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Do I Need a Reservation to Visit Banff?

Lake with trees and mountains in the background in Banff

Despite hosting 4.5 million visitors a year, reservations are not required to visit Banff National Park. As an area local I regularly visit Banff and the surrounding attractions without making reservations, however, I have the luxury of being able to sneak in activities around the busy periods. 

Banff National Park does not require any reservations to enter the park.  Guests are also welcome to experience all the attractions within the park without any advanced reservations.  However, many of the popular things to do have limited availability and do sell out including the Banff Gondola, the Columbia Icefields Adventure, and Lake Minnewanka.  The road to Moraine Lake is closed to private vehicles so guests must reserve a ride via shuttle, commercial transportation, or taxi.  Lastly, there are first-come, first-served campgrounds within the park but making advanced reservations is preferable. 

If you’re on a schedule and have limited time or are visiting during the summer I recommend making reservations or advanced bookings even if they aren’t required. Otherwise, you could spend time waiting in line or risk disappointment at not being able to do and see what you want (even locals can’t watch the sunrise at Moraine Lake in July without advanced planning). In most cases, making advanced bookings will save you money as many service providers offer online discounts. 

Here are a few reservations, and bookings you should consider making online before you visit Banff. 

Banff National Park Pass

A park pass is required to enter Banff National Park. The park pass can be purchased online. It’s recommended you do this before coming, otherwise, when approaching from the west (via Canmore) you risk waiting in a line of cars at the Park gate entrance. To the right of the park gate are two free-flow lanes for vehicles that have already purchased a pass – these are the lanes you want to be in. 

If you are entering from the East (via British Columbia) there is no park gate so you will either have to stop at the information centre in Field, BC to purchase a pass or at the Information Centre in Banff on busy Banff Avenue. Much easier to get the pass online.  

Hotels and Campgrounds

Accommodations are a reservation you want to make before coming to Banff. Banff books quickly during peak periods (summer, Christmas, and holiday long weekends) or special events. The longer you wait the more expensive it will be; especially the destination hotels like the Banff Springs (book here) and Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise (book here). 

You don’t require a reservation to camp in Banff but if you want a guaranteed spot you need to make a reservation. The alternative is to line up at 8:00 AM (or earlier) at the campground entrance to try and nab one of the first-come, first-serve spots, that is if there are any available for the day, which you won’t discover until check-out at 11:00 AM. I’ve done this;  it’s stressful and frustrating. I always make camping reservations now. 

Campground reservations are done through Parks Canada either online or via the phone. Reservations for the season usually open in January for the upcoming year, check the Parks Canada website for the exact opening date. 

You will want to make your reservation as soon as the system opens as sites go quickly. Don’t be surprised to be placed in an electronic queue into the 400s. If you can’t get a site, keep trying every few weeks, especially closer to your travel date, as sites do open up as cancellations are made.  

View of Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel with trees surrounding
Banff Springs
View from Gondola over trees in Banff

Banff Gondola

Purchasing advanced tickets for the Banff Gondola is highly recommended. Not only will you skip the ticket lines, you’ll save money because ticket prices increase closer to the date, which makes same-day tickets more expensive. 

Don’t worry about being locked into your purchased date and time, if your plans change or the weather’s bad, including being overcast, you can change your ticket (this could be subject to a change fee either as a refund or price increase depending on the price of the ticket of the day you change your booking too).

Getting to Lake Louise and Moraine Lake is Complicated!
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Guide includes shuttle, bus, and tour options as well as reservation windows

Moraine Lake

While a reservation isn’t required to visit Moraine Lake, you will need one to get there. The road to Moraine Lake is closed year-round to private vehicles (unless you have a handicapped pass or are a guest of the Moraine Lake Lodge) so the only way to get there by vehicle is by shuttle, commercial transportation, or taxi. 

Parks Canada operates a shuttle to Moraine Lake, with reservations able to be made up to 30 minutes before the scheduled departure time. However, because this is one of the most popular attractions in the area, shuttle times are at a premium so book sooner rather than later to get your preferred time. 

A percentage of bookings are released in the spring with the rest available through rolling booking two days before departure. Check the Parks Canada reservation system (under the Day Use tab) for reservation dates. The Parks Canada shuttle is the cheapest option at ~$8 for adults, ~$4 for seniors, and youth under 17 are free. 

There are lots of shuttle reservation options to get to Moraine Lake. Some cater to specific experiences and needs such as a sunrise tour, double-decker viewing, or if you have a pet. Here are a few shuttle provider options:

You can bike to Moraine Lake which doesn’t require a reservation and is my preferred way to visit the lake. From the Lake Louise townsite, it’s about a 14 km ride with a net uphill to the lake, which means the return trip is all downhill (and about 28 km). Remember to bring a bike lock to secure your bike while you explore. 

Once you are at Moraine Lake you do not need a reservation to access any of the activities.

