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Banff National Park is one of the most beautiful places to explore in Alberta, attracting thrill-seekers, adventurers, and eager families from across the country. As a result, it’s gained a bit of a reputation as an expensive tourist destination, but from our own experience, there are a ton of exciting yet free things to do here!
With incredible lakes like Lake Louise and Moraine Lake, gorgeous viewpoints and hikes, as well as many other adventures to be had, Banff National Park really is a nature-lover’s paradise, with some of the best viewpoints being totally free to visit.
While there are certainly pricey activities you can do in Banff, you really don’t have to spend a lot to have a great time! In fact, spending more time trying out inexpensive or free activities can help free up your budget when you do find a more pricey adventure that you just can’t pass up on.
In this blog, we’ve rounded up 33 of the best free things to do in Banff National Park from our own experience visiting (many times!). We hope you can use this list to discover some awesome new activities and create your ultimate Banff itinerary!
- Free Things to do in Banff National Park
- 1. Visit Bow Falls Lookout
- 2. Check out the Banff Hoodoos
- 3. Vermilion Lakes Scenic Drive
- 4. Take in the views from Surprise Corner
- 5. Enjoy tea at Lake Agnes Tea House
- 6. Explore Johnston Canyon
- 7. Take in the views from the Lake Louise Lakefront/Foreshore
- 8. Drive the Icefields Parkway
- 9. Visit the stunning Moraine Lake
- 10. Visit Two Jack Lake
- 11. Lake Minnewanka
- 12. Walk to Consolation Lakes
- 13. Take in the views from Big Hill and Big Bend
- 14. Spot wildlife
- 15. Hike to Upper Stoney Lookout
- 16. Drive the Bow Valley Parkway
- 17. Go ice skating
- 18. Hike to Fairview Lookout
- 19. Visit Peyto Lake
- 20. Enjoy the Ice Castles
- 21. Hike the Larch Valley and Sentinel Pass
- 22. Eiffel Lake Trail
- 23. Head to Marble Canyon
- 24. Crowfoot Glacier Viewpoint
- 25. Bow Lake Viewpoint
- 26. Hike to the Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House
- 27. Lake Louise Lakefront Trail
- 28. Banff Ice Magic International Ice Carving Competition
- 29. Waterfowl Lake Viewpoint
- 30. Walk the Moraine Lake Lakeshore Trail
- 31. Mistaya Canyon
- 32. Weeping Wall
- 33. Visit the Lake Louise frozen waterfall
- Where to Stay in Banff, Canada
- Other Things to do While You're in Banff
- Thanks for Reading!
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Free Things to do in Banff National Park
1. Visit Bow Falls Lookout
There’s something really special about the rivers of Banff. Maybe it’s the fact that they’re surrounded by lush green forests, or maybe it’s because of the snow-tipped mountains that loom in the distance. Either way, they always make for a great photo!
The Bow River carves right through the heart of Banff, leaving picturesque viewpoints around almost every corner! A beautiful turquoise color, it really is nothing short of picture-perfect.
A short 1.5-kilometer (0.9 miles) scenic walk south from Banff town (or drive), will bring you to Bow Falls viewpoint on the river’s edge. This is one of the best places to see the river, as well as the equally amazing Bow Falls! Views like this prove that the best things in life really are free.
The viewpoint is a really nice place to come for a coffee in the morning or a short walk during the day, thanks to how close it is to town. If you prefer to drive, there is a large parking lot at the viewpoint, so you can park up and take a stroll along the river. If you plan on walking from Banff, simply follow the river downstream until you reach the viewpoint – simple as that!
If you drive to the parking lot, it is just a quick stop to enjoy the viewpoint. In fact, it’s such a quick activity that we even included it in our one-day Banff itinerary!
If you want to keep walking, you can jump on the Mt Rundle track and either hike the entire trail or just the beginning. At around 15 km (9.3 miles) long, it’s one of the more challenging hikes in Banff, so best to come prepared with your hiking boots and plenty of water.
2. Check out the Banff Hoodoos
It wasn’t until my 6th visit to Banff that I discovered the park had its own hoodoos! They manage to fly slightly under the radar with tourists, which is such a shame. While the hoodoos themselves aren’t the most spectacular we’ve seen, the views from the short, easy trail make this a free activity in Banff that you won’t want to skip.
If you do the first option (which is what I usually do), it’s just a 10-minute walk to the viewpoint, at which point you can turn around and head back. If you do the latter, the entire trail is actually a loop that you can start and end in Banff town.
However, if you complete the loop, this means that you would need to walk back on Tunnel Mountain Road (not the most scenic way to return). So instead, we suggest walking from Surprise Corner and returning via the same trail. It’s about a 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) walk that takes 3 hours.
3. Vermilion Lakes Scenic Drive
Banff really isn’t short on impressive locations to grab some incredible photos, and they’re even more accessible if you have a car!
Only a 5-minute drive from Banff town, you’ll find the Vermilion Lakes Scenic Drive. This 4.3 km (2 mi) stretch of road winds its way along the edges of a couple of very gorgeous and calm lakes, which are very popular with fishermen too. When they aren’t frozen, the lakes reflect the mountains behind them almost perfectly – sounds like a great photo op to me.
We’ve found that the best place to go for photos is right at the end of Vermilion Lakes Road. The natural surrounding cover helps to protect the lakes from the wind. And the result? Crystal-clear reflections that will go straight on your next Instagram story.
Another tip we have is to go at sunset. While you’re at, take a glass of wine or beer down and sit back and enjoy the views as you watch the mountains bathed in an orange glow. Can you imagine a more beautiful free activity so close to Banff?
4. Take in the views from Surprise Corner
Surprise Corner is easily one of the most famous viewpoints in Banff which also happens to be super close to town. In fact, it’s just a 4-minute drive or 22-minute walk from downtown! With incredible views that overlook the Spray Valley and the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, we’re sure you’ll fall in love with this spot at first sight.
For loved-up couples, it’s a popular place to propose! Funny enough, though, that’s not how the viewpoint got its name. Rather, it’s the impressive views you get of the Banff Springs Hotel and Bow Falls as you travel up the road which will leave you with a surprised grin on your face.
