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The drive from Lake Louise to Banff is a must if you’re looking for an epic mountain road trip. Both of these places are easily on the list of best places to visit in Alberta – but don’t overlook the stops between them! With so many great places to stop and things to see in a relatively short drive, the drive from Lake Louise to Banff (or Banff to Lake Louise) is one of the most epic road trips you can do in all of Canada.
There are two ways to drive from Lake Louise to Banff.
- The Trans-Canada Highway – approx. 58 km (36 miles)
- The Bow Valley Parkway – approx. 63 km (39 miles)
The faster route is taking the main Trans-Canada Highway with more lanes for traffic and higher speed limits. This is also the better option if the weather isn’t good.
However, the Bow Valley Parkway is by far the more scenic route.
If you have a bit more time and want to really see the beauty of this area, take the Bow Valley Parkway! I’ll walk you through the 13 best places to stop on this short, but amazing drive from Lake Louise to Banff.
Note: You’ll need to purchase Parks Pass to get into Banff National Park. A day pass is $10 CAD per adult or $20 per group (in one vehicle). If you’re planning to stay longer in the park or visit other national parks, a Discovery Pass includes admission to 80 different parks for an entire year. Those are $69 CAD per adult or $139 for a family.
About the Drive from Lake Louise to Banff
The drive between these two beautiful stops in the Rocky Mountains is an epic road trip. Both are located in the beautiful Banff National Park. The drive will take 40 minutes or so on the main highway and about an hour on the scenic route.
However, when taking the Bow Valley Parkway, you’ll want to allow for a couple of hours or even an entire morning or afternoon to see all the amazing sights along the way. If you want to make a day out of it, there are plenty of hotels and campgrounds along the route to stay and enjoy the peace and quiet.
This is such a scenic drive, many people cross country ski right next to the Bow Valley Parkway in the winter, and cycle the route in the summer! The Parkway is at a lower elevation with slopes along the roadside where you’re likely to spot lots of animals. Keep an eye out for elk, moose, bighorn sheep, deer, wolves, and sometimes bears. Just remember to pull over when you spot something, stay in your vehicle and keep a reasonable distance from the animal, and don’t block traffic!
No matter which route you take when driving from Lake Louise to Banff, if you’re driving in the winter, be aware of road conditions. Snow and ice can make the journey slippery. The snowplows will prioritize clearing the main Trans-Canada Highway first. The Bow Valley Parkway is typically only scraped down to a packed snow surface (not cleared so you can see pavement). If it’s snowing heavily or there was a recent large snowfall, you may need to take the main highway instead.
You’ll also have to be aware of seasonal closures including from March 1 – June 25 when no travel of any kind (vehicle, pedestrians, or cyclists) is allowed on a specific section of the parkway in the overnight hours from 8 pm to 8 am. The section starts at the Johnston Canyon Campground and goes for 17 km (10.6 miles) to the Fireside Picnic Area. The travel ban is in place to ensure this remains a safe environment for the wildlife in the area including wolves, bears, and cougars. You can still access businesses in the area by taking the Trans-Canada Highway exit at Castle Junction.
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.
13 BEST Stops on the Drive from Lake Louise to Banff
1. Lake Louise Ski Resort
Located just outside of Lake Louise Village on the opposite side of the highway, Lake Louise Ski Resort is one of the largest ski resorts in North America. It’s the perfect place to stay especially if you’re visiting Lake Louise in the winter. It has access to four mountains with 160 runs. It’s the absolute best place for skiing and winter fun with gentle slopes for beginners and wide-open bowls for more experienced athletes. Plus, the snow lasts here from the first week of November until the beginning of May!
In the summer, one of the best things to do in Lake Louise is to take the sightseeing gondola up the ski hill to enjoy a spectacular view without having to hike up the mountain. The gondola passes over areas that are home to grizzly bears. It’s quite common to spot a few on your ride up! You can purchase tickets in advance here!
At the top, there’s the great Whitehorn Bistro to have a meal with a view of the mountains. It’s easily one of the best restaurants in Lake Louise!
2. Morant’s Curve
This is an excellent stop for a photo along a bend in the Bow River where trains typically pass through with a spectacular mountain backdrop. Morant’s Curve is only a short drive (about 5-7 minutes) along the Bow Valley Parkway after you leave Lake Louise and make your way along the Parkway towards Banff.
Keep an eye out for the signs indicating the viewpoint and park across the highway in the small parking lot (marked on Google maps here.)
The best photos are when a train is traveling around the bend and framed perfectly in the shot. Your best chance to catch a train is during a weekday – trains typically pass by at least once an hour. The curve is named after a photographer (Nicholas Morant) who worked for the Canadian Pacific Railway and this was one of his favorite places to capture.
Although just a quick roadside stop on the drive from Lake Louise to Banff, it’s beautifully and totally worth it if you ask me. Dan and I have been here several times and never get tired of the view.
3. Baker Creek Mountain Resort
This is a good place to spend a night or two in a log cabin right in nature. The Baker Creek Mountain Resort is a secluded place to stay in Banff National Park next to the Bow River. It’s less than 20 minutes from Lake Louise on the Bow Valley Parkway.
They have 16 suites and cabins that are cozy and a great place to unwind. Be prepared to not have some of the usual amenities and take advantage of that! There is no cell service here or TVs. They do have Wi-Fi, but the signal isn’t consistent. It’s a great way to make sure you put down the phone and relax.
Although in the wilderness, this resort is very luxurious, and you can expect to pay between $250-600 CAD per night depending on when you visit. The rooms all have fireplaces and some even come with large spa tubs (a perfect place to stay if you’re visiting Banff on your honeymoon!)
4. Castle Mountain Lookout Trail
Castle Mountain Lookout Trail is a nice hike with incredible panoramic views of Castle Mountain. The trailhead is located about 22 km (13.7 miles) from Lake Louise along the Bow Valley Parkway. The entire hike is just over 7 km (4.3 miles) and should take anywhere from three to four hours.
The hike is along a well-maintained path and is accessible typically from May until October. There are no facilities along this hike or at the top, so bring along all the hiking essentials like water and bear spray. The hike does have some steeper sections to it, but that gives you better views at the top!
Bring your lunch or snacks to enjoy the view from the Castle Mountain Lookout. You’ll be able to see as far as the Three Sisters Mountain in Canmore!
5. Castle Cliff Viewpoint
The next spot on the Bow Valley Parkway is the perfect place to stop and see the cliffs of Castle Mountain in all their splendor. The castle-like appearance is due to different rates of erosion of the layers of soft shale and hard limestone, dolomite, and quartzite.
There’s a parking area here and a small path that leads to a viewing platform to stop and take photos. Bring your camera to grab some amazing shots!
This is a great alternative to the Castle Mountain Lookout Trail (mentioned above). This stop involves walking only a few meters to a viewing deck. As such, this stop on the drive from Lake Louise to Banff is just a quick viewpoint, but it’s perfect for those who aren’t up for any longer hikes.
6. Castle Mountain Chalets
Castle Mountain Chalets are located right in the middle of the drive from Lake Louise to Banff. This makes it a great spot to stay to break up your road trip and allow enough time to see all of the amazing sights in the area.
You can stay in a spacious, individual chalet with a rustic and cozy feel to it. The chalets were originally built back in 1939 and staying in one will make you feel like you stepped back in time. That’s not to say these chalets aren’t luxurious though, because they totally are! Each chalet comes equipped with a full kitchen, fireplace, and stunning mountain views.
Winter or summer, Castle Mountain Chalets is a beautiful place to stay. Just be warned, a place this spectacular doesn’t;t come cheap and you can expect to pay between $300-500 CAD per night depending on the season that you visit. However, when compared with other hotels in Banff, this is a reasonable price to pay for such a unique and beautiful place.
If you’re just passing through, there’s also a General Store and gas station located here to stock up on snacks and fuel (it is pricey though so if you can fuel up before starting your road trip, do so.)
7. Rockbound Lake Trail
Rockbound Lake Trail is a full-day hike with some great views! Plan for at least six hours of hiking to tackle this one as it’s almost 17 km (10.6 miles) round-trip.
The first 90 minutes or so are in the forest and then when you come out of the trees, Castle Mountain comes into view. This is the other side of the mountain than what you see driving along the Bow Valley Parkway – so this is a view many people don’t get to see!
Because you’re in the forest and protected for much of the hike, this is a good one to do on a windy day. Plus, it’s stunning in the fall when all the trees turn yellow!
8. Moose Meadows
This is a good spot to pull off the road on the drive from Lake Louise to Banff near a large field with a mountain backdrop. This used to be a popular spot to see lots of moose, but it is a bit busier now. You may still see one though!
If not, it’s a great spot for pictures with beautiful views – especially at sunset. The meadow is often filled with wildflowers too which are especially brilliant in the Spring.
It is just a small pullover bay, the location can be found on Google Maps here.
9. Johnston Canyon
A visit to Johnston Canyon is an easy walk with huge rewards. The boardwalk along the path leads you right into a canyon filled with seven glacial waterfalls that cascade over rocky cliffs. You can get right next to the water flowing from Johnston Creek and close enough to waterfalls to feel the spray of the water on your face!
This is also a special place in the winter! The waterfalls freeze over and create layers of giant icicles, which are incredible to see. The ice on the Lower and Upper Waterfalls here also takes on a blue color that is quite beautiful.
Johnston Canyon is open all year and it’s free to get to – including free parking in one of two parking lots. It is one of the more popular hikes in Banff National Park and is great for families as the path is wide and not too steep. The hike is about 2.5 km (1.6 miles) to get all the way to the Upper Falls, which makes it one of the shorter hikes in the area – perfect if you only have one day to spend in Banff.
Hot Tip: If you’re visiting in the winter, you really need ice cleats or spikes. If you don’t have them, then consider joining a guided ice walk tour that will safely lead you on the ice and supply all of the safety gear you’ll need.
10. Hillsdale Meadow Viewpoint
This is just a quick scenic stop on the drive from Lake Louise to Banff where you’ll get an excellent view of Pilot Mountain and an open field full of wildflowers in the summer. It’s especially colorful in the fall with yellow aspen trees against the tall mountain peaks in the background. This is also a good place to spot elk!
11. Vermilion Lakes
Drive along Vermilion Lakes Road to see the mountains reflected in the calm waters of the Vermilion Lakes. These are some of the best lakes in Banff and there are three lakes on this drive along with a great view of Mount Rundle and Sulphur Mountain.
If you have time to stop while going from Lake Louise to Banff, consider biking along the shoreline, hiking on one of the nearby trails, or renting a canoe and paddling across the water. This is especially beautiful at sunrise or sunset and you’re more likely to see wildlife during those times too.
If you’re here in the winter, the lakes do freeze over enough to go skating! You might even be lucky enough to spot bubbles that freeze under the ice that make a really neat view. The ice thickness isn’t consistent across all the lakes because of warm springs feeding into the lakes, so be aware and avoid the area east of the dock at Third Vermilion Lake. Skate on the ice at your own risk.
12. Mt. Norquay
The Mt. Norquay Ski Resort is famous for the Olympic and World Cup athletes who train here, but it’s also good for beginners. There are 190 acres with six runs and the fun Tube Town – with eight lanes available. This is a smaller resort that’s a favorite among locals and offers the only night skiing available in Banff National Park, so you can ski under the stars!
In the summer, stop at the resort to ride the Mt Norquay Sightseeing Chairlift up almost 7,000 feet! It has amazing panoramic views over the Bow Valley and you might just spot a bear as black bears and grizzly bears are common here in the warmer months. You can grab tickets for the chairlift online.
At the top, pop into the Cliffhouse Bistro for a mountaintop brunch. This former teahouse built in the 1950s is famous for its stunning views and the collection of photos on the walls of Banff’s history. Brunch is served all day here, so try the French Canadian Toast with hints of apple and maple.
13. Banff town
Banff is a very popular town in the Rockies, attracting thousands of visitors each year. And it’s no wonder why – it’s absolutely beautiful and there are tons of things to do in Banff in winter, spring, summer, or fall.
The downtown area is very quaint and there are many awesome options for places to eat, drink, and shop. With the mountains as the backdrop to Banff Ave, it’s a beautiful place to base yourself in Banff National Park.
Banff is more than just a ski town though, and regardless of the season you visit, Banff town is an amazing place with plenty to do – including some really cool tours. Some of the best things to do in Banff include:
- Relax in the Banff Upper Hot Springs – Just a short 5-minute drive up Sulphur Mountain you’ll find the Banff Upper Hot Springs. Ranked among the best Alberta hot springs, the mountain views here are epic! The hot springs are easy to get to and very affordable. At only $16.50 CAD per adult and $53 CAD for a family, even those on a budget can enjoy one of the best Banff attractions. It’s even a great activity to do in Banff when it’s raining.
- Ride the Banff Gondola up Sulphur Mountain – The Banff Gondola is possibly the singular most popular thing to do in Banff – and for good reason! From the top of the Banff Gondola, the views of the mountains and Banff town are out of this world. The first time I rode the gondola was during my first Christmas in Banff and I loved it! At the top of the gondola, you’ll find a restaurant and cafe, a gift shop, lots of information on the area and wildlife, as well as my personal favorite, the boardwalk!
- Check out the Bow Falls Lookout – The Bow River is a stunning river that runs through the heart of Banff. Turquoise in color, it is nothing short of picture-perfect. A short 1.5km scenic walk from Banff town (or drive) you’ll come to the Bow Falls viewpoint on the river’s edge. Here, not only will you see the river, but also the Bow River Waterfall!
- Cave and Basin National Historic Site – Another great place to visit in Banff is Cave and Basin Historic Site. Here you can see some historic hot springs that are home to a rare species of snail. The museum is the main attraction in my eyes and it is very interactive and fun especially for kids. You’ll find lots of information about Banff and the surrounding area.
Where to Stay in Banff
There is plenty to do in Banff alone, so if you decide you want to stay here, there are a few good options. First, you must decide which area of Banff National Park is best for you to stay.
If you truly want an experience and a hotel all in one, then you MUST stay at the Fairmont Banff Springs. This luxurious hotel is actually an old Scottish Castle built in 1888 and declared a National Historic Site. The Fairmont is the most prestigious of all of the hotels in Banff offering a range of restaurants on-site to choose from as well as tons of activities. Guests can go bowling, play tennis, or swim in the large lap pool.
If you’re just looking for a cheap hotel in Banff, try Tunnel Mountain Resort. Located a couple of minutes out of town this hotel has a pool and everything you need for a comfortable stay – it’s family-friendly too. Or if you’re looking for a hostel, Banff International Hostel has good reviews and an excellent location
Essential Trips for Driving from Lake Louise to Banff
- The drive from Lake Louise to Banff is a short, but scenic route with lots of great places to stop. Take the main Trans-Canada Highway if the weather is bad or you need to get to your destination more quickly. Take the Bow Valley Parkway for a more scenic drive.
- Get a Parks Pass! You’ll need a pass to get into Banff National Park – you can pay per day or buy the Discovery Pass for unlimited visits for a year.
- If you’re doing this drive in the winter, prepare for snowy or slippery conditions. If it’s snowing or there was a recent storm, be aware that snowplows will clear the main highway first and the Bow Valley Parkway isn’t cleared as thoroughly. If you don’t want to drive the route yourself, there are some great tours from Banff to Lake Louise you can choose instead!
- Travel of any kind is banned from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. from March 1 until June 25 on a small section of the Bow Valley Parkway. Make sure you’ve completed your trip before then or you’ll have to detour off onto the main highway.
- Spend a night along the Bow Valley Parkway in one of the many campgrounds or rustic lodges. It’s a great way to unwind and get away from it all – remember you may not have cell service!
- Bring your camera along! The views on this road from Lake Louise to Banff are some of the best in the Rocky Mountains and with so many places to see, you’re going to want to capture memories along the way.
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.
Renting a car will definitely make exploring all of the fun things to see and do in Alberta easier.
Car rental in Canada isn’t super cheap, but it isn’t overly expensive either, 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!
Before you go…
As I said, if you’re looking for an epic mountain road trip, driving from Lake Louise to Banff should fulfill your needs! There are so many amazing stops allowing you to experience many of the places that make Alberta so beautiful.
Yes, this can be done as a quick, easy drive. But what fun is that? Definitely take your time enjoying each of these little stops on your drive from Lake Louise to Banff so you can really get the most out of your experience!
If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out some of our other guides as well! Here are a few faves: