Encircled by the staggering peaks of the Canadian Rockies and snow-quilted forests, Banff offers an invigorating mix of adventures for a winter getaway. From restaurants to spas, wild skating to ski hills, you can’t go wrong when choosing any of these Banff winter activities to anchor your next visit.
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Banff Winter Activities
As much as some people aren’t a fan of winter, nothings beat diving into fluffy mounds of powder – especially if you’re open to trying some new-to-you Banff winter activities.
If you can’t get away from the snow this year, best to embrace it – and the frosty vibes that come with it. Here’s a comprehensive look at all the winter excursions that can not only transform your trip, but your mood.
Note: Some of these activities have changed slightly due to COVID-19. Always check travel restrictions and recommendations before you go both with the government and local tourism authorities Don’t forget your mask and check weather conditions before heading out.
One of the most stunning and popular areas in Banff National Park, Johnston Canyon is not to be missed. About a 25 km drive from Banff, this hike boasts two stunning waterfalls along the walkway.
In the winter months, the waterfalls freeze, making them perfect for ice climbing. If you aren’t an ice climber, you can still do this hike, but it’s best with traction cleats. The hike takes just over 2.5 hours for the whole thing, but it can be shortened by just walking up to the lower falls.
Beginner ice hikers can take a walking tour from Banff Adventures, Discover Banff Tours or White Mountain Adventures. These tours provide you with all of the necessary gear. Ice cleats are also available for rental at Snowtips-Bactrax in Banff.
To get to Johnston Canyon, you’ll need to take the Bow Valley Parkway. (Which sometimes is closed – so check ahead with Parks Canada.) The hike starts at the north end of the parking lot. If you’re going on a warmer day or on the weekend, go early. The parking lot fills up very quickly, especially in the summer.
Named for the two sulphurous hot springs found on its lower slopes, Sulphur Mountain is the towering beauty that looks out over Banff. Spending the day at Sulphur Mountain is a fantastic way to warm up to winter in the Rockies.
To get to the top, you can either hike (we’ve done it in winter) or take the wind-proof, Banff gondola. Once up at the top, the views will make up for any blasts of cold air. You’ll be privy to 360-degree views of the Rocky Mountains, the Bow Valley, and the town of Banff.
For some extra warmth and history, check out Banff Upper Hot Springs, located near the gondola parking lot. You can find out more about this, and other Alberta area hot springs in this post. (Check their website before visiting as it may be closed due to COVID.)
If you’re hiking Sulphur Mountain, expect a moderate hike with switchbacks. Once you’re at the top, visitors can walk the boardwalk to the Cosmic Ray Station, an old observatory to monitor the cosmos. One-way gondola trips are also possible for those who want to hike up and rest their legs on the way down. And definitely stay for a bite at Sky Bistro. It’s one of the best restaurants in Banff.
Downhill Skiing in Banff
Banff is perhaps best known for its downhill skiing resorts – many of which offer other activities, including tubing and snowshoeing. There are three ski resorts in Banff National Park to choose from.
A 20-minute drive from Banff Townsite lies Sunshine Village Ski Resort. If you’re planning on skiing a lot, check out the Sunshine Super Card. This card gives you three days of free skiing (your 1st, 4th and 7th visits), additional savings in the village and at Marmot Basin and Revelstoke Mountain.
Sunshine is the resort we ski at the most, so check out our posts on their lesson programming, the best routes to take depending on your arrival time and Slush Cup – a super fun party that wraps up the ski season each May.
Sunshine has the only ski-in, ski-out boutique hotel in Banff: Sunshine Mountain Lodge. There are a variety of room options, but the lofts have incredible views from floor to ceiling windows. Since you can’t park at the hotel, you’ll need to take everything up in the gondola.
One COVID restriction you need to know about is once their parking lot is full, they don’t allow vehicle access. Instead you can take the Sunshine shuttle bus to the resort or do as we do and show up a lunchtime to score rock star parking. See the best routes post linked above for more hacks.
Lake Louise Ski Resort
About a 40-minute drive from Banff, you’ll find Lake Louise Ski Resort. The resort has over 4200 acres of terrain and just added new terrain with the West Bowl and the Summit Chair. It’s also the first stop on the World Cup tour! Louise also offers lessons and a daycare services for children a year and a half and older.
During COVID, you must reserve your ski sport online in advance. If you plan on skiing a lot, consider the Plus Card, which nets you 3 free days and gives you 5 ski resort options where you can get 20% off lift-tickets.
Besides skiing, Louise has a tube park, snowshoe tours and gondola sight-seeing. The mountain is accessible by car or by shuttle, with buses running between hotels in Lake Louise, Sampson Mall and Banff. Kuma Yama their sushi and ramen bar is one of the best spots to eat at in Lake Louise.
Mt. Norquay Ski Resort
The closest ski hill to the town of Banff is Mt. Norquay. This resort has 60 runs that span 190 acres. Visitors can also visit the terrain park and the snow tubing area. Click on the link for more info on tubing at Norquay.
