Dying to visit Banff National Park? Read on for my 3-day itinerary to have the BEST quick trip to Banff!
The mountains, the larches, the turquoise-blue lakes! Banff has been on my wish list for years (and the insta influencers didn’t make it any easier.) Finally, last month, I took a trip to Banff National Park and got to see what all the hype was about. I only had a few days to spend, as this trip was sandwiched between the World Airline Road Race in Calgary and yet another trip to the UK, but my friends and I totally made the most of it.
If you’re planning a trip to Banff National Park, check out this 3-day itinerary to hear about climbing, hiking, and views for days. Three days in Banff is better than no days at all, and this quick trip was one for the books.
Without further ado, let’s get into all the best things to do in Banff National Park!
Frolicking in nature? Don't mind if I do!
When the announcement was made last year that the 40th annual World Airline Road Race would be taking place in Calgary, Alberta, my friends and I were pumped. Not so much for Calgary (No offense, C, you were lovely!) but because of its proximity to Banff National Park. At only an hour and a half drive from Calgary, it would be WILD to miss out on this jewel of the Canadian Rockies. After our four days in Calgary, mingling with airline folks from around the world, running two races, and getting dressed up for a banquet at the zoo, we packed up our rental car and set off for Banff and the next leg of our adventure.
(If you want to hear about the first part of this adventure, the World Airline Road Race, or WARR, then check out this post: The World Airline Road Race Takes Calgary!)
Our album cover. What's our band name?
What you’ll need
Before we get into the itinerary, let’s cover some housekeeping items. Here are some important things you’ll need for your trip to Banff National Park.
Our Airbnb reservation was in Canmore, not in Banff, the town that gives the park its name. There was far more affordable accommodation, and Canmore seemed to be a popular alternative to staying in Banff proper. Our Airbnb had enough beds for all of us, a full kitchen, laundry, and a hot tub—something we were all excited for, given the chilly weather.
I wish we’d had more time to explore Canmore because it looks like a cute town. But it was a quick trip, and the mountains took up most of our focus. Click here to check out Airbnbs in Canmore.
Banff Park Pass
A park pass must be purchased to enter Banff National Park. A day pass for a group or family (one vehicle) costs $21 and lasts until 4pm on the second day. You can book a pass for as many days as you need on the Banff & Lake Louise Tourism website. Note that the pass must be printed and kept on the dashboard of your vehicle while in the park.
Parks Canada Shuttle Ticket
If you want to visit the iconic lakes that make Banff a dream destination, then you’ll want to get a Parks Canada shuttle ticket. The parking lot at Lake Louise fills up around sunrise, and the road to Lake Moraine is not open to personal vehicles. Taking the shuttle to the lakes is quick, easy, and convenient.
Tickets are $8 for adults. They do sell out, so purchase in advance. If your date is not available, check back 2 days before you’d like to go. They release more tickets at 8am 48 hours prior to the departure date.
On the day of your visit, drive to the parking lot at Lake Louise Ski Resort: 1 Whitehorn Rd., Lake Louise, Alberta
There you’ll find a huge parking lot full of cars. You can follow the signs to walk over to the shuttles. There are designated pickup and drop-off points at Lake Louise and Moraine, so you can easily get from one to the other. Simply stand in the designated spot when you’re ready to leave, and wait for the next bus. They run every 15-30 mins.
For more info on Lake shuttles, click here: Visiting Lake Louise and Moraine Lake – Banff National Park (canada.ca)
If the Parks Canada Shuttle does not have tickets for your dates, check out some of these other options: Lake Louise Shuttle Options | Banff & Lake Louise Tourism (banfflakelouise.com)
If you are hiking in Banff, you should carry bear spray on your person. You can rent it for $10 per day at several stores in Canmore and Banff. We rented ours from Gear Up Mountain Sport and Rentals.
gorgeous Moraine Lake, peaking through the trees.
3 Days in Banff National Park
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get into this kick ass 3-day itinerary. Here is how my friends and I spent three (glorious) days in Banff National Park.
