Banff National Park is a once in a lifetime trip, and while it can be quite costly, there are plenty of free things to do in Banff. The bright blue lakes, wildlife and world-class hikes attract visitors to Banff from all over the world, and who can blame them? It is one of the most stunning places in Canada.
As Canada’s first National Park, the best way to explore Banff is by spending time in nature. This list of free things to see in Banff includes a mix of lookout points, hikes, lakes, drives and historical places. Besides the cost of gas and your National Parks Pass, none of the below activities include an entry-fee.
A trip to Banff never disappoints. Living in British Columbia I’m not too far from Banff National Park and have explored it on many occasions. I absolutely fell in love with it’s other-worldly beauty. It’s hard to believe this place actually exists.
Although a trip to Banff rarely comes cheap, if you are on a budget and wanting to explore the plethora of free activities, the below list rounds up 38 great options.
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Free Things To Do In Banff National Park
1) Walk around the Lake Louise Lakeshore
No matter how many times I visit Banff, a trip to Lake Louise is always a must. Seeing Lake Louise is undoubtedly one of the best things to do in Banff for free.
When arriving at Lake Louise the crowds always look bigger than they are. People like to gather at the first part of the lake, but if you continue walking along the shore to the right you’ll find lots of places to take photos with less people. If you have time, continue all the way to the other end of the lake, it’s a great perspective that many visitors don’t see.
2) Spot Wildlife
Seeing wildlife is definitely a highlight of any trip to Banff and there are plenty of opportunities to do so. Banff National Park is home to black bears, grizzly bears, deer, elk, and big horned sheep. Wildlife can be spotted just about anywhere, so keep an eye out.
I’ve been lucky enough to see many different animals in Banff and they can be spotted just about anywhere. Taking a drive in the later afternoon around Banff is the best way to spot wildlife and it’s totally free.
3) Bow Falls Lookout
Bow Falls is one of many beautiful waterfalls in Banff, it’s also one of the most accessible. There are several ways you can visit Bow Falls, either by driving and parking at the parking lot, or you can actually walk here from Banff town.
Personally I would recommend the walking route from Banff Avenue. Not only is it a beautiful walk in nature, but it follows the Bow River which runs through the National Park. This walk is relatively easy, so great for families. If you have anyone in your party that cannot access stairs, I would recommend driving here.
If you are looking for things to do once you reach the Bow Falls, the Banff Springs Hotel is nearby and worth wandering through.
4) Watch the sunrise at Moraine Lake
Watching the sunrise at Moraine Lake is one of the top free Banff activities. This is a bucket-list moment for most travellers and watching the peaks turn red makes the early wake-up call worth it.
Moraine Lake is by far the most stunning location in Banff National Park, this also makes it the busiest. In recent years watching the sunrise here has become so popular that the small parking lot is full by 2:30am some days.
I have watched the sunrise twice from Moraine Lake and I’ve also visited right after sunset around 6am. My advice would be to go in the shoulder seasons of June and September, stay in Lake Louise so you are close by, and go on a weekday. Bring warm clothing, even a blanket, as the mountain air is incredibly cold in the morning.
If you aren’t able to visit at sunrise, sunset is much quieter. You can also visit during the day and the best way is on the Parks Shuttle. The parking lot at Moraine Lake is very small so the road to the lake often gets closed.
Visiting Moraine Lake is seasonal as the road fully closes between October and May.
5) Hike Johnston Canyon
Johnston Canyon is one of the most popular free attractions in Banff and great fun for visitors of all ages. There are two waterfalls at Johnston Canyon, the Upper and Lower Falls. The hike to the Lower Falls is the most visited and is a 2.3km hike. Many people hike to the lower falls as the hike is quite easy, and then head back out.
If you are wanting to spend longer here, the upper falls is definitely worth a visit. At 5.1km the upper falls is a longer hike with double the elevation. The Upper Falls is much more impressive and worth the extra extra. If you still want to continue along the trail the Ink Pots are a series of beautiful turquoise coloured ponds.
Getting to Johnston Canyon early is recommended as the trail is very narrow in sections and much of it is only wide-enough for one person at a time.
6) Drive the Bow Valley Parkway
The Bow Valley Parkway runs parallel to the Highway and is a great alternative for getting to and from Lake Louise from Banff. This scenic drive offers fantastic views of surrounding mountains, it’s also a great drive if you’re looking to spot some of Banff’s Wildlife.
Along the Bow Valley Parkway are Johnston Canyon, Castle Mountain and Morant’s Curve, but it’s worth driving this stretch of road a few times during your trip if you’re keen to spot elk, bears or big horn sheep.
7) Hike Tunnel Mountain
Hiking is one of the best free activities in Banff and there are a wide variety of hikes in the area. Tunnel Mountain is an easy to moderate 4.5km hiking trail that leads to phenomenal views of the Bow Valley and Mount Rundle. Once you reach the top there are 360 degree views of Banff and a couple of iconic red chairs to enjoy the view from.
You can park right at the trailhead for the Tunnel Mountain hike, however it does get busy so getting here earlier in the day is better. If the parking lot is full, there is another parking lot a bit further away but this does add some time onto your hike.
8) Find the Castle Mountain Lookout
Castle Mountain is my absolute favourite mountain in Banff, I think its beauty is so underrated and often overlooked. You’ll pass by Castle Mountain is you drive the highway or Bow Valley Parkway between Banff and Lake Louise.
Castle Mountain dominates the landscape and it is hard to miss. While this mountain is easy to see from the road, you can actually find this really cool spot down by the Bow River. This is my favourite photo spot in Banff.
9) Watch the sunset at Vermilion Lakes
The Vermilion Lakes are a series of 3 lakes side by side close to the entrance to Banff Town. The drive to Vermilion lakes from Banff Avenue is around 10-minutes and this scenic road is great for wildlife spotting. I have spotted quite a few deer at Vermilion Lakes Road.
This is a really good place to watch the sunset or sunrise from one of the docks. Early morning is great for witnessing a perfect reflection of Mount Rundle on the water.
10) Take Photos at Surprise Corner
There are many viewpoints in Banff, but one of the most iconic is Surprise Corner. Surprise corner overlooks the Spray Valley and Bow River and showcases the magnificent beauty of the Banff Springs Hotel. Often called the Castle in the Rockies, it’s easy to see why this famous hotel got this nickname.
There is a small parking lot at Surprise Corner which often fills up so it’s best to visit early in the morning or late afternoon.
11) Visit Peyto Lake
Once you reach the parking lot there is a short uphill hike that leads to the viewpoint. This viewpoint is accessible year-round but can be slippery in winter so come prepared with micro spikes if you need them.
Peyto Lakes sits at the highest point on the Icefields Parkway, known as Bow Summit. It is a 20-minute drive from Lake Louise and about an hours drive from Banff itself.
12) Bow Lake Viewpoint
Another must-do stop on the Icefields Parkway is Bow Lake. I think Bow Lake is one of Banff’s underrated lakes and it is truly stunning to see in person. Visiting Bow Lake requires minimal effort as you can see the lake from the parking lot.
Bow Lake is best visited early in the morning when the water is calm. This is a really relaxing spot as there are minimal crowds. Take a walk along the shoreline and walk across the picturesque bridge leading to the Bow Lake Lodge (Formerly Num Ti Jah lodge).
13) Walk around the Cascade of Time Gardens
When visiting Banff, an early start is to be expected if you want to avoid crowds and ensure you see the top sights. However, many of the local stores and restaurants do not open until 9 or 10am. This was my experience in June. After having just watched the sunrise at Lake Louise I needed time to kill, so I headed for the Cascade of Time Gardens which are 100% free to visit.
The Gardens are located just by the Parks Canada admin building. The gardens are so serene and great for a morning walk.
14) Drink tea at the Lake Agnes Tea House
The Lake Agnes Tea House has been a part of Banff history since 1901 when it acted as a refuge for hikers. It is now one of the most popular hikes in the Lake Louise area. The tea house does get very busy so visiting early in the morning is the best way to ensure you get seated and do not have to wait in line too long.
There is no entry fee to the Tea House and the prices for tea and food items are very reasonable. I personally love the vanilla earl grey and the freshly made tea cakes if you are stopping by. The hike to Lake Agnes Tea House is 7.4km and considered moderate.
The tea house sits on Lake Agnes, which is worth the hike alone. If you’re not into tea and just want to hang out at this alpine lake, the views are more than worth it.
15) Hike to the Banff Hoodoos
The Banff Hoodoos are one of the most underrated viewpoints in Banff. Hoodoos are eroded spires of rock made of sandstone. They are formed over millions of years. The best way to see the hoodoos is to drive along Tunnel Mountain Road until you reach the parking lot. From here the lookout point is around a 5-minute walk.
Besides the Hoodoos themselves, there are a number of reasons I love this area. This spot has out-of-this-world views of Mount Rundle which can be enjoyed from the comfort of Banff’s iconic red chairs. This area is also generally quiet with less crowds, which makes the experience all the more special. If you’re looking to see some fantastic views of Mount Rundle with minimal people, this lookout spot seriously showcases its monumental beauty.
16) Take a photo in the iconic Banff red chairs
The National Parks red chairs are scattered all throughout Banff National Park. Although not a must-do activity, they do make for a cool photo and momento from your trip.
If you are looking for free stuff to do in Banff, searching for the red chairs is super fun! There are so many sets of red chairs that you’re bound to come across some during your time in Banff. My personal favourites are from the Hoodoos trail and the Tunnel Mountain Trail.
17) Mistaya Canyon
Mistaya Canyon is a short easy hike located along the Icefields Parkway. The hike itself is mostly downhill and around 15 minutes one way. This beautiful canyon makes for a great photo spot and area to stretch your legs. Although suitable for all ages, this trail is very basic but uneven in sections.
The hike back to the parking lot is all uphill but with minimal elevation. In total the hike there and back plus time to wander was around 45 minutes all in. Take care when wandering close to the river as the rocks can get slippery. Mistaya is around 1hour 40minutes from Banff, but makes for a great free activity when road tripping the Icefields Parkway.
18) Watch the train pass by Morant’s Curve
The Bow Valley Parkway is a beautiful drive that stretches from Banff to Lake Louise and one of the must-see stops is Morant’s Curve. Morant’s Curve is a curve in the railway track with a mountainous backdrop, it is especially beautiful in the winter covered in snow.
As one of Banff’s most famous lookout points and photography spots, many photographers flock here and wait for the train to pass to get that iconic shot. Although it’s hard to predict when the train is coming, this lookout spot is beautiful no matter the time of day.
19) Lake Minnewanka
Lake Minnewanka is one of the biggest lakes in the Canadian Rockies, and is a beautiful blue lake that spans 13 miles. Lake Minnewanka actually hides a ghost town beneath its surface, originally known as “Minnewanka Landing” a former resort town. This small town was eventually engulfed by water as a result of a nearby dam being built.
Besides the ghost town, Lake Minnewanka has a history that goes back thousands of years. Indigenous people have long inhabited the area and artifacts such as spear points and tools have been found in the area. This is a really special place to come and enjoy the monumental landscape.
20) Visit the Cave & Basin National Historic Site
If you have purchased a National Parks Discovery Pass, entry to the Cave & Basin is free. The Cave and Basin is considered the birthplace of Banff, and where Banff National Park found its origins. The McCardell Brothers discovered a hot spring here, and in 1887 this reserve became Canada’s first National Park.
There are two sections of the Cave and Basin. The first hot pool located outside is the basin, now home to the endangered Banff Springs Snail, while the cave is a hot pool underground surrounded by hanging stalactites.
The museum documents the history of Banff National Park from its origins to present day and is super informative. This is a great activity to do in Banff when it rains.
21) Walk across the Banff Pedestrian Bridge
If you are looking for amazing views of Cascade Mountain with little to no people in, head to the Banff Pedestrian Bridge. This bridge passes over the Bow River and features mighty views of Cascade Mountain. Most people head to Banff Avenue to take shots with this mountain, but I think the pedestrian bridge is a much more impressive.
