What to do in Banff on your first visit
You’re overwhelmed and full of excitement. It’ll be your first time in Banff and you’re not quite sure what to expect and what there is to do in Banff. Will you have to climb a mountain to get the amazing views? Do you need to watch out for grizzly bears everywhere you go? Is there even anything to do in downtown Banff?
This was me one month ago. I got so excited already on our way from Calgary when I saw the mountains in the horizon, but I didn’t quite know what to expect. However, after driving back and forth to Banff on our days off work, I now have answers to all the questions you might have on what to do in Banff on your first visit – here’s all you need to know!
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links, which means no extra costs for you – but I may earn a commission if you click and make a purchase.
First of all, to enter Banff National Park, you need to buy a park pass. You can buy it when entering the park by driving up to one of the ticket booths. You have two different options:
– Day Pass valid in Banff, Jasper and surrounding attractions such as Mount Revelstoke – this pass is valid until 4pm the day after purchase. This option is perfect if you’re just in the area for a short visit. Depending on if you’re visiting alone or with friends/family, there are different passes to choose between.
– Discovery Pass valid for more than 100 national parks across Canada – this pass is your best option if you’re here for a longer period. It’s valid for a full year and you can choose among different passes depending on quantity and age – youths up to 17 years old can visit the park for free!
You can buy these passes when you’re entering Banff at the park gates, but also online or at several visitor centres. You’ll find more information on this website.
First time in Banff – how to get here
Now that you know about the park passes, you might also need some directions to actually get to Banff – don’t worry, it’s easy! Here are your options:
– If you’re coming from Calgary or the opposite way, Lake Louise, you simple just have to follow Trans Canada Highway.
– You can also drive from Radium Hot Springs, BC, on Highway 93 and then continue on Trans Canada Highway. Highway 93 goes to Jasper as well, so it’s basically only these two roads you need to know about in this area to get to and from Banff.
Don’t have a car and no possibility to rent one? No worries! There are other options, although some of them are a bit pricey:
– Banff Airporter takes you from Calgary Airport to Banff. It takes about two hours.
– Brewster Express can pick you up at various locations in Calgary, and drop you off at several locations in Banff as well. They also go to other parts of the national park, even all the way to Jasper. When it comes to price, Banff Airporter and Brewster Express are pretty much equal.
– Rider Express is going from Calgary to BC every Friday, passing Banff. Their prices are a bit cheaper than the other two options, but on the other hand, Banff will probably be busier on a Friday – what you value the most is up to you!
– On-it, if you’re going in summer, seems to be a rather good option when it comes to budget travelling. They don’t run in winter, but according to their website, a ride from Calgary to Banff should only cost you $10!
Still not finding anything that suits you? What about carpooling? Different Facebook groups in the area is a good start!
Now that we have the getting here-part sorted out – if you’re going by car, you’ll need to park it somewhere! We found a great spot just behind the main street in Banff, and saw a handful of other parking lots there as well. All you have to do is following the signs. It’s free to park here, but there’s a restriction on how many hours you can park for – the one we found have a three-hour limit.
It’s time for the fun part – what to do in Banff! There are tons of things to see and do here and, no, even though there are lots of things to explore in other parts of the national park as well, you don’t have to go anywhere for nice views if you don’t want to!
We didn’t know this before walking to the viewpoint, bud a hoodoo rock is a naturally shaped rock or pillar. It can be everything from a couple of centimetres to several metres tall! If you’re coming by car, this is a great stop before/after your visit to downtown Banff – we didn’t see the hoodoos too well because of the snow, but the views are stunning! It’s also quite easy to get to the furthest viewpoint. There are a few viewpoints along the way and you’ll even get a great view next to the parking lot if you can’t or don’t want to walk at all. From here, it’s a quick five minutes drive down to Banff.
Cascades Of Time Garden
Since it’s all covered in snow during these months, we didn’t see much of the garden more than the beautiful building. Nevertheless, I really recommend crossing the bridge from downtown to see this place! In addition to the lovely building and, in summer, the beautiful garden, you’ll also have a great view of the mountain behind you. I can’t wait to go back to explore the garden this summer!
Bow river trail
This is a riverside trail starting just at the end of downtown. It’s mostly paved and generally a rather easy walk. If you start at Central Park, it will only take you about 30 minutes to get to Surprise Corner Viewpoint. From there, you can admire the historic Fairmont Banff Springs hotel – you’ll have a great view!
Try a beavertail
Something you have to eat in Canada is the famous beavertail. No, it’s not a real tail from a beaver – I was also fooled for a second before I found out it’s a doughnut shaped like a beaver tail. Yummy! You can choose between several toppings to add on, such as nutella or strawberries, or why not both. You can buy this unique snack on the main street in Banff, at Beavertails.
Are you visiting in winter just like us? Don’t miss out on the opportunity to go ice skating with the beautiful view of the mountains in the background! It wasn’t that cold when we were in town, so we went to the rink outside the High School on Banff Avenue. However, if you’re visiting when it’s colder, it might be possible to go skating on the Bow River! Just remember to be careful and don’t go out on the ice if you’re not 100% sure that it’s safe.
Now when you know what to do in Banff, all that’s left is an answer to the question you all have been waiting for – do you need to bring bear spray? While having in mind that using the bear spray is the absolute last resort in a wild animal encounter, it’s still good to bring with you when you’re exploring the national park. Make sure you know how and when to use it, but also what you can do to avoid an encounter with bears in the first place. Read more about it here.
– Do you want more information about Banff? The visitor centre is located in the middle of downtown, where Banff Avenue and Wolf street meet.
– Thinking about doing a day trip from Banff? Don’t miss Lake Louise! Read more about my visit to this beautiful lake with an amazing ice castle.
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* Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links, which means no extra costs for you – but I may earn a commission if you click and make a purchase.