Snow-topped mountains. Hot springs. Ski resorts and cozy lodges. Dog sledding and sleigh rides underneath the Northern Lights. Banff National Park is a winter wonderland for outdoor adventure lovers and snow sports enthusiasts (or just like, people who really like frolicking in the snow, eating poutine, and maybe befriending a caribou or moose).
Visiting during Banff’s winter season will show you a sparkling, icy, snow-dusted side of the Canadian Rockies – all with fewer crowds and cheaper prices! Here’s everything you need to know to plan your Banff winter trip, including 12 of the best things to do in Banff during the winter.
Psst: Looking for more winter travel tips and inspiration? Take a look at some of our other posts:
- 25 Essentials for Cold Weather Travel: Winter Travel Packing List
- 10 Things to Do in Quebec City in the Winter: The Ultimate Quebec City Winter Guide
- The 4 Best Salt Lake City Ski Resorts for a Weekend Getaway
- 14 Things to Do in Montreal in the Winter: The Ultimate Montreal Winter Guide
Banff Winter Travel Tips
Visiting Banff in winter can be intimidating. I mean, you’re heading into the Canadian Rockies, some of the most stunning, wild, and rugged mountains on earth. If you’re me, that inspires an anxious mental association with every winter mountain survival story you’ve ever heard (or maybe that’s just me).
But take a deep breath and relax: visiting Banff in winter is MUCH easier than you think it is, and you definitely don’t need to worry! Here’s what you need to know to prepare for your Banff winter trip.
- How to get to Banff National Park in the winter? To get to Banff in the winter, you’ll need to fly into the Calgary Airport and drive about 1.5 hours down the Transcanada Highway – or as I like to call it, Highway to the Poutine Zone. Because it runs through all of Canada. Get it? I know, we’re the worst, and now that song will be stuck in your head for the rest of this post. There is good news, though …
- You don’t need to rent a car. You can get around Banff using public transit, even in the winter – and in fact, you’ll save more money this way! There are lots of shuttles to and from the Calgary Airport – this one is super affordable – and once you arrive in town, there are free shuttles to get you to each of the ski resorts, and an eco-friendly bus that will take you to most of the activities on our list for a mere $2 – just allow yourself a little extra time. If you’ve got room in your budget, you can book shuttles to anywhere you can’t access via transit. Another option would be to rent a car only for the days that you need it from one of the car rental providers in town – Hertz, Avis, and Enterprise have offices in town. Look at Kayak to price-compare all providers and get the best deal.
- If you do rent a car, get snow tires. Because we booked our flights at the crack of dawn, we were forced to rent a car rather than taking a shuttle. Coming from California, we were nervous about driving in the snow, so we opted to upgrade our rental for an all-wheel-drive vehicle with snow tires. Boy, are we glad we did! Although the highway was no trouble, the roads in town were often snow-covered as it snowed on and off during our trip – and our rental car handled it all with ease. Snow tires are an absolutely necessary expense if you’re renting a car in Banff during the winter!
- Check the road conditions. We are generally anxious people and were terrified of driving 1.5 hours from Calgary into the mountains in potentially icy conditions. But to our pleasant surprise, the highway was totally fine and free of snowy or icy conditions! Canadians know how to handle their snow: the highways well-maintained, even as we were navigating them in the dark (even at 4 am!). That said, it’s a good idea to check 511 Alberta for the road condition webcams, especially if you’re new to driving in snowy conditions and/or anxious head-cases like we are.
- Respect the wildlife. Banff is home to a LOT of wildlife, including elk, bears, wolves, mountain goats, caribou, and various other fluffy, adorable and also potentially dangerous wild animals. If you see any wildlife on the roadsides or while outdoors, be sure to stay 3 bus lengths away – and that rises to 10 buses from predators like bears or wolves! And do not, ever EVER touch or feed the wildlife or interfere with their natural habitat in any way. Doing so is harmful to them as well as all of the other animals in the park.
- Respect the wilderness. Always follow Leave No Trace principles when exploring the outdoors. Stay on marked paths, do not trespass, and do NOT venture out into the backcountry unless you’re a licensed, educated, card-holding backcountry badass. This is both for your safety and for the wellbeing of the National Park that you’re there to visit!
Psst: Planning to visit a few ski resorts this year? Check out the Epic Ski Pass, which includes unlimited access to this resort & a ton of others all over the world!
- Budget Travel Tip: Booked a flight yet? We recommend using Kayak to price-compare flight deals & dates before you book to save money on your flight.
What to Pack for Banff in the Winter
Packing properly for Banff is crucial to ensuring not just your safety, but your enjoyment. Ever heard that saying, “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing?” As snowflakes swirled around us in the mountains of Banff, I was reminded of that saying – and we stayed toasty warm the entire week.
