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You’ll never forget the feelings of awe and amazement that overcome you the first time you see the Rocky Mountain’s picturesque beauty. The vibrant turquoise lake water, serene wildlife, and snow-capped summits are found in Banff and Glacier National Park. So which one is the best spot to take it all in?
Glacier is the better park to visit if you’re looking to escape the city’s fast pace, access kid-friendly roadside attractions by car, and partake in advanced hiking. Banff is more cost-effective with breathtaking views, fewer crowds, and year-round travel with plenty of seasonal activities.
|Category||Glacier National Park||Banff National Park|
|Cost of Stay: Weekly (USD)||$711 per person||$498 per person|
|Transportation||Taxis, guided tours, shuttles, private vehicles, train, raft, bike, Uber/Lyft (inconsistent)||Taxis, shuttles, limos, public transit, bike, private vehicles, guided tours|
|Going to the Sun Road, rafting, hiking, skiing, snowshoeing*||Sulfur Mountain Gondola, Hot Springs, Cave and Basin National Historic Site, canoeing, horseback riding, hiking, skiing*, snowboarding*, skating*|
|Accommodations||Campgrounds, RV parks, lodges, motels, Airbnb||Campgrounds, RV parks, lodges, cabins, hotels, Airbnb|
|Weather||Unpredictable and quickly changing. Prepare for all weather.Eastside: cool, windy, and sunny.West side: warm with lots of precipitation.||Unpredictable and quickly changing. Low overnight temperatures. Warm summers and mild winters.|
|Food and Drink||Bison, steak, elk, huckleberries, trout, Flathead cherries, local vegetables, microbreweries and distilleries||Steak, elk, caribou, deer, bison, game meats, farm to table, local vegetables, fish, prairie grains, microbreweries, wine|
Both Glacier and Banff sit amidst the Rocky Mountain range on opposite sides of the border, but share many similarities, so which one should you visit? There are several different factors to consider when trying to plan a vacation, such as activities, transportation, accommodations, and of course, cost.
This article will compare everything you need to know about the two national parks so you can decide which destination suits you best.
The starkest difference between the two parks is which side of the Canada and US border each lays on. While they’re only four hours away from each other, you might be crossing into another country, so make sure you have your passport ready to go!
Banff National Park is over 2,500 km (1553 mi) larger than Glacier, but both host the same amount of annual visitors. This means that Glacier feels a bit more congested with people than Banff, though Glacier’s amenities are more modest than Banff’s. However, with backcountry camping and remote hikes being just steps away, it’s easy to escape crowds no matter which park you choose.
Cost of Stay
The average cost of stay in Banff weekly per person is nearly half of what it is in Glacier. On a typical day in the Canadian park (in USD), you will spend $24 on meals, $4.36 on transportation, and $65 on hotel accommodations compared to Glacier, where you can expect to pay $23 on meals, $55 on transportation, and $90 on hotel accommodations.
If you’re looking to save some money and enhance your closeness with nature, consider staying in a campground instead. Your experience will be completely different coming home to a tent instead of a hotel room.
Both Banff and Glacier offer several different modes of transportation to and around their parks. Shuttles are available to bring you from the nearest airports (Calgary International and Glacier Park International, respectfully) to your destination.
Once you’ve arrived, take your choice of taxi, guided tour, bike, or rental car to navigate around. Public transit is also available in Banff, or choose to float on rafts through Glacier’s waterways.
Rather than flying, Glacier is accessible via Amtrak as well. While Uber and Lyft may be able to transport you around the park, its vastness and potential for poor cellular reception make it an unreliable means. Also note that many roads in Glacier National Park are seasonal, so check for road closures or visit before the snow hits.
If hiking is your thing, Glacier’s Trail of the Cedars is a kid-friendly, handicap accessible, easy stroll through the woods, and Grinnell Glacier’s incredible views are a must-see. Be sure to check out Going-to-the-Sun Road, an 80 km (50 mi) highway stretch that looks out over lush forests, stunning vast lakes, and cascading waterfalls.
For family fun, take a float through the woods or take on a white-water rafting experience if you’re an adrenaline seeker.
There’s tons of outdoor fun to be had in Banff regardless of the season. Spend the day canoeing, hiking, and horseback riding in the summer or skiing, snowboarding, and skating in the winter. Finish off the evening with a relaxing visit to the Banff Hot Springs, a trip up the Sulfur Mountain Gondola, or kick back on a beer voyage across gorgeous Lake Minnewanka.
Wherever you go, don’t forget to keep an eye out for wildlife sightings that may include black bears, beavers, elk, and bighorn sheep. Just be sure not to feed them!
As I mentioned earlier, camping is the way to go if you’re looking for a down to earth and budget-friendly trip. Both parks maintain several sites and backcountry shelters. If tenting isn’t your thing, hostels, RV parks, lodges, Airbnbs, and cabins are also available for rent. Glacier Park Lodge is over 100 years old and is a true escape from the fast-paced life. No televisions here, just crackling fireplaces and mountainous views.
If you’re looking to go even further off-grid, Banff’s Sundance Lodge welcomes you back every evening with warm, home-cooked meals and a hot shower to wash the day off. This rustic stay is 16 km (10 mi) outside Banff’s townsite and accessible only by horse in summer and by snowshoe, ski, or fat bike in the snowy months. It’s about as remote as it gets.
The high elevation of the Rockies means the weather changes fast and unpredictably. Even on the sunniest days, always prepare for precipitation. Since Glacier sits on the continental divide, the east side is cooler, windier, and sunnier, whereas the west experiences more precipitation and hotter temperatures. Expect warm summers and mild winters with low temperatures overnight at both parks.
When to Go
The summer months are the best time to visit either park to experience their natural beauty to the fullest. Peak season is July and August, so aim for June or September if possible. Banff remains highly accessible and filled with winter activities, whereas Glacier is off-limits when the snow begins to fall.
Food and Drink
The vast number of ranches and wildlife in both regions mean bison, steak, elk, trout, and game meats are staples in the two parks’ cultures. Farm to table dining is big in Glacier and Banff, so you can expect chefs to be using locally-grown ingredients and serving up locally distilled spirits wherever possible.
Try Farm Fire in Banff or Josephine’s in Glacier. Don’t forget to stuff your face with Glacier Highland’s famous huckleberry pie!
Both parks are fantastic vacation spots to kick back and relax or to participate in some serious athletics. The two destinations offer similar features with slight but significant differences.
If you’re looking for a slow-paced, family-friendly getaway in the summer months south of the border, take in Glacier National Park’s stunning views and relish in its serene tranquility. However, if you’d prefer a more action-filled trip with plenty of attractions at any time of the year and on a cheaper budget, Banff National Park will be your best bet.