48-Hour Banff National Park Itinerary: How to Plan an Incredible Last-Minute Trip

Looking to make the most out of a short stay in Banff? This 48-hour Banff National Park Itinerary covers all the must-sees if you are short on time. We cover visiting Lake Louise, hiking Johnston Canyon, the Icefields Parkway, and more.

Park Entrance Tickets to Banff

There are two types of passes available for those wanting to visit Banff: day passes are best for shorter visits, or you can buy a Discovery Pass that is valid for one year from the date of purchase. 

These passes give you access to Banff, Jasper, Kootenay, Yoho, Mount Revelstoke, Glacier, Waterton Lakes, and Elk Island national parks. 

Day passes expire at 4 p.m. on the day of departure.  You can buy your pass at the entrance gates of the national park or the Visitor Center in the town of Banff or at Lake Louise.  Discovery Passes can also be purchased ahead of time online and take about two weeks to arrive in the mail. 

To avoid a possible line at the park entrance gate, Kendall and I stopped at the Banff Visitor Center and purchased our day passes there.  The process was fast and simple, the only difficulty being finding parking near the Visitor Center.  Kendall ended up just dropping me off and driving around while I purchased the passes. 

Where to Stay

Because of the sheer number of yearly visitors, finding affordable stays can be a challenge.  We found that staying in an Airbnb in Canmore offered the best combination of proximity and affordability, as it is located just 20 minutes from the park. 

We weren’t able to plan this trip until about 3 weeks before we went (I would not recommend this, many people recommend booking hotels up to 6 months in advance), but we got extremely lucky and were able to find a great 1-night Airbnb in Canmore. 

For our second night, we stayed in a tent at the Two Jack Main campsite.  This is a pretty basic campsite that has no showers or hot water but does have flushing toilets, and this was our only option due to booking so late.  However, we did love the secluded feeling of being in the forest for our second night.

Getting Around Banff National Park

We would recommend having a car while visiting Banff.  Except for Lake Louise, we found that finding parking was not an issue, and because the various hikes and lakes are somewhat spread out, we found it to be much simpler to have our own transportation. 

For Lake Louise, parking is very limited; the parking lot is often full before 6 a.m., especially if visiting on a summer weekend.  Because of this, the park recommends using public transit

There are two options available: the Parks Canada Shuttle is best for those driving to the lake or staying near Lake Louise.  These shuttles run from May to October from the Park and Ride located at Lake Louise Ski Resort and tickets must be reserved online in advance. 

The second option is to use Roam Public Transit, best for those coming from the town of Banff. 

For those wanting to visit Moraine Lake, as of 2023 the Moraine Lake road is closed to personal vehicles year-round and riders must purchase shuttle tickets from Lake Louise to Lake Moraine (this can be done with the Parks Canada Shuttle or Roam Public Transit). 

We would recommend booking all shuttle tickets ahead of time online; Kendall and I tried to purchase a shuttle ticket from Lake Louise to Lake Moraine the day of our visit, and they were already all sold out.

Day 1 Banff National Park Itinerary: Travel to Canmore and Hike Johnston Canyon

We were currently living in Spokane, Washington when we decided to take this trip, so our first day was spent driving to our Airbnb in Canmore. 

If flying in, the closest airport is the Calgary International Airport, located about a 90-minute drive from the park.

After stopping in the town of Banff to buy our park pass, we headed to the Johnston Canyon trailhead.  This hike is quite popular and we had heard that parking could be limited, but by the time we arrived around 4 pm, we were able to find a parking spot without any problem. 

The first part of Johnston Canyon, until the Lower Falls, was quite crowded, and we had to pause occasionally when the trail became congested.  After the Lower Falls point, however, we had the trail almost entirely to ourselves. 

Our initial plan was to hike to the Ink Pots, a group of cold-water springs that are tinted by the minerals in the water, but we ended up turning around about a mile before the pots as we were feeling pressed for time.

river with an elevated walkway along the Lower Falls trail during our 48 hour Banff National Park Itinerary

Day 2 Banff National Park Itinerary: Lake Louise and the Icefields Parkway

Lake Louise is incredibly popular, and it’s no surprise why.  Besides our trip to Havasupai Falls, Lake Louise is the most stunning turquoise-blue water I’ve ever seen.

Parking at Lake Louise is extremely limited; the parking lot fills up VERY early.  We were there on a Sunday and we arrived at the parking lot at 5:30 am, thinking we were plenty early, and just barely got the last spot. 

As mentioned before, the park recommends using one of their public transit options, but because we were short on time and wanted to go straight from the lake to driving the Icefields Parkway, we decided to try our luck with a parking spot.  If we ever go again and are less pressed for time, I would take advantage of the bus system.  

After paying for our parking spot, we grabbed our duffel bags with our inflatable kayaks and walked over to the lake. 

Seeing the sunrise on the lake in a kayak was incredible.  We were able to separate ourselves from the groups of tourists on the shore, and we felt like we had the lake to ourselves. 

Because we drove ourselves (instead of flying in), we were lucky to be able to bring our own kayaking gear. 

Using your own kayak IS permitted.  However, there is not an official boat launch area available to the public, so we had to just wade out from the shoreline.  For those who aren’t able to lug their gear, the lake offers a canoe rental service at the boathouse. 

kayak paddle hovering over the blue water of Lake Louise in Banff National Park

The Icefields Parkway

After packing up our kayak gear, we headed towards the Icefields Parkway, which is a 144-mile stretch of road, considered by some to be one of the most scenic drives in the world. 

We wanted to visit the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre and walk on the Glacier Sky Walk platform, so we drove straight to the Discovery Center first. 

We booked a skywalk tour only, but they also offer Athabasca Glacier tours, where you get to experience the glacier close up by driving over it in a giant Ice Explorer vehicle. 

After purchasing our tour tickets at the Discovery Center, we hopped on a bus that took us to the skywalk, an incredibly engineered glass platform that extends out from the mountainside.  What an experience to be able to walk out on the glass and look down at the canyon below!   

tourist standing in front of a large ice explorer vehicle at the Discovery center at Banff National Park
The skywalk tour platform near the Discovery Center at Banff National Park

Peyto Lake Viewpoint

On our return trip on the parkway, we took one last stop at Peyto Lake and hiked the 1.5-mile loop to a beautiful overlook of the turquoise water.  This is also a fairly popular hike and we encountered quite a few other people, but we had no issues with parking, and the hike was a great way to end the day.  

overview of the turquoise blue water of Peyto Lake

With More Time: Things to Add to Your Banff Itinerary

We would have loved to spend a few more days in Banff, and for those with more time we recommend the following:

  • Kayak Vermilion Lakes (located just a seven-minute drive from the town of Banff)
  • Sunrise at Lake Minnewanka and Two Jack Lake(a 15-minute drive from the town of Banff)
  • Sulfur Mountain Trail (a 6.7-mile hike with beautiful views located 10 minutes from the town of Banff)
  • Check out more of the stops on the Icefields Parkway (Bow Summit, Weeping Wall, Big Bend, Parker Ridge).

Similar Posts