Guide to Exploring Banff National Park

Insider tips to making the most of your trip to Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada.

If you don’t visit Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada before you die, you have wasted your entire life. And I’m not just being dramatic.

And Banff is so crowded that you will soon find out I’m not the only person who feels this way.

When my sister and I were booking our road trip through British Columbia  (read parts 1 and 2 of our trip) and Alberta, we didn’t want to book our flights until we could find somewhere to stay in Banff. And boy, was it a challenge! Even the hostel was full except for a 2 person bedroom for $500 A NIGHT! At a HOSTEL! I couldn’t believe it.

We looked into staying in Calgary which is a solid hour and a half from Banff. We also looked at Canmore which is about an hour.

Finally we found a hotel in downtown Banff called Moose Hotel & Suites that wasn’t even open yet but would be by the time we arrived.

Where Did I Stay?

Moose Hotel & Suites

Moose Hotel looked amazing online but the reviews as we got closer were so, so. Lots of people were talking about how there was construction everywhere and that the hotel was a mess except for the helpful staff.

But when we arrived all we found was an adorable hotel with only a slight bit of construction. The place is brand spanking new right on Banff Avenue near shops, restaurants and bars in Banff.

Our room was a nice suite with a living room (that had a fireplace!), small kitchenette with a coffee maker, plates, bowls, toaster and fridge. No silverware though which was a little weird but we got some from the restaurant downstairs. There was a rooftop pool with gorgeous views of the mountains that had just opened. Overall it was the perfect place for us with plenty of room! And the staff really was super accommodating. I would 100% stay here again.

What Did I Pack?

This was one of the hardest parts of our trip – packing! It’s in the 90s and humid during the summer in NYC so when I saw 60s on the forecast for Banff, I figured that would feel freezing. I packed jeans, leggings, and lots of layers, including thick sweaters.

I didn’t wear any of the sweaters.

I lived in a red flannel and very light, summer sweater. For dinner one night I wore a dress and was cold. I definitely recommend a sweater or jacket. But jeans, a tank top and light sweater for dinner was perfect. Layer, layer, LAYER!

What Did I Do?

Lake Louise and the Plain of Six Glaciers Hike

No matter what, get to Lake Louise EARLY! By the time I arrived there at about 9:30a.m., the parking lot was PACKED and tour buses were beginning to line up. There were selfie sticks by the hundreds! It was crazy. To really enjoy it in peace and quiet, try to get there before 6 a.m.

Insider tips to really getting the most out of your trip to Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada.
It may look like I’m alone but I was surrounded by hundreds of selfie sticks.

The Plain of Six Glaciers hike starts at the back of Lake Louise, the other end from the famous Fairmont hotel. The hike is about a quarter in the woods and the rest in direct sunlight. My sister was crying at the end of the day from severe sunburn on her chest and back!

It’s about 35-ish minutes up the mountain to the first turn off that takes you to Lake Agnes, about another 2 miles. At the lake, you’ll find one of two tea houses.

The tea houses on this hike are VERY worth hiking to! They don’t have any electricity or running water and the girls who work at them have to hike up to the tea house, work for 5 days while living in a cabin and then hike back down for 2 days off. All of the supplies is either hiked or helicoptered in. It was very cool and a fun break on the 6 hour hike.

The Lake Agnes tea house had a crazy long line when we arrived around 11 a.m. The trail had been empty so it was surprising to see so many people. We took some photos of the lake and walked a couple minutes down the trail to Mirror Lake.

Insider tips to really getting the most out of your trip to Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada.
Lake Agnes
Insider tips to really getting the most out of your trip to Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada.
Mirror Lake

We then hiked the 2 miles back to the main trail to continue onto the Point of Six Glaciers.

This part of the hike was more uphill so it was more difficult. It was also about noon so the trail was a lot busier. When we arrived at the tea house near the six glaciers, it was far less crowded than the one at Lake Agnes. My sister and I hiked about another mile to the ACTUAL point of six glaciers before going back and having lunch at the tea house.

Insider tips to really getting the most out of your trip to Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada.
The point of Six Glaciers lookout

The trail to and from the Point of Six Glaciers lookout is less maintained than the rest of the hike so there is a bit of dodging branches and rocks. It’s also narrow at some points but was beautiful and well worth it! It’s not that much further past the tea house after all. Do it for the Insta people!

At the tea house, my sister and I had vegetarian chili, lemonade and chocolate cake which was $24 CAD, each. The cake was BOMB!!!!!!! I’ll do anything for chocolate cake…even a 6 hour hike! I would have hiked 8 HOURS for that cake. Oh…and the view from our table was great, too.

Insider tips to really getting the most out of your trip to Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada.
The view from our table

You do have to fight for a table a little bit because it’s first come, first serve. There is also takeout so you could get food and drinks and eat in the grass.

Insider tips to really getting the most out of your trip to Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada.
The Point of Six Glaciers Tea House

After lunch we hiked back down to Lake Louise to head back to our hotel. The hike took us 6 hours total. We did stop for lots of photos and a couple water breaks but we made pretty good time. The hike is exhausting but the views were beautiful and the tea house was a really cool and different (albeit crowded) experience.

Insider tips to really getting the most out of your trip to Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada.
Lake Louise from above

Canoeing on Moraine Lake

While all of Banff was on my bucket list, the REAL number 1 on my list was to go canoeing at Moraine Lake. I wanted to beat the crowds so we were out the door by about 7 a.m. to drive the 45 minutes back toward Lake Louise. Moraine Lake is just a short drive from there.

