If you are considering visiting Banff in winter, I am your big fan! Get ready for seeing lots of magic and experiencing things you will remember forever.
In fact, winter is one of the best times to visit Banff and the Canadian Rockies in general.
It's way less crowded, hotels in Banff are much cheaper than in summer and in winter you can simply do things you wouldn't be able to experience in any other season. Yet lots of people are not sure whether they want to face the harsh winter weather or they assume that Banff in winter is dedicated just to skiers and adventurous mountaineers.
True, you'd hardly find a place in the world like Banff and the Canadian Rockies that has so much to offer in terms of winter adventures and extreme sports. But there is so much more to do in these mountains whether you plan a fun family vacation, an adventurous trip or a romantic honeymoon in winter wonderland. So much indeed, that you probably will have to come back another winter to experience it all.
If you are still not sure whether traveling to these breathtaking mountains in winter is a good idea, please see my winter guide to the Canadian Rockies, which, I hope, will help you to make the right decision.
If you are looking for even more detailed informations on traveling in the Canadian Rockies or decided to visit in summer, see my complete guide to traveling in the Canadian Rockies.
As always, feel free to message me if you have any questions, doubts or suggestions.
Now, let's have a look at the things you can do in Banff in winter.
To make the planning your winter vacation planning a bit easier for you, I created an interactive map, where you can find things and places that I write about in this article. Simply click on the arrow button in the top left corner to see different categories.
Dog sledding at Spray Lakes in Kananaskis
It's no coincidence that I put dog sledding to the top of this list. After completing Fjällräven Polar dog sledding expedition in 2016 I was hooked on mushing and I tried dog sledding in the Canadian Rockies a few times after that. All my experiences were absolutely magical, but dog sledding at Spray Lakes with Mad Dogs simply stood out for a couple of reasons. Don't let the name of the company to fool you, all their dogs are sweethearts and only run through the snow like crazy :)
One of the reasons I loved this dog sledding so much was that the whole time we were on a frozen lake surrounded by mountains and there was no one else. It was so very peaceful. Also I didn't have to be sitting in the sled the whole time, since I got the chance to be a musher (aka the guy who stands in the back of the sled, communicates with the dogs and steers the sled) which was far more enjoyable to me. If you're an adventurous soul, this would be an amazing experience for you.
We spent about two hours on the lake which gave us enough time to take photos, and also to cuddle the dogs one by one and enjoy fabulous landscapes and winter silence (as always, make sure you put your camera/phone away once you snap a few memories and just be present).
With Mad Dogs you can as well book overnight dog sledding trips which must be absolutely magical!
take a helicopter ride above the snow peaks
Flying in the helicopter above the mountains has been a dream of mine for over four years since I came to the Canadian Rockies in 2014. There are no helicopter companies based in Banff and in all other national parks around, but if you drive about 20 minutes from Banff to Canmore, you can explore the heights with Alpine Helicopters.
We were invited on their Three Sisters Peaks Tour that took us above breathtaking Spray Valley. The views were so spectacular that I wasn't quite ready to get off of the helicopter just after 12 minutes when the tour was over. It was short but intense and once again, my advice is to take a few photos, but hide your camera or phone after and just enjoy the views with all your senses.
Alpine Helicopters offer other than 12 minutes trips, so go ahead and check their website.
explore winter magic of the frozen canyons
Winter is a true magician and with below zero temperatures some places in the Canadian Rockies turn into winter ice kingdoms with thousands of icicles framing glacier blue waters flowing between limestone walls.
One of the most famous places around Banff to visit in winter is Johnston Canyon. Each year, the unique beauty and the easy terrain, lures more and more visitors even in winter months. If you want to avoid crowds, I recommend to come right when the sun rises. And don't forget your ice cleats since often the trail is pure ice. I always like to rent my winter gear at Snowtips Bactrax in Banff, but if you're planning more than one hike, I'd suggest to buy your own ice crampons to save money. I have these ones.
Another canyon close to Banff is called Grotto Canyon near Canmore, where you can walk upstream on the frozen creek to icefalls, which is really neat. As a bonus, when you hike along the rock walls, you can search for 500-1300 years old pictographs painted with red ochre. There's not much of them left, but if you keep your eyes wide open you should be able to find a few. You will definitely need ice cleats for this walk. Many times I saw people not wearing them, but it's not something I would recommend if you want to enjoy the activity and stay safe.
Marble Canyon is one of my favourite places I love to explore around Banff in winter. It's a short walk from the parking lot and unlike Johnston and Grotto Canyon, the landscape is very open in here. On a nice winter day, you can enjoy spectacular views of the mountains surrounding this piece of gem. You shouldn't need ice cleats for this one, but it's always a good idea to have them handy.
(Please note, that Marble Canyon is on Highway 93 and if you want to get there in winter, by law you need to have winter tires).
go for a winter hike
Although there are so many fabulous hikes in Banff National Park, most of them are closed for winter season. But you can still enjoy a few of them with no mountaineering experience even in winter.
If you're looking for easy walks around Banff that you could do with small children, there's quite a few that start right in the town of Banff or are within a short drive from Banff.
One of my favourites, that I always show to my friends, doesn't even have a name, but let's call it Spray River Loop (under this name I put it into the interactive map). You can start at Bow Falls parking lot and cross the bridge towards golf course. You will see the trail on your right hand side that follows the river. Stay on this trail till you get to the bridge, from which you will see the Fairmont Banff Springs hotel. Once you cross the bridge, continue slightly up the hill and on the junction turn right. You are now on Spray River Trail and that will get you through the woods straight to Fairmont hotel. Take yo your time at Fairmont and enjoy the views from the hotel deck or maybe even go inside Fairmont and enjoy the old photos of Banff on the second floor above the lobby. From the hotel you can get easily back to the parking lot right where you started.
Other easy walks you could do in Banff in winter is Fenland Trail near Vermillion Lakes or Marsh Loop that starts at Cave and Basin (I personally love this historical place and the walk itself). Another easy hiking option would be the pleasant loop around Johnson Lake, a few minutes drive from the town.
Further from Banff you can then explore Johnston Canyon or Lake Louise shoreline with unbeatable mountain views. And close to Canmore, there is a short trail to Grassi Lakes. If you don't mind driving even more further, you can visit Emerald Lake in BC and walk Emerald Lake Loop.
Won't mind hiking something a bit more challenging?
Save yourself some dollars for a gondola and climb up the Sulphur Mountain to get those breath taking 360° panorama views of Banff and mountains around. The switchbacks all the way to the top make it a comfortable ascent amongst the trees. In winter, the ride down on gondola is free.
You can also go up to the Tunnel Mountain to enjoy the views of Banff and Bow River Valley. The hike is shorter and hence easier than the one to the top of the Sulphur Mountain.
One of my personal favourite winter hikes is also to Ink Pots via Johnston Canyon. The trail to various blue pools is not very challenging, but it's nearly 12 kilometres return, so make sure you have enough time and bring some water and snacks (and ice cleats). The views of the mountains at Ink Pots are so worth the time.
World class skiing
If you're a skier, there's no doubt you will love skiing in Banff National Park, where you can pick from three ski hills. Norquay, which is just above Banff, Sunshine Village Ski Resort and Lake Louise Ski Resort.
I prefer skiing at Sunshine Village where I think the snow is the best, but lots of my friends prefer Lake Louise for its terrain and wider variety of runs.
hold your hats at Snow tubing
Talking about Norquay, while you are in Banff in winter, you should spare some time for snow tubing. Especially if you have children, it's a must. It's so much fun even for adults and the views from the snow tubing hill are incredible!
If you've never tried ice climbing, Banff must be one of the best places in the world to learn that. Under the guidance, it's actually easier than it looks, so why not to book a half day or full day trip to try this unique winter experience?
take a ride to the top of the mountain
You want to enjoy spectacular mountain views, but... you don't ski? Or don't feel like hiking in winter? Or your budget is too tight to fit in helicopter ride? I have good news. In Banff National Park in winter you can get the ride to the top of the world in winter with one of three gondolas or a chairlift:
- Banff Gondola - this would be probably always my #1 choice for overall enjoyment, I really love 360° panoramic views of Banff and the two valleys with dramatic peaks. There are cozy fire rings at the observation deck to warm up your numb fingers and at the top there's quite a lot to do besides admiring the views. You can visit the old meteorological station and have fun at the interactive educating centre Above Banff which is so well made and so much fun. If you have children, they will absolutely love it. If you're hungry or simply want to enjoy romantic dinner with fabulous views, there is Sky Bistro restaurant at the top. TIP: Arrive to the gondola base later in the day preferably before the sunset. There's usually less people during that time and it is lovely to experience lights of Banff, but still be able to see all the mountains around. Not even talking about gorgeous sunsets if you're lucky!
- Sunshine Village Gondola + chairlifts - I did it once in winter and of all the other gondolas the views were probably the best. Gondola will only take you up to the ski village, where there is not much of the views so you will want to take Standish Express Quad or Angel Express Quad to bring you to the peaks. There is no place to warm up at the very top, and you will want to head back down for a snack or delicious lunch.
- Lake Louise Gondola - you will get some fabulous views from Lake Louise Gondola, but it's not my personal favourite, since we weren't able to explore much at the very top due to restrictions. In all honesty, it seemed to me quite overpriced for all we've got. But go ahead if you want some fresh views, you won't be disappointed. Also note, that unlike the rest of the gondolas/chairlift on this list, at the top there are no facilities like washrooms or a cozy warm place to get a cup of tea. Dress warm!
- Mt. Norquay Chairlift - if you're tight on time, this is a good place to visit. Views of Banff and Mt. Rundle will take your breath away. While you're there at the top, have some tea and a soup at the bistro. The prices are very reasonable and there's nothing better than sipping the soup by the window with magical views.
One of the world's most beautiful natural ice rinks might be found in Lake Louise. It's well maintained all winter and free to use for everyone. You can rent ice skates at the Chateau Ski & Snow (15$ per 2 hours) right on the main level of Fairmont, or in Banff at Snowtip Bactrax (7.50$ half day and 15$ all day rental).
TIP: If you visit Lake Louise during the second half of January, definitely come and see Ice Magic Festival, a world-class ice carving event held every year right in front of the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise.
When the conditions are good, mostly at the beginning of winter in December or even earlier, lakes can turn into ice rinks straight out of fairytale. The ice is so perfectly smooth, clear and shiny that you will feel like skating on a mirror. Some of the lakes to keep an eye on - Two Jack Lake, Johnson Lake, Vermillion Lakes, Lake Minnewanka, Bow Lake, Herbert Lake, Spray Lakes Reservoir.
And as always, stay safe. Natural ice skating areas are not maintained nor patrolled. To make sure the ice is thick and save enough, visit the Parks Canada website and look for updates on conditions.
winter Horse sleigh rides
Up for a truly romantic winter fairytale? Then horse sleigh rides should be something you may look into. Within Banff National Park there are two places you can enjoy winter wonderland with this unique experience.
One is in Banff itself with Banff Trail Riders and while you're snuggling under warm wool blankets, horses take you to the valley surrounded by the mountains. Halfway through you can enjoy campfire and toast a marshmallow. Yumm!
The second option is in Lake Louise with Brewster Adventures. On the ride along the lake you will admire ice falls and Victoria glacier. You can even book your private sleigh.
Cross country skiing
I am a big fan of cross country skiing and I love that unlike skiing it's such a cheap sport. You can rent cross country skis at Snowtips Bactrax for about 20 CAD per day.
There are many beautiful trails within Banff National Park of different length and difficulty. Some of my favourite trails are Moraine Lake Road, Cascade Fire Road, Fairview Trail, Lake Louise Shoreline Trail or the trail from Castle Junction to Castle Mountain Lookout.
Have you never snowshoed before and don't know what to expect? Why not to try snowshoeing in Banff NP with an experience guide? Have a look at guided snowshoe tours at Sunshine Meadows or Lake Louise Ski Resort and be ready for lots of fluffy snow in high elevation to float on.
If you already have an experience, some of my good to go snowshoe trails are Boom Lake, Lake Agnes and Bow Lake.
Adventure into backcountry lodges
If you crave a real adventure, then you should definitely consider skiing into one of Banff NP's backcountry lodges, where you can stay for one or more winter nights snuggling in front of the fireplace. The easiest lodge to get to is probably Sundance Lodge, just a few kilometres from Banff. If you want something a little bit more remote and challenging, then check out Skoki Lodge and Shadow Lake Lodge.
Not too far from Banff, but already in Yoho National Park in British Columbia, there is Lake O'Hara Lodge nestled amongst some of the most beautiful peaks.
warm up your body in Banff hot springs
You shall not leave Banff before visiting the Banff Upper Hot Springs. Besides, after the whole day spent outside in freezing temperatures, your muscles will thank you a ton when you will give them some spa time. There's hardly anything better in winter than a soak in the hot pool fed by natural mineral spring water.
I love how affordable this place is at 8.30CAD per adult (and no time limit).
wander and wonder in the streets of Banff
I love Banff town itself and if I could choose one place in the world to live except of my hometown, you already know my answer. I used to live in Banff for eight months during my first year in Canada and I had absolutely amazing time in there.
There's a lot to do within Banff besides shopping and eating. Visit Cave and Basin to learn about the history of Banff. When my friends visit me, I always take them there. I also very much enjoy Buffalo Nations Luxton Museum dedicated to the First Nations. To find out more about the history of Banff go and see Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies.
WINTER Photography spots around banff
Winter in Banff National Park is absolutely magical, so there's no wonder, that renown photographers from all over the world are coming in cold winter months to freeze their fingers and toes to capture this beauty.
These are some of my favourite photography spots in Banff National Park and around:
- Vermillion Lakes
- Banff View Point
- Sulphur Mountain
- Castle Junction
- Johnston Canyon
- Marble Canyon
- Lake Louise
- Morant's Curve
- The Icefields Parkway
- Peyto Lake
- Bow Lake
- Three Sisters in Canmore
- Emerald Lake
Are you now inspired to visit Banff in winter? Or have you been here before? What was your winter experience like? Leave me a comment bellow or send me a message, I would love to hear from you :)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Martina is a professional photographer born in Czech Republic, based in Canada. She quit her well-paid job in the film industry to travel the world and live the life. She visited 70+ countries and when she is not exploring deserted islands in South Pacific or diving with whale sharks in Philippines, she's prospecting for some gold in New Zealand or scrambling peaks in the Canadian wilderness.