First off, great choice in destination! Banff National Park is EVERYWHERE right now. It feels like every single post I see on Facebook or Instagram is of Banff National Park, Banff townsite, or everything in between. There’s no doubting that the momentum it gained in 2017 will continue throughout 2018 and onwards. But Canada is a large country, we all know that (and if you didn’t SURPRISE!).
FUN FACT: Canada is roughly 9.98 million square kilometers and has the longest coastline in the world. With so much space and a population of around 36 million people, each of us gets somewhere around 61 acres to ourselves! There is a population density of only four people per square kilometer. Mind you a large portion of that is a frozen tundra, including near the North Pole, which means Santa is Canadian! Maybe that’s why he is so nice?
But this isn’t a winter guide for Banff National Park, this one is a Spring or Summer guide.
Back to business. Being the second largest country means your visit here can be limited, so you need to make the most out of your time while you are here. That’s where we come in with our guide to making the most of Banff National Park in 72 hours. If you don’t have a full 72 hours that’s okay too! Use this guide and select some of your favourite options to shorten it down to 48 hours, or even add extra activities to expand it to spend more time! You can find more of the must-see lakes in Banff National Park here.
We have included everything we can in this guide, where to eat, where to stay (hotels listed at the bottom), and what to do! You name it. Now if you have questions after going through this guide, just let us know! We love answering your questions. Especially when they are about our home and native land, Canada!
A little background about Banff National Park before we get started…
Banff was discovered and established in the late 1800’s and its purpose right from the get-go was tourism. It was discovered due to the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway when a few workers found the Cave & Basin, AKA natural hot springs! They immediately identified the hot springs as a potential tourist attraction. And boy were they right! The Canadian Government then took the appropriate steps to protect the park. It became the first National Park in Canada and the third National Park in the world. Around 100 years later it would be named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Shortly after it was named a National Park the Banff Springs Hotel was built. Advertised as a mountain getaway it was intended to help increase the profits for the railway, and so it did. In fact, it quickly became a top destination in North America, and has continued to be! If you want to know even more about Banff National Park, the Canadian Encyclopedia has a great article you can read here.
So now that you are prepared to wow people with a little bit of knowledge about Banff National Park, let’s dive into making the most of your time there!
72 Hours in…Banff National Park
Arrive at Calgary Airport – 7:00am
Flying into Calgary is the easiest option for getting to Banff National Park, actually, to be honest, it’s the only option. Unless you want to fly into Edmonton and drive like six hours to get to the park. But that sounds straight up terrible. So book your flights into YYC (Calgary’s airport code) and go from there. After grabbing your luggage there are two options to get to Banff, the shuttle bus or a rental car. In our opinion though, rent a car! Most of the time it is cheaper to rent a car than it would be to take the shuttle to and from. Not to mention a lot of sites you’ll want to see in your 72 hours are out of the townsite or in Lake Louise, so make your life a bit easier and rent a car.
Brewster Shuttle Bus: Calgary > Banff Round Trip > Adults $118pp Children $60pp
Banff Airporter: Calgary > Banff Round Trip > Adults $130pp Children $65pp
Car Rentals: Expedia has car rental prices as low as $17 per day!
Drive To Banff – Approximately 1 hour and 30 minutes – Grab Breakfast/Snack – 9:00am
You might be exhausted from your flight, so why not grab a coffee at the same time? Evelyn’s Coffee Bar is one of our favourite stops in Banff! We can never pass through without stopping at Evelyn’s Coffee Bar. Grab a latte (flavoured if you want) with a bagel and an in-house baked cookie.
Check Out The Cave & Basin – 10:00am
Start your adventure in Banff National Park at the birthplace of Canada‘s National Parks. The Cave & Basin is an iconic area of Banff and while it might not be incredibly thrilling, you shouldn’t skip it. This area is one of nine sulfurous hot springs that are clustered in groups on the side of Sulphur Mountain. Due to the sulfur, this area does have a very distinct smell so – warning! There are two pools to view, one inside the cave and the other outside. There are two interpretive trails that teach you the history of the area and a little more about the plants and animals that flourish in the warm springs.
