The Canadian Rockies are a magical place. I’ve wanted to go to Banff for years, ever since I first saw photos of the iconic Lake Louise with its brilliant turquoise water, surrounded by pine trees and snowcapped mountains. It had been on my list for awhile and finally, over an extended Memorial Day weekend in 2022, I made it happen.
Getting to and Around Banff
If you’re flying into Canada for a trip to Banff, you’ll want to fly to Calgary and pick up a rental car there. Due to high prices and low availability of rental cars, this trip was my first experience using Turo, a P2P car rental service. I am happy to report that it was a fantastic experience! My host was super responsive, the car ran great, and it was a seamless pick-up/drop-off experience, where I could actually get the car at weird hours (since many car rental places close absurdly early or at very inconvenient times). Definitely rent with Timur in Calgary on Turo!
Accommodation in Lake Louise
Lake Louise Inn
One tip I would give anyone planning a trip to Banff or anywhere in the Canadian Rockies is to book your accommodation well ahead of time. I think many places sell out and book up far in advance, and prices will only climb as you get closer to your travel date. I stayed at the Lake Louise Inn, and I would say it was a great place for a decent price, considering the high price tags of many other places around Banff and Lake Louise. They have hot tubs and pools, onsite restaurants, friendly staff, and comfortable rooms with everything you need. The photo below was the view from right outside my room!
Top Things To Do in Banff
While so many people make the trek to Banff for the purpose of seeing Lake Louise, don’t miss out on the other just-as-stunning lakes, like Lake Minnewanka. It’s close to the heart of Banff and is is a long glacial lake where you can rent kayaks or canoes, or enjoy a cruise on a motorized boat. It has hiking trails and plenty of space for a picnic. Climb around the rocks, dip your toes in the icy water, or relax with some snacks at a designated picnic table. I would totally camp around here if I were to return to Banff.
If you didn’t get a picture of the Banff sign, did you even go to Banff? Located right at the entrance of downtown Banff off Mt. Norquay Road, it’s a cute photo-op and a way to kick off your adventures exploring the town. Thankfully the line to take photos was not long when I went and I didn’t have to wait to snap a quick photo.
Hike Johnston Canyon
This is more of a walk along the canyon, but there are some inclined portions that definitely qualify it as a hike. It can be a great afternoon activity and adventure to embark on while in Banff.
Located between Lake Louise and Banff, the Johnston Canyon is a tributary of the Bow River and is home to several waterfalls. It’s a relatively easy hike on a paved trail, the biggest challenge in my opinion was the crowds. It was busy, not overwhelmingly so, but I can’t imagine how packed it would be during peak summer. Getting here early would be a good idea to avoid big crowds, pack snacks and water, and definitely wear good shoes. A few spots along the trail were muddy.
Things To Do in Lake Louise
One thing I didn’t realize before I started planning my trip to Alberta was that Lake Louise was an entirely separate town from Banff. It’s about a 45-minute drive from Banff to Lake Louise, something to note when planning out your daily itinerary. I never had issues with traffic or anything like that, but it does add time and you’ll want to figure out where you want to go based on where you’re driving that day.
See Lake Louise & Hike
Lake Louise sits at an elevation of 5,249 feet, meaning it is much colder up at the lake vs in the town of Banff. Despite visiting in late May, the lake was still partially frozen and didn’t have that iconic turquoise tinge. Nonetheless, it was still absolutely stunning and I would say one perk of visiting in the shoulder season is that the crowds were way more manageable. I snapped some pics, enjoyed a leisurely walk around the lake, and then even did a hike up into the woods, which was still snowy at this time of year. Looking back, I would skip the hiking trail that led up into the woods – while it was pretty, the deep snow made it a bit treacherous and I didn’t get any better views of the lake.
See Chateau Fairmont Lake Louise
One day when I am rich, I will come back and stay at the Fairmont. It’s a pricy, gorgeous hotel right on the shores of Lake Louise. One thing I wish I would have done was to get a drink here, but due to the season still being cold with snow outside, the patio was closed and there was construction going on. It’s still worth checking out, and I’d love to spend a few nights here someday.
MUST-DO IN ALBERTA: Icefields Parkway Drive
If you’re spending any time in Alberta, plan to spend time driving the Icefields Parkway. Rightfully considered one of the most beautiful drives in the world, the stretch between Banff and Jasper is full of nothing but iconic scenery around every corner. You’re driving through a picturesque mountain views, around bends flanked by the river, with plenty of reasons to stop for photo-ops along the way. Here are some of the best stops I did along the Icefields Parkway drive from Banff to Jasper, and my top tips for making the journey in one day.
Wake up early. I was leaving from Lake Louise which is already north of Banff and on the Icefields Parkway drive, and I think I left the lodge around 7am with a coffee and some breakfast items in hand to get going. The first stop I made was at Bow Lake. It was a quick stop – the lake was still pretty frozen and the snow was high, despite it being almost June! It’s a quick roadside stop, worth getting a glimpse of the resort, which appeared to be closed when I visited.
First Stop – Bow Lake
Next stop was absolutely gorgeous. Waterfowl Lake was not one originally on my list, but I am so glad I stopped. This lake was completely thawed, and it was a still day with no wind. The photos I got were insane, with the perfect reflection of the mountain in the surface of the lake. It might as well have been a giant mirror. There is also a campground here for people who are venturing through the Canadian Rockies and camping along the way.
This was the first hike I did along the Icefields Parkway route and I would definitely say its worth it. Enjoy a gentle hike down from the parking lot along a forested, mossy trail and end up at a beautiful canyon and riverfront. The mountain view is of Mount Sarbach, and it’s truly stunning with the crystal blue river water rushing by.
There are several additional hiking trails around Mistaya Canyon that are worth exploring, and there was hardly anyone else here when I was exploring. It took about 45-minutes total to enjoy this stop, but you could easily spend more or less time depending on your itinerary.
Saskatchewan River Crossing
While not really a unique point of interest, this is a good stop for a snack, a drink, or to get gas along the Icefields Parkway. There are not many businesses along the drive between Banff and Jasper, so if you’re low on fuel, need caffeine or another pick-me-up, stop here before heading onward to Jasper.
Tangle Creek Falls
This is a quick roadside stop that is well-worth pulling over. It’s a gorgeous waterfall and creek that you can hike up and get some awesome photos. It was half frozen, which added a beautiful element to the scenery, but the water was definitely flowing and made for a beautiful waterfall.
Jasper Brewery for Lunch
One day I will go back to Alberta and spend time properly exploring Jasper. This little town was adorable for the small glimpses I got of it, and I would love to give it more time to try the various restaurants and nearby hikes in the town. I only had time for lunch at the Jasper Brewery, but it was certainly a worthwhile stop, and I would go again on my next trip if I stayed for a few nights in Jasper.
The poutine was delicious, the beer was great, and my crispy chicken sandwich was fire. It was the perfect way to fill up before hiking and making the way back to Banff.
Valley of Five Lakes
This was one of my favorite hikes, the Valley of Five Lakes is just outside of Jasper and is definitely worth a stop. It was so peaceful – there were hardly any other groups out and a lot of the hiking is on more flat trails so it’s not just constant up and down – but you can enjoy exploring around the perimeter of these blue-green lakes. Bring water and wear sunscreen, a lot of the trails are exposed and you could easily find yourself with a sunburn on a hot and sunny day.
This was the last stop I made before trekking straight back to Banff. It’s a short walk from the parking lot to the waterfall, and I would say it’s worth it! There are several viewing platforms and a few short trails around the falls if you care to go for a walk. I didn’t spend a ton of time here, as I was super tired and ready to get back to Banff for an early night in.
Along the Icefields Parkway, you’re almost guaranteed to see wildlife. I saw bears, deer, and bighorn sheep which was the highlight of the trip for me. Be respectful of the animals – definitely do not approach a bear, I can’t believe it has to be said but it’s amazing how stupid some tourists are. Leave the wildlife alone and enjoy the animals from a distance.
Restaurants & Bars in Banff & Lake Louise
This is a delightful coffee shop in downtown Banff, perfect for an early-afternoon caffeine stop. Warm up if it’s cold outside and relax in a cool ambiance for a bit. The baristas were also very friendly and the service was great. Visit Whitebark to start your day if you’re staying in downtown Banff. I had a cortado and it was delicious.
Bill Peyto’s Cafe
This was my stop for breakfast my first day of exploring Lake Louise and Banff. It’s delicious and affordable, a great place to start your day if you’re staying in Lake Louise. The cafe is also open for lunch and dinner, and is one of few options in the town of Lake Louise. Bill Peyto’s Cafe offers a lodge environment that works well with the natural scenery and gives you the sensation of eating breakfast at a north woods cabin before setting off for a day of adventure. No reservations needed, and their service is prompt and friendly.
Magpie & Stump
This Mexican restaurant sits in what must have been an old “Wild West” themed restaurant, and the new owners kept the theme and just ran with it. It’s a weird mix but it works, and their rooftop patio is awesome. Go to Magpie & Stump for some taco snacks to refuel after a hike, and enjoy a Pacifico or a Margarita while taking in the sun.
Timberwolf Pasta & Pizza
Located in Lake Louise within the Lake Louise Inn hotel, this restaurant offers Italian-style dishes, pizza, and a great wine and drink list. I had a special ravioli with asparagus, cherry tomatoes, spinach, and it was absolutely delicious. The service was a bit chaotic as they were really busy, but my waiter was super nice and even offered a complimentary dessert.
Probably one of my favorite establishments I tried in Banff. Park Distillery has amazing drinks, friendly bartenders, and just a cool vibe that led me to hanging out here for hours, chatting with other people at the bar and enjoying my time. If you like root beer, their root beer cocktail is a must. I also tried their mule, the Sawback cocktail (pineapple – yum!), the coffee cocktail (nitro shaft on draft) and the Ptarmigan Peak cocktail, over multiple visits. Everything was amazing, including their food – try the Elk Tartare!
Brunch at the Maple Leaf
This place had been referred to as the best brunch in Banff, and it’s easy to see why. The Maple Leaf is a gorgeous, hunting-lodge chic style restaurant in the heart of downtown Banff, and it would be my top spot for a breakfast or if you wanted a fancy dinner while on vacation here. It provides the mountain vibes, great service, and excellent food. I had a bloody Caesar and the eggs Benedict with smoked salmon, and some French toast for a brunch dessert. Would definitely recommend doing at least one meal here, the atmosphere alone is worth it.
Three Bears Brewery
This brewery is a beautiful location to visit for a drink and a snack or meal. It has a lovely upstairs with a glass roof that makes you feel like you’re outdoors even while being inside. The beer was delicious and the pizza was super good too. I would definitely make a point to come back to Three Bears Brewery when exploring around Banff.
This restaurant was great for cheap sushi, but I would say it was nothing special. It was no-frills dining experience, but the sushi chef and server were great, very friendly and all the sushi was good. It fulfilled the craving, was cheap, and was a pleasant experience.
Lake Louise Railway Station & Restaurant
One of a few options for restaurants in the town of Lake Louise, this converted railway station is worth a visit just to admire the historical decor. I liked how the theme was subtly followed, they didn’t go over-the-top on a train theme with cheesy names or silly details. The food was good – I was still very full from my lunch so I just had a salad and their French onion soup, which was delightful. One thing to note – the Lake Louise Railway Station Restaurant does book up – since it is a small venue and sometimes big groups take over the reservation list – so make yourself a reservation or call ahead to guarantee a table.
After four days of exploring Banff and the Canadian Rockies, it was time to head home. I drove back to Calgary on Tuesday morning, stopping in the town of Canmore for a quick brunch at Rocky Mountain Bagel Company. Stop here for a delicious bagel, coffee, or other drink to fuel up before heading home. The Calgary airport was very easy to navigate and getting home was a breeze.
Have you been to Banff? What should I do next time? If you have tips for Jasper – let me know too! I plan to one day spend more time in Alberta and explore deeper. Thanks for reading!