In addition to keeping you warm as you explore in town, weatherproof clothing is especially important if you’re going to do outdoor activities like snowshoeing, skiing, or ice trekking. It gets cold AF in Canada in the winter and, in snowy or icy conditions, frostbite is a real threat. So, be sure to bundle up in your favorite warm wool sweaters, your winter parka, and waterproof winter boots! We’ve got all the details you need.
To maximize our packing efficiency and keep things to a carry-on-only level (yes, it’s possible to pack light for winter travel!), we’ve learned to be really selective about our textiles (thanks in no small part to my degree in Fashion Design, which taught me all about the scientific properties of a whole bunch of fabrics). For example, merino wool is super warm, incredibly soft (nope, it’s not itchy) and much more lightweight than synthetic fabrics, as well as being naturally antibacterial, which means you can re-wear it without the re-wear funk.
We recommend wearing a merino wool base layer underneath your clothing every day during your Banff winter trip – that means that the layer closest to your skin should all be made from merino wool. If wool isn’t your thing, wear an equally insulating textile like hemp or silk. Avoid non-insulating fabrics like cotton, and remember that natural fibers are pretty much always better than manmade textiles like polyester.
After your base layer, you’ll need to add on at least 1 additional layer before your outerwear, like a pair of pants and a sweater. On REALLY cold days, where the temperatures are below 10 degrees, we recommend adding on another base layer before your clothing layer & outerwear. And if you’re doing winter activities, add a waterproof layer as well, like lined snow pants. For more winter travel packing tips, head over to our Cold Weather Packing Guide.
Here are our tried and true travel essentials for winter travel.
- Merino Wool Base Layer Leggings: These super comfy 100% wool leggings function just like long underwear. They’re made of soft, super-luxurious wool and make your legs feel like they’re being hugged by an extremely soft sheep. Jeremy has this pair. You’ll need to wear these underneath your pants every day during your trip.
- Merino Wool Base Layer Undershirt: Laying is crucial when it’s this cold, and you’ll need to start with a layer of insulation on top and bottom. Although sometimes I can get away with a short sleeved or even sleeveless undershirt, in Canada we both needed to wear a layer of long-sleeved wool. This is mine and this is Jeremy’s.
- Wool Socks: Make sure you don’t just have run-of-the-mill acrylic socks for Banff – they won’t keep your feet warm while you’re out in the snow! Instead, bring socks that are primarily made of soft, heat-regulating wool, like these or these. I recommend 2 layers of socks – no more, no less.
- Warm Walking Boots: We recommend boots that can withstand ice or snow, are weatherproof and waterproof, and are comfortable enough to walk in for HOURS. Sounds darn near impossible, right? Well, it’s not. We’ve found the best boots for winter, and we’re OBSESSED with them (and yes, we both have the same ones. Because we’re kinda gross like that). They’re cute, they’re insanely comfortable, they’re waterproof leather and lined with shearling to keep your toes toasty warm, and they’re extremely lightweight and foldable so you can stuff them in your bag when you travel. Oh, and they have thin and flexible soles that let your feet function as if you were walking around in the cold completely barefoot! Note: you might find yourself in need of some calf strengthening if you’re not used to barefoot-style soles. We can’t recommend these boots enough, and they’re the only shoes we brought to Canada. They’re made to last and they’re worth every cent. Here are my boots and Jeremy’s boots. You can read more about them in our round-up of our favorite travel shoes for women or for men.
- Travel Jeans: My favorite travel jeans have 6 POCKETS. 6!! And 2 of them are zipped and hidden inside other pockets, for extra pickpocket protection. They’re super stretchy and buttery soft, dry quickly even after walking through the snow, and roomy enough to layer over an insulating base layer (or two). They’re cozy enough to wear on a plane, stretchy enough to accommodate that 5 extra pounds of holiday weight I always seem to bring back home with me, and they’re super cute! We’re both obsessed. You can get a pair of men’s or women’s jeans on the Aviator USA website.
- Warm Flannel Shirt: I’m in LOVE with the MerinoLux flannel button-down from Royal Robbins. It’s stretchy, it’s cozy, it’s blended with merino wool (yassss) and most importantly, it’s warm AF and super breathable. It’s also wrinkle-resistant, odor-resistant, and moisture-wicking, and has a hidden zip pocket – so basically everything you could ever ask for in a flannel shirt. I’ve been searching for the perfect flannel for YEARS (you know, like one that didn’t give me that annoying button-down boob gap and allowed me to actually cross my arms) and this is The One. I love it! Here’s mine and Jeremy’s.
- Lined Leggings: On very cold days, I add an extra layer of insulating warmth by throwing a pair of lined leggings on over my base layer and under my jeans (I’ve also worn them without extra pants on top of my base layer because leggings are real pants, fight me). I go for ones lined with merino wool.
