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Calgary is one of the most popular cities in Canada to begin a road trip from. Not only is it home to a large international airport receiving visitors from all around the world, but it’s also Alberta’s largest city (by population.)
When it comes to places to visit from Calgary, none are as popular as Banff! The stunning Rocky Mountains are arguably the most popular attraction in all of Canada. You just have to see them for yourself!
The road trip from Calgary to Banff is one of Canada’s best and most undertaken routes. Although you can reach Banff from Calgary in around 90 minutes, those who truly want to enjoy this road trip will need much more time.
To help plan your epic road trip, I’m going to share the 15 best places to stop between Calgary and Banff (or Banff and Calgary if you’re going the other way.) Enjoy!
About the Drive from Calgary to Banff
The drive from Calgary to Banff is relatively short – about 90 minutes – and there are two different routes you can take:
- 127 km (79 miles) on the Trans-Canada Highway 1 – this is the slightly faster option and should take an hour and a half
- 134 km (83 miles) on Highway 1A – this is the more scenic route and only adds about 10 minutes more to the driving time
I prefer the scenic Highway 1A that will take you through Cochrane and the Kananaskis region. There are some fun stops along the way to really make the most of this short drive.
Looking for options on how to get from the Calgary Airport to Banff – check out our complete guide about shuttles, buses, and rental cars!
Tips for Driving from Calgary to Banff (or Banff to Calgary)
First off, get gas before you leave Calgary! If you need to fill up along the way, I recommend doing so in Exshaw because it’s always cheaper than in Canmore or Banff.
If you’re driving in winter, keep an eye on the weather and check road conditions before you go. The main highway (Trans-Canada Highway 1) will be cleared first after a snowfall, but both highways are typically fine to drive on in the winter.
Make sure your car (or rental car) has winter tires or at least all-season tires to tackle any ice and snow you may encounter. If you need to, there are places to stop between Calgary and Banff and spend a night if the weather changes and the roads aren’t great.
Watch for animals on this route – especially if you’re driving around sunrise or sunset. Large animals like deer can be hiding in the ditches. Highway 1A has a few more twists and turns, so best to do this drive during daylight if possible.
Banff requires a Park Pass to enter. Daily passes start at $10 CAD per adult, but if you’re planning to stay longer (or visit multiple national parks), pick up a Discovery Pass for $69 CAD for unlimited entry to all national parks for a year. There are also discounted rates for families/groups. Park Passes can be bought online in advance or at the park entrance.
You’ll also need a Conservation Pass if you plan to explore the Kananaskis area. I recommend a day pass (although yearly passes are available) for $15 CAD per car. Passes can be purchased online ahead of time or in person at any Kananaskis Visitor Information Center. If you don’t plan on stopping in the Kananaskis area, a pass is not required to simply drive through.
15 BEST Stops on the Drive from Calgary to Banff
Calgary is great because it has the bustling feel of a big city with more than 1.4 million people here and lots going on. It’s the largest city in Alberta, so there’s plenty of fun activities in Calgary to keep you busy!
What’s nice is even though the winters can get cold, it’s still likely to be sunny here. Calgary has the most days of sunshine of any other Canadian city – about 333 days a year! That makes all seasons a great time to visit. But even if you have a rainy or chilly day, Calgary has plenty of fun indoor activities as well!
While here, get the best view of the city from the highest 360-degree observation deck on the globe at the Calgary Tower. Take in the views of downtown and the Rocky Mountains in the distance and step onto the glass floor if you’re brave. You can even eat here at the revolving restaurant Sky 360.
Of course, a stop in Calgary wouldn’t be complete without visiting the Calgary Zoo. It’s open all year and has almost 1,000 different animals and exhibits including giraffes, tigers, lemurs, and more. Make sure to visit in the mornings to catch my favorite attraction – the penguin walk! Every morning at 10 a.m., the penguins take a 15-minute walk through the zoo for their exercise – it’s adorable and a perfect time for pictures.
If you’re here in July, grab a cowboy hat and take in the Calgary Stampede! The 10-day event features one of the largest rodeos in the world, a parade, a midway, shows, concerts, chuckwagon racing, and more.
If you find yourself in Calgary in winter, I love skating at the Olympic Plaza skating rink right downtown. It was built for the 1988 Winter Olympics hosted in Calgary and this is where the medal presentations took place. Now, there’s an excellent rink here that is the only refrigerated outdoor rink in the city, so the ice is always ready to skate on – even on a warmer day. Bring your own skates or rent a pair for $12 CAD.
2. The Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary
A hidden gem that makes a great stop on your drive from Calgary to Banff is the Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary, a not-for-profit taking care of rescued wolfdogs located one hour northwest of Calgary near the town of Cochrane. It’s the perfect place to go if you want to learn all about wolves and see them for yourself in their environment.
The sanctuary does have some rules that are important to know before you go. No children under six are allowed in the sanctuary. The paths can not accommodate strollers and no fur or faux fur clothing is allowed. No dogs are allowed on site, not even kept in your car in the parking lot. Be sure to check the visitor rules on their website or call ahead before you go.
The facility is open Thursday through Monday. Several different types of tours are available. Admission for youth is $13 CAD and adults are $23.
This town has an old western feel to it and is a lovely stop on the drive. Visit the Historic Cochrane Ranche here – where Alberta’s first large cattle ranch was located back in the 1880s. Now, it’s a massive public park with walking trails, fire pits, a quaint museum, and a reconstructed corral.
Explore downtown Cochrane and stop into MacKay’s Ice Cream. They’ve been serving ice cream in this location for over 70 years! The ice cream is locally made and has 50 flavors including unique ones like Haskap berry made from berries grown nearby.
For something a bit stronger, visit Half Hitch Brewing Company to try out locally-brewed craft beers paired with delicious appetizers and smoked meats. The specialty beers include their signature Papa Bear Prairie Ale made with local barley, wheat, rye, and oats, which won a gold medal at the 2018 Alberta Brewing Awards.
If you really love beer, then you’re in luck because there are a few other breweries in Cochrane that you ca check out too!
Cochrane is also a good place to stay outside Calgary as the hotels here are typically cheaper than Canmore or Banff. For a hotel with lots of character and a reasonable price tag (rooms under $60!), check out The Cochrane Rockyview Hotel. The three-story building painted grey with red trim was built in 1904 and is one of the original buildings in Cochrane and one of the oldest hotels in western Canada. The dance floor (the old stable!) at the Texas Gate Bar here makes for a fun night!
4. Ghost Lake
Just west of Cochrane on Highway 1A, you’ll come to Ghost Lake. It gets its name from Indigenous stories of a ghost who supposedly prowled the Ghost River nearby.
The beach has a fantastic view of the Rocky Mountains, but be aware that the water gets deep quickly! Ghost Lake’s average depth is 60-90 feet. This makes it perfect for fishing – lots of freshwater fish can be found here including Bull Trout and Rainbow Trout.
The lake’s location at the base of the Rockies ensures steady winds, making it an excellent spot for sailing. There are boat rentals available here at the marina. Of course, you can swim here too, but the water tends to be very cold!
5. Brewster’s Kananaskis Ranch Golf Course
Even if you’re not the best golfer, this course is worth a stop! Brewster’s Golf is an 18-hole course at the base of Yamnuska Mountain and along the north bank of the Bow River. While playing, enjoy the views of the mountains, wildflowers, and trees … just try not to get too distracted by the scenery and lose your golf ball in the water!
Tee times can be booked up to 30 days ahead of time and the better rates are available the sooner you book. To play all 18 holes, it’s $47 CAD on weekdays and $67 CAD on weekends and holidays; renting a golf cart is extra. There’s also a sunset special for a discounted rate to play later in the day.
6. The Kananaskis
Take a small detour onto Highway 40 to explore Kananaskis Country. It’s called “Alberta’s Mountain Playground”, which is no surprise since there’s so much to do. It’s easy to spend a few days exploring the region. It has fewer crowds than Banff, but all the same great outdoor activities!
