There is no question about it, Banff National Park is absolutely stunning. Everywhere you go, you will come across amazing landscapes featuring mountains, lakes, waterfalls, and wildlife. However, it all comes at a pretty hefty price.
Ever since Banff National Park was founded it has been a luxury destination. With some of the first hotels being luxury names like Fairmont (although back then they were owned by CP Rail), the only people that could afford to travel out west and to stay in these places had a lot of money. While traveling is much easier now and the prices aren’t quite as sky high, watching your budget can be a little tricky.
I’ve spent many years living and working here, and I thought I could share with you my top ten favourite budget friendly things to see and do in Banff National Park!
- Cave and Basin Hot Springs – $4
This is where Banff National Park started. The story is that two men who were working on the railway in the 1800’s stumbled across this hot spring. Hot springs were supposedly “fountains of youth”, and people would pay lots of money to soak in the water. Pretty soon they had a good business going. Eventually, some pretty important people discovered this little gem and they created the National Park to preserve this great natural treasure.
These days you can’t actually soak in the natural pools, but it is still an amazing and beautiful place to explore and learn more about. I will warn you though, the natural hot spring is fueled by sulphur, and sulphur STINKS. Like rotten eggs. You adjust to the smell though, don’t worry!
- Self-Guided Tour of the Fairmont Banff Springs – FREE!
Grab yourself a Key to the Castle Map (found in the lobby or online HERE). The main places you will want to check out are Heritage Hall, Riverview Lounge, Rundle Lounge Patio, the Cascade Ballroom, and Mount Stephen Hall (it looks like the Great Hall from Harry Potter, I am not kidding you!)
- Surprise Corner Lookout – FREE!
Lookout with a million dollar view. Set into the side of Tunnel Mountain, this lookout has a stunning backdrop with Sulphur Mountain and the Fairmont Banff Springs, not to mention mountains every which way you look.
- Bankhead Ghost Town
This place is seriously cool. It’s an old abandoned mining town with structures that are still standing like houses and parts of the old train track. Its located just outside of Banff and offers hours worth of exploration and discovery. If you like abandoned (and possibly haunted) locations, you’ll love this!
- Lake Louise Sightseeing Gondola – $32
This sightseeing gondola runs from late May to early October and boasts the most bear sightings around. Once you get to the top, you have a panoramic view of the mountain ranges surrounding Lake Louise, and you can actually see Lake Louise nestled between the peaks.
- Moraine Lake – FREE!
So many people travel to Lake Louise and miss this place. They are so focused on seeing Lake Louise itself, they don’t even realize that this absolute beauty is just right around the corner. With hikes that lead to Consolation Lakes, and the monolith hike of Babel (seriously, don’t do this one if you aren’t fit), and even just the hike up to the Rock Pile to sit and gaze out at the lake… It’s a shame more people don’t see it.
The road to Moraine Lake is closed from early October (it closed October 11th this year) to early June because it’s too dangerous in the winter. In the summer, be prepared for crowds. Try and visit before 9am or after 6pm.
- Lake Louise – FREE!
Picturesque. Breathtaking. All of those cliché things. Lake Louise is majestic and definitely a must see. You can go canoeing on Lake Louise (although it is quite pricey), and in the winter there is ice-skating and an ICE CASTLE. It is truly magical. Like Moraine Lake, it gets super busy in the summer. So try to visit before 9am or after 6pm.
- Cascade Gardens – FREE!
Located in Banff at the end of Banff Avenue, overlooking Cascade Mountain. The building on the property is closed to the public, but the gardens are open. It took me a long time to wander in, but once I did, I didn’t want to leave. The flowers are meticulously cared for, with stone and wooden structures scattered throughout. Take a picnic lunch and grab a seat in the garden. You won’t regret it.
- Hike to Plain of Six Glaciers – FREE!
This is a pretty big hike if you go all the way up to the Tea House. Even if you don’t make it all the way up, the views are still incredible. The path goes around to the back of Lake Louise, then climbs up the valley towards Victoria Glacier. Doing this in the Autumn when the larch trees are changing colour is phenomenal. The pictures do not do it justice. (I did this trail on horseback, you can watch the video of that here. The video doesn’t do it justice either.)
- Emerald Lake, Takkakaw Falls & Natural Bridge – FREE!
Okay, this one is cheating a bit, because it’s actually in Yoho National Park… which is only a 20 minute drive from Lake Louise and is well worth the trip! The first spot you will come to is Takkakaw Falls, which is an absolutely stunning waterfall that is so tall its extremely difficult to get a photograph of the whole thing. Then you will come across the natural bridge. At one point the bridge spanned right across the river. Time and weather has eroded the soft rock formations though, but the erosion makes for great photos!
After you have checked those out, you will end up at Emerald Lake (pictured below). Which is so blue and green you won’t believe your eyes. All three things easily done in a morning or afternoon alone, and all completely free.
There you have it! My top ten budget friendly things to do in Banff National Park. Thinking of planning a trip out here after seeing all these amazing pictures?
Beautiful photos!!! I am so excited to visit Banff and follow your tips. Sounds silly but definitely didn’t think there’d be so many great budget/free options. Great tips!
I ahve read many good things about Banff and have seen many great photographs. But this is the first time I am seeing a budget guide on the region. This is an excellent initiative and a lifesaver for poor travellers like me.