- Warm Hat: A warm hat is an absolute necessity. It also doubles as a super cute accessory! Did I just rhyme? You want a hat that will stay on your head when it’s windy wind and keep your ears nice and warm – bonus points if it’s lined. Personally I’m a fan of the ones with poofs on top, like this or this. Jeremy is more of a purist, and likes to wear beanies like this one, which is made from earth-friendly recycled wool and nylon.
- Warm Coat: Your jacket is arguably the most important thing you’ll bring to Canada in the winter other than your shoes. It has a big job – namely, keeping you warm but not sweaty, allowing you to actually move your arms, and letting you explore for hours without feeling heavy or restrictive. Plus, it’s gonna be in almost all of your photos. I brought this this cozy fleece-lined coat with me, and Jeremy wears a wool-blend coat similar to this one and this one.
- Packable Down Jacket: Jeremy and I each bring two jackets each on our winter trips: our heavy/bulky coats, and a lightweight, travel-friendly packable down jacket. It’s perfect for those days when I want the freedom of not wearing a big heavy coat, and it’s also a fantastic added layer of warmth on super cold days. For this trip, I brought this down jacket and Jeremy brought this down jacket.
- Gloves: Don’t go outside in Canada in the winter without gloves on! Jeremy and I both have these wool gloves that work with touchscreens, because let’s face it, I have a hard enough time using my phone without wearing gloves. Over those gloves we layer on a thicker pair that allows us to do things like throw snowballs at each other.
- Scarves: I LOVE a chunky scarf. They’re my favorite accessory! I love this super soft scarf from Royal Robbins, which is blended with wool and turns into a cute shawl or infinity scarf with a few well-placed buttons. I’m also a big fan of scarves that are big enough to double as blankets, like this one or this one.
- Winter Sports Gear: If you’re planning to go skiing or snowboarding on your trip, bringing a few things can easily be packed in your suitcase will save you cash on rentals. We recommend these goggles and these gloves for snowboarding, and these travel-friendly crampons for snowshoeing.
- Sweatband Headphones: These amazing bluetooth headphones are sewn into a sweatband and lie totally flat, so you can listen to music without uncomfortably squishing earbuds into your ears or letting cold air into your helmet. The fabric is soft and warm, so your ears will stay toasty even when you take your helmet off! We were already obsessed with SleepPhones for long haul flights, but when we tried them out while snowboarding, everything changed! You can pick up a pair on the SleepPhones website – use code PW10 for $10 off your first purchase – or from Amazon.
Whew! That should keep you warm and toasty. Oh hey, want a printable version? Just sign up below and we’ll send a checklist straight to your inbox.
Printable Winter Packing List
This FREE 3-page printable packing list will help make sure you don't forget anything for your next winter trip. We'll also send you our favorite travel tips!
Things to Do in Banff in the Winter
Explore a Frozen Canyon
Banff is full of glacial rivers and waterfalls around every turn. And in the winter these waterways freeze over into magnificent ice formations which look like a mix between Frozen and Chronicles of Narnia. If you’ve never seen a frozen waterfall up close, it’s absolutely mind-bogglingly cool, and hands down one of the best things to do in Banff in the winter!
Although you can strap on some crampons like these and head onto the ice on your own, we strongly encourage you to book a tour. It’s much safer to go with an experienced guide who can help you navigate through potentially dangerous ice trails and winter conditions.
Here are two of Banff’s best frozen canyon tours:
- Johnston Canyon Icewalk: Johnston Canyon is one of Banff’s most popular hikes in the summer, but it gets even more cool during the winter (LOL GET IT). On this ice walk, you’ll weave through jaw-dropping frozen waterfalls cascading into an icy blue river along the edges of Johnston Canyon: both the popular Lower Falls and the grandiose “Cathedral of Ice” at the Upper Falls. We recommend booking this guided icewalk tour of Johnston Canyon, which comes with a professional ice trekking guide, crampon and equipment rentals, and peace of mind that you’re ice trekking in good hands – and that you won’t inadvertently skip some of the best views, which many self-guided visitors miss out on.
- Grotto Canyon Icewalk: This is an incredible canyon with steep rock formations, frozen waterfalls, indigenous wall art, and a gushing creek pathway that freezes in the winter – perfect for an icewalk! Take this half-day guided tour to explore Grotto Canyon with a professional guide, gear included.
Yup, that’s right, you can hop on a dogsled and dash through the snow in the mountains surrounding Banff, and it’s pretty epic. The indigenous Canadian Inuits were the pioneers of dog sledding in the Canadian Rockies, and it continued to serve as a vital transportation method into the early Banff settlements. That means that dog sledding in Banff is an awesome activity for learning about how locals lived for a long time in the Banff area, as well as, ya know, hanging out with cute dogs in the snow all day. With a long history steeped in cultural traditions, dog sledding is an incredible way to experience the park!
