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Banff Trip Planning: All You Need to Know Before You Go

Jasper, Banff trip planning: the best time to visit, trip duration, lodging, what to pack, how to spot wildlife, and 3 tips on how to save on lodging.

“Banff Trip Planning” is written for first-time travelers, solo travelers, and families with kids. It is about how to make the trip exceptional, cheaper, and more comfortable while traveling with or without kids. (We did the trip with 6 weeks old, 3, and 8 y.o.).

The Canadian Rockies are magnificent! We drove through Seward Highway in Alaska and can say that they are much alike: a northern beauty full of wildlife and breathtaking views you can enjoy right along the road, without any tours.

Banff trip planning: the Canadian Rockies road trip

1. The best time to visit. Pros/cons of the peak months

Most travelers visit Banff and Jasper National Parks from mid-June to mid-September (when the weather is the warmest). Here why:

  • Spring comes late to the mountains and fall comes early. Light snow may occur on the first days of September. June is the wettest month and it does not feel like summer until the end of the month.
  • Towards the middle of June, lakes are usually thawed and filled with melted water from the mountains, exposing their unbelievable colors:
Banff Trip Planning: Lake Moraine, Banff National Park, 2d of July. no filter
Banff Trip Planning: Lake Moraine, Banff National Park, 2d of July. no filter

Pros of visiting during July and August (peak season):

  • Best weather and amazing turquoise colored lakes (during sunny weather) – one of the reasons so many people are drawn to the Canadian Rockies.
  • Hitting the best trails (all trails usually open during those months)
  • See wildflowers in full bloom (an amazing experience):
  • Go tent camping (less likely you’ll freeze during the night)
  • Enjoy the prolonged daylight hours
  • Have some beach time: take a dip in Lake Louise or swim/splash at Lake Edith or Lake Annette (they aren’t fed from the glaciers and warm up to about +18C).

Cons of visiting during July and August:

  • Crowds, highest prices, and some risk of forest fires, which were pretty frequent in recent years.

2. Banff trip planning: ideal trip duration

We saw tons of places during our trip, and from our experience, I’d say the ideal trip duration is from five days to two weeks. Here is why:

  • Five days allowed us to spend a day in Jasper National Park, a day for a brief 12-hour road trip through the Icefields Parkway, two days in Banff, and a day in Yoho National Park.
  • We experienced tons of unique places but didn’t do any long hikes.
  • We did not have any leisure time, which I would have appreciated.
  • Spending 7 days or more will give you plenty of time to explore and feel that you don’t need a vacation from your vacation.
Little baby, big adventure: Andrew turned 6 weeks on this trip

3. Lodging: costs, 3 tips on how to make it less expensive, and unexpected nuances

Harsh truth: if your only option is staying in a hotel, it will cost you an arm and a leg! Accommodation is very expensive in Banff and Jasper National Parks. During summer, prices jump up to 250CAD per night for a basic 2-3 stars hotel room (especially in Banff).

IMG_20170706_215653
One of the lodges on the main street in Banff. Don’t even ask how much they cost!

Tip #1. Hostels

Give the local hostel a chance. If you are traveling with a family, look for a private room: often they promote the same or almost the same value as a hotel but at a much cheaper rate. Downside – they fill up far in advance. Hotel rooms we were able to book two weeks before the trip.

Hi Jasper hostel. Photo credit: Booking.com

Tip #2. Camping

Jasper and Banff National parks have plenty of great campgrounds with sweeping views, and some of them are even in walking proximity from towns. Also, camping is ten or more times cheaper than an average hotel room.

Renting camping, (hiking, biking) gear at the Banff

If you can’t bring camping gear with you, it’s not a problem. Rent all you need locally for a reasonable price. The entire camping package for a family of four plus the cost of the campsite will be around 600CAD for 7 nights.

Reflection at Two Jack Lake campground, Banff National Park.
photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Tip #3. Campervan

One more option we came across during our trip: Wicked Campervan. Fits up to 5 people, fun, and is relatively cheap (from $109 per day for 2 sleepers for summer 2019). Pick up available only in Vancouver and Calgary.

5-Seater Camper. Photo credit: Wicked Campers

Important note about accomodation while traveling Banff and Jasper

  • If you are going to book all nights in a single town (Jasper/Banff/Lake Louise/Canmore), don’t do the Icefields Parkway trip in one day. It’s a 4-hour trip one way from Jasper to Banff without any stops. Try to book at least one night on the opposite end of the parkway.
  • In the middle of the road, lodging is scarce (some could be found at the Columbia Icefields Discovery Center, Saskatchewan Crossings and Bow Lake) and tends to be even more expensive due to the remote location.
IMG_20170704_182216 (1)
In the middle of Icefields Parkway: “Weeping Wall”- multiple waterfalls on a 300 meters high set of cliffs

4. Banff trip planning: what to pack and why

You’ll need a little bit of everything: you can experience several seasons a day during summer in Banff. Dress in layers and keep nearby (in the car):

  • Boots, pants, warm sweaters, rain jackets, gloves, hats. Plus: shorts, t-shirts, sun hats, swimsuits, towel, sandals.

Also, don’t forget:

  • sunscreen, sunglasses and a picnic blanket
  • bug spray – it will quickly become your best friend
  • jug of water, snacks
  • binoculars, good camera
  • kayak/SUP/boat will be a great addition – no wasting time in lines, no cost, plus a great experience to explore the place from a different angle.
  • first aid kit
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Emerald Lake: a huge snow patch from an avalanche. Yoho National Park

5. Canada Discovery Pass

Canada Discovery Pass is a must for exploring Banff and Jasper National Parks and even for driving through them. It costs around 140CAD for family/group and is valid for all National Parks in Canada. Order your pass online or buy at a visitor center in Jasper, Banff, or Lake Louise village.

Canada Discovery Pass
Canada Discovery Pass. photo credit: Camera Eye Photography

6. Banff trip planning: gas, groceries, and eating out

Gas

Gas was surprisingly cheap in Jasper and Banff. In fact, it was even cheaper than in the Seattle area, where we came from. Fill your tank up in Jasper/Banff towns or at Lake Louise. The only gas station in-between is at Saskatchewan Crossings and it is pretty expensive due to its remote location.

Pyramid Lake Road, one of the busiest roads in Jasper, Alberta

Groceries

The only grocery stores we used to stock up were Robinsons Food in Jasper and IGA in Banff. Both are good, but IGA in the late evening looked like a coastal town during a hurricane warning: crowded, with empty shelves (especially fresh produce).

Eating out

There are tons of great places for eating out in Jasper and Banff and very few of them are located on the Icefields Parkway. We would love to visit Lake Moraine Walter Wilcox Dining Room, settled in a beautiful green place right on the lake, and Bear Paw Bakery in Jasper.

Banff Trip Planning: Lake Moraine Walter Wilcox Dining Room. photo credit: Judy Baxter
Banff Trip Planning: Lake Moraine Walter Wilcox Dining Room. photo credit: Judy Baxter

7. Wildlife at Jasper and Banff

What attracts travelers to Banff and Jasper; what animals you can see in Banff and Jasper

Jasper National Park and Banff National Park have abundant wildlife. Black bears, mooses, caribou, marmots, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, elks, deers, wolves, and lots of small critters call the Canadian Rockies their home. For many travelers, wildlife is the main reason they visit the parks.

“Goat Lick” at the Icefields Parkway

Wildlife: when and what to look for

The best chances to see wildlife are in the early morning or in the late evening. Though, it’s not unlikely to stumble upon an occasional mouse or a bear in the middle of the day.

Our most memorable encounters: goats and bears

My biggest highlight of our trip was seeing a herd of mountain goats at the Kerkeslin Goat Lick (52.6166,-117.8451361):

Mountain goat peeking at our table. Kerkeslin Goat Lick, Alberta

It was the middle of the day and there were tons of people, but it seemed like animals didn’t pay any attention to visitors at all. We spent an hour watching them crossing the road, taking care of offspring, and climbing down the steep, rocky hill. (Seward Highway in Alaska has a similar spot – Windy Point).

A couple of hours later, on the Icefields Parkway as well, we spotted a black mama bear with cubs in a couple of meters from the car. She was busy chewing on a handful of dandelions and looked more like a… cow than a wild beast.

Mama bear and her cubs in a few yards from the car. Banff National Park

Wildlife safety and respect

Respect wildlife and never approach it closely. It’s very tempting to take a closer look or make a perfect photo, but animals can charge you without warning. It’s also no good for them to get used for people or their food. Read more about wildlife watching in Banff here.

Banff Trip Planning: elk at the outskirts of Town of Jasper. Alberta
Banff Trip Planning: elk at the outskirts of Town of Jasper. Alberta

8. Banff trip planning: 5 more tips on how to save on a trip

Try to cut the most expensive part – accommodations

  • Book as early as possible and consider to stay in a hostel private room, tent or campervan.
  • Try to get a room with a kitchen or kitchenette to save time and money.

Food

  • If cooking during vacation doesn’t sound intimidating, get a cooler and stock it up with all kinds of nutritious snacks. Jasper, Banff, and Yoho National Parks have plenty of picnic tables, even along the Icefields Parkway. 
  • We usually try to book hotels with a hot breakfast and pack our own lunches. On this trip, picnic lunches with a “view” were one of the highlights of our visit to the Canadian Rockies.

Tours

Just some of the paid tours really worth the money and time, so choose wisely.

Read about one of the few examples here. From our perspective, you can have a great experience at the Canadian Rockies without any extra tour expenses.

Snow-coach tour, Columbia Icefield. Alberta, Canada. Photo credit: Wikimedia
Snow-coach tour, Columbia Icefield. Alberta, Canada. Photo credit: Wikimedia

Consider bringing your own kayak/canoe/SUP.

  • Renting is expensive: canoes starting from 60 CAD per hour in Jasper NP, from 100 CAD in Banff NP (up to 3 people: 2 adults, 1 kid). In both parks, you’ll have to wait long lines, plus rentals are limited.
  • You can take your own canoe/kayak/SUP to any lake in the Canadian Rockies, just note that not all of them have a boat launch.

A couple words about traveling during the off-shoulder season

  • Consider traveling during the off-shoulder season only if you wish to stay away from the crowds and make some specific activities like fall foliage hikes or ice walks to frozen waterfalls.
  • As for the money, you won’t save much on lodging but more likely you’ll miss warm, sunny weather and beautifully colored lakes, hitting the best trails, boat rides and many more. Pros: the chances of forest fires are to zero.
Banff Trip Planning: Herbert Lake, Banff National Park
Banff Trip Planning: Herbert Lake, Banff National Park

Thanks for reading and have a great trip in the Canadian Rockies!

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By Mrs. Grazy Goat

I am Ira, the author behind Grazy Goat. My husband and I run this blog and share our experiences about thrilling places and cultures. Our son Artem recently joined us and helps with editing.

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