View of Moraine Lake in Banff
Moraine Lake
People getting onto shuttle bus for Lake Louise and Moraine Lake Banff
View of Lake Louise with canoe in Banff
Lake Louise

Lake Louise

Lake Louise can refer to three different places: Lake Louise the village, Lake Louise the ski hill (commonly referred to as ‘Louise’), and Lake Louise the lake or lakeshore.

If you’re visiting Lake Louise lakeshore, the reservation you’ll want to make is for a shuttle. Otherwise, you could find yourself spending the day driving loops of the parking lot. The lot is full from sunrise to sunset. See the shuttle information under Moraine Lake on service providers. Lake Louise is just up the road from Moraine Lake (you pass Moraine Lake to get to Lake Louise) so some shuttle providers will offer both stops in one shuttle.

Once you are at Lake Louise lakeshore, reservations are not required to enjoy and explore the area. Activities such as boat, ski, and skate rentals available through the Chateau Lake Louise are done on a first-come, first-served basis. 

To visit Lake Louise the village, also consider taking a shuttle as there’s limited parking. Yes, a shuttle reservation is recommended. The Banff Roam bus offers an express route with reservations. If you couldn’t get a shuttle to the lake and you’re feeling sprightly you can walk to it via the Tramline trail from the village. It’s a forested 2.8-mile hike with 200m of elevation (so all uphill) but the terrain is mild and can be done in sturdy walking shoes.

Lake Louise the ski hill offers a summer gondola with stunning views of the landscape and wildlife (grizzly bears love the ski hill). You can purchase gondola tickets online as well as onsite, but it’s highly recommended you purchase tickets in advance (save time, don’t wait in line). Booking a summer gondola, you can also include a shuttle to Moraine Lake or Lake Louise lakeshore.

Columbia Icefields

If walking on a glacier is on your bucket list, when you visit the Columbia Icefields you will need to take a guided tour. It’s highly recommended you purchase tickets and book a tour online in advance to avoid disappointment and save time and money. Tickets are heavily discounted when purchased in advance and bundled with other attractions.

The Columbia Icefield is operated by the same organization as the Banff Gondola so it has the same booking and pricing policy where you can change your booking date and time with any price differences adjusted accordingly. 

I’ve visited the Columbia Icefields during the shoulder seasons without making advanced bookings. Sometimes I’ve had to wait up to two hours to get onto a tour but the time was used to browse the Discovery Centre and the surrounding areas. At times I’d skip the tour and hike to the glacier. It’s an easy hike that takes about an hour and while it doesn’t take you onto the glacier it gets you close enough for some great views. 

Trucks on Athabasca glacier Columbia Icefields Adventure
Columbia Icefield Adventure
People with Canadian flag standing on Athabasca Glacier
Athabasca Glacier
View of boat dock at Lake Minnewanka with clouds in background
Lake Minnewanka

Lake Minnewanka

Lake Minnewanka boat cruise is another activity you will want to make advanced bookings for, especially in the summer months. Again, booking online will get you a better deal and guarantee you the type of cruise you want when you want. Cruises start in May and end in October but vary in departure times so check the website. 

If you’re looking to experience some exceptional fishing on Minnewanka through a fishing charter, reservations are required. If you have your own boat and fishing permit no reservation is needed. 

Boat rentals are on a first-come, first-serve basis so arrive early if this is on your bucket list. 

What’s convenient is the bookings are done through the same company that operates the Banff Gondola and Columbia Icefields so you can package your bookings together for a cheaper rate. 

Horseback Riding

Horseback riding in the Canadian Rockies is an experience not to be missed so advanced bookings are a must in the summer as well as the winter if you want to experience a sleigh ride on Lake Louise. Several outfitters in the area offer great horseback and sleigh tours.

To Reserve or Not to Reserve?

You can absolutely take a spontaneous trip to Banff without making any reservations and have an amazing trip any time of year. However, if this is your one-in-a-lifetime trip or there are certain activities you want to do – make advanced bookings. It will save you time, money, and a whole lot of stress.  

Anything Else I Need to Know?

Banff National Park is crowded!

Need a game plan to avoid the crowds? Check out our itinerary

Most travelers want to visit the most popular sites and still avoid the crowds. We have a detailed itinerary that gives you a step-by-step game plan so you can get to the best places at the right times.

MORE INFORMATION FOR YOUR TRIP TO
BANFF

BANFF TRIP PLANNER: To read or watch all of our content about Banff National Park, check out our Banff Homepage

THINGS TO DO: Don’t miss all that Banff has to offer including Lake Louise, Banff Hot Springs, the Cave and Basin Historical Site, and shopping downtown

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: Find out how to get to Banff and what reservations
you may need

WATCH: Enjoy videos of gorgeous Banff National Park while learning our best tips for visiting by watching our Banff YouTube Playlist

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