A trip to Banff National Park in the Canadian Rockies is a must-do in any lifetime, but the popularity of the destination can make for a crowded vacation. We visited during a peak travel time, but our experiences at even the most popular locations were not hampered by crowds in the least. As you’ll see in the pictures below, it looked and felt as though we had all that beauty to ourselves. I’m sharing my five best tips on how to avoid crowds in Banff, just like we did, and come home with amazing pictures and memories. You’ll also want to be sure to check out my complete Banff Travel Guide for planning tips and trip inspiration.
How to Avoid Crowds In Banff
During our trip to Banff, I posted daily recaps on the Such the Spot Facebook page. One of the comments read,
“Did you have Canada to yourselves this week? I’m amazed by the absence of people in your photos.”
In reality, there were throngs of people visiting at the same time we did, but we managed to avoid crowds in Banff and take in several of the area’s most amazing experiences in almost complete solitude. Here’s how we did it.
1. Get an Early Start
We visited during the summer when the sunrise took place each morning right around 5:30. On the days that we visited the most popular lakes, trails and vistas we tried to arrive around 7 am. Johnston Canyon, for instance, is a very popular hiking destination in Banff, though you’d never guess it judging from the photo below. There were only a handful of other people on the trail that morning.
We took full advantage of the solitude by searching for the infamous ‘secret cave.’ The good news is that we found it and we had it to ourselves for close to forty minutes before a few more adventurous hikers came wandering down the trail.
Before our trip, I kept reading that to avoid crowds in Banff, you have to arrive to the most popular destinations early. I was frustrated, though, because while the typical advice was to arrive early, nobody really specified what ‘early’ meant. After having experienced it for myself, I can tell you that the best way to avoid crowds in Banff is to arrive to the most popular destinations within two hours of sunrise. Depending upon the destination, crowds begin to form by 9 am (which was just over three hours after sunrise during our trip). Arriving early was–hands down–the easiest and most successful thing we did to avoid crowds in Banff.
2. Stay Outside of Banff
Banff National Park was quite different from our American National Parks in that the town of Banff is located inside the park boundaries, whereas U.S. National Parks tend to be fairly limited with regard to accommodations available within the parks. The town of Banff, while fun and scenic, is quite crowded. Every time we stopped in during our stay, the streets were swarmed with people. There were long lines at the best restaurants and throngs of people window shopping and clogging sidewalks. My tried and true advice is that if you want to avoid crowds in Banff, you should consider a stay in nearby Canmore.
We stayed at the Rundle Cliffs Lodge in Spring Creek and truly loved every minute of our stay. There were a variety of lodging options so as to accommodate couples, singles and families of all shapes and sizes. The resort grounds are gorgeous and the pedestrian access to charming downtown Canmore can’t be beat.
A stay in Canmore will not leave you wanting when it comes to shopping and dining options. For those who opt for accommodations with a kitchen, there are two full-size grocery stores in town. For those who would rather dine out and do a little souvenir shopping, Canmore has you covered. We enjoyed breakfast at the Rocky Mountain Bagel Co. no fewer than three times during our stay. For dinner, the Rocky Mountain Flatbread Co. is a sure bet. Also, stop in at Stonewaters for some unique souvenirs and to sample artisan chocolates at the Jacek Chocolate Couture boutique in the rear of the store.
3. Enjoy a picnic breakfast
While several of your fellow tourists will be hitting the trail with a picnic lunch, you should consider packing a picnic breakfast instead. Just stop in at one of the local bakeries (try Rocky Mountain Bagel Co or Wild Flour) and choose a selection of muffins or pastries. Together with some fresh berries, granola and juices from the grocery store, you’ve got the makings of a yummy morning on hand.
A picnic breakfast like the one we enjoyed at Lake Minnewanka is super trail-friendly and allows you to get out and about while everybody else is sleeping in. You can hike to a stopping point and then spread a blanket and enjoy the scenery and solitude.
Be forewarned that you might draw the attention of cute little critters, too.
4. Canoe on Emerald Lake
If you want to spend some time canoeing on the beautiful turquoise waters of Lake Louise or Moraine Lake, you aren’t alone. Far from it, in fact. There were times during our trip that the canoes were so numerous out on the lake that it probably would have been hard to score one of those coveted Instagram pictures without several other tourists crowding your shot. Rest assured; a quick trip to neighboring Yoho National Park will afford you the opportunity to snap a beautiful, crowd-free canoe picture.
Emerald Lake is every bit as shockingly turquoise as Lake Louise, if not more so. Another benefit of opting to canoe at Emerald Lake is that it is significantly less expensive than doing so at Moraine Lake or Lake Louise.
Here’s an insider tip for you: if you’re concerned about taking your camera out onto open water in a canoe, you probably needn’t be. I took both my “real” camera (a Canon 5D Mark iii) and my iPhone in the canoe with my husband and our two children. All of us and my equipment made it back to the dock dry, after about a 45-minute ride. If you’re still not sure, ask at the dock about renting a dry bag. We did so and paid less than $5 for it. I kept my camera and phone in the bag during our trip around the lake, and only took them out of the bag for brief periods of photo taking. It worked perfectly for us.
While you’re there, take some time to hike the easy lakeside loop. Going clockwise around the lake offers an easy scenic trail for the first half of the hike followed by a slightly more rugged trail for the second half. About 3/4 of the way through the trail, you’ll come to an awesome lookout spot. It’s a great spot to set up a tripod, or snap a selfie.
5. Think like a bear
We had high hopes of seeing wildlife during our trip. The good news is that we were successful in glimpsing longhorn sheep, elk and even a grizzly bear. The bad news is that we had to hit the road really early to do so.
Before our trip, I read that our best chance to see wildlife was in driving the Bow Valley Parkway. Apparently, bears like to meander along the roadside, grazing on greens. That’s exactly what we spotted them doing one morning. We were quite lucky in that our bear hunt yielded views of four different bears, one elk and one herd of longhorn sheep.
So, how’d we manage to see such a variety of wildlife on so frequently-traveled a road? We set out on our journey within an hour of sunrise. In an effort to avoid the heat, bears tend to seek food within an hour of both sunrise and sunset. At that time of the day, there were very few cars on the Bow Valley Parkway, but there was an abundance of wildlife. From a safe, unobtrusive distance in our car, we were able to observe the animals going about their natural behaviors. It was absolutely amazing to watch a grizzly cross the road ahead of us and a black bear, feeding in a patch of dandelions.
Thinking like a bear, and arriving to the Bow Valley Parkway within an hour of sunrise will not only increase your chances of seeing wildlife, but it will also help you to avoid crowds and maximize your opportunity for snapping some gorgeous photos along this beautiful stretch of road.
Have you ever been to Banff National Park? Do you have any tips to add for visitors who are curious about how to avoid crowds in Banff? Share them in the comments!