Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada has been a dream destination for years, so I was super excited when we finally booked a trip there for 5 days in early June. Now that I'm back in Glasgow I thought it would be nice to share my Top Five Things to Do in Banff. Obviously there are plenty of other amazing things to do, this is just a list of my favourites!
Before I launch into it, here are my top tips for visiting Alberta:
- Hire a car - it's not as expensive as it sounds, and you have so much more freedom, especially when it comes to doing things early in the morning or late at night.
- Pack clothes for all weather - we had weather for every season in the five days we were there and we were NOT prepared for snow!
- Bring a big memory card for your camera - everything here looks like it should be on a calendar, I took thousands of photos.
- Buy or hire bear spray - bear spray is for fending off charging bears! Check with tourist information to see whether or not you'll need bear spray where you're going. You can buy or hire it - hiring it is a better option for short stays and as you can't take it on a plane and you're very unlikely to need to actually use it.
- Go to popular spots early morning or evening - they tend to be quieter and some places close the roads when the parking lot is full.
- Buy a National Park Pass before you go anywhere - to visit any national park in Canada you need a Park Pass and to display it on your car. You can get them at tourist information or online before you leave.
- Get Electronic Travel Authorisation before you leave home - if you're a British citizen you don't normally need a visa to visit Canada but you do need Electronic Travel Authorisation before you leave. There's info on the gov.uk website and Government of Canada website and you can apply quickly online.
1. Lake Louise
We stayed in a hotel in the town of Lake Louise, which is around 45 mins drive from Banff because it gave us easy access to the lakes we wanted to visit and it was much quieter than Banff (great for us old, jet-lagged folk who go to bed at 9pm).
We visited Lake Louise twice during our visit, which is a 5-10 min drive from Lake Louise town. On the first visit we arrived at 8am to go on a hiking trip and it was already pretty busy with tourists around the lake - make sure you arrive early as once the car park is full, they'll close the road. We hiked up from the lake side to Mirror Lake and on to Lake Agnes Tea House (3.5 km) which is a lovely little tea house with a huge variety of teas and home made cakes. They have no electricity, all the water is pumped in from the lake and their supplies are either carried up the mountain or delivered by helicopter.
After a cup of tea, we went on to climb the Little Beehive - it is absolutely worth the extra 1 km of walking to see the incredible views from the top! Overall, the Lake Agnes/Little Beehive hike is steep, but if you take it slowly it's not too bad even for inexperienced hikers like us. The trail is very well defined and if there's not much snow/mud you could do it in trainers. The walk back down is much easier and the whole experience took us about 4 hours.
On our second trip to Lake Louise we climbed Fairview Lookout which looks like a short hike but turned out to be very steep: it climbs about 165 m in elevation gain over 1 km! There's an amazing view point at the top and it takes about an hour if you're looking for a shorter hike.
As a reward for all that hiking we booked afternoon tea at the Fairmont Chateau (52 CAD/£30). We had tiny sandwiches, tea and scones and they have an unlimited dessert buffet; I ate so much cake.
2. Moraine Lake
We went to the beautiful blue Lake Moraine twice. On our first day in Banff it snowed and all the trees looked like Christmas trees on the 20 minute drive from Lake Louise. The lakes are such an amazing colour because of rock flour, which is created by glaciers grinding down rock, suspended in the water refracting light.
Again, coming to the lake early in the morning or later in the evening is recommended due to crowds - the road to the lake will be closed when the car park is full which is frequently pre-9am. There is a lovely (non-strenuous) lake side path that you can walk along for some more views of the lake.
On our second visit we arrived at 4:45 am to watch the sun rise which was absolutely worth getting up mega early. There's a small hill you can climb (the path starts to the left of the car park and wraps around) giving you an incredible view of the lake and surrounding mountains and forests. We also saw a creature that might have been an otter swipe its breakfast from the lake and sprint off with it. So cool!
3. Emerald Lake
Ok, technically this lake is in Yoho National Park, but as it's only 40 minutes drive from Lake Louise I'm including it here. The lake is clearly named for its incredible deep green/turquoise colour and is usually frozen between November and June.
We hired a canoe for an hour (70 CAD/£40) and paddled around the lake. It was a bit windy nearer the centre of the lake and I had some initial concerns about meeting my watery doom, but the life jackets made me feel better. Canoeing is quite hard work so if you're not very fit (like me!) I'd recommend staying closer to the dock.
If you're hungry, there's a cute restaurant called Cilantro on the Lake where we went for some well earned pizza after our canoeing trip.
Everything looks straight out of Twin Peaks!
4. Johnston Canyon
Johnston Creek, a tributary of the Bow River, runs through Johnston Canyon which is about 30 mins drive from Lake Louise. There's lots of parking, public toilets and a small shop and cafe near the entrance to the trail. Initially the path breaks between a paved path and constructed walkways with safety rails, some of which are very high above the river so maybe not somewhere to go if you're not good with heights.
The views are incredible and after 1.1 km you come to the Lower Falls. Don't miss the small rock tunnel where you can get very close to the falls but expect to get a bit of spray on your face!
It's a further 1.5 km to the Upper Falls which is a steeper, more natural looking path. There are a couple of viewing platforms at the top and bottom of the 40 metre waterfall: we saw some beautiful rainbows at the top.
On the way back to Lake Louise we stopped at Baker Creek Mountain Resort (about 20 mins from Johnston Canyon) to eat at their bistro restaurant which had excellent food. When we were paying the bill the waiter told us to check out the view round the back so we sat in this swing seat watching the river for a while before we drove the rest of the way back.
5. Banff Town
Banff is the main town within Banff National Park and has a population of just under 9,000 people. All the streets are named after animals which is super cute! We spotted a few of these Columbian Ground Squirrels on our travels around Banff, they make a surprisingly loud squeaking noise.
We stopped at Wild Flour Bakery (on Bear Street) a couple of times for a cup of tea and some exceptional baked goods.
Park is a distillery, restaurant and bar where you can sit down and have food and a drink, go on a tour of the distillery, buy bottles of locally made spirits and other gear, including this patch I picked up. We brought home some of their gin!
Banff Upper Hot Springs is around 10 mins drive from Banff and we went there on a very rainy day. It was busy when we arrived in the afternoon and the website recommends going in the morning for a quieter experience.
The water was 39 degrees Celsius and you can almost see the steam rising from the pool in the pic above. It costs about 9 CAD/£5 for admission which includes a locker token and there are changing facilities available. You can hire a towel and even swimsuits if you don't have yours with you. Apparently the view is great if you go on a day when its not raining really hard!
Phew, thanks for reading! I hope this post is helpful and if you're planning a trip to Banff National Park have an amazing time. If you have any questions, let me know in the comments.