22) Window Shop in Banff Town
Banff Avenue is an attraction in itself in Banff National Park. This famous street features views of surrounding mountains, most notably, Cascade Mountain. There are a plethora of stores along this street from Beaver Tails to Roots. Wandering the avenue and window shopping is completely free but there are some affordable gift stores if you want to take some Canadian Souvenirs home.
23) Hike Sulphur Mountain
If you want to visit the top of the Banff Gondola without paying the ticket price, you can hike the Sulphur Mountain trail. This trail is a 11km trail with an elevation of 756km. This hike takes around 4 to 5 hours and is recommended for well-seasoned hikers. I would not recommend this for new hikers.
Once you reach the top, there are several areas to explore. The Sky Bistro is a great option for lunch or dinner with fantastic mountain views. If you’re not too tired after the hike up, the boardwalk that leads from the Sky Bistro offers 360 degree views of Banff.
If you’re not up for the hike back down, you can try to take the Gondola down, dependent on how busy it is. A ride down is not always guaranteed. The ticket price is 50% off the regular price.
24) Banff Park Museum National Historic Site
Built in 1903, the Banff Park Museum is the oldest park facility in the Canadian National Park system. Located in the heart of downtown Banff, this log constructed building is hard to miss. The museum houses over 5000 specimens and showcases the beauty and history of Canada’s first National Park. If you have purchased a Parks Canada Discovery Pass, entry to the museum is free. This museum is great for when it rains in Banff, or if you are looking for activities in Banff without access to a car.
25) Go Ice Skating
Ice Skating is one of the top free activities in Banff in winter. In the winter when Lake Louise freezes, it becomes one of the most beautiful skating ranks, and as long as you have your own skates this activity is completely free.
There are a number of places to ice skate besides Lake Louise however. Almost any frozen lake in Banff can be used to ice skate. A few popular lakes include Vermilion Lakes, Lake Minnewanka and Two Jack Lake. It’s important to take caution when ice skating on frozen lakes, always ensure the ice is fully frozen and thick enough before attempting any skating.
If ice skating on a frozen lake is not your thing, the skating rink at Banff Community High School is free to visit and as it’s located in Downtown Banff, it’s really easy to get to. This skating rink is located outside too, making it a perfect opportunity to soak in the mountain views.
26) Marvel at the Ice Castles & Visit The International Ice Carving Competition
Visiting Lake Louise in winter is a magical time of year to experience the ice castles. Located on the frozen shore of Lake Louise, the ice castles are a free winter activity in Banff that make for the perfect annual family winter photo.
In January the annual Ice Magic International Ice Carving Competition is held and showcases a beautiful display of ice sculptures. The event is free to visit Monday to Friday and on weekends before 10am and after 5:30pm. (The competition is postponed for 2023)
27) Drive The Icefields Parkway
The Icefields Parkway is one of the best drives in the world. The parkway starts just north of Lake Louise and spans all the way to Jasper National Park. There is much to see along the Icefields Parkway, it’s possible to spend a few hours or a few days here. Since this road spans two different national parks, a parks pass is needed to drive it, but apart from this (and gas!) it is completely free to visit.
If you have time during your trip to Banff, I would highly recommended squeezing in a drive along this stunning highway.
28) Hike Plain of Six Glaciers & Tea House
Many visitors to the Lake Louise area are aware of the famous Lake Agnes Tea House, but there is another less-visited tea house in Lake Louise that often gets overlooked. The Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House is a 5.3km hike with a 400metre elevation.
The Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House is a less popular trail and therefore it is often quieter than that of Lake Agnes. The Plain of Six Glaciers hiking trail is also uniquely beautiful and offers views of the many glaciers found in the Lake Louise area. I think this is one of the more underrated hikes in Banff and besides purchasing tea and sweet treats, a visit to the tea house is totally free!
29) Visit the toe of the Athabasca Glacier
Seeing the Athabasca Glacier in person is a once in a lifetime moment. With the glacier receding due to climate change there has never been a better time to witness this giant up close for yourself.
