Three days in Banff/Lake Louise

In two weeks, my wife and I (63 and 68, respectively) will have about three and a half days in the Banff/Lake Louise area. Our first day we have reservations for the Hop-on Hop-off bus that will get us to Moraine Lake for about four hours and Lake Louise for a total of about three hours in two parts. After that day we’ll have two and a half more days before driving to Calgary to fly home. We’re staying at a BNB in Canmore.

We’re planning on riding the Banff Gondola, having lunch or dinner at the Cliff House Bistro at the top of Mt. Norquay (we have reservations for both, and will cancel the unused one), and we’re interested in the Cave & Basin, Hot Springs, Johnston Canyon, and a few other attractions.

One question I have for people who have been there: everyone says Lake Louise and Moraine Lake are really beautiful. Will one day at both be enough, or should we think about going back to either or both for more?

If a few hours at Lake Louise and Moraine Lake will be enough, what else should we consider? We know it will be crowded, but this is the only time we can go, so we’ll have to deal with that. If you have any suggestions for less-crowded but worthwhile attractions in the area, we’re definitely interested.

We’re up for relatively short and easy hikes, but no bikes or strenuous hikes. And my wife says the Via Ferrata is right out!


At Moraine Lake, I think we did the Lakeshore trail and the Rockpile trail; that took ~2 hours in total. So in our case, 4 hours would have been ample.

At Lake Louise, we walked to the Lake Agnes teahouse and back which took about 3 hours and we spent some more time puttering around the lake. So 3 hours in two parts would not have been enough for us, but it should still be nice walking along the lakeshore, etc.

One day to cover both places was enough for us, but if you like longer hikes than we do, then obviously you’ll need to spend more time.

Moraine Lake is beautiful, but after looking at it and taking a few photos, you won’t find much else to do there, unless you like hiking. The hike to the top of the Rockpile is easy enough. I think there are canoes for rent also. But of all the times I’ve been to Moraine Lake, I don’t think I’ve spent more than an hour there, tops.

Lake Louise offers a lot more. There are hiking trails, of course, and if you don’t feel like the trail up (yes, up) to Lake Agnes and its teahouse, you’ll find a trail alongside the lake, that stays at about lake level. There are canoes for rent. And of course, there is the Chateau for lunch or dinner, or a break for coffee.

But unless you’re a really serious hiker, you can do both in a day.

Johnston Canyon is something to see, certainly. There is a well-maintained hiking trail from the parking lot to the falls. It’s not difficult at all, just a bit long, but the carvings that the water has made at the falls are something to see.

I always enjoy visiting Bankhead when I’m in Banff. It’s an old coal mine. The mine workings in Lower Bankhead have been closed and most of the buildings removed, but there’s an easy trail around the site, with plenty of markers explaining the history. Upper Bankhead is a great place for a picnic, but be careful–this was the residential part of the town, and while the houses have been remove, their foundations remain. Don’t fall in!

More to come as I think of things. I’ve been to Banff likely dozens of times, and am pretty familiar with it. Of course, if you have any questions, just ask.

There’s a really nice train ride from Banff to Vancouver (either way). It’s not cheap but if you consider it as transportation and hotel and food it seems a bit more reasonable.

As @Spoons mentioned, as beautiful as Banff is, I am not sure there is enough to do there for three days unless hiking is your thing. Or just chill in the hotel, relax, do a spa thing, have some drinks and good food. (not a bad choice at all)

I enjoyed the Johnston Canyon walk, although we ended up going on the trail to the Ink Pots which is around a 4 hour round-trip hike (with lengthy uphill sections on the way out).

Other places we enjoyed (that didn’t involve much hiking):

  • We took a Lake Minnewanka cruise and walked over Stewart Canyon bridge. I’ve been on some dud lake cruises, so I was pleasantly surprised by this one. This was the only place in our Banff/Jasper trip where we saw a bear (from the boat) and we also saw some bighorn sheep by the bridge.
  • We also enjoyed Peyto Lake (about 1/2 hour north of Lake Louise); I thought the views were more interesting than Lake Louise or Moraine Lake personally, since you’re looking down on the lake from a significant height rather than from ground level.

Thanks, all, for the suggestions. We were also thinking about the Lake Minnewanka cruise. Hadn’t looked into Peyto Lake, so thanks for that, @hogarth.

Thanks! The Rocky Mountaineer is the primary motivation for the whole vacation. We’re taking it from Vancouver to Jasper, spending a few days there, then driving down the Icefields Parkway to Banff.

Have you (anyone) done the Rocky Mountaineer? Any thoughts or tips about it? We didn’t spring for the first class (Gold) package, just the Silver, but we’re really looking forward to it.

In 2009, just a few months before my then wife-to-be and I reconnected, 30 years after being at the same small college, I took pretty much the same trip, pulled by a restored steam engine, all the way to Calgary. A friend of mine was directing an IMAX movie about the history of the Canadian Transcontinental Railroad, and invited a bunch of IMAX theater managers and others (me and my father) on a four-day filming excursion. It was incredible.

(I think they may have used some of my photos on that page.)

Since I was talking about “dud lake cruises”, I found the cruise to Spirit Island on Maligne Lake in Jasper to be only mildly interesting and it was a fairly long drive to get there and back. YMMV.

This. Don’t underestimate how pleasant downtime in Banff can be. There is shopping, of course, but one of the things my ex-wife and I used to love to do when we lived in Calgary was to head off to the Banff Springs Hotel for the afternoon. They have a beautiful big lounge with huge windows that look out over the mountains. She would take her sketch pad and her watercolours, and I’d take my crossword puzzles; and we’d spend the afternoon. We’d get a couple of drinks too (the whole lounge is licensed), and they thoughtfully brought her a glass of water for her paints.

It was a very nice and relaxing way to spend an afternoon, without dealing with the crowds that attend at the more popular attractions in the afternoons.

I’ve never done it, nor do I know anybody who has, but there is a travel vlogger, based in Vancouver, who has taken it from Vancouver to Jasper. Naturally, he made a video of it, and he explains boarding, meals, and otherwise what to expect. Here’s his video of his experience:

My brother honeymooned on the Rocky Mountaineer about 40 years ago, and still talks about it today.

The Icefields Parkway was by far my favorite part of the trip to Banff. I wish we had spent more time. It’s a tiaga, and one point the river looked to be about a mile wide and 2 feet deep. People were wading way out. We saw big horn sheep, bears, and more on the drive. Would have been really nice to be able to stop in places, but I had a van full of kids and it was a long day trip from Banff.

We’ve heard that it’s important to get to Johnston Canyon early to avoid the crowds, but there’s limited parking at the trailhead (from the satellite view it looks like about 100 spaces) and the first Roam bus leaves Banff at 9 and gets there about 9:40. Any idea how early we have to get there to get a parking space?

Also, are the Roam busses often full? Are there queues for them? Can you be on a queue and not be able to board because the bus is full?

Thanks for the video.

We have a day for the Parkway on our drive from Jasper to Banff. We’ve mapped out several stops. Any that you’d recommend in particular?

sorry, not the right person to ask since we didn’t stop except at the big glacier field (Icefields Discovery Center). Looking at a map, it should be the Athabasca river somewhere north of the icefields. I search on line and couldn’t find what I was thinking off.

The Seattle Woodlands zoo has a tiaga discovery center. And on the drive it suddenly clicked that we were in the middle of an obvious tiaga zone. And seeing people that waded out hundreds of yards (meters) into the river and being less than waist deep was pretty incredible to me (driving a mini van).

I cannot speak to Roam buses, as I’ve never used them. I’ve only ever used my car in Banff. But as a general rule of thumb, you stand a better chance of getting a parking spot at any attraction the earlier in the day you go.

I don’t know how your schedule looks, but if it allows, try to hit what you want to on a weekday. Banff is always busy, but weekdays aren’t quite as busy as weekends. I’ve never had a problem parking at the Cave and Basin on a Tuesday around noon, for example, or Johnston Canyon on a Wednesday afternoon. And on such days, there are usually a number of spaces in the Bear Street Parkade, downtown, should you need it.

Word to the wise: if you do not have to drive on Banff Avenue, don’t. Not during the day, anyway; things calm down a little in the evenings. The reason is that there is a transit service, and buses will frequently be stopping to pick up and let off passengers. That, plus traffic turning off Banff Avenue, means that you will have to wait for lots of pedestrians to cross the street before you can make your turn. Things may have changed in the last few years (e.g. by putting in controlled diagonal pedestrian crosswalks at intersections), but at any rate, there are alternates to Banff Avenue. If heading from the east on Highway 1, I’ll usually pass the Banff Avenue exit, and instead use Mt. Norquay Road off Highway 1 a little to the west. Mt.Norquay Road meets Lynx Street, and then I’ll follow Lynx south. A map will show them to you.

The word is “taiga”, not “tiaga”. I think your spell-check is F-ing with you. Once is a typo, twice is a mistake, but three times? That’s enemy action for sure. :wink:

It’s pricey, but I enjoyed the big moon bus up onto the glacier

I thought it was worth doing, even though there wasn’t really much to look at once you’re up there.

Of course, the year after we did it 3 people died in a rollover. Yikes.

I, also, really enjoyed the two onto the glacier. And the drive from Banff to Jasper was just stunning. Leave plenty of extra time to pull over, stop, take photos, and just say, “oooh, aaaah” at the view.

I had a good time at lake Louise. I hiked to the tea house and had tea. And i had lunch at the hotel. And i hiked along the lake, too. Such a vivid blue. And i spent some time just hanging out near the hotel. I spent a day there, and that felt like time very well spent.

I also went to the hot springs in Banff, which were nice, but maybe over-rated. Did some light hiking around Banff, and gawked at the hoodoos. I saw a lot of wild life, but that’s never predictable.

Ive lived in Calgary for over 40 years. Used to spend a lot of time in the mountains and around Banff, always self guided so I really know nothing about the various tour options.

Since the Columbia Icefields were mentioned, there is an interpretive trail that marks where the glacier was at various years. Very sobering to see how far it has receded over a short time.

I dropped my ski pole down a crevasse that opened up under me years ago just up on the crest of the Icefield. We where on the first day of a four day trip and we made the decision to go get it. I repelled about 60’ down to the bottom of the crevasse to retrieve it. Amazing experience.