This summer we took an incredible trip to Banff, Canada and then drove down to Glacier National Park on the American side. I know this is primarily a bread account, but my second love is travel–and planning fun getaways for my family of 6 (and often our extended family group of 18), so if this interests you, keep reading! Banff National Park and Glacier National Park are not too far from each other (about 5-6 hour drive) and because none of us live very near to these parks, we decided to combine them into one trip. Read on for our Banff & Glacier Family Trip Itinerary.
Basic Info: We had a group of 16 of us on this trip. There was quite a bit of driving back and forth through beautiful scenery, lots of hiking and generally a good time had by all. Be prepared to listen to lots of audiobooks for the drives! We listened to Peter and the Starcatchers which was fun for the whole family.
Word of Caution: A lot of the things we did required us to plan ahead and purchase reservations or timed tickets. Summer is prime tourist season at these destinations and things filled up VERY quickly. Also, download Google OFFLINE maps. We had very little connectivity in most of these places and offline maps were very helpful!
- Lake Louise/Moraine Lake Shuttle Tickets: Starting this year (2023), Moraine Lake is closed to private vehicles. Lake Louise also has very limited parking that fills up QUICK. We purchased a combination ticket to see both of these at the same time. The Parks Canada shuttles were sold out 2 months ahead of time when we went to book.
- Gondola/Icefields Parkway: We reserved a combo ticket for the Banff Gondola and the Columbia Icefield Adventure–both were incredible! We had limited times to pick from when we purchased the tickets about 2 months ahead of time. We should have booked earlier.
- Parks Canada Pass: Purchase and print this out before your trip. It will save you time as you enter the parks.
Glacier National Park
- Going to the Sun Road Tickets: We were required to have a vehicle reservation to enter the “going to the sun road” between 6AM-3PM. These are very inexpensive but sold out within minutes on the website when they opened reservations. Tickets are good for a 3 day period of time and they did check ID, so be prepared! Note: You also have to pay the park entrance fee or have a park pass.
- Many Glacier Boat Ride: We pre-purchased our boat ride out of Many Glacier and it was a highlight!
Our Summer Vacation Itinerary
Saturday: Arrived in Calgary/Banff
- Half of our group flew into Calgary and the other half drove up from the west coast (about a 12 hour drive for them). This allowed us to share cars instead of having to rent them. It also gave us flexibility with bringing some breakfast/lunch items. You could easily rent cars at the Calgary airport if needed.
- Drove to Banff and checked into our hotel. We stayed at the Banff Rocky Mountain Resort. This was a great spot for families (a little dated), with enough rooms for our immediate family of 6, a pool and outdoor hot tub. It was just outside of the city center which was great for our family. For a larger extended family group we always prefer one large house but we were so busy this portion of the trip that we were rarely there!
- We purchased tickets ahead of time through the Banff Jasper Collection for a few activities we wanted to do. This is the way to go in the busy summer months. Book early!
- Banff Gondola: We drove up to the entrance for the Banff Gondola. Parking in Banff was kind of crazy and very crowded. Plan on a lot of EXTRA time to get to where you are going. If you have reservations for the Gondola they will let you in to park next to the entrance. Loved the ride up, hiking and the views were incredible. We ate dinner at the Northern Lights Buffet–call and make a reservation for large groups. The fancy restaurants looked delicious too (just not with our large group of 8 kids, 8 adults).
Sunday: Lake Louise/Lake Moraine/Cowboy Dinner
- Grabbed quick breakfast in our rooms and were out the door to drive up to the shuttle bus area near Lake Louise. The drive from Banff to Lake Louise was about 45 minutes. We had a 7:50 AM bus loading time. They were STICKLERS about time, so show up early and book your tickets early.
- Took the bus to Lake Louise and enjoyed walking around the incredible lake for about an hour. Then rode the bus to Moraine Lake which was amazing–you have to see it to believe how blue that water is. Just breathtaking! We had 3 hours at Moraine Lake and we ate our packed lunch, hiked the Moraine Lake Rockpile Trail & the Lake Shoreline Trail which was perfect for kids and families. I would have loved to hike the Consolation Lakes Trail but we didn’t have the time thanks to the bus schedule.
- We drove back to Banff and had an hour to rest before leaving for our Cowboy Cookout Dinner Ride. Some of the group rode the horses and some rode in the wagon. The views were beautiful along the river and the steak dinner was delicious. Get there early–we almost missed ours because of traffic in downtown Banff.
Monday: Icefields Parkway/ Banff Dinner
- We took an early morning drive into Banff to grab some sourdough for breakfast. We liked it so much we ended up going back the next day!
- Give yourself a lot of time to get to the Columbia Icefields for your tour. It’s about a 2 hour drive but you can stop all along the way seeing beautiful glaciers and stopping for small hikes. Definitely stop at Peyto Lake for beautiful views. If I had to do it over, we would have left earlier and spent more time along the parkway. It was incredible!
- Columbia Icefields Tour: This was so cool! We loved the Columbia Icefields Center and tour where we took a big ice bus on the Athabasca Glacier. We got to drink glacier water and walk on the glacier. A definite highlight for our whole group. The skywalk was also included in our tour and we enjoyed it.
- That evening we met up in Banff after driving back and enjoyed walking around the beautiful downtown, eating Korean street food, playing at the park and walking across the pedestrian bridge.
Tuesday: Banff Breakfast/Drive to Whitefish
- This was a long day of driving. We started back at the sourdough bakery because…sourdough! Then we headed out, driving about 5-6 hours to Whitefish, Montana. Our car enjoyed listening to audiobooks and munching on baguette. We stopped for a quick dip in some thermal hot springs but it was very crowded and we wouldn’t go back.
- The drive was incredible through the mountains and we oohed and awwed around many corners! The border crossing was easy and then we arrived in Whitefish and checked into our house rental at Whitefish Mountain Resort.
- Dinner at Bonsai Brewing Project hit the spot and we loved the live band and garden for the kids to run around while we waited for food and ate. We also picked up a grocery pickup order which made packing food much easier.
Wednesday: River Rafting
- Whitefish was about 45 minutes from the park entrance but had the best options for a large family group to stay together, so we ended up driving quite a bit and we thought it was worth it to have the nice house. All of our group ages 5 and up went on a family whitewater rafting trip. So much fun together and we enjoyed the relatively calm rapids and the guides.
- We met back up with everyone for dinner at Buffalo Cafe and it was the perfect spot to go with kids and a big group (get there when it opens or you’ll have a wait). Sweet Peaks Ice Cream for dessert is also a must–definitely go try their unique and fun flavors!
Thursday: Glacier National Park
- Up early again to drive into Glacier National Park. The “going to the sun road” reservation is important if you want to enter the park during the daytime. We arrived early, around 7 AM to our first hike and found plenty of parking. A few hours later and parking was much more difficult to come by.
- Avalanche Lake Hike: Such a gorgeous hike and relatively moderate. We loved starting in the woods and big trees and ending at a beautiful lake. One of our favorites that we’d for sure do again.
- Going to the Sun Road Drive: Incredible and not for the faint of heart! This is a must-do when in Glacier National Park. We drove it a few times and it was breathtaking each time.
- Hidden Lake Trail: Lots of uphill and then flat out to the overlook. We loved the terrain and saw lots of wild animals. Fairly crowded but beautiful views.
- We ate some yummy huckleberry pie on our way out of the park that day. Definitely try huckleberry anything when you’re in Whitefish/Glacier!
- We needed a day to just relax! We window shopped downtown, ate brunch at the Buffalo Cafe again and enjoyed a few hours at Whitefish Lake. City Beach is a great spot to hang out for awhile. There’s a roped off swimming area where you can rent boards and enjoy a day at a mountain lake/beach. Of course we had to have some huckleberry ice cream too!
- Kids enjoyed playing with cousins, watched a movie and we had a relaxing evening at our rental house.
Saturday: Many Glacier
- We drove along the “going to the sun road” again (our pass was good for 3 days) and this time we drove the entire route. It was gorgeous again and the drive from Whitefish took us about 3 hours to get from one end of the park to the other. Stopped at the Many Glacier hotel/lodge which was historic and built in a Swiss style to catch our boat tour. We really loved this part of the National Park. It is quiet, peaceful and has some beautiful lakes and hikes. We ate our picnic lunch waiting for the boat and then took two boats across the Swiftcurrent Lake and Lake Josephine to get to a short hike to Grinnell Lake.
- After our hike to the lake we hiked back to the Many Glacier Lodge and enjoyed dinner in the Ptarmigan Dining Room. The dining room wasn’t quite prepared for our large group and preferred smaller groups, but the food itself was very good and we loved the ambience. This was a late night, but we made it back to Whitefish three hours later…we drove the long way around so we didn’t hit traffic in the park.
Sunday: Whitefish Mountain Resort
- We enjoyed a leisurely morning and cooked pancakes, bacon and eggs for a crowd and then headed to check out some of the resort amenities of where we were staying. Even if you don’t stay at a house within the resort, you can book a zipline or aerial adventure course through Whitefish Mountain Resort. We spent a couple hours on the aerial adventure course and all the kids absolutely loved it! Other highlights were riding the Alpine Slide many times and picking huckleberries near the house.
- We spent the rest of the afternoon doing laundry and getting packed up for our departure the next day. Dinner was a whole bunch of pizzas and leftovers and the babies all got to nap in a real bed!
Monday: Hiawatha Trail
- Up and out early as we headed back toward the west coast. On our way we stopped at the Hiawatha Trail, which is right on the Montana/Idaho border. We rented bikes and trailers for all the little kids and had such an amazing day riding down the 15 mile trail where you go through nine tunnels (yes you need a headlamp!) and seven trestle bridges. We all had a blast, and once again the scenery was breathtaking!
- Finished up our day with a stop at Cafe Rio–a favorite from our college days that they happen to have in Spokane, Washington. We spent the night in Spokane and then traveled home from there–some flying home from the Spokane airport.
And that’s it! Our fabulous extended family summer vacation. Is there anything we would do differently?
If I was just with my family of six we may stay closer to Glacier National Park, but we loved having a big house with our big group. We also would have brought our own bikes to the Hiawatha trail if we could, but that wasn’t possible with flying.
I don’t think I would change much about this trip. It was a whole lot of fun and we were blown away with the beauty of Canada and Montana!