I’ve been drawn to Banff for years. After seeing pictures of snow-capped mountains, turquoise blue lakes, and incredible wildlife, I wanted to see it with my own eyes. That’s exactly why my dad and I recently booked a trip to the Canadian Rockies.
I was surprised at how easy it was to get from Seattle to Banff. It takes about an hour and a half to fly to Calgary, and then it’s another hour and a half drive from Calgary to Banff. If you really feel like going for it, you can drive from Seattle to Banff, but it will take you about 11 hours.
There are a million different things to see and do in Banff, including spectacular drives, incredible hikes, and other fun outdoor activities like rock climbing, kayaking, and white water rafting (to just name a few). My dad and I only had four days in Banff so we tried to squeeze in as much as we could.
This is a day-by-day breakdown of what we did in Banff and the surrounding area. I think it’s a solid guide for folks who have a short stay but want to accomplish a lot:
BANFF | DAY 1
After we arrived in Banff, my dad and I decided to hang around town. The weather wasn’t ideal (rain, rain go away), so we decided to see all the highlights around the city. We visited Bow Falls and tried to see Vermilion Lakes, but that area was closed due to grizzly bears sightings.
My dad and I then decided to drive the Minnewanka Loop, making stops at Two Jack Lake, Johnson Lake, Lake Minnewanka, Upper Bankhead, and Lower Bankhead.
With time left in our day, we drove north on the Bow Valley Parkway (in hopes of seeing wildlife) to Johnston Canyon. With a catwalk along the side of the canyon, you literally hike over Johnston Creek to reach seven different waterfalls. Two of the waterfalls are much bigger than the others. You can turn around after the lower falls (it’s about .7 miles one way), but we recommend hiking to the upper falls as well (about 1.7 miles one way).
NOTES: It sounds like Johnston Canyon gets extremely busy. My dad and I went on a drizzly day, so the trail was pretty clear when we were there. Many websites recommend visiting Johnston Canyon in the morning or evening to avoid the crowds. Also, when you’re at the lower falls, be sure to climb through the limestone cave. It drops you right in front of the falls for an up-close view, but be warned — you’ll likely get a little wet.
On our way back to Banff, my dad and I stopped at the Vermilion Lakes viewpoint off Highway 1 and saw three elk in the distance.
BANFF | DAY 2
On our second day in Banff, my dad and I decided to investigate Banff National Park and Lake Louise.
The first place we stopped was Moraine Lake, which is about nine miles south of Lake Louise on a winding mountain road. Moraine Lake is a beautiful blue lake right at the foot of the mountains. It has to be one of the lakes they use in brochures highlighting Banff National Park. If it’s not — it should be. I recommend hiking to the top of rocks on the south end of the lake. When my dad and I reached the first viewpoint, we both had a “wow” moment when we saw how blue the water was.
After our visit to Moraine Lake, my dad and I drove to Lake Louise. I can’t even begin to explain how incredibly packed this place was with tourists. Yes, we were tourists too, but it was almost too much to handle. As far as Lake Louise itself, it wasn’t everything I dreamed it would be. Maybe I was spoiled by our earlier adventure to Moraine Lake, or maybe the clouds hovering over the hilltops hindered the view. Don’t get me wrong, Lake Louise was incredible, but it was just really tough to enjoy.
From Lake Louise, we hiked to Lake Agnes (it’s about 2.5 miles one way). This proved to be one of the coolest experiences for us. After being cloudy most of the day, the sun finally started to breakthrough. That means we were able to see Lake Agnes in all her glory. It’s a small lake, but it’s right at the base of high mountain peaks. At the lake, you also have great views of the valley below. You can also grab food and drinks at the Lake Agnes Tea House if it’s not too crowded.
After visiting Lake Agnes and Lake Louise, my dad and I drove to the Lake Louise Gondola. On our way there, we spotted two black bears in a field. While we were watching them, one of the bears stood up and itched his back on a power pole. It was really cool to see!
The Lake Louise Gondola is pretty expensive (about $28 per adult), but the area is known for grizzly bear viewing. We only spotted one bear on our ride up and down, and it was pretty far away and hard to see. The view from the top of the Lake Louise Gondola is pretty impressive. It gives you a panoramic view of the Canadian Rockies, and you can also see Lake Louise in the distance.
Again, trying to squeeze as much into our trip as possible, my dad and I continued on to Yoho National Park (which is actually across the border in British Columbia) after the Lake Louise Gondola. There was only one place I really wanted to see in Yoho National Park: Takakkaw Falls (PHOTO). It was totally worth a visit. Takakkaw Falls is the third tallest waterfall in Canada, dropping 1,260 feet from its highest point. When we came around the corner and saw Takakkaw Falls for the first time, my dad said, “Holy smokes!” I was really impressed as well.
On our drive back to Banff, we spotted two more bears along the road in Yoho National Park.
BANFF | DAY 3
My dad and I were really ambitious on our third day in Banff. In fact, we didn’t just stay in Banff; we drove the entire Icefields Parkway to Jasper. While many people drive the Icefields Parkway in a day, most don’t drive back to Banff the same night — which is exactly what we did.
Early in our drive toward Jasper, we stopped and checked out Hector Lake, Crowfoot Glacier, and Bow Lake, which was one of our favorite stops. Bow Lake is awesome for anyone trying to capture cool photos. The surrounding mountains reflect in the lake, making for a really cool scene. You can also get great views of Bow Lake, Bow Glacier, and Bow Falls from Num-Ti-Jah Lodge at the north end of the lake.
We continued along the Icefields Parkway, making stops at Bow Summit and Peyto Lake, Snowbird Glacier, Waterfowl Lake, and Mistaya Canyon.
Right after my dad and I drove through Saskatchewan Crossing, we spotted a bunch of bighorn sheep (PHOTO) on the side of the road. More than any other wildlife, I wanted to see bighorn sheep on our trip to Banff and it happened. It was the first time I’d ever seen them in person. It was awesome!
Our adventure along the Icefields Parkway then led us to the Weeping Wall and the Bridal Veil Falls viewpoint. When we were checking out Bridal Veil Falls, a guy and his family suggested that we hike to Panther Falls. We had never even heard of Panther Falls before, but we decided to follow his suggestion. It was one of the best decisions we made. About .3 miles from the Bridal Veil Falls viewpoint parking lot, you reach Panther Falls. The trail leads you along a cliff, and eventually puts you right behind the falls. You can just stand there and watch Panther Falls rush right in front of you. My dad and I agreed that this was one of the coolest experiences of our trip. The best part about Panther Falls: you can get there and back in your car in ten minutes.
Our next stop along the way was the Parker Ridge Trail. It’s a fairly steep hike (about 1.5 miles one way), but it’s totally worth the effort. Parker Ridge Trail offers incredible views of the Canadian Rockies and the Saskatchewan Glacier, which is the largest outflow glacier in the Columbia Icefield. On our hike to the top, we saw a pika and overheard a girl say she saw a mountain goat at the top. I’m not sure if it was the time of day or what, but once we reached the summit, my dad and I had Parker Ridge all to ourselves. We only saw two other people at the top, and we crossed them on the trail when we were about to make our way down.
We wrapped up our drive along the Icefields Parkway with stops at Athabasca Glacier, Tangle Falls, Sunwapta Falls, and Athabasca Falls. In all, it took us 11 hours to drive from Banff to Jasper, but that accounted for all the stops, picture-taking, and hiking that we did. Without stops on the way home, it was about a three and a half hour drive.
The Icefields Parkway is hyped as one of the most scenic drives in the world. It’s hard to argue that. I’d love to see a more scenic drive in my life, but I’m not sure it’s possible. If you have time to drive the Icefields Parkway — do it!
BANFF | DAY 4
My dad and I had to catch our flight home on our fourth day, so we decided to stay in Banff again.
Lacking time, we took a ride to the top of Sulphur Mountain on the Banff Gondola. It was really crowded and expensive but the views were pretty cool. There is a boardwalk at the top of the mountain you can stroll along. The .6 mile hike (one way) leads you to an old weather station/cabin, which is now a national historic site. There are other hiking trails in the area to meander around, too. Some people even hike to the top of Sulphur Mountain and take the gondola down.
While we were at the top of Sulphur Mountain, we spotted a mountain goat and her baby near the lodge.
After our trip on the Banff Gondola, we hopped in our car and drove to Calgary for our flight.
I’ll be honest — I wondered if Banff and Lake Louise would be all that impressive. Yes, I’d seen hundreds of pictures, but I just wasn’t sure it would blow my mind. Living in Seattle, we get to see mountains, lakes, and rivers all the time. Well, after making the trip, it’s easy for me to say the Canadian Rockies exceeded my expectations. Banff is an incredible area that I would recommend to everyone, especially if you’re willing to get off the beaten path and explore.
Have you ever visited Banff, Lake Louise, and the Canadian Rockies? How was your experience? We’d love to hear all about it. Please leave a comment below or connect with us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Don’t forget to visit Seattle Bloggers for more cool getaways from the Emerald City and much more!