We get asked this question alllll the time! “When exactly is the best time to visit Banff National Park?”
Well, honestly it depends on what you’re looking for and what your interests are. As residents, we definitely have favourite and ‘least favourite’ times of years, and those are generally determined by 1. The weather, and 2. Banff’s ‘crowdedness’.
If you’re visiting as a tourist, you won’t really have much basis for comparison but there are definitely two on- seasons (crowded) and two off-seasons (or shoulder seasons).
The reason there are two on-seasons, is because there are two different crowds that visit Banff; the summer crowd and the winter crowd. The summer crowd comes for the beautiful hiking (here are a few of our favourite hikes), and the winter crowd comes for the skiing (here’s our guide to Canadian ski resorts).
The summer season really begins in earnest on the May Long Weekend. For the next 100 days, Banff is teeming with tourists; you’ll barely be able to walk down the streets for the crowds. This tends to taper off towards the end of September/early October as the weather starts to cool and the snow starts to arrive again (closing many of the hikes for the season).
The absolute peak of the summer season is June 30th on the Canada Day long weekend. If you’re planning a visit during that weekend (or any summer long weekend), you should prepare to be jostled as you walk down the street!
It stands to reason also that the hotel prices are at their most expensive during the summer, and if you want to have a good selection of hotels you’ll want to book at least 6-9 months in advance.
(Don’t believe us? Our wedding is June 30th and Banff was 85% full when our guests started booked their rooms back in October!)
The Winter Season really runs from early November, when the ski hills start to open, all the way through to the May Long weekend the following year. The winter peak is generally for the 10 days around Christmas and New Year, and then again in March-April. For the most part, early season (Nov-Dec) isn’t as good skiing as the snow base isn’t very thick, and late Jan/early Feb is generally the coldest part of winter (temps sometimes falling lower than -30 Celsius). The last couple of weeks in May are still skiable at certain resorts (like Sunshine Village), but the snow is starting to thin out and soften (get slushy).
The Sunshine Slush Cup is officially the last day of the winter ski season, and it’s a day of drinking and skiing on slush (melted snow). It’s super sticky and not great for skiing, so most people head up to have a few drinks and participate in the slush cup (a competition to see who can skim the furthest across a freezing cold pond). Check out our post about it here.
For a brief period between October and November, and again between May and June, Banff tends to be a lot quieter. This is because generally it’s too snowy to safely summit mountains (without mountaineering equipment), or there are avalanche risks or it’s too warm for skiing.
It’s still a beautiful time of year to visit Banff, but you’re a little more limited in the activities you can do (no water based activities as the lakes are still melting, but also no ice skating etc).
Early season is also when ticks our out in abundance (May), so we usually prefer to save our energy for later in the season
So we’ve covered the major seasons, but there are other things to see and do in Banff that have very specific seasons and you might want to take those into account too.
In order to see the Northern Lights, you need a few things to line up. Those things are weather conditions, the Northern lights actually being on, and darkness.
Being located at such high latitude means that the days range from extremely short in Winter, to extremely long in Summer. To have the best chance of seeing the Northern Lights, you’ll want to aim for the darker parts of the year (winter). If you try in summer, the lights will have to be extremely light to be visible, and you’ll only have a very small window indeed for viewing each night.
Our favourite time of year to go Northern Lights hunting in Banff is generally around March, and the Mother’s Day long weekend. The reason we like it so much is because the nights are still relatively long, and weather is starting to warm up (believe me, Northern Lights hunting is no fun when it’s -30 out).
If you’re interested in learning more about seeing the Northern Lights in Banff, check out our blog post here.
You may not have heard of the famous Larch Pine season in Banff, but it’s a photographer’s paradise, and it draws people from around the world each year. For a few short weeks in September, a higher altitude species of pine tree changes colour from green to gold/orange. Walking through a yellow larch forest is spectacular and something virtually unique to our region.
Generally from our experience the Larches change colour during mid-late September, and booking your trip during those weeks is generally the safest bet. With that being said, the seasons are always unpredictable and these dates are our best guesses based on our experience from previous years (no guarantees).
If you’re interested in learning a bit more about Larches in the area, and some of our favourite hikes, check out our larches blog post!
Bear in mind though, most larch forests only exist at higher altitudes, so expect to have to hike to see them close up.
If you’re hoping to get some astro shots of the Milky Way, there’s a season for that too! The full Milky Way is actually only visible in the Northern Hemisphere between March and October. As the days are longer during the summer, your best bet is checking it out after midnight.
Banff is a magical Christmas town under normal winter conditions, but visit Banff during the holiday period and it really takes things to the next level. Seriously, there’s even a permanent Christmas store.
If you visit during Christmas, Banff has tons of special events put on by various hotels and organisations. In particular, look out for Christmas at the Castle events at the Banff Springs Hotel (you don’t generally have to be staying there to participate). There’s also the Christmas parade, ice skating on frozen lakes and much more.
And if you’re visiting for Christmas, you might as well stay for New Year’s Eve as well! The town erupts into the streets for one of the coldest street parties in the world!
Whenever my family visits in Summer, I like to recommend that they come for the Canada Day Long Weekend, and stay for about ten days so that they can catch the first day of Stampede in Calgary (opening day varies each year).
The town of Banff is packed but it’s also a beautiful time of year to visit; it’s early July, the weather is scorching and the mountains are all generally accessible. Also plenty of wildlife out and about!
Although Calgary and Banff are the sunniest places in Canada, there is a bit of a rainy season. In general the months of May, June and July are the biggest risks. In 2013, Calgary had an enormous flood where it consistently rained between Jun 19 and Jul 12. It varies significantly from year to year, but last year’s Stampede had about a year’s worth of precipitation in 10 days.
On the plus side, when it rains here, it tends to happen in the afternoon. The sun heats up the mountains and clouds form over the peaks during the course of the day, leading to rain and thunderstorms in the afternoons. Usually you can get a hike in early and be down before the rain starts.
The rainy season is also a big draw for storm chasers, and Alberta is known for its epic thunderstorms and hail storms. The storm season generally lasts 6 months and is known for it’s incredible supercell storms, tornados and enormous hail stones. Generally these storms hit the prairies and Calgary rather than Banff.
In our opinion, the best time to visit Banff is August-September. Why? For a number of reasons
We also love the ski season, but we usually recommend people visit in Summer before they visit in Winter. There’s a lot more things to see and do, and there’s no more beautiful time to see the mountains.
Hope that gives you a better idea of when the best time to visit Banff is! Let us know if you have more questions!