AAA Travel Tips / 9 Things to Know Before Visiting Banff

9 Things to Know Before Visiting Banff

AAA/Katie Broome
By AAA Travel Editor Katie Broome
November 20, 2019
Canada’s first national park—Banff—is also one of its most scenic, offering stunning views of snowcapped peaks, blue-green lakes, alpine meadows and even some glaciers. It should come as no surprise that this beautiful scenery draws a record number of visitors each year. Here are a few recommendations and tips to keep in mind when planning a trip to Banff, especially if you’re visiting during the busy season when crowds can be an issue.
Backswamp Viewpoint overlooking a river and mountains along the Bow Valley Parkway in Banff National Park.
AAA/Katie Broome

Absolutely go on a scenic drive.

Road tripping through Banff National Park is a must. One of the top Banff scenic drives you should take is the Bow Valley Parkway (Hwy. 1A), which parallels the Trans-Canada Highway (Hwy. 1) for 48 kilometres (29.9 mi.) between Banff and Lake Louise. The parkway offers the chance to soak up the scenery at a slower pace—the speed limit is just 60 kph (37 mph)—and pull off at various picnic areas where you might spot some wildlife. Another scenic drive, the Lake Minnewanka Loop, is just minutes from downtown Banff. AAA members can save on car rentals with Hertz.
Exterior of the Fairmont Banff Springs hotel in Banff, Alberta.
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Book your hotel or campground far in advance.

Don’t wait too late to book your accommodations in the town of Banff or elsewhere within Banff National Park. The park attracts a whopping three million visitors a year, and campsites and hotels can fill up quickly, especially during the busy summer season. Crowd levels generally peak in July and August, when hotel prices are also at their peak. If you want to make Banff camping reservations for summertime, advance bookings can typically be made starting in January.
Building at the entrance to Banff National Park in Alberta.
AAA/Katie Broome

Buy a national parks pass for longer visits.

You’ll need to pay a national park fee to enter Banff National Park or stop at any sites within its boundaries (or within nearby Jasper, Yoho or Kootenay national parks). For trips longer than a week, you can save money by purchasing a Parks Canada Discovery Pass, which offers unlimited entry to Canada’s national parks for a year. For trips of less than a week, just pay the daily admission rate at any park gate, visitor center or staffed campground.
The Banff Pedestrian Bridge with mountains in the background in Banff National Park, Alberta.
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Easy in-town hikes provide escape from the crowds.

While summer can be the best time to visit Banff, it can also mean heavy crowds. Escape and find some solitude on an easy, in-town hike. Two multiuse trails follow the curving path of the Bow River and are easily reached from downtown; just walk south on Banff Avenue toward the river. The Bow River Trail follows the north shore while the Bow Falls Trail hugs the south side. The south shore is particularly scenic if you head east to the Bow Falls Viewpoint (about 1.2 km, or .75 mi., from Banff Avenue), where you can snap a photo of the waterfall and the Fairmont Banff Springs hotel.
Shops, restaurants and patio seating along Bear Street in downtown Banff, Alberta.
AAA/Katie Broome

Make dinner reservations in advance.

Want to dine at one of Banff’s amazing downtown restaurants? So will everyone else during the busy season! Make reservations if you’re planning to visit popular Banff restaurants like Balkan The Greek Restaurant, Block Kitchen + Bar, Chuck's Steakhouse or Park Distillery Restaurant + Bar. All of these can be found along Banff Avenue, the town’s main street.
The street that runs parallel to Banff Avenue—Bear Street—offers some great off-the-beaten-path places to eat, including The Bison Restaurant & Terrace (accepts reservations), Nourish Bistro (accepts reservations for groups of five or more in summer) and The Bear Street Tavern (no reservations, but the pizza is worth the wait!). Browse more AAA Recommended restaurants in the Banff AAA Travel Guide.
Storefront of the Spirit of Christmas store in downtown Banff, Alberta.
AAA/Katie Broome

Seek out the unique shops downtown.

You won’t have any trouble finding places to shop in downtown Banff. Boutiques, outdoor outfitters and souvenir shops line Banff Avenue, with additional stores on Bear Street and other side streets. For unique souvenirs and one-of-a-kind gifts, check out The Spirit of Christmas (133 Banff Ave.), with three floors of holiday décor and collectibles; Rocky Mountain Soap Company (204 Banff Ave.), with natural products made in nearby Canmore; and the gift shop at Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies (111 Bear St.), which stocks handcrafted goods from Canadian artists.
The teal waters of Lake Louise with snow-covered mountains in the background in Banff National Park, Alberta.
AAA/Katie Broome

Set an early alarm for sightseeing.

If you plan to visit top Banff attractions like Lake Louise, Moraine Lake or Johnston Canyon during summer, you’ll need to get started early in the morning. Parking lots at Lake Louise and Moraine Lake fill up quickly—sometimes by sunrise—so get there early, or ride the Parks Canada shuttle bus ($4-$6; credit/debit only) from the Lake Louise Park and Ride (about 10 km, or 6.4 mi., from the Lake Louise lakeshore). The parking lot at Johnston Canyon usually fills up between 9:30 and 10 a.m. in summer. Check Banff Now for up-to-date parking availability at various sites.
Downtown Banff public transportation.
AAA/Katie Broome

Take public transportation to avoid parking issues.

Avoid parking headaches in Banff National Park by opting for public transportation whenever possible. Roam Transit has bus routes that run throughout downtown Banff in summer and make it easy to get to popular attractions like the Fairmont Banff Springs hotel, Cave and Basin National Historic Site, Banff Upper Hot Springs, Lake Minnewanka, Lake Louise and Johnston Canyon. Have exact fare handy (cash/coins only) as you board the bus, as the driver can’t provide change (only a paper voucher to be redeemed at select shops).
Gondolas ascending a grassy slope with mountains in the background in Lake Louise, Alberta.
AAA/Katie Broome

Weigh your options for aerial views.

There are lots of options for aerial views in Banff; choosing one (or more) to visit is just a matter of what you want to see and your budget. For a bird’s-eye view of downtown Banff for free, drive to the Banff View Point (4.8 km, or 3 mi., on Mount Norquay Scenic Drive), where you can walk out to a grassy bluff overlooking the town of Banff and surrounding mountain peaks. A more touristy option with great views is the Banff Gondola, which climbs Sulphur Mountain in eight minutes and has observation decks and boardwalks at the summit (fare is $44-$69). Nearby ski resorts also offer sightseeing gondola/chairlift rides in summer for around $40; check them out at Mt. Norquay, Sunshine Village Ski Resort and Lake Louise Ski Resort (see Lake Louise Summer Gondola and Wildlife Interpretive Centre).
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