10 Things to do in Banff, Alberta In the Winter
It’s been a dream of ours to visit Banff National park for most of our lives. Over the past few years, we’ve talked about making the trip up there but just never got around to it. You can imagine our excitement when we found out that we were partnering with Travel Alberta in February to spend 4 days exploring the park. Visiting Banff in the winter can be intimidating especially with the winter vortex and icy temps of -20 degrees F/ -28 C but we were ready for the challenge.
Nestled in among the Canadian Rockies, Banff is truly one of the most stunning, and breathtaking places you’ll ever visit - just ask anyone who’s been.
Before we dive into the list of 10 epic things to do in Banff in the winter, you should first know some of these travel tips.
How to get to Banff National Park: To get to Banff in the winter, you’ll need to fly into the Calgary Airport and drive about 1.5 hours to the town of Banff or just drive from wherever you’re located!
We recommend renting a car: You can use public transportation and save money, but we found that it was much easier to have our own wheels as well as a nice break from the cold. We rented our car right from Avis, at the airport and were on the road in a matter of 15 minutes. Having your own car allows you to go to less popular spots around Banff, make your own schedule and even head over to British Columbia or up to Jasper if time allows. Winter tip: Get a vehicle with 4wheel drive or snow tires! The roads can be a bit sketchy around Banff in the winter.
Respect the wildlife and wilderness: Banff is home to lots of wildlife and some that we aren’t used to seeing. Deer, elk, bears, wolves, mountain lions, moose, mountain goats, and others have been known to roam in these areas and it’s important to keep your distance - not only for your own safety but for the safety of the animals as well. Banff is wilderness and wilderness doesn’t play by anyone’s rules - this is not Disneyland! Travel in groups of two or more, stay on marked trails, don’t head into the backcountry without a license or a guide, leave no trace (no trash, waste, etc), and respect the land that you are walking on. Also, this is avalanche territory, folks!
Where to stay: We stayed at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity and had an absolutely fantastic experience. The Banff Centre is a learning center for creative development, and as artists, we both loved the vibe here. There are three restaurants on campus, an indoor pool and gym, a music hall, great local hikes on and off properly, a short walk or drive to downtown and has a beyond friendly and welcoming staff. We stayed in Lloyd hall - a newly renovated building with picture windows overlooking the Canadian Rockies. There are lots of other places to stay including the famous Fairmont Banff Springs, and Fairmont on lake Louise, as well as local and chain hotels right in the heart of downtown.
What to pack for Banff in the winter: WARM CLOTHES!! We recommend dressing in layers. At one point I realized I was wearing six shirts and 4 pairs of pants! We recommend lined leggings or thermals , followed by snow pants on the bottom and thermals on top followed by a sweater or sweatshirt, a fleece, and then a very warm jacket. For your hands, be sure to have warm gloves and even consider liners if you’ll be out all day. To top it all off, you’ll need a warm hat, warm boots, a neck gator, and sunglasses or goggles. While we were in Banff, there were warnings of frostbite which means that EVERYTHING should be covered including your face. Keep in mind that your outer clothing should be water/weather proof or resistant - you can pretty much expect your day to be ruined if you end up soaking wet! Oh, and hand and feet warmers are a MUST!!
10 THINGS TO DO IN BANFF IN THE WINTER
1.) TAKE A HELICOPTER RIDE OVER THE BOW RIVER AND THREE SISTERS
Banff is just as beautiful from the air as it is from the ground. A short drive from downtown Banff, you’ll find, Alpine Helicopter tours located at the base of the Three Sisters Peaks in the town of Canmore. We opted for the short 12-minute tour which was a mistake. 12 minutes felt like 12 seconds and once you see the peaks of the Canadian Rockies, you’ll want to stay up there forever.
2.) GO DOGSLEDDING IN LAKE LOUISE
This is something that we’ve dreamed of doing for a long time and finally had the opportunity while we were in Banff. Dog sledding is an incredible way to experience the Lake Louise area where the only sounds from the sled are the soft thuds of dog paws and the swirling of the wind.
Head over to Kingmik to book a tour which range from 30 minutes to a full day.
3.) GO SNOWBOARDING OR SKIING AND TUBING
There are three main ski resorts in Banff, Banff Sunshine, Lake Louise Ski Resort, and Mt. Norquay; all managed by Ski Big 3. With a Ski Big 3 pass, you can experience all three resorts for the price of one.
Pick up your passes and rental equipment (including rental clothing if needed) at the Adventure Hub in downtown Banff.
To be honest with you all, the day we went snowboarding was WAY to cold. It was difficult to pick up any speed on the slopes and things were a bit icy. We started our day at Banff Sunshine which had 90% of their trails closed due to the cold conditions. When a ski resort closes because it’s too COLD… you know there must be something wrong. Despite the warnings, we headed to the top and as for the view and our private gondola ride, it did not disappoint. However, the trek to the bottom left something to be desired! We ended up walking most of the way down. The thing about skiing/snowboarding/iceskating (a little science lesson for ya) it has to be just warm enough for the snow underneath the equipment to melt and create glide. Otherwise you just stick in one spot!
Keep in mind, if you decide to spend time at each of the resorts in one day, they are all about a 30-minute drive from each other. We did manage to make it to Lake Louise in time to squeeze in one quick run to the top. Mt, Norquay still remains on our list for next time and offers tubing. If you have more time in the area, we heard amazing things about Revelstoke in British Columbia.
4.) VISIT LAKE LOUISE
Most of us have seen photos of Lake Louise in the summer or fall - turquoise water surrounded by snow-capped mountains. In the winter, it looks completely different but offers a unique kind of beauty on its own. From snow-covered trees, to ice skating, to less crowds, Lake Louise in the winter is a sight that can’t be missed. After our dog sledding adventure, we headed to the Fairmont hotel for Irish coffees and a warm meal. Their downstairs restaurant is the perfect place for lunch!
Some activities to do at Lake Louise:
Take a horse-drawn sleigh ride around lake.
Ice skate at the world famous rink on the lake (rentals available at the Fairmont)
Experience the ice bar - the bar is made of over 6000 pounds of ice and offers all sorts of great alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks.
Hike or snowshoe on the trails - or walk right across the lake! Be sure to check the snow and trail conditions as well as gear up with the proper equipment before heading out.
Be like us and find your own adventure - we walked across the lake and ended up on a trail that looked like a winter wonder land. Quiet and away from everyone, it was the perfect way to spend the afternoon.
5.) GO SIGHT SEEING AROUND THE AREA
One of our favorite (as if we can choose) things to do while we were in Banff was just to drive around and see all of the little pull-off spots and lakes that are scattered throughout the park. Around every bend there was something even more beautiful to soak in and take photos of. The Icefields Parkway runs between Banff and Jasper national parks and is said to be one of the most spectacular highways in the world. If you have a car, definitely take some time to check this out.
One of our new rules when sight seeing like this (Thanks to Anna’s brother, Evan) is to take three deep breaths and see with your eyes before taking the camera out. It’s easy to walk up to a beautiful overlook, take a photo, and hop back in the car or walk away, but it’s important to take the time to let your mind absorb the experience.
We visited, Vermillion Lakes, Lake Minnewanka, the Bow River, Two Jack Lake, and Emerald Lake (in British Columbia.) Unfortunately we didn’t make it to some of the other gorgeous spots such as Peyto Lake, Moraine Lake (closed in the winter), Abraham Lake (known for methane bubbles that get trapped under the ice), and a number of others. Trip number two!? Keep in mind that all of these lakes tend to be covered with snow in the winter (especially this year ; due to the amount of snow, the wind couldn’t sweep it clear) so you’ll miss out on the beautiful blue glacial water that the lakes are known for. This just means you should definitely make two trips!
6.) SOAK IN BANFF HOT SPRINGS
We ran out of time and didn’t get to do this but we’ve heard amazing things! In 1883, three rail workers re-discovered the Bands Hot Springs near the base of Sulphur Mountain. In the 19th century the hot springs became a mecca for those seeking healing remedies. (Sited from Banff and Lake Louise Tourism) Take a dip in the historic pools or visit the spa to experience all of the healing benefits. The top five minerals found in the Banff hot springs are, sulfate, calcium, bicarbonate, magnesium and sodium. Learn more and book your stay here. During the winter, the Upper Hot Springs are open from 10 am-10 pm M-T and until 11 pm on Friday and Saturday nights.
7.) RIDE THE GONDOLA
Take the gondola to the summit of Sulphur Mountain and experience the views, interpretive center, restaurants, and short hikes. We didn't have much time here since it was our last day but the observation deck takes your breath away and not just because it’s freezing cold up there! The 360 degree views are unbelievable and make for some epic photo backdrops! Keep in mind, this is a major tourist attraction and will probably be more crowded than some of the other activities we’ve mentioned here. Be sure to arrive early or late in the day to have the best experience and lighting.
8.) WINE & DINE LIKE KINGS AND QUEENS
THE FOOD! oh the food. We found some absolutely incredible places to eat in Banff. Even the airport in Calgary had awesome food! For those of you that know us, we love to eat and one of the first things we do whenever we get to a new place is head strait for the nearest restaurant. Our first night did not disappoint. The Bison - a farm to table restaurant located in the heart of downtown Banff offers true Canadian food that changes with the seasons. The atmosphere is warm, cozy and friendly and definitely got us excited for what the next few days would hold. My mouth is watering as I write this!
We also loved, Park Distillery Restaurant and Bar, Three Ravens Restaurant & Wine Bar (at The Banff Centre), Sky Bistro (at the top of the gondola), and Alpine Social at Lake Louise. We didn’t get to try Bow Valley Grill, Eden, Grizzly House, The Juniper Bistro, or The Maple Leaf, but heard great things!
Order poutine anything (cheese curds, and gravy over fries), try chili Vodka from Park Distillery, and be sure to try a beaver tail! No, it’s not what you think, it’s a fried dough pastry that can be sweet or savory. We had one as a pizza and it was amazing!
9.) EXPLORE THE ICE CANYONS AND CAVES
Another thing we ran out of time for! Banff is known for glacial rivers and waterfalls that freeze over in the winter to create magnificent ice formations that almost look otherworldly. You experience these on your own or can book a tour to explore one of the well known ice canyons. The most popular of the ice walks is Johnston Canyon, a towering 30 meters of ice and offers an easy walk to view its beauty up close and personal. Another option is the hidden gem of Grotto Canyon with less crowds and just as beautiful cascades.
10.) TRY TO SEE THE AURORA BOREALIS
Sadly, we did not see the northern lights. The conditions truly have to be just perfect for them to show their colorful selves to the naked eye. We’ve heard that there might be a better chance in Jasper National Park, just north of Banff. The aurora borealis, also known as the northern lights, is the result of gaseous particles in the Earth’s atmosphere colliding with charged particles released from the sun’s atmosphere and usually only takes place over magnetic poles. Talk about cool!!
The green, purple and sometimes pink and blue lights swirl across the sky creating an awe striking moment for all who are lucky enough to witness. This site, Aurora Watch, is great for tracking your chances. I’ve also heard that in some cases, what might just look like clouds swirling over head will actually show up in the camera as neon green lights! So keep your eyes and cameras to the sky whenever you’re away from light pollution in the evening.
HISTORY OF BANFF
Here is just a little added bonus for you if you’re thinking of visiting Banff. It’s always important to know a bit about the locations you’re visiting. James is very good about doing this while I’m over here researching things like “how do the northern lights work!”
“The Western history of Banff National Park begins in 1883, when Canada’s first transcontinental railroad reached completion and connected the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific. In this same year, three railroad workers stumbled upon a natural hot spring located within Sulphur Mountain and thereby sparked the formation of the first national park in Canadian history in 1885. But the real history begins several thousand years before.
Evidence of human occupation in the Bow Valley between the Rocky Mountains where lies the current Banff townsite, stretches back to 11,000 BC where early relatives of the Cree, Kootenay, and Plains Blackfoot Indian tribes were living. These later tribes became the inhabitants of this region and conducted constant trade with each other and generally lived in peace and relative prosperity, there within the valleys of the towering mountains.
Then the white man came in the 1700s bringing guns, germs, and steel. The European introduced horses to the native tribes as well as foreign diseases like smallpox which killed an estimated 3/5 of the western aboriginal peoples. All of this shook up the power dynamics (to say the least) and resulted in much bloodshed between tribes and externally. It was a rough time and almost everything changed.
Meanwhile, in 1754 Anthony Henday is named the first non-native to set foot on the Canadian Rockies. Exploration had come west and continued throughout the 19th century as various groups sponsoring individual explorers and fur traders and trappers ventured towards the Pacific. Hudson’s Bay Company was one of the major players in this westward expansion, as was the Canadian Pacific Railway which built its tracks past Banff in the 1880s.
After three railroad workers stumbled upon a natural hot springs in Sulphur Mountain, known today as Cave and Basin, a federal reserve / sanctuary was established in 26 square kilometres around the springs to protect them. This was then increased to 673 km2 in 1887 and named Rocky Mountains Park, which was the first national park in Canada’s history and the birth of its tourism.
The main town was originally called Banffshire, after a Scottish district. It provided the central community point for the brave adventurers and homesteaders and explorers that were journeying out into the rugged wilderness to create a life for themselves. In 1888, the original log frame of Banff Springs Hotel was built, followed with the original Chateau Lake Louise site, providing accommodation for the burgeoning tourist industry, attracting visitors from Eastern Canada and America and Europe. The demand for guides to take visitors out onto and up the mountains brought in people like the Brewster family who sparked the outfitting and guiding industry in what would be shortened to Banff.
In 1911 the road was built into the park, and with the introduction of cars came the second phase of tourism. Roads were expanded to Lake Louise (1921) and Jasper (1923), the latter of which was the first public highway through the Canadian Rockies, linking to America in what was known as the Grand Circle Tour. Every year more people came to visit, basking in the majesty of the mountains. In 1962 Rocky Mountain Park changed its name to Banff National Park and with the official opening of the Trans-Canadian Highway, linking Banff to the international airport in Calgary, the park was by now solidly boasting a worldwide reputation for top-notch outdoor travel experience. Today approximately 8 million people visit the park annually.”
Sited from: Enjoy Banff, and Banff.ca
We hope you enjoyed reading about these top ten things to do in Banff in the winter!
This list just scratches the surface of the amazing actives and sights that the national park has to offer. There is no better way to experience a place and find the best things to do then to check it out for yourselves! One of our favorite ways to explore a new area is to hit a local restaurant and ask the bartenders and waiters and waitresses for their recommendations. We have always found some amazing hidden gems this way.