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Banff Itinerary 3 days for first-time visitors

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Heading to Banff National Park for the first time? Here is our absolute best Banff itinerary 3 days with must-do activities in Canada’s oldest national park.

Banff Itinerary 3 days: Planning your trip

Banff Itinerary 3 days
Banff Itinerary 3 days – Bucket list

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Experience stunning pristine lakes, go on amazing hikes, soak in mountain views at one of the finest national parks in Canada.

Arriving in Canada & nearest airport 

The nearest Banff airport is located in Calgary, about 1.50 hours away. If you are flying to get to Banff, Calgary International Airport (YYC) is your best bet. You can easily rent a car from the airport, or use public transportation (bus/Banff Airporter) to get to Banff National Park.

Read: Things to do in Calgary

Banff sign
Banff National Park

Getting to Banff from Calgary

Once you land in Calgary here are the various ways to get to Banff National Park

  • Car Rentals: You can rent a midsize car from the Calgary Airport for as low as $40 CAD. During summer months, ensure you reserve your car rental ahead of time. During winters, if you are carrying ski gear, do remember to request a ski rack while booking. As always add car insurance for the duration of your trip.
  • Bus: Banff Airporter has numerous trips from the airport to the national park. You can check out their schedules here. It is an affordable option for travel to Banff from Calgary. A great option if you are visiting in winter, and unsure of winter driving in Canada. Use a sightseeing tour in Banff to explore the sights without access to a car.
  • Private transfer from the airport: This is an excellent choice if you are traveling in a group, and have tons of luggage. Or if you just want some privacy, or don’t wish to drive. Click to view prices for private transfers from Calgary to Banff
  • Guided tours: It is a good idea to book a 3-day tour to Banff, if you are short on time, and wish someone else does the driving, parking, and finding directions for you. Without a vehicle, you will have to use public buses called ROAM, which are cheap and during summers have a good schedule. But remember it can also get busy, as summers mean peak seasons. Instead of managing bus schedules, opt for a guided tour. 

Where to stay in Banff National Park

We enjoy staying in a nice hotel or resort in Banff or in the nearby town of Canmore. Canmore is located about 20 minutes away from Banff town (Banff Avenue). 

Over the years, we have stayed in numerous hotels in different times of the year. 

Views of mountains in Banff itinerary
Epic Banff Itinerary 3 days

If you are visiting Banff during the peak seasons (June to August), expect hotel rates to be expensive. Canmore and even Calgary will be a good option to book accommodation in that case. 

Here are our top picks in Banff and nearby areas (hotels in mid range budget)

  • The Rundlestone Lodge (Banff Avenue): The Rundlestone Lodge is located in the downtown Banff area. We stayed here once during Christmas and it was amazing. There are many restaurants and cafes located nearby, within walk-able distance. The hotel has a restaurant and a swimming pool onsite. Click to view room prices.
  • Juniper Inn (Banff): Juniper Inn is a nice place, located a little away from the Banff downtown area. You can stay here for the views alone – it is just gorgeous. The Inn has a bistro on-site, which is a great place for fine dining or romantic celebrations. Click to view room prices.
  • Falcon Crest Lodge by CLIQUE (Canmore): Falcon Crest Lodge is a beautiful 3-star hotel located in Canmore. The property has a hot tub overlooking the Three Sisters Mountain Range. Parking is included in the room rate. We stayed here multiple times for romantic stay-cation as well as family vacations with our parents. Click to view room prices.
  • Hampton Inn (Calgary Airport): We love staying near the airport in Calgary. Hampton Inn is a nice bed and breakfast hotel, with nice clean rooms with views of the YYC/Calgary airport. Parking is free, so is breakfast. And it is located very close to the airport. Click to view room prices.
  • Read: Best Airbnbs in Banff Canada

Entry fees to Banff National Park

There is an entry fee to enter the national parks in Canada, including Banff, Yoho and Jasper National Park. 

The entry fee is $19.95 CAD for a car for up to 24 hours access. When you book a hotel, they don’t include park entry fees so you have to pay for it on-site for the trip duration or book a pass online. 

Packaged guided tours of 2 days or more (which commences from Calgary) will most likely include this entry fee. 

Canadian Rockies Roads
Canadian Rockies Roads

In this Banff 3 day itinerary, we have included an option to explore Yoho National Park, which is located in British Columbia. Let’s say you pay for a 3 days Banff entry, and you visit Yoho on day 2 or 3, you don’t have to pay again to enter the national park. Just ensure you have the park pass taped to the car dashboard with the entry and exit time frames clearly mentioned. 

Any parking fees is additional. Most of the natural attractions and parking lots are free to access. There are a few paid parking areas in Banff and nearby areas as well.

Day 1 of Banff itinerary 3 days

Breakfast and time in Banff Downtown

Banff Downtown
Banff Downtown

Start your day one in Banff with a warm breakfast at Tooloulou’s. Tooloulou’s is one of the most popular breakfast and lunch cafes in downtown Banff. It is also locally owned. Opt for pancakes or go big with Cheesy Omelettes. 

After breakfast, walk Banff Avenue, take in the stunning views of the mountains, shop for souvenirs, and snap photos of the downtown area.

Banff Gondola 

One of the stunning places to soak in the views of the Canadian Rockies is to go up close and personal. And we are talking – an elevation of 2281 meters (7486ft) above sea level. 

Banff Sightseeing Gondola offers just that.

Banff Gondola Ride
Banff Gondola Ride

A ride to the top of the mountain takes about 10-12 minutes, and costs $50-65 CAD (return), whilst giving you access to the stunning valleys and mountains. At the sightseeing deck, you can stay as long as you want. 

There is a bistro, a National Historic Site of Canada (Sulphur Mountain Cosmic Ray Station), interpretive exhibits, a multi-sensory theatre along with a 360-degree rooftop observation deck. 

Banff Gondola Views
Banff Gondola Views

Gondola rides can be taken at any time of the year. However operating hours vary by season. Check scheduled here.

You can also hike up to the Sulphur mountain viewing platform, and it takes about 2-2.50 hours. 

Bow Falls and Fairmont Banff Springs

From Banff Gondola, make a stop at the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. This is a gorgeous 4 star hotel, originally built by and for the employees of Canadian Pacific Railway. During off season, you can book a room here for $350 CAD+ above.

They also offer couples/honeymoon packages, wedding venues, etc.

Banff Springs Hotel Complex
Banff Springs Hotel Complex

If you are limited on time, cash or honey, opt for a castle food tour instead. This food tour takes place in the afternoon, and you will get to experience our finest (Alberta) signature foods specially prepared for you by the culinary team at the Banff Springs Hotel. 

The guide also offers a history tour of the castle hotel and of Banff National Park. Click to book your Banff Hotel Castle Food tour here.

Located very close to the Banff Springs Hotel is the viewing area of Bow Falls. Bow Falls are a mighty waterfall on the Bow River. It is completely free to visit the falls. There is a parking lot nearby to park your car.

Bow Falls with rainbow
Bow Falls

Cascade of Time Gardens

Next on the Banff itinerary is to explore and stroll the beautiful Cascade Gardens. These gardens are completely free to enter, and are filled with manicured flower beds, lined trees, and gorgeous mountain views. 

Cascade of Time Gardens
Cascade of Time Gardens

The administrative building located inside the gardens adds a very romantic and an English vibe to the whole scenery. A must stop as this is located near Banff town, and Banff Springs Hotel.

Cave and Basin Historic Site

Did you know Banff also has hot springs and sulphur pools? Yes it does. We have the Cave and Basin National Historic Site that has been preserved since the National Park was born.

This is the very site of natural thermal mineral springs around which Banff National Park was established. There is an entry fee to the Site, and you will have access to interpretative displays and exhibits, plus get to view the pools.

Inside Cave & Basin Complex

You can easily spend 1-2 hours here at the Cave and Basin Site, and also take a small stroll to the Marsh Loop. The Marsh Loop Trail can be accessed via the historic site, and it takes only 45 minutes to complete the entire loop. 

It is an easy trail, with no elevation gain, and can be done as long as you wear comfy walking shoes. 

Cave & Basin Historic Site
Cave & Basin Historic Site

Banff Hot Springs

After an informative session at the Cave and Basin Historic Site, it’s time to enjoy a soothing time at the Upper Banff Hot Springs. In the entry ticket to the historic site, you can also add in a ticket to the hot springs. (You can rent swimwear on site).

If hot springs are not your thing, then skip that for the Vermilion Lakes. 

Vermillion Lakes for sunset

Vermillion Lakes are made up of three lakes in total, and you can access one just by the Trans Canada Highway. Although in the evening you won’t be able to canoe, you can surely go on a short hike, and wait for the sun to go down to capture some amazing blue light photography shots.

Vermillion Lakes in the evening

(Optional: The Fenland Trail is a leisurely walk/loop of 2-kilometer (1.2-mile) that takes you through the marshlands near the Vermilion.)

Finish the day with dinner in Banff town. If you are staying in Juniper Inn, head to their bistro for dinner. We love this bistro, although a little pricey the ambiance and the views are worth a visit there!

Day 2 of Banff itinerary 3 days

On day 2 of Banff Itinerary, get ready for a long day road tripping through the national park, stopping at pristine lakes for canoe, short hikes or just to take in those mesmerizing views.

Grab some breakfast on the go to hit the roads early. Banff town has Seven-Eleven, McDonald’s, Starbucks, and many local cafes as well for you to order breakfast.  Or opt for a nice breakfast at your hotel to kick-start day 2.

Breakfast at Juniper Bistro - Juniper Inn
Breakfast at Juniper Bistro – Juniper Inn

Head to Two Jack Lake

From Banff town, your first stop is at the Two Jack Lake. It is located only 15 minutes from Banff Town. 

This lake is known for scenic mountain views, canoeing and picnic, as well as the campground that is located nearby. If you are planning a 3 day camping only Banff trip, then reserving a spot at the Two Jack Lake is worth it, as it will give you access to other sightseeing attractions without having to drive long hours. 

If you fancy a hike, there is a 2-mile loop trail that you can enjoy. It is suitable for all hiking skill levels. 

Cruise at Minnewanka Lake

Located close to Two Jack Lake is Lake Minnewanka. The lake literally means, ‘spirit of the waters’ in Nakoda. This is a stunning glacial lake and is one of the longest lakes in the Canadian Rockies. 

Minnewanka Lake
Minnewanka-Lake-Most-beautiful-lakes-in-Canada

Lake Minnewanka Loop offers scenic views and there are walkable trails located nearby. Summers are busy here, not only with visitors but also with wildlife enjoying a warm day (on the road side).

During winters the lake road is not accessible. 

At the lake, you can spend anywhere from 1- 3 hours. Here is what you can do – if you are interested in strolling or taking a light hike, you can do so in 1 to 1.50 hours. There is a 1 hour sightseeing cruise, which is highly recommended in the summertime. You can also add a drink and cruise to the tour.

Lake Minnewanka, Banff National Park
Lake Minnewanka, Banff National Park

You can embark on the Aylmer Lookout Hike from here. Mount Aylmer is the highest mountain in this area of the park. For this itinerary, opt for a 45-minute loop of the Aylmer Pass Junction, if interested. 

READ: Amazing hikes to do in Banff National Park

Moraine Lake in the late afternoon

After Lake Minnewanka head to Moraine Lake. It will take you about 45 minutes to an hour to reach Moraine Lake. Moraine Lake access is closed in the winters, and during summers it can be quite difficult to find parking or even to access the lake without huge crowds. 

Canadian Rockies Moraine Lake
Canadian Rockies Moraine Lake

That’s why we are recommending a visit to Lake Moraine in the afternoon or early morning. Considering for a short trip of 3 days, reach Moraine Lake a little after 3:00 pm, that way parking won’t be a pain, as most crowds will be leaving for Banff or Lake Lousie. 

Moraine Lake and the colorful kayaks at the dock is one of the iconic images of Banff and Canadian Rockies world wide. Other than the jaw dropping views, lake Moraine offers hiking and camping opportunities as well. 

Moraine Lake Shoreline Trail is a popular trail, suitable for all skill levels. You can hike, walk or just stroll to capture the natural beauty (2.9 kilometers long, and open from June to October).

Late evening drive back to Banff town, stop at Magpie and Stump for dinner, before calling it a day.

Day 3 of Banff itinerary 3 days

For day 3 in Banff, set aside a full day or half a day for Lake Louise. We will provide 3 samples all combining Lake Louise, and depending on personal interests and time on hand you can pick one itinerary.

One day in Lake Louise 

Lake Louise is a glacial-fed lake, located in the hamlet of the same name. The driving time from Banff town to Lake Louise is 40 minutes, one way. Although very popular, Lake Louise doesn’t get super crowded like Lake Moraine and it is easy to find parking near the lake.

Lake Louise views
Lake Louise

The lake entry and parking is completely free. There are washrooms located near the lake, and canoe rentals available as well. 

Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise is located nearby, and you can see the hotel peeking from the parking lot, and the lake itself. 

A hiking trip to the Lake Agnes Tea House is highly desirable by visitors. Open during summers, the Agnes Tea House is a rustic looking cafe stop, originally built by the Canadian Pacific Railways for – hikers! The tea house is located at an elevation of 2,135 meters. 

Lake louise short hikes in winter
Lake Louise short hikes in winter

During winters, the lake is accessible as well and you can skate there or walk on the frozen lake. Every January (last week), there is an Ice Festival that takes place on the lake. Lake Louise Ski Resort is open during winters, and it offers ski lifts to the resort area. 

You can easily spend a day at Lake Louise combining time at the lake, canoeing, hiking, strolling and spending time at the hamlet center (that’s Salil’s favorite spot for candies and food and coffee).

Combine Lake Louise and Yoho National Park (summer)

If you are only interested in exploring Lake Louise, making a stop for food and photography (minus canoeing and hiking), then you can easily add a trip to Yoho National Park

Lake Louise to Yoho is about 35 minutes drive away, via Trans Canada Highway. Yoho National Park is located in the Canadian province of British Columbia, and the park entry fees that you paid at Banff applies at Yoho as long as the day of travel is covered. 

You can start at Lake Louise and then drive to Yoho. Stop at the scenic Spiral Tunnel Lookout to view canyons and trains traveling through it. Next is the Nature Bridge, a natural phenomenon where stones create a beautiful bridge. To access these views, no hiking is required.

Head to the Takakkaw Falls next, these are one of the mightiest waterfalls in North America. Once you arrive at the parking lot, the falls are just a short walk away. 

After the falls, visit the small town of Field for lunch or snacks. Finish the day by visiting Emerald Lake. Just like lake Louise parking and lake access is free.

Emerald Lake Yoho National Park
Emerald Lake Yoho National Park

During winters, Spiral Tunnels and road access to Takakkaw Falls is closed.  

Combine Johnston Canyon and Lake Louise (summer & winter)

Another option for a 3rd day itinerary is to combine a trip to Johnston Canyon and Lake Lousie. Banff to Johnston Canyon is 30 minutes away, and Johnston Canyon to Lake Louise is another 30 minutes. 

Johnston Canyon is free to enter and is popular with hikers in summer and winter. The hike through Johnston Canyon along the Bow Valley Parkway to the Upper Falls takes about 2-3 hours (return trip). It’s an easy trail, suitable for all skill levels with a gentle elevation gain through the canyon. If this is your first time hiking, choose this guided hiking tour.

During winters, opt for an ice hiking tour with an experienced guide. In this Icewalk, the tour guide will pick you up from your Banff hotel and also provide trekking poles and a warm cup of cocoa. You can arrange this tour in the morning or in the evening. Click to view this tour

Alternate 3 days in Banff and Jasper itinerary

Generally, when we think of Banff, it is the Banff National Park only. Many travelers wish to explore more than just Banff and include the likes of Icefields Parkway, Athabasca Glacier, and the famed Jasper National Park.

Throughout our travels and road trips to the Canadian Rockies, we always feel we need more time (and this is after visiting it for 11 years straight!). At a minimum, you would need 2 days in Banff and 2 days in Jasper to experience the main sights, not including leisure or hiking time. 

Best hikes in Banff National Park
Banff Gondola Views

If you wish to combine Banff and Jasper itinerary in 3 days, here is what you can do

  • Day 1: Arrive in Banff, head to Banff Gondola, hot springs, Bow Falls and maybe Vermillion Lakes
  • Day 2: Drive the Icefields Parkway, one of the most scenic drives in the world. This road connects Banff and Jasper National Park. It takes about 3 hours. Plus additional sightseeing time. You can stop at Lake Louise before arriving in Jasper town
  • Day 3: Take a return trip to Banff via the Icefields Parkways and make stops at Athabasca Falls, Bow Lake and Peyto Lake (Peyto Lake access closed for 2020)
  • Visiting Columbia Icefield, Jasper Skytram Athabasca Waterfalls hiking trails requires additional days.

Sightseeing Map: 3 days in Banff Itinerary

Here is a Google sightseeing map with all the stops and attractions listed in this Banff Itinerary. Red icons are for the 3 days in Banff, and the yellow icons are for additional sightseeing spots in Jasper National Park and Icefields Parkway.

Additional Tips for Banff 3 day Itinerary

Here are some additional things to remember for your trip to Banff

Best time to visit Banff

We enjoy Banff at all times of the year. However, as a first-time visitor you might want to choose an optimal time or season. Here are some tips to help you make a decision.

  • Summers (June to August): Summers are busy in Banff, and this is the time when campsites are open, all the hiking trails, lakes and roads are accessible too. It is peak season so expect hotel rates to be expensive, and reservations should be made in advance – for campsites as well as for hotels. You can definitely pack light as it’s warm, but remember to add bug spray and sunscreen.
  • Winters (December to February): Winters are the next busy season in Banff. It is popular with skiers and winter hikers. January and February are colder months, so pack your wollens. By late January, the ski resorts are not super busy, but still optimal for skiing. Read: How to plan Banff Christmas Vacation
  • Fall (September to November): Fall is our favorite time to visit Banff. In September the summer rush is gone, and hotels are cheaper again. Also super easy to find a seat in popular restaurants without waiting. And not to forget stunning fall hikes in Banff’s Larch Valley. In November, experience a winter staycation with snow and Christmas parade.
  • Spring (March to May): Spring is not a peak season, and it is a nice time to wander the Banff town, and enjoy slow travel. Hotels will be affordable, and attractions less crowded. The only thing to keep in mind is that springtime is very unpredictable, so pack warm clothes and rainwear too. Lakes will be half frozen, so you won’t get to see the pristine blue or pure whites (as it happens in winter!). Many of the roads and trails won’t open until late May. 

Special Events in Banff

Banff Summer Market
Banff Summer Market

If you are visiting Banff during certain months, you can participate in many local events such as 

  • November: Christmas Parade takes place on Banff Avenue. Craft Beer Festival held near Cave and Basin Site
  • December: Christmas events in Banff Gondola, Banff Springs Hotel and Lake Louise
  • January: Ice Festival in Lake Louise. Snow Days Festival
  • Summer Market: Banff Summer Market from May to October
  • September: Canmore Uncorked Food Festival

So that’s a wrap. We hope you enjoyed our 3 day Banff Itinerary packed with tips to make your Canadian Rockies trip a reality!

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10 Comments

  1. Great post… I learned so much about Banff. Been wanting to visit for some time now, just wasn’t sure what time of year to visit, so I’m pinning & saving your blog for future Banff planning.

  2. I seriously cannot wait to visit Banff and the Calgary area. I had planned on visiting this September, but you can guess what got in the way of those plans. I’ve pinned this for later so I can do all these terrific Banff recommendations when it’s safe to travel!

  3. Oh this brings back memories. We visited Banff in June of just last year! We had planned to go back again but when there is a bit of snow. Hopefully we still can.

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