Our Banff FREE Fun Guide has 15 free things to do in Banff from getting those Red Chair views and paddling, to visiting the birthplace of the National Parks system and a ghost town!
Banff is a beautiful mountain town surrounded by nature, so you don’t need to go far or spend much to enjoy the scenery. Here are 15 free things to do in Banff this summer from the Art in Nature Trail and paddling, to biking and visiting the Castle of the Rockies. Start planning your budget-friendly getaway now!
1. Explore Banff Avenue
Banff Avenue – home to awesome eateries, breweries, galleries, and shopping – is super photogenic. Admire the architecture and take in the mountain views as you explore the heart of Banff. Scope out a dinner spot, then get the classic Banff Ave photo with Cascade Mountain in the background (the safest spot is from the median).
2. Play and picnic at Central Park (110 Bear St)
Unwind at Central Park, on the bank of the Bow River. Let the kids burn off steam on the nature playground, enjoy a leisurely picnic, or simply bask in the sunshine before exploring more. From here, you can take the (mostly) paved river pathway north to Fenlands Trail, or south to Bow Falls.
3. Smell the flowers at Cascade of Time Garden (Cave Ave & Banff Ave)
Indulge your senses at the Cascades of Time Garden (Cascade Gardens), a floral paradise bursting with vibrant colors and fragrant blooms. Take a leisurely stroll through the garden’s stone pathways and immerse yourself in nature’s beauty.
There is limited parking at Cascade Gardens / Parks Administration Building, so we advise walking there, or taking public transit.
4. Art in Nature Trail / Nancy Pauw Bridge / Bow Falls
What better way to enjoy Banff than on the Art in Nature Trail? The 3 km riverside walking trail features over 65 artworks, Bow Falls, Nancy Pauw Bridge, and Central Park. For a route map and information about each artist, see the Banff & Lake Louise Tourism Art in Nature Trail brochure.
Dates: July 1 – September 30, 2023
5. Visit the “Castle of the Rockies” (405 Spray Ave)
Dubbed the “Castle of the Rockies,” the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel (Expedia affiliate link) is a stunning sight set against a backdrop of mountains. While a stay here is definitely a splurge, wandering the grounds, admiring the architecture, and enjoying the views are absolutely free.
6. Explore Cave & Basin National Historic Site (311 Cave Ave)
Step back in time at Cave & Basin National Historic Site, the birthplace of the National Parks system in Canada. Wander through the historic site, learn about its significance, watch a short film, and marvel at the site’s namesake (Note: the thermal springs are for viewing only. If you’d like to go for a soak, visit Banff Upper Hot Springs). Admission to Cave and Basin is free with your park pass/daily park admission.
Trails that start at the historic site include:
1) Cave and Basin Trail: Lower Boardwalk (400 m),
2) Cave and Basin Trail: Upper Boardwalk (500 m),
3) Marsh Loop (2.8 km loop), and
4) Sundance Trail (3.7 km one way) to Sundance Canyon (1.6 km loop).
7. See the Merman at the Banff Trading Post (101 Cave Ave)
An unusual merman sculpture captures the imagination at the Banff Trading Post. Read the Stoney Nakoda Legend of Lake Minnewanka, snap a photo of this unique piece of art, and explore the shop’s assortment of treasures.
8. Hike Tunnel Mountain (137 St Julien Rd)
Strap on your hiking boots and tackle Tunnel Mountain (also known as Sleeping Buffalo Mountain) trail. While the short trail is all uphill, the panoramic vistas of Banff and the Bow Valley are totally worth it! Reward yourself with a break at the Red Chair Viewpoint on Tunnel Mountain, then return the way you came. There are also geocaches to find on Tunnel Mountain!
For more info on this trail, see our story Hiking Tunnel (Sleeping Buffalo) Mountain.
9. Mount Norquay Lookout (Mount Norquay Scenic Drive)
For another stunning vista, head to the Mount Norquay Lookout. Gaze out over the valley and appreciate the grandeur of the Rockies from this elevated vantage point. Mount Rundle dominates the skyline at left. Drive slowly and carefully – bears and bighorn sheep are often spotted on Mount Norquay Scenic Drive.
Click here for the Mount Norquay Lookout Google Maps Pin.
10. Bike Vermilion Lakes Road and the Bow Valley Parkway to Johnston Canyon
If you have a bike, explore the natural wonders along Vermilion Lakes Road and the Bow Valley Parkway. Vermilion Lakes Road has a 30 km/hr speed limit (stay to the right, single file, to allow cars to pass), and from there, you can ride a paved bike path to the Bow Valley Parkway/Highway 1A. The best time to bike the Bow Valley Parkway is from May 1 – June 25, and September 1-October 2, 2023 when the road is closed to cars. It’s 25 km from the Banff Train Station to Johnston Canyon.
11. Selfie at the Banff Town Sign (101 Mount Norquay Rd)
The Banff Town Sign is a fun, quick photo spot if you’re hiking nearby Fenland Trail or biking to Vermilion Lakes Road / Bow Valley Parkway. If arriving by car, park at Fenlands Recreation Centre across the street.
