Of course, you’ll always want to spend more time in the Canadian Rockies, but if you find yourself with just one day to spare in Banff, we have the ultimate day trip itinerary for you.
Don’t think you can get that much done in a day? Think again! If you’re visiting Banff in the summer, remember that days start as early as 5 am, and last until nearly 11pm in late June and July! That’s a whole lot of time to see some amazing sights.
Yes, you’ll be tired, but it will be more than worth it after seeing lakes like Lake Minnewanka, Vermilion Lakes, and even the iconic Moraine Lake.
We’re sharing a very realistic version of what you can enjoy on a Banff day trip from Calgary. The first section caters to a self-driving individual, and we have tried to limit hours in the car and instead have focused on the quantity of sights. For that reason, self-driving tourists will spend more time in Canmore and Banff and stop sightseeing at Vermilion Lakes. Yes, there are a lot of hours in the day, but enjoying all that Banff has to offer, plus driving to Lake Louise and Moraine Lake, is too much.
The second half of this article focuses on tours that leave from Calgary. These tours are long day trips and focus on all the main highlights in the park!
Note that these are just suggestions, and if you’re looking for more tips, you can see our full example itinerary for Banff.
Banff Day Trip from Calgary: Self-Guided Itinerary
Stop in Canmore for Breakfast
Any Banff day trip from Calgary will always involve a drive through Canmore, the mountain town right before Banff. If you have time to stop and take a walk down Main Street, do it! Our favorite thing to do in Canmore early in the morning is to grab a coffee at Eclipse and a proper Canmore breakfast (a bagel at Rocky Mountain Bagels). Eat it in-house or take it away so you can have your breakfast somewhere quieter.
Have Your Breakfast at Cascade Ponds
Continue driving from Canmore to Banff to Cascade Ponds. Cascade Ponds is about 15 minutes from Downtown Canmore and is just off the Trans Canada. Once at Cascade Ponds, you’ll notice plenty of picnic tables, making it the perfect place to enjoy your breakfast under Cascade Mountain.
In the early morning, the area is very quiet and peaceful, and you may get lucky and see some ducks passing by in the water. Always remember to pack out what you brought in and do not litter – there are plenty of bear proof trash cans around to dispose of your waste.
Catch Early Morning Light on Two Jack Lake
Two Jack Lake is your next stop after Cascade Ponds. Continue along Lake Minnewanka Scenic Road and follow the signs for Two Jack Lake. Here you’ll get great views of Mount Rundle, and if it’s still early morning, you can nab some fantastic photos of the calm waters without the crowds.
If you have any water devices like a paddleboard or kayak, Two Jack Lake is a fantastic place for a paddle.
(Psst – have any extra time? Johnson Lake is also nearby!)
Enjoy a Lake Minnewanka Cruise
Once you are done at Two Jack Lake, continue on Lake Minnewanka Scenic Road, and you’ll make it to beautiful Lake Minnewanka in under five minutes.
Lake Minnewanka, stretching 21 kilometers in length and plunging to a depth of 142 meters, not only serves as a crucial source of hydroelectric power for Banff, but it’s one of the best lakes to head in Banff for recreation.
During the summer, the lake is a bustling place for activities such as hiking, picnicking, and canoeing. Mount Inglismaldie looms over the lake and offers awe-inspiring views throughout the year. One of the best things to do here is enjoy a scenic cruise which takes you back to Devil’s Gap and provides a different perspective of the area. During the cruise, the captain will provide interesting history tidbits as well as tell about Lake Minnewanka’s significance to the indigenous people of the area.
Stroll Downtown Banff
Next stop is the Town of Banff, where we are guessing you will want to spend some time, especially if it’s your first time in Alberta’s most beautiful town. Enjoy all the shops on Banff Avenue, take your photo with the Banff Sign, hop into Jolenes Tea House on Bear Street, or grab a snack at Whitebark Cafe.
If you’re visiting in the summer, you’ll really enjoy Banff Avenue as it is closed off to vehicles. Enjoy a Banff patio without engines and exhaust!
Smell the Roses at Cascade Gardens
Wait for a little bit longer for lunch and walk from Banff Avenue to Cascade Gardens. These are free gardens that offer an ideal destination for a leisurely stroll from the town center. Whether you possess a passion for nature or botanical knowledge or just want to see the first administration building of Parks Canada, it’s well worth heading here for at least 30 minutes for your daily dose of plant goodness.
As you wander through the gardens, you’ll encounter various plant groupings and plenty of COLORS. In addition to the captivating flora and fauna showcased, the gardens boast ponds, a waterfall, and meandering paths leading to picturesque vistas.
Walk to Bow Falls
From the gardens, you can continue your walk along the Bow River to Bow Falls. There’s a nice walking path that runs parallel to the river, ending at a scenic viewpoint out to one of the most iconic waterfalls in Banff.
Snap your photos of the nine-meter waterfall. No, it’s not a huge waterfall in Alberta by any means, but it is still one of the best sights to see near the townsite and is completely surrounded by natural scenery and rocky cliffs.
Have Lunch in Downtown Banff
After Bow Falls, you’ll walk back to Downtown Banff. You’ve walked a lot by this point so hopefully you’re counting your steps! You’ve likely worked up a big appetite with all that walking! Thankfully there are plenty of restaurants in Banff that will satisfy any craving.
