With its snow-capped mountain peaks, turquoise glacial lakes, and alpine meadows, Banff is one of the most magical places in Canada. Words can’t really describe how beautiful Banff is or the sense of awe that you feel as you enter the park.
You could spend weeks exploring the park but 4 days in Banff is actually enough time to see the main sights. I first visited Banff in 2018 with my sister. We spent 4 days in Banff before heading up to Jasper National Park. Since then I’ve been back twice and explored more of the national park.
I’ve put together this itinerary to help you see the best of Banff in 4 days. At the end of the article you’ll find all the information you need to help you plan your own trip. This includes how to get to Banff, how to get around the park, as well as practical information such as safety tips.
Please note: This post contains some affiliate links which means if you follow a link and end up making a purchase, I’ll receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thanks in advance for supporting my blog – Steph
4 Days in Banff: Itinerary Overview
Explore Banff Avenue and hit the local trails
Hike Sulphur Mountain and enjoy a picnic at Vermillion Lakes
Take a day trip to Johnston Canyon
Discover the beauty of Lake Louise and Moraine Lake
How to spend 4 days in Banff
Located in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains, Banff National Park encompasses 6,641 square kilometres of mountains, ice fields and dense forests. There is so much to see in Banff so it can be hard to know where to start when planning a trip.
I’ve been to Banff three times over the past 2 years so I’ve created this itinerary to share my recommendations. This is just a suggested guide and there are many more places you could visit. But if it’s your first time in Banff this itinerary will show you the best of Canada’s oldest national park.
At the end of the itinerary you’ll find a map with all of the places listed here. To save the map, click on the star on the right hand side of the title. This will save the map to “Your Places” in Google Maps.
Day 1: Explore Banff Avenue and hit the local trails
Start your 4 days in Banff with a stroll down Banff Avenue. This is the main street in Banff and is very much the heart of this picture-perfect mountain town.
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.
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.
In the afternoon, leave bustling Banff Avenue and explore some of the local trails. There are lots of lovely walking trails which start from the town but the two below are my favourites. They are short and relatively easy but offer beautiful views of the park. This map is really helpful and shows you the different trails around Banff.
Bow River Trail
The Bow River trail 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 Banff Avenue, turn left before the bridge and you’ll find the trail. There are lots of benches and deer grazing on the grass. It’s so calm and peaceful that you can easily forget that Banff Avenue is only 5 minutes away.
Follow the trail 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. 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.
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.
The Hoodoos trail is another great trail. It is slightly longer and a bit steeper in places than the Bow River Trail but offers incredible views of the Hoodoos. These natural towers are rock formations that have eroded over time.
The trail starts from the car park at Surprise Corner and runs along the river to Tunnel Mountain road. It is 4.8km (3 miles) one way so allow for about 3 hours for the whole walk.
Most of the trail winds through the forest before emerging at the viewpoints. There are a few different viewpoints so keep walking along the trail for the best views over the Hoodoos.
Day 2: Hike up Sulphur Mountain and enjoy a picnic at Vermillion Lakes
Named after its two sulphurous hot springs, Sulphur Mountain has incredible panoramic views of the mountain ranges, Bow Valley, and the town of Banff. At the summit, there are restaurants, observation decks, and boardwalks.
The Sulphur Mountain trail is a moderate 5.5 km (3.4 miles) hike which ascends 655 metres to the summit. It takes about 3 hours and can be slippery, especially in spring and fall. You can check the trail report before heading out. You can take the gondola down for $30.
The trail head starts from the Upper Hot Springs parking area. It is a steep hike full of switchbacks so if you don’t fancy hiking to the top of the mountain you can take the gondola. The gondola climbs 698 metres (2,292 feet) to the summit in 8 minutes. It is open year round and costs $54 for adults and $27 for children.
The Roam Transit Route 1 runs regularly all year round to the gondola and costs $2 for adults and $1 for children aged 6 – 18. There is a free shuttle bus which starts late-May.
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 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. Start on the Fenland Trail which is a 2 km (1.2 miles) leisurely loop near the lakes. The trail starts just off Mt Norquay road and winds through lush marshlands.
After completing the loop, continue to the Vermillion Lakes which are slightly to the west of the Fenland Trail. This network of expansive lakes is a lovely spot for a picnic. There are lots of benches and docks where you can enjoy the views and maybe even spot some local wildlife!
