Only an hour and a half drive outside the Calgary Airport, Banff offers the perfect escape into nature without having to travel too far out into the boonies. Offering some of the most Instagram-worthy sights imaginable, each of your days will be jam-packed with super-gratifying hikes and surreal views that will make your desk seem light years away.
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THE LOW-DOWN: ACCOMMODATION
For our trip to Banff, we opted for a converted van rental that would double as our wheels and accommodation. Banff is the kind of destination that’s best enjoyed with a car, and a van was our best bet in simultaneously avoiding astronomical hotel prices and achieving the close-to-nature vibe we were going for. With some browsing, I stumbled upon Karma Campervans. This company looked and felt a lot less commercial than some of the big-name RV rental companies out there, and I was extremely pleased with my choice. The pickup was a 15 minute Uber ride from the Calgary airport, and the entire experience exceeded expectations – the bed was ultra comfy, we had enough running water to last us through the week, and having accommodation on wheels was super convenient when trying to hit some hikes early in the morning/dealing with outfit changes given the unpredictable weather conditions.
We booked our campground 2 months in advance, but pickings were slim. The sooner you can organize and book your Banff trip, the more options you’ll have to choose from. We stayed at the hard-sided portion of the Lake Louise campground (where only hard-sided vehicles are allowed due to bears, so tents and soft-sided campers are out). The facilities here (shower, bathrooms) were super clean, and a fire license (which comes with firewood) can be purchased upon check-in at both sites for approx. $10/night. It was located a little further from central Banff/Banff town, but was super close to Lake Louise, which was very much appreciated the morning of our sunrise canoe trip.
12pm-2pm VAN PICK-UP/TO-DO’S: If you’re opting for the #vanlife, the first thing you’ll need to do is pickup your vehicle and then head to the mountains. If you can do your groceries/pick up any last minute items before getting to Banff town, your wallet will thank you.
2pm-4pm HIKE #1: To kick off your trip in the heart of Banff, the Sulphur Mountain hike offers a good start pointing. Although most of it is in the forest, the hike includes beautiful glimpses of the mountains and take you straight to a beautiful waterfall before bringing you to the peak of Sulphur Mountain. There, you’ll be greeted with some stunning views and an assortment of shops/restaurants. The hike to the top will take you anywhere between 1-2 hours, although there’s a gondola that brings you directly to the top if you’re looking for a shortcut/are feeling particularly out of shape.
4pm-5pm REWARD #1: No hike is complete without a reward at the top, and the Sky Bistro offers a very welcome selection of craft beers alongside some out-of-this-world views. Word to the wise: order the Grizzly Paw Brewing Company raspberry ale with a side order of fries.
5pm-11pm HIKE DOWN/WIND DOWN: After your hike down, check into your campsite (or wherever you’ve opted to stay) and enjoy a low-key dinner because the next two days are going to be action packed. If you’re not hungry/tired just yet, the Banff Upper Hot Springs are located right at the foot of the hike and are the perfect way to warm up and relax sore muscles. Entrance will cost you $8.30 per person, with towels available for an extra $1.90.
7am-11am HIKE #2: The Johnston Canyon Trail is a beautiful path that takes you to two different falls. The hike to the first waterfall is quite easy and is more of a walk than a hike. Continue on and follow signs for the Ink Pots, a collection of 5 colourful pools of water. This is the perfect spot to stop and enjoy a snack/lunch while taking in the views.
11am-12pm HIKE DOWN & GET GOING: The hike back to the Johnston Canyon parking lot should take you about an hour, and there’s a café at the bottom should you be needing a dose of caffeine after your early wakeup call.
12pm-3pm DISCOVER ALBEERTA: With 117 craft breweries in Alberta at your disposal, it would be a shame not to check at least a couple of them out – head on down to Canmore for your first stop at the Grizzly Paw Brewing Company. There’s the pub in town, along with brewery & tasting room about a 20 minute walk away. We stopped by the latter and ordered a flight in order to try a few of their finest. The next stop was the Canmore Brewing Company. These guys have a great space with a cute terrace, although it was pretty empty when we visited despite it being a Sunday. Rain or shine, hitting up the breweries makes for a great activity, especially should your sore muscles need some sitting time.
3pm-5pm HOT SPRINGS: Another to-do that’s great irrespective of weather conditions are the Banff Upper Hot Springs. If you didn’t already take a dip in these warm waters on day one, this is a great way to relax post-brewery hopping. The facilities include showers and outlets for blow-dryers, etc. so you can get ready before heading out to your next stop.
5-8pm BANFF TOWN: Banff is a super cute town with lots of shops and restaurant options, so a stroll through it is a must. Find parking where you can, and then take to the streets. After a wander around town, we opted for a casual dinner at the Bear Street Tavern, a cozy spot with great pizzas and a wide selection of craft beers. We then headed straight to Cow’s, Banff’s ice cream staple – expect a lineup. They have several super indulgent flavours to choose from, and are the perfect sweet treat to tip you into the food coma you need before hitting the sheets.
PS: Early mornings are about to become your best friend – the best way to avoid the crowds and ensure you find decent parking, the time you get out of bed can really make or break your trip. We arrived at 7:30am on a rainy day, but given some of the reviews we read, getting there even earlier but might be in your best interest.
5-8am SUNRISE CANOE & BREAKFAST: Although canoes can be rented at both Moraine Lake and Lake Louise, we opted for the latter given they offer sunrise canoe rentals. You can call the Fairmont Lake Louise to book yourself a spot, but keep in mind that you may end up on the waitlist seeing as hotel guests are given priority. Should you be able to snag a spot, you’ll be asked to show up to the Lake Louise boathouse around 5:30am to catch the sunrise. Hot chocolate, coffee and tea are served to warm you up – wear layers because it does get chilly out on the water, especially so early in the morning! You’ll get an hour of time out on the water, and will be given vouchers to have breakfast at the Fairmont’s bistro on your way out.
9am-12pm LAKE AGNES TEAHOUSE: Next up is a moderate hour-long hike up to the Lake Agnes teahouse. You’ll get glimpses of the Lake Louise lake on your way up, and can stop for a break at Mirror Lake along the way. Upon reaching the summit of this hike, you’ll be greeted with another beautiful lake and the grand prize, the Lake Agnes Teahouse! This remote spot, offering a huge selection of teas & several food options, is one of a kind – they have no electricity and the bulk of their supplies are flown in by helicopter once a year. The remainder is hiked up by their staff everyday, and garbage is hiked down.
We got there around noon and there was a bit of a wait for a spot inside, but it was well worth it. We enjoyed delicious cups of hot tea and soup amidst a super-cozy atmosphere and beautiful mountain backdrop.
12pm-3pm BIG BEEHIVE TRAIL: If you’re feeling refuelled after your teahouse break, next up is a hike to one of the most stunning views Lake Louise has to offer. Depending on the time of year, the Big Beehive Trail can be rocky/snowy (part of the hike was still covered in snow when we visited towards the end of June), but it’s doable and well worth it. Take some time at the top to take in the views before facing the steep hike down.
3pm-5pm REWARD: After a busy (and early!) day, drop into the iconic Fairmont for a cocktail at the bar. The views out of the window are beautiful, and nothing will soothe your tired body more than a big glass of red.
5pm-9pm DINNER: Given it’s your last day in Banff, take some time to revisit the town or hit up any dinner spots you may have missed (or just head on back for another couple scoops at Cow’s). If you’re not continuing on to Jasper in the morning, stop by Moraine Lake or Peyto Lake. Both are stunningly beautiful and different from Lake Louise, and great viewpoints are only a 10 minute hike/walk from the parking lots of each.
PS: If this is the first leg of your trip and you're headed off to Jasper, check out my Jasper blog post for an itinerary that covers a couple days up there.
what to pack.
✧ solar-powered power bank for long days out hiking + lots of IG picture taking
✧ solid black cap to go with every outfit
✧ travel toiletry bag for carrying your stuff to the campground showers
✧ microfiber travel towel, light to pack & quick to dry in your campervan
✧ puffer jacket for evenings - this one is only $72!
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Know of any other Banff must-sees? Share in the comments below!