Crunching ice as you take steps with thick hiking boots is as familiar a sound as splashes from canoe oars in Canada’s Banff National Park. Established in 1885, Banff is one of the most visited national parks in the world. Yes, tents and backpacks are popular sights in the park, but it’s hard to beat a reprieve from the wild with a top Banff hotel.
Hotels in Banff are often styled as resorts and cozy inns--perfect after a long day from hiking, swimming, or skiing. Both summer and winter sports are favorites in Banff, as Banff National Park is open year-round. Let Expedia.ca help you find the best Banff hotel deals no matter during which season you chose to travel so you can focus your attention on the more important things, like how many kilometers you’re going to hike or which monster mountain to ski down during your Banff vacation.
While Banff certainly gives you the feeling of being lost in nature, it’s actually fairly easy to travel in and out of the park. Calgary is the most common starting point for Banff visitors. Travellers often book flights to Banff National Park through Expedia.ca and arrive at the Calgary International Airport (YYC), a little over an hour away. Both Greyhound and Bewsters offer regular scheduled bus rides from the airport to the park. We recommend a window seat to see the Douglas fir trees and snow-kissed mountain peaks along the route. Shuttles are also a popular choice to travel from the airport, and there are several private shuttle companies making treks from the airport to the park throughout the day. If you’re driving to Banff from the east or west, Highway 1, also known as the Trans-Canada Highway, is often chosen as one of the most scenic drives in Canada and cuts directly into Banff National Park. If you’re travelling from the north or south, Highway 93 drives straight through the park and hits charming Lake Louise along the way.
Dirty hiking boots are the most common means of getting around Banff National Park. Banff has rocky terrain so thicker boots with wool socks are often advised. Mountain biking is a good option as well, though it is certainly a workout making your way from each corner of the park. Banff National Park car rentals make for a good alternative to get around the 6,641km park. With a car, you don’t miss any of the distant mountains and lakes of Banff during your trip.
Things To Do
Banff lives up to its reputation as one of the best national parks in Canada. There are several things to do in Banff National Park, and all include the great outdoors. Banff is a four season park, with plenty of activities to jump right into.
Summer sunshine is a great companion for beginning hikers making their way through Sunshine Meadows, Parker Ridge Trail, or Spray River Loop. Advanced hikers prefer to trek through the steep Harvey Pass, or Cory Pass Loop. Warmer weather also brings out the canoe and kayak aficionados cruising along Johnson Lake or Lake Louise. Scuba divers will want to stay in one of the hotels in Banff near Lake Minnewanka, where they can dive down and view the remains of a town called Minnewanka Landing, which was submerged under water in 1941 after a dam caused the lake to rise.
Want the best view of Banff? Fall is a beautiful time to see the expansive landscape from the gondolas of park: Banff Gondola and Lake Louise Sightseeing Gondola.
Winter brings the ski season, and you'll want to book a Banff hotel near the busy ski hills of Sunshine, Lake Louise, and Mount Norquay before they get too packed. Luckily there's still ample snow for skiing through spring, for those travelling later in the season.
To thaw out your own bones from the frosty weather, or to just recover from a full day of activity, you must head over to the Banff Upper Hot Springs. These natural hot springs house the historic spa and bath house against the backdrop of the park’s alpine scenery. It’s the perfect way to cap your day after exploring everything the park has to offer.
The sharp bangs of hammers pounding railroad spikes rang out in the background as three Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) workers stumbled across a series of hot springs inside of the present-day Sulphur Mountain in 1883. After a series of squabbles between conservationists and commercial interests, Prime Minister John A Macdonald set aside the hot springs as a small, protected reserve. This later expanded to include Lake Louise and other areas north of the Columbia Icefield.
William Van Horne, manager of the CPR, recognized the potential of tourist dollars and further use of the railroad to the park, so he persuaded the railroad to develop and build the lavish Banff Springs Hotel, the first luxury Banff hotel, opening in 1888.
The park hasn’t always been a haven, however. During World War I, the park was turned into an internment camp for immigrants from Eastern Europe. These prisoners constructed much of the early infrastructure of the area. Internment camps were erected again during World War II, when Mennonites were kept in the camps.
Despite this dark chapter, Banff continued to grow in popularity. Banff hosted its first Winter Carnival in 1917, which kick-started a new wave of tourism. The carnival featured an ice palace, along with skiing, curling, and snowshoeing. Sunshine Village became the first ski hotel in Banff in the 1930s, with the other hills opening their own ski hotels in Banff soon after. Today, Banff is one of the top, most frequently visited national parks throughout Canada.
Arts and Entertainment
Nestled between the slopes and trees is Banff Centre. This complex is an art, culture, and education centre located towards the bottom of the park. Technically an offshoot of the University of Alberta, the centre offers high-caliber entertainment for both visitors and students. This includes the Banff International String Quartet Competition and the Banff Festival of the Arts. This latter festival often features the premiers of operas and musicals. If you book your Banff hotel near the centre, you’ll be close to the wild outdoors during the day, while still close to music and the fine arts during the evenings.
Live music has certainly become a large part of the centre and the surrounding area in recent years. You can catch a live show of several types of music genres, from country and rock, to Celtic and classic piano. Book your hotel in Banff near Wild Bill’s Saloon, the Rose and Crown, or the St. James’s Gate Olde Irish Pub for live shows on most Friday and Saturday nights.
If you’re more of a music festival kind of traveller, check out some of the several music events happening each year. For instance, the Jazz Concert Series is a four week frenzy of jazz around each May. This is followed by the Music and Sound Concert Series in fall and winter, which highlights international music acts of all different genres. If you’d prefer some opera in the park, check back in the summer as operas are usually reserved for the warm weather months and the Banff Summer Arts Festival.
Wheels, skates, and dirty boots are all welcome in Banff National Park. Banff already has a robust reputation of being a mecca of outdoor sports, with plenty of trails and lakes for mountain biking, hiking, skiing, fishing, and kayaking. However, if you’re more competitive, there are a few annual competitions, bringing in top athletics from Canada and beyond.
The Banff National Park Bike Fest happens each June. This event hosts about 500 cyclists who participate in five competitive events over the course of four days. This race is not for the faint of heart, as some of the races range from 78km-130km in length and wind through mountains at neck-breaking speed. Book your Banff hotel early before all the hotel rooms are sold out during this busy period.
For an even greater challenge, come to town for the Subaru Banff Triathlon. Athletes start by swimming in the pristine waters of Two Jake Lake, before cycling around Minnewanka Loop Road, and finish by running down the famed Banff Avenue. Book a hotel in Banff near the finish line so you can easily return to nap after the race.
For a different kind of sport all together, each January brings the annual ice carving contest on Lake Louise. The competition lasts 34 hours and attracts internationally renowned professional ice carvers. The one-of-a-kind pieces are sculpted from blocks of solid ice from the shores of Lake Louise. The weekend-long festival also includes horse drawn wagon rides, ice skating, and more.
When do you get to dance in the middle of a Canadian forest? Feel free to let your hair down when you are amongst those thick forest trees where you find a few hopping Banff nightclubs to choose from, with plenty of dancing into the wee hours against the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains. The nightlife scene in Banff National Park has a decidedly college feel, as most of the evening activities are close to Banff Centre.
Now, if relaxing with a good hoppy or malty beverage is more your speed, there are several beer-swilling joints in town. Some of these late night hubs have rooftop patios, so you can enjoy the big sky while enjoying your cold one to the sounds of live music. Expect rock and techno music at some bars, with western country music more popular at many of the old-time haunts. Some Banff resorts and lodges also offer their own bars and music in-house, if you are simply looking for a sweet drink or frothy pint to cap the night before hitting the pillow at your Banff hotel.
And not to worry if you’re in the mood for something a little more cosmopolitan. There are a few wine lounges in Banff National Park, for more of a relaxed elegant feel in the park. No matter what kind of nightlife you’re looking for, book your hotel in Banff near Tunnel Mountain Drive, where most of these favourite spots are located.
Restaurants and Food
Catch a fish, eat a fish, but don’t fish without reading all the rules or else you’ll lose your fish. Banff National Park is one of the best places to catch and eat your own dinner grilled over an open flame. The trick is to follow all of the regulations. You’ll need to rent a daily or annual fishing permit specific to national parks. Also follow other rules, like only fishing with one line and not using eatable bait.
Once you have all of your permits, you just need to choose which type of fish you want. Many of the fishing areas, like Bow River and Lake Minnewank, are brimming with brown trout, brook trout, and Rocky Mountain whitefish.
If you’re forgoing a hotel in Banff for a campsite and are bringing your own food, be wary of bears and other critters sniffing around with hungry bellies. Lock up food tight and lift it at least 4 metres above the ground between two trees or poles. You’ll need to keep the food about 3 metres away from each side of the tree so bears don’t climb them and reach over to the hanging food.
If you prefer cutlery and linens, Banff certainly has its sophisticated eateries, too. There are several innovative restaurants located inside the more elegant Banff hotels. Many restaurants use local produce, such as squash and potatoes when in season, as well as wild salmon. You’re in for some of the freshest food you’ll eat in Banff, paired with some of the best table views in Canada.
There are two types of shopping in Banff: shopping for the outdoors and shopping to bring a little something home. The former is quite useful, if you forgot to bring any gear – heavy or light- from home. You can buy sleeping bags, skis, helmets, boots, sunscreen, and swim trunks among other things to prepare for a vacation out in the elements.
Many Banff stores also include fishing equipment, if you need any additional lures, lines, or water-proof suits for your fishing expedition. You’ll also find maps and guides at some of the stores, if you want a hard copy of the area before you head out for a hike or bike ride. Many hotels in Banff offer WiFi and print service, so you also have the option of printing out your maps on site.
You’ll find more boutique-type shopping closer to Lake Louise Village, the City of Banff, and Banff Center. You can find some winter clothing there, if you need a few layers, as well as accessories and hats for a pop of style in nature. Many of the stores will offer history and travel book selections to give you a sense of Banff before you start your outdoors adventure. Look for handcrafted Canadian-made gifts, like handcrafted mugs for those chilly Banff nights, and notebooks and bags made out of 100% local leather while you’re in town. Some Banff hotels also have their own gift shops. Browse them at your leisure, if you plan to send out a postcard, wish to bring home a commemorative mug or other Banff souvenirs.
Weather and Climate
Pack those sweaters and mittens; you can count on a subarctic climate with cold, snowy winters and mild summers. The winter months see temperatures around -6°C to -9°C. Summer temperatures are more mild than you’d expect, hitting around 12°C to 14°C. Spring and fall are also cool, and ranging from -4°C to 9°C. The length of sunlight varies through the year, and lasts about 8 hours in December and nearly 17 hours in June.
Stay safe during your Banff vacation and avoid driving and skiing in unsafe winter conditions. Be wary of avalanches and don’t ski out of bounds. The native animals can be unpredictable, especially during matting season. Proceed with caution around elk, moose, and deer by staying about 30 m from the larger wildlife. Remember, you’re in their backyard, not the other way around.
Number One Travel Tip
The number one travel tip to bring with you to Banff National Park is a sense of wonder and an open mind. Yes, you can skip a Banff hotel to camp out in the majestic woods, but you’d be surprised to learn how many exquisite Banff hotels and resorts you can find in the park. Yes, you can fish and cook your own meals, but you can also spoil your taste buds with fine dining. Keep your options open for activities as well. This is a great place to try some dog sledding, ice fishing, and canoeing. From the chilly lakes to five star dining clam bakes, you’ll never forget your voyage into Banff National Park.