You’ll find a small parking lot here that can fit around 12 or so vehicles. For that reason, it’s usually best to walk from town if you plan on going during peak periods. Nonetheless, this is one viewpoint every visitor to Banff should visit, and it’s free!
5. Enjoy tea at Lake Agnes Tea House
My favorite hike that starts from Lake Louise has got to be the Lake Agnes Tea House trail – we did dedicate an entire blog to it after all! Starting from the Lake Louise lakefront, the trail has you hiking high above Lake Louise where you can peer down and see parts of the lake from above.
After, you continue on to an interestingly shaped mountain called the Bee Hive (let’s see if you can tell how it got its name!) Then, it’s on to the main attraction, Lake Agnes.
Named after the original First Lady of Canada, Lake Agnes is a small but spectacular alpine lake that’s surrounded by huge mountain peaks. Of course, it’s the perfect place to relax and enjoy some pretty spectacular views, and if you’re feeling thirsty, you can also head over to Lake Agnes Tea House to enjoy tea, coffee, or a snack.
The tea house is usually jam-packed so if you don’t want to wait in line, you’d best get going early in the day. However, even without buying something from the tea house, visiting Lake Agnes is easily one of the best free things to do in Banff National Park.
The Lake Agnes Tea House Trail is a 7.3-kilometer (4.5 miles) return track that climbs 400 meters in elevation. While it’s not super beginner-friendly, we’d call it moderately difficult but not technical at all!
Note: From May 13th until October 10th, you’ll be required to pay $21 CAD per vehicle per day to park at Lake Louise Lakefront (2024 updated price). The paid parking is in effect from 7 am until 7 pm daily.
6. Explore Johnston Canyon
Combining an easy but undeniably scenic hike with views of two amazing waterfalls, Johnston Canyon has to be one of our favorite stop-off points along the Bow Valley Parkway. Just a 30-minute drive from Banff, the best part is that it’s free to park at, enter, and is open all year round!
In the summer months, one of our favorite things to do here is to sit back and watch turquoise water gush past. As we’ve mentioned, there are two waterfalls along the trail – the Lower Falls are located 1.7 km (1 mile) from the parking lot, and the Upper Falls are located about 1 km (0.6 miles) further along.
On the other hand, the canyon freezes in many areas in the winter, making transforming your walk into a journey through a winter wonderland! Imagine icicles hanging from the cliffs and frozen waterfalls – it’s magical!
For the best experience seeing the very best canyon during the winter, it’s always a great idea to have a knowledgeable guide with you. This evening icewalk experience is exactly that, a small group tour that guides you through this picturesque hiking trail at night. Equipped with your very own headlamp and fuelled by some steaming hot chocolate, this really is such an incredible adventure!
With a maximum of 12 people per tour, you really get to know your guide and have all your questions answered. Don’t worry about slipping over either, as they also provided ice cleats and hiking poles if you need them.
Lasting around 2 and a half hours, tickets for this experience cost $101 CAD per adult (13+) and $64 CAD per child (8-12). As groups are small, dates can fill up quickly though, so head on over and secure your spot here.
The downside to Johnston Canyon’s popularity is that it can get very busy, especially during the summer months. So busy, in fact, that the huge parking lot often fills up – meaning it’s a good idea to use the public bus! You can expect the bus to cost around $5 CAD per adult and $2.50 CAD for youths (13-18) for a one-way ticket to Johnston Canyon.
Note: There will be some closures to vehicle traffic on sections of the Bow Valley Parkway this year (2023). From May 1-June 30 and then again from Sept 1-Sept 30 vehicles will NOT be able to drive the 17 km/11 mi stretch of road from the TransCanada-Highway junction to Johnston Canyon, it will be restricted to cyclists’ use only. This is the eastern part of the road that is affected if you’re traveling to Johnston Canyon from Banff. You will still be able to access Johnston Canyon and the Bow Valley Parkway via the intersection near Castle Mountain Chalets.
Related Read: Johnston Canyon is one of the best stops on the drive from Calgary to Radium Hot Springs!
7. Take in the views from the Lake Louise Lakefront/Foreshore
Around a 45-minute drive from Banff town, Lake Louise is hands down one of my favorite lakes in Canada. While there are a ton of tours that like to visit the lake (it is gorgeous after all), we sometimes like to simply wander the edge of the lake for an hour or so whenever we’re in town. The mountains surrounding the foreshore are breathtaking, and the lake is pristine.
If you’re looking for adventure, you may want to enjoy one of the hiking trails like the Lake Agnes Tea House that I mentioned above or the Plain of Six Glaciers (more on that later).
For an amazing afternoon out, take some food, set up a little picnic, and enjoy the views. You can even grab a delicious coffee from the Fairmont restaurant and café if you fancy stretching your legs a little!
While it is technically free to walk around and explore Lake Louise, there is a cost for parking at Lake Louise. As of 2023, it costs $21 CAD per vehicle to park here, although parking in itself can be a bit difficult (especially in peak season) – we’d recommend using the shuttle service if possible.
There is also a cost for the shuttle, but it’s much cheaper, and we think it’s worth it for saving you the headache of having to find a parking space!
If you’ve been doing really well with managing your budget since you arrived, but are looking for something special to splurge a little on, then we’d suggest trying out this Lake Louise and the Icefields Parkway full-day tour. Not only is this a small group tour that showcases some of the most scenic locations in Banff National Park, but you also get to explore the incredible Icefields Parkway (more on this below).
At just $180 CAD per person for this 9-hour tour, this is definitely going to be the highlight of your trip – it really was the highlight of ours when we last went on it. The guides were just so friendly, thoughtful, and full of amazing stories, you could see their passion shining through! You can check which dates are available and book your spot on this experience here.
8. Drive the Icefields Parkway
Starting just north of Lake Louise, about a 40-minute drive from Banff, the road connects Banff and Jasper, carving its way through some of the most beautiful places to visit along the way, like the Columbia Icefield. Some of our other favorite attractions on the Icefields Parkway include Peyto Lake, Mistaya Canyon, and of course, Bow Lake. The best part is that all of these attractions are free to visit!
Without a doubt, this is my favorite scenic drive in all of Canada. So, really, please don’t miss this! Stretching about 230 km (143 miles), it’s not just one of the best free activities in Banff but also in all of Canada. Be sure to read up on the best Icefields Parkway stops before you go!