The Athabasca Ice Explorer tours can be quite costly, but you don’t have to book the tour to see the glacier. You can drive up to the toe of the Athabasca Glacier for free! The visitor centre is also free to tour. Although you don’t get to walk on the glacier itself, you’ll get to see it up close and take just as many great photos.
Alternatively, you can head out on a hike such as Parker Ridge or Wilcox Pass to see panoramic views of the Athabasca Glacier or Saskatchewan Glacier.
30) Check out Waterfowl Lakes Viewpoint
Banff is famous for its glacial fed lakes and Waterfowl Lakes are some of the more underrated, lesser-visited lakes within the National Park. Located along the Icefields Parkway, Waterfowl Lakes can be a quick stop or you can choose to spend a few hours here.
On a quiet morning, the views of the mountains reflected on the water are fantastic. This is one of Banff’s best places to photograph as it is far less busy than Lake Louise and Moraine Lake. This stop can be added to any Icefields Parkway road trip. The parking lot on the left hand side of the parkway.
31) The Weeping Wall
One of many scenic spots on the Icefields Parkway, the Weeping Wall is a quick roadside stop that leads to a rocky wall with several small waterfalls cascading down it. These waterfalls are so small that it makes the cliff face look as though it is crying.
In the winter months these tiny waterfalls freeze and look even cooler! The weeping wall can be seen from the highway, so you don’t need to stop to catch a glimpse of it, but I think it’s too cool not to stop. This free activity in Banff is a great stop to add to your Icefields Parkway drive.
32) The Big Bend & Cirrus Viewpoint
The Cirrus viewpoint is one of the best in all of Banff National Park, this lookout point can be found along the Icefields Parkway. It’s actually a very easy lookout to miss if you do not know what you’re looking for. The viewpoint is immediately after what is called the Big Bend, which is essentially a big bend on the highway.
At first this viewpoint just look like any other rest stop, but it actually features one of the most iconic views of the Icefields Parkway. It’s so famous, that you’ve probably seen it without actually knowing it. There is no cell service on the Icefields Parkway, so I recommend downloading the Gypsy app to help you navigate this highway and ensure you don’t miss any top sights, such as the Cirrus viewpoint.
33) Parker Ridge Hike
The Parker Ridge hike is located a fair distance from the town of Banff, but it still lies within the Banff National Park boundary. This hike leads to world-class views of the Saskatchewan Glacier and is a great free option to add to your Icefields Parkway itinerary.
The Park Ridge trail is a total of 6.4km and 338 metres in elevation, making it a moderate hike suitable for most hikers. Since this hike is located a little out of the way, you’ll have many of the views all to yourself, and the best part is it’s completely free!
34) Big Beehive & Little Beehive
The Big and Little Beehive hikes are some of the best hikes in Banff National Park. Both hikes lead to jaw-dropping views above Lake Louise and are popular among visitors.
The two hikes do vary slightly in stats, the Little Beehive is a total length of 9km with an elevation of 535 metres while the Big Beehive is a total length of 10.9km and an elevation of 776km. Both hiking trails are the same in terms of technicality and terrain. The Big Beehive is naturally harder than the Little Beehive as it is longer and higher.
The viewpoints themselves are incredibly similar, the biggest difference is the Big Beehive view is slightly higher. Both trails pass by Lake Agnes Tea House, which is a great option to have lunch after reaching the viewpoints.
35) Hike The Larch Valley & Sentinel Pass
If you are visiting Banff in fall, the Larch Valley and Sentinel Pass hike is a must-do. The larch trees turn a beautiful shade of orange in the fall and many people flock here to witness it for themselves.
The hike to Larch Valley is 9km with an elevation of 535 metres with Sentinel Pass being a total of 11km with an elevation of 800metres. The larch season is short lived and this hike is very busy in the fall months. Many people come to hike just Larch Valley, but you can continue onto Sentinel Pass if you want to extend your hike.
This is one of the top hikes in the Moraine Lake area with the trailhead starting from the right side of the lake. This hike takes approximately 4 to 5 hours.
36) Crowfoot Glacier Viewpoint
It’s no surprise that Banff is full of amazing views, but one of the more uniques spots is the Crowfoot Glacier, this is a quick and free viewpoint to add to your Canadian Rockies itinerary.
