When people first think about Banff in winter, their minds might be drawn to the nearby slopes – but this piece is all about expanding our mindset as to what’s possible in winter here. Even if you’re not a skiier, Banff is a place worth visiting in colder climes because it’s a mecca of outdoor adventure. Robin and Arlene Karpan tap into their personal experience to help you get the most out of your visit!
Winter is our favourite time of year to visit Banff, Alberta. This is Canada’s most popular national park, with annual visitors exceeding 4 million. We have been coming here for a long time in different seasons, but in recent years the sheer number of summer and fall visitors make it difficult to even find a parking spot.
Winter is a lot more easy-going. It’s the same spectacular Rocky Mountain scenery, but with significantly fewer people, lower accommodation prices (outside of holiday periods), and no traffic jams.
How Can You Make the Most of Banff in Winter?
Banff has long been famous for skiing, with a lot of people coming specifically to ski the Big 3 – the famous ski resorts of Banff Sunshine, Mount Norquay, and Lake Louise. But these days more visitors are taking in the many other amazing winter activities such as hiking, biking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, ice climbing, nature photography, dog-sledding, or just soaking up the beauty of the Rockies.
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Take a Hike
We can walk a surprising number of trails in winter, although snow and ice conditions vary each year. Many easy trails around the Banff townsite are usually open, along with some nearby trails rated Moderately Difficulty such as Tunnel Mountain, Sulphur Mountain, and Sundance Canyon. Parks Canada’s website has updates, including trail conditions and recommendations as to where poles or ice cleats are needed. Or check with the Parks Canada visitor centre in town.
Our favourite winter walk is along Johnston Canyon, accessed about halfway between Banff and Lake Louise. The long narrow gorge has been shaped by the rushing waters of Johnston Creek, with a couple of major waterfalls, smaller cataracts, and rapids. In summer, this popular walk can be impossibly crowded. On our last winter trip, we arrived mid-morning to find only a dozen or so cars in the parking lot. More people arrived as the day went on, but it never felt crowded.
Another popular option is hiking the canyon on a guided walk with Discover Banff Tours; they provide transportation and snacks, cleats if needed, and their guides relate stories and background on the canyon. The mix of water, snow, and ice gives Johnston Canyon its special winter appeal. At first glance, the Lower Falls look like a solid ice curtain, but look closer and we can often see water rushing behind.
The highlight is the Upper Falls, a walk of a little over five kilometres return from the trailhead. Towards the end, the steep trail can be very icy, so wearing ice cleats is highly recommended. The 30-metre-high falls appear even more impressive in winter when they freeze over. Besides being a spectacular sight, this is among the most popular places in the park for ice climbing.
Embark on a Scenic Drive
The Banff area abounds with wonderful driving routes. One of the closest to the townsite, and our go-to drive for sunset, is Vermilion Lakes. The backdrop for this string of small lakes is imposing Mount Rundle which turns brilliant with the setting sun. A great photo op is framing Mount Rundle’s reflection in an area of open water on the mostly frozen lakes.
For a sweeping overview of Banff, nothing beats the road up Mount Norquay. Just follow the signs to the ski hill. Most of the way up the mountain an excellent vantage point looks over the townsite, highway, Vermilion Lakes, and the mountains beyond.
Another short 5-km drive leads to Minnewanka Lake. Along the way we pass Two Jack Lake, a favourite sunrise spot for photographers. Snow conditions on Lake Minnewanka can vary, but strong winds on the huge lake often blow away part of the snow, leaving expanses of clear ice where people go skating. We like to walk onto these clear sections to see the amazing methane ice bubbles that sometimes form deep into the ice.
The Bow Valley Parkway between Banff and Lake Louise tops the scenic drive list. It parallels the fast and busy Trans Canada Highway but is a world way as it slowly meanders through outstanding landscapes. Highlights include the Johnston Canyon trailhead, viewpoints overlooking imposing Castle Mountain, as well as trailheads for cross-country ski and snowshoe trails. Another favourite for photographers is Morant’s Curve, where a curve in the railway comes next to the road, with the Bow River and a series of mountain peaks for a backdrop. We often see photographers here, waiting for the next train to complete the picture.
Winter is definitely the best time to drive to Lake Louise. In summer, the parking lot usually fills before 8:00 am and no more private vehicles are allowed. If you do snag a parking spot, it comes with a $12.25 fee (at the time of publication). In winter you can usually drive right up anytime and parking is free.
The view in front of the Chateau Lake Louise ranks among Canada’s most iconic vistas. In winter, the snow is cleared from the lake in front of the hotel to make a huge skating rink, with a spectacular ice castle adding to the magical atmosphere. CNN and Fodor’s even called it the world’s best skating rink.
How About a Medicine Walk with Mahikan Trails?
This leisurely guided walk near Cascade Ponds is all about connecting to nature. Brenda Holder of Mahikan Trails is a practitioner of traditional Cree medicine and an expert on the many uses of plants we find in the forest, both for healing and for food. This is another example of the array of Indigenous tourism opportunities in Canada.
“Did you know that we can find all the ingredients to bake bread in the boreal forest?” she asked. Then we followed her through the bush as she showed us where to find the various components, including how to get yeast from a white poplar tree.
We learned easy ways to tell the difference between spruce and fir trees, how bearberry plants were used traditionally to relieve various ailments, and why you should never use wolf willow branches to roast bannock over the fire. It seems that this pleasantly fragrant bush smells like excrement when burned. Wild rose petals make an excellent tea, but eating rose hips can give you “itchy bum”.
Spend a couple of hours with Brenda and you’ll never look at the forest the same way again.
Ride the Banff Gondola
Just outside Banff townsite, the gondola takes you almost 700 metres up Sulphur Mountain (a view you can see up above, as our feature photo for the article). Unlike lifts on ski hills, this gondola is strictly for sightseeing. Opened in 1959 as the first gondola in Canada, it has been upgraded throughout the years. The summit serves up a 360 degree view over mountain ranges, the townsite, Bow Valley, and the wilderness beyond. The upper terminal boasts observation decks, an interpretive centre, and a choice of restaurants. A short walking trail leads to another observation point for views farther down the Bow Valley.
The prime time to come is late afternoon and early evening. Come early enough to see the low sun light up the townsite and surrounding landscape, then enjoy the sunset and soon after gaze over the lights of Banff after dark.
E-Fat Biking to Sundance Lodge
One of the reasons why we go to national parks is to experience the backcountry wilderness. Fortunately, Banff has that covered as well, even in winter. A relatively recent offering is overnight excursions to Sundance Lodge by e-fat bike. We had visited this wonderful place previously on a summer horseback trip so we jumped at the chance to see it in winter. Sundance Lodge lies about 16 kilometres from Banff townsite, and the only way to get there in winter is by skis, snowshoes, or bike.
Our excursion was led by Clare McCann of Bikescape, a local company offering a wide range of biking tours and programs throughout the year. Fat bikes and e-fat bikes have become increasingly popular in Banff, especially for winter recreation. The park only allows e-bikes that are pedal assist, and only on certain trails. Bikescape is the sole company allowed to run guided winter bike excursions to Sundance Lodge, a trip rated as Intermediate with an elevation gain of 173 metres.
The route starts along scenic Healy Creek then heads uphill with plenty of ups and downs through a mostly narrow forest trail. We stopped at a lot of scenic viewpoints over the wild mountain landscape, and where the trail crosses Brewster Creek on a couple of bridges. When we arrived at the lodge, the bikes still had around 80% battery power left.
The lodge sits in a picture-postcard setting. The two-story log building looks over Brewster Creek and has a backdrop of mountain peaks, all framed by spruce trees coated with frosty snow. The lodge is off-grid, with no phone or cell service, and electricity provided by large solar panels.
The building has 11 rooms, with the main floor divided into a sitting room with a roaring fire in the wood-burning stove, and a large kitchen-dining room where meals are served. We remembered the food being a highlight from our previous visit, and it certainly didn’t disappoint this time, from the freshly-baked cookies and charcuterie board snacks on our arrival to the baked ham supper and sumptuous breakfast spread that would rival any top-end restaurant.
Overnight snowfall added to the stunning winter wonderland, although it wasn’t so great for the trail which became mushy and slippery as the weather warmed. It proved more challenging for those of us with less experience, and we managed to wipe out on some of the downhill corners. But what’s a backcountry adventure without a few challenges? It proved a wonderful way to experience remote reaches of the park, away from the busyness of Banff. From the time we started on the trail until we returned next day, we saw no people other than our biking group and those at the lodge.
Where to Stay in Banff
Banff abounds with accommodation possibilities including a wide range of hotels, motels, lodges, hostels, and camping. If you’re up for a splurge, there’s the chance to stay at one of Canada’s most legendary digs – the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, also known as “Canada’s Castle in the Rockies”. The absolute best views anywhere in Banff are from the upper floors of this hotel, since it was designed specifically for that purpose, with explicit instructions from CPR president, Cornelius Van Horne. Dating to 1888, the hotel is full of fascinating stories, many of which we can learn on the hotel’s free history tour. For example, the Rundle Bar has a secret speak-easy room hidden behind a false bookcase, and the haunting story of the Ghost Bride who fell to her death on her wedding day on a marble staircase and is said to still haunt the hotel.
If you prefer to be downtown close to shopping, restaurants, and nightlife, the most centrally-located accommodation is the Mount Royal Hotel. While this historic hotel is over a hundred years old, it has been completely updated. The onsite restaurant, Brazen, is considered one of Banff’s dining hotspots. See the Banff & Lake Louise Tourism website for a detailed rundown of the many other accommodation options.
Getting There and Getting Around
While driving around the park provides the most freedom, Banff differs from most national parks in that you can do a lot by public transport. To relieve traffic congestion, the Roam public transit system in the Banff-Lake Louise area connects accommodation, campgrounds, trailheads, attractions, ski hills, and more. As an additional incentive, you have to pay to park in most of the Banff townsite, except for a few free parking lots farther from the centre. Some hotels also charge extra for parking.
If you are arriving by air at Calgary airport, an option is to take the Banff Airporter shuttle, a bus service running several times per day direct from the airport to your accommodation in Banff.
However you arrive, and however you get around, you’re sure to be treated to some truly spectacular views in one of the most picturesque parts of the country.
Robin and Arlene Karpan are award-winning writers, photographers, bloggers, and authors of several travel books, including Canadian Bestsellers. Their work has appeared in over 100 publications around the world. While their travels have taken them to all seven continents, they find that some of the most compelling destinations are close to home in Canada. They have a special interest in the natural world and outdoor photography. Robin and Arlene publish the travel blog Photo Journeys which looks at travel through a photographer’s lens, and is rated by Feedspot as among the Top 100 Travel Photography Sites.