The downside to this drive is that it can be very icy in the winter months. You are required to have winter tires between November and April, and please drive to the conditions. Also, watch out for wildlife, as moose and bears cross this highway often – it’s surrounded by nature after all.
One of my biggest surprises the first time I visited was the Athabasca Glacier, an ancient glacier that you can actually walk on. In fact, the ice is as thick as the Eiffel Tower is tall, try to imagine that!
While you can visit the glacier and walk the Athabasca Glacier hike that takes about 10 to 20 minutes each way, you can’t actually walk on the glacier without being part of a formal tour. There are many hidden crevices and dangerous areas, and the tours do a great job of keeping you to areas that are designated safe zones.
This Ice Explorer Glacier Tour left a wonderful impression on us the first time we visited – we actually got to ride in the giant Ice Explorer vehicles that they use in the Arctic, which was so cool! The whole experience is about an hour and a half long, and you’ll also have some free time to walk outside on top of the glacier.
With tickets at $105 CAD for adults (16+) and $68 CAD for kids (6-15), this really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that shouldn’t be missed. I mean how often do you get to ride in a giant Ice Explorer and walk on ancient glaciers? You can check which dates are available and book your slot here.
Important Note: Entrance to the Icefields Parkway is free as long as you have a Parks Canada Pass (the same pass that is required to visit Banff National Park.) You can get a Discovery Pass, which lasts for 12 months and allows free access to many national parks across Canada. On the other hand, you can also purchase a one-day park pass at the entrance to the parkway, which is cheaper at $10.50 CAD per adult.
9. Visit the stunning Moraine Lake
Maybe we’re biased – since this is the spot where we got engaged. But we think Moraine Lake is one of the most beautiful places to visit in Banff National Park (and it’s free!).
Call us crazy, but each lake in Banff has its own character and color, so it’s really worth visiting all of the beautiful lakes if you can. But if you’re short on time, then Lake Louise and Moraine Lake should be right at the top of your list. Daniel chose this place to get engaged because of its beauty, after all.
There are plenty of amazing things to do at Moraine Lake including:
- Go hiking – Hike the Larch Valley Trail, walk to Consolation Lakes, or tackle the challenging Tower of Babel. There are actually quite a few hikes that start from Moraine Lake, so choose a trail suitable to your skill level and lace up your boots!
- Visit the Rock Pile – This is the most popular place to see Moraine Lake from. From the parking lot, follow the trail to the left up a few stars until you see the beautiful view of Moraine Lake! This is just a short 5-10 minute walk, and there are benches and various viewpoints to enjoy.
- Rent a canoe – Canoes can be rented from the Moraine Lake Lodge and the price starts at $130 CAD+tax for one hour. The canoes can fit up to three people. Rentals include life jackets and because of the stability of Canadian canoes, even those with no or limited experience can give it a try!
- Stay at the Moraine Lake Lodge – With parking being impossible at Moraine Lake now (more on that below), staying at the only hotel right on the lake is more important than ever. If you stay at Moraine Lake Lodge you will be right at Moraine Lake for the night and can enjoy both sunrise and sunset. Bookings are almost impossible to get, though, so check here for availability and to book as far in advance as possible.
- Watch the sunrise – The sunrise at Moraine Lake is iconic. There is no other time of the day when the sun hits the mountains and shimming blue lake just like it does at sunrise. This was the moment when Daniel proposed to me! Unfortunately, now that the road is closed to the public, the only way to get to Moraine Lake for sunrise is on this guided tour. The meeting point is in Banff, and it’ll take you to see the spectacular sunrise.
- Enjoy the view with a coffee – The Snowshoe Café is Moraine Lake’s very own boutique café serving all your favorites, including delicious coffee. It’s located in Moraine Lake Lodge and besides coffee, also sells plenty of food items that are perfect to-go. They have breakfast foods such as quiches and croissants, or if you want, sandwiches for lunch too. My best advice is to grab a coffee and a bite to eat and go for a walk. Or, pack a picnic!
You’ll need to plan ahead to get to Moraine Lake since transportation can be a bit of an issue. The parking lot at Moraine Lake was a nightmare and now parking is not allowed at all! In 2023, the Moraine Lake Road and parking lot closed to all personal vehicles (except those with disability parking permits). This means you can only get here via public transit, shuttles, or on a tour.
This hop-on-hop-off tour from Banff is an excellent option. For only $80 CAD per person, you’ll get transport to Moraine Lake, Lake Louise, and Johnston Canyon – all places that are incredibly hard to find parking at. It is a popular tour, though, so it’s best to book it online in advance here.
Moraine Lake Road is open for buses and shuttles from the end of May to mid-October and closes for the winter due to avalanche risk. This means it’s only one of the best things to do in Banff during the summer, fall, and spring. You can, however, snowshoe and cross-country ski part of the road – it’s one of the best winter activities in Lake Louise!
Later on, I’ll be mentioning many of the best hikes at Moraine Lake that are also free!
Want to visit Moraine Lake for sunrise?
The only way to visit Moraine Lake at sunrise this year (since the road is closed to personal vehicles) is to either go on this organized tour or book this privately-operated shuttle (the Parks Canada shuttles don’t leave early enough to make it for sunrise.)
The tour begins at 4 am in Banff, and because they are a licensed tour operator, they can access Moraine Lake for sunrise. The tour costs $287 CAD and includes not only a visit to Moraine Lake with hot chocolate and coffee to enjoy, but also an early morning visit to Lake Louise. That means you can visit two of the busiest lakes in Canada without the crowds or the stress of parking/shuttles. You can book the tour here with free cancelation up to 24 hours before.
The new Moraine Lake sunrise shuttle includes transport only from Lake Louise Village but comes at an affordable price of $59-69 CAD per person. They offer a few pick-up times depending on what you have planned at Moraine Lake, with the first shuttle leaving at 4 am and the second at 5 am. You must book your spot online in advance here to avoid missing out.
10. Visit Two Jack Lake
Two Jack Lake is one of the most popular lakes to kayak and SUP (stand up paddleboarding) in the summertime. Just a 10-15 minute drive from downtown Banff, it’s the perfect place to cool off and even have a few drinks.
In winter, the lake freezes over, and although less popular to visit, the lake is still the perfect place to capture stunning photos.
At Two Jack Lake, you’ll find a large day-use area complete with picnic benches and mountain views. You can stop at the day-use area, catch spectacular views of Mt Rundle, and continue onto Lake Minnewanaka!
If you want, there are also two large campgrounds at Two Jack Lake. The campsites usually book up months in advance, but if you can snag a spot (like we did last year), then you’ll love camping here.
The Two Jack Lakeside Campground is my personal favorite since it offers views of the lake. You have to sleep somewhere, right? And this is definitely one of the more affordable options.
11. Lake Minnewanka
Lake Minnewanka is the largest lake in Banff National Park and perhaps the most beautiful as well! It’s located just down the road from Two Jack Lake, so it’s easy to visit both of these lakes at one.
But the area isn’t just about the scenery – it also has a really interesting history. In Stoney Nakoda folklore, the lake is said to be haunted by spirits. And oddly enough, the tourist village that once existed here was submerged underwater in the 1940s.
But don’t worry, visiting Lake Minnewanka isn’t in the slightest bit scary! It’s incredibly beautiful, and lots of visitors flock here in the summertime to take the Lake Minnewanka Cruise. But if you’re visiting Banff during the winter, you can go snowshoeing around the lake or even skate on its frozen surface – how cool is that?
If you want to get some exercise, we highly recommend the Stewart Canyon Trail which starts near the parking lot. This super easy hiking route can be done any time of year, taking you 3 km (1.9 mi) to the Stewart Canyon Bridge. From there, you have the option to walk another 3.8 km (2.4 mi) for even more beautiful views. However, this section is more challenging and requires bear spray and a minimum of 4 people hiking together.
Lake Minnewanka is also great for wildlife spotting, so keep your eyes peeled for those must-see animals in Banff! On our summer visits, we’ve seen wolves, deer, bighorn sheep, and even a couple of bears around the edge.
If you want to just visit Lake Minnewanka and explore on foot, it’s completely free. However, the Lake Minnewanka Cruise is the most popular thing to do here – and for good reason because the scenery is stunning! On this 1-hour journey, you’ll explore the lake while learning about its rich history and spotting animals. It’s one of those experiences you don’t want to miss out on when visiting this lake!
The cruise is available daily from 10 am – 6 pm from late May to early October. Tickets cost $68 CAD from Monday to Thursday and $77 CAD on weekends. Since it’s so popular, it’s best to book in advance! Plus, when you book in advance, you can reserve a time slot so that you don’t need to wait in line.
12. Walk to Consolation Lakes
The Consolation Lakes Trail is one of the easier trails that starts at Moraine Lake, perfect for families or those who don’t like long hikes.
It’s a 2.9-kilometer (1.8-mile) one-way trail that helps you escape the crowds of Moraine Lake, taking you out to two stunning alpine lakes with the most epic mountain backdrops. The terrain is also relatively flat, making it a pretty easy and enjoyable hike for all.
That being said, after the first lake, there is a bit of a scramble over some rocks to get to the second. If you’re not comfortable climbing the boulders, you can just visit the first lake. In my opinion, the first lake is more beautiful anyway. All the way up, it only takes just over two hours to hike the trail there and back.
The trailhead begins at the Moraine Lake parking lot bathrooms (just remember you can’t actually park here!). From there, you’ll follow the path to the small wooden bridge and continue on until you reach a bear warning sign. Here, turn left, and you are on the trail.
Related Read: Consolation Lakes is one of the easiest hikes near Canmore – find out what the others are!
13. Take in the views from Big Hill and Big Bend
Big Bend is the name of a massive curve in the road along the Icefields Parkway around 2 hours from Banff. Any Icefields Parkway itinerary will include Big Bend, as you have no choice but to drive on it!
However, there is a viewing area at the top of the curvy road where you can look back on the Icefields Parkway called Big Hill! You’ll see the road you just drove wrap its way around mountains and through the valley floor. On a clear day, this is the perfect place to stop for a photo.
The viewpoint is on the right side of the road (if you’re driving from Banff to Jasper) and on somewhat of a blind corner. So, be careful when pulling in and out here. Drive all of Big Bend with caution and take your time, so you can see the pullover bay where you can safely get out of your vehicle.
Now I know what you’re thinking… Big Bend seems pretty far from Banff! However, as I mentioned above, driving the Icefields Parkway is one of the best free things to do in Banff, so it’s really worth dedicating a day to it and exploring as much on offer here as possible.
When planning out your route, I recommend driving as far as Big Bend (the furthest stop on this list) and then visiting the other five attractions mentioned below on your way back.
14. Spot wildlife
Home to over 311 species of birds, 53 species of mammals, 19 species of fish, and many more, Banff National Park really is one of the best places in Canada to see wildlife! Over the years, I’ve spotted around 10 bears in Banff National Park, including the grizzly above, who was eating grass at Bow Lake.
On top of that, there are plenty of elk, bighorn sheep, moose, and beavers around – just to name a few.
The time of year that you visit can also have a big impact on what animals you see too. Bears usually start their hibernation in the late fall, before reappearing in the spring, so you might have a harder time spotting them in the middle of winter.
Elk also have their calves during the summertime (mid-May to early July), so you may even spot some little hooves trotting around in the meadows and forests. Just be sure to give them plenty of space, as with all wildlife, as elk moms can be a little more aggressive during this time.
One of our favorite activities is just driving around Banff National Park and keeping an eye out for wildlife. It’s totally free (aside from gas), and you’ll end up with some great photos too. There are actually a ton of wildlife overpasses and underpasses, which were specifically designed to help connect migration routes – with 38 underpasses and 6 overpasses, Banff National Park actually has the most wildlife crossings out of anywhere in the world!
If you want to up your chances of spotting some wildlife even further, then consider booking onto a wildlife tour in Banff, where you’ll be joined by a professional guide who knows the best spots to see these animals. These are paid tours, but if you love spotting wildlife as much as me, this is the best way to do so.
15. Hike to Upper Stoney Lookout
Not only is hiking great for your health, but it’s also an amazing way to get out in nature and see some spectacular sights (plus it’s free too!).
Not all hiking trails in Banff are challenging. In fact, there are quite a lot of easy hiking trails around Banff. Upper Stoney Lookout is one trail we always recommend to our friends and family whenever they visit – it’s full of magnificent views over Banff National Park and perfect for anyone with a moderate level of physical fitness.
The 4.3-kilometer (2.7-mile) loop begins at the Mount Norquay Ski Resort parking lot and climbs another 250 meters (820 feet) to a gorgeous viewpoint overlooking the beautiful Cascade Mountains. This trail is great all year round, but always be careful if it has recently snowed or rained, as the trail can be a bit slippery.
This route is also quite popular with mountain bikers, so keep an ear out for any that are approaching just to be on the safe side.
Depending on the time of year, you may also need snowshoes or ice cleats, which can be rented in town at places like White Mountain Adventures. In the summer, the trail is very easy to follow, taking around 2 hours to complete.
16. Drive the Bow Valley Parkway
The journey between Lake Louise and Banff is truly special and is a whole adventure in itself! In fact, there are actually two main ways to get there, either taking the (much less scenic) Trans-Canada Highway, or opting to drive down the Bow Valley Parkway, which is our favorite option!
While the Bow Valley Parkway is technically a slight detour and not the fastest route to get to Lake Louise, the sights along the way more than make up for this. The entire parkway is about 50 kilometers long, taking about 1 hour without stopping, but honestly doing that is a bit like ordering a coffee without drinking it!
Some of the best places to check out on the Bow Valley Parkway include:
Moose Meadows – Despite its name, there aren’t many moose that travel through Moose Meadows anymore. However, it’s not uncommon to spot elk here, and the wildflower blooms are so beautiful during the summer!
Castle Mountain Viewpoint – A real gem in the crown of the Bow Valley Parkway, you’ve got to stop at the Castle Mountain roadside viewpoint for some truly epic views. If you want to go one step further, you can also drive up to the start of the 6.5 km (4 mile) out-and-back Castle Mountain Lookout trail that’s a little further along the Parkway.
Morant’s Curve – If there’s one spot on the Bow Valley Parkway that’s the clear winner for best photograph, it has to be Morant’s Curve. This is a famous viewpoint you may have actually seen pictures of before, where a train passes through every so often right next to the river!
While there’s no official schedule for trains that we can link to, you can expect to see one pass through the valley once every hour or so.
17. Go ice skating
When you think about winter, what do you think of? Skiing, snowboarding, or what about ice skating?
Simply strap on a pair of skates and a whole world of icy fun opens up to you at Banff National Park! Lake Louise has to be one of our favorite places to skate when it freezes over, and it’s also free to visit too (as long as you have your own skates). However, there are a bunch of places that are closer to Banff too.
The downtown rink by the train station opens up during the winter season and is completely free to visit – it’s handily located right in Banff, and with Banff’s awesome views, you’ll feel like you’re ice skating in the wild. There’s also the Fenlands Outdoor Meadow Rink, a 5,000 ft² (465 m²) rink that is no more than a 10-minute walk from town.
Please also keep in mind that whilst both of the above locations are close to town, they’re not supervised, so you are skating at your own risk!
If you’re looking to venture a little further afield, you can also go wild ice skating too! Vermilion Lakes, Johnson Lake, Lake Minnewanka, Two Jack Lake, and Cascade Ponds are all popular choices with skating enthusiasts. Of course, heavy snowfall can interrupt this, but early in the season, or if people have cleared some of the snow, these lakes are perfect.
Above, you can see me ice skating at Vermillion Lakes – how beautiful is this?!
Skating on frozen lakes can be dangerous without the right experience. Only skate on ice thick enough to hold your weight and skate at your own risk. If you’re unsure if the ice is safe, ask at a visitor center before you go. Don’t forget to wear a hat and gloves too!
Skating can be the ultimate free activity if you’ve brought your own skates with you, but if you haven’t, then there are plenty of places in town (and often by the lakes) where you can rent some.
18. Hike to Fairview Lookout
Fairview Lookout is a short 2.5-kilometer (1.5-mile) out-and-back or loop trail that leads to a stunning viewpoint over Lake Louise and the Fairmont Hotel. The trail begins at the Lake Louise foreshore and heads left past the boathouse before climbing to the viewpoint.
There are two ways to the top, one heading along the shoreline before ascending steeply to the top and the other a more gradual climb (at the fork turn left). You can take one up and the other down to create a nice loop.
In winter, the gradual climb is much safer, and I recommend going up and back down this way, especially if you don’t have ice cleats. Although possible without them, they help a lot! In the summer, you can hike either way, depending on your fitness level.
19. Visit Peyto Lake
If you needed any more reason to head on over to the Icefields Parkway, let us introduce Peyto Lake!
One of the most Instagrammable places in Banff National Park, the lake is a must-see when you’re driving along the parkway. The services around the lake underwent quite a bit of refurbishment in 2019 and 2020, and now there’s an upgraded parking lot, washrooms, as well as an expanded viewing platform.
Peyto Lake is about 100 km (62 miles) west of Banff, an hour’s drive under normal conditions. While you can visit year-round, and we really suggest coming here if you’re passing by (no matter the time of year), we think the best time to visit is summer, as good weather is much more likely then!
You’ll find the main parking lot just a short turn off the parkway, and once you’re there, it’s time to make the short walk up to the viewpoint. While it’s not the easiest stretch of trail, it only takes about 10–20 minutes to walk up to the picture-perfect spot – and let me tell you that the effort is totally worth it. Just know that the trail can get very slippery in the winter, so dress accordingly!
Once there, you can stare down at Peyto Lake and the beautiful mountains surrounding it. You’re basically visiting an epic viewpoint above the valley without even needing to hike!
20. Enjoy the Ice Castles
If you’re visiting Lake Louise in the winter, you need to check out the ice castles. The large ice castles sit on the shoreline of the lake all winter and are completely free for you to come and enjoy.
Kids have an absolute blast here with sculptures looking like castles, cars, and even dragons! You never know what you might find, so bring the family down and get ready to take some epic photos together.
21. Hike the Larch Valley and Sentinel Pass
During fall in Banff National Park, the Larch Valley Trail is one of the most spectacular hikes you can do. The entire valley erupts into a sea of yellow Larch trees with an epic backdrop of the famous Ten Peaks!
However, many people don’t realize that the Larch Valley Trail is also a spectacular trail in the summer months. In fact, wildflowers blossom in the valley during this time, and to some, it’s their favorite time to hike the trail.
The Larch Valley trail starts from the Moraine Lake parking lot and follows the Lakeshore Trail before you reach a sign for the track telling you to go left. Once on this track, the trail quickly begins to climb high above the valley up a range of switchbacks (there are 10 to be exact).
The initial climb gains around 450 meters (1,476 feet) in elevation, which is not a walk in the park. But once you reach the valley, the trail flattens out until the end, and you can finally enjoy the views! The total elevation gain of the track is 535 meters (1,755 feet.)
It takes around 4 hours to finish the 8.6-kilometer (5.3-mile) out-and-back hike. If you’re feeling up to it, you can also continue on to Sentinel Pass. Hiking to the pass not only gives you great views of the Larch Valley but also Paradise Valley on the other side. The extra hike to Sentinel Pass is 1.5 kilometers (0.9 miles) each way and takes around 1.5 hours.
Related Read: For more info, take a look at our blog about visiting Banff in September!
22. Eiffel Lake Trail
Situated not too far away from Larch Valley, you’ll find a remote alpine lake, also known as Eiffel Lake. Turns out that the Larch Valley Trail is actually also the beginning of the trail to the lake. So, once you’ve overcome the ten switchbacks, you hit a fork in the road where one path takes you to Eiffel Lake.
The Eiffel Lake Trail then continues on in the Valley of the Ten Peaks with stunning scenery everywhere you look! At some points along the trail, you’re even able to peer down at Moraine Lake and see her bright blue color shining. While Eiffel Lake is small, the rugged and beautiful landscape around it really makes the visit worth it.
All in all, it’s a 12-kilometer (7.5-mile) out and back hike to Eiffel Lake from Moraine Lake, so you can think of this as more of a half-day trail, taking around 4 hours. The trail itself we’d say is moderately difficult, especially the steeper switchbacks which can be a bit of a challenge – but that’s all part of the fun!
If you’ve got previous hiking experience, you could even join both the Larch Valley and Eiffel Lake into one long hike. In total, this would take around 7 hours, one amazing day out in the beautiful Banff countryside.
23. Head to Marble Canyon
Fancy taking it easy for the day and exploring the scenic sights around Banff, or perhaps you’re looking for another undeniably awesome spot to visit that isn’t too far from town? Well, have we got the answer for you!
Just a 35-minute drive away from Banff is the gorgeous Marble Canyon, where thousands of years of erosion by the river have created a deep cut in the earth with smooth walls. In some parts of the canyon, there are even boulders that have naturally been wedged up top, creating a bridge-like structure (definitely not advised to walk it for yourself, though!).
You can park in the parking lot before heading up the short 1 km (0.6 mile) trail right along the canyon. And once you reach the end of the trail, you’ll be rewarded with spotting a huge waterfall! In many ways, it reminded us a bit of Johnston Canyon, except there are definitely fewer people around, which is a big bonus during the busy summertime.
In winter, parts of the canyon freeze (including the waterfall), and the surrounding area becomes covered in snow, turning it into its own winter wonderland – well worth a trip if you’re around Banff in winter!
Note: If you’re looking for the bathroom, there are also on-site restrooms in the parking lot.
24. Crowfoot Glacier Viewpoint
This gorgeous viewpoint in Banff National Park is 91 kilometers (56.5 miles) from Banff town, about an hour’s drive along the Trans Canada Highway. It’s just a quick viewpoint stop, and from the small pull-off bay on the side of the highway, you can see Crowfoot Glacier!
Feeding the Bow River as it melts, Crowfoot Glacier was originally named because of its shape – just like a crow’s foot! Over the years, it has been receding, causing the glacier’s shape to change. Even so, it’s still pretty massive and easily seen from the Icefields Parkway viewpoint.
Crowfoot Glacier sits above Bow Lake and is wedged between mountains, so it’s a very beautiful sight. And if you haven’t seen the Athabasca Glacier yet, then a stop here is a great introduction to Canada’s glacier country!
Hot Tip: If you plan on visiting this viewpoint, check out Peyto Lake and Bow Lake Viewpoint (next in this blog) too – the three attractions are very close to each other!
25. Bow Lake Viewpoint
Just 1.4 kilometers (0.9 miles) further from the Crowfoot Glacier is the Bow Lake Viewpoint. Like the Crowfoot Glacier Viewpoint, this is also a pull-over bay on the side of the highway, so you can’t really miss it as you make your way up the Icefields Parkway.
The last time Daniel and I stopped at this viewpoint, we actually saw a Grizzly bear! He was just in the brush near the road, chowing down on some grass. We stayed in our van (a good distance away) and watched him eat peacefully for a little while.
I recommend driving a little further down the road to the Bow Lake parking lot if you’re into photography. Here, there are some short walking trails and more viewpoints that, during calm weather, offer mirror reflections so beautiful, it made our list of Instagrammable places to visit in Banff.
26. Hike to the Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House
The Plain of Six Glaciers is not only another great tea house in Banff National Park to visit, but it also attracts a fraction of the people as the Lake Agnes Tea House. This is mostly because of its remote and rugged location, making it the perfect destination for travelers who like to get off the beaten path!
The colorful tea house opens officially in early June, dating back all the way to 1927, and has been owned by the same family ever since 1959! We recommend bringing cash with you if you’d like to buy a snack or drink, as while they do accept card, there is a pretty high transaction fee of $4 CAD.
All in all, the trail it’s a 5.3-kilometer (3.3-mile) hike one way to the tea house from Lake Louise, with a 400-meter (1,312 ft) elevation gain. When we made the hike up and down, it took us about 4 hours in total to complete, of course with plenty of time to grab some photos along the way.
If you’re feeling really adventurous, you can combine the Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House with the Lake Agnes Tea House Trail for the ultimate hiking adventure. The entire trail is a 14.6-kilometer (9-mile) loop taking around 6 hours to complete with stops along the way. After this, you can say that you’ve visited both of the tea houses at Lake Louise!
27. Lake Louise Lakefront Trail
The views from the Lake Louise foreshore are incredible, but there’s a ton more spots all around the lake where you can see some more killer views. For another one of our favorites, head out on the Lake Louise Lakefront Trail and hike right to the far end of the lake. From here, you can look back to where you’ve traveled from and enjoy a view of Lake Louise that many don’t get to see.
The Lakefront Trail is also super easy to walk, and the terrain is pretty flat! From the foreshore, it’s a 4.5-kilometer (2.8-mile) out and back hike which takes around an hour to complete. As I said, it’s definitely worth the short trip out here, for the views if nothing else.
This trail is also the start of the Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House hike which we mentioned above, so if you’re planning on doing that trail, then you’ll get to do both!
28. Banff Ice Magic International Ice Carving Competition
The Ice Magic International Ice Carving Competition is held every year from mid-January until the end of the month at Lake Louise. So if you’re visiting Banff in the winter, a trip here should definitely be on your to-do list!
During the event, you can visit Lake Louise and watch artists carve amazing ice sculptures right in front of you. Kids love the event and from Monday to Friday you can visit for free.
On weekends, it’s also free to visit before 10:00 am and after 5:30 pm, however, during peak times there is an admission fee. Although the event ends at the end of January, the ice sculptures are on display throughout February.
Please Note: The Ice Magic Festival was postponed in 2023. The event should be back in 2024.
29. Waterfowl Lake Viewpoint
Waterfowl Lake Viewpoint is Daniel’s favorite stop along the Icefields Parkway in Banff National Park. The lake water reflects the mountains behind it perfectly on a clear day, and I think most photographers would agree with Daniel they could take pictures here all day long!
Although the viewpoint is a little far from Banff, around 114 km (71 miles) away, it’s located along the Icefields Parkway so make sure to stop off here when you’re in the area for another cool and free thing to do. Even if you’re just here for a few moments to snap a shot before hitting the road again, it’s well worth it!
The parking lot is pretty small (sized for around 15 vehicles), but the viewpoint doesn’t tend to be too busy, so you should be fine with finding a space.
If you’ve got a little extra time to spare, then we’d suggest trying out the Waterfowl Lake trail, which starts right next to the campground (signposted) and leads you right up and along to see the southern lake. Many people actually say that this happens to be the more beautiful lake of the two, so why don’t you find out for yourself?
It’s a very short and easy walk down the trail, around 1.4 km (0.9 mi) in total, which only takes about half an hour.
We also mentioned the campground here, which is managed by Parks Canada and (while technically not free), is worth considering if you’re searching for a beautiful and no-so-crowded spot to camp out in Banff’s incredible nature. The 110 sites here are first-come first-served, costing $23 CAD per night.
30. Walk the Moraine Lake Lakeshore Trail
If the Lake Louise Lakeshore Trail has you ready for a brand-new hiking adventure, then you’ll want to stop by Moraine Lake too! The Moraine Lake Lakeshore Trail has some of the most magical views of Moraine Lake from angles you simply don’t get from the viewpoints near the parking lot.
Starting at the Moraine Lake Lodge by the canoe dock, the trail winds around the lake for about 2.9 kilometers (1.8 miles), so it’s a super easy but undeniably fun walk right to the end and back. Once you reach the boardwalk at the end, don’t forget to grab some photos and savor the moment before heading back!
We decided to include this trail on our list for a couple of reasons. There’s the wonderful pictures you’ll get, of course, but you’ll be surprised just how few people actually venture out down this short trail. In the summer months, when popular spots like Moraine Lake and Lake Louise can get especially crowded, the trail is the perfect retreat and will have you feeling like you’re actually back in nature again.
31. Mistaya Canyon
Alright, I’ll admit it, this one is a personal favorite of mine, so indulge me while I tell you about how cool Mistaya Canyon is!
The canyon is located right on the Icefields Parkway, around 130 kilometers (80 miles) from Banff. So while you probably won’t be driving out for this canyon alone, it should definitely be on your list of stops while traveling the parkway. The canyon itself is also a little bit of a walk from the pullover bay, so it’s the perfect place to stretch your legs after a long drive.
You really don’t have to walk too far though, this isn’t a 20-mile hike, we promise! In fact, it’s only about 0.5 km (0.3 miles) from the road to the canyon, and it’s all downhill on the way there. Once you’ve arrived, you’ll be rewarded with a viewpoint overlooking the canyon, and what a view it is.
Watching the water rushing, crashing, and splashing down the river really shows the unbelievable power of water – one look at the picture above, and I’m sure you’ll know what I mean!
The walk back up to the parking bay is uphill, but it’s only a 40-meter (131 ft) elevation, so it’s pretty easy for all fitness levels. Just make sure to keep an eye out though if you’re hiking in winter or early spring, as there can be lots of snow and ice making the trail pretty slippery.
32. Weeping Wall
Hey – who’s cutting onions around here?!
The Weeping Wall sounds like it’s come straight out of Harry Potter, but this stop-off viewpoint on the Icefields Parkway is totally real. The first thing you’ll notice is the several tiny waterfalls that stream down the cliff face here, making it look as if it’s really crying or weeping!
We’ve visited this spot a couple of times, and in my opinion, it’s even better when you visit in the winter. While in the summer you’ll see the small waterfalls pouring down, in the winter they freeze, and the light shimmering off them really is magic! Who needs Hogwarts when you’ve got cool places to visit like this, am I right?
It’s just a quick viewpoint stop, and you don’t even need to leave your car really. You can actually see the Weeping Wall from the road and if you’re in a bit of a rush, you can still enjoy the view while driving past.
We’ve mentioned a few stops along the Icefields Parkway in this blog, so combining them all into one fun trip really makes the driving worth it ten times over. Best of all, stops like the Weeping Wall are totally free!
33. Visit the Lake Louise frozen waterfall
Come wintertime, Lake Louise’s beautiful secret is revealed, yet not many people know that it’s there!
Towards the other end of the lake from the car park, you’ll find a giant frozen waterfall that also doubles as a popular ice climbing route. It’s pretty easy to reach, all you need to do is follow the cross country ski route or the Lake Louise Lakefront Trail all the way until you reach it.
Although we haven’t done much ice climbing ourselves, we thought this was a really neat spot the first time we discovered it for ourselves. It’s definitely worth a photo or two, we can say that!
If you’re lucky, you’ll see ice climbers on the face of the waterfall. Just be sure to keep your distance and don’t climb up the waterfall unless you’re experienced in ice climbing.
Where to Stay in Banff, Canada
We love staying in Banff. In fact, it’s probably one of our favorite places to stay not just in BC, but in Canada!
However, we’re not the only ones who think so, there’s a good reason why Banff is so popular year-on-year, after all. As a result, accommodation options can be a bit overwhelming at first, with a whole bunch of hotels offering some pretty expensive rates. Of course, some hotels over-inflate their prices a lot higher than the stay is actually worth.
To help you discover some of the best hotels in Banff without paying more than you need to, we’ve picked a few of our favorite hotels that we’ve actually visited for ourselves and are priced fairly. So, let’s dive in!
Samesun Banff Hostel – $
When a great budget hotel catches our eye, we always make sure to tell our family and friends about it – staying in Banff can be a little expensive, after all! The Samesun Banff Hostel has been our choice a few times in the past, but don’t let the name deceive you, it’s so much more than a simple backpacker hostel!
The hostel has its own on-site restaurant and bar, as well as a fully-equipped kitchen space as well. Oh, and did we mention that breakfast is included in your rate too? There’s no private rooms here, as this is a backpacker hostel at heart, but the dorms themselves are clean and spacious, and to be honest, it’s also a great way to meet other people traveling through Banff.
Banff Inn – $$
If you’re itching for your own private room, but also want to do it on a budget, then the Banff Inn is a great choice. It has all the amenities you could need, including a hot tub, steam room, and sauna, as well as free Wi-Fi in all rooms. Plus, if you’re into pizzas, they have their very own pizza restaurant on-site too!
The hotel is also right along Banff Ave, so you’re right in all the action when you’re looking to check out the town. A great location with an equally great rate, sounds like a win-win to us!
Rooms here start at $255 CAD per night, and it’s best to book the Banff Inn well in advance, as this is one of the most popular hotels in Banff.
Banff Rocky Mountain Resort – $$
If being on a budget is less of an issue for you, then the Banff Rocky Mountain Resort would be our pick for a great mid-range hotel that’s close to town. Yup, it’s got its own swimming pool AND all of the rooms have their own kitchens or kitchenettes – perfect for rustling up some picnic lunches to take on your next adventure.
You’re only a 5-minute drive away from Banff town as well, so you’re surrounded by nature while still having easy access to all the bars, restaurants, and other activities downtown. When you’re looking to burn off some of those calories from that big dinner the night before, you’ve also got a fully-equipped gym to work out at too!
Rooms here start from $188 CAD and you can check availability and book Banff Rocky Mountain Resort online here.
Fairmont Banff Springs – $$$
The Fairmont Banff Springs has got to be one of, if not the most luxurious hotels in Banff. I mean seriously, the hotel looks like a beautiful castle straight out of a fairy tale! Of course, rooms here certainly aren’t cheap, but if you’re saving by doing free things around Banff, then perhaps you can also splurge a little more on your accommodation.
There are 11 restaurants, 14 shops, bowling, bars, a top-rated spa, a couple of pools, and so much more on-site. It really is like its own little village just in one grand building. Truly, a stay here is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that will leave you with so many unforgettable memories.
Rooms at the Fairmont start from $666 CAD, but this price can rise when availability is low. You can check prices and room availability for Fairmont online here.
Important info: Accommodation in Banff can be tricky. For starters, you need to book well in advance if you want to have a large selection. In the peaks of winter and summer, Banff often books out months in advance.
For this reason, I highly suggest booking a place ASAP! Using Booking.com is great too because lots of hotels offer free cancellation, so just lock in a place (or two) for now and make the final decision later!
Other Things to do While You’re in Banff
The free activities mentioned above only just scrap the surface of all the other things to do in Banff. But with so much to choose from, it might feel overwhelming. So below, I’ve picked some of my favorite activities in the area.
- Ride the Banff Gondola – If you want the best vantage point in town, ride up the Banff Gondola! You’ll climb 698 meters (2.292 feet) to the top of Sulphur Mountain where you’ll have a view of six different mountain ranges. Tickets for the Banff Gondola do sell out in the busy season, so make sure to purchase yours ahead of time!
- Horseback riding – One of the most popular tours in Banff is horseback riding! There are lots of different horseback riding tours in Banff that you can choose from. For something shorter, book this one-hour horseback ride. Or, for something longer, consider this 2-day riding adventure!
- Explore Banff town – While many nature-based activities are nearby, you shouldn’t neglect Banff town itself! Start your morning by visiting one of the cute local cafes, or grab patio drinks along Banff Avenue in the afternoon. To avoid traffic, check out the pedestrian-only Bear Street, with even more restaurants, cafes, and shops. And if that’s not enough, there’s also a Farmers Market every Wednesday in the summertime.
Don’t get Caught without Travel Insurance!
We never travel without travel insurance! We’ve had a few instances during our travels when one of us has ended up in the hospital, and travel insurance has saved us thousands of dollars over the years!
SafetyWing is our go-to insurance, we both have policies with them whenever we travel.
They offer travel medical insurance that’s super affordable (only $45 USD per 4 weeks!)The only thing to note is that the insurance must be purchased once you’ve left your home country – we typically buy it as soon as we land at the airport.
We’ve personally used SafetyWing for many different trips, and we’ve been reimbursed for countless expenses when we’ve fallen ill. SafetyWing even covered our flights back to Canada in full when the pandemic first happened (when last-minute flights before the borders closed were super expensive!) While most travel insurance companies left people stranded, SafetyWing fully reimbursed us for our last-minute, pricey flights!
Also, because it is so affordable, there really is no excuse not to take out a policy. Check prices and get a quote online here with SafetyWing (you can even take out a policy if you’re already traveling!)
Thanks for Reading!
I hope this post has you excited about your trip to Banff National Park and shows you that you do not have to break the bank when visiting Banff. There are plenty of fun, free things to do in Banff National Park to fill up your itinerary, regardless of the season you visit!
Be sure to check out our other Banff blog posts before your trip! Here are some of our top picks: