As one of Canada’s most popular destinations, Banff needs no introduction. Not only was it Canada’s first national park but also the world’s third. It’s home to some of the best scenery in the world and is a true paradise for anyone interested in outdoor adventure. Although it’s busiest during the summer months, Banff in the winter is about as spectacular as winter in Canada gets.
Banff in the winter is like stepping into a winter wonderland with snow-capped mountains, a snow-dusted forest, charming streets, and all sorts of winter attractions ranging from ice castles to world-class skiing and more. As much as we love Banff in the summer, we actually prefer it in the winter. Not only are hotels cheaper and easier to come by, but nothing can quite compare to a town like Banff covered in white sparkling snow. Even my mother-in-law who hails from Mexico prefers the winter months, despite the often bone-chilling temperatures. Imagine yourself inside a snow globe. That’s Banff in the winter.
How to Get to Banff in Winter
If you’re looking for more detail on Banff’s history, how to get there, and so forth, we recommend visiting our Banff Travel Guide, which has much more information on the town in general. However, some of the most popular routes include:
Calgary to Banff: For those travelling to Canada, Calgary is by far the easiest place to fly into. It’s home to one of the largest airports in Canada and is less than a 2-hour drive from Banff. Renting a car is easy or there are tours that take you right from Calgary.
Edmonton to Banff: As Alberta’s second-largest city, many people come from Edmonton as well. This adds approximately three hours to your trip as it takes that long to get to Calgary. However, you can also come through Banff for an epic Canada road trip.
Edmonton to Jasper: If you have time and are already in Edmonton, we highly recommend going to Jasper first and then driving down the spectacular Icefields Parkway. The drive from Edmonton to Jasper is four hours and the Icefields Parkway is another 3.5 hours to Banff, although you’ll want the whole day to enjoy the world-class scenery.
Winter in Banff Driving Tips
- If you’ve never driven in the winter before, it can be quite hazardous. Make sure you stay further away from vehicles on the highway, break much sooner than during the summer months, and watch out for quick turns as the ice can make your car slide off the road. Basically, drive slower and more cautiously.
- Make sure you have an ice-scraper. Oftentimes, you’ll find your windshields covered in frost and you’ll need to scrape it off.
- When embarking on a road trip, fill up your tank.
- Always check road reports and weather. Driving in a snowstorm is not fun and roads can close due to snowfall and avalanches.
Here are some websites to save and bookmark for your Banff winter vacation:
Banff National Park in Winter
Since the Must Do Canada headquarters is located in downtown Calgary, we can be in Banff in less than an hour and a half. It’s really the only thing that keeps us in Calgary. Of all Canadian destinations outside of our home city, we’ve been to Banff the most – upwards of 100 times – and have seen and experienced Banff in all months of the year.
But before we go into detail on some of the best things to do in Banff in the winter, let’s go over some important winter information.
The winter in Banff occurs from November to May. Between these months, you will likely find snow. However, if you’re really looking for snow and optimal conditions for snow sports, you’ll want to come somewhere between December and April. January to March is the prime time for winter sports. However, the weather is often chilly, hovering anywhere from -5 Celcius to -30. You’ll want to make sure you know what to wear for winter in Canada.
Recommend Clothing for the Winter in Banff
For a detailed list of clothing during the winter, read our article about what to wear for the winter season in Canada.
However, here is a quick list of what to bring:
- Cleats or Microspikes: These strap to the bottom of your shoe and give your more traction, helping you to not slip on snow and ice. For casual hiking and walking around, cleats are a much better choice. For slightly more hard-core ice escapades, grab microspikes.
- Lip chap and moisturizing cream: This sounds odd but Alberta is already a dry place and the winter makes it even dryer. It’s nice to have this stuff to avoid having your ski crack and be irritated.
- Layers: Winter in Canada demands a good jacket, good boots, gloves, and a toque. However, layering is also important, especially when it comes to activities. When we go out to do snow sports, we always layer with a thermal base layer (like Merino Wool), followed by a t-shirt, fleece sweater, possibly a fleece vest, and then a winter jacket. When you get warm, you can easily shed a layer, and when cold, you add a layer. For pants, I almost always wear thermal leggings followed by either jeans or snow pants. Oh, warm socks too!
Things to Do in Banff in Winter
While many places in Canada go into a sort of hibernation during the winter months, Banff definitely does not. There are so many things to do during the winter in Banff as long as you’re dressed for the occasion. Whether it’s skiing down some of the world-class slopes, snowshoeing the deep backcountry, or simply taking a gondola ride to the top of a mountain, there are enough Banff winter activities to keep you going for as long as you stay.
Without a doubt, one of the top Banff winter activities is skiing and snowboarding. If you have can, you really should take the opportunity to ski Banff. There are three amazing ski resorts within Banff National Park, all of which are less than 45 minutes from the town itself. Collectively, they are known as Ski Big 3. The smallest of the three but also the closest to Banff is Mt. Norquay, which is only 10-15 minutes away. Although smaller in size, it’s also cheaper and still offers many runs for both beginners and advanced. The next closest is Sunshine Village, which is one of the most famous in Canada and is only a 20-minute drive. First, it’s located much higher up the mountain, giving it a longer season, but it also has more than 130 runs, including the ability to ski in two provinces! Lastly, there’s Lake Louise Ski Resort, the largest of the three and the second-largest in the country. Located just 45-minutes from Banff, this is my personal favourite as it offers so many incredible runs. Whichever you choose, you can’t go wrong. In fact, the best thing to do is to ski all three!
You can buy a bundle of lift tickets to all three Banff mountain resorts and Ski Big 3 often has some good deals, such as $400 per person for three lift tickets and three nights of accommodation. Considering lift tickets alone are $100 and up, this is an amazing deal. But this is only at certain times. Still, a bundle pass will save you money and give you access to night skiing and shuttles. It also includes restaurant discounts, a complimentary pass to the Banff Upper Hot Springs, and free admission to the Whyte Museum.
Go Tubing at Mount Norquay
Remember tubing or riding a sled down a hill as a kid? Or maybe you’ve never even done it before? Either way, this is your chance to partake in a very Canadian winter activity without the hassle of finding a tube or finding a hill. Mt. Norquay, one of the ski resorts mentioned above, also has a tubing hill where you can purchase a pass that enables you to go up and down the hill as much as you want. It’s a great way to enjoy the mountains without skiing or snowboarding. Kids love it and adults will feel like kids again. You can choose to race your friends down one of their eight lanes and walk or ride back up to the top for more fun. Staff will even help you get some spins in as you glide down the mountain. The cost is about $35 for an adult.
If alpine skiing is too scary or too expensive, another great winter activity is snowshoeing. Trails are free to use and all you need is a pair of snowshoes, which can be rented for around $20 per day or bought for under $200. It’s basically just hiking so you don’t need to have any skill to get started. Just strap them on to your boots and go for a walk! Snowshoes are designed for deep snow, so it’s best to find a trail with lots of snow. Some of the ski resorts, such as Mt.Norquay, offer trails as well, making it easy to go for a multi-hour hike and get some amazing views at the same time. In fact, there are over 1000 miles of trails to explore!
Some popular options for snowshoeing Banff include:
Lake Louise Lakeshore: Four-kilometre return with no elevation gain (very easy)
Fairview Lookout: Two km return trip with some elevation gain (easy)
Louise Creek: 5.6 km return with 195 m elevation gain (moderate)
Highline Trail to Paradise Creek: 9 km return (moderate but avalanche training required)
Mirror Lake via Lake Agnes hiking trail: 5.4-kilometre return (difficult and avalanche training required)
Taylor Lake: 12.6 km return with 585 m elevation gain, (challenging and avalanche training required)
Ride the Banff Gondola
Another incredibly popular thing to do is a sightseeing tour on the Banff Gondola. We literally do this every time we visit. Prices range from $30 – $60/person depending on the time of the season and you can go from the bottom to the top of Sulphur Mountain in less than 10 minutes. Then, you can enjoy the many different 360-degree viewpoints of both the town and the many mountains from an elevation of 7,486 feet. The walking platform makes it easy to experience for all types of people and there’s even a high-end restaurant, coffee shop, gift shop, and interpretive centre. For those who don’t want to spend the money, you can also opt for the 2-hour climb, which is free of charge. Either way, do not miss the chance to see Banff National Park from the top of Sulphur Mountain.
Visit the Banff Centre
If you’re looking for a place to attend art shows, film festivals, and a variety of performances, the Banff Centre is the place to go. You’ll certainly want to check the schedule first, but this is a great place to see shows in Banff. In fact, it was founded in Banff in 1993 and fosters a community of creatives, musicians, writers, leaders, and thinkers! Their mission is to develop leaders for Alberta to change the world in positive ways. You can also take a tour of the campus area, its state of the art facilities, and admire some good views! They even have some restaurants and cafes, as well as temporary housing for artists.
Hike Tunnel Mountain
Popular in both the summer and in the winter, the Tunnel Mountain hike is a fairly easy trek to get some beautiful views. This hike is also popular because it’s right in town and it takes less than an hour to reach the viewpoints. You’ll find the trail just off Tunnel Mountain Road, not far from Buffalo Mountain Lodge. It’s unlikely that you’ll have it all to yourself, but it’s certainly a worthwhile hike with some stunning views at the end. Please note that although the hike is fairly easy, it is mostly uphill, so moderate fitness is likely required.
Hike Johnston Canyon
One of our favourite hikes is Johnston Canyon during the winter when the waterfalls freeze and it feels like you’re walking into a winter wonderland. Although it’s currently closed without a guide (due to COVID), the hike is normally an easy 2-3 hour jaunt over a mostly flat service, leading to a couple of waterfalls, a small cave, and a narrow canyon. This hike is extremely popular and often draws crowds on weekends, so if you want to experience it without so many people, opt for a weekday and go early. As mentioned, the hike is fairly easy for most people but you might want to wear cleats as the trail, stairs, and ramps can become icy. Another highlight is watching ice climbers work their way up one of the frozen waterfalls. You’ll notice signs for both the Upper Falls and Lower Falls so make sure you visit both. If you want a longer hike, you can also opt to go see the Ink Pots, although they are more spectacular during the summer months.
If you don’t want to go alone, you can also opt for a tour with a company like Discover Banff Tours. The benefit of a tour will be learning about the geological information of the area.
Soak in the Banff Hot Springs
There’s nothing quite like relaxing in a thermal hot spring after a day out in the cold. Although closed currently due to COVID, they’re certainly a must-do during the winter months as a way to soothe your muscles and just enjoy the warmth of the water while surrounded by snow-capped mountain peaks. The hot springs, which were built in 1932 and originally a sacred place for the Indigenous Peoples of the area, are located across the street from the Rimrock Hotel and next to the Banff Gondola.
During normal times, you can even rent one of the traditional bathing suits from the Banff Hot Springs, although we definitely recommend bringing your own. Admission is less than $10 and a locker can be rented for $1.00. Towels can also be rented for $1.90, which is a good idea as you then don’t have to bring home a wet towel.
Go Cross-Country Skiing
Another fun activity that works up a sweat is cross-country skiing. There are numerous trails all over the national park and all are free to use. All you need is the skis and boots, which can be bought or rented in town from a variety of rental shops. If you don’t know how to cross-country ski, you might want to book a tour first, but once you get the hang of it, it’s quite easy and not nearly as difficult as downhill skiing. This is a wonderful way to enjoy the winter scenery while getting an amazing workout.
Visit the Fairmont Banff Springs
It’s not too often we list a hotel as an attraction but the Fairmont Banff Springs has certainly become one. Built-in 1888 and known also as the Banff Castle, that’s just what this historic hotel looks like. Like a massive castle surrounded by forest and mountains, this hotel is worth the visit, even if you don’t splurge on the luxury accommodation. Whether you admire its beauty from the outside or step inside for a self-guided tour, it’s certainly a Banff attraction. You can also eat here at one of the many restaurants or simply pop into the bar for a hot drink or cocktail. They also have a hot spring pool but it’s reserved only for guests.
Another great place to simply admire its beauty is at Surprise Corner over on Tunnel Mountain Road. Basically, it’s a popular place for photographers because as you walk or drive up to Tunnel Mountain Road, the view of The Banff Springs Hotel pops out of nowhere, along with the Bow River in the background.
Admire Bow Falls
Right behind the Fairmont hotel is Bow Falls, which is free to visit. Simply drive down and park and then wander around admiring the beautiful waterfall and the gorgeous mountain scenery. In the winter, the falls are frozen and people often make artwork with all the frozen chunks of ice.
If you can time your visit right, experiencing a Banff festival during the winter is a great time to be entertained. Our favourite time to spend the winter in Banff is during the Banff Snow Days, which brings with it a food and drink festival, free skate rentals on the town’s outdoor rink, numerous snow sculptures, free s’mores, and the one-and-only Ice Magic Festival at Lake Louise, which brings in some incredibly talented ice artists who create the most amazing ice sculptures you’ll ever see. We try to never miss this festival, as just going to see the ice sculptures is worth the trip.
Go Dog Sledding in the Mountains
Many people envision dog sledding when they think of winter landscapes. Well, Banff National Park is a magical location for letting a team of powerful dogs pull you through the snow. There are many respectable dog sledding companies in Banff that provide a great winter experience, some of which let you become the musher! Some options include Snowy Owl Dog Sled Tours and Kingmik Tours, which operates out of Lake Louise.
Drive the Icefields Parkway
This highway has been named one of the most beautiful drives in the entire world, taking you from Banff to Jasper and through spectacular scenery such as glaciers, waterfalls, lakes, mountain ranges and rivers. In the winter, it’s a winter wonderland with everything covered in white sparkling snow. There are more things to do during the summer months, but it’s just as beautiful in the winter and also leads to another incredible place in Alberta – Jasper National Park.
We’ve written an entire guide to the Icefields Parkway, but some of the popular stops along the way include Peyto Lake, Bow Lake, the Saskatchewan River Crossing, the Columbia Icefields and Athabasca Glacier, Sunwapta Falls, and Athabasca Falls.
If you do the drive, read our guide and make sure you check road conditions before hitting the road and make sure you have winter or all-weather-snowflake tires as they are mandatory on the Icefields Parkway.
Take a Helicopter Tour
If you think the Canadian Rockies are beautiful from the ground, imagine seeing them from the sky! Although sightseeing helicopter tours don’t leave directly from Banff, you can take the short 20-minute drive to Canmore, just outside the national park, and soar into the skies with Alpine Helicopters. They offer a number of tours starting for around $150/pp and all of them offer jaw-dropping views of the mountain landscapes. You’ll get views of places like the Three Sister Mountain Range, Goat Mountain Range, Spray Lakes, and more!
We’ve taken many helicopter rides, including Rockies Heli in Cline River as well as Helicopter rides over Niagara Falls, and the Rocky Mountains is one of the best places to experience a flight!
Visit a Frozen Lake
Although the mountains dominate the views, Banff is also surrounded by a number of beautiful lakes, all of which freeze over during the winter months. These lakes are often popular for things like skating, cross-country skiing, ice fishing, photography, and even scuba diving!
Some popular lakes near Banff include:
Two Jack Lake: This lake is a very easy winter day trip from Banff as it’s only a 15-minute drive. It’s popular for skating and snowshoeing, as well as photography during sunrise as the sun pops up directly behind it!
Vermillion Lakes: This lake is also close to Banff and is very popular with photographers, especially during sunset and sunrise. You may even spot some frozen bubbles beneath the ice surface due to methane gas.
Lake Minnewanka: This lake is very popular in the summer thanks to the boat tours, but in the winter, it’s also popular with snowshoers, ice fishers, cross country skiers, and even scuba divers. Scuba diving is only for professionals due to the cold water and darkness, but people go to see the old town that got flooded here years ago. One simple and popular thing to do during the winter is to talk out to the frozen boathouse in the middle of the lake or hoping to see wildlife as it’s popular with both elk and bighorn sheep. One popular snowshoe trail is the Cascade Trail.
Photograph a Passing Train in the Mountains
Another popular thing to do for those interested in photography is to capture the train passing through the valley. It’s a gorgeous picture to get but it’s also tricky as trains do not have time scheduled. So, you have to go to the spot and just wait. It might take 5 minutes. It might take 2 hours. Who knows. the area is called Morant’s Curve and can be found on the Bow Valley Parkway.
The easiest way to reach this awesome Banff photography location would be to take the Lake Lousie Exit of the Trans Canada Highway and turn east to go south down the Bow Valley Parkway (Highway 1A).mThere is a small parking lot labelled “Morant’s Curve” and you simply have to cross the street to see it.
Watch the Sunrise at Castle Mountain
One of the most beautiful mountains in Banff National Park is Castle Mountain. It’s located right off the Trans-Canada between Banff and Lake Louise and is stunning to see. If you don’t mind the mornings though, you could also go see the sunrise at Castle Mountain. To get there, you need to drive over to Castle Junction, park on the side of the road, and go through the wildlife gate. Make sure to close the gate behind you to keep animals safe and off the road. The GPS coordinates are 51.266560, -115.926661. The good thing about the winter is that the sun doesn’t rise until after 8 am.
Visit Lake Louise
Although we’ll cover Lake Louise in the winter in its own article, we mention it here because it is in Banff National Park and it literally is one of the top places to see in all of Canada. Located 45-minutes from the town of Banff, Lake Louise is home to all sorts of winter activities, as well as the famous Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. The frozen lake typically features a skating rink, cross-country ski tracks, some ice sculptures, and a variety of hiking and snowshoeing trails. Even if you go just for the view, it’s worth it. You can also rent skates from the Fairmont or take a tour in a horse-drawn carriage. You can also rent skates from the Lake Louise Village at Wilson Mountain Sports. Skates are roughly $12/day whereas a hockey stick is $9. You can likely buy a cheap hockey stick from SportChek or Canadian Tire for $30.
Eat Your Heart Out
Another nice thing about Banff is the amount of restaurants. Thanks to the heavy influx of tourists all year, there’s hundreds of amazing Banff restaurants to choose from. Whether you’re looking for delicious Indian food, a AAA Alberta steak, some of the best Japanese food in the country, or even some fine-dining fondue, Banff has it all.
Accommodation in Banff
One of the nice things about winter in Banff is that accommodation is much cheaper and much more available than during the busy summer months. We’ve written an entire post about where to stay in Banff so we highly recommend you read that article. However, here are a few quick recommendations.
Mount Royal Hotel: This hotel is mid-range and is right in the heart of Banff Avenue, walking distance to all the shops and restaurants.
Bow View Lodge: This hotel is also within walking distance to all the action on Banff Avenue but is often less than $100/night, putting it in the budget category.
Fairmont Banff Springs: This is the most luxurious option in Banff but if you have the money, it’s one of the most famous hotels in the country.
Winter in Banff
As you can see, Banff is an incredible place to spend the winter in Canada. It’s beautiful, full of Banff winter activities, and has a wide array of hotels, shops, and restaurants. We hope we’ve helped you pack your winter bucket list, but if we missed something, what do you love about Banff during the winter? Let us know in the comments below.
For more things to do in the area, we recommend these articles: