It’s finally here! My detailed guide on everything you need to know about Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada. This post took a little longer than expected, and I do apologize for that; but I wanted to make sure I provided my readers with the best information that I could. In this guide I’ve included where to stay, places to eat, the top sights to see, and everything else in between. Armed with this guide you’ll be able to put together your own customized itinerary for your trip to Banff National Park.
First off, let’s talk about the park! Banff National Park was first discovered in 1883 when three railway workers stumbled upon a natural hot spring nestled in the Rocky Mountains. It officially became Canada’s first national park in 1885 and is now one of the world’s premiere destinations. Located just 130km west of Calgary, the park encompasses the town of Banff, which is Canada’s highest town, standing at 4, 537 feet. The entire park stretches across 6, 641 square kilometres of gorgeous terrain including mountains, glaciers, ice fields, forests, and alpine landscapes. So, no matter what your cup of tea is, you’ll find something to love about Banff National Park!
Getting to Banff National Park
The closest airport is Calgary International Airport, located a short and scenic ninety minute drive away. Shuttles are available from the airport upon reservation for some of the major hotels in Banff including the Fairmont Banff Springs. A taxi is going to cost you anywhere from $150-$300. I highly recommend renting a car for the duration of your stay, as the park is quite large and some of the top attractions are located far apart from each other.
If you’re coming from the west and in the mood for a really scenic commute, you can take the Rocky Mountaineer from Vancouver or Whistler into Jasper, Banff, or Calgary. The train ride is a once in a lifetime opportunity and definitely worth the hefty price tag. Depending on how many nights and the level of service requested the train ride can cost anywhere from $1,500 to $3,500. The trip is especially beautiful during the winter as the festive train travels through a winter wonderland of mountain valleys blanketed in snow.
Entering the Park
The daily fee’s for entering Banff National Park are as followed:
(all prices are in Canadian dollars)
Adult: $9.80 Youth: $4.90
Senior: $8.30 Family: $19.60
However, for the year 2017 entry to all of Canada’s National Parks will be free as part of the celebration of Canada’s 150th anniversary of Confederation.
Where to Stay
The Fairmont Banff Springs
The epitome of luxury, the Fairmont Banff Springs mountain resort is the perfect pick for anyone who really wants to be pampered. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the world famous hotel stands as a landmark in the town of Banff, known as “Canada’s Castle in the Rockies”. Located right in the heart of Banff National park, the hotel is a short walk from upscale shopping, galleries and museums, and authentic dining in downtown Banff. To read more about the Fairmont Hotels and Resorts located in Banff National Park including the Fairmont Banff Springs and the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, check out my hotel review here.
Located in the village of Lake Louise, the Mountaineer Lodge is the perfect spot for any skiers/snowboarders. The lodge is only five minutes from the Lake Louise Ski Resort and provides free ski shuttles to guests. Other freebies provided by the hotel include breakfast and wifi. The beautiful elevated ceilings and wood interiors give the lodge and authentic wilderness lodge feel. The guest rooms provide stunning views of Mount Temple, Mount Fairview, and the Lake Louise Ski Resort’s Mount Whitehorn. The Mountaineer Lodge also has a sister property in Jasper; the Mount Robson Inn.
Hidden Ridge Resort
With an occupancy of only 107, this cute little resort tucked away from the downtown area of Banff offers many of the comforts of home including full kitchens, larger units, and wood burning fire places. With the ability to BBQ year round, it really doesn’t get any more Canadian than this. After you’re done barbequing in December, you can jump into one of the outdoor hot pools on the resort and enjoy the breath taking views of the Rockies. The resort also makes it easy for guests to navigate Banff National Park by providing them with Banff Roam Transit Passes; an eco-friendly way to get around town.
For some more accommodation options in Banff, check out The Planet D’s article on their Top 8 Picks for Where to Stay in the Rockies.
Where to Eat
PARK Distillery Restaurant and Bar
The coolest place to grab a beer in Banff National Park, the distillery creates their own unique spirits using the purest water from the purest place; the beautiful Canadian Rockies. The camping inspired menu definitely isn’t the most vegan friendly, but for non-vegans the array of wood fired and spit roasted dishes are a dream. The restaurant does have a couple vegan options including salads and veggie burgers.
Bow Valley Grill
Located in the stunning Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, you’ll enjoy you meal with a million dollar view of the Fairholme Mountain Range at the Bow Valley Grill. You can watch your food being prepared by the talented chefs here thanks to a completely open kitchen. I’d highly recommend waking up early for breakfast at Bow Valley Grill in order to see the sunrise over the stunning mountain range.
Banff’s only vegetarian restaurant, this delicious spot is a must for vegetarians and vegans alike. The intimate dining setting and unique share style service make this restaurant unlike any other. Featuring an eco-bar, even your alcoholic beverages come from organic sources. Here you can get comfort food favourites such as nachos and poutine; 100% vegan!
During your stay in Banff, don’t forget to grab some of the amazing hot chocolate that just seems to taste a little bit better in Banff. And you certainly can’t leave without trying an odd but delicious Canadian classic Maple Syrup on a stick!
Things to Do
Drive the Icefields Parkway
One of Canada’s national treasures and the most scenic and rewarding drive in the country, the Icefields parkway is worth the trip. This stretch of highway runs for 232km through the heart of the Canadian Rockies, giving those who drive it access to incredible wild life, pristine mountain lakes, ancient glaciers, and broad sweeping valleys. You can plan your route along the scenic highway whichever way you like, depending on what suits your itinerary best. Some of the most common trips have you travelling from Calgary, to Banff, to Jasper, and ending in Lake Louise. Be sure to check out Icefields Parkway website for more itinerary information and detailed information on where to stop along the way.
Ride the Banff Gondola
Not for the faint of heart, or those with a fear of heights, this stunning trip will have you travelling through the Rockies at all new heights. The eight minute ride up Sulphur Mountain is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Banff National Park. From the upper terminal, the gondola provides stunning panoramic views of the six mountain ranges making up the park, as well as an aerial view of the town below. When you get to the top you may never want to leave and many guests do spend hours enjoying the views and grabbing some munchies at the Altitude 1583 Patio.
Take a dip in the Hot Springs
The hot springs are what started it all, might as well honour them by taking in the steamy mineral waters. There are three hot springs to be found in Banff National Park: the Banff Upper Hot Springs, the Radium Hot Springs, and the Miette Hot Springs. The most popular of course are the Banff Upper Hot Springs. Sitting at 1,585 meters of elevation these hot springs are the highest in Canada. The water that flows through the hot springs is 100% natural mineral water and is kept at a temperature between 37 and 40 degrees Celsius. Be sure to check out the Hot Springs website for hours and entry costs.
Ski or Snowboard
Of course, the obvious one that attracts millions of tourists to Banff annually. Banff is home to some of the most incredible ski hills in the country, hello were talking smack in the middle of the Canadian Rockies here?? The most popular places to hit the slopes are the Lake Louise Ski Resort, Sunshine Village, and Mount Norquay. The Lake Louise Ski Resort is an excellent spot for beginners and pros alike, and located only five minutes from Lake Louise and the Fairmont Lake Louise.
Snowshoe the Continental Divide
Not a skier? No problem. You can still enjoy the stunning views and amazing terrain high up in the Canadian Rockies. Sunshine Village ski resort in particular operates snowshoeing tours allowing guests to snowshoe through untouched powder straddling the Continental Divide. (The Continental Divide is the “line” which determines whether water will flow to the Pacific or Atlantic Ocean.”)
For those looking for a more easy going trip, you can rent snow shoes from many of the hotels and resorts including the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, and go for a stroll across Lake Louise at your own pace.
A bucket list item for many, dog sledding with beautiful Alaskan huskies through breath taking mountain ranges is something you must do if you visit Banff National Park. The most highly regarded dog sledding company in Banff is KingMik Dogsled Tours. They are notorious for their well-executed and knowledge filled tours across the Great Divide Trail. Check them out for the most authentic dog sledding experience in Banff National Park.
Skate on Lake Louise
Take part in Canada’s favourite past time and national sport on the most stunning ice rink I’ve ever played on. The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise rents skates and hockey sticks and has pucks for purchase for both guests and outside visitors. With the lake split into different rinks by snow piles, you’ll have no problem finding a spot for you and your companions to drop the puck.
Sites to See (Top Photo Spots)
Moraine Lake, the lake with the twenty dollar view. If this place looks familiar to you, it’s because you’ve seen it before! The image on the Canadian twenty dollar bill is an image of the beautiful lake. Moraine Lake in the winter is inaccessible by car, however you can make the easy hike up to the lake. Don’t be expecting the famous turquoise waters though; due to its high elevation the lake usually doesn’t beginning thawing until June. Nonetheless, the secluded lake still provides striking views and photo opportunities in the winter. In order to get a shot of the famous twenty dollar view, climb up to the “pile of rocks” and you’ll have the perfect view.
If you’re hoping to catch a glimpse of some of Canada’s array of wildlife, the series of lakes formed in the Bow River Valley are a must. The Vermillion are a wetland, excellent for viewing wildlife. They are easily accessible by car, even in the winter, as soon as you enter Banff National Park. Simply drive along Vermillion Lakes drive and pull over, then step out onto the docks to enjoy the views of Mount Rundle in the background. The Vermillion Lakes are also an excellent viewing spot for the Northern Lights.
I am fortunate enough that on my trip to Banff I was able to stay right in Lake Louise at the foot of the Victoria Glacier. If you’re staying elsewhere I highly, highly recommend making the trip to the exquisite lake. Completely frozen in the winter, Lake Louise is the perfect spot to go for a skate, or even play the good ‘ol hockey game on the most scenic rink. Dazzled by a sparkling ice castle smack in the middle, the Lake is truly a magical place to be in the winter time. Walk out across the lake and turn around in order to capture the beautiful Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise Hotel in the background.
And that concludes my winter guide to Banff National Park. I hope you guys enjoyed and found this guide helpful. For even more help planning a winter trip, feel free to check out my article on how to pack for winter travel.