Less than a two-hour drive from downtown Calgary, Canada‘s Banff National Park is one of the most popular weekend trips from Alberta’s biggest city. The park’s convenience belies its massive size, however, so you’ll need to plan well in order to maximize your time in the Canadian Rockies.
Here are some surefire tips to help you get the most out of a few days in Banff.
Spend Friday Night in Town
Banff’s towering mountain peaks, massive forest and crystalline lakes are its key attractions, but don’t underestimate the charm of its cozy downtown. If you leave Calgary around 3 p.m., before rush-hour traffic starts, you’ll be checked into your hotel and at one of Banff’s fine eateries (or watering holes, no judgement here!) right in time for dinner.
As for where to eat, Banff’s cuisine options are as diverse as the people who flock here from around the world. A quirky option is to go Greek at Balkan, where they sing, dance and break plates in addition to serving incredible Mediterranean favorites and a large selection of Greek wines.
After dinner try a nightcap at a range of bars that includes The Bear Street Tavern, Banff Avenue Brewing Co. and Dancing Sasquatch, the latter of which pays homage to the mountains’ most famous monster with a huge statue out front.
Watch the Sunrise over Moraine Lake
Don’t go too crazy with the nightlife — sunrise in Banff is truly something to behold. Especially if you watch it over Moraine Lake, located two hours up the Trans-Canada Highway from town. Yes, this means you’ll have to wake up obscenely early depending on what time the sun rises during your visit, but it’s absolutely worth it.
TIP: The hike to the sunrise viewpoint from the parking lot at Moraine Lake takes about 15 minutes, so make sure to budget this into your transit time. In addition, the best lighting often occurs just before the actual sunrise. Who needs sleep, anyway?
Spend a Full Day on the Icefields Parkway
It’s possible that you’ll be so tired after waking at the crack of dawn that you’ll need to head back to Banff to take a rest. If so, then have no shame and resume your northward journey on Sunday after you’ve had a full night of sleep. An alternative option would be to stop at the beautiful (but crowded and somewhat overrated) Lake Louise for a leisurely midmorning row.
On the other hand, if you’re of the opinion that sleep is for the weak or dead, pass on Lake Louise and take the right fork in the road — this brings you to Provincial Highway 93, aka the Icefields Parkway.
This road leads all the way to Banff’s northern neighbor, Jasper, and although you probably won’t have time to make it there and back, you can enjoy treasures such as the electric waters of Peyto Lake, the stunning Saskatchewan River Crossing and the glass-bottom Glacier Skywalk, which is every bit as terrifying as it sounds. It allows you to walk out over a glacial ravine with only a sheet of glass to prevent you from falling down into it.
Visit Outside of Ski Season
While it’s true that Banff has gained much of its notoriety from its amazing ski slopes, they’re neither the beginning nor the end of everything it has to offer — particularly during spring and summer months. Hike amid the spring wildflowers or fall colors, or take advantage of the summer sunshine and enjoy whitewater rafting or mountain biking.
Plus, you’ll encounter fewer tourists, which means lower prices and ultimately less to stress you out on your weekend away from the city.