The beauty of Banff has been known to the world and it’s a popular destination in Canada. Mountains, glaciers, and lakes… the wonders of Mother Nature kept taking my breath away every time I stopped from our car. The man-made structures aren’t too shabby as well. The resort townsite is filled with historic lodges, chateau-style hotels, magnificent landmarks, and restaurants, with the backdrop of Mount Rundle and Mount Cascade.
We stayed in Banff for a few days for our trip and of course, it wouldn’t be enough to experience all Banff has to offer. Here, I am covering some highlights of what to see and do as a four-day itinerary along the Icefields Parkway.
I believe once you have experienced Banff with this itinerary, it will probably pique your interest to come back for more!
Day 1: Explore scenic attractions in Banff townsite
Our trip began with a vroom as we left Calgary. It was already snowing in October (and the temperature went back up a few days later, welcome to Canada), and I kind of enjoyed the cold.
Banff is 126 kilometers away from Calgary, take the Trans-Canada HighwayAB-1 E and it is about 1.5 hours to get there. Once we left the city the trip was already scenic. As the view of the Rocky Mountains unfolded, we traveled through the valley to our first pit stop at Lac des Arcs.
Lac des Arcs
For thousands of years, people have traveled through this valley: prehistoric hunters on foot, on horseback, and later, explorers like David Thompson and John Paillser… early tourists on the Canadian Pacific Railway… motorists driving the Old Banff Coach Road.. and since 1962, driving here on the Trans-Canada Highway.
Take a 20-minute stopover on the way to Banff, soak in the majestic scenery, and observe waterfowl that pass there, such as swans, geese, and a variety of ducks. They use the lake as a staging area to rest and feed on their annual migrations in the spring and autumn. About 1.5 kilometers further to the west, walk the 1.2-kilometer viewing trail to identify these birds.
The Rockies is rich in resources and it has a history of various industries from Timber, water, limestone, to sandstone. The mountains provide important materials the city needs for its infrastructure, as well as economic development.
About Banff National Park
Banff National Park is Canada’s oldest national park in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains, covering an area of 6,641 square kilometers. The mountainous terrain includes many lakes, glaciers, ice fields, coniferous forests, and alpine landscapes. The Icefields Parkway extends from Lake Louise to Jasper National Park in the north; the Lake Banff townsite serves as a gateway, welcoming tourists from all over the world.
There are a number of lakes in the park with stunning views, featuring tourist attractions, hotels and resorts, and fun activities all year round. Lake Louise is probably the most well-known location in the park –
- Two Jack Lake has a man-made lake with a lakeside Campground with a stunning view of Mount Aylmer. Why “Two Jack”? Because the lake is named after two persons: Jack Stanley, and Jake Watters.
- Vermilion Lakes offers a wide variety of fish – walleye, musky, perch, sunfish, and bass that is a fisher’s paradise. It is a series of lakes located immediately west of Banff and is formed in the Bow River valley.
- Moraine Lake is only 14 kilometers away from Lake Louise, and it’s situated in the Valley of the Ten Peaks. Fun Fact: It is a small but famous lake, you would probably have seen it without realizing – because it is featured on the backside of the 1969 and 1979 issues of the Canadian Twenty Dollar Bill, hence it’s nicknamed the lake with the twenty dollar view; It is also featured as one of the main preview pictures for OS Android and a desktop wallpaper picture for Windows 7.
- Lake Louise is a hamlet in Banff National Park and is known for its turquoise-colored water, fed by glaciers from the back mountains with a view of the stunning chateau and ski resorts.
- Hector Lake is a small lake located on the Bow River, named after James Hector, a geologist and naturalist with the Palliser Expedition.
- Bow Lake is located on the Bow River at 1,920 meters above sea level; formed by runoff of the Bow Glacier, it lies south of the Bow Summit and nestled beneath the peaks of Mount Rundle and Mount Cascade. It is a great place to take a hike and have a picnic. The Bow Glacier Falls is a challenging hiking area around a waterfall, fed by an ice field & thundering down a jagged cliff face.
- Peyto Lake is near the Icefields Parkway and you will probably see it during your drive to Columbia Icefield. It was named after Bill Peyto, an early trail guide and trapper in the Banff area. It is one of the most photographed sites in Canada, and the water changes color in different seasons.
Check-in a resort and soak in a hot tub
There are many resorts and lodges in town. If you are on a budget, you could opt for a cozy hostel that costs about a hundred dollars a night. In fact, hotel rooms in Banff are generally reasonably priced and we checked in to the Moose Hotel & Suites. It’s a four-star resort yet I found the rooms comfortable and clean. Most hotel suites are homey, with a lot of wooden elements, featuring a bedroom, fireplace, and a balcony that offers incredible views of the town. Furthermore, it has a giant hot pool on the deck that is perfect for a soak in the cold. The pool closes late at night – and it would be a great way to drive away your exhaustion after a day out.
Getting around Banff townsite
Banff is a small town of about 5 square kilometers and most shops, hotels, and facilities are compactly located in its town center. It was developed near the railway station as a service center for visitors.
The easiest way of getting around Banff is obviously having your own car, which you could also visit various attractions and scenic locations in the area. It is also quite easy to visit most of the major attractions along Banff Avenue on foot or by bike.
The avenue is about 4 kilometers long and it takes about an hour or two to walk from one end to the other. It won’t feel as long if you stop by some souvenir shops, cafes, and landmarks; and you will probably divide your walk for the few days you stay in Banff. Explore different sections each day, try different restaurants for dinner, or hang out with your friends in some nightclubs after an active day out.
On any occasion that you don’t have your own car, Roam is a public transit bus system that gets you everywhere in Banff. However, you will probably have to leave time between bus rides and check out Roam’s website for their routes and service times.
One-way fare is about $2 for adults and $1 for seniors and youth passengers. If you plan to stay in the city for a few days and will take multiple trips, it could be more convenient to go for a ten-ride pass, or a 1-day, or 3-day pass. A 1-day pass is $5 and it will probably save money if you take 3 bus rides or more in one day.
Lastly, check your hotels as they usually offer shuttle services to various locations (even locations in the national park) – while the destinations are limited, you may find it useful and the services are free.
There are a few museums in Banff’s townsite. The Buffalo Nations Museum is a fort-like museum dedicated to the appreciation, interpretation, demonstration, and display of the cultures, traditions, and values of the local indigenous Canadians and their trading partners. The Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies inspires discovery and wonder when people and the Canadian Rocky Mountains meet. Its collection includes materials related to the cultural heritage of the Rocky Mountains.
A bit further from the avenue, The Cascades of Time Gardens is off the beaten path in Banff, but still a walking distance from downtown. The gardens are located on the hillside with layered terraces of botanic exhibits, where visitors can walk through the trails and rock steps to take a breather from the crowd.
Banff National Park pass
To enter the park, drivers are required to obtain an entry pass. The purpose is to raise funds to support the maintenance and sustainability of the park.
The pass offers quite a wide coverage – a Day pass offers entry to Banff, Jasper, Kootenay, Yoho, Mount Revelstoke, Glacier, Waterton Lakes, and Elk Island national parks. The pass costs $10 per adult, and $8.4 per senior, and it’s free for youths under 17 years old.
If you are national, consider a Discovery Pass that will grant you access to the park for 1 year. Check out the park’s website for more information about the fare and details for these passes.
Fairmont Banff Springs & Bow Falls
Once you cross Bow River to the Cascades of Time Gardens, go further along Spray Avenue to the end as you reach Fairmont Banff Springs – it’s a striking castle-like hotel that could also be seen at the Surprise Corner Viewpoint on the other side of the river.
The hotel has luxurious 757 guest rooms and suites, and it is also a popular event venue. Even if you are not a hotel guest, take a walk in its public area: the hall showcases old pictures, and there are some high-end restaurants and shops: The Rundle bar is a stylish bar, serving handcrafted cocktails to go with scenic views and live music, and the 1888 Chop House is an upscale space steak butcher, serving locally sourced beef. Walking in the building, which was built in 1888, takes you back in time to a historic era, the resort was designed after a Scottish Baronial castle. It costs about US$300-400 to stay for a night, a tag higher than other resorts in the townsite.
A short walk away from the hotel is Bow Falls Viewpoint. The Bow Falls is a popular waterfall in Banff where the Spray River and Bow River meet. There is a scenic trail along the river where you can stretch your legs and take a stroll back to the Pedestrian Bridge that connects to the city’s downtown.
The relationship between creativity and the mountain has a long tradition in the Bow Valley, where the majestic landscape has inspired countless artists. In the late 1800s, the CPR first commissioned painters
Day 2: Go to Johnston Canyon and Take the Banff Gondola
After breakfast in town, we began our little adventure on the outskirts of Banff’s townsite. Johnston Canyon, Vermilion Lakes, Cascade Ponds, and then return to Banff and take a ride in the cable car to reach the top of Sulphur Mountain.
Now that we have settled down and had a little walk on the townsite, the second day is a little more active. Johnston Canyon is close to Banff townsite and so it is quite a popular hiking trail for visitors. It is a short 30-minute drive from Banff Townsite, where you will have a hike through exciting catwalks clinging to the canyon’s walls. Famous Canadian painter, Walter Phillips was captivated by the beauty of Johnston Canyon, returning, again and again, to take inspiration from here. The trail opened in the early 1900s, and people could visit all year round, when they enjoy a cooling breeze in the canyon during summer, the area becomes a frozen wonderland during winter.
There are two trails in the canyon: the Johnston Canyon Falls, and the Ink Pots. The Ink Pots is 5.7 kilometers one way that covers part of the Falls trails, as it goes further up to the forested trail; The Johnston Canyon covers two checkpoints: the lower falls, and the upper falls. The trail is about 2.5 kilometers long one way and it takes about 1-2 hours to complete, depending on your speed. While the two waterfalls are not enormous, the plummeting water has the power of eroding the soft limestones underneath, creating dramatic rock formations, and gradually moving the falls upstream. In winter, the water flow is frozen, creating sculptures in blue-green hues; the erosion continues and it’s a popular site for ice climbers! Apart from the canyons and catwalks, look closely as you may also encounter many local residents like birds, berries, and squirrels.
Be aware of the slippery icy trails as they are super slippery after snow. Most visitors (me included) were not prepared at all. We had to hold on tight to the railings and for some parts of the trail, we actually had to crawl with a fear that we may eventually slip and fall off the cliffs; for other parts of the trails, we had to climb on some rocks because the entire trail was very steep and covered with ice. I managed to complete the walk in one piece in the end (with a lot of effort), consider preparing yourself a snow-ice claw for the walk.
Returning to Banff’s townsite area, check out the nearby lakes before or after lunch. These lakes are close to Banff townsite and it’s one of the most ecologically important places in the national park. It’s basically the living wetlands and wetlands are considered scarce in the mountains as water always hurries to someplace else. Glaciers deposited massive amounts of gravel, sand, and slit in a broad valley and its tributaries. In the 15,000 years since the glaciers retreated, annual flooding by the Bow River and its tributaries has carried much of the loose material into the relatively flat valley floor. Here, the river slows, and as a result, its ability to carry sediments dwindles. Over time, the valley has filled with stream-Horne sediments. Today, the Bow River meanders across a wide, well-watered floodplain atop those deposits.
These low-elevation wetlands offer a longer growing season for plants and animals than valleys higher in elevation. Rich slit soils are more productive than the rockier soils on higher slopes. Biological diversity and productivity make these montane wetlands unique in the Rockies. Here you can see boreal toads, Wilson’s Warblers, beavers, muskrats, and a variety of rare species. Wildlife that travels widely depends on these wetlands for survival, from the elk herds that winter here to the grizzly bears that sometimes fish for spawning white suckers in the spring, to the migratory birds that arrive for the summer.
Mount Rundle is a 2,949-meter-high mountain in the Rockies and it was part of the area explored during the Palliser Expedition in the late 1850s. The objective of the expedition was to seek resources and practical travel routes through the Rocky Mountains. Vermilion Lakes, with Mount Rundle in the background, has since become one of the most photographed and painted scenes in the Canadian Rockies – the massive limestone wall of the mountain and towering cliffs are very recognizable, and you could take a good look at the mountain as you climb up the Sulphur Mountain with Banff Gondola.
If you have more time, take a walk around Johnson Lake and Cascade Ponds and enjoy the views during the snow-free seasons; or hop on a cruise and enjoy a tour of Lake Minnewanka.
Banff Gondola & Sulphur Mountain
The Banff Gondola is probably the easiest way to have a panoramic bird’s eye view of the Banff townsite and its surroundings without a challenging hike. The upper terminal is air-conditioned with a number of upscale diners, and the boardwalk connects to the Sulphur Mountain Cosmic Ray Station and it’s a national historic site. There, you can take a good look at Mount Rundle, Sulphur Mountain Weather Observatory, the Sulphur Mountain, all the way to Sanson’s Peak.
As I mentioned, it was pretty cold already in October when we were up there, almost 3,000 meters high, and could you imagine how life would be for the people in the past, combating the extreme cold in a hut during winter?
Banff Gondola Tickets
Regular admission prices vary at different times of the week, it costs lower on weekdays, and higher on weekends; but in general, it’s between $40 to $65, and children will enjoy a half-price. Infants may also enjoy a free ride with a Family Explorer Pass before noon. For extra, opt for the Banff Sunset Explorer pass for $94 and Ultimate Explorer Pass for $192. Book tickets online may avoid long queues at the ticket office, and it’s also possible to go for combo tickets with a number of attractions including Lake Minnewanka Cruise, Columbia Icefield Skywalk, and Maligne Lake Cruise for a lower price.
The view up on the mountain is impactful and epic. If it’s too cold, you could still enjoy the view through the windows in the upper terminals, but I recommend taking some time to have a walk on the boardwalk and look at the Cosmic Ray Station – the weather observatory operated from 1903 until the mid-1930s. Cosmic Rays are energized particles traveling at close to the speed of light after being accelerated by our sun or by exploding stars (supernovae) in distant galaxies; the rays provide important data for weather research.
There, you will have an even better view of Banff and it looks phenomenal during sunset. On a clear day, you could view all the mountains that shaped Banff’s look today:
- Cascade Mountain is named for Stoney Nakoda, referred to as the Mountain Where the Water Falls. James Hector shortened it to Cascade Mountain when he named it in 1858
- Tunnel Mountain is also known as Sleeping Buffalo, its Stoney Nakoda name. The first survey engineers for the Canadian Pacific Railway thought they would have to tunnel through the mountain. Instead, the railway goes around it.
- Mount Aylmer got its name from land surveyor J.J. McArthur in 1890, after his hometown: Aylmer in Quebec.
- Mount Inglismaldie is the superintendent of Rocky Mountains Park named this mountain in the late 1880s after Scotland’s Inglismaldie Castle.
- Mount Girouard was named in 1904 after Canadian Edouard Girouard, a well-known international railway engineer.
- Mount Peechee was named in 1884 after Peechee, who was Metis and chief among Rocky Mountain Cree. He guided Hudson’s Bay Company Governor George Simpson through the mountains in 1841.
- Mount Rundle is named in honor of Reverend Robert Rundle, the first missionary to visit this part of the Bow Valley.
Who’s Dr. James Hector?
Dr. James Hector seems to be a name that is mentioned frequently around Banff. In fact, he was the youngest member of the Palliser Expedition that explored the region. He was 23 years old, and from Scotland, and he brought his troupe and explored the Rockies for the Royal Geographical Society. He journeyed through the Bow Valley region, enduring frigid temperatures, hunger, and a near-fatal kick from a horse.
Day 3: Lake Louise and the lakes
Village of Lake Louise
Given that this is a famous spot in Banff, you could even stay here and spend the night just to take in the beauty of mother nature; and why wouldn’t you? It was only when I saw the perfectly clear lake water, reflecting a mesmerizing turquoise hue, that I understood why the lake attracted so many tourists and received so much praise.
Taking off from Banff townsite, we drove along the Icefield Parkway again, only this time we truly got to see the magic of this spectacular scenic drive in the Rockies. It takes less than an hour to drive to Lake Louise, but parking could be quite difficult during peak hours (check out the signs on the side of the road as the closest car park to Lake Louise could be filled up fast).
Once we walked toward the lake, we saw the ice-capped peaks, hidden valleys, and turquoise lakes – as spectacular as they ever were. Early visitors came to Lake Louise by rail or on horseback, until the road from Banff opened in the 1920s. Travelers in winter explored on snowshoes, and in the 1930s, the skiers arrived. Since then, numerous explorers and important figures had only shared their experiences and laid the path for their future visitors: Tom Wilson, Philip Stanley Abbot, John Barrymore, Georgia Engelhard Cromwell, Reverend William Spotwood Green, Walter J. Phillips, and Walter Dwight Wilcox. Today, The Lake Louise area has become a Mecca for climbers, walkers, and tourists, summer and winter.
Lake Louise was named the fourth daughter of Queen Victoria of England. It is not huge actually, about 90 hectares in size, 2 kilometers in length, and 2,600 above sea level. A typical day visit to Lake Louise is taking a good look at the iconic picturesque view at the entrance, and then having a stroll along the trail to the other end of the lake, which usually takes about an hour to complete.
The lake is surrounded by a number of peaks on three sides of the lake:
- Mount Fairview is named based on the view and it was first ascended in 1893 by Samuel Allen and Walter Wilcox.
- Mount Lefroy is named in honor of Captain John Henry Lefroy, a director of surveying.
- Mount Victoria is named after Queen Victoria of England.
- Mount Whyte is named for Sir William Whyte, a Vice President of the Canadian Pacific Railway.
- Lake Agnes is named after Susan Agnes Macdonald, the wife of Canada’s first Prime Minister.
- Mount Niblock is named for John Niblock, Western Superintendent of the Canadian Pacific Railway.
- Mount St Piran is named after the patron saint of Cornwall, England, the birthplace of the first manager of the Lake Louise chalet.
Fairmont Château Lake Louise
This is another Fairmont hotel in Banff. Although Château’s suites offer a view beyond comparison, Banff Springs costs slightly higher because of the location. There is basically only one hotel in Lake Louise and there’s nowhere to go at night (The townsite is 40 minutes away) Unless you stay in Lake Louise on a skiing and hiking vacation, it would be more convenient to stay in Banff Springs (If you have to choose either one out of these two.)
All in all, I found the general comments about staying at the hotel is a bit overpriced. Château is located right next to a famous attraction, yet the quality and service are not as luxurious as they expected to be. But still, visitors may consider lunch in front of the window with a view of the lake; make a reservation in advance as it is likely to be full during busy hours.
A walk or a hike around the lake was wonderful, but I recommend renting a boat at the boathouse and truly getting close to the water. The boathouse is operated by Fairmont Château and hotel guests have the priority to use the boats.
For non-hotel guests, it costs about $125 for an hour which would be enough to paddle close to the other end of the lake; it costs $115 for half an hour that’s only enough to explore half the lake. Each canoe can fit up to three adults. It was a great experience to get away from the crowd and see the lake from a different perspective, especially during peak seasons in summer. Boat rental is only available from mid-June to the end of September (sometimes mid-October), depending on the weather.
You don’t require much experience or skills as long as you can handle the paddles; you could simply hop in, have fun, and have a leisure ride. Life jackets are provided and it is generally safe. Use common sense and observe the weather, as it could change pretty fast.
Opening hours: 11 am to 7 pm daily
If you want to explore a little bit further, the glacier is the three toes of ice, yet you have to be lucky to see them on a clear day. It’s about 25-minute drive away from Lake Louise.
It’s about an hour away from Lake Louise and three rivers converge here: The Mistaya (Great Brear) River from the south, the Howse River from the west, and the North Saskatchewan from the north – arising in the Columbia Icefield and emptying into Lake Winnipeg.
Day 4: Columbia Icefield
You will probably have to stay a couple of days more if you want to spend some time and take a hike in one of the mountains in Banff. For visitors, you shouldn’t miss Columbia Icefield – and this is where you should be visiting on the last day of your 4-day trip here.
The icefield is kind of a connecting point of the Banff and Jasper National Park, and you will get to see the icefield that supplies water to three continents. Hop on a snow coach and visit the skywalk, of which I have shared details about the entire experience in my other post: Set Foot on the Largest Icefield in the Rockies.
I put this on the last day because if you are planning to continue your journey to Jasper and you have a car, it would be en route to continue your trip up north after you have explored the icefield. If you are planning on returning to Banff afterward, you could still have a few pitstops along the way to see some of the popular lakes at pit stops and viewpoints, which will be indicated on many park maps.
Bow Summit and Peyto Lake Viewpoint
Bow Lake and Peyto are two of the most visited lakes apart from Lake Louise. These spots are 30 minutes away from Lake Louise, Take a short walk from the parking area leads to a view of brilliant turquoise Peyto Lake and, in July and August, a beautiful array of alpine flowers.
Who is Bill Peyto?
Bill Peyto arrived in Canada from England in 1887, and he was an excellent horseman who thought fast in a crisis. He used those skills as a soldier and as an early and long-serving warden. The explorer’s favorite getaway is Peyto Lake and that’s why it was named after him.