9 Things to Know Before Visiting Banff
AAA Travel Editor Katie Broome
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 tips to keep in mind when planning a trip to Banff, especially if you're visiting during the busy season.
1. 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 kilometers (29.9 mi.) between Banff and Lake Louise. The parkway offers the chance to soak up the scenery at a slower pace. The posted speed limit is just 60 kph (37 mph), and you can 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. You'll get amazing views of Lake Minnewanka, a large glacial lake that covers up a submerged village, Minnewanka Landing. AAA members can save on car rentals with Hertz. .
2. Book your hotel or campground far in advance.
Don’t wait too late to book hotels in Banff, Canada, or elsewhere within Banff National Park. The park attracts a whopping three million visitors a year, and campsites and hotels can fill up quickly. Reservations are most difficult to get 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.
3. 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. (You'll also need to pay a park fee if you want to visit nearby Jasper, Yoho or Kootenay national parks.)
For trips longer than a week, you'll save money by purchasing a Parks Canada Discovery Pass. The pass 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 the park gate, visitor center or staffed campground.
4. 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). There you can snap a photo of the waterfall and the Fairmont Banff Springs hotel.
5. 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. You'll find these dining experiences 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 AAA Recommended restaurants in the Banff AAA Travel Guide.
6. Seek out the unique shops downtown.
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.) stocks natural products made in nearby Canmore. The gift shop at Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies (111 Bear St.) features handcrafted goods from Canadian artists.
7. Set an early alarm for sightseeing.
Parking lots at Lake Louise and Moraine Lake fill up quickly—sometimes by sunrise—so get there early. Another option is to ride the Parks Canada shuttle ($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 for up-to-date parking availability at various sites.
Check Banff Now for up-to-date parking availability at various sites.
8. 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).
9. 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). At the viewpoint, you can walk out to a grassy bluff overlooking the town of Banff and see surrounding mountain peaks.A more touristy option with great views is the Banff Gondola. The gondola climbs Sulphur Mountain in eight minutes, and there are observation decks and boardwalks at the summit (fare is $44-$69). The summit also has Sky Bistro, a fine dining restaurant.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 the Lake Louise Summer Gondola and Wildlife Interpretive Centre).
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AAA Travel Editor Katie Broome
AAA Travel Editor Katie Broome is an AAA Travel Expert.