For the July 4th holiday weekend, my family of three visited Banff National Park in Canada, in an RV, with a toddler no less. Planning a trip with a toddler requires a lot of planning and thinking ahead. So here’s a primer of all you need to know about taking your young family to Banff for a 5-6 day holiday.
Banff is Canada’s first national park and is world renowned. Justifiably so, as the park offers majestic and awe-inspiring natural beauty in a way that is accessible to everyone. The trans-Canada highway 1 winds its way through the National Park and every turn and corner offers postcard-esque views of the Canadian Rockies, alpine scenery with bright teal lakes and snow-capped jagged peaks. The road is tripping with viewpoints to stop your car and pull your camera out.
What about Jasper?
Banff and Jasper are neighboring national parks separated by about 200 km. It takes 4 hours of driving (without all those vista point stops) to get from Banff town to Jasper… so this may be a feasible option only with a longer stay or for people without kids.
The nearest big city is Calgary (YYC international airport), 1.5 hours from Banff town. We rented our RV in Calgary, but rental cars are just as feasible an option. Banff is west of Calgary on the Trans-Canada highway. All distances and speeds are in km, keep in mind.
Major attractions in and around Banff
Expect each of the following to take a day at least. In other words, young families may be wise to not combine two of these attractions.
- Banff National Park and Banff town – Lake Minnewanka, Johnston canyon, Sundance canyon, Cave and historic museum etc.
- Lake Louise, the image that comes to mind when people think of Banff is a bright turquoise lake with a glacier in the backdrop. The picture is completed by the castle-like façade of the Hotel Fairmont on the shores of the lake. Lake Louise is a 30 km drive from Banff, expect it to take ½ hour to 45 minutes.
- Icefield parkway and the Athabasca glacier – this is on the highway that connects Banff and Jasper. It is a 100 km from Lake Louise, 2-3 hours at least. The Columbia icefield that feeds the glacier cannot be seen, but the Athabasca glacier is the main attraction. It is in the middle of nowhere, and the visitor center just across the street from the glacier offers facilities. The parkway is studded with lakes and is a treat to sore eyes.
- We bought the Brewster adventure package which included the following. It was expensive at $160 per person (free for kids below 6). Totally optional but fun nonetheless.
- glacier adventure (drive on glacier in a specially designed ATV)
- Canyon skywalk (glass skywalk abutting over a 1000 feet canyon
- Boat cruise on lake minnewanka
- Banff gondola ride
Where to stay if staying in hotels:
- Town of Banff – Banff is a quaint, pretty and tourist-friendly town with lot of stay options. This is the most ideal location as its close enough to Lake Louise and a long day trip on the Icefield Parkway. Once that is done, the rest of the trip can be enjoyed on smaller hikes, lakes and Banff attractions.
- Lake Louise – This is ideal if your trip is very short (3 days). You can still see all attractions listed above with lesser driving. Lake Louise seems more expensive than Banff and may not have that many hotels.
- Canmore – Canmore is ½ hour drive from Banff, towards Calgary. Canmore has many budget options and motels for those on a restricted budget. It is a pretty town and has a lovely visitor center with picnic tables and a comfortable wi-fi lounge. Just at the edge of the visitor center, is a bike trail which is part of an extensive trail network. There is a bike trail that goes all the way to Banff town.
RV Parking in Banff
For day use parking, well posted signs indicate where to park your RV. Banff has a website www.banffparking.ca which shows parking lots around Banff town, both for cars and RV. However, the town is so walkable that it’s best to park a little out of the town and walk around. Public washrooms and benches to keep your family comfortable are everywhere.
Both Banff and Lake Louise have RV campgrounds. However, we ran out of luck when trying to book a spot for 2 nights on our trip. Thankfully, they have overflow campgrounds which may accept you if go early enough. At Banff, trailer court campground has overflow parking for RVs on the outer edge of the campground. For a fee, you can access the showers and flush toilets and use the sewer dump.
Eating Vegan/Vegetarian at Banff and surrounding areas
At first glance, it does seem as though there are very limited options for herbivores. We cooked most of our meals in our RV with groceries purchased at the Safeway in Calgary, so we only had to eat outside twice. We absolutely enjoyed the vegan options at Nourish Bistro at Banff (cash only!). At Lake Louise, Laggans deli and the Trailhead Café, both located in the Visitor Center complex have vegan and vegetarian options. Trailhead had a Falafel wrap and Laggans had vegan chili, vegetarian soup, bread, tofu rolls and a quinoa salad. In Canmore, a vegan google search yielded at least two cafes that had vegan options. Both Banff and Canmore have Indian restaurants, which is always a safe bet for herbivores.
5 day itinerary for RV travel (works for car travel too)
- Day 1: Take cab to RV rental center at Calgary. Check out RV and stock up on coffee, groceries and gas at Safeway nearby. Head out on 1 west towards Banff. Spend the night at Canmore or Banff. At the toll entrance, pay National Park fees. Pay for a day less than you need if you have a morning flight. You can make up the difference later or not need it at all.
- Day 2: Icefield Parkway. On the way back, hike Peyto lake and bow summit. Expect this to take all day. Spend the night at Lake Louise campground.
- Day 3: Lake Louise, Johnston Canyon, Moraine Lake, Bow Valley Parkway. Spend night at Banff campground.
- Day 4: Explore Banff – Gondola, boat cruise, Banff town.
- Day 5: Banff town – cave and natural history museum, castle gardens, Sundance canyon, vermillion lakes.
- Day 6: Drive back to Calgary, return RV, cab to airport.