Summer in Banff National Park: Your Guide to Surviving High Season

So, you’re going to Banff… in the middle of July? Are you sure you can’t go at literally any other time?

I get it. You’ve scrolled through enough photos on your feed to want to get lost in the dazzling blue of Moraine Lake and feel like royalty in front of the Chateau Lake Louise. There’s no doubt that when the ice thaws, Banff National Park is (in my humble opinion) the most beautiful place on Earth. But if there’s one piece of advice I always give travellers, it’s to avoid visiting in July or August. Late-May, June, or September – even October, depending on the year – is just right.

However, the reality is that you might not have the flexibility to visit in shoulder season, and, honestly, summer in Canada is freaking gorgeous. (It better be after second, third, and fourth winter.)

If you have no choice but to visit in the height of summer, there are some things you should know:

1. The crowds will be unavoidable.

2. Get up early or get in line.

3. You’re going to want a car.

If you can get behind that, then read on, my friend, for your survival guide to Banff in high season.

Tips & Tricks

Wake with the birds

I’ve already mentioned this one, but for hikes it’s best to be up at sunrise so you can at least enjoy some peace and quiet before the mob arrives. Moraine Lake and Lake Louise will always be busy. Arrive as early as you can so that your precious time isn’t spent sitting in traffic or hunting for a parking spot.

Rent a vehicle from Kayak.com

I’ve found Kayak to be a great search engine for car rentals. Just pop in your dates and Kayak will show you the best offers. A rental from Calgary airport costs as little as $28/day.

Buy a park pass

Upon entering Banff National Park, you’ll pass a booth where you can purchase a park pass if you don’t already have one. Admission for adults is $9.80/day and children 17 and under are free. Can you get away without having a pass? Possibly, though less likely in high season. Should you buy one and support the maintenance of the park? Definitely.

Pack for all types of weather

Banff’s location in the heart of the Rocky Mountains makes it one of the most picturesque places on Earth, but it also means that the weather can change with the drop of a hat. To give you an example, in August 2016, I was in Banff for several days with my family. The weather couldn’t have been more perfect for the first two days, but on the third day we had to bundle up in ski jackets! We spent the whole day in the hot tub under skies that looked like they were about to dump a fresh layer of snow on us. Thankfully, the white stuff never did come down, but I was sure glad we packed extra layers!

The moral of the story is be prepared for anything. As the Norwegians say, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.”

Leave no trace

It’s no surprise that humans are disastrous to the environment on a large scale when you go for a hike in a national park and see plastic water bottles littered all over the trail. If we can’t be responsible enough to put a piece of plastic in the recycling bin, how can we possibly be trusted to keep this planet livable?

Here’s an easy rule to keep in mind: what you take into the park, you take out of it. Keep your trash stowed away until you find a designated place to dispose of it. I usually make a point of picking up any garbage I see, too. Let’s keep the park the way we found it or even better.

Carry a first aid kit and bear spray

Banff is bear country, and while there will probably be way too many people around for the bears to want to say “hello,” you can never be too cautious. When on the trails, always carry bear spray within easy reach.

Mind the signs

Road closures due to construction or weather are fairly common in the area, so have a quick look at this traffic report before you head out for the day.

Know the Rules

To keep the park safe and enjoyable for everyone, Parks Canada lays out some ground rules. Follow these and you should have no trouble.

Leave the drone at home

Sorry, Instapros. Absolutely no drones in Banff National Park. If you want the best view, you’re going to have to work for it.

Don’t feed the wildlife

Ever.

No matter how cute it is.

Just don’t.

Ever heard the saying, “a fed bear is a dead bear”? Quite simply, feeding wildlife, like bears, can result in them becoming so accustomed to humans that they make their way into populated areas such as campsites, where they might be killed out of fear for human lives.

Human food can also be dangerous to wildlife. These animals are perfectly fine caring for themselves, so just save the energy bar for yourself, okay?

A violation of this very important rule could cost you up to $25,000.

Keep a safe distance

There’s a pretty good chance you’ll see some wildlife on the highway or even in town. I know it’s exciting, but always keep your distance. Too many tourists get far too close to the animals to get that “perfect shot”. Elk, moose, and bears, among others, could cause some serious damage if they spook or are disturbed, so it’s best to leave the animals in peace.

Where to Stay

Not Banff.

Wait, what?