Banff Day 1
Breakfast at the Summit Café
Immediately upon entering the Canmore area, we stopped for breakfast at the Summit Café, an adorable little spot that serves up breakfast burritos, sandwiches, and breakfast bowls. Along with coffee and lattes, of course. The Spicy Mexi Eggs was my favorite meal of my 3 days in Banff. No frills, but so, so good.
Canmore Visitor’s Center
Visitor’s Centers are underutilized resources, I always think to myself when I *once in a blue moon* stop in one for information. For all I know they could be experiencing heavy traffic and very much appropriately utilized. Whatever the case, a local visitor’s center is a great resource, especially in National parks. We stopped by to ask some silly questions about the Lake Moraine/Lake Louise shuttle and about local hikes we could do in the area before checking in to our accommodation. The person behind the desk did not laugh at us, and gave us several suggestions for day hikes, sunset spots, and a phone number for the shuttle service. (She says it’s easier to call them last minute than to use the website, so keep that one in your back pocket!) She also recommended we get ourselves some bear spray.
@ The Summit Cafe
A cute Day 1 hike
Next stop was to Gear Up to rent bear spray for the three days we’d be spending in Banff. This is a fantastic option! When I spent three days solo in Glacier National Park, I had to buy a can of bear spray for about $60 and then ditch it at the airport since it can’t come through security. Bear spray can be rented in Canmore for about $10 per day.
You can rent bear spray and other outdoor equipment from GearUp Mountain Sport and Rentals.
The only thing that was a bit tricky was finding time to return the bear spray. We got back from hiking after the store closed on Wednesday and had to leave for the airport before they opened on Thursday morning. We worked something out with the store, though, and they were super accommodating.
Before you take your bear spray out on the trail, do yourself a favor and watch a YouTube tutorial on how to use it. Here’s one: How to Use Bear Spray – Banff National Park – YouTube
Tunnel Mountain, Banff, Alberta
This was an easy enough,,well worn trail that gives sweeping views of Banff town and the surrounding mountains from the top. They were doing some work on the trail when we were there, but nothing that interfered with our hike. It was short, sweet, and about as much physical activity as we could muster after our back-to-back 5k & 10k the day before.
Check it out on Alltrails Tunnel Mountain Summit, Alberta, Canada – 9,088 Reviews, Map | AllTrails
Home Sweet Home
Check-in, grocery shopping for drinks, food, and the most expensive gourmet m&ms any of us have ever had. We soaked in the hot tub while waiting for our laundry to wash and dry, and settled ourselves into the new digs. Dinner of frozen pizza and a scary movie were the chillest cherry topper to an awesome first day in Banff.
Day 2 was another story...
Day 2 in Banff
Via Ferrata on Mt. Norquay
Our second day in Banff was taken up almost entirely by the Via Ferrata on Mount Norquay. This is an activity that combines climbing and hiking at death-defying heights, while strapped into a harness. Iron steps and hand-holds are screwed into the rock-face, making it an intro to rock climbing that is “good for beginners”. But I can assure you some spots along the route felt very much NOT beginner level.
There are several Via Ferrata routes you can try on Mount Norquay. We chose the Alpinist, a four-ish hour route that took us high above the trees to experience the joy of expansive vistas at the top, a well-deserved reward for the risk in getting there.
Real Talk: I’m a bit afraid of heights and I talk about the Via Ferrata being terrifying, but the truth is it was only terrifying in a couple distinct moments. It is a super safe activity, and our qualified guide made sure we were doing fine along the way. It was a team effort, and we got to celebrate overcoming those moments of fear together, over peanut butter & jellies, looking out at the double rainbows criss-crossing the landscape. This was by far one of the best things we did in Banff National Park. We left tired, exhilarated, and feeling the admission price was well worth the experience.
I’ll be publishing a more detailed write-up about doing the Via Ferrata on Mount Norquay, but for now, just know it is in my Top 2 Recommendations, along with the Larch valley hike you’ll hear about in Day 3.
For more information about the Via Ferrata, click here: Via Ferrata – Mt. Norquay Ski Resort (banffnorquay.com)
*Note: We were told that the Alpinist and the Summiteer are the best routes, but what do I know? I’m just a baby.
After spending the day in alpine altitudes on the Via Ferrata, getting intermittently rained on, we needed a hot, spicy meal to warm up. We stopped in Banff town to have dinner and hit up a little Ramen place that wasn’t incredible, but wasn’t bad. The soup was hot and flavorful enough to warm my cold bones, and the bubble tea made me untold levels of happy.
Not the most terrifying moment of the Via Ferrata
Did you say DOUBLE rainbow?!
Look, Ma, we made it!
On Day 3 we finally checked out those gram-worthy lakes we’d been drooling over for years—Lake Louise and Moraine Lake!
This is the part where you’ll need the Lake Louise/Lake Moraine Shuttle mentioned earlier in this post. We parked at the Lake Louise lodge parking lot and took the shuttle to Lake Moraine first.
Moraine Lake is gorgeous, as everybody who’s ever been on instagram knows. But here’s a pro-tip– to get a real appreciation for the stunning blue of this water, you need some elevation. Do the Larch Valley Hike and thank me later.
Larch Valley Hike
Our guide on the Via Ferrata mentioned to us that it was Larch season, and that the Larch Valley Hike would be a great one for us to do at Lake Moraine. This recommendation did not disappoint, and now I’ve got to pass it along to you!
Larch trees are a type of conifer whose needles turn a brilliant golden yellow before falling off in the winter. Peak Larch season lasts only a few weeks each year, and my friends and I were lucky to be there at just the perfect time.
Being from New England, I know a thing or two about beautiful foliage, but this was something different entirely. Fall in New England is a patchwork of red, orange, yellow and green. The trees set fire with vibrant color, but the color varies. It is the palate of coziness, the backdrop of apple picking, cider donuts, and pumpkin spice everything. But the Larch trees in Banff, in their uniform golden wash, set before snow-capped peaks of epic proportions give less a “cozy” vibe and more one of complete and utter wonder. It’s like you’re walking through a place not quite real.
It felt really special to see the larches in all their glory, we were thrilled with the timing. If you’re planning to visit Banff in the fall, I highly suggest trying to time it right to see the golden larches showing off their stuff.
About the hike:
The Larch Valley Hike is a 5.5-mile out and back hike with 1,850 feet of elevation gain.
After taking your first obligatory photos of Lake Moraine, walk past the crowds at the entrance to the lake, toward the sign that says “Trails”. The Larch Valley trail begins with elevation—switchback after switchback. It is moderate intensity, and we were shedding layers on the way up. Don’t worry, you’ll need them again once you get into the valley. It is a heavily populated trail (understandably!) so don’t expect to have the place to yourself. We were not bothered by the amount of people, but if you’re craving a more solitary experience, hiking first thing in the morning or late afternoon would be your best bet. The terrain is easy—a well-trodden dirt path, a few roots and rocks here and there, but nothing requiring much concentration.
45 minutes or so into the trail is when you’ll find yourself in the valley. Here you’ll be treated to flat terrain and your first glimpses of the golden larches, a few at first mixed in with the green trees, then more and more. The views only get better the further you go. Walk all the way to Lake Minnestima to see one of the thousands of less famous lakes Banff has to offer, and a landscape that looks straight out of a sci-fi novel. (actually, it reminds me a lot of the Nevado de Toluca in Mexico, if anyone has hiked that volcano.)
We hardly had enough time to take photos of Moraine Lake after our hike and numerous photo stops along the way, but it was just as gorgeous and stunning turquoise-blue as the influencers said it would be.
To learn more about the Larch Valley hike, check out AllTrails.
Larches showing off, lucky for us
The ``star`` of the show, Moraine Lake
Next up was a visit to Lake Louise, which unfortunately was not very long. Having about 2 hours to check out this area before the last shuttle, we stuck to the Lakeshore Trail that runs along the right side of Lake Louise. It is not a true hike, more of a lovely paved stroll, but if you continue on for long enough, past the Beehive rock formation, past the entrance where the water flows in over sand bars, past the little wooden-planked walkway, it does start to feel a bit wild.
The Tea Houses Trail was recommended to me, but we did not have enough time to complete it. This is the problem with a quick trip. Some is better than none, but you always leave with sights unseen and things you’d like to have done. The Tea Houses Trail is 10 miles and takes you to Mirror Lake, Lake Agnes, and the Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House. It is a popular trail in the Lake Louise area, so maybe if you have more time, you should add it to your list!
Most of our time at Lake Louise was spent snapping photos and gawking over the color of the water and the scenery around it. It truly looks like an AI version of reality.
Dinner in Banff
After Lake Louise, we caught the shuttle back to Lake Moraine to get to our car, and then drove into Banff town once more, for dinner. We ate at Banff Ave Brewing Co., a typical brewpub vibe, cozy and warm after a day spent in the elements. By all accounts the beer was good—even the NA beer I tried! And the food was decent. The poutine was far from the best I’ve had, but nonetheless we ate every morsel. (How badly can you really mess up fries, cheese, and gravy?)
Pack to get up at the crack of dawn, because non-rev life.
Our last night in the house was less chill than the other two because we had to pack up all our things for a very early trip to the airport. I talk to you all about non-rev life a lot here on the blog. And one of the side-effects of flying standby is that you’re almost always forced to get up early and take the first flight of the day. We looked at all our options, starting with the noon and 11am flights. But it quickly became apparent that everyone and their brother was flying out of Calgary and we would have to do a pre-dawn wakeup and try for the earliest flights possible.
The flights looked full, but you know how my luck goes. All’s well that ends well and three of us got the last three seats on the plane—all next to one another. I really felt like I was suffering from “lucky girl” syndrome on this trip—from the gorgeous weather to the perfect timing of the larches, and then the smooth-as-butter trip home.
What can I say? Life is good.
Hi, are you real?
Lake Louise did not dissapoint
Wouldn't have wanted this trip with anyone else <3
3 Days in Banff
If I stayed longer…
There is no denying three days is a quick trip to Banff National Park. But I still have no regrets.
I think one more day in Banff would have been perfect. I would have liked to spend a bit more time in Banff town, and we hardly explored Canmore at all. Being in town wasn’t the point of the trip, so we didn’t make it a huge priority.
There was also lots of the park we didn’t get to. The places in Banff that are super popular (that you’ve seen all over your Instagram feed) are all clustered in the southwestern tip of the park. But Banff National Park stretches on for hundreds of miles, eventually turning into Jasper National Park, which I hear has great skiing. Some of the “hidden gems” our kind Visitor Center employee told us about included spots further north that we just didn’t have time to get to. We also never saw the sunrise (except on the drive back to the Calgary airport), which we’d ambitiously talked about before settling into our cozy sleeping in routine. There are, of course, hikes I would have liked to do and lakes I would have liked to see, and I always hope to see big wildlife like moose or bears.
But we had the time we had, and we really did make the most of it.
It is hard to even describe in words how beautiful Banff was, and we only saw a tiny piece of it. If you are visiting Banff—or any national park—I recommend staying longer. If you like the outdoors, you will literally never run out of things to do and see. We only had three days to spend in Banff—this trip was sandwiched between two other vacations—but we spent them so well that I felt satisfaction, not FOMO or regret, when leaving. Perhaps I’ll go back someday and see the hundreds of thousands of acres I missed, hike the trails I didn’t have time for, and visit the less popular “hidden gems” of Banff National Park. But for today, I feel thrilled with the things we did get to see and do. The Via Ferrata was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done outside. It was both scary and amazing. And being in Banff in peak larch season felt like a true gift.
Perhaps age has stripped away the FOMO I used to feel when leaving a place, and left room for contentment. Maybe life has thrown enough curveballs my way that I can look around at what I have and feel truly grateful—no space left for regret over missed hiking trails or unseen sights. It is what it is. I’m so incredibly lucky.
If you have more time to spend in Banff, take it. But if you’re on a quick timeline like I was, this 3-day itinerary will leave you feeling awestruck and fulfilled. Especially if you go in golden larch season. Especially if you go with friends as good as mine.