for incredible views
Don’t worry, if you don’t fancy hiking up the mountain you can take the gondola! It costs $64 each for a return but it was definitely worth it and one of the best things we did in Banff. We knew it would be busy as it’s such a popular tourist attraction so we got up early and walked down to the bus stop to catch the shuttle bus.
The Roam Transit Route 1 runs regularly all year round to the gondola and costs $2 for adults and $1 for ages 6 – 18. There is a free shuttle bus which starts from late-May but we were a bit early.
Although there was a bit of a queue when we arrived we didn’t have to wait very long. There’s a real sense of awe as you step on to the observation deck. Looking out over the Bow Valley, you’re surrounded by massive mountain ranges, covered in lush green larch trees and dusted with snow. The air is clean and fresh and it instills a calmness in you which only comes from being in nature. In that moment, I truly appreciated the vast beauty of the Rockies.
The boardwalk offers breath taking views of the mountain ranges and the town of Banff. We walked all the way to the old weather station, taking in the beauty of our surroundings.
In the afternoon, head to Vermillion Lakes. These lakes are about 2.4km (1.5 miles) from the town of Banff and easily accessible on foot or bike. We started on the Fenland trail and then crossed a little bridge which led us to the lakes and lush marshlands. The trail offers amazing views of Mount Rundle and Sulphur Mountain and on a still day the lakes act as a mirror showing perfect reflections of the mountain range.
Day 3: Take a day trip to Johnston Canyon
The dramatic Johnston Canyon is one of the most popular day hikes in Banff national park. The trail leads to the Lower Falls and then continues to the Upper Falls. From there you can walk to the Ink Pots but unfortunately we didn’t have enough time to go all the way.
It’s a beautiful and accessible trail which leads you through the forest and over catwalks alongside the creeks, up into the canyon. Standing in the middle of the canyon looking up at the towering canyon walls and down to the rushing water below was a memorable experience. As we went in May the waterfalls were still partially frozen which made them even more dramatic. The trail was still icy in parts so we hired some cleats from Snow Tips before getting a taxi to the canyon. (Tip: If you pop into Banff visitor centre and ask about hiring cleats they will give you a discount voucher for Snow Tips).
The trail to the lower falls is quite easy and elevation is minimal. It’s 1.1km and took us about 30 minutes to reach the falls. You can go into a small cave which has a small viewing platform which looks onto the waterfall.
The trail to the upper falls is more elevated but is still accessible. It’s about 2.5km from the lower falls and takes about 45 minutes. There are lots of scenic viewpoints along the way so make sure you plan enough time to walk there and take everything in.
Day 4: Spend the day at Lake Louise
Lake Louise is one of the most spectacular sights in the Canadian Rockies. Despite seeing so many photos of Lake Louise on Instagram, nothing quite prepared me for seeing it in person. When we went the lake was just starting to thaw which was a magical sight. The rugged mountains surround the lake and whether you visit in summer or winter, it is a truly dramatic sight.
Ideally you should spend a couple of days here as there are several hikes around Lake Louise and lots of activities to do but you can squeeze a lot into one day. One of the most popular hikes is the trail to Lake Agnes Teahouse (6.8km roundtrip) but there is also the Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse (10.6km roundtrip) and the more challenging hike to Saddleback Pass (7.4km roundtrip). The area has a high concentration of bears so it is always best to check with the tourist office before setting off on any trails to find out if bears have been reported in the area.
The drive from Banff to Lake Louise takes just under an hour. You can also take the Parks Canada shuttle (roam route #8) which connects the two hubs. It runs throughout the day but the service is reduced in winter so make sure you check the schedule. It costs $16 for an adult and $8 for children aged 6 – 18 and senior citizens.
Tip: If you are visiting in summer then don’t miss Moraine Lake. It is only a 20 minute drive from Lake Louise and is a stunning sight, especially in summer when the glaciers have melted, turning the water to a beautiful shade of turquoise. The parking lot is relatively small and can get very busy during the summer months so be prepared to queue. There is also a seasonal shuttle to the lake. Unfortunately when we went the road to Moraine Lake was closed. We later learnt that the road is closed during the winter months due to the high risk of avalanches and only re-opens at the end of May or the beginning of June depending on the conditions.
Banff is a magical place and is filled with natural beauty. There are so many places to see but I hope this itinerary is a useful starting point for planning your own trip. As always please leave any comments or questions below.