Banff is tiny. There’s one main road, and about two roads parallel to it. That’s it. Its location in a national park also means that nothing can really be built in town anymore. There are only so many hotels to go around and literally hundreds of thousands of tourists all crammed in there at the same time. As you can guess, it’s the perfect storm for sky-high prices.

There is one hostel in town, but in high season, even that will cost you at least $60 a night.

Stay in Canmore instead. Just 30km from Banff, Canmore is a picturesque mountain town with adorable mom ‘n’ pop shops and restaurants, just like Banff. It’s a also a lot quieter and won’t break the bank.

Alternatively, Dead Man’s Flats is a ten-minute drive from Canmore (so about 30 minutes from Banff) and features a wonderful resort for a very affordable price if reserved on Booking.com. I can’t recommend Copperstone Resort enough.

Remember when I recommended renting a car? This is why. Not only will having a car make it much easier to do adventure activities, but it will allow you the flexibility to book wherever you can find a great deal.

What to Do

Alright, so you know the rules and have found a place to stay – now on to the fun stuff!

Banff is a Mecca for adventurers. From hiking, to boating, to glacier-walking, if you’re not sore the next morning, you’re doing it wrong.

But if getting sweaty on vacation isn’t really your jam, don’t fret, because Banff has plenty to keep you occupied, too.

The Lakes

You’ve seen them on your feed: those lakes of unbelievably blue-green glacier water, sun casting a golden light over the peaks, not a soul in sight… and just a liiiiiittle bit of photoshop magic.

Don’t get me wrong – the colours are even more vivid in person, but don’t expect to have the lake all to yourself. You’ll have to go early to beat the crowds, and even then, you’re guaranteed to have company. Wake up at the crack of dawn and you might also be rewarded with a famously fiery Alberta sunrise.

The most important tip I can give you for all of the following lakes is to arrive as early as possible unless you don’t mind hiking halfway up the mountain (I’m exaggerating, but not by much). Parking is extremely limited and latecomers will most certainly struggle to find parking along the side of the road.

Lake Louise

Lake Louise is at the top of the list for most visitors to Banff. It’s perhaps the best – or at least the most famous – example of Canada’s unparalleled natural beauty.

Imagine waking up in a hotel that’s practically a castle and seeing this outside your window:

Canoeing on Lake Louise

It’s views like these that remind us Canadians why we live where the air hurts our faces. The two most popular activities at Lake Louise are hiking and canoeing. The Tea House Hikes are of moderate difficulty, taking about 1-2 hours to complete, with stops at Mirror Lake and the Lake Agnes waterfall. At the top, you’ll find the Lake Agnes Tea House where you can stop for a bite to eat, though I suggest packing a lunch, as the place can be a zoo. Fun fact: there’s no electricity or running water at the Tea House, and the workers hike the bulk of the ingredients up to it every morning!

Canoeing on any of Banff’s idyllic lakes is a quintessential Canadian activity, and, though pricey, is worth every penny. A half-hour ride on Lake Louise will set you back $95, and for just $10 more, you get a full hour. Admiring the lake from the shore is lovely, but gliding across its crisp surface, jagged towers of rock and snow reminding you just how insignificant you really are – those are the moments you remember for a lifetime.

Moraine Lake

Moraine Lake views

Lake Louise may get showered with attention, but if you ask me, Moraine Lake is the fairest of them all. Everything about this lake is perfect. I mean, just look at it. Have you ever seen a more magical shade of blue?Just like Louise, taking a canoe out on Moraine Lake is the best way to appreciate it. My advice would be to pick between the two if you’re looking to save some cash, as a canoe rental is $105 here as well.There are several hikes you can do at Moraine, ranging in difficult from easy to expert.

Vermilion Lakes, Two Jack Lake, and Johnson Lake

Apart from Louise and Moraine, there a number of other gorgeous lakes that offer an escape from the hustle and bustle of Banff. The Vermilion Lakes, Two Jack Lake, and Johnson Lake are great for hiking, canoeing/kayaking (BYOB: bring your own boat), and stand up paddle boarding. There’s a decent chance you could spot some wildlife here, too.

The Columbia Icefield & Glacier Skywalk

Walking atop a glacier may not have been in your plans for your *summer* vacation, but trust me when I say you want to see this before it’s gone (and, sadly, it could be gone within the next 50 years). Learn about the impact of glaciers on the environment, drink icy water straight from the source, and walk along an all-glass platform 900 feet above the ground. Find out more about the experience here. Oh, and don’t forget to pack a sweater!

Taking a walk on a glacier on Columbia Ice field

Walk on a glacier that could be gone in as little as fifty years

The Town

Lined with log cabin-style buildings on either side of the main street, Banff is a whole lot of Canada wrapped up into one tiny mountain town. Here’s where you’ll find Canadian favourites like Roots, The Bay, and Lululemon as well as one-of-a-kind shops and boutiques. Don’t miss The Fudgery, Cabin108, and the Rocky Mountain Soap Co.

The Gondola

View from the Banff Gondola

View from the top of Sulphur Mountain, accessible by catching the Banff gondola

While hiking is the best way to see the most unique views of the park, it’s not for everyone. If you have limited mobility, are travelling with children, or simply don’t enjoy “glorified walking” (as my friend used to call it) there is another way to get mountaintop views of Banff. Enter the gondola.

Make your way up Sulphur Mountain via the Banff Gondola and get treated to a breathtaking 360-degree view of the valley below. Once at the top, follow the boardwalk to the old weather station and learn about Canada’s first national park at the interpretive centre. Hungry? The Sky Bistro claims it offers “the most unforgettable meal in Banff.”

Admission for adults is $64 or $58 in advance. Children ride free until 10am or for $32 ($29 advance) thereafter.

Johnston Canyon

This is one of the busiest hikes in the area, so your best bet is to go at sunrise. It’s a gorgeous hike complete with waterfalls and gorges. Beginners will have no problem doing the Upper and Lower falls, at 1.1 km and 2.6 km respectively. For those looking for more of a challenge, the Ink Pots are located 3 km from the Upper Falls.

Banff Springs Hotel

A little ways out of town, secluded in the dense mountain foliage, lies the “Castle in the Rockies”. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Banff Springs Hotel was built in the railway era, much like the Chateau Lake Louise. It’s a bucket list item of mine to spend a night there. For those of us travelling on a budget, the Banff Springs is nice to look at and take pictures with and hope that one day our career takes off enough to afford a stay in this luxury resort.

There’s a lovely waterfall just behind the hotel on the Bow River. The Bow Falls are different from your usual falls in that they’re short and wide. It’s worth a visit if you’re already going to the Banff Springs Hotel.

Hot Springs

I’m of the opinion that hot springs are best enjoyed in the winter, preferably after a long day of skiing, when your muscles are crying out for some TLC. That being said, hot tubs are always fun, and natural hot tubs with spectacular views? Even better. The Banff Upper Hot Springs are just four kilometres from Banff and only cost $8.30. You’ve probably figured out by now that the earlier you can get there, the better.

Museums & Art Galleries

I meant it when I said that Banff has something for everyone – culture buffs included.

The Banff Park Museum is the best place to learn about the flora and fauna found in the park, as well as a bit of history. For a creative representation of the history and culture of the Banff area, visit the Whyte Museum, founded by local artists Peter Whyte and Catherine Robb Whyte. Indigenous Canadians are an integral yet often forgotten part of our nation’s history. They made their home in the area long before the settlers arrived, and their rich cultural history is displayed in the Buffalo Nations Luxton Museum.

What to Eat

Nourish Bistro Banff

Few vegan restaurants are as exciting as Nourish. It’s here you’ll find a delicious plant-based twist on some of your favourite dishes, like ramen and nachos. Enjoy your meal to the tune of live local music.

Rocky Mountain Flatbread Co.

Best pizza in Banff, hands down. Have a dietary concern? Not only are they very accommodating, but their staff will provide you with a number of options to ensure you receive a quality meal.

BeaverTails

Who knew fried dough could taste so good? Slather it with chocolate or sprinkle on some cinnamon, and you’ve got yourself a Canadian delicacy. Seriously, though, BeaverTails are pretty much just slabs of dough dipped in the deep fryer and topped with sweet stuff. We like to keep it simple, eh. My favourite is the classic cinnamon and sugar, with sugar and lemon in a close second.

Make it vegan: Ask them to hold the butter.

Tip: There are two locations on Banff Ave. Pick the one closer to the river – it’s usually less crowded.

Banff National Park is known to be a zoo in the summer. With these tips, you're sure to have a smooth trip!

As hectic as Banff may be, it is 100% worth waiting in line for. Armed with the proper knowledge and expectations, you’re sure to have an unforgettable trip.

Tell me with a comment what your experience was like in Banff, and if you found this post helpful, please share it!  For more on Canada, check out this post loaded with fun Canadian things to do this summer!

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