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Guide to traveling to Banff Canadian Rockies Trip

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Canadian Rockies should be on every traveler’s bucket-list. Imagine driving through ice-capped mountains, scenic roads, wildlife and yes that’s pure magic. The Canadian Rockies comprises of the Canadian segment of the North American Rocky Mountains. The Canadian Rockies mountain system consists of the Interior Plains of Alberta and Northeastern British Columbia on the east to the Rocky Mountain Trench of BC on the west. There are some important things to know before visiting the Canadian Rockies. So here’s the perfect guide to traveling to Banff Canadian Rockies Trip.

This post covers the Albertan parts and parks of Banff and Jasper. We live just a few hours away from Banff and have experienced these national parks both from a visitor/tourist standpoint and a local perspective. We have experienced all seasons, warnings, festivals and food.

Guide to traveling to Banff Canadian Rockies Trip   

Planning to visit Banff and other national parks to explore the Canadian Rockies? Read these informative travel tips before your trip - things to know before visiting the Canadian Rockies
Things to know before you go to Canadian Rockies

Banff National Park is Alberta’s pride and a Canada gem. At the Banff National Park, you will see the Canadian Rockies in all of its glory. Banff National Park was recognized as a national park in 1885.

In Banff, you will be mesmerized by stunning mountain views, lakes and rivers, outdoor activities, slow traveling, good food and great hospitality. This ultimate guide to traveling to Banff is filled with essential information that will help in preparing for your trip.

There are five national parks located within the Canadian Rockies, four of which are adjacent and make up the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks.

These four parks are Banff National Park, Jasper Banff National Park, Kootenay Banff National Park and Yoho Banff National Park. The fifth national park, Waterton lies farther south, straddling the Canada–US border as the Canadian half of the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park.

All five of these parks, combined with three British Columbia provincial parks, were declared a single UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984 for the unique mountain landscapes found there)

Distance, at a glance

  • Banff National Park to Kootenay National Park – 42 kilometres (30 minute driving time)
  • Banff National Park to Yoho National Park – 100 kilometres (1.15 hour driving time)
  • Banff National Park to Jasper National Park – 288 kilometres (3.75 hour driving time)
  • Banff National Park to Waterton National Park – 375 kilometres (4 hour driving time)

Things to know before visiting the Canadian Rockies

Here are some of the MOST things to keep in mind before visiting the Canadian Rockies.

Travel Documents and Visa to Canada

Let’s start with travel documents to enter Canada (and then Banff)

Travelers to Canada from non-exempt visa countries must apply for tourist visa ahead of time. Canadian tourist visa must be applied from their country of residence and should provide 2 weeks to 1 month of processing times. Check the visa office in your country for true processing times and delays. Biometrics are essential part of tourist visa. Always include financial proof and an address where you are heading or staying in Canada.

Visa exempt countries including citizens of USA are required to apply for an eTA – electronic Travel Authorization, prior to arriving in Canada. eTA is not a visa and can be applied the day before you arrive in Canada. The processing takes minutes only and is sent to you online, in an email.

Travel Insurance to Canada

All visitors to Canada should have travel medical insurance. Travel medical insurance will cover trip cancellations, accidents and medical emergencies while traveling in Canada.

Canadian Currency and use of Credit Cards

We use Canadian dollars and that is the only mode of exchange in Banff and Canada in general. In Banff and other national parks use of credit cards and debit cards are common and you will find debit machines to withdraw cash at banks, hotels and shopping mall.

Entry Fee to Banff National Park

There are entry fees at both Banff and Jasper National Parks. You can purchase a day pass or an annual pass for an individual or family/group. Its payable at the gate. Do make sure to tape the gate pass on your vehicle’s windshield.

Entry fee for Banff (car pass or family) is 19.60 CAD/day

Entry fee for Jasper (car pass or family) is 19.60 CAD/day

Scenic drive via Cochrane to Banff and Canmore
Scenic drive via Cochrane to Banff and Canmore

When is the best time to visit Banff and other Canadian Rockies parks?

Summer is considered as the BEST time to visit Banff and other national parks in Western Canada. During the summer months – mid May to August, the weather is warm and the lakes are clear blue. As days are longer, visitors can explore the national parks late into the evenings, stay outdoors and go rafting, hiking, camping, etc. Cons: The towns and resorts are packed to its fullest during summer seasons. Hotels will be expensive, plan and book in advance. Summer is busy with a lot of tourists.

Winter season, which is from November to February are BEST for winter activities like snowboarding, skiing, ice fishing, snowshoeing and ice festivals. This is also perfect as holiday season is on and it brings in extra cheer and decoration to the mountain town. During winters, ski resorts are busy as well and they could be pricey.

In our opinion, off season is actually the BEST time to visit Banff. Off season hotel rates are offered with up-to 75% off. You can access great deals for hotels from February to June.

  • March – April – There is less snow on the ground. Pleasant weather to hike and walk outside. Hotels are cheaper and there is LESS crowd on the streets. Cons – Lakes might still be frozen until May.
  • September – Post September long weekend or civic holiday, Banff and other national parks of Canadian Rockies slow down tourist wise, and there are fewer people on the streets. There is fall foliage everywhere, lakes are still clear and winter has not set in yet.

Read our guide to the best time to go to Banff, with monthly breakdown of activities

Preparing for Trip to Banff

How to get to Banff?

Nearest Banff airport is located in Calgary – YYC International Airport. It is about 145 kilometres away from Banff. The next closest airport is in Edmonton, the capital of Alberta, which is located 415 kilometres away.

If you are flying to Banff, you will arrive in Calgary. Calgary is about 1.50 hours away from Banff National Park. There are a few options available for you to travel from Calgary to Banff –

  • Car Rental – You can rent a car from the Calgary airport or from anywhere in the city to drive to Banff. Take insurance and track the kilometres covered. There are many rental companies that operate in Calgary Alberta, including the airport.
  • Bus – Buses are available to take you from Calgary airport or major hotels to Banff Town (Banff Avenue). The shuttle buses that operates between Banff and Calgary  and tickets range about $69 to $169 CAD. It can be purchased online or at the ticket counter at the airport.
  • Read our comprehensive guide to transportation from Calgary to Banff

Read about Calgary Activities that you can experience before heading to Banff

Commuting in Banff and around

  • Car – Car is the best way to explore Banff. Driving is what I would recommend to enjoy the Canadian Rockies. Renting a car during summers is fine, but for winters get an SUV or truck, with winter tyres on.
  • ROAM Transit buses – Bow Valley Regional Transit Services operate ROAM buses in Banff and neighboring areas. The service routes include Banff and Canmore local, Regional routes Banff-Canmore, Johnston Canyon, Lake Louise. You can purchase fares as a single ride or a pass of 10. Learn more about fares here
  • Cycle during summers
  • Tours

Packing Tips – What to pack for Banff?

Here is a quick Banff Packing guide for you. Depending on the season the packing list will be different, of course. We will start with summer and then will add the additional items for winter.

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Guide to Traveling to Banff
Summer Packing for Banff
  • Shirts or tops
  • Pants and shorts
  • Swim wear
  • Hat
  • Eye wear/ sunglasses
  • Flip flops
  • Comfortable shoes – hiking or running shoes
  • Sunscreen
  • Mosquito repellent
  • Perfume or Deodorant
  • Face Mist
  • Bear Spray
  • Windproof jacket or light cardigan for the evening
Winter Packing for Banff

In addition to the list above, add

  • Outerwear like wool jackets or down-filled parka (recommended)
  • Snow pants
  • Jeans
  • Thermals or long johns
  • Warm Hat or Torque
  • Warm Socks
  • Hiking Boots or Snow boots
  • Gloves
  • Scarf

Learn more about Canadian winters clothing here

Don’t forget your camera!

