Banff National Park is one of the most scenic, natural places in the world. Between the stunning, bright blue lakes and the towering, snow capped mountain peaks, Banff National Park is a nature lover’s paradise.
This three day itinerary is for the active adventurers who want to hike, kayak, and stand up paddleboard. Feel free to mix or match activities, but with only three days these are the items we would recommend spending your time on.
If you are staying in Canmore as a jumping off point for your Banff adventures, check out this post for recommendations on the best breweries and restaurants in Canmore.
Day 1: Moraine Lake and Lake Louise
When people see pictures of Banff National Park, it’s very likely it’s a picture of one of two lakes: Moraine Lake or Lake Louise. These lakes are the pride and joy of Banff National Park and as such they are highly touristed. We suggest getting an early start to try to avoid the crowds as much as possible.
The parking area for Moraine Lake is very small and therefore chances are you won’t be able to enter the parking area unless you are incredibly early. If there are parking attendants blocking your entrance to Moraine Lake, just continue on the Lake Louise and find parking in the extensive lots there.
There is a bus line that connects Lake Louise and Moraine Lake that you can take for a small fee. An odd quirk about paying the bus fee – they only accept credit cards. Once you’re parked and have a bus ticket, jump on the bus to Moraine Lake. Don’t worry – Lake Louise will still be there when you get back.
Moraine Lake is the crème de la crème of lakes; it takes the bright blue water with staggering mountains in the backdrop to a whole new level. You won’t regret heading to Moraine Lake first. Once you arrive at Moraine Lake, there are a couple of different hikes you can go on, but in early June there were still dangers of avalanche so we avoided the difficult trails.
There is a very short trail that leads to a lookout of the lake that you can take if you’d like to catch a good view. However, if you want a great view where you aren’t surrounded by people, either head to the water then turn to the left and climb up the hill until you find a secluded spot among the rocks or climb down from the lookout to a spot that seems suitable. We climbed up from the bottom and saw many others doing the same.
There is a trail that leads you halfway around the lake but in our opinion we had the best view you could possibly find. Have a photography field day because this may be the one spot in the world where the picture might come close to doing the view justice.
After Moraine Lake, you can jump back on the bus back toward Lake Louise. It stops in the overflow parking lot where you will have to catch another bus back to Lake Louise – in our case, everyone was in the same boat so we all walked together to catch the next bus.
After Moraine Lake, Lake Louise may appear a bit drab, but it’s still stunning in its own right. At this point in the day, it’s very likely that the shoreline is crowded with people so it’s advisable to follow the trail around the lake to an area with less congregation.
At some point in the day you are able to rent canoes to paddle on the lake, but from what we heard the price was exorbitant. We chose to just enjoy the view rather than pay an arm and a leg to canoe on the famous lake.
Agnes Lake Tea House Hike
The best part about Lake Louise is the Agnes Lake Tea House hike which was one of our favorite parts of Banff National Park. If you walk around the Lake Louise you will see signs for the trailhead. The 7.6 km out and back trail is such a great hike because there are plenty of amazing views along the way, not just at the end, and Lake Louise’s bright blue color becomes more vibrant as you gain elevation.
The first stop that you come upon is Mirror Lake, a gorgeous lake with a monolithic mountain in the background that reflects perfectly off the still water. This lake alone would be worth the hike, however it’s only the tip of the iceberg.
The next stop is Lake Agnes, a stunning lake with a teahouse offering home baked goodies. However, be advised it is CASH ONLY. The opposite of the bus to Lake Moraine, so make sure to just have both cash and credit card available.
For some, the hike ends here. However, for the more adventurous types, you could continue on to Little Beehive or to Big Beehive. We went about halfway to Little Beehive, found incredible views from the trail and decided to turn around. However, we have heard amazing things about both and highly suggest you go the extra mile if you’re up for it!
As a safety note, for those afraid of bear encounters, this is a very well trafficked hike. In early June, we couldn’t go more than 2 minutes without seeing another group walking the trail. However, once you start up toward the Beehives the trail becomes more sparse so be sure to take proper precautions for wildlife encounters.
Cave and Basin
After a jam packed morning full of hiking, photography, and in some places fighting the crowds, it’s nice to take a step back and do something a little less strenuous. The perfect fit is taking the afternoon to check out the Cave and Basin which was the birthplace of not only Banff National Park but also Canada’s National Parks.
You have to pay a small fee to enter into the Cave and Basin but if you show your Discovery Pass you get a discount. Once you’re in, head straight for the main attraction in the cave. With the natural light shining in from above, it’s truly an incredible sight to behold. Once you enter the cave, however, be ready for the rotten eggs.
The smell of sulphur is inescapable throughout the Cave and Basin and can be pretty overpowering. Just keep the pace moving and it’s not too bad. Be sure to read the signs as you walk around, the history of the founders of the park is fascinating.
Day 2: Johnston Canyon and Kayaking
Johnston Canyon is another very popular destination at Banff National Park, so you need to either get there very early or skip the rush and come in the afternoon. We decided to go later in the afternoon and we got a parking space in the lot right next to the trail head and had the Upper Falls almost to ourselves.
The Johnston Canyon trail is a moderate hike, definitely suitable for families with small children. The distance to the Lower Falls is just 1.1 km and it is wheelchair accessible. At the Lower Falls make sure to go through the cave right up next to the falls – fair warning, you’re going to get wet!
If you head an extra 1.5 km, you’ll make it to the Upper Falls which luckily for us had a beautiful rainbow stretched across it! It’s definitely worth the walk to see this mighty falls. We couldn’t help thinking what bad luck it would be to canoe unknowingly down the Bow River in this direction…
We didn’t make the hike up to the Ink Pots, however from what we could see the crowd really thins out once you get past the Upper Falls. If you’re feeling good, go for it! We heard it may not be worth the time and that we had other sights we would like to see more, but to each his own.
It’s hard to be “wowed” by hoodoos other places in the world after having been to Bryce Canyon. There just really isn’t a comparison. However, the Hoodoos Trail is worth the visit because the trail is very easy and the view is about a 10 minute walk from the parking lot, so you could spend less than half an hour and still feel like you drank in the view.
The hoodoos themselves are pretty cool but the disappointing part is that there are only a couple and they pale in comparison to the view as a whole. Also, keep in mind this jaded attitude can only come after seeing Bryce Canyon – if you haven’t seen Bryce, then I’m sure you will be impressed by the strange rock formations.
If you are interested in seeing more hoodoos and now want to visit Bryce Canyon since I can’t stop talking about it, check out our post about how to spend one day in Bryce Canyon National Park.
Kayak Vermilion Lakes
We went kayaking in the morning and then went to Johnston Canyon but I think either way would work, however they work well together in one day. We rented a two person kayak from Banff Canoe Club. They had hourly rates that were reasonable and they had a great spot on the Bow River to send you to the Vermilion Lakes.
The journey to Vermilion Lakes took maybe 15 minutes and then we had time to paddle around a large lake with stunning views of the surrounding mountains. It was a nice way to get some exercise and get out into nature. We even had a bit of privacy, only a few other people were around while we were on the lake. Kayaks, canoes, and paddle boards are first come first serve but it seemed that there were plenty of boats to go around.
Day 3: Sulphur Mountain Trail and SUP
Sulphur Mountain Trail
Sulphur Mountain Trail is a 10.1 km up and back hiking trail that is very popular. There are also cable cars that you can take to the top but they aren’t cheap, so we opted to walk. During the walk you get cool views of the cable cars passing by overhead through the trees.
A majority of the hike are switchbacks up the mountain, with the chance to head off the trail for a scenic look at a waterfall. We didn’t make it too much further than the waterfall because Erin had an injury that was flaring up, but we heard the top was really cool (literally and figuratively, apparently the temperature drops considerably when you get to the top). After talking to folks headed down they advised that the top became very steep and icy, so we took the L and headed back down in order to prevent any further injuries.
