The Ultimate Guide to Visiting Banff in May: Hiking, Tips for Visiting & More
May 23, 2022
With endless mountain views, incredible hiking trails and a variety of activities for the whole family, it’s no wonder Banff is one of the world’s best mountain destinations. Not only is the city of Banff picturesque, but the surrounding mountains and lakes are sure to leave you in awe. This blog covers what to expect if you visit Banff in May or during “shoulder season” (meaning right before or after peak season!).
This information is based on my experience visiting Banff in May 2022. This blog is focused on a trip to Banff in May, but many of the tips and recommendations apply to visiting Banff year round!
Full disclaimer – I received a complimentary activity during this trip to Banff. As always, my opinions are unbiased and my own. I want to thank the Banff Lake Louise Tourism Board and Ski Big 3 Adventure Hub for their generosity.
How to Get to Banff
To get to Banff, you will most likely want to fly into Calgary and rent a car. Calgary is located 127 km/79 miles to the east of Banff and it takes about an hour and a half to make the drive from the airport.
If you opt not to rent a car, you can also get to Banff from Calgary via shuttle.
Getting Around Banff
If you do have a car, expect parking to be difficult in some areas (especially Lake Moraine and Lake Louise!). Arrive early whenever possible!
If you don’t have a car, Roam Transit has routes that take you where you need to go. Destinations include Sulphur Mountain, Lake Louise, Johnston Canyon and more.
What to Expect When Visiting Banff in May
Visiting Banff in May (or any mountain destination in shoulder season) has risks but great rewards. The town and trails will be much less crowded than the peak summer season, but there will likely still be a lot of snow in the higher altitude areas.
During my visit, Lake Louise was still frozen and the road to Moraine Lake was not yet open for the season. The road to Moraine Lake normally opens in mid-May, but in 2022 it did not open until June. While there was a lot of snow on the trails around Lake Louise and along the Icefields Parkway, the trails around Banff were clear and the lakes nearby were not frozen.
Overall, the weather in May was beautiful despite the snow on some of the trails. A few areas were crowded, but it was much less busy than the summer months! Spring is the perfect time to visit Banff if you want to save some money, avoid the largest crowds and don’t mind the possibility of snow.
Average temperatures in Banff in May are a high of 58°F/ 14°C and a low of 34°F/1°C. Lake Louise averages a few degrees colder.
What to Pack When Visiting Banff in May
- Layers! The weather can change quickly and it may be wildly different in Lake Louise and Banff. I recommend bringing a windbreaker, gloves, thick hiking socks and a warm hat.
- Sunscreen and sunglasses. If you hike in snow on a sunny day, the reflection will blind you and you’ll be at risk of a sunburn. Be sure to protect your skin and eyes.
- Microspikes and trekking poles. If you plan to hike in the snow, spikes and poles can make it so much easier! If it is a steep or difficult hike, they will be necessary for your safety.
Tips for Visiting Banff
- Bears (including grizzly bears) are a common sight in Banff and nearby. If you are doing any hiking, it is very important to carry bear spray. You cannot fly with it, so you should buy it when you get there. It is sold in multiple places around town including Ski Big 3 Adventure Hub and REI. When I left town, I disposed of my bear spray at the Banff Waste Transfer Site on Hawk Avenue.
- Download the Guide Along Canadian Rockies audio tour and play it while driving around the area! The guide includes tips on where to stop and information on the history and geology of the area.
- You will need to display a Canadian Parks Pass to enter many areas around Banff, and they are not always sold at the trailheads. Passes can be purchased online, at the Banff Visitor Center or at the entrance gate to the park. You can purchase a daily pass or a yearly pass, called the Discovery Pass. If you purchase online, you will need to print the pass.
Where to Stay in Banff
There are many hotels in Banff to meet your needs. If you would like to save money, you can typically find more affordable accommodations in Canmore (located about 25 minutes away from Banff).
I stayed in both of these Banff hotels and had great experiences.
Moose Hotel & Suites
The Moose Hotel is located close to all the action right on Banff Avenue. The hotel has a fancy lobby complete with a fireplace, restaurant and coffee shop. There is also a beautiful courtyard space where you can sit outside. The hotel has well designed rooms, comfortable beds and is a wonderful place to stay during your time in Banff.
Peaks Hotel & Suites
The Peaks Hotel is also within walking distance of the main stretch of downtown Banff. The hotel opened in 2021 and feels new and modern. The rooms have cozy beds and luxurious showers, and our room even came with a complimentary bottle of wine. It’s a nice, standard hotel option in a great location.
The 10 Best Things To Do in Banff in May
1. Rent Bikes and Ride on the Bow Valley Parkway
Biking is an incredible way to get around Banff! I rented e-bikes from Ski Big 3 and rode from Banff to Johnston Canyon. The journey was about 25 km/15 miles each way.