12. Hike (or paddle) at Lake Minnewanka
Hike a little or a lot at Lake Minnewanka! Day hikes and multi-day backpacking trips begin at the lake, so whether you’re looking for a short and scenic stroll or long weekend trip, you have lots of options. Most day trippers hike the lakeshore to Stewart Canyon, but if you’re up for a long day, Aylmer Lookout (25 km round trip) offers epic views.
13. Beach day at Johnson Lake
Johnson Lake is a popular swimming hole and stand-up paddleboarding destination thanks to its (usually) serene waters. Glide across the lake’s crystal-clear surface, surrounded by stunning mountain vistas; then picnic, play in the sand, or hike around the lake to the red chairs and an abandoned hermit’s cabin.
14. Explore the Bankhead Ghost Town
Delve into Banff’s history by exploring the Bankhead coal mining ruins. Located just outside the town, these ruins offer a glimpse into the past when coal mining played a pivotal role in the area’s development. Wander among the remains of old buildings, industrial structures, and mining equipment, and imagine the bustling life that once thrived here from 1904-1922. Most of the structures, including an old locomotive and coal cars, are on the 1 km interpretive trail from Lower Bankhead. If time allows, there are a few more abandoned buildings on the way to C Level Cirque (park at Upper Bankhead).
15. Vermilion Lakes Sunset
As the day draws to a close, seize the opportunity to witness a spectacular sunset over the Rockies. Vermilion Lakes Drive is short walk, bike ride, or bus ride from downtown Banff, and the perfect place to see Mount Rundle bathed in golden light. The summit of Sulphur Mountain – hike up or ride the Banff Gondola – is another special sunset spot.
From strolling down Banff Avenue, to exploring historic sites and biking in the Rockies, Banff offers a wide array of free activities that are fun for all ages. For Banff’s top attractions, see our Banff Summer Fun Guide.
Know Before You Go
- A Parks Canada Discovery Pass / daily admission fee is required to stop in Banff National Park.
- Parking is limited in downtown Banff and at the Banff Gondola, and Parks Canada Shuttles are recommended for visiting Lake Louise and Moraine Lake. See our Getting Around Banff Guide for info re: free parking, public transit, and shuttles.
- You are in bear territory. Review our Bear Safety Tips and keep bear spray accessible (NOT in your backpack). Every adult in your party should have their own bear spray, and know how to use it.
- Dogs must be kept on a leash. For your safety, Parks Canada and bear safety experts recommend leaving your dog at home.
What to Bring
Disclosure: This section includes affiliate links through which I earn a commission on qualifying purchases at no extra cost to you.
Good hiking boots, a down hoody or fleece, toque, gloves, and windproof/waterproof shell are recommended year round. Trekking poles are useful for long hikes, steep descents, or when you’re carrying a heavy pack. You should also carry The Ten Essentials including: water, extra food, extra clothes, a first aid kit, headlamp, GPS / compass, and map of the area, sunscreen (this mineral sunscreen is fragrance free, paraben free, and reef-friendly), bug spray (this Deet-free one contains 20% icaridin and will repel ticks), and bear spray. Carry bear spray in a Bear Spray Holster or Scat Griz Bear Spray Running Belt.
A Garmin inReach Mini 2 satellite communicator is highly recommended for contacting Search & Rescue and emergency contacts in the event of an emergency, or communicating with friends and family when you are out of cell phone range. You can send text messages and your GPS coordinates via satellite (but a monthly plan is required)!
Getting To / Around Banff
Banff is located 126 km / 1 hour 20 minutes west of Calgary.
Parking is limited in the town of Banff, but you can save time & gas by getting free parking and taking transit/shuttles. Here are a couple options:
- Park at the Banff Train Station Parking lot (free parking for 9 hours) and take public transit to the Banff Gondola/Banff Upper Hot Springs, Banff Springs Hotel, Tunnel Mountain, or Lake Minnewanka.
- Park at the Lake Minnewanka Drive Park & Ride (free parking for 9 hours) and take the free Parks Canada Shuttle into town. You can also take Roam Transit to Lake Minnewanka from here.
For more info, including tips on visiting Moraine Lake and Lake Louise, see our story: Getting Around Banff National Park.
Where to Stay
Elk + Avenue boasts stylish, spacious suites on Banff Avenue. Groups and families will love the loft suites with 2 queen size beds in the loft, a sofa bed, and dining area. Elk + Avenue has fantastic onsite dining at Farm + Fire, plus a hot tub and sauna. Read about our girls trip in this story: How to Spend a Fun Girls’ Weekend in Banff this Fall.
Mount Royal Hotel, also on Banff Avenue, has two lovely rooftop hot tubs (18+ only) and an awesome restaurant. Go on an Open Top Tour to explore Banff in a vintage-styled coach (departs from the hotel), enjoy Happy Hour and dinner at Brazen, then relax in your mountain-view room.
For a quiet mountain stay, just minutes from downtown, book a condo at Hidden Ridge Resort. This lovely resort on the side of the Tunnel Mountain boasts large, well-appointed condos; gorgeous outdoor pools (hot pool + wading pool) and a sauna; and free bus passes so you can park your car and save on parking while you explore Banff. Read about our experience in our story Five Reasons to Stay at Hidden Ridge Resort.