How To Visit Banff National Park On A Budget

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Are you ready for another CliffsNotes travel guide?  It’s been a while since my last one!  In September, we enjoyed a week-long adventure in Canada, visiting 5 National Parks – Banff, Jasper, Yoho, Glacier, and Kootenay.  This post will cover Banff on a budget and I’ll touch on the remainder of the parks in a future post.

Getting There

The closest and cheapeset airport is in Calgary which was a fairly easy drive (around 2 hours) to get to the Banff area.  There are the cutest volunteers driving around the airport in white cowboy hats, and the airport is so clean!

Protip – If you’re flying in from the US, the flight crew will hand out Customs declaration forms to fill out on the plane, but once you arrive in the airport, everything is handled electronically, so you don’t even need to complete the forms (save yourself some time and skip them if you’re a US Citizen)

Transportation

We reserved a rental car (along with hundreds of others who arrived at the same time as us, apparently). Book through Autoslash to get the best rates, guaranteed!

Pro tip: When waiting in the line for the rental cars at the Calgary airport, head up the STAIRS instead of waiting in the long line for the elevators, and you’ll get to the rental counters much more quickly!

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Camping

To kick off our budget visit, we stayed our first night in the Lake Louise Campground.  If you’ve done any research, you’ll likely have seen that this area is frequented by Grizzly Bears, so this particular campground has an electric fence around it to ward off the bears.   My husband Gabe brought hammocks for both of us to sleep in at our campsite, but since the night time temperatures were already dropping into the 30’s and 40’s at the beginning of September, we stopped at Rent -A-Tent to rent some sleeping bags to stay warm in our hammocks.   Gabe toughed it out in the hammock all night (he can sleep through almost anything), but I ended up sleeping in the car because it was too cold!

Pro-tip: wear thick wool socks.  They will keep you warm when camping and prevent blisters when hiking.

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Overall, it was a nice, quiet campground with a river running through it and had several restrooms and a bathhouse.  The shower was not in the best condition, but at least it was hot!  I got there at 4:30am and there was no line, but with only one shower in the female bathhouse for a fairly large campground, I’d recommend going early if you don’t want to wait.  Fees for camping: $27.70 CAD per site per night with no fire and $36.50 CAD per site per night with a fire.

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Food & Supplies

There are fairly limited options for food right near the campground, but we had dinner at the Village Grill Restaurant and enjoyed some Asian fare.   After dinner, we stopped to get a few snacks for the next day’s hiking at the Trading Post, and we also picked up some Bear Spray.  The cost was $50 CAD to buy it, or $10 CAD per day to rent.   We got instructions on how to use it – apparently, you spray it in a “Z” shape to account for the wind and it sprays up to 30 feet for 7 seconds!  It made me feel a little better knowing we had that on us but was desperately hoping we would not need to use it!

Pro-tipyou cannot carry bear spray with you on the airplane, so if you don’t end up using your canister, pay it forward and give it to other visitors to save them some money instead of just throwing it away or leaving it in your rental car when you depart.

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Lake Moraine

The next morning, we knew we wanted to get to Moraine Lake first because of the limited parking options there.  We woke up at 4:30 am, drove the dark winding roads to Moraine and arrived by 5:30 am.  When we got there, it was already difficult to find parking as the lot was almost full.  This was on the Friday before Labor Day weekend, but from our understanding, it is always this crowded.  Once we found a spot, everyone was scrambling to stake their claim to the best spot to watch the sunrise and frankly, we were a little confused as to which path to take.  We climbed up the rock pile first and there was only one other couple up there so we got the lovely photo you see below.  After that, we followed the Lakeshore trail.

Pro-tip: get there early to see the sunrise (and a parking spot) and bring a headlamp

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Lake Moraine
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Lake Moraine – Lakeshore Trail

After enjoying the beauty at Lake Moraine, we made our way over to Lake Louise.  We got there by 7:30 and got a parking spot without much trouble but it was already starting to fill up.   What a breathtaking spot!  We didn’t stop to take many pictures when we got there because we wanted to start our hike up to Agnes Lake.

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Lake Agnes Trail – Hiking To The Tea House

We started our hike up to the tea house at 7:50 am and it took us about an hour with no stops.  When we started the hike, there were not many others going up the trail and I was a little nervous due to the bears in the area.  We tried to stay close to the couple in front of us and played music and/or talked the whole way so bears would know we were coming.  It was a strenuous hike at 2.2 miles each way, but lots of beautiful views along the way.   Dogs are allowed on the trail, so I loved seeing them along the way!  The hike down took us just over an hour with stops at Mirror Lake.

Pro-tip: This might seem obvious, but it’s a challenging hike, so be sure to bring plenty of water!

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The Tea House

When we arrived at the Tea House, a few people were already there but we got a table with no wait.  Note that they accept cash only since there is no electricity.  Strangely enough, we actually had great phone reception there!  We ordered scones, lemongrass tea and a peanut butter sandwich.  Everything was delicious and we spotted some friendly chipmunks and birds by the tables.  Supplies are brought in by air or by employees carrying it up.  Quite the endeavor, but it was the perfect respite after a strenuous hike and prices were reasonable!

Pro-tip:  Definitely get a table outside if possible to enjoy the breathtaking views.  The outhouse has no running water, so if you can, throw some hand sanitizer/wipes in your bag for the hike.

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Scones and Tea
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Lake Agnes
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After we had our fill of the refreshments, we started our hike back down.  There were SO many people heading up the trail (It was probably around 9:45 or 10:00 am)  Thankfully we only saw one bear (a dog named Bear) and had a relaxing time getting back down.

Pro-tip: Download music on your phone to play along the way for safety.  You might be too winded to talk the whole time – we definitely were!  Another option is to wear bear bells.

Lake Louise

The color of this lake, like Moraine, was such a vibrant blue!  We didn’t want to leave and had fun taking a bunch of photos by the lake.  There are fairly nice bathrooms near the entrance.  We wanted to walk around inside the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise but unfortunately, it is not open to the public (you must be a guest to enter).

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Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise – as seen on The Bachelor!

Parking/Shuttles

If you aren’t able to arrive early enough to get a parking spot at Lake Louise or Lake Moraine, there are shuttles available.  Just be prepared to wait, as the shuttle queue time was already 90 minutes by the time we were leaving Lake Louise at 11:00 am.

Pro-tip: The fee per vehicle to get into Banff National park is $19.60 CAD and is good until 4pm the next day, so the earlier you enter the park, the better, to get more bang for your buck.  Also, the pass is good for multiple parks, so if you have a pass for Banff National Park and want to enter Jasper National Park that same day, you won’t have to pay for a new pass. It’s worth it to keep on driving if you’re going to be near a new park before 4pm – get more bang for your buck!

Nearby Towns

If you can, try to stop for a meal in Canmore, which is between Calgary and Lake Louise.  It’s a small town with plentiful charming shops and restaurants, along with stunning mountain views and a plethora of flowers.  We had lunch at The Grizzly Paw and highly recommend their food and beverages.  Gabe tried poutine for the first time here! Prices for food were definitely higher here, but if you stop at the local grocery stores you can buy some things to cook your own meals.

All in all, even if you don’t like tea, the experience of hiking to Lake Agnes and views from the top are absolutely worth it if you’re going to be near Lake Louise.  I wouldn’t necessarily recommend camping by Lake Louise in late August/early September because of how cold it was, but there is a hostel nearby if you’re looking for budget accommodations.  Have you been to Banff or the surrounding parks?  Let me know your tips in the comments.

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Before you go, you might enjoy:  3 Tips For Navigating Without GPS

Thank you for reading.  Be sure to check out my curated travel and wellness essentials.

Emily

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Camping At Lake Louise And Hiking To Lake Agnes Tea House in Banff National Park

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