Be Camera ready always: All of my road trips to Banff/Canadian Rockies have been filled with picturesque sights. Surprisingly all pictures have turned out great, even the ones taken from moving cars. The featured image of this post was taken in Jasper Town from a moving car.

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Banff National Park

Safety in Banff

Banff National Park is completely safe for solo travel. It is also a great option for couples and family vacations. Common tourists’ scams and issues like pickpocketing, purse-snatching are very uncommon here.

People of Banff and Canada in general are warm and welcoming.

As always, ensure your vehicle and campervans are locked while away or sleeping. Same goes for hotel rooms and cabins.

Most free parking areas are not monitored, so do not leave your valuables inside.

Nature is sometimes unpredictable and this is one thing you will have to be mindful of while traveling in Banff.

Due to high altitude, it’s hard to predict the weather conditions in the mountain ranges. It varies a tremendous amount – literally from one valley to the next and from one hour to the next.  There is also a large variation between daytime and night time temperatures. Be mindful of the weather warnings at National Park entrances. This includes wildfire, humidity, snow/hailstorms, etc. Please follow weather precautions as outlined by authorities.

Wildlife is prominently seen in the Banff National Park. Use precaution while driving on the road or on solo and group hikes. While driving look for “wildlife” signs and slow down if you see any animal. (This is more common on your way to Jasper National Park from Banff).

While hiking, use the suggested trails. Do not try to fight bears or go near them to feed them. Leave them alone. Use appropriate hiking gear to stay safe and well.

In the recent years, wildfires have become a cause of natural disasters in Banff. As soon as you enter Banff, you will see the “wildlife” meter, letting you know of the possibility of catching wildfire. Do your bit and adhere to these signs and avoid pit fires or leaving your cigarettes burning in the forest or hiking trails, when alerts are high.

Traveling during winters, have its challenges in Banff. Certain freeways or routes could be closed due to snowfall or avalanches. Exercise caution while driving to and in Banff. Use all-wheel drive vehicles with snow tyres on. Follow weather and traffic alerts, issued by the Town of Banff.

Stay safe while going on winter hikes, snowboarding or snowshoeing. Depending on the time and season, sometimes the lakes may not be frozen for winter activities. Signs like “thin ice”, “black ice” are common before and after winter season.

What to see in Banff and other towns of Canadian Rockies?

There are many things to see and do in Banff and other parks of the Canadian Rockies.

Views of Canmore and Three Sisters range at Policemen's Creek, Canmore

Sightseeing in Banff

We have also included a map of towns and hamlets (in this post) that are close to Banff, along with other National Parks that are worth visiting from Banff as a day trip or as part of your Canadian Rockies road trip itinerary. Calgary is usually the starting point to Banff, but many also travel here from Vancouver. 

However, don’t stop at Banff and Jasper, explore areas nearby like Canmore (no entry fee), Kananaskis, Lake Louise, Hinton, Athabasca Falls to name a few.

Suggested Canadian Rockies Itinerary

If Canada road trip is what you fancy, here is a suggested road trip itinerary for you, to get started.

  • Spend 1-3 days in Banff – Explore down town Banff Avenue, Banff Gondola, Sulphur caves (Cave and Basin National Historic Site), Hot Springs, Bow Valley , Banff Park Museum National Historic Site, Vermillion Lakes, Moraine Lake. Canoe on the Lake Minnewanka, Go on short hikes, attend culinary fests, spa and yoga. Get the Itinerary for Banff – for non hikers
  • 1 day in Canmore – Perfect for slow travel or hiking and other outdoor activities
  • (Optional 1 day at Kananaskis)
  • 1 day in Lake Louise – Explore the beautiful Lake Louise, go canoeing. Hike to Agnes Tea House. Skate during winters or attend the ice festivals at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise Hotel
  • 1 day Icefields parkway/Skywalk
  • 1 – 2 days in Jasper National Park – Explore Athabasca Falls, Pyramid Lake, Maligne Canyon
  • 1 day at Yoho National Park
  • 1-2 days at Kootenay National Park
  • 2 days at Waterton National Park

Banff Attractions and activities

There are tons of activities and things to do in Banff and other parks. Although most of them will be outdoors, but you don’t have to ONLY hike or canoe or ski and skate. There are options for non-hikers and slow travelers well. Here are some of the listed activities.

  • Banff Gondola – See the Canadian Rockies without the hike. Dine at a Sky Bistro
  • Honeymoon at Lake Louise or attend Ice Festivals
  • Get into a Nordic Spa (Kananaskis) or Sulphur Hot Springs (Banff)
  • Admire the Bow Valley falls (Banff) or Athabasca Falls (Jasper)
  • Enjoy a ride to the ice-fields – Icefield Columbia and see glaciers
  • Watch wildlife in Jasper National Park
  • Cabin living and slow travel, relaxation at Yoho National Park
  • Take a cruise at Lake Minnewanka
  • Watch the sunset from Two Jack Lake
  • Banff and Lake Louise are amazing for hospitality, honeymoon, weddings and cuisines
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Enjoy in Banff

Canadian Rockies Trip : What to eat and where to stay? 

What to eat in Banff?

Banff is also a foodie paradise. There is a distillery in town, lots of bars and steak restaurants, coffee shops and sweet and candy stores. Some of the finest meat and vegetables are served on the platter, with awesome ale to go with it!

Banff Avenue, in the heart of the national park is perfect for lazy evenings, night-outs, fancy dinners and morning juice and coffee. You will also find a lot of organic, vegan and wellness cafes in town.

Read our guide to “Where to eat in Banff”?

Here are some of the TOP things to try in Banff

  • Specialty coffee and tea at one of these restaurants – Whitebark Cafe, Evelyn’s Cafe
  • Ale or beer at Park Distillery
  • Chicago Popcorn at our favorite Mary’s popcorn
  • Steak at Saltik Steakhouse or Melissa Steakhouse
  • Fine Dinning at Juniper Bistro or Sky 360 (Banff Gondola)
  • Family diners at Balkan Banff or Magpie and Stump

We DO recommend each of the above places, as they are a MUST. In Banff, you will also find a lot of fast food and grocery stores for budget and cheap eats. There are Asian food take-outs, Greek, Canadian and Pizza places in Banff as well.

Most resorts will have a restaurant on-site. If you are staying away from Banff town, you will find dining options in Canmore and aplenty in Calgary. Cochrane and Lake Louise doesn’t have that many options for food like Banff does.

Where to stay? Banff and Canadian Rockies 

We have a detailed guide on where to stay in Banff, with some of the BEST hotels in town. Read our extensive post on Banff Accommodation here.

Here are some of the TOP tips, when choosing the right accommodation for Banff

  • Accommodation in town Banff is expensive and gets filled up very quick during summer months, which is from mid May to mid August.
  • Hotels near Bow Valley Parkway are great options to stay.
  • There are secondary and sister towns near Banff, which are equally beautiful, which could be the next best option, if no accommodation is available in Banff town. Options include Canmore, Kananaskis, Cochrane and Calgary.
  • There are hotel and accommodation options in Banff for all budget levels, including hostels.

We recommend using  HotelsCombined.com  to find accommodation. It is our favorite hotels website for quickly comparing the prices of multiple hotel booking sites at once.

During summers, you can camp outside as well. There about 11 camp sites that accept reservations and about 5 sites take request on a first come, first served basis.

Seasonal Activities and Festivals in Banff

Parks Canada and Alberta Tourism organizes a lot of seasonal events. Definitely look out for local calendar events like – hiking events, food fests, stargazing events, etc.

Find out more information here about local events

Additional Resources:

Last Update: April 14 2019

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. If you click one of them, we may receive a small commission (for which we are very grateful for) at no extra cost to you

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Guide to Traveling to Banff Canadian Rockies

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