One thing that sets this resort apart is the night skiing options. Skiers can ski under the floodlights on either the mountain or the terrain park from 5-9pm on Friday and Saturday.
Norquay has some great options for two hour skiing and you can also check out the Big Drop card, which gets you 50% off all season long.
Due to COVID-19, all tickets must be purchased online in advance. There are also no shuttle busses running during this time and park access is only by car at this time.
Cross Country Skiing
Downhill skiing isn’t the only way to enjoy the snow! Cross country skiing is easy to pick up and feels almost meditative as you glide across snow drenched landscapes. One of the best spots for beginners is found up on Tunnel Mountain – a 5 minute drive from downtown Banff. Here’s an entire post dedicated to everything you’ll need to know about skiing Tunnel Mt.
If you need rentals you can find them at most sports rental places, including the Canmore Nordic Centre, Snowtips-Bactrax, and Ultimate Sports Banff. Book early!
Peter Lougheed Provincial Park
About an hour and a half outside of Banff lies Peter Lougheed Provincial Park. This park has tons of beautiful ski trails with varying ranges of difficulty. The park also has indoor bathrooms inside the information center.
You can visit the information center for more information about trails, including physical maps. Some of our favourite trails include Boulton Creek, Pocaterra and Lodgepole. Before heading out, be sure to check the trail info for updates, especially for avalanche warnings and animal sightings. No dogs are allowed on the trails, so leave those furry friends at home.
Moraine Lake Road
If you’d rather stay closer to Banff, try skiing the Moraine Lake Road trail. This one is in the Lake Louise area. The entire trail is 15.6 km and is track set. There’s also a skate skiing lane for those Nordic skiers out there. The trail climbs steadily and has some hills but isn’t considered a super difficult. No dogs are allowed here, either.
Canmore Nordic Centre
The Canmore Nordic Centre is about 26 minutes away from Banff. Unlike our other recommendations, you have to pay to use these trails. You can grab a trail pass at the day lodge.
And if you interested in night skiing, this is the place to go. Not only is it free to ski here after 5 pm, the Banff trail is illuminated until 9pm.
Within the grounds, there’s more than 65 km of groomed, machine-made and natural trails. If you’re new to cross-country skiing, the Nordic Centre offers ski lessons and ski rentals.
If you’re looking for a day-trip ski, check out Boom Lake. About an hour and a half outside of Banff, this 10.9 km out and back trail is good for all ski levels.
The trail encircles the lake and affords incredible views. You’ll definitely get a cardio workout as the trail climbs to 573 m. Dogs are allowed so long as they’re leashed.
Lake Louise Winter Activities
Just 45-minutes down the road from Banff, the town of Lake Louise is a winter wonderland with postcard pretty views, even more snow and some cozy restaurants.
Cross country skiing in Lake Louise
For cross country skiers, Lake Louise has lots of track set options of varying difficulties. The most popular routes include:
- Fairview (4.6km one-way, 60m rise in elevation, single track set)
- Tramline, which follows the old grade of the tramline that once connected the Chateau to the train station, (4.8km one way, 195m elevation gain, double track set)
- Lake Louise Loop (4.1km, 15m elevation gain, double track set).
- You can find all of the routes here.
Chateau Lake Louise Activities
Even if you aren’t staying there, be sure to visit the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. This stunning hotel overlooks the actual Lake Louise and also boasts gorgeous mountain views.
Hotel guests can walk right out the door and skate on the lake or ski on the nearby cross country trails. Guests also receive covered parking, access to the indoor pool and gear like traction cleats.
Dining at the hotel is also a wonderful treat. Visitors and guests alike can choose from a variety of options including quick bites at a coffee shop or a luxurious sit-down meal (fondue! afternoon tea!) with mountain views. The hotel also has a spa, perfect for relaxing after a long day.
Ice Skating in Banff
Whether you’re an expert skater or a beginner, skating is definitely a rite of passage for Canadians. In this National Park, you don’t have to travel very far to find a rink or wild surface to skate upon. Choose from one of these beautiful spots describe below, dress warm and enjoy.
Town of Banff
There’s an outdoor rink at The Fenlands, the town’s recreation complex. The rink is set in a meadow and it’s massive at 16,000 sq. ft. It’s open from 8am-8pm, there’s plenty of parking and you can score skate rentals, plus restroom facilities indoors. But if you do go indoors, you’ll have to provide proof of vaccination during COVID times.
Location: 100 Norquay Road, Banff.
Wild Ice Skating
In winter, many lakes in Canada freeze over, making them oh-so tempting to skate upon. Unlike man-made ice, there’s no guarantee the lake will be frozen or that it’s safe to skate on. Skate at your own risk and avoid the ice near docks, bridges or land, as the ice may be thinner.
Also know that winter weather can change quickly here, and the lakes may be much windier than the townsite. Some lakes might have open water, which can be dangerous for skaters. It’s always best to go with someone and stay on the most solid parts of the lakes.
