Banff is one of Canada’s biggest tourist destinations, and for good reason – it’s a stunningly beautiful town nestled deep in the Canadian Rocky Mountains.
But with short and exceptionally busy summers breaking up what is otherwise a town with a legacy of very long and cold winters, figuring out the best time to visit Banff can be tricky.
As a former resident of Banff, I can tell you that deciding when to go depends 100-percent on what you want to see and do. Summer means hiking and sightseeing, winter means doing winter sports or sipping whiskey by a fire, autumn means making the most of the last hikes of the season, and spring means cheap ski passes and watching deer roam the streets.
Keep an open mind! Summer is popular, but it may not be your best option.
Summer (late-June – August)
As a town that stays frozen for most of the year, the warmth of summer feels like some kind of anomaly. Flowers suddenly emerge on every street corner, the bare rocks on the mountains become quite exposed, green grass emerges for the first time in around nine months, a staggering number of hiking trails are suddenly open for exploration, the sun sets at 11pm, and the lakes turn their famous shades of emerald.
Summer is also the only time you can see some areas of the region. For example, while Sunshine is a popular ski resort for most of the year, the snow has melted by August and transforms the place in to this expansive area of natural meadows atop the tallest mountains in the district. It’s a surprisingly spectacular site that altered my perception of the types of ecosystems that can exist on the summits of the Rocky Mountains – something I didn’t think I’d be interested in until I was in the middle of meadows at looked like they belonged in England.
Needless to say, there’s little wonder why Banff is such a popular summer destination – it’s staggeringly different from it’s usual frozen state, and really seems to spring to life in the short burst of warmth July and August bring.
But as beautiful as the summer is, as a former resident of Banff, I can tell you it gets so busy in summer that it’s painfully difficult to walk down the street at almost any time of day or night. Getting anywhere fast is an impossibility.
Banff Avenue sounds like a party pretty much all the time, there are long queues to see the major attractions (Lake Louise, Moraine Lake, Johnston Canyon, ect), hotels are soul-destroyingly expensive, hiking trails are annoyingly crowded, and what should be a very tranquil getaway is rife with thousands of other humans trying to have the same tranquil holiday as you.
Warm weather, you can pick from an extensive number of hiking trails, lakes are in their prime, access to areas otherwise hidden by snow, you can camp pretty comfortably if you’re not in to the exorbitant prices of hotels.
It’s. So. Busy. Tourists are literally everywhere and it’s near impossible to get the tranquil mountain getaway you may have been hoping for. Summer is also forest fire season, often coating Banff in a thick layer of smoke that can last weeks, and makes mountain viewing impossible. Not great for anyone with respiratory problems.
Autumn is a fleeting experience in Banff. When I was living there, we almost skipped it entirely with a sudden dump of snow in what was technically still summer. The trees didn’t have enough time to turn orange and lose their leaves, so there were bright green leaves covered in snow, while temperatures plummeted to -10.
As an Australian, this was a confusing time, but that’s the nature of the seasons in Banff – the default position is ‘cold’, so it’s not really unusual for the weather to suddenly turn. But it does make planning difficult.
I was meant to go on an autumn hike with some friends to look at the sea of larch trees around Moraine Lake as they turned vibrant shades of orange (something you should definitely do in autumn, if you’re lucky enough to catch it). We planned it two-weeks beforehand for a period that should probably have been autumn, but there was so much snow we had to change our plans and ended up doing a hectic snow hike around Lake Louise and up to the Plain of Six Glaciers (image below). I’ve never seen anything like it.
Extreme weather aside, Banff is definitely a quieter and more tranquil place in September and, in my opinion, it’s just a nicer place to be. It’s cooler (between -5 and 10 – bring a coat) but not totally freezing yet, and many of the hikes and attractions are still open – the only difference is you can enjoy them with a jacket on, and without navigating your way through masses of people doing the same thing.
Fewer people, not freezing, hiking trails are still open, and accommodation is slightly cheaper.
It’s chilly but ski season hasn’t started, and it’s difficult to plan ahead (weather is extremely unpredictable).
Winter (March – September)
As a mountain town, Banff sticks pretty loosely to traditional seasons. Autumn lasts for a week or two, spring lasts for a month-ish, and summer goes for about two months. All this, of course, this means winter is the dominating season, spreading itself out for around six months from late-September to late-March.
While the place becomes a bit of a metropolis for snow sports enthusiasts (an extraordinary number of whom are Australian), winter is probably the quietest time to visit Banff – unless people are in the midst of zooming down mountains on planks of fiberglass or skating on frozen lakes, it’s so cold that they’re not hanging around outside.
Not only are the snow-covered Rocky Mountains jaw-droppingly beautiful, the town turns into something you might see on a postcard – a winter wonderland with icicles clinging to roofs, cloud-like snow puffs piled high on lamp posts, and the glow of warm lights peeking out of frosted cottage windows, as snowflakes dance around outside.
On top of that, the town is built for winter. All the restaurants and hotels are cozily fitted with fireplaces, cushions, and bulky quilts – all of which feels kind of odd if you’re visiting in summer.
Having said all that, it’s pretty important to make sure you have the right gear to withstand the weather. Temperatures sit at a bone-chilling -40 degrees Celsius, and it’s just not a good time to visit if you’re hoping to hike.
Snow sports or sitting in comfy chairs by the fireplace.
Quiet streets, lots of winter sporting options (skiing, snowboarding, ice skating), cheapest accommodation prices, and minimal queues.
Incredibly cold temperatures and limited sightseeing options (many places close over winter because they’re inaccessible).
Spring (April – May)
While Banff is still pretty chilly in spring, the absolutely freezing temperatures become a thing of the past, as the town thaws in preparation for the summer.
Hotels and B&Bs are still on the cheaper side, you can walk down Banff Avenue at any pace you desire (without navigating through a sea of other humans), dustings of snow still settle over the mountains from time to time, and deer wander majestically through the streets. It’s a pretty magical time.
Spring in Banff also allows you to see a lot more of the area than winter. As the snow melts, hikes become more accessible, the major attractions are still pretty quiet, and there are no queues to get in to restaurants.
You can still do snow sports in spring at many of the ski resorts, and lift passes are cheaper. Win! Sunshine closes in June and supposedly has the longest ski season in the world, and Lake Louise is open until the end of April.
Some ski resorts strike end-of-season deals with local stores and restaurants. I went in to Wild Bill’s Saloon one afternoon, ordered the draught of the day and ended up with a free Lake Louise ski pass from the bartender because they had a promotion going. These deals happen all over the place, so keep a lookout.
Not freezing (between one and 10 degrees), cheaper ski passes, hikes are more accessible, and accommodation is cheaper.
Still not t-shirt weather, and not all hikes and sites are open (watch out for avalanches).
When it comes down to it, Banff is an amazing place that never fails to disappoint. It will be a fantastic experience regardless of when you decide to go, but the time of year could have an impact on the quality (and cost) of your trip so it pays try and plan ahead, and consider going in the cooler months.