Banff National Park – Summer Guide
There are quite a lot of places to see and explore within Banff. I would recommend enjoying the drive into downtown Banff, from Calgary, and starting your expedition at the Banff Visitor Center. This is a very central location where you can plan out which things you want to see and do as well as if they are open during the season that you will be there. Even though Banff has a lot of awesome sights I personally enjoyed simply driving certain roads, that I will list here, and leisurely stopping for the views as most of these drives where much less touristy than the main destinations. Note some of these routes are short and take you to a single destination while other drives can take all day. Grab a map, a ton of information from the visitor center and check out one of these spots for some grub while you plan out the awesome few days your about to have!
In downtown Banff there are several great restaurants and shops to checkout. The vibe is eclectic and quite modern so if you have time I would wonder around downtown and discover something new. If your looking for recommendations here are a few spots that really stood out to me.
Start at the Rose and Crown! Pictured above, It has a roof deck with stunning views of the entire valley and mountain range, the food is pretty great too. Get the poutine fries as a starter for sure. I sat up there, in the sun, for a couple of hours drinking a Bloody Mary and planned out my routes for each day. I marked it all on the map as service can sometimes be tough when you get out away from the city.
Another great spot to check out is Earls. It has a dope happy hour that is from 9 – CLOSE! I recommend the wings, coconut prawns, and the crispy ribs. Their pizza is pretty solid too. If your hungrier than just starters I recommend the Chicken, Brie and Fig sandwich cause it’s flame.
If your looking for something a little more unique and romantic I’d check out either Sky Bistro or Three Ravens. Sky Bistro is wild because you have to ride the Banff Gondola to the top of Sulphur Mountain to get to the restaurant. Go for a later dinner so that you can watch the sunset from the floor to ceiling windows! If you decide to check it out book the gondola and dinner package deal as it’ll save you a decent amount of cash. Three Ravens is one of the top 100 restaurants in Canada and has great views of the Bow Valley from Tunnel Mountain.
Bow Valley Parkway – This route starts off right outside the city of Banff and takes you through a scenic route up to Lake Louise. Driving this particular Parkway was the most memorable time I had while in Banff. I would give yourself a full tank of gas and a couple of days to really enjoy it as there are many small outlooks to pull off as pictured below.
My favorite hike that I did while in Banff is also on this parkway, Johnston Canyon Falls. The photos below showcase a small amount of the beauty on the hike. The real treat is when all the senses come together and you hear the water rushing below, the smell of fresh air, and the misty breeze blowing against your skin as you hike up the trail.
The easily marked hike through Johnston Canyon has so many amazing spots to stop and take in the scenery and I recommend making the trek to the upper falls overlook. However, in the image above, the viewpoint of this massive rock sitting in the middle of a waterfall is a little more difficult to find. After you have viewed lower falls and started up the trail keep a look out on the right about halfway up the trail to upper falls. At one point the trail makes a sharp right up a hill and below that is a massive cave and this amazing natural sculpture! You will have to hike down an unofficial trail to take images so wear some good shoes and prepare to get dirty. If your feeling up for it after you’ve viewed upper falls keep going another hour or so to to the ink pots which are pictured below.
Don’t make the mistake I did, as the hike seems short, and forget to bring food and water! I hiked all the way up to the ink pots, then realized how thirsty and hungry I was. I ate some wild berries and moss in order to have the strength to get back down to the parking lot but I don’t recommend it at all.
If your short on time the viewpoint along Bow Valley Parkway, I highly recommend, is near the end of the drive towards Lake Louise and is called Morant’s Curve. I spent several hours here having lunch and a couple beers waiting for a train to pass by. It was worth it!
Icefields Parkway – This parkway goes all the way from Banff to Jasper and will take you a full day or more to drive there and back. However it is worth it due to the variety of natural elements you get to see on the drive. Everything from fields of flowers to glaciers you can hike out on!
The Icefields parkway was stunning just to drive but there are a few highlights along that way I highly suggest stopping at these locations. The first one on the drive from Banff is Bow Lake. There is quite a lot to photograph here and the crowds are very minimal.
The next stop right down the road is Peyto Lake. This more famous location is quite spectacular but be prepared for crowds armed with selfie sticks and to wait in a little bit of a line to snap your pic.
Those two locations are a pretty short drive from Banff if your looking for a day trip but don’t have the time to drive the entire parkway to Jasper. However if you can make it the next location it is incredible. It’s the Columbia Icefield Glacier and valley. Spent about half a day in this area exploring the landscape.
As you drive down from the Glacier Peaks into the valley below you will notice the landscape start to change as wildflowers start springing up around the riverbeds and low lying fog will billow through. I spent so much time in this area that I didn’t make it to Jasper and had to spend the night at Jonas Creek Campground! However it’s about halfway on the drive so it was a perfect location to rest. Not to far of a drive from the campground is Sunwapta Falls Lodge, which has a delicious restaurant and gas in case you need it. From here the last stop I would check it out is Athabasca Falls, pictured below.
Lake Minnewanka – If your looking to stay local to the Banff area you have to spend a day doing the shorter drive around to this lake and back. There are a few shorter hikes that are really great and you can rent boats or canoes to take out as well. Other than the drive on Icefields Pkwy I spent the most time in this area, it was serene with a lot less crowds to block the view. Two Jack Lake day use area is on the drive to Lake Minnewanka and will most likely be the first set of red chair images that you collect! It’s worth a stop as see you can see from the next three images and is special to me as it’s the first place that I checked out in Banff, after having lunch downtown of course.
Vermillion Lakes – This is another really off the beaten path local drive that I loved. There are spots along Vermillion Lakes Road where you can pull over to walk along the water or just sit out on a dock. After I spent an hour at Lake Louise dealing with the crowds I actually came here and fell asleep on one of the docks in the middle of the afternoon, no one else was around.
The Activities –
There are a lot of things to see and do in Banff, you could easily get overwhelmed with what to do when you enter the visitor center haha! I spent a couple of weeks in this area and these are my top items that were on my bucket list. Even with the amount of time that I had in Banff there are a few activities at the end of the list that I didn’t get to check out. If you happen to check them off yours please let me know as I will be venturing back to this heavenly place sometime in the future.
Lake Louise is absolutely breathtaking which is why everyone that visits Banff is here and it can get extremely crowded, enough so that they have an overflow parking lot with shuttles! I recommend visiting in the early morning as the crowds will be thinner and the light peaking over the mountains creates such an intense turquoise color of the water it’s worth it to be up that early.
Moraine Lake is in the same area as Louise and also draws quite a large crowd with very limited parking so I would recommend checking it out in the late afternoon. This way you can avoid most of the crowd and get the chance to walk around the lake at sunset, which was my favorite time there, as the stars began to appear in the sky. The photo that I featured on the cover of this guide is from Moraine and I took it around 11 PM at night. However if you are going to be nightsky gazing bring layers as I was there in July and it was cold enough I could see my breath!
Lake Agnes Tea House – A short hike from Lake Louise.
Corner Surprise Lookout – This spot is a short drive up Buffalo Street from downtown Banff.
Hoodoos – These spike like limestone shapes look awesome and you can hike there from the Corner Surprise lookout parking lot in about 3 miles or drive to an overlook point as well.
Banff Upper Hot Springs – Quite a beautiful location and highly recommended after a day of hiking, they stay open till 11 so you can even catch sunset and still make it here!
Banff Gondola – As I mentioned earlier in the food section the Gondola should be quite an experience and you can still ride to the top even if you decide not to eat at Sky Bistro.
Red Chair Experience – Red Chair Experience Map
Those are the activities that I didn’t get the chance to see or do while I was in Banff. I opted instead to spend more time driving the Parkways and leisurely stopping to take photos since that is what really spoke to me on my first adventure in Banff.
If you’ve enjoyed the preview of this guide please feel free to download the full version below and check out my prints from Banff in the gallery section.