Along the way, I rode past the gorgeous Vermillion Lakes and enjoyed beautiful reflection views. Soon after, I rode under the Trans-Canada Highway and entered the Bow Valley Parkway.
May is a particularly great time to bike this road because the Bow Valley Parkway is typically closed to vehicles from March until the end of June. The closure reduces the disturbance to wildlife during critical breeding times. This means that you can take your time and not worry about cars or traffic. You also have a good chance of seeing wildlife along the way.
There are great views on the Bow Valley Parkway and biking is an amazing way to explore. I recommend allowing yourself a full day so that you can park your bikes and hike in Johnston Canyon.
2. Hike Johnston Canyon
Johnston Canyon is one of the most popular hiking destinations near Banff for good reason. The trail will lead you past multiple waterfalls into a canyon.
The Johnston Canyon trail is extra special because it is built into the canyon walls in some areas and you’ll have views of bright aqua green water throughout. At about 0.7 miles (1.1 km) from the trailhead, you will reach the Lower Falls. This was probably my favorite part of the trail. There is an impressive waterfall and you can get closer by climbing through a little cave that they have carved out of the rocks.
Another 0.7 miles further, you will reach Upper Falls. This waterfall is taller than the Lower Falls and a beautiful sight.
If you want to continue further, you can hike out to the Ink Pots, which is 2 miles (3.2 km) past the Upper Falls.
May is a great time to do this hike because the snowmelt creates a strong flow of water over the falls. No matter when you visit, Johnston Canyon is a must-do in Banff and beautiful year round.
3. Take in the Views from Sulphur Mountain
Sulphur Mountain offers amazing mountain views from 2,281 meters (7,486 feet), right above the town of Banff. At the top, there are 360-views of the surrounding mountain ranges, the city and the Bow Valley. The views at the top are incredible.
You can reach the top of this mountain by gondola or hiking trail. I opted to hike to the top and take the gondola down. The hike to the top is 3.4 miles (5.4 km) long with 2,480 feet (755 feet) of elevation gain. Almost the entire trail is switchbacks and you will walk underneath the gondola a few times along the way.
In May, the top third of the hike still had snow and ice, making spikes and poles helpful. Expect it to be windy and a few degrees colder at the top. If you decide to take the gondola one or both ways, you’ll need to purchase a timed ticket.
When you reach the top, there is a large gift shop, multiple gift shops, rooftop views, fireplaces and more. You will also want to climb the steps a bit higher to reach the Sulphur Mountain Cosmic Ray Station, which has the best views.
Whether you hike or take the gondola, the top of Sulphur Mountain offers some of the best views of Banff and is definitely worth the trip.
4. Admire Lake Louise
Lake Louise is one of the most famous lakes in the area for good reason. The lake is known for its turquoise-blue water with mountain views towering above it. It sits at a higher elevation than Banff, so it will stay frozen longer than lakes like Lake Minnewanka. It was still frozen during my visit in late-May.
Frozen or not, the lake is worth visiting. Several hiking trails also begin from Lake Louise, one of the most famous being the hike to the Lake Agnes tea house. Keep in mind that the tea house is only open during the summer months and there is potential for avalanche danger during the spring. Be sure to check current trail conditions on the Parks Canada website.
I hiked to Little Beehive and Lake Agnes in May, spikes and trekking poles were very necessary. If you’re prepared, hiking on the packed snow is a difficult but rewarding experience.
There are also some nice dining options near Lake Louise. You can eat at the Mount Fairview Dining Room and enjoy a beautiful view of the mountains.
Note that the road to Moraine Lake is typically closed for most of May, so it is not in this guide for visiting Banff in May. If you are visiting in the summer, Moraine Lake is a must. However, expect crowds and either arrive early for a parking spot or take the Roam Transit bus.
5. Drive the Icefields Parkway
The Icefields Parkway is 232 km (144 miles) long and travels between Lake Louise and Jasper. It is known to be one of the most beautiful drives in the world with spectacular mountain views, glaciers, lakes and so much beautiful scenery.
While there is potential for closures in the winter, the Icefields Parkway is typically open year round. May is the perfect time to make the drive, as you’ll have less crowds and beautiful snowy vistas along the way.
I recommend allowing a full day to experience this drive and making several stops along the way. If possible, it’s a great idea to spend the night in Jasper and even allow yourself two days to take your time on the drive.
There is very sparse cell reception along the drive, so I highly recommend downloading the Guide Along audio tour beforehand. This will help ensure that you don’t miss any key stops along the way! Also be sure to fill up on gas ahead of time and pack snacks and water. There are not many places for food along the way.
While you’re making the drive, there is a great chance you’ll see wildlife. I saw several bears, deer and bighorn sheep during the journey. Be sure to only stop at designated pull-offs and never approach the animals.
Some of the best stops on the Icefields Parkway include the Peyto Lake Overlook, Mistaya Canyon, Athabasca Glacier and the Columbia Skywalk. Peyto Lake is one of the highest elevation stops of the drive, so there was a lot of snow here during my visit in May. Alternatively, Mistaya Canyon had no snow. Pack layers and be prepared for anything!
When you reach Athabasca Glacier and the Columbia Skywalk, you have the option to pay for a tour to drive and walk out onto the glacier and walk on the glass skywalk for an incredible view. Prices vary depending on demand.
No matter where you stop, the drive will deliver incredible views and is a must-do when visiting Banff in the Spring (or any time!).
6. Hike Tunnel Mountain
Tunnel Mountain is a wonderful hike located just a few minutes away from downtown Banff. The trail is 2.8 miles (4.5 km) long with 875 feet (266 meters) of elevation gain and leads to fantastic views down on Banff.
Interestingly, the mountain gets its name from a plan to blast a tunnel through the mountain to build the first Trans-Canada railroad. Turns out, it was much cheaper and easier to build an alternative route for the railroad, but the name stuck. The original name is actually Iinii Istako (Sleeping Buffalo) in Siksika (Blackfoot) or Eyarhey Tatanga Woweyahgey Wakân (Sacred Buffalo Guardian Mountain) in the Stoney Nakoda language. There have been petitions for Parks Canada to adopt the Indigenous name.
The Tunnel Mountain trail has a few switchbacks and the views keep improving as you climb. There is plenty of space to spread out at the top of the mountain and you may even see rock climbers on the side of the mountain. It’s a great place to pack a lunch to enjoy at the top. If you want this trail to yourself, be sure to arrive early.
7. Gaze at the Vermillion Lakes
The Vermillion Lakes are a series of lakes located right on the edge of the town of Banff. The network of lakes is the perfect place to capture reflections of mountains such as Mount Rundle and Sulphur Mountain.
This is a great area to explore by bike, but you can also drive along Vermillion Lakes Road. Each lake has its own viewpoint and you’ll find small docks, benches and signage along the way. This is the perfect area to watch sunrise or sunset, look for wildlife or just relax and enjoy the views.
You can also explore the lakes via canoe, kayak or paddleboard. Several outfitters in town offer rentals, including SkiBig3 Adventure Hub, Radventures and Banff Canoe Club.
8. Explore Lake Minnewanka, Two Jack Lake and Cascade Ponds
Lake Minnewanka is a large glacier-fed lake located on the Northeast part of town. The lake is 13 miles (21 km) long and is a popular place for scenic boat tours, scuba diving, hiking and more. There is also a beach area with a snack shack and boat rentals are available at the dock.
As you’re driving out to Lake Minnewanka, you’ll take the Lake Minnewanka Scenic Drive and pass by Two Jack Lake. This is another gorgeous lake that is much smaller but also popular for paddling and photography.
Another lake to visit right before Two Jack Lake is Johnson Lake. You can take a 2 mile (3.2 km) loop trail around this lake and it’s the perfect place to look for wildlife.
Also along the Lake Minnewanka Scenic Drive, you’ll pass the Bankhead Ghost Town. Bankhead used to be a coal town and now you can walk by some of the buildings and read signage along the path. The interpretive trail will teach you the history along the way.
Right outside of the Lake Minnewanka Scenic Drive, be sure to make a stop at Cascade Ponds. This area of small ponds is a beautiful place to catch a mountain reflection in the water and the perfect spot for a picnic. On summer nights, this is a popular place to grill under the stars. Just be sure to check for wildfire danger before building a fire.
There is a lot to do in the area surrounding Lake Minnewanka, you could easily spend an entire day or just a couple hours. I recommend using the Guide Along tour to learn more about this area while you’re driving through.
9. Explore Downtown Banff
While hiking, scenic lakes and mountain views tend to be my priority when visiting a place like Banff, the city itself definitely deserves exploring. Downtown Banff has a plethora of fantastic restaurants and cute shops. Plus, you can take in the picturesque mountain views as you stroll down the sidewalks in town.
If you need any outdoor gear for exploring the mountains, there are several options in town. You’ll find some big names like the North Face and REI as well as Canadian owned stores like Atmosphere and UNLTD Skate and Snow.
There are many options for souvenirs in downtown Banff too. Some stores to visit include Branches Marketplace and Cool as a Moose. There are also some great places to eat and drink, such as the Parks Distillery liquor store and Banff Tea Co.
Whether you shop, eat or just walk around, it’s worth your time to explore the downtown during your trip. They also close the Banff Ave off to cars so it can be enjoyed by pedestrians during the warmer months!
10. Stop at Bow Falls and the Surprise Corner Viewpoints
Right on the edge of town, you can get an incredible view of Bow Falls, an epic waterfall on the Bow River. There is also a hiking trail here that follows along the river with pleasant views along the way.
Across from the waterfall along the river, it’s worth making a quick stop at the Surprise Corner Overlook. This view overlooks a bend in the river and provides a view of Fairmont Banff Springs. This epic hotel looks a little bit like a castle overlooking the town and is beautiful to see from across the way.
These viewpoints make for great quick stops for when you have some extra time exploring Banff. The Hoodoos trail also connects to the Surprise Corner Overlook if you are looking for another hike near Banff.
The Best Places to Eat in Banff
Banff has some delicious food! If you're a foodie, make sure to try some iconic, traditional Canadian foods such as poutine, Beaver Tails and more.
Ideally, you should make a reservation at some of the most popular restaurants in Banff, especially if you are visiting during the summer. I ate early and didn’t need reservations during my trip in May.
Also note that it is customary to tip about 20% in Canada, just like the United States. All of the service I had in Banff was incredible and the staff was always very nice and accommodating.
Park Distillery offers incredible craft cocktails and innovative dishes inspired by campfire-cooking in a cozy atmosphere. The restaurant decor is complete with tree branches behind the bar, vintage national park postcards and outdoor touches done in an elevated way. The amazing food, drink and atmosphere make this my favorite restaurant in Banff!
I really enjoyed the Sawtooth Cocktail, which includes their house-made chili vodka and pineapple juice. I ate the veggie bowl with tofu, which had the perfect mix of textures and flavors. The bowl included crispy chickpea falafel, beets, hummus, cashew yogurt, watermelon radish and more. Some of their most popular menu items include the rotisserie chicken, prime rib and bison burger.
The Maple Leaf
The Maple Leaf is a higher end restaurant that serves Canadian cuisine for brunch, lunch and dinner. I really enjoyed the grilled vegetable gnocchi and had another delicious Sawtooth cocktail made with Park Distillery chili vodka.
The restaurant has wonderful service and sizable portions. Some of the most popular dishes include the Surf and Turf Platter, the salmon and the bison short rib.
Bear Street Tavern
Bear Street Tavern serves comfort food such as pizza and sandwiches along with a great selection of beer, wine and cocktails. The spinach dip was mouth-wateringly good and I really enjoyed a pizza that included pesto and pine nuts.
I highly recommend adding their honey and chili oil to your pizza. This was an incredible combination! Bear Street is the perfect local spot for a filling meal after a day of hiking.
Wild Flour Bakery
Fuel up for the day with a coffee and a breakfast sandwich from Wild Flour Bakery. I was really impressed with their breakfast sandwich. They mix eggs with peppers, parsley, onion and cheddar and serve it on toasted sourdough. I added tomato and it was full of flavor!
In addition to breakfast sandwiches, Wild Flour serves fresh baked bread, pastries, lunch sandwiches and tea. This is a wonderful place in Banff for vegans and vegetarians.
Tommy’s Neighborhood Pub
Tucked away below street level, Tommy’s Neighborhood Pub is a casual watering hole perfect for a cold beer after a day on the trails. They serve standard bar food like wings, nachos and burgers. I really enjoyed the veggie Santa Fe burger which included jalapenos, guacamole and salsa. In addition to yummy comfort food, Tommy’s is a place to play darts, watch the local hockey game and catch up with friends.
If you have a sweet tooth, be sure to try a Beaver Tail while you’re in Banff! Beaver Tails is a Canadian chain with a couple locations in Banff. The treat is essentially a large, flat piece of fried dough with themed toppings. You can keep things simple with cinnamon and sugar or add things like maple spread, nutella, fruit or even cheesecake.
My impression of the Beaver Tail exceeded my expectations. I had the brownie version and it was very sweet but good. Keep in mind that these also get really messy (especially if you add a scoop of ice cream!). If the dessert sounds at all appealing, a Beaver Tail is a must while you’re in Banff.
Cows is a Canadian Ice Cream brand known for creamy ice cream. They have some unique flavors such as the Gooey Mooey (includes english coffee, caramel cups and chocolate flakes), Messie Bessie (chocolate with oreos and English toffee) and Wowie Cowie (vanilla ice cream with English tofu marble, chocolate flakes and Moo Crunch).
Cows is the place to go to get your ice cream fix and enjoy one of the best desserts in Banff.
Banff is an incredible year round destination and should be on your Canada bucket list! I think that May is one of the best times to visit Banff because you will experience less crowds and are still likely to have great weather. As long as you’re okay with some of the popular lakes being frozen, visiting during shoulder season is a great way to experience this area.
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