Banff, Alberta, is the main town in Banff National Park.
Driving from Calgary to Banff takes about 90 minutes. This town of about 8,000 started its modern life as a resort for train passengers beginning in the 1880s. The mountain scenery, hot springs, and palatial Banff Springs Hotel were the first tourist attractions and still draw people from all over the world.
Banff offers choices for everyone, all year round, from thrill-seeking activities to totally relaxed days at the spa. Photo opportunities are everywhere.
From late September to early December, things slow down. The summer crowds leave, and there are better rates on hotel rooms. Before the ski resorts open and winter activities take over, there’s still a chance to get up high and enjoy the scenery, either on foot or by gondola and chairlift.
Things To Do In Banff
For fall in Banff, I’m thinking about the things that don’t require snow. Many of these are seasonal, closing sometime between Labour Day and mid-October.
Take A Tour
Whether it’s an hour or a full day of horseback riding, exploring Lake Minnewanka on a cruise, or making an expedition by bus to the Icefields Centre to see the Athabasca Glacier, Banff has an outfitter who can make it happen. There are scooter tours, helicopter tours, hiking tours, and, until about mid-September, raft tours.
Go with a guide or make your own self-directed agenda.
Lake Louise is a star attraction, about 40 minutes away by car. Even in the fall, it can be a hassle to park, especially on a warm weekend. Parks Canada has specific advice for visiting Lake Louise and Moraine Lake between May and October. Roam Transit may be an option (note that schedules change seasonally).
Put On Your Hiking Boots
Local Banff publisher Summerthought has a nice range of hiking guidebooks in paper and e-book form, including the classic Banff National Park Hiking Guide. For an extensive list of trails sorted from very easy walks to multi-day challenges, check Parks Canada’s website, too.
In town, the calm Vermilion Lakes are a popular stroll, mainly on a boardwalk, and an easy place to paddle a canoe or kayak.
The visitor centers in Banff and Lake Louise provide daily advice on the best hikes for the weather and wildlife conditions.
Larch viewing is a big deal in October. The larch is a coniferous tree whose needles turn a brilliant gold in the autumn before they fall off. Parks Canada suggests a whole list of places to view them, not just the most popular spots.
With a Thermal Waters Pass, visit the historic Cave and Basin hot springs. Then travel uphill for a soak in the naturally hot mineral water of the Upper Hot Springs. Under the open sky, this is lovely by day, but by night it’s even better.
For a more luxurious take on therapeutic bathing, guests of the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel may book treatments at the Willow Stream Spa and enjoy the cold, warm, and hot pools there. If you aren’t a guest, don’t worry. There are other wonderfully enjoyable spa and wellness choices in Banff.
You can even try forest bathing with a local guide.
Ride Up The Mountain
The Banff Gondola on Sulphur Mountain has been delivering visitors to the top of this in-town mountain since 1959. Enjoy the panoramic view from the boardwalk or from inside one of the restaurants.
The chairlift at Mount Norquay has the unusual option of a via ferrata tour up top. You clip onto a steel cable and a guide leads you on a knee-wobbling, heart-stopping (or is that just me?) assisted climbing experience.
A short drive out of town, Sunshine Meadows is high up on the mountain. From late June till mid-September, a gondola followed by a chairlift carries visitors to these unique alpine meadows. It’s like The Sound of Music, and you’re Julie Andrews.
Finally, there’s more spectacular scenery at the Lake Louise ski hill (on the other side of the Trans-Canada Highway from the actual lake), accessible via the Summer Sightseeing Gondola at Lake Louise.
There are different food and drink options at each of these.
Meet Mountain Culture
In the fall, Banff celebrates mountain culture with the annual Banff Centre Mountain Film and Book Festival.
The Banff Park Museum is a National Historic Site in its own 1903 log building, cleverly designed to make the best use of natural lighting. At the Luxton Home, one of the original Banff houses is preserved, along with its garden, as a museum.
Mountain culture for the people of the First Nations goes back thousands of years. Experience “the extraordinary heritage of the First Nations People of the Northern Plains and Canadian Rockies” at the Buffalo Nation Luxton Museum.
Sharpen Your Wildlife Photo Skills
Surrounded by photo opportunities, why not learn how to take better pictures? Fall is a good time to see and photograph animals (only from a safe distance), and Dani Lefrancois offers worthwhile workshops and tours through Banff Photo Workshops.
The elk, or wapiti, is a kind of large deer that’s tan with a white-looking rump. They love to hang out in groups in Banff and can be unexpectedly aggressive. Bighorn sheep are also fairly common.
Bears are an animal I’d rather not see close up, but they are magnificent. People sometimes spot them from the Lake Louise gondola.
And now, let’s talk about food.
Best Restaurants In Banff
With visitors and locals expecting something special, local, and in a range of prices, Banff is blessed with an ever-changing food and drink scene. For fine dining with a view, check out the Fairmont Banff Springs and the Rimrock Resort Hotel, and any restaurant at the top end of a gondola.
Craft Beer And Pizza
Pro Tip: Depending on your travel dates, consider attending the annual Banff Craft Beer Festival.
Disco Fondue With A Backstory
The Grizzly House has a ’70s vibe, but that’s not some add-on retro decor -- it’s original. Fondue is one staple here, and it goes far beyond cheese. Rattlesnake, anyone?
Start The Day
People rave about the breakfasts (and the dinners) at longtime local favorite Melissa’s Missteak.
Try A Food Tour Or Tea At Banff Springs Hotel
Alberta Food Tours has created a delicious way to experience the Banff Springs Hotel: the Eat the Castle food tour.
Or, book a table for the Rocky Mountain Afternoon Tea (check with hotel for availability) and explore the hotel on your own.
Where To Shop In Banff
Banff Avenue is one long, walkable shopping street that includes a few multi-level malls full of independent, unique stores.
Pro Tip: There’s no provincial sales tax in Alberta, unlike the rest of Canada. There’s a 5 percent federal tax, and that’s it.
Best Places To Stay In Banff
The most famous hotel is the Fairmont Banff Springs. Opened in 1888, it was built to look like a Scottish castle. Not everyone likes to stay in an old building, but I think this place is magically historic.
Sunshine Mountain Lodge up in the alpine meadows is on my wish list for its spectacular location.
The Rimrock Resort near the Upper Hot Springs has modern rooms with a commanding scenic view.
Banff is inside Banff National Park. Visitors are required to have a valid National Park Pass regardless of how they arrive.
The weather in fall can change dramatically in a few hours. It’s wise to bring winter clothing, including warm waterproof footwear. Dress in layers and toss a warm hat and mitts in your bag.
The second Monday of October is Thanksgiving in Canada. It’s a long weekend, and it may be busy in Banff, especially in nice weather. Be sure to make a reservation if you want Thanksgiving dinner at a restaurant.
As the seasons change, so do the available activities. Please check for specific opening dates and times as some things are weather dependent. There is no single date when all the summer activities close for the season, so you’ll want to consult individual operators in advance.
For the most up-to-date offers and listings of things to do in Banff, as well as the specific details for accessibility to anyone using a wheelchair or needing mobility assistance, please check individual businesses’ websites and Banff and Lake Louise Tourism. I notice that Taxi Mike has a pretty comprehensive local site for Banff, too.
Want to road trip further? Consider journeying from Banff to Jasper to enjoy these 11 stops along Canada’s Gorgeous Icefields Parkway, or enjoy this beautiful Canadian Rockies road trip: Calgary to Vancouver.