To get your sled on, Kingmik is the only local tour operator offering guided dog sledding tours in Banff National Park, which range in length from 30 minutes to a full day. From our research, it appears that Kingmik treats their dogs fairly and ethically, and the dogs are healthy and happy – they are born and bred to run in the snow, and they truly love it!
Learn about Banff’s History
You’ve probably seen Banff’s incredible landscape from Instagram, or maybe from movie scenes like The Revenant (although if you haven’t seen it, maybe don’t watch it before your trip). But beyond its stunning appearances, Banff has a fascinating history.
Much of the documented history of Banff focuses on the European settlers who slid through in the 17th century, but to truly understand the story of this place you’ll need to look back even earlier. The very first inhabitants of Banff were aboriginal people, the Stoney First Nations, who for over 10,000 years lived in the Banff region. They used the hot springs medicinally, drove dog sleds to get around the mountains in the winter, and hunted big game like elk and bison.
Once the Europeans arrived, the indigenous population worked with them as “guides,” helping the new settlers find their way around the rugged and sometimes hostile terrain of the mountains, giving them furs so they didn’t all die of the cold and teaching them how to hunt so they didn’t all die of starvation. How nice of them, we can now say with mirth and 24/7 hindsight. Thanks to the generosity of the local indigenous population, the settlers decided to stick around … and turn the area into a tourist destination.
In the 1880s, the Canada Pacific railroad was built, which connected the entire country of Canada (I like to call this “Train Ride to the Poutine Zone” annnnnnnd now it’s stuck in your head again, ‘welcome). With its very own train station, Banff became a popular destination for adventurous travelers who were drawn to the rugged mountains to do outdoorsy, explorer-y things with all the comforts of relative safety and a cozy place to sleep – er, much like folks who visit today. The castle-style Banff Springs Hotel, now a jaw-dropping Fairmont Hotel, was built for these European tourists (in a European-tourist-friendly castle style) – right on top of the hot springs that the indigenous people once used for healing. Rude.
As the area became a gold mine of tourism and rose in popularity among European travelers, Banff National Park was established and the indigenous people who once called the area home were forced out. And it wasn’t like, a passive, gentle forcing out either – they were literally kicked out to make way for tourists. Yikes.
That said, in the last 50 years, measures are starting to be taken to reverse the destruction and forced removal of aboriginal communities in Banff.
Since its inception as a tourist destination, Banff’s popularity has only grown. Today, Banff sees over 4-5 million tourists each year – and it only has around 9,000 permanent residents.
No matter its complicated and fraught backstory, it’s pretty incredible how well the beauty and wilderness of this stunning place has been maintained over the years!
Thirsty for more Banff history? Here are a few ways to get your nerd on (I mean that in a loving way, my fellow nerds).
- Ghost Hunting at the Banff Springs Hotel
The historic Banff Springs Hotel, which looks straight up like a fairytale castle, is one of Banff’s most iconic structures and has hosted many famed people throughout history, including Marilyn Monroe and Winston Churchill. But it’s not all fairytales and famous people here: some sources describe the hotel as one of the most haunted places in Canada.
There are plenty of ghosts to meet in the Banff Springs Hotel. Legend has it that in the 1920s, a bride fell down the stairs in the Banff Springs Hotel and died, either from her fall or because the stairs were all covered in candles for the #aesthetic and her dress caught fire (oof, that would totally be how my clumsy a** dies – I just like, fall down some stairs, stand back up like IT’S OKAY I’M OKAY but actually my dress is on fire). Anyway, whether she was unlucky or just clumsy (or both), these days she wanders around the staircases, dances in the ballroom, and makes weird, creepy noises in the bridal suite to freak out happy couples (again, exactly what I would do as a ghost). She is known as the Burning Bride.
Then there’s the story of room 873. If you explore the guest floors of the hotel – ideally late at night in complete darkness, but whatever – you’ll realize that every floor has a room ending in “-73” except the 8th floor, where there is mysteriously no room – just wall. The story is that this room was bricked over because a family of 3 was brutally murdered there. Some people claim that they can still hear screams coming from the room. You will never, ever find me anywhere near room 873, because even thinking about it terrifies me.
The Banff Springs Hotel is also home to the friendly ghost of Sam Macauley, who worked here as a bellman in the swingin’ 60’s. Nobody knows exactly what happened or when he died (my theory is he just got too blazed to notice he died, cuz ya know … 60’s) but apparently he just kept showing up to work in his horribly outdated 60’s uniform, helping guests get into locked rooms, turning on room lights, and helping carry bags – particularly on the 9th floor. If you try to start a conversation or attempt to tip Sam, he will vanish
into a puff of weed smoke.
- Explore Banff’s Museums
There are 8 museums in Banff, many of which focus on the history and development of Banff National Park and the surrounding regions. Here are a few that we recommend:
- Banff Park Museum: The oldest museum in western Canada, the Banff Park Museum has exhibits focusing on the wildlife living within the national park. It also teaches about how humans and development have impacted the delicate species living in the park.
- Canadian Ski Museum West: A museum entirely dedicated to the history of skiing in Banff and the surrounding areas, the Canadian Ski Museum West will definitely draw out the adventurer in you!
- Buffalo Nations Luxton Museum: This museum is focused entirely on indigenous ways of life, art, and traditions. An absolute must if you’d like to learn more about the original inhabitants of Banff.
Go Skiing or Snowboarding
Here’s the big question: how are the ski resorts in Banff? And the answer is: they’re dope. Go to Banff. End of blog post.
OK, fine. We’ll add more.
Pick up your pass along with some top-shelf quality gear at Ski Big 3 Adventure Hub, located conveniently on Banff Ave. The helpful experts at the shop will help you get properly geared up and even deliver your gear right to your hotel!
The closest resort to town is Mt. Norquay, located 5 minutes away from town. One of my favorite things about Mt. Norquay is that the resort has an intuitive and well designed layout. It may seem like a small thing, but it makes for a better experience overall. As someone who struggles on blues, it’s always disheartening to feel like my lack of speed is crowding more expert skiers and riders. This could also be due to my crippling anxiety and how I was brought up to always feel like I’m inconveniencing people and oh right this isn’t therapy sorry. Thankfully, Mt. Norquay is laid out in such a way that I can relax and enjoy the ride at my own (snails’) pace.
If you’re a beginner (like me), the middle of the resort is (almost) exclusively green runs. The blues are all at the north end of the resort, and the black diamonds hang out on the south end.
As a super profresh blogger, I can’t play favorites. Therefore, I can’t tell you that Banff Sunshine was my favorite of the three Ski Big 3 resorts. It’s not, like, ethical journalism. Is that still topical? Anyway, each resort has its pros and cons and they’re all great. … And now let’s talk about why Banff Sunshine is awesome.
Banff Sunshine is a journey in and of itself. When you walk up, you are greeted with a gondola… but no runs in sight. Wait, what?
To quote Fat Joe, hop on that gondola cuz you’re goin’ all the way up. The gondola ride to get to the main hub of Sunshine Village is a meandering 20 minute long feast for the eyes as you ascend above snow-covered trees and through the mountains. If you’re not the snow-sports type, you can actually buy a sight-seeing pass just to ride the gondola and enjoy this absolutely stunning view without any of the effort.
Sunshine Village is a collection of three mountains: Goat’s Eye, Lookout, and Standish, in order from difficult to easy. The layout of the resort truly feels like a ski and snowboard playground, with a new lift (and therefore access to more runs) around every corner.
Sunshine Village also has one of my favorite (and longest) Ski-Out runs I’ve ever done: Banff Ave. This monster of a run – monster in terms of length…it’s actually super easy – will curve along the gondola you took up and spit you outright at the parking lot. It’s a great way to either end the day or get you stoked to go back up!
Unfortunately, I’m not the only one who’s low-key obsessed with Banff Sunshine. This resort is popular with a capital P, and like, a musical number. The mountain itself is able to accommodate the crowds with no trouble, but the road leading up to it gets a bit … trafficky. Think like, an hour sitting in standstill traffic just watching all that powder fall tantalizingly around you. It’s torture! To avoid the crowds, you’ll want to arrive either before 9am or afternoon (or just stay on the mountain to avoid the whole thing altogether). Another tip: to avoid the long walk from the parking lot to the gondola, take the free resort shuttle.
Lake Louise Resort
Lake Louise Resort is about 45 minutes to an hour away from Banff but it is so worth it. Every twist, turn, lift, and jump greets you with gigantic rocky peaks in the distance that remind you why this is truly one of the most beautiful national parks on earth. Seeing the sun break through the clouds over Mt. Temple felt like a religious experience (get it?? I’m here all week, folks).
The Lake Louise lodge and rental buildings are located close together, but on the mountain everyone spreads out nicely to make you forget how popular this place is. As for the runs, Lake Louise is a crowd pleaser resort, with long and fun rides for every skill level!
And as an added bonus, the resort has one of the most cozy and comfortable lodges I’ve ever seen. Grab a fireside seat on a couch and order a plate of mini Yorkshire puddings, best enjoyed with extra gravy and a Mary Berry impression (“Now THAT’S a good pudd!”).
Relax in a Thermal Bath
After a long day of ice-walking, snowshoeing, ice skating, snowboarding, or just plain frolicking in the snow, all your body will want is to relax, preferably somewhere warm and steamy. Because the only thing better than frolicking in the snow is warming up afterwards, and hot water is the perfect answer to sore, aching muscles! Luckily, Banff has exactly what you need at the Upper Hot Springs
Visiting the Upper Hot Springs during a snowstorm was one of our favorite experiences in Banff. The giant thermal pool begins indoors (so you don’t have to brave the cold to get into the water) but then continues outside. The large pool offers a shallow area for waders and a deep end for full immersion – and the entire pool is a comfortable 100 degrees in the winter, all naturally heated. You’ll want to bring a bathing suit, but if you don’t, you can rent a kitschy old-fashioned one in the style of an 1800’s bather. Towels are also available for rent, or bring one yourself to save a little more money. And don’t forget to bring a water bottle! Soaking in the hot springs can leave you parched, and cold water is important to help your body get the most out of your soak.
During the winter, the Upper Hot Springs are open from 10 am-10 pm during the week and until 11 pm on Friday and Saturday nights. We recommend arriving early in the morning or staying late to avoid crowds. The cost to enter is under $10, or if free if you book a Ski Big 3 lift ticket for three or more days.
- History Note: The Banff hot springs were used for thousands of years by the aboriginal people who lived in this area, but the minute that European settlers arrived, they were turned into tourist attractions. Back in the day, a visitor to Banff could have gone swimming in a thermal bath inside a cave at Cave & Basin, also known as the Lower Hot Springs. Today, the site is a protected national historic site – you can visit the cave and feel the heat rising from the water as you learn about the area’s history, but you can’t swim inside.
There are tons of other hot pools in Banff, boasting sweeping views of mountains and stars, but it looks like most of them are hotel amenities that aren’t open to the public. Here’s a list of the best hot pools in Banff. Let us know if you figure out a way to visit them!
Visit Lake Louise
You’ve probably seen photos of Lake Louise on Instagram (or in your most beautiful alpine dreams). In the summer, Lake Louise is a giant turquoise-colored lake surrounded by snow-capped mountains. But get that image out of your head, because in the winter, the lake freezes completely, covering up that stunning glacial blue water – and chasing away the hordes of tourists that are usually crowding its banks taking that one photo in a canoe (I’m not mad, I’m just salty that I don’t have one).
The result is a massive frozen lake surrounded by craggy mountains and one epic, stunning Fairmont Hotel – plus a TON of room for activities! Here are some of our favorite ways to experience Lake Louise in the winter.
Take a Horse-Drawn Sleigh Ride
What’s more magical than a horse-drawn sleigh in the winter? Yup, basically nothing. You can add some winter cheer to your adventure in Banff by taking a horse-drawn sleigh ride around Lake Louise.
It’s basically like a fairytale: they put you in a beautiful, elaborately-decorated sleigh and give you cozy blankets to stay warm as you merrily romp through the frosty evergreens around Lake Louise. Sleigh rides depart from the Fairmont Lake Louise on a set schedule throughout the day between December and April.
Ice Skate on the Lake
Ice skating at Lake Louise is a perfect activity to add to your winter in Banff bucket list. The Lake Louise skating rink, located right on top of the frozen lake in front of the Fairmont Lake Louise, has won numerous awards for being an incredibly gorgeous and world-famous skating rink.
Once you arrive, lace up your skates – or rent some from the Fairmont. Whether you’re holding hands and cozied up with your significant other or you spend most of your time falling on the ice and flailing your arms around like a toddler in a giant puffy snowsuit trying to stand back up (me), it’s one of the most iconic Lake Louise activities to try.
Fair warning, though: there are no handrails. Or heated tents. Or bleachers. It’s just like, a spot on a frozen lake. So if you’re not used to outdoor ice skating, prepare yourself!
Hike (or Snowshoe) the Trails
Lake Louise has plenty of trails that can be enjoyed year-round! You’ll need to snap on some crampons or snow shoes and bundle up, but you can still hike many of the trails near Lake Louise even in the winter. If you don’t have your own winter-friendly hiking gear, you can rent some from Wilson Mountain Sports.
A few of the trails typically open during the winter months are Saddleback Pass, Fairview Mountain, the Lake Agnes Trail and the Lake Louise Lakeshore Trail. The latter two begin right off of the parking lot of the Fairmont Lake Louise. Here are more options & more information.
Important Safety Note: Be sure to check the snow and trail conditions at the Lake Louise Visitor Center before hiking, as certain conditions may make trails impassable and put you at higher risk of danger. You’ll also need to know when to stop and turn around – for example, if you continue past the lake on the Lake Louise Lakeshore trail, you’ll be in avalanche territory. But if you turn around by the lake, you’re fine. If you’re new to winter hiking, we strongly recommend taking a guided tour with an experienced hiking guide who can help you learn to hike in icy conditions.
Warm Up at an Ice Bar
I know you’ve probably had a drink “on the rocks,” but what if your drink was literally made on the rocks? At the Fairmont Lake Louise Ice Bar, you can watch your drinks being made at a bar that’s completely made of ice – 6,000 pounds of it! A visit to the Ice Bar is one of the most unique and awesome experiences you can have in Banff in the winter, so definitely take a peek if you’re around when it’s open on the weekends.
At the Ice Bar, you can enjoy an ice cold cocktail, a drink on the rocks, or a warm one like their signature Mulled Wine. Don’t drink alcohol? No problem! They also have hot chocolate and, during our visit, free maple taffy, too!
One of the most fun activities to do while you’re visiting Banff in the winter is to strap on some snowshoes and hit the trails. Snowshoeing is exactly like hiking, except on top of the snow – very little athleticism is required (much to my relief). You’ll see peaceful evergreen forests and breathtaking views of the snow-capped Canadian Rockies around you.
If you’ve never snowshoed before, we strongly recommend joining a snowshoeing tour like this one or this one. With a tour, you’ll not only get a guide who can help you get set up in your snowshoes and teach you how to move around properly in them, but you also don’t need to worry about navigating a snowy trail, getting lost, avoiding wild animals, or other reasonable and anxiety-inducing things that can happen when you’re exploring the rugged wilderness in the winter. Plus, it’s fun to have a local insider to show you around the best winter snowshoeing trails Banff has to offer!
If you’re like “nah, Lia I’m an expert, chill,” there are several snowshoeing trails in Banff that you can explore, and even more in nearby Lake Louise. Here are a few well-trafficked (read: not remote, and easy to follow) trails that sound incredible:
- Stewart Canyon: A popular trail for beginners, Stewart Canyon is a gorgeous valley with the frozen Cascade River running through it. You can snowshoe along the river, which feeds into the peaceful Lake Minnewanka, taking in the gorgeous mountain views while you’re there. This route is 3km round trip.
- Johnson Lake Loop: Located in a frosty forest area, the Johnson Lake trail is a leisurely 3km loop around the picturesque Johnson Lake. You’ll meander through evergreen forests at the base of the stunning Rocky mountains. Keep an eye out for animal tracks!
- Johnston Canyon: In the winter, the raging waterfalls of Johnston Canyon turn into giant, light blue frozen icicles that you can see by snowshoe. There are two sets of falls you can snowshoe to here – the Lower and Upper Falls – on this easy and popular snowshoeing trail. Distance: 2.2 km round trip to the Lower Falls, 5.4 km round trip to the Upper Falls
- Spray River East: A less-popular but stunningly beautiful trail, Spray River East is part of the longer Spray River Loop trail. It’s full of giant ice formations and frosted evergreens, and if you’re lucky, you might just get the entire trail to yourself. Distance: The whole Spray River Loop is 12.7 km long, but you can just do the East side, which is substantially shorter.
Psst: not to be a nag, but before you go snowshoeing, be absolutely sure you have a sturdy, thick winter coat, gloves, a warm hat and scarf, waterproof boots, and several warm and weatherproof layers to stay warm and dry on the trails. The weather in the mountains can be very temperamental – sunny one minute and a literal blizzard the next. If you’re unsure what to bring with you to stay warm, check out our cold weather packing post for more details.
Take in the View
With mountains for miles around, there are epic views all over Banff and the surrounding areas. Atop the area’s viewpoints, you can catch some breathtaking panoramas of the surrounding mountains and valleys, all covered with white snow and shimmering blue in the winter light. The best times to catch bird’s eye views of Banff in the winter is on clear days, during sunrise, or during sunset, when the sky often burns orange above the blue and gray mountains before fading into night.
Imagine that you’re driving along a road, turn a corner, and BOOM! – there’s an incredible view just around the bend. This is exactly what the appropriately-named Surprise Corner is. Here, you can soak in the iconic views of the stunning Banff Springs Fairmont Hotel, which looks like a castle nestled amidst an evergreen forest.
While there’s no sign and it’s not an ~official landmark, there is a pull-off area for cars where you can park and admire the views of the hotel and the steaming springs below. If you brought your travel crampons with you or the snow is nice and crunchy, there are hiking trails branching out from the parking lot – perfect for exploring!
Surprise Corner is only about a 5-minute drive from Banff town.
If your feet are tired from hiking, skiing, or snowshoeing, you can still see amazing views of Banff on a leisurely 8-minute ride on the Banff Gondola all the way up to the top of Sulphur Mountain. Before you buy your ticket, be sure that the weather conditions are clear, otherwise you might be looking out over a blanket of snow and fog!
Once you arrive at the top, you’ll find a couple of restaurants and a large observation deck. But the best views are found outdoors along the Parks Canada Vista Trail, aka the Banff Skywalk. It’s an easy self-guided interpretive walk along a boardwalk built on the summit ridge leading to Sanson’s Peak, upon which is perched a very old Meteorological Observatory. The views are stunning, and not too many folks seem willing to venture out into the cold for a tiny hike, which means you’ll have the spot all to yourselves! Just … you know, bundle up, gloves, hat, scarves, etc. It’s REALLY cold on top of the mountain.
From the top, you can see panoramic views of the park, including the town of Banff and the surrounding peaks. On especially clear nights, the Banff Gondola is a perfect location for romantic stargazing, boasting views of the stars and sometimes even the Milky Way!
The Banff Gondola ride costs $49-58 CAD and is open every day during the winter. You can buy tickets online before you go.
The Peyto Lake viewpoint is easily one of the most beautiful in the entire Canadian Rockies. Located off of the Icefields Parkway, you can drive right up to this spectacular lookout point, which has views of the turquoise Peyto Lake down below, hugged by towering mountaintops in the background.
One of the most picturesque spots in all of Banff for the sunrise is at Vermillion Lakes. When they’re not frozen, these lakes have perfectly still water that, on clear mornings, boast the most stunning and clear reflections of the surrounding mountains. Before deciding to make the sunrise trek to the lakes, check to see whether or not they’re currently frozen over – during our visit, the lakes were frozen over and snowy and looked like a snowy field – still pretty, but not exactly the view we were hoping for.
When you’ve chosen the perfect morning to go, bundle up and head to Vermillion Lakes before sunrise (don’t worry, it’s a pretty short drive from town). If the conditions are just right, you might be rewarded with one of the most spectacular sunrises you’ve ever seen.
Where to Stay in Banff
We stayed at the charming Canalta Lodge, a surprisingly affordable hotel located a 15 minute walk from town with – and this was a major selling point for us – a Nordic spa in the courtyard. We’re talking 2 giant hot tubs with different temperatures, a cold tub (in case jumping out of the hot tub into the freezing cold, snowy air isn’t enough for you) and a sauna!
I fell in love with Nordic spa-ing during my trip to Norway, and I know it sounds awful, but it actually is SO nice. (That said, full disclosure: I was only able to make myself get into the cold tub up to my calves. But also it was SNOWING so I feel like that counts.)
In addition to the Nordic spa set up, there’s also a daily hot chocolate bar (!!!!) and a cute little coffee shop in the lobby. Breakfast is included, pets are allowed, and if you’re one of those people who works out while on vacation, there’s a gym, too. Considering the price we paid (mid-week in early January, but still) those amenities were above and beyond our expectations!
You can check Canalta Lodge’s availability & pricing for your dates on Booking.com.
I want to leave you with a cozy image because, honestly, I took a zillion snowy photos of the lodge and I want to show you all of them. But here are my two favorites. Look how cozy, y’all!
The Samesun Hostel in Banff is a budget friendly alternative that will help keep costs down while you fuel your skiing and snowboarding hobby. It is very much a hostel vibe with their popular ‘Beaver Bar’, and there are fireplaces in every room to keep you super cozy.
If a vacation rental is more your vibe there are some great VRBOs in Banff you should check out, for the resort feel there is this condominium with access to hot tubs and all the features of a fancy resort! Or stay at this private studio — just a 10-minute walk from Banff’s shops and dining. Enjoy a private patio and spectacular views.
We recommend booking directly through VRBO because it has fewer fees and more flexible cancellation policies than Airbnb – also, we’re not fans of Airbnb’s unethical track record and lax security.
Are you dying to bundle up and hit the slopes on a Banff winter trip? Which of these epic things to do in Banff in the winter are you most eager to try? Drop us a comment below!
Looking for more winter travel tips and inspiration? Take a look at some of our other posts:
- 25 Essentials for Cold Weather Travel: Winter Travel Packing List
- 10 Things to Do in Quebec City in the Winter: The Ultimate Quebec City Winter Guide
- The 4 Best Salt Lake City Ski Resorts for a Weekend Getaway
- How to Plan an Amazing Lake Tahoe Winter Trip (on a Budget)
Psst: Want more Canadian travel inspiration? You can see everything we did in Quebec City, Montreal, and Banff in an Instagram Story highlight located on our profile.
Did you find this post useful? Save it to refer to later on Pinterest!
Disclaimer: Some activities during our visit were graciously provided to us by Ski Big 3 and Banff & Lake Louise Tourism. Any opinions, inaccuracies, preferential ski resort treatment, insinuations that you should eat poutine 3x a day, bad jokes and/or irritating song lyrics are entirely our own and absolutely not their fault.
Printable Winter Packing List
This FREE 3-page printable packing list will help make sure you don't forget anything for your next winter trip. We'll also send you our favorite travel tips!