Planning a Trip to Banff National Park

03.21.23 by Travelex Insurance
Image credit: Getty Images

Visiting Canada’s first national park should be on your bucket list. Experiencing Banff National Park and the Lake Louise area is an experience you'll never forget. With spectacular mountain scenery perfectly situated in the heart of the beautiful Canadian Rockies, you'll discover the best of winter and summer activities that'll make you want to immediately figure out how to pull off a return visit.

If you’re looking for majestic snow-capped peaks, glistening glacial lakes, and breath-taking vistas around every corner, Banff National Park doesn't disappoint. Banff is also a part of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and recently released bison into the wilds of the park, adding to the variety of wildlife flourishing there. To help you start planning a memorable Banff National Park vacation, we’ve put together a shortlist of how to begin.

When to visit: Know seasons and possible closures

Banff National Park is open all year, but hours of operation, seasonal closures, and restrictions happen throughout the year. Always check the park’s hours of operation for visitor centers and information kiosks while planning your trip. Many elements may impact closures or restrictions, such as construction and improvements, avalanche risk, wildlife/habitat protection, or even seasonal closures due to grizzly bear movement. Know about these possibilities before you go.

Each season brings its own beauty, so when you choose to go depends on your preference and what types of activities you enjoy. July is the warmest month, while January is the coldest with snow falling well into the spring. Mountain passes and hiking trails aren't typically clear until the end of June. No matter the season, always be prepared for unpredictable weather patterns. Just because you start at a trailhead with warmth and sun, doesn’t mean it will be the same where you end up. Always carry a hydration pack with rain gear and a sweatshirt — even in the summer.

Getting to Banff National Park

Once you narrow down when you want to visit, the next order of business is planning how you'll get there. The most convenient way is to fly into the Calgary International Airport. From there, Banff National Park is a scenic 90-minute drive west of Calgary. If arriving from the west, it’s a spectacular day’s drive (530 miles) from Vancouver.

Where to stay

Always plan ahead for lodging accommodations — no matter the season. If camping is your preference, Parks Canada operates 13 campgrounds in the park. Everything from luxury hotels or condos, family-friendly chalets, bed and breakfasts, and hostels are offered around Banff and Lake Louise. Check out the wide variety of places to stay to suit your preference.

How to get around

From the airport, you can rent a car to explore on your own, or arrange for alternate transport. On-It Regional Transit offers bus service and charters around the Banff area — see their website for fees and schedules. For summer travel, check out the Lake Louise-Banff Regional Route 8X Express.

If you choose to rent a car, check Banff Now frequently for real-time parking updates, construction delays, and alternate transport around Banff National Park. For road conditions — especially in winter and spring — check Alberta 511 for real-time road conditions.

Parking at Banff National Park’s most popular spots is typically limited during peak day times — another reason to check Banff Now for real-time parking conditions. To help visitors with or without cars, shuttles are available from the town of Banff to Johnston Canyon, Lake Minnewanka, Lake Louise, and Moraine Lake. Note that all Parks Canada shuttle fares must be paid by credit or debit – cash isn’t accepted on-site.

Get a national park pass

A pass is required for entrance to Banff National Park. Children 17 and under are free and seniors over 65 can enjoy a discounted rate. A pass is good for up to seven  people per group/vehicle.

Options include:

  • Day Pass — gains entry to Banff, Jasper, Kootenay, Yoho, Mount Revelstoke, Glacier, Waterton Lakes ,and Elk Island national parks. Valid until 4:00 p.m. on the day after purchase.
  • Annual Discovery Pass — gains entry to more than 100 National Parks, Conservation areas and National Historical sites across Canada. Valid for a full year until the end of the calendar month of purchase.

What to do

Exploring Banff National Park can be experienced in a multitude of ways, including hiking (July through mid-September), biking, bird-watching, walking national historic sites, skiing, snowshoeing, fishing, and enjoying the scenery from Banff’s gondola. Play a round of golf, explore a museum, enjoy an afternoon whitewater rafting, or take a soak in the Upper Banff, Radium or Miette hot springs. You can even take in a yoga retreat or guided tour. Discover some of the area’s top attractions and other things to do in Banff to find out more.

You can shop until you drop in Banff, which offers a wide array of retail stores and galleries. There are also featured events happening year-around in Banff and Lake Louise. From tea house hikes and film or book festivals to outdoor concerts, there’s something for everyone. Banff also has a vibrant culinary scene, including everything from quick eats and fine dining to bakeries and cafes.

Don’t forget to download maps, guides, and events calendars so you have them ready for your trip.

Now that you have an idea of the basics, it’s time to get started planning a Banff National Park vacation you will treasure for a lifetime. Because sometimes the unexpected happens, don’t forget to protect your vacation by purchasing travel insurance

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