Day 3: Take a day trip to Johnston Canyon
If you have 4 days in Banff, don’t miss Johnston Canyon. The dramatic 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 if you have time. It’s a beautiful and accessible trail which leads you through the forest and over catwalks alongside the creeks, up into the canyon.
I went in May so the waterfalls were still partially frozen which made them even more dramatic. At this time of the year, the trail is still icy in parts so make sure you have the appropriate gear. If you pop into Banff visitor centre and ask about hiring crampons 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 1.1 km (0.6 miles) and takes 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 2.5 km (1.5 miles) 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.
The canyon is a 45 minute drive from Banff town centre. In the summer, there is a shuttle bus that goes from downtown to the Canyon. Route 9 departs from Banff High School Transit Hub and stops briefly at the train station before going to Johnston Canyon. The bus service starts on June 21st and runs every day until September 15th.
Day 4: Discover the beauty of Lake Louise and Moraine Lake
Lake Louise and Moraine Lake are two of the most spectacular sights in Banff National Park. Despite seeing so many photos of Lake Louise and Moraine Lake on Instagram, nothing quite prepares you for seeing them in person.
I’ve been to Lake Louise 3 times and every time it has been a different experience. In winter, Lake Louise freezes over and begins a large ice rink. When I went in May, the lake was just starting to thaw which was a magical sight. In summer, the glaciers start to melt and rock flour flows into the lake giving it its famous turquoise colour.
There are several beautiful hikes around Lake Louise. 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.
The drive from Banff to Lake Louise takes just under an hour. You can take the Parks Canada shuttle (roam route #8X) which connects the two hubs. The bus departs from Banff High School Transit Hub and stops at Banff Train station and Lake Louise Village before arriving at the lake. Buses run throughout the day and you can check the schedule here.
Only 20 minutes from Lake Louise, Moraine Lake is known for its vivid turquoise blue water. The glacier lake is surrounded by majestic mountains making it one of the most scenic places in the Canadian Rockies.
Located high in the mountains, the lake often remains frozen until late May or June. Moraine Lake Road is generally open from late May/ early June to mid-October depending on the weather conditions. The best time to see the beautiful water is from July until September.
There is plenty to see and do at Moraine Lake. You can take a stroll along the shoreline, hike one of the beautiful trails, and even go canoeing. Moraine Lake Lodge offers canoe rentals from mid-June to mid-September which allows visitors to paddle around the lake.
The parking lot at Moraine Lake is relatively small and can get very busy during the summer months so be prepared to queue. I would recommend taking the seasonal shuttle from Lake Louise to Moraine Lake. You’ll need to book your shuttle ticket in advance to reserve your spot. You can find all the details including prices and timetables on this page.
Here are the locations of the places listed above. You can save the map by clicking on the star next to the title so you can use it to plan your own itinerary.
4 Days in Banff: Everything you need to plan your trip
How to get to Banff
Calgary International Airport (YYC) 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. If you decide to hire a car and drive you’ll need to purchase a Parks Pass to enter the park. If you would prefer to use public transport, here are your options:
Banff Airporter Shuttle
The Banff Airporter Shuttle runs every hour and takes you directly from the airport to Banff. It takes 2 hours and costs $67.99 per adult. The shuttle drops off at most of the main hotels and lodges so you can select where you would like to get off when you book your tickets.
Brewster Express connects Calgary to Banff, Canmore, Kananaskis, Lake Louise and Jasper. The coaches are very comfortable and have large viewing windows so you can admire the views en route. It operates every 90 minutes and costs $72 per adult. Like the Banff Airporter Shuttle, it takes 2 hours and you can select your drop off location from a list of hotels and lodges.
How to get around Banff
Due to the size of the park, the easiest way to get around Banff is by car. However, with some careful planning you can get around using public transport alone. In fact, the first time I went to Banff, my sister and I didn’t want to drive so we used public transport for the whole duration of our trip.
The bus network in Banff is excellent and you can see most of the main sights listed in this itinerary using the Roam Public Transit buses.
You can find the current schedule and routes on their website but here is a quick summary of the ones you may want to use.
Route 1 – Sulphur Mountain
This route is open all year and takes you to Banff Hot Springs and the Banff gondola.
Route 2 – Tunnel Mountain
This service runs between Tunnel Mountain campgrounds, downtown Banff and the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel.
Route 4 – Cave and Basin
This route runs daily from 15th June to 16th September. There is a limited weekend service from mid-May to mid-June.
