If creating this Banff itinerary has taught me anything, it’s that I desperately need to head back to Banff and take better, recent photos. With Banff so (relatively) near to my home, I tend to take it for granted. My vacations to Banff are often just that: vacations. A little R&R in a local mountain cabin with good eats and shopping downtown is just what I need most of the time. Banff for me will always be a perfect weekend getaway and never an Instagrammer’s paradise. Alas, that is what it is for many.
While I might use Banff as a spa weekend, rest assured, there are many other ways to enjoy the picturesque Alberta town. I’ve included some of these ways here: everything from hitting the slopes, to hiking, to shopping, to using the National Park as a backdrop to your perfect Insta-feed. So excuse these old photos and dive in to create your perfect Banff itinerary.
Days 1-3 Banff itinerary
Your first few days in Banff should include spending time in Banff Town, in the outdoors, and learning local history. That being said though, you might want to bump up some activities from Days 4-7 if they’re really important to you. When travelling to a new place, always fit in your must-sees first.
Day 1 – explore the downtown of Banff, visit Surprise Corner, Bow Falls, and Fairmont Banff Springs hotel.
It’s always nice on your first day at a new place to walk around and get your bearings. You can very easily see all these spots in one day by walking. In the winter, the weather can be challenging, but bundling up with appropriate clothing solves that problem. I have an old post on my favourite stores in Banff if you’d like to shop in some not-as-touristy places downtown. Warming up at Little Wild coffee shop is a good idea after walking from your hotel, wherever it may be.
The Bow River and Falls area is a great place to seek some adventure and beauty in Banff town. There’s not as much to do here in winter, but in summer you can enjoy activities like river-rafting and golfing. Although, nothing is stopping you in the winter to do a little hiking, and the paths along the river are cleared and sanded. To get to the other side of Bow Falls from Surprise Corner, you’ll have to head back to the bridge on Banff Ave or to the Banff Pedestrian Bridge. From the Pedestrian bridge, there’s a scenic walking path that takes you along the river.
From the parking lot at the Bow Falls Viewpoint, you can walk up a stairway to one of the most unique restaurants in Banff, the Waldhaus. The restaurant is quite expensive, but the pub below isn’t bad. It’s a neat building to checkout and the path continues up to Fairmont Banff Springs.
I highly recommend checking out the Fairmont. Whether to warm up in the winter or use the bathroom there, or to do some souvenir shopping, it’s quite the sight to behold. The resort is one of the only castles in Canada, and you are more than welcome to walk around and read about the castle’s history.
After a long day spent walking around Banff, spend the evening relaxing at a local restaurant. Banff has some really amazing choices, and I’ve written a whole post about it here. I’ve also put the link near the end, so I don’t have to keep referring to it.
Day 2 – hike Johnston Canyon and the Ink Pots, visit Cave & Basin National Historic Site, spend the evening at Banff hot springs.
Johnston Canyon is the most classic hike in Banff, and can be done in any season. The Lower Falls roundtrip takes about half an hour, the Upper Falls another hour on top of that, and the full hike to the Ink Pots takes a minimum of four hours roundtrip to complete. If you’d like to read more on my most recent hike there this winter, check it out here.
When visiting the Canyon, make sure to go early in the morning, as the parking lot fills up fast. This is one of those sights that’s best enjoyed in the off-season. There are so many great photo spots here and it’s a relatively easy hike.
If you do those hikes in the morning, taking about five to six hours including driving to the parking lot, your afternoon will still be free. After a hearty and well-deserved lunch (or picnic at the Ink Pots when it’s warm), head to the Cave and Basin National Historic Site.
Visit the birthplace of Canada’s National Parks and explore the beginnings of Banff’s hot springs. This is my favourite museum in Banff; it’s a great place to learn about local Canadian history and check out a cool cave. Perfect for families or the individual, it’s not to be missed.
What better way to finish off a day hiking than at the hot springs? Especially if it’s winter. The hot springs were what started it all, so I figure it’s a bit about learning Banff’s history too.
Day 3 – spend the day at Lake Louise and Moraine Lake.
I think when people arrive at Banff they assume all of these places are really close together. Canada is large, and so all these things are relatively far apart. Lake Louise is a 40 minute drive from Banff town. But let me tell you, it’s worth every minute. Fairmont Lake Louise is also pretty cool to check out while you’re there.
In the winter, skating on the lake, checking out ice sculptures, taking a sleigh ride, or dog sledding are some really fun things to do while you’re there.
In the summer, canoeing and hiking are king. Get here early to avoid crowds of tourists coming off tour buses. The major buses only stop here for about 30 minutes, so if the place seems to be crawling with people, just wait a bit.
Another 15 minutes up the road from Lake Louise is the even more scenic (and often neglected) Moraine Lake. It’s not open in the winter unfortunately, but is beautiful in the summer and early fall. Some of the best hikes in all of Banff National Park leave from this spot. I’ll bring them up later, as you probably won’t have time on your first day in the area to do them all. If you can squeeze them in, I urge you to make it part of your Banff itinerary!
Add Days 4-5
Day 4 – explore Tunnel Mountain, Vermillion Lakes, and Sulphur Mountain.
Tunnel Mountain is a small hill compared to the rest of the mountains in this Banff itinerary. It’s a great location just outside of downtown Banff for more budget friendly accommodation. While it takes a bit longer to get downtown, the hotels here have free parking and are often roomier. If you aren’t staying on the Mountain, I’d recommend a drive around the ring road to take in the sights.
Another (much bigger) mountain in the Banff town vicinity is Sulphur Mountain. The summit can be reached by foot or gondola; the hike up takes about two hours and it’s extremely steep. The view from the top is so worthwhile. Over the last couple years, they’ve opened up a restaurant at the top! I have yet to go, so I’d like to hear how it is if you do!
Vermillion Lakes Scenic Drive is on the outskirts of the town of Banff. You can walk it or drive it, and it’s pretty any time of year. It’s usually empty and often forgotten.
Day 5 – choose an adventure.
A trip to Banff wouldn’t be complete without some adventure. Whether that’s skiing, snowshoeing, dog sledding, sleigh-riding, skating, helicoptering, snow tubing, snowmobiling, ice climbing or ice fishing in the winter, it’s up to you. Canadians take winter seriously.
In the summer, the options are endless. Here are a few for you to consider: whitewater rafting, canoeing or kayaking, helicoptering, horseback riding, lake cruising, wildlife touring, ATVing, cave touring, hiking, biking, fishing, and ziplining.
The most important thing is to be prepared and dress for the occasion, and to have fun!
Add Days 6-7
At this point, I would actually suggest spending the rest of your trip either in Yoho National Park or in Jasper National Park. If this is going to be your only trip to the area, I’d highly recommend driving the 3.5 hours drive to Jasper along the Icefields Parkway and spend the night, returning down to Banff the following day.
Another alternative would be to spend a little time away from technology and immerse yourself in a secluded paradise in the middle of the Rockies, at Emerald Lake Lodge.
Since this is a Banff itinerary though, I’ll share some things you can do without ever leaving the park.
Day 6 – spend a day in Canmore or head back to Lake Louise area for another hike.
Remember those hiking options from Moraine Lake that I mentioned earlier? Well here they are. Larch Valley to Sentinel Pass is the more challenging of the two, and is much longer at six hours roundtrip (four if you stop at Larch Valley). You can actually hike down a different way through Paradise Valley, but it only works if you have someone picking you up at the other end.
The Consolation Lakes hike from Moraine Lake is a much flatter and shorter walk. It’s about two hours roundtrip. This one can get more congested in the summer, and again, best to do it first thing in the morning or in the off-season. Early fall is a beautiful time to do both of these hikes.
On the other hand, a nice and easy trip into Canmore is just the thing to relax or get a bit more shopping in. Although not actually in the parks, it’s just on the outskirts and is a nice stop between Calgary and Banff. The best poutine in the Rockies can be found in Canmore at one of my favourite pubs.
Day 7 – visit Lake Minnewanka, do some shopping.
When doing research for this Banff itinerary, everyone and their Grandma talks about Lake Minnewanka. I have yet to go there *GASP*. I have no idea why I haven’t been yet, because it looks amazing. You can read up on it here.
At this point in your Banff itinerary, it’s really up to you to add things to do that make you happy. I like to book myself in at the spa after a long day hiking. But that’s probably just me.
Getting around for your Banff itinerary
While there are some options for not driving in Banff, especially if you do just days 1, 2, and 4, having a vehicle at your disposal will make your trip far easier and more enjoyable. Banff town has a great public transit system that stops at most hotels along Tunnel Mountain and in the downtown area, but getting to some of the faraway spots can be a bit trickier and you’ll probably have to book a tour. If you’re flying into Calgary (the closest city with a major airport), it would be best to rent a car and drive in from there.
Where to stay in Banff National Park
Y’all know I’m a fan of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Resorts (you can read about my stays here and here). If you can catch them on a sale, their resorts at Tunnel Mountain, Lake Louise, and Emerald Lake make for a relaxing and authentic getaway.
For our budget friendly travellers, my favourites are the Canalta Lodge, Banff International Hostel, or anywhere on Tunnel Mountain (on sale). Banff isn’t the most affordable destination, but the key is to travel in the off-season and watch for sales (I do constantly!).
The off-season (for those wondering) is March through May and September through November. December to February is often busy with skiers and those on Christmas and school breaks. June to August is by far the busiest with masses of Instagram hikers and bus tourists who never read this awesome Banff itinerary.
Where to eat in Banff
I’ve written a whole post on all the restaurants in Banff, check it out here. A good portion of your Banff itinerary should be focused on eating all that delicious new Canadian fare. Don’t forget to pick up some Beaver Tails at some point!
Read more on Banff National Park:
Older Banff posts here.