Banff National Park is Canada’s first National Park. Since its inception in 1885, Banff has been buzzing with tourists from all around the globe, and who can blame them? It is one of the most beautiful parks in the world.
Luckily for anyone visiting, there are plenty of free things to do in Banff National Park.
I spent the summer of 2017 living in and exploring Banff. Some days I had to pinch myself to believe that I was lucky enough to live and work in this national park. Every weekend I was either hiking a mountain, going on a camping trip with my friends or exploring the area in my van.
I was on a very tight budget, so I put a lot of research into finding free or low-cost activities.
I found that exploring Banff doesn’t need to be expensive- there are plenty of free activities you can try. Here are my 50 favourite free things to do in Banff National Park.
Banff Bucket List: 50 Cheap & Free things to do in Banff National Park
1. Photograph the sunrise at Two Jack Lake. Two Jack Lake is one of the best places to photograph the sunrise in Banff. The spectacular backdrop of Rundle Mountain is every photographers dream.
2. Relax at Johnson Lake. This lake is one of the only lakes in Banff National Park that is warm enough to swim in. You’ll find the locals tanning in the sun on a warm day and dipping their feet in the water.
3. Cycle to Vermillion Lakes. Right on the edge of the town of Banff lies Vermillion Lakes. This is another great place to get that coveted reflection shot of Rundle Mountain. The odd moose has even been spotted here!
4. Visit Peyto Lake. Your jaw will drop when you see the colour of this lake. This lake is one of the rare few that does not require an Instagram filter- it is naturally breathtaking.
Banff National Park has some of the most picturesque lakes in Canada
5. Visit Lake Louise. Completely frozen in the winter and early spring, breathtakingly turquoise blue in the summer- this lake is iconic.
6. Visit Moraine Lake. This lake is an absolute must-see. Arguably one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, Moraine Lake isn’t as famous as its neighbour Lake Louise, but it is just as, if not more, beautiful.
7. Take a cruise around Lake Minnewanka. Book a cruise on Banff’s largest lake! Lake Minnewanka is also a fantastic place to watch the sunrise.
8. Road trip to Bow Lake. The landscape behind Bow Lake makes this lake worthy of a visit. Look carefully for Crowfoot Glacier, which is visable from Bow Lake.
A visit to Moraine Lake is one of the best free things to do in Banff National Park
9. Hike the iconic Cascade Mountain. Hike the most famous mountain in Banff! This hike is not for the fainthearted- it is classed as difficult and involves a scramble at the end. It is a 9-hour roundtrip, and you gain 1,460 metres of elevation. You can pick up the Scrambler’s Guide to Cascade Mountain from the information centre in Banff.
10. Hike the smaller portion of Cascade Mountain. The C Cirque Level trail is an easy to moderate hike that takes you up part of Cascade Mountain. This hike takes you past old mine buildings and at the end you will reach a bowl-shaped depression created by an alpine glacier. Continue hiking up through the trees to reach panoramic views featuring Lake Minnewanka.
11. Summit a mountain within an hour. Tunnel Mountain is a popular hike for Banffites as the start of the hike is a 15-minute walk away. It is classed as a moderate hike, and offers spectacular views of the Town of Banff and Rundle Mountain.
12. Hike to a secluded tea house at Lake Agnes. Hike to a remote tea house nestled among the Canadian Rockies! Workers carry in supplies to this tea house, which has over 100 different flavours of tea. Make sure you bring cash as the tea house does not have credit or debit facilities!
13. Hike to Victoria Glacier. Hike to the famous glacier that is the backdrop of Lake Louise on the Plain of Six Glaciers hike. This hike takes you to a tea house where you can have a refreshing beverage and scone, and if you continue for another couple of kilometres you will arrive at Victoria Glacier.
The C Cirque Level trail
14. Witness the Larch trees turn a vibrant gold in fall. The Larch Valley hike is a must do if you are visiting Banff National Park in fall. Be rewarded with views of the Valley of the Ten Peaks when you reach the end. You can read about this hike and more things to do in Lake Louise here.
15. See the bizarre Ink Pots. Continued from the Johnston Canyon hike, the Ink Pots hike takes you to seven spring-fed pools of water with bizarre ring formations.
16. Hike through a sea of wildflowers at Sunshine Meadows. Lonely Planet named this the number one hike in Canada for a good reason. Visit in spring or summer to see wildflowers dotted throughout the trail.
17. See the frozen waterfall at Lake Louise. Walk across the frozen Lake Louise and to the right you will find a waterfall that is completely frozen over in winter. Oh, and make sure you pack the right clothing for this adventure!
18. Check out Bow Falls. One of the most famous waterfalls in Banff, the Bow Falls is a short walk from the town centre.
The town of Banff, nestled in the Rocky Mountains
19. Stroll along Johnston Canyon. This easy hike takes you through a canyon to two waterfalls. Keep an eye out for a secret path that takes you down beneath one of the waterfalls.
20. Hike to Sundance Canyon. This three-hour hike takes you to a small canyon south-west of Banff. This canyon isn’t as busy as Johnston Canyon, so if you prefer a longer and quieter hike, give this one a go.
21. Go to the Rockies Shred Fest. This annual event held in October is a great way to get excited for the upcoming ski season. Shred Fest features one night of the “best of” local ski and snowboard films, a trade show, and lots of prizes for attendees.
22. Attend the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival. The world-famous Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival is an event not to miss. Held every fall, the event features stories of remote journeys, ground-breaking expeditions, and cutting-edge adventures told through the eyes of adventurers, authors, photographers, and filmmakers from around the world.