We would have just taken the cable car up but we were a bit tight on the budget – eating out every meal starts to add up pretty quick! It looked like a pretty awesome way to arrive at the top of a mountain and enjoy the sweeping views without having to put in the hard work to get there so next time we are in Banff this will be at the top of the list!
Two Jack Lake (Stand Up Paddle Board)
In Banff National Park you spend a great deal of your time gazing at the some of the most beautiful, pristine blue water you can find in this world so it’s only natural to want to get out onto the water. A great way to do that is to rent stand up paddle boards and explore the lake of your choice.
Since we were staying in Canmore, we rented from a local place called Bow Valley SUP (Stand Up Paddleboard) which ended up being a great decision. They were incredibly helpful and knowledgeable, helped us strap the paddleboards to the top of our car, and when we told them we were going to Two Jack Lake they said it was one of the best places to SUP in the area.
Two Jack Lake did not disappoint. This is a perfect opportunity to get away from the crowds and be able to get out on a beautiful lake and truly do some exploring. We were there in early June so the water was very cold, but that didn’t stop me from circumventing the whole lake. There is a particular portion that thins down into the width of a river and continues all the way to a natural bridge. It was stunningly beautiful and quiet; I was completely alone, exploring the world on a SUP.
While you are by Two Jack Lake, you should definitely stop by Lake Minnewanka. It’s directly adjacent to Two Jack Lake and is just as beautiful, however it’s definitely much more touristed. There is a nice path around the lake and you can take a boat cruise if you’d like or just sit and take in the beautiful views.
Banff National Park Honorable Mentions
If you have more time in Banff National Park and plan on taking the Icefield’s Parkway up to Jasper National Park, which is a scenic 4 hour drive, there are definite stops you should make. In addition to the breathtaking views you will get by simply driving on this road, there are at least two stops you should make along the way while you are still technically in Banff National Park.
As you are driving north, about 30 minutes away from Lake Louise you will pass this beautiful overlook to your left called Bow Lake. You can easily take a turn off the road and take in the gorgeous views. The crystal clear, still lake provides a mirror for the mountains standing high above it and makes this a picture perfect stop!
Keep driving north towards Peyto Lake. If you want to have a simple overlook view, pull off at the Bow Lake Overlook parking lot and you have about a 10 minute hike to the lookout spot. This hike is easy on a paved path and in no time you will be looking down on this bright blue lake that is commonly compared to a fox’s head. If you want a closer look at the lake, take the Peyto Glacier Trail about 30 minutes down into the belly of the valley.
As you continue driving north on the Icefields Parkway you will reach the Weeping Wall just before you enter the southern tip of Jasper. Make sure you pull off to truly appreciate this 1,000 foot rock face wall with a series of waterfalls. If you are visiting in the cold winter and the waterfalls are frozen over, maybe you will be able to spot some ice climbers!
Banff National Park Resources
Parts of Banff National Park can be rugged and it’s important to be prepared for all of the outdoor activities you’ll be partaking in. Below is a list of our favorite items that we bring with us on every hike.
Please note that most of these are affiliate links and will provide us with a small amount of money if you use our link to buy any of these products at no additional cost to you, however we personally own, use, and can vouch for these products (or early versions of these items).
|Columbia Hiking Boots||Vessi Waterproof Sneakers|
|Quick Dry Hiking Shorts||Colorful Packable Rain Jacket|
|Hiking Socks||Teva Hiking Sandals|
|Adidas Sport Boxer Briefs||Sun Hat|
|Bluffworks T-Shirts||Columbia Rain Jacket|
Banff National Park is one of the most beautiful parks on this Earth and you just really can’t go wrong. Everywhere you turn, there is something that rivals the beauty of what you’ve already seen. That being said, these were our recommendations of what we would see again if we had 3 days in the park because these were the highlights of our trip.
If these suggestions don’t float your boat, there are plenty of natural attractions and hikes we did not mention that are surely world class. Get out, explore, and enjoy Banff National Park.