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Banff is as much a winter destination as a summer destination. In fact, I love Banff in the wintertime so much I try to make a visit there every chance I get. I even moved to Canmore one winter in order to be closer to this breathtaking place.
Banff is located in the heart of the Canadian Rockies. The town itself is surrounded by 6,641 square kilometers (2,564 square miles) of stunning national park home to wildlife, epic mountain peaks, and so many lakes that it’s hard to count.
A lot of people simply visit Banff to go skiing and snowboarding, but that barely scratches the surface of what Banff can offer in winter! When it comes to the best things to do in Banff in winter, there are a ton – 40 to be exact!
If you’re looking for the ultimate winter vacation, Banff really has it all! And in this blog, I’ll share the best things to do on a winter visit to Banff that’ll make planning your upcoming visit easy! But first, some tips on visiting Banff in winter…
About Banff National Park in Winter
Banff National Park was first established in 1885 to protect the nearby hot springs, however, in 1877 the park was enlarged and became Canada’s first-ever national park (pretty cool!) That caused a ripple effect and there are now 5 national parks within Canada’s Rockey Mountains. This meant a large portion of this stunning range was protected and since then, wildlife in the region has had a place to safely call home.
Later, the park (along with the 4 other national parks) became a UNESCO World Heritage site called the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks. This was partly due to the Burgess Shale Cambrian fossil sites and Precambrian sites. These sites tell the story of the earth’s evolution.
Every year around 4 million people visit Banff National Park to enjoy the great outdoors and get amongst unique wildlife. It’s truly one of the most beautiful places to visit in Canada and without a doubt the most popular.
Winter in Banff technically runs from December until the end of February, however, the winter season begins as early as November and finishes in May. This is one of the longest ski seasons in Canada!
Banff Winter Weather and What to Pack
Banff is a cold place in winter (like, really cold!) For that reason, it’s important to prepare yourself accordingly. In fact, without packing the right gear, you’ll struggle to enjoy many of the best things to do in Banff during the winter. I mean let’s face it, most of the best activities are outside.
So, how cold does it get?
In the peak winter season from December through to February temperatures are well below zero almost all the time. During the day expect averages of around -5 °C (23°F) and at night averages of -14 °C (6.8°F). With that said daytime and nighttime temperatures can drop to -30 °C (-22°). In fact, January is generally the coldest month and you should expect some -20 °C (-4°) to -30 °C (-22°F) weather.
Thankfully, Banff has a rather dry cold temperature so with the right clothing you can stay warm. So what should you bring?
Starting from the inside out, it’s best to have some really good underlayers. Long johns and a long sleeve shirt that fits tight to the body will help a lot. Just make sure they are a good material such as merino wool. To go with your base layer some warm socks are necessary and you might even want two layers.
After your base layer, you’ll want some warm winter boots. Although hiking boots are okay, most aren’t insulated enough when you’re not active. Winter boots with good insulation are a lifesaver.
For pants, some days you can get away with jeans over your long johns, however, for the colder days ski pants work really well. Be sure to get a pair you enjoy wearing. A winter coat as well as some other jacket and hoodies so you can layer up and down. Last is gloves and a warm tuque. Honestly, the more layers the better.
Things to do in Banff in Winter
1. Go skiing or snowboarding
Let’s start out with the most obvious and popular thing to do in Banff in winter – skiing and snowboarding! I myself ski and my partner snowboards and together we just love hitting the slopes around Banff. In Banff, you’re spoilt for choice when it comes to world-class ski resorts.
Here are some popular resorts around Banff:
Mt Norquay is the closest ski resort to Banff town. In fact, it’s only a 13-minute drive away. The ski hill offers some of the best views over Banff and is also open for night skiing. Mt Norquay isn’t the largest resort in the area and the runs to me aren’t the best. I find it suited to beginners or those not looking to ski an entire day.
Although not my favorite hill, the price for a full-day lift ticket is $74 CAD for adults, $56 for youth, $29 for children, and $56 for seniors. That’s cheap for Banff. The closest hotel to the resort is The Juniper Hotel & Bistro.
Sunshine Ski Resort is located in the heart of Banff National Park 20 minutes from Banff. As the name suggests, they’re known for the sunny weather and have a wide variety of runs for beginners and experts alike. The ski resort is really good for advanced skiers and snowboarders with lots of black and double black runs. Although there are plenty of green runs too, most have flat spots which are not good if you’re still not comfortable going really fast.
A lift ticket costs $127 CAD for adults, $99 for youth, $49 for children, and $99 for seniors. You can also stay at the ski resort and ski in and ski out every day. The Sunshine Mountain Lodge is a luxurious hotel only meters from the chairlifts. You can stay here in both summer and winter.
Lake Louise is the furthest ski hill from Banff at 40 minutes away. With that said, it’s one of the largest in Canada with a 935-meter verticle descent, 7 ski lifts, and 142 kilometers of groomed ski runs. It’s perfect for beginners, intermediates, and pros. I love the tree runs around Lake Louise and with so much resort to explore it will keep you busy all day. Oh, and on the colder days, the gondola is a lifesaver!
Adult lift tickets start at $129 CAD with a half-day option at $99. Youths cost $99, children $49, and seniors $99. If you want to stay close to the resort you’ll need to book a hotel in Lake Louise Village.
I have been lucky enough to ski at all the ski resorts above. So, which one is my favorite?
Well, in all honesty, I love Lake Louise the most. The ski area is huge and I love the terrain. Plus the gondola really saves you from the cold! My second choice would have to be Sunshine Village. It also has great terrain and the views are spectacular. For beginners though, I don’t recommend it. Instead, head to Mt Norquay where you can learn for just over half the price.
Regardless of where you go, skiing in Banff is a must-do in winter!
Related read: Skiing is also one of the best things to do in Whistler in winter!
2. Soak in the Banff Upper Hot Springs
The Banff Upper Hot Springs are a crowd favorite during winter in Banff. I mean, who wouldn’t want to warm up in a natural hot spring with breathtaking views over the Bow Valley?
This magical hot spring is run by Parks Canada and costs less than $9 CAD to visit which makes it affordable to everyone. This, however, means the springs can get pretty crowded and my advice is to visit first thing in the morning when the springs open at 10:00 am. In fact, get in line at 9:45 am so you can get through the gates and enjoy the pools before the crowds arrive.
The Banff Upper Hot Springs are open from Friday to Tuesday (currently) and close at 6:00 pm with the last entry at 5:00 pm. The springs are located up Sulphur Mountain near the Banff Gondola and although there is a large parking lot at the springs, it can fill up during busy periods. Regardless, this is a must-do in Banff!
3. Ride the Banff Gondola up Sulphur Mountain
At the top of Sulphur Mountain, you get arguably the most spectacular view of Banff town and the surrounding Mountains. Seriously, it’s a 360-degree view that gets better every time I go!
The easiest way to the top is to take the famous Banff Gondola. With it, you can give your legs a break and enjoy a 10-minute ride up the side of a mountain. If you really want to stretch those legs, don’t worry, there’s a boardwalk at the top that leads to an old weather station and an even better view of the valley below. If you don’t want to take the gondola then you can hike the Sulphur Mountain Trail.
Aside from the boardwalk, you can enjoy a meal at the Sky Bistro, let the kids explore the Above Banff interpretive center, visit the Above Banff Theater (free with a gondola ticket), get a coffee at Castle Mountain Coffee, or shop at the gift shop.
The Banff Gondola hours of operation have been changing recently, however, in winter the gondola usually opens at 11:00 and closes at 4:00 pm on weekdays and 8:00 pm on weekends. They also close Tuesdays and Wednesdays, except around Christmas. You can check their updated hours here before you go.
Related read: One of my favorite times to head up Sulphur mountain is during fall in Banff.
4. Day trip to Lake Louise
Lake Louise is a small alpine lake located within Banff National Park. Surrounded by mountains and wildlife, the lake and village nearby have become one of the most popular places to visit in Canada. In fact, because of all the amazing things to do, Lake Louise is a winter destination all on its own.
During winter, the lake freezes over and becomes one of the most beautiful places to ice skate in the world. The ice skating area is maintained by the Fairmont Château Lake Louise – one of the most luxurious hotels in the Rocky Mountains. Because of this, the ice is usually in great condition.
The best part is that if you have your own skates this activity is completely free (besides that paid parking.) If you don’t, be sure to rent them in Banff or at Alpine Social Rentals at Lake Louise. The ice skating rink usually opens in mid-December until mid-April.
Another popular reason to visit Lake Louise is to visit the Ice Castles. These beautiful ice sculptures are made every year and sit on the frozen lake. Kids love them and they’re also completely free. On top of that, you can cross country ski around the lake (also free), enjoy a horse-drawn sleigh ride ($45 for adults and $35 for children), have a coffee or meal at the hotel, or just enjoy the magnificent views.
It takes around 40 minutes to reach lake Louise from Banff but the drive itself is beautiful. In fact, why not take the scenic route there and drive the Bow Valley Parkway – another epic thing to do on this list!
There is a lot of paid parking available at the Lake Lousie foreshore, though it can fill up during busy times (weekends and public holidays). My advice is to arrive early in the morning (around 8 am). This will ensure you get a parking spot at the lake.
5. Johnston Canyon Ice Walk
Another way to take in the spectacular wintertime scenery in Banff is to do the Johnston Canyon Icewalk. This famous attraction is open all year round but without a doubt, winter is the best time to go.
The Johnston Canyon Icewalk starts around 30 minutes from Banff on the Bow Valley Parkway. From the parking lot, you’ll walk a 2.5-kilometer trail/boardwalk to the upper falls (ice cleats are recommended.) You can also stop at the lower falls and turn around for a shorter, 1.3-kilometer walk. Along the way, you’ll spot frozen waterfalls and huge icicles. Afterward, simply turn around and head back the way you came.
For those who want to learn more or don’t have their own gear, you can book a Johnston Canyon Icewalk tour. This specific tour is 4 hours long and includes transport to and from the canyon as well as an expert guide, ice cleats, and hiking poles. You’ll enjoy the views of frozen waterfalls and icicles while walking along the steel walkway. The tour is $88 CAD and includes a hot chocolate and a maple cookie snack at the end!
6. Go tubing at Mt Norquay
Not a skier or snowboarder but still want to hit the slopes? Then be sure to head up to Mt Norquay and get yourself a ticket for their mountain tubing. I myself was skiing away when I saw it and just had to give it a go. I loved it!
Mt Norquay has the longest tube lanes in Alberta and you get some serious speed! The best part is the entrance to the tube park is only $39 CAD for adults and $34 for kids. With that, you can pretty much go as many times as you want.
The tube park is open during winter from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm every day with night tubing from 5:00 pm to 8:00 pm on Friday and Saturday. This can change so always check before you go.
7. Go Ice Climbing in Johnston Canyon
If sliding down a hill on an inflatable tube is not intense enough, try ice climbing! It’s definitely an adventure and a really unique wintertime activity in Banff. Ice climbing can be challenging and dangerous if not approached carefully, so joining a tour is the only way to do it safely for beginners.
This tour is a full-day adventure that helps people of all experience levels try out ice climbing. An expert guide will walk you through all the basics of the gear and how to climb, and then you’ll climb a frozen waterfall yourself. The tour costs $186 CAD and leaves from Banff town. You’ll set off at 8 am and the tour lasts around 8 hours. There’s also a two-day experience available for the more serious climbers.
8. Drive the Bow Valley Parkway
The Bow Valley Parkway is a highway that stretches between Banff and Lake Louise and is one of the most spectacular in Canada. Driving it is without a doubt one of the best things to do in Banff in winter. The 50-kilometer-long highway takes around 1 hour to drive without stopping but allowing half a day is recommended. As I said, do it on your way to Lake Louise!
Above I talked about Johnston Canyon but below are other amazing stops on the Bow Valley Parkway in winter!
Castle Mountain Viewpoint – Castle Mountain is one of those mountains you simply can’t miss. At the roadside viewpoint, you get amazing views, however, those who want a closer look can hike 6.5 km (4 miles) out and back to another viewpoint.
Morant’s Curve – In winter, this is my favorite place to photograph. Morant’s Curve is a famous viewpoint (pictured above) in the Bow Valley where the train passes through the valley. It’s stunning and a must-visit!
Moose Meadows – Moose Meadows isn’t home to many moose these days but with spectacular views, it’s a nice place to stop.
Baker Creek Mountain Resort – Looking for a beautiful cabin getaway? The Baker Creek Mountain Resort is the perfect place to stay on the Bow Valley Parkway. Choose a romantic Jacuzzi Suite for couples or a one-bedroom loft for families!
In winter, you should drive the Bow Valley Parkway with caution and winter tires are required.
9. Go dog sledding
If you are looking for a truly unique experience, dog sledding should be on your list. It’s fast-paced, fun, and the best way to experience the winter wonderland of Banff National Park.
The only way to go on this kind of adventure is on a tour. Snowy Owl Sled Dog Tours Inc offers some amazing sledding tours from Banff. They offer a 2-hour tour, 4-hour tour, 8-hour tour, and even an overnight tour!
I actually did my dog sledding tour in Canmore, but most tours are similar. The important part is choosing a great company that cares for their dogs (the most important part of the experience!)
On the trip, we took a 10-kilometer trail through Spray Lakes Provincial Park stopping halfway along the way to meet the dogs and play with them. Then after a quick hot chocolate, we made our way back. I was really sad to say goodbye to our crew.
Pricing starts at $260 CAD/person (based on two people going) for a 2-hour tour.
This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so savor every moment of it!
10. Go on a scenic flight
Want to see the Rockies from the best seat in the house? Then book yourself a scenic flight and soar high above the mountains in a helicopter.
In winter, there are a few different tours you can do with Banff Adventures over the Rockies. The cheapest is the Three Sisters Helicopter Flight which takes you from Banff over to the famous Three Sisters Mountain Range in Canmore. This tour lasts for 20 minutes and costs $200 CAD.
If you want a longer tour, the Royal Canadian Helicopter Flight is a great option. At 40 minutes long, you’ll get to take in breathtaking views for twice as long as you pass over Banff National Park, the Sundance Valley Mountain ranges, and Goat Pass Range.
There are also lots of other tours available depending on your budget but personally, I’d pick a flight longer than 30 minutes so you can truly enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime experience!
11. Visit Two Jack Lake
Two Jack Lake is one of the most popular lakes to kayak and SUP in the summertime. However, in winter the lake freezes over, and although less popular to visit, the lake is the perfect place to capture stunning photos.
Grab a coffee on your way out of Banff and take a drive out to Two Jack Lake to enjoy the gorgeous views. Stop at the day-use area and catch spectacular views of Mt Rundle, then, continue onto Lake Minnewanaka!
12. Then head to Lake Minnewanka
Lake Minnewanaka is one of my favorite lakes to visit in winter. This huge lake freezes over with sections over 2 feet thick. The ice is so solid it turns a dark color and under the snow and you can even see some small patches of methane bubbles here. My favorite activity though is to go ice skating.
Lake Minnewanaka is very popular for ice skating and almost every day throughout the winter you’ll find people skating here. Although the lake gets a lot of snow, people bring down shovels to clear it. Even if the snow is an inch deep you can still skate the surface with no problem. When I lived in Canmore I spent many afternoons skating on the lake and enjoying the spectacular views!
Of course, you do need to be careful not to skate in areas near flowing water or thin ice. The safest way to do it is to stay close to the boat ramp area and don’t skate early or late in the winter season.
After you’re done skating, take the short walk from Lake Minnewanaka through Stewart Canyon. The trail isn’t overly spectacular but it’s still beautiful and you’ll get great views of the lake. The 7-kilometer return trail takes around 2 hours to complete if you walk the entire trail.
13. Spot wildlife / go on a wildlife tour
Banff National Park is famous for its abundance of wildlife. I myself have seen plenty of cool wildlife in Banff including bears, moose, and tons of elk. I’ve not yet seen a wolf in the wild but it’s on my bucket list!
As a visitor, it would be such a shame to come all this way and miss out on the opportunity to see these beautiful creatures in person. By simply enjoying the outdoors you’ll have plenty of chances to see wildlife, however, if you’re finding yourself not so lucky then join a wildlife tour.
This specific wildlife tour lasts for 3 hours and includes 4 main stops around Banff National Park. Your expert guide knows where to spot Banff’s unique wildlife so you’ll have the best chance possible of seeing them.
On top of that, it’s also a sightseeing tour that includes your transport around the national park. For under $80 that’s a pretty good deal, especially for Banff!
14. Take a short drive to Vermillion Lakes
The closest lake to Banff town is Vermillion Lakes. From Banff town, you can reach the lakes in 5 minutes by heading down Vermillion Lakes Road. From here, drive along the lakes stopping where you please.
If you’re visiting in the middle of winter most of the lake will be frozen, however, there are sections where the water flows, and here you can get magical reflections of Mt Rundle – Banff’s most famous mountain. The views are spectacular and I recommended coming here for sunrise or sunset. It’s so close to town that you can be inside enjoying a beverage within minutes afterward!
15. Walk the Hoodoos Trail
I didn’t know Banff had its own hoodoos until my 6th visit! For some reason, they remain off the typical tourist trail and that’s such a shame. Although the hoodoos themselves aren’t the most spectacular it’s the views from the short, easy trail that make this must visit in winter.
You can reach the hoodoos two ways. The first is to drive up to the parking lot on Tunnel Mountain Road. From here, it’s only a 10-minute walk to the viewpoint at which point you can turn around and head back. This is what I usually do simply because it’s so convenient.
The second way is to hike from Suprise Corner (next on this list) walking the Hoodoos Trail to the viewpoint. The entire trail is actually a loop that you can start and end in Banff town, however, this means you need to walk back on Tunnel Mountain Road. Instead, walk from Suprise Corner and return via the same trail. It’s about a 10-kilometer walk that takes 3 hours.
16. Visit Surprise Corner
One of the most famous viewpoints in Banff town is Suprise Corner. Overlooking the Spray Valley and Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, you’ll fall in love with the view and many proposals happen at Suprise Corner each year. Although, that’s not how the viewpoint got its name.
At the viewpoint, there is a small parking lot that can fit around 12 vehicles so it can be best to walk from town if you’re going during peak periods. Regardless, this is one viewpoint every visitor to Banff should visit. If you can visit after a light dust of snow, the views are even more spectacular!
17. Hike to Upper Stoney Lookout
It might be winter, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get out and hit some of the easier hiking trails around Banff. Upper Stoney Lookout is the perfect trail to enjoy those magnificent winter views over Banff National Park.
The 4.3-kilometer loop begins at the Mt Norquay Ski resort parking lot and climbs another 250 meters to a viewpoint. Depending on the weather you may need snowshoes, however, during busy periods the trail is usually pretty compacted. Ice cleats would help more.
All up the trail only takes around 2 hours.
18. Wander Banff Ave and shop til’ you drop
Banff town is a vibrant place filled with awesome opportunities to catch up on your Christmas shopping or simply spoil yourself while on holiday. I love walking Banff Ave and just exploring the many places to eat, drink, and shop.
One of my favorite stops is always COWS. Now I know they sell ice cream but Canadians actually eat more ice cream during winter than summer – that’s a fact! So if you’re Canadian then keep the tradition going, and if you’re a visitor, do as we do and enjoy an ice cream that won’t melt!
If you love souvenir shops then you’ll be in heaven on Banff Ave. There are so many that it’s hard to count. I myself even shop at them and love my bear paw short shorts. I wear them everywhere. You can also buy cool mugs, shirts, and jewelry.
If you love a good soap (like me) then heady to Rocky Mountain Soap Company for the best soaps in the Rockies. Seriously, the smells in here will blow you away.
These are just a few places but there are tons more. Just walk Banff Ave and enjoy the atmosphere with a little retail therapy!
19. Try snowshoeing
Snowshoeing is a classic winter activity that you can enjoy in Banff on more trails than you’ll have time for. One of the most popular and great introductions for beginner snowshoers is the Johnson Lake Snowshoe Trail. This 3.1-kilometer loop follows the edge of Johnston Lake with views of Mt Rundle and Cascade Mountain.
Another trail I love is Fairview Lookout. This trail is in Lake Louise and begins from the foreshore and is only 2 kilometers out and back. With that said, it’s a rather steep climb to the top, and snowshoes really help. The views over Lake Louise and the Fairmont Hotel are breathtaking!
For a harder trail, the Cascade Amphitheatre Trail will surely get those legs working. This 12.8-kilometer out and back trail starts at Mt Norquay Ski Resort. It begins easy but then you’ll need to make the climb up to Cascade Amphitheatre. The trail isn’t overly beautiful, but it’s very peaceful and a great workout.
Of course, there are plenty more snowshoe trails around Banff, but these are a few I love!
20. Ride a bike, a fat bike
Fat biking is beginning to get very popular. For those who don’t know, a fat bike is just a normal mountain bike with really fat tires built for riding through the snow. It makes trails that would be otherwise impossible to ride rather easy.
One of the most famous trails for fat biking is the Goat Creek Trail which runs from Banff all the way to Canmore. You can enjoy the 19-kilometer ride there and then get the roam bus back with your bike. You can also ride the Bow Valley Parkway between Banff and Lake Louise or Moraine Lake Road in Lake Louise.
You can rent fat bikes in Banff at Snowtips Bactrax and they can also show you more trails around Banff suited to your ability.
21. Get tipsy at Park Distillery Restaurant and Bar
Park Distillery is Banff’s very own craft distillery. Home to some of the best pub food and cocktails in Banff, it’s a crowd favorite and I love enjoying a meal and drinks here.
The distillery is located on Banff Ave and they have a small sales counter as well as a restaurant. I love the chicken sandwich and seared BC salmon! For cocktails be sure to try a few but my favorites are the Sawback and the Summit.
You won’t be disappointed with the cocktails and food at Park Distillery.
22. Ride on a horse-drawn sleigh
What could be a more relaxing winter activity in Banff than riding in a horse-drawn sleigh? This unique activity is perfect for couples and even young families. The best part is it doesn’t have to be overly expensive.
In Banff, this group horse-drawn sleigh ride costs less than $50 CAD for a 40-minute ride. For the romantic couples among us, you can also book this private sleigh ride for two people. Both tours leave from Sundance Road in Banff.
23. Attend the Banff Craft Beer Festival
The Banff Craft Beer Festival is held every year in early December (dates can change so check before you go) during what’s known as “Craft Beer Week”. It’s a celebration of all things craft beer and at the event, over 30 vendors from around Alberta (yep, only Alberta) come together to showcase their new brews.
For the breweries, it’s a chance to get put on the map. For you, well it’s the perfect time to try amazing craft beer from all over the province in one place. Seriously, this is one winter festival you won’t want to miss and one of the best events to check out if you happen to be visiting Banff in December.
24. See a frozen waterfall
When the temperatures drop the waterfalls around Banff become frozen in time… literally. If you haven’t already, be sure to take a trip out to at least one of these waterfalls to stare in awe at their beauty.
Above I’ve talked about Johnston Canyon, which is one of my favorites, but there are plenty of others. One of the best and least known is the frozen waterfall at the end of Lake Louise. To reach it, simply walk across the lake until you reach the end of the lake or follow the shoreline trail. The huge frozen waterfall extends up the mountain and on a sunny day, shines blue and white.
If you don’t mind driving you can also visit Troll Falls. This famous waterfall sits in Kananaskis Country and is a favorite among families because of the short, easy walk to the base of the falls.
Nearby in Canmore, you can also visit Grotto Canyon (mentioned below) and find frozen waterfalls along the hike. People actually come ice climbing here too!
In Banff town, head to the Bow Falls Lookout. This usually violent waterfall sits still with breathtaking surroundings.
25. Hike Tunnel Mountain
One of the most popular hikes in Banff is the Tunnel Mountain Trail. This short 4.5-kilometer hike takes you from Banff town up Tunnel Mountain to a viewpoint over the town and valley.
The views are something out of a postcard and this trail is perfect for everyone with a reasonable level of fitness. In fact, as the smallest mountain in the area, the climb is only 300 meters in elevation.
Because the trail is so popular, snowshoes are not required, however, ice cleats or crampons really help with the slippery, compact snow.
26. Take beautiful photos
We can all agree Banff National Park is a beautiful place. That’s why heading out with your phone or camera to capture stunning photos to remember your trip is a must during your winter visit to Banff. I myself love photography and the memories I’ve created with it.
Now aside from every spot on this list, where should you go? Well, why not start with a cute picture with the Banff sign in town? After, get the classic shot of Banff Ave with the gorgeous mountain backdrop. Then, take a walk to the Banff Pedestrian Bridge. With the right angle, you can get some great shots.
Out of town, just take a drive and explore. Almost everywhere you look there is beautiful scenery to photograph!
27. Learn history and culture at Buffalo Nations Museum
Although I’m not much of a museum lover, I decided to check out the Buffalo Nations Museum because I really want to learn more about indigenous Canadians.
The Buffalo Nations Museum is dedicated to the history and culture of the first nations people who were the first to call the Banff area home. In the museum, there is lots to see and the displays are very visual which I loved. You’ll learn all about the life, history, and culture of the first nations people.
The museum costs $10 CAD per adult and I spent around an hour there. It is the perfect thing to do in Banff in winter, especially on those really cold days!
28. Visit Peyto Lake
What’s the most beautiful lake in the Rocky Mountains? Although a very hard question to answer, Peyto Lake comes pretty close.
Located on the Icefields Parkway, Peyto Lake is most commonly visited by driving to the viewpoint above the lake which is just off the main Icefields Parkway. From here, you can stare down at Peyto and the surrounding mountains. You’re basically visiting an epic viewpoint above the valley without actually needing to hike… cool right!
From Banff, it takes just over an hour to reach the lake so my advice is to visit when you are in Lake Louise which is much closer. Obviously, if you plan on driving the Icefields Parkway (next on this list) then just visit Peyto Lake then!
29. Drive the Icefields Parkway
Don’t let winter stop you from going on a road trip! The Icefields Parkway is one of the most scenic roads in Canada (and possibly the world) so you shouldn’t miss this chance.
The 232km stretch of highway travels from Lake Louise all the way to Jasper. It takes around 3 hours to drive the whole thing without stopping in winter, however, I’d allow an entire day if you plan on stopping along the way.
Some of the best places to stop on the Icefields Parkway include Crow Foot Glacier Lookout, Bow Lake Viewpoint, Peyto Lake, Weeping Wall, Big Bend, Athabasca Glacier, Sunwapta Falls, and Athabasca Falls.
For those not heading to Jasper, a great section to drive is until you reach Peyto Lake. This is only 70 minutes from Banff and after visiting, you can turn around and head back, visiting Bow Lake and Crowfoot Glacier on the way. Although only 3 stops, you’ll also get those breathtaking views! With that said, if you have time then I’d drive the whole thing and stay a couple of nights in Jasper – there are lots of fun things to do in Jasper in the winter too!
Winter tires are a must on the Icefields Parkway and you need to be careful and alert while driving this highway in winter. Parks Canada will close the highway over the pass (after Big Bend) during bad weather so check ahead of time for road closures.
Related read: One of the best things to do in Vancouver in winter is to drive the Sea to Sky Highway – another one of Canada’s most scenic drives!
30. Get festive for Christmas in Banff
Winter is a festive time of the year. In the lead-up to Christmas, there’s plenty to do in Banff. Families will love the Santa Clause Parade held on the 20th of November (the date can change.) During the day Santa is on hand to take photos with the kids and when the sun sets, the parade begins with lots of lights and costumes.
The Banff Christmas Market is another popular event held on the last two weekends of November. At the event, you’ll find 80 local vendors, an outdoor fire lounge, live music, Christmas treats, and warm drinks, as well as Santa’s House and Reindeer Stables. It’s a market the entire family will enjoy and just the thing to get you in the Christmas spirit!
31. Cross country skiing
Cross country skiing isn’t something I fell in love with right away. In fact, I only started so I could get some exercise in the winter. However, after a few times, I began to fall in love with the sport. It’s fun, community-based, and a great workout!
In Banff, you can cross country in the most beautiful places including groomed runs. The Castle Junction area on the Bow Valley Parkway offers 9.5 kilometers of single-track groomed trails suited to all levels.
Moraine Lake Road is also home to a duel lane track 8 kilometers each way. There is a 250-meter elevation gain on the way there, but that makes the way back a lot more fun.
A popular spot close to town is Cascade Valley. There are two trails here, one 6.3 kilometers one way and the other 15.1 kilometers one way.
32. Grotto Canyon Ice Walk
Another awesome hike that is better in the winter than the summer is Grotto Canyon. This trail requires ice cleats or crampons – without them, you might hurt yourself!
The Grotto Canyon Ice Walk is a 4.4 km (2.7-mile) and you’ll actually walk right on a frozen river through the canyon!
To begin the trail, drive out to the parking lot at Grotto Mountain Pond. From here, it takes around 1.5 hours each way if you allow time to explore the canyon and take some photos. It takes 30 minutes of walking until you reach the canyon and from here on out you’ll follow the frozen river up the canyon to frozen waterfalls and an Inukshuk Garden. Along the way, there are also indigenous pictographs (but you’ll need a keen eye to spot them!)
If you’re worried you’ll miss the hard-to-find attractions in the canyon such as the pictographs you can actually join this tour through Grotto Canyon. You’ll explore all the cool rock formations, frozen waterfalls, and learn about the history and geology of the area. It costs $88 CAD to join and includes hot chocolate to warm up as well as ice cleats.
33. Go ice skating
Ice skating is one of the classic Canadian winter experiences. Of course, you can simply go to Lake Louise (mentioned above), however, there are a lot of places much closer to Banff too.
One of the closest is the Downtown Rink at Banff Community High School. The outdoor rink is completely free to visit, located right in Banff, and with Banff’s views, you’ll feel like you’re wild ice skating. At the Fenlands Banff Recreation Centre, you can also go ice skating indoors if you want to avoid the cold. Entry to the rink is $6.
On top of skating at the official rinks, you can also go wild ice skating during certain conditions. Vermilion Lakes, Johnson Lake, Lake Minnewanka, Two Jack Lake, and Cascade Ponds are popular choices. Of course, heavy snowfall can interrupt this but early in the season, or if people have cleared some of the snow, these lakes are perfect. Above you can see me ice skating at Vermillion Lakes – how beautiful!
Important: Skating on frozen lakes is dangerous without the right expereince. Only skate on ice thick enough to hold your weight and skate at your own risk.
34. Drink local craft beer
The Banff Craft Beer Festival is only on once a year so it’s likely many of you will miss it. Luckily, you don’t need a craft beer festival to drink amazing beer in Banff. There are two breweries in Banff town and three 20 minutes away in Canmore.
The crowd favorite is Banff Ave Brewing which is located on Banff Ave. They have a good range of tasty beers on tap and the food is also really good. The newest brewery in Banff is Three Bears Brewery which is owned by Park Distillery.
In Canmore, you are spoilt for choice with Canmore Brewing Co., The Grizzley Paw Brewery, and Blakes Brewhouse.
It’s safe to say a winter visit to Banff won’t go without great beer!
Related read: Visiting Calgary? One of the best winter activities in Calgary is to drink craft beer at one of the many breweries!
35. Adventure to Marble Canyon
Marble canyon isn’t exactly in Banff, in fact, it’s actually located in Kootenay National Park. However, with its close proximity to Banff National Park, it’s actually really easy to visit from Lake Louise.
The canyon is gorgeous and thousands of years of erosion have created a deep cut in the earth with smooth walls. In winter, the water freezes, and the surrounding area becomes covered in snow. Visitors can walk to a 1-kilometer trail along the canyon staring down into a winter wonderland. At the end of the trail, there is a huge frozen waterfall.
For an even cooler experience, join this Marble Canyon snowshoeing tour from Banff. The 4-hour tour includes transport from Banff as well as all your snowshoeing gear. Then, it’s off to explore the canyon with an expert guide.
36. Party the night away on Banff Ave
Head out on Banff Ave and party the night away or enjoy some après ski drinks. Banff is without a doubt a lively place. With the majority of visitors on holiday, it’s no wonder so many want to let their hair down.
When it comes to partying, some crowd favorite places to start your night at are Tommy’s Neighborhood Pub and Banff Ave Brewing. Both offer a social atmosphere perfect for pre-drinks and this is likely where you’ll find most of the party crowd. Afterward, everyone heads to the Dancing Sasquatch to dance the night away.
For après ski your options are endless. The Rose and Crown is a favorite of mine because they often have live music. For those who like a more upscale bar, the Juniper Bistro is a top choice. If you really want to keep the fun going head to High Rollers. Not only do they have 48 beers on tap, but they also have an onsite 10 pin bowling alley!
37. Spend a night at the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel
I’m going to cover some great places to stay below from budget hotels all the way up to luxury hotels. However, the Fairmont Banff Springs is not just a hotel, but an experience on its own!
Not only is the hotel 5 stars and comes with some of the most breathtaking views in Banff, but there’s also an onsite golf course, wellness spa, bowling and entertainment center, fitness and aquatic center, as well as 6 restaurants. Oh, and did I mention the building itself looks like a castle.
If you aren’t able to afford a night at the hotel (like me) then you can actually join a guided food tour of the hotel’s restaurants. The tour is 2.5 hours and includes all your food as well as a local guide.
38. Visit Canmore
Canmore is just as much a bucket list winter destination as Banff. Not only are there a ton of winter activities in Canmore, but the surrounding mountains and lively town create such a fun atmosphere. When I lived in Canmore, I spent most of my afternoons enjoying outdoor activities such as cross country skiing, hiking, fat biking, and getting amazing photos of the scenery.
Some of the things I recommend doing include taking a walk downtown, walking the Bow River Loop, hiking up to Grassi Lakes, checking out the local breweries, visiting Wild Life Distillery, and even go for breakfast at Rocky Mountain Bagel Co. Seriously, this just scrapes the surface of Canmore, so make a day of it and explore!
39. Visit more museums
Aside from the Buffalo Nations Museum, there are plenty of others to discover in Banff.
The Banff Park Museum National Historic Site is one of the best and showcases an array of taxidermy specimens of plants and animals you’ll find in Banff National Park. The building itself is the oldest park facility in the national park system and was built in 1903. It’s an interesting museum and very educational. Entry is only $3.90 CAD per person.
For art lovers, the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies is a popular museum. This rather small museum showcases a mix of local art, first nations artifacts, and information about the arrival of European settlers and their development of the area. You can get a good feel for Banffs history here. Entry costs $10 for adults and children under 12 are free.
Last is the Cave and Basin Historic Site. This once very popular hot spring was the reason Banff became a national park and it was the first protected area in the park. The hot springs are now closed to the public for swimming to protect the rare Banff Snail. Nowadays you can visit the hot springs and explore the museum. The museum is the main attraction in my eyes and it is very interactive and fun especially for kids. You’ll find lots of information about Banff and the surrounding area. Entry is also only $3.90!
40. Banff Ice Magic International Ice Carving Competition
Last on this epic list of winter activities in Banff is truly unique. The Ice Magic International Ice Carving Competition is held every year from mid-January (check updated dates here) until the end of the month. During the event, you can head down to Lake Louise in winter and watch artists carve amazing ice sculptures right in front of you.
Kids love the event and from Monday to Friday you can visit for free. On weekends, it’s also free to visit before 10:00 am and after 5:30 pm, however, during peak times there is an admission fee. Although the event ends at the end of January, the ice sculptures are on display throughout February.
So, come on down to Lake Louise and experience the magic of winter!
Where to Stay in Banff in Winter
Banff, being the holiday destination it is, has no shortage of beautiful hotels. In fact, it’s hard to book a bad hotel in Banff. With that said, there are a few stand-out hotels for every budget. You know, those places that offer more for less.
Please note: Hotel prices in Banff differ from winter to summer. In fact, most hotels are more than double the price in summer.
For budget-conscious travelers, the HI-Banff Alpine Center is my top choice. I love this hostel for its fun social atmosphere as well as clean rooms and good facilities. One thing to note though is the hostel is located a decent walk from the main area of Banff.
If you still want a rather inexpensive hotel but would love a great location the High Country Inn has both (much cheaper in winter though.) The hotel is only a few blocks from the action and although a little outdated, offers an indoor pool, sauna, and hot tub, as well as an onsite restaurant.
For the more luxurious travelers, the Rimrock Resort Hotel has everything you need. The rooms are gorgeous and those mountain views are hard to beat. On top of that, they have all the facilities you could want including an indoor pool, spa and wellness center, onsite restaurant, room service, and restaurant. Their location is a little out of town though.
If money ain’t a thing then the Fairmont Banff Springs (mentioned above) is the most luxurious option.
If you want to stay close to the ski resorts, I’ve mentioned the closest hotels for them in the skiing section back at the beginning of this blog…
Canada Winter Travel Essentials
If you’re planning to visit Canada in winter then there are a few things you should pack – things we never travel without. Some you may already have, but others you may want to pick up before you leave. This is especially true if you want to enjoy some of the best outdoor activities!
Here are some of our must-have winter essentials:
Crampons/ Ice Cleats: This is the one item I have that I use so much. If you love the outdoors and enjoy short walks and hikes, crampons are a must! The best part is, the pair that I own is only $29 CAD. They aren’t the best pair out there but they’re perfect for the everyday explorer/traveler.
Insulated water bottle: In the summer you want to keep your water cold but in winter, you want to keep it from freezing. That’s why I always carry an insulated water bottle. This Iron Flask Water Bottle is perfect because it doubles as a thermos so it’s great for carrying hot water for those winter hot chocolates! I have the 32-ounce bottle in pink but I wish I had one of the multi-colored bottles!
Merino wool socks: Cold feet can ruin your time exploring the great outdoors during winter. Please do yourself a favor and get a good quality pair of socks. Even just one pair with come in handy but I myself carry three of these COZIA Wool Socks. They’re 80% Merino wool and really warm. The best part is they are only $15 each! When I’m skiing I can even double them up if it’s -30 °C.
Thermal layers: Staying warm begins from your first layer. Life outside during the Candian winter is much more comfortable with thermal layers. There are a lot of great products in this space but look out for Merino wool products – they’re the best in my opinion!
Ski Gloves: Did you know ski resorts in Canada don’t rent gloves? That means you’re going to need to bring your own. I get really cold hands so I love these new heated rechargeable gloves. They keep your hands warm in the coldest temperatures. Although expensive, you’ll never wear another pair of gloves again.
Polarized sunglasses/ ski goggles: People often forget that on a sunny day in the mountains, the sun can really hurt your eyes when it reflects off the snow. For around town, check out these polarized sunglasses and for in the mountains these ski goggles.
Buff: I love my buff! Seriously, I go nowhere without it both in winter and summer. During the winter though, it’s perfect for keeping my nose and cheeks covered from the cold especially when skiing or hiking. There are a few brands around but I always buy the original Buff (you know, the one from Survivor!) They’re a little more expensive but the material is good quality and both breathable and quick drying.
Renting a Car in Alberta
If you’re arriving in Alberta via plane then I can’t recommend getting a rental car enough. Canada is a large country and traveling between cities and even just getting out to the best attractions within them requires transport. Although you can use public transport on some occasions it means your trip will not only require more time but more planning.
Car rental in Canada is relatively cheap especially if you get a budget car. The cheapest car with a pickup and drop-off in different locations is around $70 CAD per day. The price does vary though depending on the time of year. For car rentals, I use the website Rental Cars.com. It’s a search engine with lots of deals with good customer service. In fact, I’ve used them all over the world including Chile, New Zealand, and Australia.
Another popular option is to rent a campervan or motorhome (only for the brave in winter.) Using Motorhome Republic you can search hundreds of deals across multiple companies to pick a great vehicle and the cheapest price. Having a motorhome is a stunning way to see Canada and using crown land and campsites you can often camp for free or very cheap in the most beautiful places imaginable!
Thanks for reading!
Banff really is just as much a winter destination as a summer one. These 40 winter activities will keep even the most adventurous busy for this trip and many more to come. There’s just so much to see and do in Banff in the winter!
Thanks so much for reading. I really hope your upcoming trip to Banff is amazing and you enjoy every second of this magical place. If you found this blog helpful then be sure to check out more blogs such as: