With its glassy turquoise lakes, abundant wildlife, and majestic Canadian Rockies, Banff stole my heart! This is “pinch-me-is-this-even-real” pristine nature at its finest. Whether you’re dipping into the area for just a few days or settling in for a complete reset, here are my recommendations for the best Banff itinerary.
Even if you have limited time, I highly recommend you dedicate one day to driving at least part of the iconic Icefield Parkway towards Jasper.
If you have more than three days, plan to move your base to Jasper at the end of your parkway drive day. You’ll enjoy memorable nature experiences here, too, with far fewer crowds than near Banff.
We spent two weeks in Banff, Yoho, and Jasper National Parks and these were my favorite experiences!
Your Itinerary for Banff
One of my top tips for visiting the Canadian Rockies: Get the Gypsy Guide App!
It works by satellite and is like having a personal tour guide sitting next to you in your car.
It can tell where you are driving and suggests recommended routes and sites with short commentary about history, geology, and more. It’s sooo great!
3 Days in Banff
Day 1: Banff National Park
As Canada’s oldest national park, Banff National Park is a wonderland of lodgepole pines and home to grizzly bears, elk, bighorn sheep, and so much other wildlife.
Hiking scenic Johnston Canyon is a great first introduction to the park as there’s something for everyone here.
Just be aware that it’s the most popular hike in Banff so if you’re here in July or August, you’ll want to hit the trail by 8 am latest. Otherwise, prepare for throngs of people.
If you’re looking for an easy hike, walk the paved trail to Lower Falls along the easy 1.4 mile out-and-back trail (about 45 minutes).
This hike has one of the biggest pay-offs in the park for a short wander.
You’ll meander over bridges alongside the rushing Bow River until you arrive at a short tunnel that brings you so close to a rushing waterfall that you’ll feel the spray on your face.
For a bigger challenge, continue on to Upper Falls (859 ft elevation gain, 3.2 miles, and closer to two hours to complete).
Or head to Ink Pots for an even more strenuous climb (7.3 miles out and back, 2,000 ft elevation gain, about 4 hours to complete).
Where to Stay in Banff and Jasper
Most people stay in either Canmore or Banff. Banff’s a bit closer to Lake Louise (40 minutes), a little more touristy, and can be slightly more expensive than Canmore. We stayed in Canmore and loved it.
Both are good options but a stay at the incredible Fairmont Château Lake Louise is unbeatable if your budget allows.
If you have more than 3 days, plan to move your base to Jasper on day 3 of this itinerary.
Option 1: Canmore
Stay in a beautiful pet-friendly two story condo in downtown Canmore. Your private patio is just steps from the outdoor pool and hot tub and you can walk to restaurants.
Check price and availability at the downtown Canmore condo here.
Option 2: Fairmont Château Lake Louise
If you’re looking for a bucket list stay, stay at the Fairmont Château Lake Louise.
This historic property offers one of most scenic spots in the Rockies, gives you first dibs on canoe rentals, and helps you see sunrise at Lake Moraine without the hour drive time.
Check price and availability at The Fairmont Château Lake Louise here.
in Jasper: Jasper House Bungalows
Just 5 minutes from downtown Jasper, our stay at Jasper House in a riverside cabin for 7 nights was fantastic! These “mini suites” also had great beds.
The main reason to book here is to see and hear the mighty Athabasca River just outside your front door and watch the sun set over the mountain peaks. I’d *only* get a riverside cabin here though as the others are surrounded by cement.
Check price and availability at Jasper House Bungalows here.
After your hike in Banff National Park, relax with a scenic drive. There are so many gorgeous places to see here!
We loved the Lake Minnewanka Loop which takes you past Lake Minnewanka (you can enjoy a boat cruise here, too, if you reserve ahead), Two Jack Lake, Cascade Ponds, and back to downtown Banff.
Another great drive is just out of Banff past the Fairmont Banff Springs Golf Course. Be sure to stop at the incredible Bow Falls Viewpoint on your way. What a waterfall!
This famous golf course is actually inside the national park…and it’s a great place to spot wildlife.
We saw several elk hanging out at the edge of the forest here. Apparently, they like to relax on the green as well, making a full-time job for groundskeepers to keep things nice for golfers.
As you drive, you’ll likely notice lots of tree trunks with bark stripped off.
That’s because the elk rub their antlers relentlessly on the trees to leave pheremones for females and shed the velvet from their antlers.
Cap this gorgeous day off with a pinnacle experience in Banff: Take the gondola to the top of Sulphur Mountain with dinner at Sky Bistro.
Sometimes it can be hard to know the difference between a bucket list experience or a tourist trap when traveling.
I honestly wasn’t sure when I booked it, but it turned out to be one of our most awe-inspiring experiences.
You can also ride a gondola at Lake Louise, Mt. Norquay, Sunshine Meadows, and in Jasper, but the Banff gondola is my favorite so far.
You can get an advance ticket for the gondola here. (Advance reservations highly recommended in summer!)
You’ll ride up the mountain summit in just 8 minutes to arrive at a state-of-the-art interpretive center with several restaurants.
When you reserve, you’ll need to choose a time to both ascend and descend. I recommend you plan one to two hours at the top depending upon what you’d like to do.
You’ll definitely want to visit the rooftop bar and viewpoints for incredible mountain views and panoramic views of Banff below.
Read more on national parks travel:
• Best stops on Canada’s Icefields Parkway
• Best USA national parks in the west
• How to pack for a road trip
• Must-sees in Grand Teton National Park
Hit the boardwalks for a short climb to Sanson’s Peak. Then head to Sky Bistro for fine dining.
You’ll need reservations well in advance to get in here but the experience is worth it.
We had one of our most delicious meals of our two week trip at Sky Bistro – fully enclosed in glass, with mountain peaks in every direction. I’ll never forget it!
In summer, the sun doesn’t set in the Canadian Rockies until 10 pm or so, making your descent after dinner on the gondola in the golden evening light a serene, pine-scented close to the day.
Also, right next to the parking lot of the Banff gondola, you’ll find Banff Upper Hot Springs which is a great place for a soak.
Unfortunately, parking at the hot springs can be near impossible in summer. You may want to shuttle from downtown Banff.
Otherwise, go after 5 pm for the best shot at finding a spot. (Note, however, that the hot springs closes at 8 pm.)
How to Rent a Car in Canada
My top two recs are:
1. Discover Cars has no hidden fees, 24/7 customer service, and free cancellation. They search all the major rental car companies so you don’t have to.
Check price and availability on rental cars here.
2. Turo is like Airbnb for cars. It saved us $$$ during the pandemic on our Hawaii rentals when rental car prices were sky high.
Day 2: Moraine Lake + Tea House Hike
Moraine Lake, a glacially fed lake near Lake Louise, is simply unmissable!
The challenge is that there’s a 99 percent chance the tiny parking lot will be full if you’re visiting in peak summer months during the day.
One idea: Arrive after 7 pm. It’s not dark until 10 pm and parking isn’t a problem!
Diehards and photographers arrive here at 4:30 am to catch these photogenic mountain peaks sunlit at sunrise, which is indeed a stunning sight.
But even at that hour…this parking lot can already be full. Rangers will have the whole road blocked off so there’s literally no way to get here.
If you’re desperate to catch sunrise here, arrive even earlier! At other times of day, your best bet is to take the shuttle from Lake Louise.
You *must* reserve a date and time through the Parks Canada website well in advance as shuttles get fully booked in summer.
But as long as you do have a shuttle reservation, it couldn’t be easier.
You’ll park near Lake Louise, shuttle to Moraine Lake and then back to Lake Louise. Shuttles run about every half hour in summer.
Once you arrive at Moraine Lake, head directly for The Rock Pile.
It’s a short scamper to the top for the best view of the lake.
While there are plenty of scenic hikes here, if you’re hoping to see Moraine Lake and Lake Louise in a single day (which is super convenient unless you are staying *at* Lake Louise), consider one of the teahouse hikes from Lake Louise instead.
There are two historic tea houses: Lake Agnes Tea House and Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House.
Both can be accessed from hikes that start on the shore of beautiful Lake Louise. These cute little log cabin tea houses have been operating since 1920!
There’s no electricity or water at these tea houses.
A single helicopter drops supplies for each teahouse once per season. After that, everything else comes up on the backs of staff who carry it up on their backs!
The fare is not fancy here. Sandwiches are quite rudimentary. I recommend tea and a sweet treat instead.
The Lake Agnes Tea House is 4.6 miles out and back with an elevation gain of 1,427 feet. Allow 2 to three hours, not including stops for gawking at Mirror Lake, valley views, and time at the teahouse.
Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse is 9.1 miles out and back with an elevation gain of 1,929 feet. Allow an average of 4.5 hours to complete this trek.
My Top Banff Travel Tips
1. Reserve early! Finding accommodations and reasonably priced rental cars for a summer trip to Banff can be practically impossible last minute.
Popular attractions like the Sky Bistro and shuttle reservations to Lake Louise also sell out. Plan ahead for best prices and selection.
2. Protect wildlife. Bears in Banff lose their lives far too frequently when tourists speed on the small roads here as they cross.
Also, never get out of your car or approach wildlife. Aside from endangering your safety, you also endanger the animal. This is how bears habituate to humans and learn to seek food and then must be destroyed.
3. Carry bear spray but not bear bells. It’s highly unlikely you’ll use your bear spray, but if you do, it will save your life. Learn how to use it and carry it on your belt or within easy reach on your backpack. Don’t pack it away!
Bear bells just make bears curious so don’t bother. Your best protection is talking while hiking and hiking in groups so you don’t surprise a bear. Most would prefer to avoid you.
4. Dress in layers. Locals like to say that the Rockies get four seasons in a day and it’s true! We learned the hard way that if the weather forecast for Canmore is 100% sunshine that doesn’t mean there’s not a thunderstorm an hour up the road in Lake Louise!
5. Get the Gypsy App! As noted above, this app will enhance your experience more than you can imagine.
Wrap up this day with dinner at the incredible Fairmont Château Lake Louise. You’ve earned it! Reservations recommended. (Or take advantage of the late sunset with a helicopter tour!)
And then, if you’re headed back to Banff or Canmore, consider a stop at picturesque Morant’s Curve along the Bow Valley Parkway.
If you’re lucky, you’ll catch the red Canadian Pacific train coming around the bend for this classic photo capture.
Unfortunately, the railroad posts no schedule so you kind of have to get lucky. Weekdays, the train is rumored to chug by once per hour.
Even if you don’t see the train, late in the evening is a great time for wildlife spotting here along the Bow Valley Parkway!
This is a spectacularly scenic roadway popular with cyclists.
After 8 or 9 pm, keep your eyes peeled for black bears, grizzlies, elk, bighorn sheep, and wolves…especially along the section closest to Lake Louise.
Day 3: Drive Icefield Parkway
If this is your last day in the Canadian Rockies, today’s the day to drive part of the incredible Icefield Parkway.
National Geographic named it one of the top 10 most beautiful drives in the world!
However, if you have more days left in your itinerary, skip down to Day 4 below and visit Yoho National Park instead.
Then drive the Icefield Parkway on Day 4 and add an extra day later in Jasper instead.
The Icefield Parkway takes a full day to drive. And there’s not many options for food here—and only one stratospherically expensive stop for gas—so plan a picnic and gas up in Lake Louise.
There’s also no cell service so download your Google map and use the Gypsy app as your personal tour guide here.
It’s less than three hours between Lake Louise and Jasper but there are literally dozens of scenic stops for lakes, waterfalls, vistas, and so much more. (You’ll find them all on the Gypsy App.)
The big draw for many here is the famous Columbia Icefield, which is nearly two hours from Lake Louise.
If you’re driving here from Canmore, Banff or Lake Louise on a day trip, you should probably turn back after stopping at the Icefield Visitors Center to see the incredible Athabasca Glacier.
If you’ve never seen a glacier, now’s your chance! Sadly, the Athabasca Glacier has lost half its volume over the last 125 years and is currently losing ice at 5 meters (16 feet) every year.
There are several ways to fully appreciate this site.
The most popular is booking a bus tour that goes out onto the glacier and includes some time to walk around there.
Personally, I chose to skip this activity due to crowds, cost, and safety concerns. In 2021, a fatal bus roll over killed three people while 14 others suffered life-threatening injuries.
The tour company has since added seatbelts to their buses.
But I’m definitely in the minority here. If you’d like to learn more about the tour, you can check reviews and availability here.
When you book, you have the option to include a visit to the Sky Walk (which can also be booked separately).
The Sky Walk is just down the road from the Columbia Ice Field which weirdly means a separate 5 minute bus ride to a transparent platform that hangs out over the canyon. I also skipped this experience.
If you’re an avid hiker and also feel confident hiking in the higher altitude here (which can be challenging), you can also book a private guided hike.
Again, if you’re driving the parkway as a day trip from Lake Louise without plans to overnight in Jasper, your stop at the Icefield Parkway Visitors Center makes a good point to turn back…unless you’re up for a really long day!
5 Days in Banff
Day 4: Visit Yoho National Park
If you’re still staying in Banff, Canmore or Lake Louise, then today is the day to see top attractions in nearby Yoho National Park. If you’ve downloaded the Gypsy app, you’ll know exactly where to go!
Start with a short hike down to Meeting of the Waters where the Kicking Horse Rivers is joined by the Yoho River.
You’ll wind your way up some switchbacks from Lake Louise and then scramble down a short slope on foot to see this scenic spot.
You can actually see the difference in the colors of the two rivers!
Then continue on to Takakaw Falls. This magnificent waterfall plunges 1,224 feet and is indeed awe-inspring.
You an actually see it from the parking lot or take a short hike to see it up close and personal. Plus, the drive to Takakaw Falls is spectacular!
Continue on a bit further and you’ll come to Natural Bridge, near the tiny town of Field. This is a truly impressive rock formation on the Kicking Horse River.
It’s easy to see, too, with just a five minute walk from the parking lot to a number of impressive view points.
Afterwards, stop into cute little Field for lunch at Truffle Pigs Bistro or a coffee at The Siding Cafe.
Field is practically a one road town but it’s a cute little pit stop in Yoho!
And finally, the last (and best) stop of the day: gorgeous Emerald Lake!
Lake Louise may be the most famous lake in the Canadian Rockies and brilliant blue Peyto Lake may tie with dramatic Moraine Lake for the most scenic, but I think Emerald Lake is my favorite.
It was less crowded when we visited earlier in the day and I really enjoyed browsing the old black and white photos adorning the historic Emerald Lake Lodge here. What a great place to stay!
It is—as you might guess—a deep Emerald color.
And if you arrive here early in the morning before the wind is picking up, (just see the sights in Yoho in reverse order so you beeline to Emerald Lake first thing) the lake is an absolutely incredible glassy mirror of the blue sky, mountain peaks, and puffy white clouds.
Emerald Lake is a great place to rent a canoe for an hour.
It’ll also take you just a little over 1.5 hours to hike the easy, flat Emerald Lake Loop here.
Food at the the lodge’s Cilantro Café is average (burger fare), but a table lakeside is worth it for the view!
Day 5: Head to Jasper via Icefield Parkway
If you’ve got a few days left on your itinerary, move your base to Jasper today and take the whole day to drive the Icefield Parkway.
But get an early start!
One of the most dramatic sights on the Icefield Parkway is incredible Peyto Lake, about an hour from Lake Louise up the parkway.
The problem is that if you get here mid to late morning or after, it will be thronged with unbelievable crowds in July and August. It is so worth it to arrive early.
There are many stops along the parkway.
Most walks to viewpoints are short…a few offer optional longer hikes if you have the time and want to stretch your legs.
My favorite stop here after Petyo Lake was the incredible Athabasca Falls, just a half hour before Jasper.
We visited in mid-July, when the glacier melt in the rivers was at its peak, making for some super dramatic waterfalls.
Athabasca Falls is a Class 5 waterfall; it’s 151 feet wide and drops 79 feet. It is impressive!
7 Days in Banff
While Jasper sees its fair share of tourists in summer, it still feels blissfully uncrowded compared to Banff and Lake Louise.
Even in high season, we only passed occasional other hikers, making us feel like we had this gorgeous paradise almost to ourselves.
Keep an eye out for elk along the road to town. You’ll often see them grazing nearby in evening.
They seem to know that predators like bears prefer to steer clear of people making it relatively safe.
There are dozens and dozens of gorgeous hikes in the Jasper area.
If you have more than two days in Jasper, I highly recommend hiking Valley of the Five Lakes (an easy/moderate 2.9 mile loop around five lakes) or Old Fort Point (a moderate 2.3 mile loop for wildflowers and views).
There’s also a gondola in Jasper (the Jasper SkyTram) but if you’re only planning one gondola ride in the Canadian Rockies, make it Sulphur Mountain in Banff!
The Jasper gondola requires a closely timed ticket and squashes you in with up to 22 other people (unlike the Banff gondola which is just four to a car).
There’s just a tiny visitor center and gift shop at the top, although you can hike alpine trails at this elevation which makes it a favorite for some visitors.
Day 6: Maligne Valley Boat Cruise
Sites today are all conveniently clustered within an hour of Japser.
The main must-do experience is taking a boat cruise on scenic Maligne Lake to Spirit Island.
You’ll cruise 8.7 miles along the length of this beautiful lake, docking briefly to debark and photograph Spirit Island, a tiny but iconic island, only accessible by boat.
The whole experience lasts about 90 minutes. However, the cruises mostly run in July and August as the lake is often still frozen in June. Book in advance or prepare to be disappointed.
You can check price and availability on the Maligne Lake cruise here.
Canoe rentals are also available at Maligne Lake although it would take you about three hours to row all the way to Spirit Island!
You’ll want to hike nearby Maligne Canyon either before or after your Maligne Lake Cruise.
The Maligne Canyon trailhead is about a 35 minute drive back towards Jasper from Maligne Lake. And this hike cannot be missed!
Choose your own adventure here. You can take a simple walk to the viewpoint along the boardwalk and bridge or choose from a number of lengthier loop hikes that gain substantially in elevation.
There’s even a popular multi-day hike above the tree line that begins here and finishes near Jasper.
But don’t miss the opportunity to walk along the steep gorge with water rushing into the Maligne River. It’s unlike any other spot near Jasper.
Once you’ve hiked Maligne Canyon and cruised Maligne Lake, it’s time to relax.
I recommend heading directly to Miette Hot Springs up the road. It’s the hottest natural hot springs in these parts!
Folding Mountain Brewery makes a great stop for a meal en route with great burgers and flights of local beers.
There are no advance reservations to visit the hot springs so just show up with a bathing suit and towel (or rent one).
We found it pretty crowded mid-summer but the alpine setting and ice cold plunge pool, all for a $6 USD entrance fee, more than make up for it.
If you’re here in evening (the hot springs closes at 8 pm), enjoy the long drive back to Jasper on super scenic Highway 16. It’s a great place to spot wildlife! We saw several elk with huge antler racks here.
Day 7: Hike Edith Cavell + Athabasca River Float Trip
You’ll find Mount Edith Cavell in Jasper National Park along the Icefield Parkway near Jasper. And here, on the north face is the incredible Angel Glacier!
The amazing thing is that you can hike right up to the bottom of it with just a short walk to see where it melts into a beautiful emerald glacial pool.
It’s just one more natural wonder you should not miss in the Canadian Rockies.
If you’re here in late July or August, plan to take the 5.1 mile loop, Edith Cavell Meadows Trail for gorgeous views and wildflowers galore.
We saw so many widflowers mid-July here… red Indian Paintbrush, Bluebells, wild roses (Alberta’s “state” flower), Queen Anne’s Lace, Brown-Eyed Susans, and more.
However, since the Edith Cavell Meadow Loop was still closed due to deep snow in mid-July, we had to content ourselves with the short path of the Glacier Trail (2.6 miles out and back. It’s half that if you want to just do the boardwalk to the pool at the bottom of Angel Glacier.)
If you’ve visited Edith Cavell in the morning, you’ll have all afternoon for an easy rafting trip down the mighty Athabasca River.
The Athabasca River—the second largest river in Alberta—is a historic waterway. First Nations people established a robust fur trade here in the late 18th century.
The rafting trip we enjoyed was a relaxed family-friendly experience with a few mild rapids. It was a 20 minute bus ride to put in the raft and a 60 minute float back to Jasper town.
You can check price and availability on the Athabasca Float trip we did here. (They also offer Class II rapids river rafting trips.)
I have two recommendations for dinner on your last night in Jasper.
At a minimum, swing by the historic Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge for dinner or a drink.
It’s a sight to behold, with over 700 acres of pristine property. Nearby Beauvert Lake makes a great loop hike here.
There are several restaurants here. We dined at Orso Trattoria, a fine dining experience at the lodge and I’m not sure I can recommend it. The food was good but not great for $$$$.
We only ended up there because the more casual Great Hall & Emerald Lounge had a 60 minute wait for dinner.
But this restaurant has a fabulous patio here right on Mildred Lake so reserve ahead!
Otherwise, I highly recommend a meal at The Raven Bistro in downtown Jasper.
The creative fare and cocktails here made this another one of our favorite meals in the Canadian Rockies.
Your Banff Itinerary is a Wrap
Even with two weeks in the Canadian Rockies, we barely brushed the surface of all there was to see and do!
But hopefully, this itinerary gives you at least a taste of the best of Banff, Jasper, and Yoho National Parks.
There’s always time for a next visit, so above all, take time to savor the majesty and peace here rather than rushing from site to site.
There’s no better place to refresh and renew your spirit.
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