Please do not touch the water at all though, as there are endangered snails who live in the hot springs. You’ll get a chance to dip into the hot springs a bit later!
Explore The Banff Springs Hotel – 11:00am
Another major stop for discovering the history of Banff National Park – The Banff Springs Hotel. As we mentioned above this hotel is full of history and was one of the driving forces towards making Banff National Park a huge tourist destination and eventually cementing it as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are plenty of grand ballrooms, lounges, halls and grand staircases to view. Not to mention you might learn a little bit of the haunted history of this iconic hotel! You can find a self-guided tour brochure here.
Don’t forget to explore the grounds as well as the interior! Bow Falls are located just outside. You might get lucky and catch some Caribou relaxing on the golf course.
Grab A Late Lunch – 1:00pm
There are plenty of lunch options in Banff. But since it’s your first day and you are just getting settled, why not go enjoy a cold locally brewed beer at the Banff Ave. Brewing Company. They brew seven different beers in-house and offer a great selection of pub food that doesn’t feel like pub food. This Brewpub is the first and only in the townsite, so start your trip to Banff National Park on the right foot. This might be a good time to give poutine a try! You simply can’t visit Canada without trying poutine.
Check Bags Into Hotel – 2:30pm
Since it is now check-in time for most hotels and hostels, why not drop off your bags and park your rental car. Some hotels (typically the ones involved in the Banff Lodging Company) will offer you coupon books upon check-in. So you can scope through this book and find some that might suit your fancy! The coupons do rotate so it’s hard for us to say which ones will be current when you visit. Hostels don’t offer these coupon books typically.
Walk Main Strip Of Banff Townsite – 3:30pm
You might as well get some shopping in! There are tons of gift shops, candy shops, and fudgery’s along the main strip of Banff. This would be a great time to pick up any quick trinkets or perhaps get a warmer coat if it’s cooler than you expected and you didn’t pack one! There are so many shops along the main strip to check out.
If you’re into sweet you can watch as fudge artisans create this delicious treat right in front of your eyes on a large marble slab – there are over 50 flavours available. Or watch the man in the white chef hat dip candy apples into a tub of caramel. Maybe you’re more of a chocolate person? There is plenty of hand-made chocolates too! Try a bear claw, a treat shaped like a bear claw that is made from rich caramel, pecans, and milk chocolate. You’ll also find the Beaver Tails Pastry shop, where you can get pastries with deliciously sweet toppings. If you’re more of a salty person, check out Mary’s Popcorn Shop.
Another shop worth visiting is the Banff Sweet Shoppe, which features hundreds of different candies from around the world. Plus a selection of Canadian treats and real Canadian Maple Syrup. Lastly, The Spirit of Christmas, where no matter what season it is you can be overwhelmed with the feelings of Holiday Spirit.
Dinner/Supper – 6:00pm
Food, the joy of life. It’s time to embrace the pure Canadian-ness of Banff National Park with a dinner at one of the most popular restaurants (and delicious) in Banff. The Grizzly House. While it is a bit more on the expensive side – the atmosphere, decor, staff, and experience are worth every penny. They offer a plethora of fondue options including some incredibly unique meats which rotate throughout the year.
After Dinner – 8:00pm
It’s completely up to you what you want to do for the evening. You can walk around the townsite more and watch it transform into a fairytale as the lights on the strip shine, or perhaps take a drive to Vermillion Lakes or Lake Minnewanka to see the stars. (The sky gets darker earlier in the winter months sometimes around 5:00pm so this would be easier in the winter. In the summer stars may not be visible until roughly 10:00pm). You can also take some time to relax at your hotel or catch a movie at the local theatre. Alternatively, if you’re not ready to completely turn in yet and want another unique experience take a look at what the Banff Centre has to offer. You can view their calendar here.
Early Riser – 6:00am
You might be thinking…isn’t this a bit early to get up while I am on vacation? Not in Banff National Park it isn’t! The early bird gets the worm when you are visiting Banff. We’ll have to head back to Banff to grab some breakfast afterward, but that’s okay it will be worth it! Take your rental car and head to Vermillion lakes to watch the sunrise above the peak of Mount Rundle. It is an absolutely stunning view that makes getting up early not so bad.
Breakfast – 7:00am
After taking in the stunning beauty of the Canadian Rocky Mountains, it’s time for breakfast. Head to Wild Flour Bakery on Bear Street (yes that is a real street) and grab a freshly baked signature breakfast frittata sandwich and a latte. They sell out fast, but luckily you’ll be the first in line! Get these as a take-away so you can start heading to your next destination!
Take A Hike – 8:00am
There are a few options you can pick from to truly take in Banff National Park and the exceptional natural sights it has to offer. One of the more popular options is Johnston Canyon. Johnston Canyon is just outside of the Banff townsite and offers an easy walk on boardwalks that jet out from the rocky walls of the canyon. You are rewarded with a crystal clear river, and two large, powerful waterfalls (these completely freeze over in the winter). If you are keen to see more, you can continue on to the Ink Pots, which are pristine aquamarine coloured pools of water. They make a great destination for a picnic! Hiking Johnston Canyon will take around an hour to the Upper Falls and is a total of about 2.7kms with a 217-metre elevation gain, adding the Ink Pots means an additional elevation gain of around 330 metres over 6kms.
A great secondary option for a nice hike throughout the area would be Sunshine Meadows. Now, this option is only available from June 30th-September 24th as it does close for hiking and opens as a Ski Resort in the winter. This is not an overly difficult hike and offers views of mountains as far as the eye can see. It also has a few small Mountain lakes along the way – Rock Isle, Grizzly, and Larix. Located at the Sunshine Village Ski resorts, this hike is not free as you do need to pay to get to the top, either via gondola or via bus. The cost is around $35 (as of 2017). The hike is around 8.6km (depending on what you choose to do) with a 275m gain. It should take you anywhere from 3-4.5 hours.
Between these two options, you may want to decide what else you want to do and see in Banff and how long those activities will take. That will help you determine if you want to do Johnston Canyon or Sunshine Meadows! In our itinerary, we are going to stick to Johnson canyon as we have a lot of other things to fit in!
If you are curious about more hikes near Banff that are fairly easy check out our top 10 picks here.
Lake Minnewanka and Johnson Lake – 10:00am
Take in the sights of the Rocky Mountains in Banff National Park by taking a pit stop at Lake Minnewanka. This Glacial fed lake is 21km long and is one of the most popular sights for hikers, mountain bikers, snowshoers and even recreational scuba divers! The unique blue water sits below a stunning range of Mountains for views that are bound to make your jaw drop! You can take a dip in the lake if you’re willing to brave the chilly glacial waters, rent a canoe and experience the area on the water, or even take a 1-hour interpretive cruise across the lake. Those can be booked here. Alternatively, get ready to hike a little more! Don’t worry it’s not long or strenuous.
Drive to Johnson Lake (which is nearby Lake Minnewanka) and you’ll see a trail or trail markers. Follow the loop around the lake. This should take around an hour or so. The trail is relatively flat making it great for pretty much anyone.
Lunch Time! – 12:00pm
FINALLY! Lunch. We love lunch. It’s time for some PIZZA! Bear Street Tavern is one of our favourite places to get lunch while we are in Banff. It was even featured on Food Network’s You Gotta Eat Here! in 2014, mainly for their pizza’s. So do yourself a favour, pick your favourite pizza and make it happen! They are big enough that two people could share one and be comfortably full. Their chili oil is also…out-of-this-world.
Banff Gondola – 1:30pm
You’ve already been inside Sulphur Mountain by visiting the Cave & Basin, so why not go to the summit now? The Banff Gondola gives you amazing views of the Banff townsite from above and the Banff National Park’s world-famous mountain vistas that stretch across the horizon. It can get windy at the top so it might be a good idea to pack a light jacket if you get cold easily. The Gondola is not cheap! So if you want to save some money you can hike to the top, just keep in mind that will take a lot more time. At the top, there are boardwalks you can walk around on giving you a full 360 view from 2900ft above. Tickets are typically around $56 per adult (prices as of 2017).
Banff Upper Hot Springs – 3:00pm
Your body is probably getting sore from all that walking and hiking you did today. So give it a break by visiting Banff National Parks only hot springs pool. The pool is 100% natural mineral water and sits at an elevation of 5,200 feet, which makes it the highest hot springs in all of Canada. The pool has mountain views that make soaking in these natural waters even better. In the winter watch as your hair develops frost as your body stays toasty warm.
Dinner Time – 5:00pm
There are tons of restaurants in Banff, so it won’t be hard to pick one. If you want something that is a little more reasonably priced with outstanding taste check out the Park Distillery. They base their food off of old-school campfire cooking, so expect a lot of smokey, spit-fired style cooking. Not only is their food incredible but their interior gathers together the history of Banff along with the cozy feeling of a wood cabin. Basically, it screams Canada. They also have an in-house distillery so you can grab a nice cold one. If you’re curious about their distillery they do offer tours, there is a free one that happens at 3:30pm. Otherwise, the tours can be a bit expensive.
Free Time – 7:00pm
Feel free to do whatever you would like with your evening. Maybe do a little more shopping down the strip, head to a local pub like Wild Bill’s to get some late night snacks, beers and to play some pool or book an evening massage at Red Earth Spa.
Drive To Lake Louise – 7:00am
For your last full day in Banff National Park it’s only right to take a visit to the very famous Lake Louise. You might be hungry but keep it together until you get to Lake Louise and pick up your breakfast at Laggan’s Bakery. There are plenty of options to eat for breakfast, from bagels to breakfast sandwiches – if you need a java fix they have coffee and other hot beverages as well.
Moraine Lake – 8:00am
You’re doing yourself a huge favour by getting to Moraine Lake extremely early. This is one of the top destinations in Banff National Park and is probably something you’ve seen before in photos. It is one of our must-see lakes in Banff National Park and for very, very good reason. The spectacularly blue lake sits below towering mountains known as the Valley of Ten Peaks. It’s Instagram worthy, there’s no doubt about that. This place gets super busy as the day goes on and with very limited parking you are better off getting there as early as possible. There are plenty of ways to enjoy the area, you could rent a canoe and see the scenery change as you explore the water, or you can just walk around the lake and take it all in on foot. Renting a canoe is not cheap at all, so be prepared to spend nearly $90 an hour on one.
Lake Louise To Lake Agnes Tea House – 9:00am (or later depending on if you canoe)
Now it’s time to explore Lake Louise! After experiencing Moraine Lake it’s time to head to Lake Louise itself! One of the best ways to do so is to hike to the Lake Agnes Tea House. The trail can easily be found and you can just park in the general Lake Louise parking lot.
The hike (depending on your fitness level) could take around an hour itself and you’d want to include probably another 30 minutes to stop and take in the sites and grab a snack at the Tea House. It’s around 3.6km long with a 400m elevation gain. There are amazing views of the mountain ranges and the lake as you ascend, not to mention a beautiful waterfall along the way. Bring cash with you to pay for a little hydration and snack at the Tea House. Their Mountain Bars are TO DIE FOR. I would hike up every day just to get a Mountain Bar if I could. The Tea House itself has a lot of history, you can read about that here. The Tea House is not open in the winter!
Explore Lake Louise – 10:30am
Now is a great time to walk around the lake and really take it in. The reason we are doing this after the hike to the Tea House is that the crowds do get heavier and heavier along the hiking trail as the day goes by. Starting the trail early also gives you a chance to snap some beautiful pictures of the Lake without it being extremely saturated with tourists. You can continue exploring some of the trails around the lake, you can rent a canoe, and you can explore within the Lake Louise Fairmont Chateau.
Lunch – 12:00pm
You’ve most likely worked up quite an appetite. There are quite a few different places to enjoy lunch in Lake Louise, and it all depends on your budget. One of the pricier options, but offers an amazing view, is the Lakeview Lounge. With large windows overlooking the water, and mouth-watering food, you won’t regret spending a little extra. If you’re a little more on a budget there is the Chateau Deli, which offers soups, sandwiches, and other deli-style options.
Peyto Lake – 2:00pm
One of the last stops on your whirlwind of a trip to Banff National Park, is Peyto Lake. Another extremely famous lake in the Park, and it also made our list of must-see lakes. Just a 35-minute drive from Lake Louise down one of the most famous roads in Canada, The Icefields Parkway. This wolf shape lake offers the same famous colouring as Lake Louise. The colour is due to a mineral called Rock Flour that flows into the water. To reach the viewpoint there is a short 1km hike. Take a few moments to breathe in the mountain air and let your eyes adjust to the beauty of Canada.
Final Dinner in Banff – 5:00pm
Depending on how you’re feeling we recommend two places, one ‘fancy’ sit-down and one quick grab and go. If you want somewhere to sit down and take your time head to the Banff Springs Hotel again and grab a seat at Waldhaus. BEWARE: Waldhaus is EXPENSIVE. When we say expensive we mean…expect to pay around $100 per person by the end of your meal, drinks and anything else. Waldhaus is a Bavarian restaurant with an exterior that is reminiscent of a fairytale and interior straight from Europe. There is a dress code here so beware, it is resort casual which means no hats, sportswear or torn jeans.
If you’re like us and don’t tend to go on two super expensive dinners in one trip, then head down to Tooloulou’s. Tooloulou’s is a little bit of Louisiana in the heart of Banff National Park. Don’t expect the prices at Tooloulou’s to be exceptionally cheap though – however it is certainly cheaper than Waldhaus. Expect somewhere around $30 per person minimum (including drinks). But hey…Banff is expensive! So be prepared. Don’t be turned off by the small size of Tooloulou’s the food is worth the crazy decor and small space.
Soak In The Springs Or Do Whatever You Want – 7:00pm
Now if you’re anything like us, you’re craving another dip in those hot springs. So why not just go and enjoy yourself. Not to mention taking a dip in the springs at night is so much different than during the day!
Drive Back To Calgary – 7:00am
Your amazing adventure in Banff National Park has come to an end. So check out of your hotel and start your journey back to the big city to catch your flight home! If you need a little breakfast maybe one last stop at Evelyn’s will help with the sadness of leaving this beautiful place behind.
Doing Banff National Park in 72 hours is completely doable. You may not get everything you want all stuffed into one trip, but you can get the majority of the highlights stuffed into that small time frame. Make the most of your time in Banff National Park, it’s a beautiful place and there is no reason you need to miss out on anything!
Hostels and Hotels
Hostel International Banff Alpine Centre: This hostel isn’t located near the main strip of Banff, but don’t let that deter you! They offer a Banff transit pass with your stay so getting to and from is easy. The hostel has a really cozy vibe and is well taken care of! Rates start around $35/night for a bed in a 6-bed dorm.
Samesun Backpackers: Located at the very edge of the main strip of Banff townsite, this hostel is great if you want to just be closer to the action. It has been labeled a little more of a ‘party-hostel’ so maybe keep that in mind as well. But rates here start at $38/night for a bed in a 14-bed dorm.
Caribou Hotel: Located just off the main ‘strip’ of the Banff townsite, this hotel is cozy, warm, clean and far enough from the action that it’s quiet. And yet, not too far that walking to and from town isn’t an option. They also have a parking lot for your rental car!
Fox Hotel: Just down the street from the Caribou is the Fox. This hotel is a popular option so book early! It’s popular (in our opinion) because of their Cave & Basin themed hot pool (also called their Grotto).
Banff Springs Hotel: Now this one is the ultimate place to stay in Banff National Park. If you’ve always wanted to stay in a castle in the middle of the Rocky Mountains, look no further! Just be warned, these rooms typically start around $350/night.