Stay right in Kananaskis Village so you’re close to everything! The Crosswater Resort at Kananaskis is a great place for families with a large indoor waterpark. Staying at the resort also gives you priority access to the Kananaskis Nordic Spa. At the spa, their unique hydrotherapy sessions involved going into a series of hot and cold pools, all while enjoying the mountain views.
The area is known for winter fun as it contains the Nakiska Ski Resort – built for the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics. This means the ski resort has Olympic-sized groomed runs and a state-of-the-art snowmaking system. With its excellent snow coverage, Nakiska is typically one of the first ski resorts to open in the country and the last to close.
One of my favorite hikes in the Kananaskis area is to Troll Falls. It’s around 3 km (1.9 miles) round-trip with a beautiful waterfall at the end. You can get quite close to the waterfall and even find a large rock shaped like a troll’s head nearby. It’s equally stunning when the waterfall freezes in the winter – just bring ice cleats or spikes as it can get slippery.
Important note: All vehicles stopping in parks or public areas in Kananaskis Country and the Bow Valley Corridor require a Conservation Pass. Buy a daily pass online for $15 CAD or in person at any Kananaskis Visitor Information Center.
7. Bow Valley Campground/Many Springs
The Bow Valley Campground is a beautiful place to stay along the Bow River. The campsites here have lots of trees, great views of the valley, mountains, and the river. There are nice trails here that are especially beautiful at sunset and it’s typically less crowded than campgrounds around Banff. Staying here is by reservation only (no drop-ins), and booking can be made up to 90 days ahead of time.
If camping isn’t in the plans, I still recommend popping in to explore the day-use areas, like the short walk at Many Springs. This 1.3 km (0.8-mile) loop is packed full of amazing scenery including springs that collect in a wetland basin at the end of the hike. The mountains reflected in the mirror-like basin are a breathtaking sight. There’s a dock at the end of the loop, so you can have an unobstructed view!
8. Jura Creek Trail
Just a few minutes outside of Exshaw along Highway 1A is the Jura Creek Trail. It’s across from the Graymont gravel plant and the start of the trail is in the northwest section of the parking lot.
This is a hike that’s best to do in winter! Less than a kilometer into the hike is the Jura Creek slot canyon entrance. This narrow canyon is especially fun to explore when the creek is frozen and you can walk on the ice. There are some great photo opportunities here, so have a camera nearby. If you’re planning to attempt in the summer, bring shoes you don’t mind getting wet!
You can turn around and make your way back through the canyon or carry on along the trail. There’s another slot canyon about 3.5 km (2.2 miles) in – so often, hikers will visit both canyons and then head back. However, the trail does continue on for hikers who want to keep going.
At just over the halfway point of the drive from Calgary to Banff, you’ll pass through Exshaw. You’ll notice the Lafarge cement plant here as you drive by. It was first built in 1906 and is now the largest in Canada.
This is where I like to stop for gas on the way. I find it’s always cheaper here than in Canmore or Banff. Heart Mountain Store is an excellent one-stop shop as it’s a gas station, store, and restaurant. Fuel up your car, then treat yourself with one of their famous burgers!
Related Read: Looking for a challenging hike nearby? Check out Heart Mountain Horseshoe Loop – it starts just across the highway from Exshaw and is a stunning, but difficult, day hike.
10. Grotto Canyon
Grotto Canyon is a stunning hike that can be done in both summer and winter. The trail starts from the Grotto Mountain day-use parking lot. It’s about a kilometer to get to the creek bed, which slowly narrows as the rock walls get higher around you and more spectacular.
At the fork in the creek, take a right to get to Grotto Canyon Falls. But don’t overlook what you might see before the stunning waterfall! Keep an eye out to the left just before reaching the falls … you should see pictographs that are 500-1,000 years old painted right at eye level.
Personally, I love visiting Grotto Canyon in the winter when I can walk on the ice. Seriously, the entire place turns into a magical winter wonderland! With that said, walking Grotto Canyon in the winter can be very slippery. You should wear crampons or mini-ice spikes. You can rent these in Canmore from one of the sports shops. Alternatively, you can always just book a guided tour that comes with all your gear included!
11. Gap Lake
This is a picturesque lake that is popular for skating in the winter. The ice gets so clear that it’s possible to see all the way to the bottom! The wind also keeps the lake mostly snow-free, so it’s clear for ice skating. Just be aware that ice thickness can change because of underground streams that keep certain areas of ice thinner than others, so only walk or skate on the ice where you know is safe and do so at your own risk.
In the summer, Gap Lake is a nice lakeside spot to relax at. It’s also really popular for fishing!
Canmore is one of Alberta’s best mountainside tourist towns. With a range of fun and exciting things to do in Canmore, it’s a popular destination for both local and international tourists.
Since Canmore isn’t actually located within one of Canada’s National Parks, it’s a cheaper and more accessible option. Sitting on the edge of Banff National Park, Canmore boasts some of Canada’s most impressive mountain peaks and is an outdoor playground for visitors.
If you’re into hiking, Grassi Lakes is probably the most popular hike in Canmore, and as such, it is one of Canmore’s main attractions. Only a short 5-minute drive from Canmore town will have you parked at the trailhead ready to explore some of the brightest colored lakes you’ve ever seen!
One of the best things about the hike to Grassi Lakes is how accessible it is. This 4 kilometer-long trail only gains 230 meters in elevation and takes most people about 2 hours to complete there and back. It is a very easy trail that is family-friendly and suitable for all fitness levels. Plus, it’s open all year round!
If you visit Canmore in the winter you must go (or attempt) cross country skiing. Canmore is world-famous for its Nordic Centre where some of Canada’s best cross country ski trails are located!
The Nordic Centre in Canmore was actually where cross country ski events were held for the 1988 Olympic Games, and since then, they’ve maintained the facility for recreational and training uses. That’s right, you can go cross country skiing here and maybe even see some professionals practicing for the next Olympic games too!
Hot Tip: There are lots of amazing hotels in Canmore, and they are generally cheaper than Banff too! So, consider staying in Canmore instead and just visiting Banff on day trips (it’s only a 20-minute drive!)
13. Cascade Ponds
Only a few minutes from Banff is this beautiful spot to help end your road trip on a high note. The Cascade Ponds are a collection of ponds near Cascade Mountain. It’s absolutely gorgeous in all seasons – the reflections in the water in the summer, the yellow Aspen trees in the fall, and the snowy scenery in the winter.
The ponds are connected by a series of bridges that make walking between the ponds easy and create some gorgeous photo opportunities. Bring lunch along to enjoy at one of the many picnic areas and firepits here. You might also spot wildlife around the ponds including elk, mule deer, and a fox or two.
Continue further along past the ponds to visit Lake Minnewanka. This is the largest lake in Banff National Park and the scenery here is breathtaking with the mountains on display. Have a picnic or take a boat cruise here in the summer or enjoy cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in the winter.
14. Hoodoos Viewpoint
Take a short detour on the way into Banff to see the Hoodoos Viewpoint. These are rock pillars that are strangely shaped due to erosion of soft rock that was protected by a harder coating of earth on top.
There’s parking here (location on Google maps) and then it’s about a 10-minute walk to a lookout where you can see a small group of the rocky spires really well.
15. Banff Town
In Banff town, book yourself a hotel for a few nights as you’ll definitely need time to explore this vibrant mountain town!
Truthfully, there are tons of fun things to do in Banff, it can be hard to know even where to start – to make it easy you can check out our 1, 2, and 3 day Banff itinerary! Or here are some of my personal favorite activities in Banff:
- Visit Mt Norquay – The views from Mt Norquay are unlike any other. In the summer, ride the sightseeing gondola and visit the restaurant at the top for a beer with a view. If you visit Banff in the winter, you can’t miss hitting the slopes or testing out their famous tube park (fun for the whole family!) If you buy the SkiBig3 Lift Ticket Mt Norquay is the third ski resort you’ll have access to.
- Banff Upper Hot Springs – For only a few dollars you can relax in Banff’s very own hot springs with mountain views. The hot springs can get busy though.
- Take the gondola up Sulphur Mountain – Ride the gondola to the top of Sulphur Mountain to experience panoramic views of Banff National Park. If you want to skip paying for the ride, hike up instead!
- Indulge in food and drinks – Banff has tons of tasty restaurants and bars. For beer, head to Baff Brewing Co. For a delicious meal with crafted cocktails, head to Parks Distillery.
- Go hiking – The hiking trails in and around Banff are almost endless. In the summer in Banff, conquer difficult summits. But even in the winter, there are tons of epic hikes to challenge you. Hiking is one of the best free things to do in Banff.
Want to continue on a longer road trip? Check out the route from Calgary to Invermere that passes through Banff National Park.
Where to Stay in Banff
There are lots of different areas to choose from when deciding where to stay in Banff National Park. One of the best hotels in Banff town is Moose Hotel & Suites which has a great location, is reasonably priced, and has all the amenities you could want including two rooftop hot tubs.
If you’re on a tight budget, consider checking out King Edward Hotel. It is easily the most affordable place to stay. Plus, it is located right in town on Banff Ave!
And for a little luxury, the Rimrock Resort Hotel is a must! With an onsite spa, balconies with amazing views, as well as a restaurant and bar this hotel is a must! Plus, it is located a couple of minutes from town in a quieter location.
Alternatively, there are a few Airbnbs to choose from in Banff.
Essential Info About the Drive Before You Go
- The drive from Calgary to Banff is short at only about 90 minutes or about 130 km (81 miles). Take Highway 1A for the more scenic route through Cochrane and the Kananaskis!
- Fill up your car with gas in Calgary before you leave. If you need gas along the way, stop in Exshaw as it’s typically cheaper than in Canmore or Banff.
- Keep an eye out for animals at all times of year while driving along this highway – especially in the early morning and evening hours. If you can, drive this route during the day – it’s easier to enjoy the scenery that way too!
- If you’re doing this drive in the winter, check road conditions before you leave and make sure you have winter or all-season tires on the car. There are lots of places to stay along this route if you have to book a last-minute hotel due to changing weather conditions.
- Get a Parks Pass for Banff National Park! This is required for entry and starts at $10 CAD per day. Remember to buy a Discovery Pass online (it will be mailed to you) for $69 CAD if you’re planning to stay longer or visit more national parks; it gives you unlimited visits for a year!
- Another pass you’ll need is the Conservation Pass for the Kananaskis area. If you’re just driving through and not stopping, it isn’t required. However, this is such a beautiful area to explore, it’s worth paying the $15 CAD per vehicle.
- Bring a camera! This road trip takes you to some of the best views and places in the Rocky Mountains. It’s an epic trip, you’ll want to capture the memories you make on the way.
Related Read: Want to continue your road trip to Lake Louise? Check out our blogs about driving from Calgary to Lake Louise.
Driving from Calgary to Banff FAQs
Renting a Car in Alberta
If you’re arriving in Alberta via plane then I can’t recommend getting a rental car enough. Canada is a large country and traveling between cities and even just getting out to some of the best places to visit in Alberta requires transport. Although you can use public transport, on some occasions, it means your trip will not only require more time but more planning.
Car rental in Canada is relatively cheap, especially if you get a budget car. The cheapest car with pickup and drop-off in different locations is around $100 CAD per day. The price does vary though depending on the time of year and the type of car that you rent. For car rentals, I use the website DiscoverCars.com. It’s a search engine with lots of deals with good customer service. In fact, I’ve used them all over the world including in Chile, New Zealand, and Australia.
Another popular option is to rent a campervan or motorhome (only for the brave in winter.) Using Motorhome Republic you can search hundreds of deals across multiple companies to pick a great vehicle and the cheapest price. Having a motorhome is a stunning way to see Canada, and using crown land and campsites, you can often camp for free or very cheap in the most beautiful places imaginable!
Thanks for reading!
I hope that this post has gotten you excited for your Calgary to Banff road trip, and I’ve shown you there are some really awesome stops on the drive from Calgary to Banff to be explored!
The best thing about road trips is you really can create your own adventure and pick and choose where and how you want to spend your time! I’m sure whichever route and stops you choose, you’re sure to have a lovely time!
If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out some of our other Alberta guides: