Too many people pass on a trip to Banff in winter and do I ever feel bad for them. Banff in the winter means majestic snow-capped mountains, endless winter activities, and my favourite part, next to no crowds! For the past eight years, I have been lucky to spend the majority of my winters exploring Banff. In this short blog, I will share my top 7 ideas for an unforgettable trip!
1. Ride The Gondola Up Sulphur Mountain
This first one is family-friendly, and an exciting way to get an epic view of the cozy town of Banff from above. The Banff Gondola is located at the base of Sulphur Mountain at the end of Mountain Avenue in Banff, Alberta. Ride the 8-minute long gondola up to the very summit of Sulphur Mountain.
At the top, there is a large wooden boardwalk to explore, two amazing restaurants with wild mountain views, an interpretive center, and ENDLESS photography opportunities.
Tip: Dress very warm. Even if it isn’t too cold at the base, the gondola will be taking you approximately 700m up to a literal mountain top. Temperatures will drop and you can be exposed to frigid winter winds.
2. Take A Winter Cruise Along The Icefield Parkway
Said to be one of the most scenic highways in the world, you do not want to skip this one. Highway 93 (The Icefield Parkway) connects Banff National Park, and Jasper National Park over a 230km (140 mile) view packed drive. There are endless roadside attractions that you can pull over and stretch the legs at and get some Instagram-worthy shots. A couple of my favourite stops are Peyto Lake (a 15-minute hike to the viewing platform), Waterfowl Lake, and Athabasca Glacier. There is also a ton of wildlife to be seen even during the winter months.
Tips for the drive:
- Check road reports before you go. This road can sometimes be closed for avalanche control.
- There is little to no cell service for this entire stretch of highway. Be prepared with warm clothing/blanket should you run into trouble.
- Start early and return before dark for safer driving conditions.
- Winter tires or chains are required by law.
3. Spend a day in the town of Banff
The Banff townsite covers 3.93 square kilometres (2.5 square miles) and has an elevation of 1,383 metres (4,537 feet) making it the highest town in Canada. It is home to a great selection of stores to shop at and a surprisingly diverse selection of delicious restaurants and breweries to stop in at.
My suggestions for food stops are Three Bears Banff Restaurant and Brewery, The Grizzly House and Magpie and Stump.
4. Warm yourself up with a soak at The Banff Hot Springs
At only $8.48 per adult pass, this is easy on the wallet activity when it comes to Banff’s prices. I love heading here for a soak after a cold winter’s hike. There are beautiful mountain views right from the pool that you can enjoy while you relax. Towels and bathing suits are available for rent at an additional rate.
5. Banff Winter Activities: Hiking Or Snowshoe trails
During the Summer you may share some of the popular trails with hundreds of other people. Come wintertime the trails quiet down big time and become a peaceful experience. Banff winter hiking with the snow-covered trees and mountains will make it feel like you’re wandering around in a snow globe. During the winter I highly advise you to not take any trails that travel through avalanche terrain unless you’re trained, have the gear and know-how to do so safely. Want some tips to help get you that perfect Instagram shot? Give one of my recent blogs a read to brush up on your knowledge – 5 Tips to Improve Your Beginner Landscape Photography.
Quick tips for Banff Winter Hikes:
- Bring hiking poles and spikes for your boots. Packed down trails become literal skating rinks and I have seen way too many people get seriously hurt from slipping on a simple trail due to ice. I always pack my Kahtoola spikes that make it near impossible to slip on ice. If you don’t have any, affordable rentals in Banff can be found at Snowtips Backtrax.
- Use the app Alltraills to safely navigate the trails in the area. This app has almost every trail imaginable and has saved me from getting lost countless times. You can also read recent reviews from other users on the trail to get an idea of the conditions or any closures.
Avalanche Safe Trails
Tunnel Mountain (Sleeping Buffalo) – 4.5km round trip 267m elevation gain.
Due to its location being right in Banff this is a popular trail that will have packed down snow, so no snowshoes are required. This is a family-friendly hike that the kids will love. On your way up you will be treated to views of the Banff Fairmont Castle, and at the end views of Banff and the surrounding mountain ranges.
Johnston Canyon – 5.1km round trip 262m elevation gain.
You can thank thousands of years of rushing water for carving out this canyon. This is one of Banff’s most popular attractions. It is an easy-to-follow trail that will take you through a quiet forest, deep into the Johnston Canyon where you will pass by massive waterfalls frozen in time, and if you’re lucky you will see an ice climber or two heading up it with their axes in hand!
Fairview Lookout – 2.4km round trip 167m elevation gain.
This trail can be incredibly icy so be sure to remember spikes. I enjoy saving this trail for a lower energy day. It is a short trail but the view of frozen Lake Louise, The Fairmont Chateau, and the epic mountain range in the background makes for an amazing reward at the end. You will know you have made it to the end as there will be a viewing platform, wooden benches, and interpretive signs. Do not go past this point as you will be entering dangerous avalanche terrain. Stop in at the Chateau for a warmup and meal or tea at The Lake View Lounge after for a meal with a view.
6. Skate On A Frozen Lake – Lake Louise
Wild ice skating can be dangerous. That is why I recommend heading to Lake Louise to safely take part in this quintessential Canadian winter activity. Normally starting in December, a section of Lake Louise is cleared to create the world’s most scenic skating rink complete with jaw-dropping views of Victoria Glacier. They also have hockey nets should you want to play a game of stick and puck with others. If you don’t have skates, The Fairmont offers rentals. To see official information on when the skating rink is open and rentals view this link here.
7. Go “Hunting” For Wildlife On The Bow Valley Parkway (Highway 1A)
Accessed five minutes west of Banff, or directly from Lake Louise Village this is one of the best stretches of roads in the park to spot animals as it is a wildlife corridor. Please be sure to drive to conditions and posted speed limits.
A couple of notable stops along this road are:
Morant’s Curve – This spot offers an incredible view of the Bow Valley, a curved train track, and mountain peaks. If you have the patience, wait for a train to pass through for a stunning photo. There is no schedule for the trains, sometimes people wait a couple of minutes for one, other times hours.
Johnston Canyon – we discussed this hiking trail under #5.
Baker Creek Mountain Resort – If you search cozy winter cabin getaway in the dictionary, this place pops up. Baker Resort is rich in Banff National Park history being built around 1949 and housing a lot of early tourists and rail workers. Each cabin has a wood-burning fireplace, sure to keep you warm as you watch the snowfall out the window. The location of these cabins could not be better. It is far enough away that you feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere, but close enough that places like Lake Louise are only a short drive away.
View My Google Map Of Banff And Surrounding Area
Check out my Google Maps area where I have labelled the spots I love to visit. These include photography spots, Banff winter activities, hikes, restaurants, campsites, and more! Not all the hikes on the map are safe in the wintertime. Please always research your trail before you go.
So, I’m sure you can see now, Banff in the winter is a destination you need to add to your list. A place to unwind, adventure, and cozy up by the fireplace at the end of the day. I hope this list has answered your question of what to do in Banff in the winter. Drop a comment below if you think I missed something!
One last note on safety. If you are lucky enough to see wildlife in the park (chances are you will) please be sure to respect their space and never feed them. Feeding wildlife in Banff National Park is illegal.
Keep your distance.
- 100 metres from bears (unless you are inside a vehicle);
- 30 metres from all other large species;
- 200 metres from coyote, fox or wolf dens.