ULTIMATE Guide to Enjoying Banff in the Fall
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Fall in Banff is one of the most beautiful seasons to visit this wanderlust mountain town. I personally enjoy it so much that I’ve visited during autumn twice now. The first time was on a romantic trip to Banff to propose to Bailey, and the second was to capture amazing photos and hike the famous Larch Valley Trail.
Regardless of what you’ve come for, the fall season in Banff is sure to impress you. The colors, attractions, and amazing hikes are just one part of what makes fall in Banff so great! The lack of crowds also provide better wildlife viewing experiences, and because it’s off-season, prices around town are also more affordable.
With that said though, there are a few things you need to know before you go, and in this blog, I’ll share all of that and more soyou can make the most of Banff in the fall!
Fall in Banff FAQs
Larch trees are a native tree to Canada that are members of the pine family. The Larch trees in Banff are called Larix Lyalli or Alpine Larch and they prefer higher climates such as the Larch Valley. Although from a distance, they appear like normal evergreen pine trees, in the fall their needles turn yellow before falling off.
Larch season runs from mid to late September with the best time being around the 25th of September.
If you prefer fewer crowds, then yes, October is a great time to visit. However, for fall colors it’s not the best time and you should be aware that many attractions close after the first week in October such as the Banff Hot Springs and Moraine Lake.
Early fall can be warm, however by October temperatures usually drop a lot. I’ve been to Banff twice around October 1st and experienced subzero temperatures as well as plus 15! So its best to be prepared for both!
1. Hike the Larch Valley Trail
2. Moraine Lake Sunrise
3. Relax at the Banff Upper Hot Springs
4. Drive the Icefields Parkway
5. Visit Vermillion Lakes
6. Drive the Bow Valley Parkway
7. Hike to Lake Agnes Tea House
8. Wildlife Tour
Best Time to Visit Banff in the Fall
Fall in Banff technically starts in September, but for those coming for the vibrant fall colors and Larch season, you’ll need to come later in the month. The exact dates change slightly year by year, but the best time is from the 18th of September to the 1st of October.
Depending on the year it can be risky waiting until October as high winds can speed up the leaf fall. The perfect time every year would be to visit somewhere around the 23rd to the 27th of September. This is right in the middle of the season and will offer great colors both from the Larch trees and other trees around Banff.
Things to do During Fall in Banff
1. Hike the Larch Valley Trail
Without a doubt, the best thing to do in Banff during fall is to hike the Larch Valley Trail. The Larch Valley is arguably the most beautiful place in Banff during fall and the colors are truly out of this world! The valley is literally covered in stunning larch trees that all turn shades of yellow and orange!
For photographers, the chance to capture these amazing colors is a once in a lifetime opportunity and for those who have never stood among thousands of Larch trees, it will be one to remember.
The Larch Valley Trail is a 9 kilometer out and back trail with a hefty elevation gain of 535 meters that starts at Moraine Lake. This large elevation gain is done right at the start as you climb up to the valley. Once there, it gradually inclines until you reach the lakes. There is also an extra 30-minute long trail to a viewpoint that’s worth doing!
It takes around two hours to hike to the valley and then I’d allow another hour to explore. In total, 4 to 5 hours is plenty of time to enjoy the trail at a steady pace.
A popular thing to do (and what we did) is to hike up for sunrise. We left the Moraine Lake car parking lot at 5:45 am and reached the top well before sunrise. Hiking through the dark was a little scary, but so worth it!
Moraine Lake Parking: Parking at Moraine Lake (especially during Larch season is a huge issue.) If you want to visit for sunrise be sure to arrive before 5 am on weekends and 6 am on weekdays. After this, the car parking lot will be full and they close the road. The only other way to get there is to catch the shuttle from Lake Louise town.
2. Moraine Lake Sunrise
One of the most epic things to do in Banff any time of the year is to spend a sunrise at Moraine Lake. I’ve done it twice in fall and the first time it was clear and calm and I got engaged to Bailey (she said yes!) The second, we actually had terrible weather, but you win some you lose some.
The reason sunrise is so popular is the way the sunrises, hitting the peaks of Moraine Lake first and lighting them up in a yellow glow. As the sun continues to rise it lights up the valley and glows off of the stunning blue water. It’s truly a magical time and a bucket list experience.
The best place to watch the sunrise is from a viewpoint called the Rock Pile. It’s only a short hike from the car parking lot (300 meters) and to reach it jump on the Consolation Lakes trail until you hit a Y in the path. Here you’ll see a bench and a sign talking about bear safety. Take the trail to the right and follow it up to the Rock Pile.
Sunrise in fall is around 7:15 am and if you plan on visiting then you’ll need to arrive Moraine Lake around 5:30 am to get a parking spot. It’s bitterly cold at Moraine Lake during fall so bring some warm clothes and even a blanket and hot chocolate!
Hiking option: If you want to go on a short, easy hike from Moraine Lake then check out Consolation Lakes Trail. This hike only takes a couple of hours and starts right from the Rock Pile at Moraine Lake. It’s also one of the best activities you can do at Moraine Lake!
3. Relax at the Banff Upper Hot Springs
Ok, so let’s assume you’ve spent your morning at Moraine Lake before hiking the Larch Valley Trail. What’s next? Well, what better way to enjoy the day than to visit the Banff Upper Hot Springs to unwind?!
Although this isn’t a Banff itinerary, I do believe that after an early morning and moderate hike the hot springs are a great idea. The best part though? The views from the hot springs are out of this world!
From the springs you can sit back while the day is young and enjoy those breathtaking views while you soak your muscles in natural spring water. Although the springs do get busy the entrance fee is only $8:30 for adults (it’s cheaper for kids and seniors) and for that, I think it’s great value.
4. Drive the Icefields Parkway
The Icefields Parkway is one of the most breathtaking highways to drive on a regular day. In fall? Well, it’s even more magnificent! This 230 kilometer stretch of highways runs between Lake Louise and Jasper passing through two national parks (Banff and Jasper.)
Along the way, there are so many amazing places to stop that you could spend days exploring the Icefields Parkway. However, in just one day you can visit many of the best attractions along the Icefields Parkway and enjoy amazing fall colors.
With that said, the most beautiful parts of the Icefields Parkway aren’t actually official stops at all. As you can see from the picture above, it’s the views from the road that make this drive so spectacular.
The above shot was taken just past the Saskatchewan River Crossing at the half waypoint. If you want to find the exact spot, keep driving towards Jasper past the crossing and stop at the first bridge you see. At this bridge looking back towards Banff is where it was taken!
Regardless, a road trip down the Icefields Parkway is a must during fall in Banff!
Related Read: If you’re driving the Icefields Parkway to Jasper, be sure to check out our blog about 30 of the different amazing things to do in Jasper!
5. Visit Vermilion Lakes
Vermilion Lakes is located just outside Banff along the Vermilion Lakes scenic drive. During fall, the colors here are stunning and with perfect reflections off the lakes, it’s the perfect place to explore – especially at sunset!
The best part is that you can actually choose to either drive or walk from Banff – it’s that close! From Banff town, simply head out of Banff towards the Banff sign. Just past there you’ll turn left onto Vermilion Lakes Road. This stretch of road passes many viewpoints and takes around an hour to explore.
6. Take in views on the Bow Valley Parkway
The Icefields Parkway is easily the most famous parkway in Banff, however, the Bow Valley Parkway is equally as beautiful. The best part is that this highway is the scenic route from Lake Louise to Banff so you can use it instead of the main highway and enjoy the amazing views and limited traffic.
Some of the best stops include Johnston Canyon, Moose Meadows, Morant’s Curve (my favorite), and Castle Mountain lookout. The Bow Valley Parkway is also a great place to spot wildlife, especially in the morning before the parkway gets busy.
If you want to enjoy the parkway’s best stops then you’ll need half a day to do so, but with that said, if you simply want to cruise an alternative route from Banff to Lake Louise then an hour will suffice!
7. Hike the Lake Agnes Tea House trail
One of the most popular trails in Banff National Park is the Lake Agnes Tea House Trail, and in fall, it’s even better! The trail starts in Lake Louise and climbs up to a stunning alpine lake called Lake Agnes. At the lake is the famous Lake Agnes Tea House that overlooks the lake and its stunning mountain backdrop.
Lake Agnes Tea House Trail is a relatively easy trail that starts from the Lake Lousie boardwalk. The 7.2 kilometers out and back trail takes around 5 hours to complete with a nice long break at Lake Agnes to enjoy a tea with a spectacular view.
In the fall, the Lake Agnes valley turns yellow as the surrounding larch trees turn their fall colors. I, unfortunately, have never visited Lake Agnes in the fall, however, I have seen photos and it’s on my bucket list. Just imagine the photo above but with stunning fall colors!
8. Wildlife viewing tour
Fall is a great time to view wildlife in Banff. The reason? Well, the lack of crowds is one thing that is essential to having great chances to see wildlife. With large crowds, animals usually shy away making them really hard to spot.
Bears in particular are on the hunt for food during fall to get ready for hibernation. For this reason, they are more likely to come lower in the mountains in search of food.
Another animal you’ll want to see during the fall in Banff is elk. The fall season is elk rutting season so if you’ve ever wanted to see huge elk this is a great time! It’s also the time to stay clear of them and stay in your car if you see one – this is when elk are the most aggressive.
Regardless, fall provides a beautiful time to see wildlife and on a wildlife viewing tour, your expert guide will be able to take you to places frequented by wildlife that you simply wouldn’t find on your own.
What to Pack for Fall in Banff
Clothing for all seasons – Fall can be a tricky time to visit in Banff. Depending on the year, the weather can be bitterly cold or actually quite warm. For this reason, it’s best to pack for both. The one thing that’s guaranteed is that it will cool down at night to the point you’ll need long pants and a sweater. The only question is, how cold? Well, at Moraine Lake at sunrise in can be well below zero so be prepared.
Flashlight – Sunrise hikes and even just being at Lake Louise requires a flashlight. Be sure to bring a good quality one that gives off enough light.
Hiking boots – You can get snow in fall around Larch season so having hiking boots is a great idea for wet, slushy, or icy conditions.
Bear spray – During fall in Banff, bears can become more desperate for food. For that reason, it’s even more necessary to carry bear spray and know how to use it. Also, depending on the season and bear sightings, some of the trails may require you to hike in groups of four. Breaking this rule will result in fines.
Where to Stay during Fall in Banff
The funny thing about the fall in Banff is that the best place to stay is not actually in Banff town. In fact, during my visits, I always opt to stay in the Lake Louise Village within Banff National Park. The reason? Well, most of the fall attractions are in Lake Louise.
Places such as Moraine Lake, Larch Valley, Lake Agnes Tea House, Icefields Parkway, and even the Bow Valley Parkway are closer to Lake Louise Village rather than Banff town. With that said, Lake Louise town isn’t very lively so you’ll need to decide if you want to be in the vibrant Banff town or the quiet, but convenient, Lake Louise.
For this reason, I’ll recommend the best places to stay in Lake Louise and the best hotels in Banff so no matter your decision, you’ll stay at a great hotel!
HI Lake Louise Alpine Centre – For budget travelers you really can’t go past the Hi Lake Louise. I’ve stayed here numerous times and always enjoy it. The rooms are basic but they have a kitchen and a really good bar and restaurant onsite.
Lake Louise Inn – For those with a medium budget or in large groups, the Lake Louise Inn is perfect. They have a huge variety of modern rooms and apartments with all of the amenities you need including a pool, gym, and restaurant.
Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise – For a luxury option, why not stay at the famous Fairmont Chateau?! This perfectly located hotel is nothing short of pure luxury and with views of Lake Louise and the mountains, it’s the perfect place to stay for high-end travelers.
Irwin’s Mountain Inn – Once again our first option is for budget travelers. In all honestly though, this hotel is still a really good choice no matter your budget. It has all the luxuries of modern rooms with amenities such as a restaurant and fitness center.
Banff Ptarmigan Inn – This place is really close to town and has large spacious rooms and includes a free breakfast. Overall, a great choice for a decent price.
Fairmont Banff Springs – If you came to Banff for a luxury stay then the Fairmont Banff Springs is your only top choice. This luxurious hotel has 11 restaurants and cafes, 2 pools, a spa and wellness center, a bowling alley, a tennis court, and more. Oh, and did I mention the views!
Before you go…
Banff truly is such a magical place to visit in the fall. With such a short window to catch the beauty before the Autumn leaves fall it makes visiting both unique and exciting.
Thanks so much for reading our guide to fall in Banff. I really hope you enjoyed this guide and if you did, be sure to check out all our Canada blogs or the articles listed below!
November 27, 2020