Surrounding Banff are some beautiful lakes to skate on, including Vermillion Lakes, Johnson Lake, Two Jack Lake and Lake Minnewanka.
*Note: On the weekend of January 23, 2021, 4 people fell through the ice at Lake Minnewanka.
Perhaps one of the only remaining undiscovered skating spot in the national park, Carrot Creek Lake offers a quiet skate. This post has all of the info you need to skate here.
You can rent skates from plenty of places nearby, including Snowtips-Bactrax, Banff Adventures, Ultimate Sports, Chateau Mountain Sports (located in the Fairmont Banff Springs), Wilson Mountain Sports and Alpine Social Rentals (located in Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise).
Note: Not all natural ice surfaces are monitored. While it looks fun, it’s all too easy to break through the ice if it’s not thick enough. (According to Parks Canada, the ice should be a minimum of 15 cm thick.) Check out these ice safety tips from Parks Canada before attempting to skate on your own.
Dog Sledding in Banff
One of the most exhilarating ways to experience winter in Banff is by going dog sledding. Some tours even let you guide your own sled. These three are the most popular dog sledding tour companies in the area.
Howling Dog Tours, located in Canmore, offers both 2 or 4-hour dog sled tours. To limit traffic around the dogs, Howling Dog Tours arranges transportation for anyone staying in Banff or Canmore. Each tour includes transportation, snacks, hot beverages, a chance to try guiding the team and dog interaction.
Kingmik Dog Sled Tours is the only tour company that offers tours within Banff National Park. The company offers tours to the Continental Divide at Kicking Horse Pass (about 1.5 hours) or just a short journey into the woodlands. Currently, there’s no option to drive the sled due to COVID protocols, but you can still enjoy the ride and meet the dogs.
If you’re all in for a dog sledding adventure, check out Snowy Owl Sled Dog Tours. Located in Canmore, the company offers a range of sled tours from 2 to 8 hours and even has an overnight option. For the shorter trips, guests have the option to guide the sled themselves after a short lesson. The overnight option is self-guided and everything, including meals and tents, is included.
Banff Sleigh Rides
Could there be a better way to take in the winter wonderland of Banff National Park than by snuggling into a sleigh ride? We think not. Luckily, there are plenty of options to choose from.
Banff Trail Riders offer horse-drawn sleigh rides through Banff’s mountain meadows. Guests can choose from group rides or private rides. All the rides include hot drinks to enjoy by the campfire afterwards.
Private rides also come with a fleece blanket to keep and a s’mores kit. The tour includes views of Sulphur Mountain and some remote areas of Banff that are harder to reach by foot. Each sleigh ride departs from Sundance Road in Banff and last for 40 minutes.
For sleigh rides in Lake Louise, visit Brewster Adventures. These 10-person sleigh rides depart from Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. The 45–60-minute rides allow guests to sit back and soak up the fairytale landscape. Try a 7 pm sleigh-ride for some winter magic in the dark. Sleigh rides are available for private groups, 2-seaters or the normal group option.
Discover Banff offers several different packages. In addition to providing a 40-minute sleigh ride at various times of day, they also offer family (private) sleigh rides and a romantic couple’s sleigh ride that includes beverages and a s’mores kit.
Visitors can take advantage of their packages to get even more out of their winter trip. Traipse along the Grotto Canyon ice walk and then enjoy a relaxing sleigh ride back or take a sleigh ride to the Banff Gondola before being whisked up to the top of Sulphur Mountain. For a fun family option, consider tubing before snuggling into your sleigh ride.
Recommended Banff Hotels
After all that activity, that last thing you want to do is drive back home. Far better is to limp back to the warmth of one of Banff’s cozy hotels.
Elk and Avenue is ideally situated on Banff Avenue. Fall out of bed and walk to Banff’s boutiques, bars and restaurants. This hotel has recently undergone renovations and is moderately priced. We love how there’s a mini fridge in each guest room, their deep bathtubs, plus the cocktails and flatbread at their in-house restaurant: Farm & Fire.
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For a splurge, consider bedding down at the Rimrock Resort. Perched on Sulphur Mountain, this hotel isn’t situated directly in the townsite, but is steps away from the Banff Gondola and Upper Hot Springs. The Rimrock has some of the best guest room views of any hotel and boasts the only AAA/CAA 5 Diamond Award restaurant in Alberta: Eden dining room. Look for fantastic mid-week specials at the Larkspur Lounge, too.
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If you’re skiing at Sunshine, you can’t beat the convenience of staying at Sunshine Mountain Lodge. By staying on mountain, you’ll get access to first tracks, an outdoor hot tub (with bar service!), sledding and ski lockers.
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The castle in the Rockies, Fairmont Banff Springs is undoubtably the most famous hotel in the region. Because of its international reputation it’s one of the more pricy hotels in Banff, but the level of service is top notch. The Springs sports quite possibly the best outdoor hot tub in Banff and guests can also access the thermal pools of the Willow Stream Spa to soothe sore ski legs.
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