Glacier-capped mountains. Turquoise lakes. A charming, yet rustic ski town nestled in the Rockies. Welcome to Banff, Canada- a town that has skyrocketed in popularity in recent years due to its otherworldly beauty and endless opportunities for outdoor adventure. While the town is wonderful to visit any time of the year, Banff in the summer is especially epic- imagine canoeing across a lake of milky blue water or hiking to a teahouse, tucked away on a mountaintop.
So pack your hiking boots and let’s hit the road- here’s 10 incredible things to do in Banff in the summer.
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Table of contents:
- How to get to Banff
- Things to know about Banff in the summer
- Things to do in Banff in the summer
- What to pack for Banff in the summer
- Where to stay in Banff
How to get to Banff
Banff is both a town and a national park in the stunning Canadian Rockies, located along the southwestern border of the Alberta province. To get here, most travelers fly into Calgary (to score the best airfare, I swear by Skyscanner!)- it’s one of the most beautiful cities in Canada and is absolutely worth spending a couple days exploring. Once you’ve had your fill of that city life, make the hour and a half drive west to Banff.
There’s some ways that you can get to Banff without a vehicle of your own, like Uber, public transit (only $10 one-way!), or shuttle; however, I’d strongly recommend that you rent a car, so that you can easily get to and from trailheads, lakes, and everything else that makes Banff oh so special.
Things to know about Banff in the summer
There’s three things you should know about Banff in the summer (besides the whole “it’s crazy beautiful” thing)-
#1. It’s a popular destination, from honeymooners to outdoor enthusiasts, Instagrammers, and everything in between, which leads me to the #2 and #3 points…
#2. It books up way in advance (think six to eight months ahead of time).
#3. It’s EXPENSIVE.
(#4. I’m throwing in this one because it bears repeating- Banff is, like, really pretty- so it’s worth the few hoops you need to jump through to visit!)
Let’s get into it.
The town is relatively tiny, with a population under 8,000, so things like lodging and food are fairly limited. Accordingly, accommodations for the popular summer months (which runs from July through September, due to Banff’s northern location) can book up months and months in advance- so I’d strongly recommend against resting on your laurels about finding a place to stay prior to your visit.
And due to the high demand for the limited resources, everything from hotels to restaurants and canoe rentals is priced to match (to rent a canoe for one hour at Lake Louise, it costs, at the time I’m writing this, a whopping $135 CAD or $107 USD!).
So while you could totally do Banff on the cheap (i.e., camping, mostly hiking, and making all of your own meals), I generally wouldn’t otherwise plan a trip to Banff necessarily as a budget destination. So start saving your loonies so you can partake in a few of the awesome activities here. I promise it’s worth it!
A few other tips to note before your trip:
- What makes Banff so special is its incredible landscape- it’s so spectacular, in fact, that Banff, along with its neighboring national parks, Yoho, Jasper, and Kootenay, are UNESCO World Heritage Sites! So let’s make sure that Banff stays beautiful by following the Leave No Trace principles while you’re enjoying outdoor spaces, like disposing of waste properly (pack it in, pack it out), leave what you find (take only memories, leave only footprints), and respect wildlife (keep a safe distance from bears, moose, and other furry friends).
- Banff is located on the traditional territories of several Indigineous nations- Iyârhe Nakoda Nations, the Blackfoot Confederacy, and the Tsuut’ina. Like many national parks, the history between these Indigienous people and the National Park system is troublesome, to say the least- for example, Indigenous people were banned from entering or prohibited from fishing and hunting in Banff National Park, their ancestral land, for several decades (a policy that has been slowly walked back over the last 50 years).
During your time in Banff, take the time to learn about the culture and history of the Indigenous people here (like a stop at the Whyte Museum, purchasing artwork from the Samson Native Gallery, or, if you come a little early in the season, participating in the activities of the town’s annual celebration of National Indigineous People Day on June 21)- it’s an integral part of this land that cannot be overlooked.
Things to do in Banff in the summer
Now, to the fun part- let’s talk about all the awesome things you can do in Banff in the summer!
1. Go on a hike
Dude, if you’re headed to Banff and not packing hiking shoes, you’re doing it wrong- exploring the Rocky Mountains in and around Banff is undoubtedly one of the best things to do in Canada.
The best way to explore Banff’s stunning alpine lakes and mountains is on foot- in fact, Banff National Park has over 1,000 miles of hiking trails!
While there’s too many spectacular ones to list, here are a few to consider for every level of hiker:
- Moraine Lake Shoreline Trail: Walk 3.2 miles around Moraine Lake’s famously Gatorade blue waters- you can actually see the glaciers feeding into the lake along the trail!