23. Watch a film at the Lux. The Lux is Banff’s very own cinema. There is a movie meal deal on a Tuesdays for $15.
24. Check out an event at the Banff Centre. Some of the most creative people in the world come to the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity for a residency, so make sure you check out a performance while you’re in Banff.
25. Ski the Big 3. Hire some skis and head to the three ski hills in Banff National Park: Lake Louise, Sunshine Mountain and Mt Norquay.
26. Go Tubing. Zoom down an icy run in winter on an inflatable tube at the tube park at Mt Norquay.
27. Go snowshoeing. Get in touch with nature this winter and strap on some snow shoes- specially designed shoes that allow you to walk on snow. Try snowshoeing along Johnston Canyon or Marble Canyon and marvel at the frozen waterfalls!
28. Go dogsledding. In winter, up the ante and go dog sledding! This is an unforgettable experience you have to try at least once in your life.
29. Go for a sleigh ride around the Town of Banff. See Banff from a different perspective and take a tour of the town in winter by a horse-drawn carriage!
FOOD AND BEVERAGE
30. Try Cows ice cream. Get there early as Cows is known for almost always having a line out the door in summer!
31. Beer Club at the Banff Ave Brewing Co. For only $10 every Wednesday night at 8pm, head to beer club for an information session and taste a selection of beers from around Canada.
Looking across Lake Louise- a Banff bucket list must!
32. Try a Beaver Tail. There are two Beaver Tail locations on Banff Avenue. Make sure you try this naughty but delicious pastry treat.
33. Visit Surprise Corner. Walk or drive to Surprise Corner- the best viewing point to see the Fairmont Banff Springs. The chalet is reminiscent of Hogwarts, but even if you’re no Harry Potter fan the architecture makes this walk well worth it!
34. Visit the hoodoos. You can view the hoodoos at the end of Hoodoos Trail by the Tunnel Mountain Campground, however the best Hoodoos in the area are located two kilometres from Banff as you drive towards Canmore. Look to the left of the Trans Canada Highway and see rows and rows of these odd, archaic formations.
35. Go wildlife spotting. Hire a car and drive around the Lake Minnewanka Loop and the golf course loop by the Fairmont Banff Springs. The best time to go wildlife spotting is first thing in the morning or just before sunset in summer as this is when the animals are most likely to appear. Grizzly bears, black bears, deer, elk and big horn sheep are regularly spotted throughout the summer in these areas!
36. Drive the Icefields Parkway. This drive is one of the most beautiful in the world, so you don’t want to rush it. Wild camping or sleeping in an RV/van is illegal in Banff National Park, EXCEPT for this one spot that offers free camping near Banff for one night. Make the most of this golden opportunity and carry on to drive the Icefields Parkway to Jasper the following day!
37. Have a sound bath. Every Friday, Amaryllis Crystal Garden invites people to participate in a meditative healing sound bath.
38. Visit Cave and Basin. Learn about how Banff National Park was discovered by visiting the National Historic Site, Cave and Basin- two natural thermal mineral springs.
39. Ride a horse through the Canadian Rockies. Experience the Rockies from the best perspective– on the back of a horse! Alberta is well known for its country music and cowboy culture, so why not soak up some incredible views while experiencing the Albertan way of life.
40. Canoe on a lake. Hire a canoe from the docks at the end of Wolf Street and paddle on the emerald green Bow River.
41. Go on a wildlife safari. Discover Banff has a great 2-hour wildlife safari and spotting wild animals is almost always guarenteed. You’ll have the opportunity to see bears, elk, moose and other animals in the area!
42. Meet wolfdogs at the Wolfdog Sanctuary. Visit one of the largest wolfdog sanctuaries in Canada. If you would like to enter the enclosure to see the wolfdogs up close, choose the interactive tour. Book this tour in advance as it fills up quickly!
43. Try Via Ferrata. Via Ferrata is a rock climbing activity suitable for most levels of fitness. Choose the Summiteer route and be rewarded with amazing views of the Canadian Rockies and the Town of Banff when you reach the top of Mt Norquay.
44. Soak your stresses away at the Banff Upper Hot Springs. Rest your sore muscles after a days’ hiking at the Banff Upper Hot Springs located at Sulphur Mountain.
45. Go bowling at High Rollers. Head to High Rollers on Banff Avenue for half price pizza and $30 all day and night bowling on a Thursday.
46. Learn about the parks history. There are several museums to check out in Banff. I recommend visiting the Whyte Museum, Banff Park Museum and the Buffalo Nation Luxton Museum.
47. Gaze up at the Northern Lights. Watch one of the most incredible displays that nature can put on. Most locals head out to Lake Minnewanka to watch the Northern Lights as they are a lot clearer away from the Town of Banff. Tip: You can check the Aurora Watch website between 11pm-1am to see if the Aurora Borealis is predicted to appear that night. Subscribe to receive updates when there is a 75% chance or higher of the Northern Lights coming out to dance!
CHAIRLIFTS AND GONDOLAS
48. Ride the Banff Gondola. See the town of Banff from 2,281 metres!
49. Ride the Lake Louise Gondola. Go grizzly bear spotting as you ride the gondola to an elevation of 2088 metres! Have lunch at the Whitehorn Bistro and relax on the patio with stunning views of Louise and Victoria Glacier.
50. Ride the Mt Norquay chairlift. There is a restaurant at the top of the chairlift where you can relax while looking out over the Canadian Rockies and the town of Banff.
I hope this list gives you some ideas for for Banff bucket list! If you enjoyed it, share it on Facebook, tweet it, or pin it!
Have you visited Banff National Park? How many things from this list have you ticked off?