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The Ultimate Banff Itinerary: Best Things to Do in Banff in Fall

Fresh off the flight yet still on a high I’m ready to sit down and give you a completely breakdown on my trip to the Canadian Rockies. Since borders are still closed in Canada, I wanted to find a way to travel safely while allowing you to discover more of my beautiful home country.

Alberta is full of natural beauty and I honestly couldn’t wait to get back! I’ve been to Banff twice before, but it was at the very start of my Instagram journey and so I don’t have much to show for it. I was excited to get back to the mountains to reconnect with nature and create some killer content!

This year thrown so many challenges my way from pandemic to health issues so this trip was very much needed. It was very spontaneous (we booked our flights the night before) and arrived with zero plan but it ended up being the best decision we could have made. It was much more therapeutic and healing than I could have ever imagined.

One Week Banff Itinerary

  • Day 1: Fly into YYC, Dinner downtown
  • Day 2: Hike Sulphur Mountain, Dinner at Nourish
  • Day 3: Grab breakfast & lunch at Wild Flour Bakery, Yoho National Park (Takakkaw falls, Emerald Lake) in Golden, BC, stay at Deer Lake lodge
  • Day 4: Sunrise at Moraine, Grab breakfast at Trailhead Cafe, Lake Louise, back to Moraine Lake, drive back to Banff, Nourish takeout
  • Day 5: Breakfast at Wild Flour, Banff sign, Marble Canyon, Radium Hot Springs in BC
  • Day 6: C level Cirque trail, Bear Street Tavern
  • Day 7: Brunch at farm & fire, souvenir shopping, fly home

Calgary

We landed in Calgary YYC in the late afternoon and booked a car for the week while we were waiting for our bags. We then caught the airport shuttle to Routes Car Rental to pick up our car for the week. We rented a Kia Soul which was super affordable ($202 CAD/ 6 days) and the car was incredible on gas! We sometimes drove 300km a day and we only needed to fill up 1.5 times the entire trip.

By the time we collected our bags and sorted out the car it was already 6pm, so we decided to stay in Calgary that night to avoid driving up to Banff in the dark. We wanted to visit a friend of ours in the city so we booked the nearby Holiday Inn so we could drop our bags and head into downtown Calgary for dinner.

It had been nearly 2 years since Victoria and I had seen Meagan so it was so nice to all catch up. The last time we were all together was my 30th birthday in Tulum! If you’re curious to read all about our girls trip check out my Most Instagrammable Places in Tulum post!

The following morning we grabbed our stuff and headed straight for Banff. Both Vic and I were bursting with excitement, we could not wait to get to the mountains! The drive will take you about 1.5 hours from the airport and trust me you will find yourself saying OMG OMG OMG the entire way! At one point we pulled over at a viewpoint to both just take a minute to take it all in.

Before You Visit Banff

Buy a Parks Canada Pass

When you reach Banff you will need to go through a toll to purchase a park pass. All national parks require you to have a Parks Canada pass which can either be purchased for the year or daily. The pass gives you access to all Canadian national parks and is valid until 4pm everyday. Additional daily passes can be purchased at several places in town. If you do not have a park pass on your dashboard or if it is expired you can get fined.

Depending on how many days you are planning to spend in the parks it may be more worth it to get a yearly pass (unlimited access to 80 Canadian National Parks) as daily a pass is $20 CAD.

Wildlife Awareness & Safety

The chance of seeing wildlife is one of the most exciting things about visiting any national park and Banff is known for having a lot of wildlife in town. It’s important to know some basic wildlife etiquette. Never get too close or give food to wildlife. In fact, it is illegal to feed, touch, or even approach wild animals. 

If you’re camping make sure to secure your food in your car and put all trash in bear-proof garbage bins. If you are traveling with a dog, keep your dog on a leash at all times.

Carry bear spray & keep it accessible while hiking. Make sure to read the instructions before you go. Know how to use it properly! If you don’t have spray you can also make some noise (call, sing, talk loudly). We never purchased bear spray but we sang or played music from our phones while hiking.

Banff National Park

Banff National Park is Canada’s oldest national park, established in 1885. Over three million visitors visit the park each year to enjoy the scenic valleys, peaks, glaciers, forests, and rivers in some of the world’s most breathtaking mountain scenery.

Where to Stay in Banff

When you arrive in Banff town there are numerous places you can stay. All are great choices. It isn’t necessarily cheap, but there are more budget choices than Lake Louise.

If you have a little more money to splurge I highly recommend staying at Fairmont Banff Springs. The Fairmont is like my home away from home, it’s always my top choice when booking hotels. Unfortunately, we didn’t realize we were visiting during Canadian Thanksgiving and the hotel was mostly sold out and if there was a room available it was $$$$!

We ended up booking a night at Elk & Avenue. We actually loved this hotel so much we stayed there basically the entire trip aside from 1 night in Lake Louise (I’ll get to that later). The location couldn’t be more perfect, it’s right in the centre of town making everything a 5 minute walk from our hotel. And they ended up upgrading our room so we had a cozy couch to curl up on and watch TV after our long days.

Even though Lake Louise and Moraine Lake are still part of Banff National Park, it is about 40 minute drive from Banff town. So if you’re looking to catch sunrise at either of these locations I would strongly encourage that you stay the night in Lake Louise.

The best place to stay hands down would be Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise! The hotel sits right at the base of the lake, imagine waking up and sipping your coffee while enjoying the view from your balcony! Unfortunately for us the only rooms left were $800+ as it was Thanksgiving.

We ended up booking the last hotel in Lake Louise that had availability, Deer Lodge. This hotel was straight out of Harry Potter! It’s not typically a hotel I would recommend with much of its original log structure and decor still in place, it’s the definition of rustic mountain accommodations. I can only assume our room was in the historic wing, the walls were paper thin, the floors creaked and the key was an actually key!

PSA – don’t leave your key in the door overnight like we did! It was a little eerie if I’m being honest and for $300/ night I would have preferred to stay in a motel but you won’t find any chains in Lake Louise aside from the Fairmont. Each hotel is independently owned.

Best Hikes in Banff

There are no shortage of hikes in Banff and the surrounding areas. My recommendation would be to first go to the visitors centre and chat with someone about what you’d like to do and how long you’re in town for. They were super helpful and even informed us of some trails that were closed or that would be closing in the coming days so we could prioritize those.

One of the things we didn’t account for in visiting in October is how early is can snow in Alberta. We woke up to snow on October 13th which is way too early by my standards but apparently it had even snowed in September in Banff! Because of the early winter conditions a lot of the hikes are seasonal as the roads close due to the weather conditions. This was obviously something we weren’t aware of prior to our arrival.

I was really looking forward to visiting Peyto Lake & Bow Summit lookout. My brother had taken such epic photos there last year and just like any sibling rivalry goes… I needed to get the better shot lol

(insert shirtless photos of my bro here)

Ok so I chose the one of him wearing a shirt, sorry ladies 😉

The Canadian Government is working on adding more parking, expanding the viewing platform and rerouting trails for better safety and accessibility. All that means is that the next opportunity for visitors to see Peyto Lake will be in August 2021.

Before you head out, download the All Trails app. It’s a great to have on your phone, it gives you plenty of information about the trails, level of difficulty, and hikers reviews. It may help you map out your time or avoid a path you aren’t up for.

Sulphur Mountain – Difficulty: Moderate

Sulphur Mountain summit can be reached by gondola or by hiking. The trail is approximately 5.5 km (6.3 miles) on a clear switchback style trail beginning in the the parking lot of the Banff Upper Hot Springs.

It took us just under 2 hours to complete and that was with us stopping to get a few photos or videos throughout the hike. The hike is definitely a cardio workout as it’s all incline but you can take your time. Just be prepared that the way down will be tough on the knees and quads.

The view from the top is beautiful, you get a 360 mountain view with six stunning mountain ranges and a clear view the Bow Valley. Once at the top we wanted to explore every viewpoint!

We walked along the Sulphur Mountain Boardwalk and got some epic photos just before we got caught by the rain. Because it started pouring and we were starving we ended up taking the gondola down which takes less that 5 mins to get back to the parking lot.

Vic and I warming up at the top of Sulphur Mountain

The Welcome Centre has a large viewing platform where you can sit by the fire and warm up. It was freezing once at the top so I was really glad I packed a light puffer.

C Level Cirque Trail – Difficulty: Moderate

A 12.1 km roundtrip hike that if you do the proper trail, is supposed to be incredible and the summit leads you to a complete lake view, making it all worth it. Little did we know we were on the wrong path.

We hiked for about 7km before realizing we were never on the right trail to begin with. We didn’t get the lake view we had hoped for but we certainly paved our own path through the trees until we reached this random bridge. And you know what, it ended up being one of the best photo opps of the trip!

Lake Moraine for Sunrise

Known for it’s vibrant turquoise water and breathtaking views, catching the sunrise at Moraine Lake is one of the top moments when visiting Banff in fall. But, if you’re not a morning person, don’t fret – it’s beautiful at any time of the day. We visited for sunrise and then went back at 4pm to capture a different perspective.

The one thing I knew I wanted to do before we left on this trip was see Moraine Lake at sunrise. Little did we know the commitment and lack of sleep it really takes to actually experience it. When we visited the visitors centre in Banff we learned that there is limited parking and that you have to get there quite early, 5-5:30am early.

Once the parking lot fills up you will be turned away. But no stress, there is also a shuttle bus service from the overflow parking lot or Park and Ride buses on Highway 1 which run ever 15 minutes between 8:00 AM and 5:00 PM.

It was the one thing I was really set on so we committed to the early morning. We woke up at 4am, layered up for the cold and got to the parking lot for 5am. Sunrise was only at 8:30am so we settled in for a 3 hour nap in the car. Don’t forget to pack layers to use as blankets, it was freezing in the car.

At 8am, we hoped out of the car to go find a spot to watch the sunrise. At sunrise you’ll find the crowd to be mainly photographers looking to get the perfect shot or time lapse. Just be mindful of everyone’s space and not to block someone and you’ll be fine.

Shooting that morning was painfully cold, we didn’t have gloves and the windchill made it feel like it was -20. You can bet after this morning I sat in a burning hot shower for 30 mins just defrosting. But it was all worth it!

It’s important to note that the road to Moraine Lake closes after the second Monday in October to May 2021 due to weather conditions on the roads. If you plan to visit after Canadian Thanksgiving you will need to hike the 11km road that leads to the lake. It’s something worth knowing when planning out your trip.

Lake Louise

You have seen photos of the lake but they haven’t prepared you for how it feels to experience it yourself. Lake Louise is a must-stop when visiting Banff in the fall. The turquoise glacial water, mountainous backdrop and iconic Chateau Lake Louise are what makes this lake one of the most famous destinations in Banff National Park.

The best time to visit any lake is in the morning because the water is at it’s stillest. We decided to catch sunrise at Moraine Lake and head to Lake Louise around 11am. By that time the sun was shining which makes the water really sparkle.

There is tons of space at Lake Louise to move around so even with a crowd it doesn’t feel too busy. One of the highlights is to canoe on the lake, it’s one of those iconic must do’s in the Canadian Rockies.

I’ll admit price has gotten pretty steep, I was shocked when I saw how much it has increased in the last 4 years but it something to experience. Rates are $125 plus tax/ hour and $115 plus tax/ half hour. You can fit 3 adults or 2 adults and 2 small children per canoe. (Cheaper rates apply to Fairmont Hotel guests).

If you aren’t up for paddling, there are 2 hikes that offer superior views of the Lake below. The Lake Agnes Tea House is a family run which has been welcoming hikers since the 1920s with hearty homemade soup, sandwiches on freshly baked bread, and more. The hike to the teahouse is a 3.6km (2.2 miles) hike which will take you between 1-2 hours due to the elevation.

If you’ve got a little more gas in the tank after the teahouse, you can continue another 1.6 km (1 mile) to the top of Big Beehive. I’m told certain sections are quite steep and require good hiking shoes. The panoramic view of Lake Louise from the top of the Beehive looks incredible.

We would have loved to hike but I didn’t have proper hiking boots and with the snowfall that night it would have been dangerous in sneakers.

Best Places to Eat in Banff

If you’re looking for a place to eat in Banff town here are our favourites.

Nourish Bistro – This place was hands down our favourite dinner spot, so much so we ate here 3 times! Nourish provides fresh innovative vegetarian cuisine with tons of vegan options. Consider it plant-based comfort food!

Our favourite dishes were their world famous nachos, it’s true they’ve won all kinds of awards for them! And their wild mushroom ravioli was my favourite meal of the trip. Trust me, try it! Other highlights were the King Kong noodles and the Ramen, perfect thing to warm up with after a big day outdoors.

Wildflour Bakery – Once we found this bakery we were there every morning. It’s the perfect place to grab breakfast on the go and an easy takeaway lunch you can pack for a hike. Their bakery is attached to the cafe so you can get artisan bread and pastries baked fresh everyday.

Our usual order was a coffee & croissant for breakfast and we’d pick up their vegan soup and sandwich for lunch for days we’d hike or have a long drive.

Bear Street Tavern – This place was on our list because they had a vegan truffle pizza on their menu. I’m a sucker for anything truffle so as soon as I heard this, I was sold. We ended up here after our C cirque trail hike and decided to reward ourselves with pizza and drinks.

Park Distillery + Restaurant – “We distill in the purest place on the planet. Our water originates at six glaciers high in the Rocky Mountains and gains minerality as it travels across rich limestone deposits. Our grain is sourced from high-altitude family farms in the Alberta foothills.”

After reading this we were too curious not to try. We ended up trying their Hard Rootbeer and loved it so much we each brought back a bottle of their Vanilla Vodka. The bottles are so aesthetically pleasing so if you have a collector in your family they make for great gifts. I’m already planning on ordering from their site for the holidays!

Trailhead Cafe – Trail Head Cafe is a family operated, local favourite in the heart of Lake Louse. Trail Head is a great stop-in for a hot breakfast, hearty lunch, great cup of coffee

Farm & Fire – The new restaurant on the block. Farm & Fire just opened in June and is located in the Elk & Avenue hotel. Brunch was so yummy, and we probably ordered enough for 4! The food was delicious and one thing I love is when you order a fruit bowl and it’s actually a decent size with fresh fruit. If you’re in the mood for a morning cocktail, try the Carrot Cake. I had a sip and it was really yummy but I’m a coffee in the morning gal.

Yoho National Park

Yoho National Park lies on the western slopes of the Canadian Rocky Mountains in British Columbia. It is part of the UNESCO Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site.

‘Yoho’ is the Cree word meaning ‘awe’ or ‘wonder’, which is fitting because I was in complete awe of this park, despite the pouring rain it was still magical.

Takakkaw Falls

Standing at 373 meters tall, Takakkaw Falls is the second largest waterfall in Canada. The river water of Takakkaw falls has distinctive milky, blue consistency created by stone dust.

Wildlife viewing – black and grizzly bears, elk, deer, moose, coyotes, wolves, owls, snowshoe hares, migratory birds.

From the parking lot, cross the bridge, the path leads to the rocky base of falls where we could really get a sense of how powerful the falls really are. It was pouring rain when we visited but rain or shine, get ready to get wet! I didn’t even bother taking my DSLR camera out of my backpack when taking photos as the mist and rain covered the lens.

Emerald Lake

After the falls we made our way to Emerald Lake. It’s the largest lake located in Yoho National Park, and it’s only a 20 minutes drive from its famous neighbour Lake Louise. With a deep green hue, it definitely stands up to it’s name. I was particularly really excited to get to Emerald Lake, knowing it was far less known than Lake Louise I was excited about the endless photo opportunities.

Unfortunately, it was still pouring rain when we got there so I didn’t shoot anything on my camera. Instead, I got a few shots to show the rain. To make the day memorable, Vic convinced me to do the craziest thing. We did a glacial dip! I still can’t believe I did it but yes, we took a dip in glacial water, in October, in Canada! It was so cold but looking back, I’m glad we did. Everytime I now think of Emerald lake, instead of being bummed by the weather, I smile thinking of us bikinis and beeanies on running into the freezing water.

If you’re hoping to spend the night, Emerald Lake Lodge is the only accommodation at the lake. Originally built by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1902, the lodge only has 24 cabin style units available. The beauty of staying there is that at night, once all the visitors head out, you’ll practically have the lake to yourself.

Kootenay National Park 

Only 30 minutes from Banff, the Kootenay National Park is one of seven contiguous parks that form the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks on the BC-Alberta provincial border.

Marble Canyon

The next morning we set out for another hike, we made our way into Kootenay National Park to Marble Canyon. We understood it was about a 40-minute hike but when we got there we realized was more of a viewpoint that takes you 30 minutes roundtrip if you don’t stop to take photos but I’ll admit, it’s hard not to!

We were a little bummed it wasn’t the hike we were looking for but we can’t deny the incredible views.

Radium Hot Springs

After our mini-hike, we got back in the car and continued the 1.5 hours to Radium Hot Springs. The soothing mineral-rich warm water of the Hot Springs combined with the epic Rocky Mountain scenery makes for the perfect place to relax.

When we arrived I’ll admit I was a little underwhelmed. I had expected the hot springs to be in their natural form, but it was more like a large heated public pool. Nonetheless, we had a great time and the drive alone is spectacular!

On our last day we woke up to a foot os snow!! It was the earliest I’ve ever seen snow. Before packing up we grabbed a few more photos in town and made sure to pick up some last minute souvenirs. I grabbed a cozy touristy Banff sweatshirt, and a Christmas ornament (I try to get one every place I go)!

As we drove back to Calgary I couldn’t help myself, the views in our rear view window were so spectacular we had to pull over to grab a few last minute photos.

I’ve you’ve gotten this far, I hope this post was helpful in planning your next trip to the Canadian Rockies. Let me know in the comments if you’ve ever visited or if this has inspired you to visit in the near future.

All the best, Lisa xx

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