28 Jul The Best of Banff on a Budget
I get the impression that many Americans don’t know very much about Banff. But it is not just one of Canada’s prized National Parks, it is a actually a world class destination; and it’s definitely worth the trip! If you’re on a budget, there are plenty of free things to do in Banff, thanks to its natural beauty.
Here’s a quick recap video from Banff.
Unlike most parks we’ve experienced that might have a few small “village” areas, Banff has a full-fledged town complete with its own high school. The surrounding landscape, including neighboring Jasper, Yoho, and Kootenay National Parks make up a protected area half the size of Switzerland.
A park pass is about $9 per person per day (family rates and annual passes are also available) and the same pass gets you into any of the nearby parks as well.
Where to stay in Banff on a Budget
It seems that everywhere you look there is an inn, hotel, lodge, or cabin rental. Accommodations and amenities range everywhere from the high end resort to the low budget backcountry tent camping. A whole slew of accommodation options can be found in the Banff town center but they’re also scattered around the park.
Budget Banff Hotels: For private rooms on a budget, check out the YWCA Banff Hotel in town. If you’re up for sharing a dorm room, the Banff International Hostel also has great reviews and includes breakfast.
Budget Lake Louise Hostel: If you prefer to stay out in the wilderness and closer to the beautiful emerald waters of Lake Louise, the HI-Mosquito Creek Hostel is a short drive away with cheap, basic dorm rooms.
Banff Tent Camping: There are a variety of campgrounds throughout Banff. Most are open from May or June through September or October. Basic tent camping without amenities starts at $15.70 at Silverhorn Creek campground, while the campgrounds with more conveniences like Two Jack and Tunnel Mountain Village tend to range from $20 – $30. You can even rent A-frame tent/cabins for $120 at some sites. Some sites are first come, first served. Others can be reserved in advance online. Bookings for the busy summer season open in January.
Find a cool apartment or log cabin to rent in Banff on Airbnb. Sign up for a new Airbnb account with our link and for a limited time, you can get up to $40 off your first booking (and we’ll get a little something too – thank you!).
We had a great time tent camping in National Parks on our first month-long road trip back in 2011, so that’s what we did this time around, too. Due to some outdated information, we missed the boat on reserving our ideal campground for Banff: Two Jacks Lake. Many of the campsites there are situated within view of the water, which would have been cool.
When I realized we were too late to be in Two Jacks Lake, I actually tweeted to @Banff_Squirrel and took their recommendation to book a site at Tunnel Mountain. I browsed the photos on the reservation system and selected one that had decent privacy as well as views of the mountains on two sides. Tunnel Mountain campground is in some ways more central to Banff than Two Jacks, so it ended up being pretty convenient.
We also got to enjoy a close encounter with wildlife at our campsite! Within an hour of starting dinner on our first night, a family of mule deer came into our campground loop. One of them was especially fearless, eating off of the bushes near our site and walking within a few feet of our picnic table!
Transportation in Banff
Getting around is pretty easy, although the Park is huge, so driving distances can be long depending on where you want to go. Our friends honeymooned in Banff without a car, and they found the shuttle bus system to be fairly easy to use. Bus rides are $2 per trip or $5 for a day pass.
Needless to say, we came to Banff as part of our road trip, so we already had a car. To see our route from Vancouver, visit our last post. (BTW: We were surprised to find that gas was actually cheaper here than the cities we had visited in BC. Perhaps it’s a difference in taxes…)
Food on a Budget
The town of Banff has plenty of restaurants, including (unfortunately, in my opinion) a few chains. There are also cafeterias and snack shops at many of the sights and lodges throughout the park. To keep spending low, we got most of our meals from the local Safeway grocery store downtown.
Cheap Things To Do in Banff on a Budget
Hiking in Banff
If you haven’t figured it out yet, hiking is our M.O. for exploring a new place on the cheap. We usually pack up PB&J sandwiches and some granola bars if it’s going to take more than a couple hours. Based on my research online and word of mouth, two trails stood out as especially unique to Banff:
Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House Trail
On its own, Lake Louise and the chateau hotel that overlooks its waters, are a must-see attraction for any visitor to the park. There is a nice, wide, flat trail that skirts the lake about half way around. At the far end, the trail departs from the lake and starts to head up the valley. Around 5k into the hike, it reaches a tea house!
When we took on this venture, there was a bit of a cold spell. It was a little damp and there was a chilling breeze, so warm tea and shelter were just what we needed. The log house, we learned, was originally built in 1901 and is now the family-run Lake Agnes Tea House. There is no electricity, bulk rations are delivered by helicopter once per season, employees live up there five days out of the week and carry up other supplies when they walk up from town. It’s truly a unique place and an amazing thing to witness.
Apart from tea, the establishment also serves a small lunch menu. Prices are somewhat steep, but considering what it takes to get supplies up there, it’s pretty understandable!
Banff Upper Hot Springs to Gondola Trail
On this 11k round trip trek, the trail itself is nothing to write home about. It is a series of switchbacks with a relatively steady incline, which – combined with the elevation – will definitely get your heart pounding. There are a few nice scenic views on the way up and you pass under the Banff gondola several times. It’s not until you reach the very top of the trail that you realize your reward.
The panoramic views in every direction are astounding! If you only go one place in Banff, this should probably be it.
You also have the option to take the gondola up or down (or both) for about $17 each way. We preferred to save the money and get some exercise, but the views are worth whatever it takes to get yourself up there.
Scenic Drives – Banff and Jasper
As mentioned previously, Banff and the surrounding areas cover a lot of ground. Sometimes, the best way to see everything is to just drive around! One of the park’s stand-out scenic drives is the Icefield Parkway between Lake Louise and Jasper. We had the privilege of experiencing this with two great friends who happened to be on their honeymoon.
Side note: When we got married six years ago, these same friends (J & J) attended our wedding and then vacationed on the same Hawaiian island where we honeymooned. So we all went paddle boarding together one day. Fast forward to the present, when we attended J & J’s wedding last weekend, we found out they would be honeymooning in Banff the same time we would be there! Isn’t that a crazy coincidence? We decided that since showing up uninvited in someone’s picture is called “photo bombing,” we have a new phrase for the urban dictionary: “honey bombing.”
Biking in Banff
Banff is full of trails that are great for mountain biking. There are a few paved trails as well, including the 26k Legacy Trail. We did a short, easy ride to explore a part of the park we hadn’t seen yet and it led us to some awesome views of the river. Water in this area is a wonderful turquoise-color due to “rock flour” particles from glacial melt.
Even though it may seem like they are geared for children, ranger talks have always been one of my favorite aspects of visiting National Parks. Campgrounds in Banff usually offer these interpretive programs on weekend evenings. You can also find interpretive guide programs during the day at some of the sights around the park.
The interpretive staff select the most interesting aspects about the wildlife, geology, or history of the park and present it in a dynamic way. Usually they allow for plenty of interaction with the kids, which is pretty entertaining. Kids say the darndest things. And I always come away with a lot of interesting information from the talks, which adds another dimension to our trip.
That sums up our time in Banff. We hope we’ve inspired you to visit -or return again – because it truly is a world wonder!
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