The Crowfoot Glacier got its name from its unique shape, it looks just like a crows foot! Over the years the impacts of climate change have receded the glacier and now there are just 2 toes instead of the original 3. This Icefields Parkway stop can be paired with a visit to Bow Lake which the Crowfoot Glacier feeds into.
37) Fairview Lookout
Fairview lookout is an easy hike in the Lake Louise area suitable for families. This 2.5km trail leads to a viewpoint overlooking Lake Louise. Many of the top hikes in Lake Louise lead to panoramic views of the lake, but the Fairview showcases it from the left hand side instead of the right.
This hikes starts from the left of the lakeshore, just past the boathouse. It is a loop style trail that can be done in either direction. Since this is one of the shorter hikes in Lake Louise, it is also a good option in winter.
38) Consolation Lakes Hike
While the rock pile is the most popular activity at Moraine Lake, there is much more to explore in the area. If you are looking for easy to moderate hikes in the Moraine Lake area, Consolation Lakes is a great option. This hike leads to two beautiful lakes with stunning mountains that tower over them.
The terrain of this trail is relatively flat and easy. To find the trailhead, take the trail to the rock pile, within a few minutes you will reach another trail that leads to the left with a sign saying “Consolation Lakes”. The trail is a total of 7.6km with an elevation of 329 metres. Average hiking time is around 2-3 hours.
Where To Stay In Banff
Accommodation in Banff can be pretty pricey, but if you are budgeting on your activities, you may want to splurge on a hotel. Hotels are often fully booked more than a year in advance so the sooner you book the better. I use booking.com to book accommodation as they often have free cancellation options.
There are a range of budgets and areas for staying in Banff from hostels to hotels and cabin rentals. Generally the earlier you book, the better the price you’ll get. Below are some great places in stay in Banff.
Samesun Banff Hostel: If you’re visiting on a budget but still want a great location, the Banff Samesun hostel is perfect. This is also a great option for solo travellers to meet other like-minded travellers.
Banff Park Inn: My favourite budget to mid-range hotel in Banff. The Banff Park Lodge has what I would consider the best location of any hotel in Banff. The shuttle for the Banff Gondola picks up and drops off here, as does all airport shuttles. It’s also a 2-minute walk from Banff Avenue and 10-minutes from the Banff High School bus stops. The rooms here are super spacious and clean and offer everything you need.
Rimrock Resort Hotel: The Rim Rock resort is situated right next to the Banff Gondola, this does mean it is a ways away from Downtown but it does come with some perks. This area is much quieter and since the hotel is perched on the side of a mountain, the views are unparalleled.
Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise: If you really want the ultimate Banff experience, the Fairmont Lake Louise will not disappoint. The Fairmont brand knows how to perfect luxury and staying at this hotel is a bucket-list memory. My stay at this hotel was an experience in itself and waking up to out-of-this-world views of Lake Louise is something I’ll never forget.
Parks Canada National Parks Pass Info
If you are visiting or planning a trip to any of Canada’s National Parks, you will need to purchase a parks pass. There are a number of options available.
Single Day Admission:
This option is great if you only plan to spend a day or two in a National Park. Valid for one person per day. See the Parks Canada website for current rates. Children 17 or younger are free.
Group Daily Admission:
This is a great option if you have up to 7 people per one vehicle. It is cheaper than purchasing a pass for each person. See the Parks Canada website for current rates.
Parks Canada Discovery Pass:
A discovery Pass is, in my opinion, the best option for people visiting in groups for a week or more. This is an annual pass and is valid from the day you buy it. It will give you 365 days of entry to all of Canada’s National Parks. I purchased this for my 12 day trip to the Banff and Jasper in 2021 and used it 3 more times in Banff in 2022 and another for Pacific Rim in Tofino. If you are planning on traveling around Canada for an extended period of time, this is worth the money!
The Discovery Pass will cover up to 7 people per vehicle. You can purchase the Discovery pass online or in person when you arrive. See the Parks Canada website for current rates.
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