- Johnston Canyon Lower Falls: You’ll follow this 1.4-mile trail that alternates between cutting through a lush evergreen forest to along metal bridges bolted into a rocky canyon wall, hovering over a rushing river. At the end of the trail, you’ll get to see a gorgeous waterfall- and if you’re in the mood to get wet, you can enter into a small cave for an up-close-and-personal experience!
- Lake Agnes Trail: One of my favorite experiences in Banff was hiking this 4.6-mile trail that departs from the banks of Lake Louise. As you follow switchbacks up the mountain, you’ll catch glimpses of the lake’s famed milky blue waters below. At the top of your journey, you’ll reach a stunning lake (of course, you do- it’s Banff!) and a log cabin teahouse that’s been serving up steaming mugs of tea to visitors since 1905.
- Cascade Amphitheater: This 8 mile hike zigzags through a lush forest and spits you out into an amphitheater formed by jagged limestone cliffs soaring overhead. Great trail for seeing wildflowers AND mountain goat friends!
- Helen Lake and Cirque Peak: Wanna bag a summit in Banff without knowing all that mountaineering jazz? This 9.9 mile hike lets you do just that- plus, at the top, you get panoramic views of several of Banff’s insane-colored lakes!
- Mount Rundle: Famously one of Banff’s most challenging hikes, involving some rock scrambling and lots of sketchy exposure. At the end, you’ll be rewarded with one of Banff’s most spectacular views, with the Canadian Rockies unfolding endlessly at your feet.
2. Ride a gondola.
Want those epic mountain top views without all that hiking mumbo jumbo? Take any one of four sightseeing gondolas in Banff, which do all the work for you! Each one offers different views:
- Banff Sightseeing Gondola (starting at $53 CAD per adult ticket): Located just 5 minutes from town, you’ll be whisked to the top of Mount Sulphur, at an eye-popping altitude of 7,486 feet. At the top, there’s restaurants, short hiking trails, and, of course, endless views of both mountains and, perhaps, the bighorn sheep that like to hang out here!
- Lake Louise Gondola (starting at $50 CAD per adult ticket): Experience Lake Louise’s and the Victoria Glacier’s epicness some 6,850 feet in the air. You also have a good chance of spotting wildlife during your ride on the gondola- grizzly bears have been known to graze right under its path!
- Banff Norquay Sightseeing Chairlift(starting at $43 CAD per adult ticket): Want to feel that cool mountain breeze in your hair? Well, in this open air chairlift, your feet will dangle in thin air as you hover over the earth and climb to 7,000 feet in elevation. Once you’re at the top, there’s a variety of viewing platforms and walking trails to explore.
- Banff Sunshine Sightseeing Gondola (starting at $50 CAD per adult ticket): This ride will whiz over thick pine tree forests to an elevation of 7,875 feet. Here you can either enjoy the spectacular 360-degree mountain views or take another gondola even higher to 7.5 miles of hiking trails to mountaintop alpine lakes..
3. Go canoeing or kayaking.
Let’s get real- did you really go to Banff if there isn’t an iconic shot of you gliding across a lake of unbelievably-colored water?
You can try out the two most popular spots in Banff- either in the milky green waters of Lake Louise ($135 CAD for a one hour rental) or the electric blue Moraine Lake ($115 CAD for an hour). But these spots can be crowded- when my husband, Justin, and I visited, there was a three hour wait to rent canoes at Lake Louise- and there’s a TON of other beautifully-colored lakes around (which usually tend to be a bit cheaper).
So, alternatively, consider the gorgeous one we visited, Emerald Lake at the nearby Yoho National Park ($70 CAD for an hour) or Jasper National Park’s Pyramid Lake (just $50 CAD for an hour!).
Protip about visiting Lake Louise and Moraine Lake (regardless if you’re canoeing)- get there EARLY if you want to score a parking spot in their comically tiny parking lots! As in absurdly early. When we visited, Justin and I arrived at Moraine Lake around 5:30 AM- and snagged the second to last spot in the lot. There aren’t overflow lots and the road leading to the parking lot is usually closed once there are no spots left (so you can’t drive around vulturing for one).
If waking up at ungodly hours while you’re on vacation isn’t your jam, consider instead leaving your car in the Park and Ride lot and taking the shuttle to either of the two lakes.
4. Soak in hot springs.
Quick little history lesson: While the Indigenous people of this region had been using its natural hot springs for centuries, workers on the Canadian Pacific Railway discovered what’s now the Banff Upper Hot Springs for themselves in 1883. After they quickly realized how awesome hot springs are, the concept of Banff National Park was born.
Fast forward and the now-developed springs are still beloved today- you can soak in their cozy warm waters ($9.25 CAD for an adult), all while gazing directly at Mount Rundle, a particularly pointy mountain rising above the town. There’s also two other picturesque developed hot springs within a couple hours drive of Banff: Radium Hot Springs and Miette Hot Springs, which are worth checking out if you’re a hot springs addict like me!
5. Spot some wildlife.
The Rocky Mountains are rich with birds and mammals- think elk, bighorn sheep, grizzly bears, and falcons- so strap on your best Indiana Jones-style hat and let’s go on a safari! You can take a tour, guided by a wildlife expert that can tell you all about Banff’s ecosystem and help your group track down and respectfully observe some of Banff’s beautiful creatures.
Alternatively, you can try your hand at spotting wildlife yourself- animals are usually most active at dawn or twilight and there’s some spots around the area that are better than others for wildlife spotting. For example, the Icefields Parkway is a fantastic spot to see mountain goats, grizzly bears, or bighorn sheep (just make sure the driver isn’t the one looking out for animals and bring your binoculars!) or the Marsh Boardwalk Trail at Cave and Basin National Historic Site for bird-watching.
Friendly reminder that, if you see wildlife, to always observe at a safe distance (e.g., 300 feet from wolves, bears, and coyotes) and never feed them- it can really mess up their ecosystem!
6. Take a cruise on Lake Minnewanka
Lake Minnewanka is the national park’s biggest lake. And while it boasts absurdly blue waters (just like every other lake in Banff), it’s actually man made, dammed in the mid-1900s to bring freshwater to the city’s growing population.
Nowadays, you can take scenic cruises along its beautiful waters to drink in the crisp air and scenic mountain views (starting around $60 CAD per person). If you’re maybe wanting to drink something else in, consider, instead, taking the Beer Voyage Cruise, a nightly tour around Lake Minnewanka as you sample four beers from local craft breweries.
7. Conquer the via ferrata.
Want something a little more adrenaline-inducing than a booze cruise? Try out the via ferrata at Norquay Mountain Resort, an assisted climbing experience where you scale metal rungs and cross suspension bridges- all thousands of feet in the air and on a sheer mountain cliffside.
You’ll be wearing a harness that’s strapped into a steel cable pathway bolted into the mountainside, so, thankfully, it’s much safer than Free Soloing it. Still, you get the thrill of being seemingly suspended in air, with mountain views as far as the eye can see (starting at $189 CAD).
8. Wander the streets of Banff.
Listen- the town of Banff is adorable. The streets are lined with buildings that look straight out of the Sound of Music; there’s plenty of bars where you can cozy up to a fireplace, drink in hand; and there’s not a bad view in the entire town.
So make sure to build in some time to explore what it has to offer. Some of my favorite shops and restaurants were:
- Banff Ave. Brewery: Craft brewery with a killer balcony- kind of a no brainer!
- Monod Sports: Since I’m secretly an old man at heart, I’ve got a big soft spot for no-nonsense stores that have been in operation for generations. And Monod perfectly fits the bill, offering all of your outdoor adventure needs since 1949.
- Whyte Museum Book Shop: If you’re looking to pick up a guide on how to identify plants native to the Canadian Rockies or maybe a memoir of a Canadian mountain climber, this bookstore of the Whyte Museum (which is worth visiting in and of itself!) should be your go to.
- The Happy Camper Cafe and Bar: Come for the coffee. Stay for the cozy firepit.
- Park Restaurant and Distillery: A sleek craft distillery dishing up some seriously tasty elevated bar food. Make sure you grab a cocktail with the house made Maple Rye- we’re in Canada after all!
Protip: As mentioned above, Banff is relatively tiny as compared to how many visitors it receives in the summertime. Expect long waits at restaurants or, if waiting for hours whilst hangry isn’t your cup of tea, try grabbing food at off-hours.
9. Explore the other nearby national parks.
So we can all agree that Banff is spectacularly gorgeous- but so are the other national parks surrounding its borders, Yoho, Jasper, and Kootenay, each with their own majestic glacier-topped mountainscapes.
Our time driving up to Jasper was one of my favorite parts of our trip- stopping by Peyto Lake, whose jaw-dropping electric blueness is rivaled only by Moraine or taking a white water rafting trip down the Athabasca River valley.
10. Drive the Icefields Parkway.
If you’re visiting Banff’s neighboring national parks, your journey might as well be spectacular! Stretching from Lake Louise to Jasper National Park, the Icefield Parkway is the mother of all scenic drives, taking you past 144 miles of impossibly grand mountains, gem-colored lakes, and over 100 glaciers! Some unmissable pit stops along the way include Bow Lake, which is an excellent spot to spot the Crowfoot and Bow Glacier, or the powerful Athabasca Falls.
If you’re going to explore just one thing on your journey, though, be sure to stop at one of the many impressive glaciers you’ll pass. For example, the Columbia Icefield is the largest icefield in the Canadian Rockies, with its thickest parts measuring taller than Eiffel Tower. Alternatively, take a tour to the Athabasca Glacier, either by exploring the Glacier by an Ice Explorer vehicle straight out of an action movie or, alternatively, on your own two feet!
What to pack for Banff in the summer
I trust you know to pack your toothbrush and undies, but here are the odds and ends that will make your trip as epic as possible.
- Warm jacket: Even if you’re going in the middle of summer, I’d recommend bringing a warm jacket. While Banff’s average high is in the low 70s in July and August, the weather can change rapidly and, if you’ll be hiking in higher elevation, it’ll be much cooler than that. I brought a full-blown parka during our trip at the beginning of July and thought I was being completely ridiculous. It wound up being super chilly and rainy our entire time in Banff and I wore it basically 100% of the time! I love jackets that are both warm and pack into a little pouch to throw into your carry-on, like this one for women and this one for men.
- Layers: Given Banff’s fickle weather, be sure to bring plenty of layers along, like a tank top; a base layer (like this one for men and this one for women); an insulating layer (like this one for men and this one for women); and a cozy hat (like this one) to keep your noggin toasty warm.
- Hiking Boots: Banff’s trails are rocky, muddy, and occasionally, even covered in horse poop (I’m looking at you, Lake Agnes Trail!). If you’re planning on doing any kind of remotely challenging hikes in Banff, I’d highly recommend packing a pair of actual hiking boots, like these for men and these for women, to provide better traction and support, and perhaps, most importantly, dry feet along the trail.
Protip: Unlike a comfy new pair of sneakers, hiking boots are stiffer and generally require some break in. We recommend wearing a new pair of boots around the house or on some hikes at home to avoid getting blisters during your vacation.
- Hiking Socks: Wearing hiking boots without the proper socks can be downright painful (not-so-fun fact: I have literal scars on the back of my ankles from our trip to Banff for failing to pack the correct kind of socks for my hiking boots). So be sure to bring back a much better souvenir from Banff than me and pack those hiking socks (like these for men and these for women).
- Swimsuit: Unless you’re super hardcore, Banff’s glacier-fed lakes are probably too chilly to splash around in- but there are those aforementioned hot springs you’ll definitely want to soak in! So don’t forget your swimsuit (like this one for men and this one for women)!
- Water bottle: If you’re doing your Banff trip right, most of your time will be exploring the outside. So be sure to stay hydrated- Justin and I each bring these giant refillable Nalgene bottles wherever we go. They’re better for the planet than disposable plastic bottles- and kinder on your wallet.
- Bear spray: There are both grizzly and black bears that call Banff home. It’s unusual for either kind to be aggressive towards humans and it’s unlikely they’ll harm you, although mother bears have been known to be aggressively protective around their young.
Because of this risk, I take bear spray (which is used much like pepper spray to temporarily disorient, but not injure aggressive animals) with me whenever I go hiking in bear country. Although we thankfully have never had to use it, we have this one. Note that you cannot take bear spray on a plane (even in checked luggage), so if you’re flying in, consider picking some up at one of the outdoor sporting goods stores in Banff, like Monod, or you can rent some from the Banff Convenience Store.
Where to stay in Banff
So while the accommodations in Banff are somewhat limited and on the pricier side, they’re at least usually pretty bougie!
- Mount Royal Hotel: If you’re looking for the most-bang-for-your-buck (for Banff, anyway), this is the spot for you. Usually reasonably affordable rates, with a perfect location in downtown Banff and rooftop hot tubs overlooking the mountains. Yes please!
- Canalta Lodge: A trendy yet cozy hotel in an awesome location near downtown Banff, with FREE hot breakfast (unusual in this town!), multiple hot tubs, and, if you’re a hearty soul, even a cold plunge pool!
- Rimrock Resort Hotel: On the more upscale side, Rimrock is nestled away in a pine forest, with a gorgeous sundeck to take in the spectacular views of the mountains, a fancy schmancy spa, and an onsite fine dining restaurant.
- Fairmont Banff Springs: If you’re in a real treat yourself mood, this is the way to do it. The Fairmont is basically a castle that literally located on the banks of Lake Louise and offers an award-winning European spa, a bocce ball court, and an on-site jeweler, should the need arise.
Banff is one of the most magical places I’ve been- I hope you have an amazing time exploring the Canadian Rockies. What’s your favorite thing about summer in Banff? Let me know in the comments below!
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