If you love nature and the outdoors, Banff is a must-visit destination in Alberta. Read on for the best things to do in Banff!
Located within the spectacularly beautiful Banff National Park in the Canadian Rockies, the town of Banff has a picture-postcard setting and makes a great base from which to explore the region.
A four-season holiday destination, Banff offers a plethora of outdoor activities, from hiking, biking, and paddling in the warmer months to skiing and snowshoeing in the winter.
Our article is focused on activities you can enjoy between late spring and early fall, when the lakes are generally thawed and hiking trails are open.
The Best Things to Do in Banff
Ride The Banff Gondola
One attraction that should definitely be on your list of things to do in Banff is the Banff Gondola. Built in 1959, the Banff Gondola is the only bi-cable gondola in Canada.
Located at the foot of Sulphur Mountain, the Banff Gondola base station is just a few minutes away from the center of town. You can either take the free shuttle from Banff or arrive in your own vehicle and park in the free lot.
With a total elevation gain of about 2,297 feet (700m), the Banff Gondola takes you to 7,486 feet (2,281m) above sea level in just 8 minutes, with incredible panoramic views along the way
Once you arrive at the top of Sulphur Mountain, you will find amenities like bathrooms, a gift shop, and several dining options.
You will also be able to explore an interpretive center, where you can learn a little about the area’s geology, plant and animal life, as well as the local indigenous culture.
Step outside the summit building to find an incredible observation deck. On a clear day, the 360-degree views are spectacular! Have a seat in the Parks Canada Red Chairs, or in the winter, warm up by a fire pit.
Looking to go for a scenic stroll? The Banff Skywalk is a 1.25-mile (2km long) elevated boardwalk that will take you to Sanson’s Peak and the Sulphur Mountain Cosmic Ray Station. This station is actually a National Historic Site of Canada!
The Banff Gondola is family-friendly and completely wheelchair accessible. However, once you reach the top of Sulphur Mountain, the path to Sanson’s Peak has numerous steps, making it less accessible for people with mobility issues.
The Banff Gondola is open from 8 a.m. until 9 p.m. from June 15 until June 29, from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m. from June 30 until September 5, and from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m. from September 6 until October 10. Advance ticket purchases are strongly recommended!
Suggested by Marianne of The Journeying Giordanos
Enjoy the Banff Hot Springs
The Banff Upper Hot Springs is a wonderful destination for anyone who loves a good soak after a big day of activity in Banff National Park.
This natural hot spring is a large swimming pool with geothermally heated water pumped in.
It is located on Sulphur Mountain overlooking Banff and it is the highest of the hot springs in the Canadian Rockies. It was originally discovered in 1883 when rail workers discovered steam coming out of Sulphur Mountain.
Today Banff Upper Hot Springs is open year round. Dip in the outdoor hot waters while enjoying the surrounding mountain scenery. A sunset soak is gorgeous too. Watching the fading light while the mineral rich water warms and heals your body is divine.
The hot spring facility is universally accessible so people with all abilities can enjoy it. Towels, bathing suits, and lockers can be rented.
The Banff Upper Hot Springs can be reached at the end of Mountain Avenue, 2.5 miles (4km) south of the town of Banff.
The springs are very popular, and parking is limited so take the handy shuttle bus from town during peak tourist season.
Suggested by Karen of Outdoor Adventure Sampler
Admire Lake Minnewanka
Just 3 miles (5km) from the town of Banff, you will find the incredible glacial Lake Minnewanka. Get ready to be in awe of the Gatorade blue color and friendly wildlife!
The lake, one of the most beautiful lakes near Banff, is surrounded by the mountains of Banff National Park and is the perfect place to enjoy a picnic, take a stroll, go hiking or mountain biking, canoeing, fishing, or even scuba diving!
Look for the Parks Canada red Adirondack chairs on the beach! They are perfectly positioned to enjoy the views of the tranquil lake. Do the Lake Minnewanka hike along the shore of the lake to enjoy the views from different angles.
Lake Minnewanka is special in that it is the only lake in Banff National Park which allows the use of motorized boats. So here, you can join a guided boat cruise over to Devil’s Gap, the deepest part of the lake situated on an old glacial path.
Since the lake is so close to town, it is convenient to stay in Banff and access it for the day. However, this means that Lake Minnewanka can get super crowded with tour groups and tourists during the summer months.
To beat the crowds, you should plan on visiting early in the morning or in the evening, after most of the tour buses have left.
But even if you do visit during peak hours, the vast majority of people simply hang around within close proximity of the cafe and parking lot.
If you simply walk a few hundred meters along the trail in either direction, you can easily find your own piece of solitude.
Suggested by Yulia of Miss Tourist
Walk Banff Avenue
Banff Avenue is the main street of Banff National Park and the town of Banff. It runs for about 1.2 miles (2km) through the center of town, from Caribou Street in the north to Buffalo Street in the south.
Along the way, Banff Avenue features many of the town’s most popular attractions, including the Banff Springs Hotel, the Cave and Basin National Historic Site, and the Banff Gondola.
The street is lined with a mix of shops, restaurants, and hotels. There are also a few art galleries and museums. In the summer, it can be quite busy with tourists. But it’s still a great place to stroll around, people-watch, and do some window-shopping.
Stop for coffee at Evelyn’s Coffee Bar or Whitebark Cafe, or enjoy a scoop (or three!) of delicious ice cream at Cows.
The best time to visit Banff Avenue for photography is in the morning. During this time, the area is not super crowded, and you can easily enjoy a nice stroll in the heart of the mountain town. During the day and evening, enjoy the lively, bustling vibe.
Winters bring a unique vibe to Banff Avenue, and although it can be quite cold and chilly, it is still a very beautiful sight. Remember to dress warmly when walking in the winter.
When traveling to the National Park, Banff Avenue is hard to miss. There are free and paid parking areas in town, and of course, it is completely free to explore.
Suggested by Mayuri of Canada Crossroads
Wander Downtown Banff
Even outside of Banff Avenue, downtown Banff is charming, with a mountain view at the end of almost every street. Whether you stroll the streets during the day, or in the evening after the lights come on, you will love wandering the town center!
There are numerous cafes and restaurants in downtown Banff. One of our favorite morning haunts in Banff was Wild Flour Bakery, where the coffee and hot chocolate are just right and the pastries delicious. You can find the cafe on Bear Street.
Along the streets, there are a variety of boutique stores to browse. You’ll find stores to shop for active apparel or outdoor gear, of course, but you’ll also find art galleries, gift stores, and more.
Evenings tend to be lively in Banff Township, when people are back after a day spent out in the park. It’s a great time to stroll the streets, especially when the lights come on.
Suggested by us
Walk the Bow River Trail to Bow Falls
Perfect for an early morning or evening walk, the Bow River Trail runs along the river and offers access to Bow Falls and to the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel.
You can walk to the trail system from many Banff hotels, and use the local bus to return if you do not want to walk back. You can access the trail at more than one location in Banff, but we generally got on the trail at Buffalo Street and Bow Avenue.
From the access point at Buffalo and Bow, you can walk the trail in either direction. The trail offers beautiful views of the river and we saw elk and deer each of the three times we walked the trail.
If you go south, at Banff Avenue, cross the pedestrian bridge to access the Bow Falls viewpoint. The bridge is a stunning photo spot! Continue walking on the other side of the river and you will arrive at the Bow Falls viewpoint, where you can climb the steps to the top of the falls if you choose or enjoy them from below.
Suggested by us
Visit Johnston Canyon
Johnston Canyon is definitely a must-visit when you are in Banff National Park. The hike features beautiful waterfalls and the scenery is stunning.
The creek and waterfalls are at their maximum flow rate in the spring when the snow begins to melt. It is also open in the winter, when you can view the frozen waterfalls!
The Johnston Canyon hike is considered easy to low moderate and suitable for most visitors to the park.
The trail begins fairly flat in the forest before transitioning into a series of catwalks. They lead you right into the heart of a gorgeous limestone canyon that was carved out by Johnston Creek over the centuries.
Along the way, there are tons of viewing platforms and lookouts, offering plenty of opportunities to take photos of the scenic waterfalls and canyon. Take your time to admire the rugged limestone cliffs and the pristine stream of water that cascades down.
Johnston Canyon Lower Falls is only about 0.6 mile (1km) into the hike. If you don’t mind getting spray on you, you can even crawl through a natural tunnel to get a better view.
You will pass by the Upper Falls after around 1.85 miles (3km). This part has more gain in elevation, but the crowd usually starts to thin out.
Johnston Canyon is located on Highway 1A, otherwise known as the Bow Valley Parkway, just 30 minutes from Banff.
Plan your visit for a weekday or early in the morning, because the canyon can get busy.
Suggested by John from Your Destination is Everywhere
Stroll the Cascade Garden
Just a short distance from downtown Banff, the Cascade of Time Garden is a fun and tranquil stroll. The park covers about 4 acres and is made up of terraced gardens built into the hillside.
There are pathways through the landscaped gardens you can walk, to admire the many varieties of plants and flowers up close. The mountains form a scenic backdrop.
if you have the time, you can relax in one of the sitting areas for a bit, enjoying the colorful flowers in season and savoring the quiet beauty of your surroundings. Many of the sitting areas are in gazebos and shaded areas.
The bloom season generally runs from late spring until early fall, and fall brings leaf color. Except when there’s deep snow, the gardens make for a nice walk even when the flowers are not in bloom, because the setting is so scenic.
The gardens are located at the back of the Parks Canada Administration building. Admission is free, and you can also enter the building, which contains exhibits about Canada.
Suggested by us
Catch Sunrise at Two Jack Lake
Two Jack Lake is located close to the town of Banff, making it convenient to visit at sunrise or sunset. It is a picture-postcard emerald lake, located at the base of Mount Rundle.
If you visit on a calm morning, you may be able to get that perfect photo of Mount Rundle reflected in the lake! It’s one of the most photographed locations in Banff National Park.
If you are planning to visit Banff between late spring (once the lakes have thawed) and early fall, Two Jack Lake offers a great spot to swim, go stand-up paddleboarding, or take a kayak or canoe out.
You can also relax on the shore or walk on the beach, although you’ll find it crowded on summer weekends. And don’t forget to look for wildlife: we saw a little red fox here when we visited.
The Two Jack Lake trail makes for an easy flat walk along the shore. While you are sometimes in the trees, you get plenty of water views along this scenic trail.
The parking area is very close to the shore, so Two Jack Lake makes a perfect stop for most travelers to Banff. You’ll find picnic tables if you want to enjoy a meal in nature.
Suggested by us
ENJOY WILDLIFE VIEWING in banff
Banff National Park is home to a wide variety of wildlife and birds. Vermillion Lakes, Johnston Canyon and the Bow River Parkway, Tunnel Mountain, and Sulphur Mountain are places where you will likely see wildlife. You may even see elk and deer in town!
While coming across wildlife is exciting, remember to follow wildlife safety guidelines: you’ll find Parks Canada’s advice here.
While the odds are good that you’ll come across wildlife as you drive or hike in the Banff area, you may want to consider a dedicated wildlife viewing tour.
Wildlife are most apt to be seen early in the day or late in the day, and an evening wildlife viewing tour maximizes your chances of seeing several animals.
You may see elk, mule deer, black bear, coyote, wolf, grizzly bear, bighorn sheep and more as you cruise the roads on your small group tour. There isn’t much walking involved, so this tour is family-friendly and suitable for most visitors to the park.
Of course wildlife sightings aren’t guaranteed, but even if you do not see many animals, the drive through the scenic area at sunset is still worthwhile.
As you drive, your guide will offer information about the Rockies, the wildlife in the region, and even information on how the park is managed.
We’ve done one evening wildlife spotting tour in Jasper National Park and one in Banff and on both occasions we were lucky enough to see grizzly and black bear, elk, and more.
Suggested by us
Visit Vermillion Lakes
Located very close to town, Vermillion Lakes is a series of marshes and lakes that offer a quick respite from the hustle and bustle of the town of Banff. The three lakes are nestled at the foot of Mount Norquay.
Like Two Jack Lakes and Lake Minnewanka, Vermillion Lakes make a great location for sunrise and sunset photography. Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife (look for moose!) and birds.
You can drive right alongside the lakes, stopping at designated parking areas to enjoy the views and take photos.
Some popular activities on the water at Vermillion Lakes include stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking, and canoeing. Especially early in the day and later in the afternoon, the serenity of the setting is soothing.
On shore, enjoy the hiking trails, or bike along the shore. You can also just relax on the shore and enjoy the views of the lakes and Mount Rundle in the background.
The Fenland Trail meanders through the marshes at Vermillion Lakes and makes for an easy walk. Bring binoculars, because the trail is a prime birding and wildlife viewing area.
In the winter, when the lakes are frozen, you may see the methane bubble phenomenon here. Vermillion Lakes is also the closest location to town for viewing the northern lights in the winter.
Suggested by us
Stay at the Fairmont Banff Springs
A grand historic hotel with a stunning setting in the midst of the Canadian Rockies, the Fairmont Banff Springs makes a great base for your stay in Banff.
The hotel, which looks like a stately castle, was opened by Canadian Pacific in 1888. It is one of Canada’s grand railway hotels and a National Historic Site. The original wood building was sadly destroyed in a fire in the 1920s.
Located at the base of Rundle Mountain, the resort has towering mountain peaks as the backdrop, making it a picture-postcard place to stay.
Willow Stream Spa, in the hotel, offers a mineral pool, waterfall pools, and close to two dozen treatment rooms, with an array of pampering treatments to help you relax after time spent adventuring outside.
You’ll find both an indoor pool and an outdoor pool, and the golf course at the resort offers stunning views of the mountains as you play.
There are lots of dining options from which to choose, from Italian to German and local specialties. At the Rundle Bar, you can enjoy afternoon tea, with scones, delicate finger sandwiches, and mouthwateringly delicious pastries.
The holidays are an especially festive time to stay at the Fairmont Banff Springs: the decorations are spectacular. Even if you aren’t staying here, it’s worth visiting to check out the holiday festivities while you are in Banff.
Suggested by us
Drive Bow Valley Parkway
Bow Valley Parkway is a scenic route that connects Banff Township with the village of Lake Louise. If you enjoy taking the slower scenic route, this is a drive you must definitely put on your itinerary for Banff!
This was the original road connecting the two settlements before the Trans-Canada Highway was built.
At just under 30 miles (48km), Bow Valley Parkway offers spectacular scenery, must-stop sights en route, and the opportunity to see wildlife.
We’ve driven Bow Valley Parkway a number of times, and we’ve never gone the length without spotting some wildlife, whether elk or black bear.
Make sure you have your zoom lens or binoculars, and remember to always park safely and view wildlife from the safety of your car if you are driving when you come upon an animal.
While just doing the drive is a great activity, there are signposted pull-offs with interpretive markers if you wish to stop (and we recommend you do!).
You can even bring a picnic to enjoy at one of the picnic areas along the route. Muleshoe is a great picnic spot and an excellent birding location.
Johnston Canyon, which we’ve covered at length above, also lies along the Bow River Parkway. Storm Mountain Lookout has picnic tables, and at Castle Lookout, you can hike the epic Castle Mountain Lookout Trail for panoramic views.
Just before Lake Louise, if you are lucky, you can get the “money” shot of a red train, river, and mountains, all in one stunning frame. It’s one of the most coveted photos at Banff National Park!
Suggested by us
Visit Sunshine Meadows
Sunshine Meadows in Banff is one of the most beautiful places on earth.
Famous for its stunning wildflowers during the summer, and larches in the fall, Sunshine Meadows is a popular destination for hikers and photographers.
Sunshine Meadows is also home to a variety of wildlife, including elk, bighorn sheep, bears, and mountain goats.
The Standish Chairlift provides an unparalleled view at 8,000 feet. It is the highest life-accessed elevation in Banff, as well as the only chairlift with sightseeing access to three pristine alpine lakes.
Hike the trails yourself for the day, or take a guided hike. The views from the Standish Viewing Deck have mind-blowing 360-degree scenery and vistas of the Laryx, Grizzly, and Rock Isle high-alpine lakes.
The Banff Sunshine summer gondola runs from the end of June until mid-September. The best time to enjoy the beauty of Sunshine Meadows is during peak time for wildflowers or larches, when the trails are easily accessible.
The Sunshine Village access road is just 5 miles (8km) west of Banff off of Trans-Canada Highway 1. There is ample parking with easy accessibility to the meadows via the gondola.
A visit to Sunshine Meadows will leave you truly amazed by its natural beauty.
Contributed by Debbie from WorldAdventurists.com
Enjoy the Tunnel Mountain Trail
The Tunnel Mountain Trail is one of the best hikes in Banff National Park and a must-do when visiting.
This hiking trail is considered easy to moderate and is suitable for most visitors and hikers. Due its close proximity to Banff Town and easy difficulty rating this trail can get busy in the summer months.
The Tunnel Mountain Hike is a 2.8-mile (4.5km) round trip with an elevation of 875 feet (267m). The trail itself is quite wide and dry most of the way.
There are some steep sections, but nothing that is overly technical. Small sections of the trail can be rocky or have exposed tree roots so careful footing is important.
The trailhead for this hike is located along Tunnel Mountain Road and there is minimal parking so arrive early in the day to secure a parking spot.
There are many viewpoints along the trail featuring the stunning Mount Rundle and the Bow River. When you reach the top, there is a fantastic panoramic view of the town of Banff which you can enjoy from the two red Parks Canada Adirondack chairs.
Although this hike is considered entry level, safety should always be a priority. Bringing the ten essentials and plenty of water is a must. You’ll also want to bring a camera to capture those stunning views!
Suggested by Rachael of A City Girl Outside
Hike the Sulphur Mountain Trail
Sulphur Mountain in Banff National Park gets its name from the two sulphurous hot springs found on the lower slopes of the mountain and offers a nice hiking route to the summit at 7,486 feet (2,281m).
It is a nice trail that can be done by hikers of all skill levels. Hike up and down, or for a shorter hike, take the gondola one way.
Experienced hikers can walk over the mountain and combine the trail with some other routes to Banff town.
The trail is a very popular hiking route of moderate difficulty located mostly in the forest. It goes up the mountain in a series of switchbacks (zigzags) underneath the Banff Gondola with nice views when the forest opens up.
Expect many people at the summit since hiking is not required to get to the top. You can ride up with the Banff Gondola, making this beautiful mountain accessible to everyone.
On the top of the mountain there are extensive facilities: a nice boardwalk, view points, some hiking trails, and even restaurants, and a gift shop. Being able to buy a hot coffee at the summit is quite a unique feature of hiking Sulphur mountain.
The trailhead to the Sulphur Mountain hiking trail is located just outside the town of Banff. The trail is 3.4 miles (5.5km) one way, 6.8 miles(11km) round trip, and can be hiked all year round.
Suggested by Alya of The Stingy Nomads
Visit The Whyte Museum
There are plenty of cultural activities to do in Banff. One of the most interesting is the Whyte Museum and Heritage Homes.
Located right in downtown Banff, the Whyte Museum is both a showcase for art from the Canadian Rockies and a place where you can obtain a glimpse into early settler life in the area.
Peter and Catharine Whyte were artists and art-collectors in Banff and made a point of bringing artists to the area to paint the dramatic landscapes of the Rockies.
The Whytes began the collection, but also worked towards fostering and cultivating a community of artists in the area.
They lived in a modest cabin, which is still in situ behind the museum, alongside the Moore cabin, which was relocated to the area. You can visit the heritage homes by way of private group tours, by appointment only.
The main Whyte Museum galleries are dedicated to a range of Banff artistic heritage, indigenous art, as well as rotating exhibitions from the large and diverse Whyte collection. There is also space dedicated to new artists. This broad offering ensures that there is something for everyone.
The museum and book shop are open Thursday through Monday, 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. The heritage homes guided tours occur Thursday through Monday, at 11.30 a.m. and 1.30 p.m. There is a separate fee for the tour.
Text and photo by Hannah of Hannah Henderson Travel
Tour the Cave and Basin National Historic Site
Visit the place where it all started for the Canadian National Parks system! The Cave and Basin National Historic Site is easily accessed from anywhere in the town.
The site has been a place of special significance for indigenous peoples for many thousands of years. In 1883, the thermal springs were discovered by railway workers, setting in motion the events that led to the forming of Canada’s first national park.
Visitors today can browse interactive exhibits, view short informative films, and enjoy spectacular views of the Canadian Rockies. There are trails you can walk in the area.
You can’t swim in the pool, because the site is home to the endangered Banff Springs snail. There is a strong sulphur smell as you get close to the pool.
Cave and Basin National Historic Site is open daily between 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m from May 15 through October 15, and from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday and holiday Mondays from October 16 until May 14. It is closed December 25.
There is an admission fee, but the site is covered if you have the annual Parks Canada Discovery Pass.
Suggested by us
Head up to Lake Louise
The village of Lake Louise, which you can access from the town of Banff in about 40 minutes via the Trans-Canada Highway or via the slower but scenic Bow Valley Parkway, is also part of Banff National Park.
We’ve written a detailed article about the best things to do in Lake Louise, but these are some experiences you must definitely consider adding to your itinerary:
Enjoy the beauty of Lake Louise, the most famous lake in Banff National Park. Whether you walk the shore, take in the views from the viewing area, or take a canoe out onto the water, experiencing the magic of Lake Louise is a must!
Just up the road from Lake Louise is Moraine Lake, with possibly the most spectacular setting in Banff National Park. There are several trails you can hike here: the Rockpile Trail is short and offers stunning views of the lake. Parking can be a bear, so arrive early!
Drive the Icefields Parkway, which runs from Lake Louise to Jasper in the north. En route, you can walk on a glacier at Columbia Discovery Centre and enjoy some of the most spectacular views in the Canadian Rockies.
If you don’t want to drive, you can join a guided tour to the Columbia Discovery Centre from Banff. The tour takes you along the scenic Icefields Parkway to the Discovery Centre, and includes the ride to the glacier and admission to the Skywalk, a glass viewing walkway over the Sunwapta Valley. Book this tour now!
Points of interest along the Icefields Parkway you must not miss include Bow Lake and Peyto Lake closer to Lake Louise, and Athabasca Falls and Sunwapta Falls closer to Jasper.
Suggested by us
Do a Day Trip to Yoho National Park
Yoho National Park in neighboring British Columbia is smaller than Banff and Jasper National Parks, but no less beautiful. So if your itinerary allows, plan a day trip to Yoho National Park from Banff!
Emerald Lake is a must-visit in Yoho National Park. Located just a short drive off the Trans-Canada Highway, the lake is set in the midst of towering mountains. Its surreal color will leave you awe-struck.
Go boating or canoeing on the lake, or walk the trail around the lake, to enjoy the beautiful views in every direction. The lakeshore trail is a family-friendly trail.
En route, make sure to stop at the Natural Bridge over the Kicking Horse River. It’s a beautiful photo spot.
Takakkaw Falls are the second-highest falls in Canada. The power and majesty of the waterfall is a must-experience. Bring a waterproof jacket so you don’t get wet from the spray!
Other places to visit in Yoho National Park, depending on the time you have, include the Spiral Tunnels and Wapta Falls. The hike to Wapta Falls is about 30 minutes each way.
Yoho National Park is about 53 miles (85km) from Banff, making it very doable to take in the highlights on a day trip.
Where to Stay in Banff
Peaks Hotel and Suites is located behind Bear Street Mall, away from the main street for a quieter location. Yet you are within waking distance of shopping and dining. Beds are rated very comfy. Some rooms have private balconies.
Book a stay here!
Moose Hotel and Suites is a one-minute walk from the center of Banff, and offers free parking and free wifi. There is an onsite spa and an outdoor hot pool. Some units have sitting areas, and every unit has a private patio or balcony.
Book a stay here!
Rimrock Resort Hotel is located by the Upper Hot Springs. The hotel offers a complimentary shuttle service into town. Rooms are spacious, with sitting areas, and beds rated very comfortable. The property offers an indoor pool and hot tub.
Book a stay here!
More Information for Your Canadian Rockies Trip!
Lake Louise: The Best Things to Do in Lake Louise
Banff: The Best Lakes in (and near) Banff National Park
Icefields Parkway: Driving The Icefields Parkway in the Canadian Rockies
Yoho: A Day Trip to Yoho National Park
Jasper: What to Do in Jasper National Park
Mount Robson: A Day Trip to Mount Robson Provincial Park
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