Route 6 – Lake Minnewanka
This service starts on 18th May and runs 7 days a week until 16th September. It leaves Banff every 30 minutes and takes about 25 minutes to get to Lake Minnewanka.
Banff to Johnston Canyon Shuttle
Starting at Banff train station, this service runs daily between 18th May to 8th October. It takes about 45 minutes to reach the canyon and cost $5 for a round trip (free for youth 17 and under).
Banff to Lake Louise Shuttle
This service starts from Banff train station and takes you directly to Lake Louise (lakeshore) with one stop at Samson Mall in Lake Louise village. It runs from 18th May until 8th October and takes 75 minutes.
Best time to go to Banff
Banff is a magical place all year round but there are a few things to consider when planning your trip.
If you want to see the turquoise lakes you should aim to go between July and September. However be prepared for crowds as these lakes attract visitors from all over the world. Accommodation will also be more expensive and often gets booked up in advance.
As mentioned earlier, if you are planning to use public transport then you’ll need to keep in mind that most of the bus routes only operate from June to October. If you plan to go outside these months then you will need to hire a car to get around.
Banff becomes a beautiful winter wonderland from November to May. However, the icy conditions and the risk of avalanches means that many roads and hiking trails are closed.
My recommendation would be to go early in June or towards the end of the season in September or October.
Where to stay in Banff
From hostels to hotels, there are plenty of places to choose from. 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 know your dates. Here are a few of my favourite places to stay:
Something central: Banff Caribou Lodge
If you want to stay in the heart of Banff, this mountain lodge is a great choice. Located on Banff Avenue, Banff Caribou Lodge is only a 10 minute walk to all the shops and restaurants. It’s a beautiful hotel and features a full service spa with a hot pool, steam room and a gym. The hotel offers free WiFi and free passes for some of the bus routes.
Something homely: A Good Nite’s Rest Bed and Breakfast
Located 15 minutes from Banff Avenue, A Good Nite’s Rest Bed and Breakfast is a family run Bed & Breakfast. 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 are very comfortable.
Something affordable: Coast Canmore Hotel
If you plan to spend 4 days in Banff during the summer months, Canmore is a great alternative to staying in Banff. It’s only 25 minutes from Banff city center but offers more affordable accommodation. I stayed at the Coast Canmore Hotel in March this year. It had great facilities and a lovely restaurant and bar. It was easy to get to Banff on the public buses and was a lot cheaper!
Please remember that you are visiting a National Park and there are certain precautions you need to take. Although the city centre is a bustling hub, many of the places you will want to visit are in the wild so you need to make sure you are well informed and prepared.
- Please follow the Leave No Trace Principles during your time in the park. These 7 principles are guidelines to help you plan, prepare and explore the outdoors more responsibly. They include staying on the designated trails, not touching or removing any natural objects, packing out all your trash, and respecting wildlife. By following these principles, you can reduce your impact on wildlife and nature.
- As part of the Leave No Trace Principles, you should know the regulations and special concerns for the area you are visiting. I highly recommend checking the Parks Canada website before you leave for important information about safety in the park.
- Before setting off on any hikes, you should visit the Banff’s Visitor Centre (224 Banff Avenue) to check on the latest trail conditions and find out what gear you may need. They will also advise you of any animal sightings in the area that you need to be aware of.
- You will likely encounter wildlife during your 4 days in Banff. Elk and deer frequently wander the town and are used to people. However, please do not get too close and do not try to feed them.
- There are around 65 Grizzly bears in Banff National Park. Seeing a bear is an incredible experience but safety is the top priority. Bears are solitary creatures and will fiercely defend themselves and their cubs. For your safety and theirs, it is best to avoid any bear encounters. I recommend reading this article on bear safety to make sure you’re properly prepared.
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. If you decide you don’t want to hire a car, I’ve written a detailed guide on how to explore the Canadian Rockies using public transport.
If you’re looking for more inspiration on places to visit in Canada, I would highly recommend a trip to Vancouver. I moved here in June 2019 and feel so lucky to call this city home. I’ve written a guide to the prettiest spots in Vancouver if you’re curious to see what makes this city so special.
COMMENT AND SHARE
If you’re planning to visit Banff and have any questions please let me know in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer them. If you enjoyed reading this post, make sure you pin it to Pinterest so you can read it again later or share it via social media.
LOVE FROM STEPH