Home » A First Timers Guide to Banff National Park

A First Timers Guide to Banff National Park

by Kelly Smith

The idea behind this article is to provide some guidance to those of you who have never been to the Canadian Rockies and Banff National Park. This article will try to head off some of those Canadian myths that are floating around out there and advise you what not to take for granted. If you come from any type of large urban area take careful notes and be prepared.


A lot of people visiting don’t seem to have an idea of how big this area is and the distances they will have to travel to go from place to place, the little chunk of western Canada which forms the Canadian Rockies occupies a land mass approximately the size of England.

A common plan is driving up to Jasper for the day along the Icefield Parkway.

EDITORS NOTE: Well during the summer this is possible but all you are going to do is drive. The drive to Jasper is approximately 290 km and takes about 3.5 hours one way with no stopping. Another thing that most people don’t realize is that between Lake Louise and Jasper there is a total of 3 buildings – and that in the winter 2 of the 3 are closed.

Driving Time Estimates

These timings are for Summer driving conditions

  • Vancouver to Victoria Ferry trip approximately 1.5 hrs one way – not including wait time for ferry and driving times to/from ferry terminals
  • Vancouver to Banff is approximately 900km one way – or around 10 hours NONSTOP
  • Banff to Jasper approximately 300 km one way or around 3.5 hours NONSTOP
  • Banff to Calgary approximately 135 km one way or around 1.5 hours NONSTOP
  • Jasper to Edmonton approximately 400 km one way or around 4 hours NON STOP

Banff Accommodations

The images most people have of Canada are of classic wilderness scenes and expect that it’s available everywhere.

The National Parks here do not have that quintessential log cabin on the lake – because the towns are inside National Parks (which are protected areas) they are not allowed to be developed outside their boundaries… nor do we have on-hill condos where you can ski to your door. Do they exist in Canada – Yes – just not in places that you have heard of. Fernie, Silverstar, etc.

Do not wait to make reservations – JULY and AUGUST months are always booked months ahead – think about it – 4.5 million people visit Banff every year – probably close to half of them during those two months – the hotels, motels, b&b’s, etc, etc can only hold about 60,000 people a night and you will be several hours drive from more accommodations.

Costs – expect to pay premium dollars to stay in Banff or Lake Louise – it’s known thru out the world – it’s a World Heritage Site – it has limited space – prices range from $175 Cdn – $300 Cdn per night for your average hotel room (two beds and a bathroom).


New York City this is not! The thing about the Canadian Rockies is that they are almost completely within protected lands – that means that nothing may be developed within them with the exceptions of the townsite areas which have very small boundaries.

Gas/Petrol – You will be able to get gas, propane and diesel in the main townsites (Banff, Canmore, LakeLouise, Jasper, Golden, Invermere , Revelstoke) – off the TransCanada Highway #1 you will more than likely only find gas, and occassionally diesel.

** Almost all rental cars and rental RV’s use unleaded gas which is found everywhere.

Hardware/Drug Stores – ditto but probably closed on Sundays in smaller towns.

Grocery Stores – open 7 days a week usually till 9:00p.m.

Car Rentals – Big cities – Calgary, Kelowna, Vancouver, Edmonton, etc., small car rental agencies in Banff, Canmore and Jasper.

Shuttle Service to Banff – Banff Airporter provides shuttle service from Calgary International Airport to Banff.

The Towns

A common misconception is the expectations visitors have of the towns and villages that are in the Rockies – one thing to note is that most of the buildings in the towns are only three stories high due to development restrictions in National Parks and the average population of a town in the Canadian Rockies is about 5,000 people.

Banff is a busy small town with a densely developed core of about three square blocks – there is a lot of museums, curios shops, clothing stores and restaurants and bars. During the summer months Banff is a wall of people and cars…. A good comparison would be Jackson Hole but smaller and less flashy. Do yourself a favor and think of Banff National Park as what it is – a huge area of undeveloped landscapes that has 2 little town in it where most of the visitors go. If you leave the towns and go for a walk you will quickly leave behind those scenes.

Canmore – essentially the bedroom town of Banff – it’s developing it’s own core of ‘tourism’ stores and nightlife but is still very quiet at night – the kind of place that most stores close at 6:00 p.m. Weekends but the Music and Games Festivals are very crowded.

Lake Louise – is the Lake, a few hotels with restaurants and a mall with a visitor centre, this is not a big place, but there is a stunning amount of quality restaurants in the immediate area for reasonable prices.

Jasper – like Banff but with a smaller downtown core – not as many museums or as many things to see. Is a main stop for the VIA Rail (the only “non-tourism” train stop in the National Parks).

BC Side of the Rockies
Field – an original whistle stop for the CPR railway – this town hasn’t changed too much. A decent deli is in the centre of town or slide out of town towards the stunning takkakaw falls – there is also a deli in the general store by the campground.

Invermere/Radium – the place to go when the weather on the AB side is a little too cold for your liking.

Revelstoke – nice mix of heritage houses, restaurants, browsing thru antique shops, coffee places etc. Railway Museum, located next to the Columbia River.

RVer’s and those planning on renting campers/motorhomes

Learn how to use all the basic items/systems BEFORE you leave – TAKE NOTES – but don’t be afraid to ask your neighbours for help – RVers are a friendly bunch – and Banff/Jasper is on the main full time RVer’s route to Alaska – and they are very knowledgable people.

Out of all the campgrounds available there are a total of 4 (four) campgrounds with full hookup services (water, power, sewer) in the entire Mountain National Parks (Banff, Jasper, Yoho, Kootenay – that’s about 20,000 square kilometers/8,000 square miles)…. and no we’re not kidding – the rest of the campgrounds are dry camping sites – usually with a central provisioning point for water.

You MAY NOT camp along the roadside…. not only do the national parks not allow it but there simply is no room. Boondocking is tough since there is almost no side roads throughout the National Parks – you’ll have better luck just outside the National Parks.

NOTE: National Parks require a park visitor permit PLUS your camping fee at the campground. Provincial Parks only require a camping fee.

Things to Do in Banff

Ever notice how you fumble around looking for stuff to do on holidays when our work and chore routines are gone.

Most of the ACTIVITIES here tend to involve being outdoors and having access to a car, by this we mean the mountain areas are a very outdoor pursuits oriented area – there are a few museums and galleries to poke around in, a few movie theatres (Banff, Jasper, Golden, Revelstoke ) but the majority of stuff to do involves some sort of physical activity or driving or walking somewhere to look at something.

Sightseeing – Big, bold mountains – towering waterfalls – There are so many picturesque scenes in this part of the world you may actually start to grow bored.

 – Flyfishing, Rafting, Hiking, Biking – they all exist – just like back home but click here to go to the unique places that exist here to do them.

Weather and Driving

We get a lot of questions regarding winter and winter driving conditions.

Click here to go to the weather overview and current conditions.

Winter Driving Overview

Winter conditions start in earnest during the month of December – the odd freak storm may occur earlier – but this is the month when snow stays until spring.

Typically most driving problems are related to visibility on the highways due to either blowing snow or windshields being covered with slush by passing vehicles.

In the towns problems relate to traction – usually at intersections and curves where ice can build up – and this is very slippery ice, slow speeds are required when approaching intersections.

All rental cars come with all-season radial tires – and are recommended and in some cases required to travel on high mountain passes such as Rogers Pass or the Icefields Parkway – basically anything north or west of Lake Louise. Chains are not required for passenger vehicles. And remember – 4×4 only means it’s easier to go forward – if conditions are so bad you have to use 4×4 mode you should be going much, much slower… you can still spinout, slide, etc with a 4×4 just as you can with a regular car.

Road conditions are monitored and patrolled daily by both the Parks Service and the R.C.M.P. Snow plows maintain the highways year round and road reports are broadcast on local radio stations and are available at any Parks Information Centre.

Good Winter Driving Conditions – roads are bare and dry; visibility is good – you should have no problems.

Fair Winter Driving Conditions – roads are snow packed (you’re driving on snow not pavement) or slush covered with some slippery sections (hitting slush causes vehicle to pull to one side dramatically); visibility is reduced due to blowing snow as well as spray from passing transport trucks. These are the average conditions of mountain roads – by paying attention and slowing down you can safely reach your destination.

Poor Winter Driving Conditions – just stay where you are and wait for a few hours. Typically these are storm conditions and the road may actually close behind you. Roads slush covered or snow drifts forming on roadway; traction loss on hills; limited visibility due to blowing snow.

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