It was really nice to get there before the crowds but when we arrived just before 8 a.m., there were already about 30 cars there. So lots of people had the same idea as us! Again, get there before 6 a.m. if you can.

We walked along the lake getting all the views as well as a short climb to get a photo from above. The sun didn’t start to shine on the lake until just before 10 a.m. but the water was still an insane blue color. My sister just kept saying, “This color doesn’t exist. This is a crayon! Someone painted the bottom of this lake!” But the water really is that beautiful.

Insider tips to making the most of your trip to Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada.

The canoe rentals opened at 10 a.m. It was $75 for an hour rental which included mandatory life jackets. This was one thing I absolutely wanted to do in Banff so it was worth it to me! Nothing like being in the middle of the lake getting 360 degree views!

Insider tips to making the most of your trip to Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada.

Horseback Trail Ride with Warner Stables

In the afternoon, I let my sister Caroline call the shots for once and we did a 2 hour horseback riding trail ride through Warner Stables. They do lots of different tours but we decided a basic 2 hour trail ride was the best fit for us.

I got a horse named Clem and Caroline was on Rio. We ended up in the back of the trail ride because Clem does NOT like to move fast, so he always gets put in the back. There were 12 people on our tour so we had a guide in the front and the back. Caroline and I ended up talking to our guide Kate, from New Zealand, the entire ride. We picked her brain about Banff, NZ, what she was doing in Canada and the horses.

The ride took us through fields, up mountains and along the Bow River. After doing several very long hikes, it was great to let someone else do all the work for a change!

Insider tips to making the most of your trip to Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada.
Clem and me. I think he might be sleeping!
Insider tips to making the most of your trip to Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada.
Caroline and Rio along the Bow River

Insider tips to making the most of your trip to Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada.

By our last day in Banff, Caroline and I were absolutely EXHAUSTED. We’re New Yorkers. We walk a lot. But we do not HIKE for hours a day. We’re more “sit at a desk” kind of people. So all of the activity made us exhausted!

Where Did I Eat?

Do your research before you go anywhere. Especially if you have somewhere in mind that you really want to go. Learn from my mistake!

My mistake was the Fairview restaurant at the famous Fairmount Lake Louise hotel. If you’ve gone on Pinterest at least once in your life, you’ve probably seen the view from this restaurant. I knew I may never come back to Banff so I wanted to splurge on dinners at restaurants with gorgeous views.

But I didn’t do my research well enough so after a too quick Google search, I thought that I was trying to visit the Bow Valley Grill for that famous view. After making a reservation, my sister and I drove 45 minutes back to Lake Louise from our hotel in Banff and went into the Fairmont there. We went up to the front desk and said, “We have reservations at the Bow Valley Grill. How do we get there?”

“I’ve never heard of that place,” the woman responded.

Uh….my sister and I just stared at each other.

“We made a reservation over the phone for the Bow Valley Grill at the Fairmont,” my sister said.

“Ask the concierge and see what happened,” she said.

There are TWO Fairmonts in Banff National Park. One at Lake Louise and one in downtown Banff. News flash, we had our reservation at the OTHER Fairmont. The one in Banff…about 5 minutes from our hotel. The concierge told us this happens often but that unfortunately, none of their restaurants had any availability. He recommended we try the downstairs bar and we were so exhausted, we decided that would do.

So our first night in beautiful Banff, my sister and I had a glass of Pinot Noir and a crappy cheeseburger in a basement bar. Don’t be like us! Do your research thoroughly! And if you DO want to eat at the actual famous Lake Louise restaurant know that A. it’s called Fairview and B. Book early!

Even though we messed up our dinner plans, being at Lake Louise after 9p.m. we did get to watch a little bit of the sunset over the lake without the crowds!

Insider tips to really getting the most out of your trip to Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada.

Three Ravens

Yelp told us Three Ravens restaurant has some of the best views in Banff National Park and while it did have beautiful views, the restaurant itself kind of seemed like a college cafeteria. The restaurant is part of the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. I’m not quite sure what it is but it seemed to be some sort of school.

Also, the food is gourmet which was nice but not exactly ideal for someone like me who is more “food for fuel” than foodie. But I had a really delicious elderflower and prosecco cocktail!

This restaurant wasn’t worth it for me. It’s not my kind of food and you have just as good of views driving around the park and Lake Louise area.

Rundle Lounge at the Fairmont Banff Springs

On the last night of our trip, we had dinner at the ACTUAL Fairmont in Banff. We walked through the hotel which looks exactly like a castle. It was amazing history and if I was a cajillionaire, I would totally go back to Banff just to stay there.

We had dinner overlooking the mountains in their lounge which was exactly what we needed. It was very laid back with live music. It was a perfect end to our amazing trip!

Insider tips to making the most of your trip to Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada.
The view from the Fairmont’s back deck
Insider tips to making the most of your trip to Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada.
The view from our dinner table in the Fairmont’s lounge

Wild Flour Bakery

A perfect place for lunch right off Banff Avenue is Wild Flour on Bear Street. I had a delicious turkey panini and cold brew! There is a decent amount of seating inside as well as outdoor seating in the front and along the side. Felt like a real local place.

If Banff isn’t on your travel bucket list, you need to add it RIGHT NOW. It is truly the most amazing place I’ve ever been. The views even from the drive are breathtaking. “Wow” will be your most overused word. I can’t even give it enough credit and neither can the photos so book your flights NOW and just go!

“Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain.”
― Jack Kerouac