Perfect 4 Day Itinerary for Banff National Park

Perfect 4 Day Itinerary for Banff National Park

September 2022

Perfect 4 Day Itinerary for Banff National Park

Banff National Park is iconic for the epic photos of towering snow capped Rocky Mountains with electric gatorade blue glacier water lakes below. When we visited Glacier National Park in Montana, it only fueled the desire to see this destination with our own eyes more. And boy, it did not disappoint. The great thing about this park is many of those perfect photo spots do not require hiking at all so this park really is great for adventure seekers, nature lovers, and photography enthusiasts.

There is a bit of planning that is required when visiting this National Park so let’s review some details. 

When to Visit

The window of opportunity for visiting is extremely small – much smaller than other parks. Due to the location and elevation, Banff’s season without snow and ice is limited. But that does not mean you cannot visit in the wintertime – there are many people that go to Banff and explore it during the winter months. That being said, this trip is geared towards the warmer summer months. Most people recommend going from late July until the beginning of September to increase the odds of good weather and trail condition days. Because of this, expect to pay more to experience these optimal conditions – from flights, to car rentals, to accommodations. Additionally, expect it to be crowded. Accommodations and car rentals book up very quickly even at a year out.

Park Access

Like many national parks post COVID pandemic, there is a ticket and reservation component to visiting. During peak season, these do sell out so it is important to grab these when you start planning your trip. Fortunately, they make it easy and have the ticket and reservation as one – so when you purchase your ticket you have to identify the dates of travel as well. You can purchase them online here.

Many of the park activities start in the town of Banff and are all situated along Trans-Canada Highway 1 that connects Banff National Park and Jasper National Park. This makes navigating the area easy but almost all drives will be out and back.

Due to the large crowd that visits each summer, there is a shuttle service that allows visitors to park at the ski resort and then there are buses that go to both Lake Moraine and Lake Louise, as well as a connector shuttle that goes between the two lakes. This is a great option – especially when parking can be impossible – however, you have to reserve these spots ahead of time. More on these details in the next section.

UPDATE: Parking is no longer permitted at the Lake Moraine parking lot. As of 2023, everyone will have to book a reservation on the shuttle to access the Lake Moraine area.

How to Get There

The main airport for accessing Banff National Park is Calgary which is an hour and a half to the town of Canmore and a bit further to the town of Banff. There are public and private transit options from the airport to Canmore and Banff, as well as some that go from these towns to some park destinations so with a lot of planning, you may be able to pull this off without a car.

I would recommend renting a car and booking this far in advance due to demand during peak seasons. Renting at Calgary airport is generally going to be cheaper than the towns as the inventory is higher at the airport. Turo is also another good option and there are many cars around the airport available for renting.

Parking at the popular spots can be unpredictable – we arrived at Lake Moraine parking lot before 5AM and it was already closed at capacity. During peak tourist season, Lake Moraine can fill up as early as 3AM while Lake Louise fills up by 7AM. This is because the sunrise as Lake Moraine is sought after so while many do not hike and leave after sunrise is over, we did not see the staff open the parking lot for additional cars during our trip.

This is where the shuttle reservation system is important. Depending on the type of trip and traveler you are, I would say parking at Lake Louise if you are willing to wake up early is definitely manageable. For your own sanity, skip trying to park at Lake Moraine and book the shuttle reservation. To do so, reservation spots open in the spring so as soon as you have a trip confirmed, go make a reservation for the shuttle. Reservations are $8 CAD per person. If you are like us and did not think Lake Moraine would be full at 5AM, there are limited reservations released 48 hours before scheduled departures at 8AM that day. So for us, we tried going to Lake Moraine on a Friday so we were able to get reservations for Sunday – thank goodness we figured this out so early in the trip to have 48 hours between the days to make this work. Also, make an account ahead of time to save yourself the time – it can be very competitive to get these reservations!

If we were not successful in getting these reservations, there are private options to getting to Lake Moraine if you are willing to pay a premium as well as public options through Roam Public Transit.

You can read more about all the options here.

Where to stay

There are two main towns people stay at when there are visiting Banff National Park – Banff and Canmore. They are located about town minutes apart with Banff being north of Canmore. Maybe people chose to stay in Banff as it is the town more catered to tourist. We stayed in Canmore as it is significantly cheaper to stay than Banff and is a bit more relaxed. This is another thing to book as soon as you decide you are visiting though there are tons of accommodation options between both towns. There are also lots of camping opportunities both in and outside of the park. Another option is to stay at the town of Lake Louise or even staying at the famous Fairmont Château Lake Louise. Know that both these options will fetch well over $500 a night with Fairmount reaching over $1000 a night during peak season.

Hiking Trails

Banff National Park is home to so many hiking trails so I will just focus on the ones that are generally completed for a first time visit. When exploring which trails to do, this website has great information or use AllTrails as well.

Trails Near Banff / Canmore

  • Johnston Canyon / Ink Pots – A very popular trail with lower and upper falls views and a further extension to the Ink Pots. The Lower Falls is particularly crowded due to the flat and well manicured trail and short distance. This trail overall is also good for families – Lower Falls and upper Falls are considered easy trails and the Ink Pots portion is considered a moderate trail.
TrailDistance One WayElevation GainTime to Complete
Lower Falls1.2 km50 m1 hour
Upper Falls2.5 km120 m2 hours
Ink Pots5.7 km330 m4 hours
  • Sulphur Mountain – A great trail for the expansive mountain views! This moderate trail takes 6 km to get tp the top with a 655 m elevation gain for a 4 hour round trip journey. There is even a boardwalk area at the top to enjoy the views. Do not want to hike up but do not want to miss out? There is the Banff Gondola that you can pay for to take the ride up as well. We skipped this trail and the gondola as we did the Mt Norquay Via Ferrata. And this is accessible directly from downtown Banff so if you are staying here, you can walk to the trailhead.
  • Tunnel Mountain – This mountain is a bit easier to summer at 260 m elevation gain over 2.4 km, taking about 2 hours to complete the entire trail. Though you do not get as high, there is still a great view from the top. And this is accessible directly from downtown Banff so if you are staying here, you can walk to the trailhead.

Trails at Lake Louise

In addition to seeing the gorgeous lake, there are tons of hiking trails that include a variety of destinations including several peaks to summit and two tea houses. Completing both tea houses makes a great loop trail for an all day hiking experience at Lake Louise. This included going from Lake Louise to the Little Beehive to the Lake Agnes Tea House to the Big Beehive to the Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House then back to Lake Louise. The full AllTrails description can be found here. We ended up doing all of the above in under 9 hours totaling 15 miles of hiking.

TrailOne Way DistanceElevation GainDifficulty
Lake Louise to Little Beehive2.8 miles / 4.5km1,755 ftModerate
Lake Louise to Lake Agnes Tea House2.3 miles / 3.7km1,427 ftModerate
Little Beehive to Lake Agnes1 mile / 0.6kmEasy
Lake Agnes Tea House to Big Beehive3.5 miles / 5.6km447 ft.Hard
Big Beehive to Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House3.5 miles / 5.6kmModerate
Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House to Lake Louise via Lake Shore4 miles / 6.4kmEasy

Trails at Lake Moraine

The major trail here is an out and back so the decision is how far “out” do you want to go. There are many branches off the main trail where other parts can be explored but there is really no way to make it a loop to see multiple areas of the lake. The full AllTrails description can be found here.

TrailOne Way DistanceElevation GainDifficulty
Lake Moraine to Rockpile / Lake Moraine Viewpoint0.25 miles / 0.4km32 ftEasy
Lake Moraine to Larch Valley2.7 miles / 4.3km1,991 ftModerate
Lake Moraine to Sentinel Pass3.7 mile / 6km2,621 ftHard
Larch Valley Minnestimma Lake to Sentinel Pass1 mile / 1.6 km360 ftHard

Trails at Icefield Parkway

Beyond Lake Louise and Lake Moraine is another group of hiking trails. Visiting Bow Lake and Peyto Lake are definitely worthy of time on your itinerary.

  • Bow Lake – There are so many trails in this area and I would have loved more time to explore this area more. For this trip, go to Bow Lake Falls. This trail is 4.6 km one way with 155 m elevation gain for a 3 hour round trip. This trail puts you at the base of the falls and what is so cool is to witness the entire water life cycle – from lake to river to waterfalls being fed by a melting glacier.
  • Peyto Lake – This is a popular viewpoint since it is very easy to reach. The trail is only 0.6 km on a boardwalk that overlooks Peyto Lake. There is no effort required here but all the reward!

Other Things to Do

There is a surprising amount of things to do outside of hiking trails in and around Banff National Park. Make sure to leave time to include some of these in your trip.

  • Visit the lakes – Seeing all of the lakes in Banff (Lake Louise, Lake Moraine, Bow Lake, Peyto Lake) do not require any hiking! If you can walk from the parking lot to the base of the lakes, you can get all the beautiful views of the blue glacier water.
  • Canoe – There are thousands of iconic photos of people canoeing in these lakes against the blue glacier water. Those staying awhile or are local have the ability to bring their own paddle board, kayak, or canoe to explore the waters. Tourist have a steep price to pay for these rentals. They are first come first serve and in hour increments starting at $130 an hour.
  • Climbing activities – Rock climbing is very popular here and there are opportunities at all skill levels. Take things a step further and try the Mt Norquay Via Ferrata which was both terrifying and exhilarating. This is also a super unique way to see the Banff valley that not many people get to see.
  • Water rafting – There are several tour companies that take guests on a relaxing raft ride along the Bow River. With Canmore Raft Tours, you do not even have to row – just relax. and enjoy the views. There are also more intense rafting options available depending on what you are looking for.
  • Columbia Icefield – Get the opportunity to walk on a glacier by visiting the Athabasca Glacier, a 10,000-year-old sheet of ice at the Columbia Ice field – the largest ice field in Rocky Mountains. There is also access to a sky walk that gives views of the Sunwapta Valley. The sky walk is a suspended platform with a glass bottom that expends into the valley for a thrilling viewpoint. Note that from Banff it is over a two hours drive one way. This is a great addition for combining Banff National Park with Jasper National Park.
  • Hot springs – Visit Banff Upper Hot Springs to unwind and relax. This is a public hot spring just south of the town of Banff. The water temperatures are actually far warmer in the winter months when the hot springs is more popular.
  • Horseback riding – There is horseback riding offered inside and outside the national park with many different options available. 
  • Explore the towns – Both Banff and Canmore are worth visiting as there is much to see in the downtown ares – not to mention some beautiful mount views as well. From gourmet sandwich shops to breweries to hipster coffee shops – they got it all. There are lots of dining options but for this trip we focused on take out and outdoor options due to the pandemic. 
Three Bears Brewery
Wild Flower Bakery
Nourish Bistro
COWS Ice Cream
Canmore Brewing Company
Communitea Cafe
Bicycle Cafe
Lovely Ice Cream Cart
Breamer’s Coffee Shop
Rocky Mountain Bagel / Flatbread

Your itinerary should mix and match these areas. If you are a big hiker and want to climb all the things, do one of the big hikes each day. Then lace in a few of the viewpoints and walks either before or after the hikes. You can even sneak in as many viewpoints as you want – even more than once to optimize all those shots depending on the weather and the sun at different points of the day, especially if you are a photographer. If the big hikes are not for you, swap them out with the easier trails that still offer some wonderful nature to enjoy. This was how we built our itinerary and we thought it was pretty perfect.  

Day 1
Lake Louise – Little Beehive, Lake Agnes Tea House,
Big Beehive, Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House,
Lake Shore Trails
Lake Louise – Little Beehive, Lake Agnes Tea House,
Big Beehive, Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House,
Lake Shore Trails
Day 2
Activity (we did the Mt Norquay via ferrata)
Explore Banff
Day 3
Bow Lake / Peyto Lake
Explore Canmore
Day 4
Lake Moraine – Rockpile Viewpoint, Larch Valley,
Sentinel Pass Trails
Lake Moraine – Rockpile Viewpoint, Larch Valley,
Sentinel Pass Trails

See all the details of our trip to Banff National Park – here!

Read all the blog posts for Banff National Park – here!

Read all blog posts for Canada here!

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