Craving something cheap and quick? Hankki will have you some Korean street food in under five minutes and under $12. Want something healthy? We recommend Nourish on Bear Street, while you can’t go wrong with a delicious pizza and beer at Three Bears Brewery.
If you just want to soak up the sun and vibes, Tooloulous has one of the best patios in Banff!
Head Up the Banff Gondola
Don’t spend too long eating – the day is getting away from you, and you’ll want plenty of time to head up the Banff Gondola, which is one of the best attractions in Banff.
There are multiple gondolas in Banff, but the Banff Gondola offers absolutely incredible panoramic views over the Town of Banff and the Bow and Spray Valley. The gondola takes visitors to the top of Sulphur Mountain in eight minutes, and no matter age or ability, it allows everyone to see what being on top of a mountain feels like.
We’ve now been up the Banff Gondola nearly 10 times, as it’s a popular thing to do when our family or friends visit. Everyone that we bring up the gondola says it’s their favorite thing to do on their entire trip!
You’ll want 1.5 to 2 hours to spare up here as you can walk the boardwalk to the historic Sulphur Mountain Weather Station and see Cascade Mountain from a different perspective.
Catch Sunset at Vermilion Lakes
No visit to Banff would be complete without catching evening light somewhere spectacular. For us, that special place is always Vermilion Lakes. You’ll see Vermilion Lakes on your way out of Banff and if you head here around sunset, you could be in for a treat (if the mountain weather cooperates)
Vermilion Lakes (or Lake Vermilion) reflect the iconic Mount Rundle that looms over the town of Banff and there are a few docks here to enjoy the view from.
Have Dinner in Canmore
While you can have dinner in Banff, we recommend hitting Canmore one more time for a meal before returning to Calgary. There are plenty of Canmore restaurants to enjoy, and we think many of them are better than those in Banff.
For lively pub food we recommend The Tavern, while if you’re looking for a romantic evening Sauvage is a great choice. If you have kids, Rocky Mountain Flatbread Co might be a great place to stop with them!
Banff Day Trip From Calgary Tours
Banff Area & Johnston Canyon 1-Day Tour from Calgary or Banff
This long-day tour leaves from Calgary and takes visitors to Banff Avenue, with an optional visit to the Banff Gondola. Instead of some of the sights I mentioned in the self-guided section, this tour brings guests along the Bow Valley Parkway to Johnston Canyon, where you can hike to the Lower and Upper Falls at the famous attraction. There is also a stop at Bow Falls, Surprise Corner, and a 15 minute stop to see the hoodoos nearby before heading back to Calgary.
Lake Louise, Moraine Lake, & Banff Tour
This is one of the top-selling tours in the summer as it brings visitors to the most sought-after spots in Banff National Park – Lake Louise and Moraine Lake after there’s also a stop at Johnston Canyon. This is the ideal tour if your main agenda is seeing Moraine and Lake Louise.
Lake Louise, Moraine Lake, Emerald Lake
This tour not only takes you into Banff but also into Yoho National Park to set the dazzling Emerald Lake. Besides the lakes, you’ll also pass by Spiral Tunnels and the Natural Bridge on your way to Emerald Lake. This is a great tour if you don’t want to worry about any of the hassles of getting to Moraine Lake or Lake Louise. National Park Fees are also included in the tour.
Hop On Hop Off
If you truly want to a hassle-free experience, you can’t go wrong with the hop-on hop-off shuttle bus. You can begin your adventure in Banff, Johnston Canyon, Lake Louise, or the Lake Louise Gondola, the decision is entirely yours. This tour really lets you explore Banff at your own pace, and that includes a visit to Moraine Lake. Take as long or as short as you need at each stop.
The only bad news is this tour does not leave from Calgary, but instead from The Moose Hotel in Banff. So as long as you can get yourself there to start your day, you’ll be on a fabulous day in the Rockies. This summer-only tour runs from June 7th to September 22, 2024.
Icefields Parkway (Stops at Peyto Lake)
This tour is for those whose main interest is hopping on the Icefields Parkway. Tours depart early morning from Banff or Canmore (not Calgary) and take visitors to Lake Minnetonka, Lake Louise, and Moraine Lake, and then hop on the Icefields Parkway, stopping at Bow Lake and Peyto Lake before turning around and heading back!
Plan Your Trip to the Canadian Rockies
- Hiking in the Rockies: Purchase an AllTrails subscription to have a mobile map on you as you hike.
- Tours (New in 2024): The Banff Blog is partnering with one of the leading tour companies in Western Canada so readers can experience the magic of the Rockies with other travelers – without having to think about a thing. See all our 2024 tour offerings here!
- Hotels in the Rockies: There are many places to stay, from luxury hotels to wilderness cabins. See all our favorites here.
- Get to Banff or Canmore Without a Car: The Banff Airporter provides fantastic service that will connect you right from YYC to the town of Banff or Canmore.
- Get Around: We suggest renting a car to get around. You can search for rental cars on Rentalcars.com. Or embark on an epic campervan trip. We like to compare prices on Motorhome Republic and Outdoorsy.
- Fly For Free: Turn your spending into airline miles and points with travel credit cards (that’s what we do!). See our favorite travel credit cards. We also use Going to watch for cheap airfare deals!
- Hop On, Hop Off: This tour is taking Banff by storm. It’s exactly what it sounds like, hop on and off a bus bound for all the best attractions at your own pace!
- Travel Insurance: We don’t recommend traveling without travel insurance. We recommend checking out HeyMondo, which offers competitive rates for all travelers.