I love Banff all year round, but I particularly love it in winter. While most people think of the Canadian Rockies as a summer destination, I think that winter in Banff is what it’s all about. There are so many amazing things to in Banff during the winter I actually got sad this past year when spring rolled around.
The truth of the matter is I love winter in the mountains. I love snowboarding and that cozy feeling you have when you walk through the door after a long day out and have a hot chocolate. Banff is great for that feeling.
In addition, Lake Louise and Banff Sunshine are easily two of the best ski resorts in North America. Instead of heading to the beaches of the Caribbean or Southeast Asia we decided to spend our winter tackling mountains with snowboards strapped to our feet.
We urge everyone to not let the fear of Canadian snow deter you from traveling to Banff in the winter. You’re sure to be blown away by the beauty if you sacrifice palm trees and beaches and head north. Seriously, we fell in love so much that we MOVED HERE!
If you choose the right spot, activities, and ski resort you’ll be counting down the days until winter in Banff rolls around again. Truth be told, even now as summer is coming we’re already planning our next winter season. (Update: We decided to MOVE to Banff in 2019).
If you decide to make your way to Banff in the winter these are some of the best things to do. In this guide, we break down the best things to do in Banff in the winter, where to eat in Banff, and also a ski guide to SkiBig3.
Things to do in Banff in the Winter
Ski/Snowboard Big Mountain Terrain
Snowboarding at all of the SkiBig3 resorts was our primary reason for heading to Banff in the winter. SkiBig3 is a collection of three mountain resorts all within Banff National Park. You have Lake Louise, Banff Sunshine, and Mt. Norquay which are all fantastic and unique ski resorts. Skiing or snowboarding here is one of the best things to do in Banff in the winter.
I was standing in the middle of a massive chute watching Natasha’s snow rain down on me from the slope above. The run below me looked like a straight cliff and while standing I could touch the mountain, at least it felt that way. Banff Sunshine is a mountain that truly offers something to everyone from professionals right down to beginners. You can easily find yourself smack dab in freeride terrain that would be considered out-of-bounds in other resorts.
If you want to find a mountain with some seriously humbling terrain in-bounds then Banff Sunshine is the place to head. Jagged peaks loom high above alpine trees and the views are unparalleled. When you first arrive in the parking lot the mountain does not look like much as the base is simply a gondola station and one restaurant. In fact, to reach the true resort base guests must take a 15-minute gondola that delivers them into a sprawling resort that looks like it belongs in the Alps, not North America.
Banff Sunshine contains two expert only areas that require all riders and skiers to sign out with the ski patrol and carry an avalanche kit. Delirium Dive and Wild West areas feature massive cliff features, chutes, and some seriously steep terrain.
Don’t let the expert terrain detract you from visiting the resort as it also has a plethora of groomed beginner and intermediate runs. The resort has something for everyone and the base area makes for a perfect central point to meet after skiing the surrounding peaks.
- Lift Ticket Cost: Adult – $109 • Youth – $85 • Child – $42 • Senior – $85 (Book Tickets Here)
- Runs/Skiable Terrain: 145 runs • 3,300 acres
- Favorite Runs: World Cup Downhill, Bunkers, The Shoulder, Wildside, Rolling Thunder, Tin Can Alley
Lake Louise Ski Resort
There is arguably no ski resort in the world with a better view than Lake Louise Ski Resort, that photo above is what we’re talking about. In between runs screaming down groomers or tackling a bowl Banff National Park provides you some fresh air and stunning landscapes. We visited thirty resorts in one season and the views from Lake Louise were hands down some of the best in the world.
It also happens to be one of the largest ski resort in North America with 4,200 acres covering four mountain faces. The terrain varies between beautiful groomers, challenging steeps, and expert level chutes. The longest run here stretches for nearly five miles so start working out your leg muscles now.
- Lift Ticket Cost: Adult – $104 • Youth – $79 • Child – $39 • Senior – $79 (Book Tickets Here)
- Runs/Skiable Terrain: 145 • 4,200 acres
- Favorite Runs: Brown Shirt, Juniper Jungle, Men’s Downhill, Saddleback, Sunset Terrace, and E Chute.
Mt Norquay is the most digestible of resorts here and the least imposing for beginners/intermediates. It’s only a 10 minute drive from the town of Banff, making it a great option to go get some runs in and still have time in town. The resort has been in operation since 1926 and offers a number of activities asides from snowboard and ski. It’s also the only mountain that offers night skiing in the area and relatively small in comparison to the other resorts of SkiBig3.
While Lake Louise and Banff Sunshine can draw a decent crowd (still few lines) Mt. Norquay is a quiet mountain. You’ll have a hard time finding crowds here and it’s the perfect place to learn how to ski with a good ski school and affordable lift ticket. They also offer snowshoe hikes, tubing, and child care. The biggest plus to Mt. Norquay for us is the proximity to the town of Banff, only a 10-minute drive.
- Lift Ticket Cost: Adult – $74 • Youth – $56 • Child – $29 • Senior – $56 (Book Tickets Here)
- Runs/Skiable Terrain: 60 • 72 acres
- Favorite Runs: Constellation, Norquay 90 Glades, and Lone Pine.
Hit the Photography Hotspots of Banff
There are four national parks and a countless number of scenic mountain peaks, alpine lakes, and glaciers. In one of the most scenic places in Canada, you’re definitely going to want to take a large share of photos. You can also partake in a photography tour where they show the best places and how to get the perfect shot.
There are a number of great spots to take photos in the winter. Vermillion Lakes, Bow Valley Parkway, and Lake Louise are great places to snag a great photo or you can drive all the way up to Jasper for a multitude of more places.
Johnston Canyon Ice Walk
The Johnston Canyon walk is the best thing you can do in Banff in the winter for free. Have you ever stood on a frozen waterfall before? Neither had we until the Johnston Canyon hike. Due to the elevation of the region and the sub-zero temperatures of winter the waterfalls of Johnston Canyon freeze in time. It’s a pretty surreal experience and completely accessible for all.Ski/Snowboard Big Mountain Terrain
As a tip, we suggest picking up some ice cleats in town. Although the trail is well managed it can get icy and it’s better to slip everywhere on the trail – ours were very handy! Once you reach the end of the trail and the most impressive frozen fall you’ll probably find some ice climbers. If you’re feeling adventurous book an ice climbing tour yourself!
A great thing to do for families visiting Banff in the winter is snowshoe! Just because there is snow on the ground doesn’t mean you can’t leave the well-trodden path. You might not be able to walk through the snow on foot, but a quality pair of snowshoes allow you to float across the snow. They’re super easy to get the hang of and you’ll be moving along in no time. Two popular snowshoe hikes are to the Paint Pots or Marble Canyon, but you’re free to explore the wilderness on your own if you rent a pair.
Walk and Ice Skate on Lake Louise
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more scenic ice rink than Lake Louise. Every year the lake freezes over and the Chateau Lake Louise marks out multiple ice rinks made for families, figure skating, and hockey. Nothing screams you’re in Canada than playing hockey on a frozen lake. There are a number of places around that offer ice skates for rent, including Chateau Lake Louise.
If you’re not much of a skater don’t worry – Lake Louise freezes completely over every winter providing you the opportunity to walk and explore the area.
Nordic Ski/Cross Country Ski
I personally don’t like cross-country skiing, but there are plenty who love to cross-country skiing. It’s a low impact sport that gets your heart racing and allows you to slide across the snow. There is one thing you can’t argue against is the pristine wilderness beauty nordic skiers will find themselves, especially in Banff.
Cross country skiing is a serious hobby here and you’ll find plenty of people getting out there and stretching their legs. The Nordic Center near Canmore is a popular place to go cross country skiing.
Soak in the Hot Springs
Enjoying hot water in the cool air is one of the top Banff winter activities to enjoy. Don’t let the frigid Canadian temperatures detract you because there are plenty of ways to warm up around the Banff.
Just outside of the Banff town lies the Banff Upper Hot Springs. These hot springs make for one of the best places to relax those stiff muscles after a ski day. Just be warned afternoons can draw a crowd so head there in the morning for a more quiet experience.
Climb Sulphur Mountain
Still wondering what to do in Banff in the winter? How about you climb a mountain! What? Just because it’s winter you think you can’t climb a mountain?
Sulphur Mountain is easily one of the most popular hikes in Banff National Park. It’s a beautiful hike up that provides visitors with astonishing views over the Bow Valley.
Due to it’s proximity to Banff town, and the fact that you can take the Banff Gondola up to the peak instead of sweating it out on the trail means that Sulphur mountain becomes very busy – but not in the winter! With a pair of crampons and some hiking poles, you’ll be able to tackle the trail up in no time. You can read all about hiking Sulphur Mountain here.
Get Those Mount Rundle Views
Mount Rundle is one of the most famous mountains in all of Canada and a top sight to see in Banff in the winter. It’s an icon to Banff and will make you feel incredibly small any time of day. Mount Rundle is best seen at sunrise and sunset.
Which thankfully, in the winter, the sunrises late (sometimes 9 am!). In the winter you can catch sunset between 5:30-6: 30 pm. My favorite spot to see Mount Rundle is from Vermillion Lakes or Mount Norquay Lookout.
The wildlife doesn’t leave Banff when summertime goes away. Apart from bears, you’ll find moose, elk, deer, owls, foxes, wolves, and coyotes here all year round. I actually love spotting these animals in the winter more than the summer – they look so much more majestic!
Please remember if you want to pull over to take photos of wildlife to do so safely and make sure you are out of the way of traffic.
Lake Minnewanka is a glacial lake that is just a ten-minute drive away from the town of Banff. This lake is 21 km long and 142 meters deep. In the summer it’s a busy place to hike and go canoeing on, but in the winter it’s a sight to behold. The mountains towering over Lake Minnewanka are seriously impressive all covered in snow.
Two Jack Lake
Just a five-minute drive away from Lake Minnewanka is Two Jack Lake. It’s another fantastic lake with Mount Rundle Views. Two Jack is one of the most photographed lakes in the Canadian Rockies, but in the winter it’s possible to arrive here with a tripod and be all by yourself.
Enjoy the Town of Banff
If you want a day of shopping, cappuccinos, and breweries stay in the town of Banff and enjoy a day of walking around. Banff Ave has tons of restaurants, boutique shops, and cheesy souvenir stores to entertain all.
Check Out Bow Falls
Bow Falls are a must see when in Banff. They are only a short walk away from the town and take you into magnificent nature. Depending on when in the winter you go to see them they may be frozen, but we’ve been lucky and seen the beauty of the half in ice and half water. There are nice walkways for visitors so they can view safely.
Go Dog Sledding
Discover Banff Tours runs dog sledding adventures at Lake Louise and in Canmore. We’ve done this four separate times and it’s always an amazing experience. What I particularly love is how quiet the ride is with only the sound of the dog teams steps against the snow.
Relax in Nature
We have an addiction to the post excitement high we receive in the mountains. After flying down a mountain on our snowboard nothing beats the feeling of calming our nerves in nature. There are a countless number of ways you can relax whether it be by a hot tub, on a bench, by a fire, or watching the sunset over the frost-tipped mountains.
Just kick back with the one you love and let the calming effect of Banff National Park wash over you. Nothing else can compare to this when visiting Banff in the winter.
Head to Canmore!
Okay, this isn’t really a thing to do in Banff as it’s a 15-minute drive away. We may be biased to our home base, but we think Canmore is the bee’s knees.
Canmore is another mountain town just outside of Banff National Park. It’s not nearly as touristy or popular as Banff meaning it’s much more enjoyable.
You can walk down the main street here without fighting through crowds and there are plenty of great restaurants, bars, and shops to venture into. The views are just as amazing as well. Make sure to check out The Three Sisters!
Where To Eat in Banff
We love sushi and we love a good deal so Banff Sushi is a slam dunk for us. The novelty of sushi train was definitely appreciated and brought us back to Japan as we nabbed tantalizing bites of sushi off the Canadian train engine. If you like sushi this may be one of the best deals in Banff.
Hip coffee shop serving delicious coffee and freshly baked treats. It’s the perfect post ski pick me up if you’re not into the apres ski scene!
Check out the only distillery in a national park in North America. It’s super cool inside with large tables perfect to finish off a winter day in Banff with friends or family.
This healthy cafe is the perfect lunch spot in town with reasonably priced lunch combos and coffee.
Bear Street Tavern
Winter activities often mean you’re burning plenty of calories so if you’re looking for a laid-back atmosphere and some tasty grub head to this tavern to replenish.
The Grizzly Paw Brewing Pub
Our favorite post ski ritual is to check out the local brewery, something you can only find in North America. To find some of the best brews around go to the neighboring town of Canmore.
Places to Stay in Banff
For apartment rentals in Banff consider looking at Airbnb. However, Airbnb’s in Banff don’t come cheap and you will need to book them well in advance. Especially in peak summer and around the winter holidays. You can read about choosing a good Airbnb here. Here is a coupon for your first stay with Airbnb!
Plan Your Trip to Banff
Make sure to protect your eyes from the sun in Canada. There are a lot of options for sunglasses and everyone should own at least a pair. It’s best to make sure they do have UV protection for the health of your eyes.
We made our first investment in quality polarized sunglasses with a pair of SMITH Optics Lowdown 2. Truthfully, not everyone needs to invest $150 in a pair of sunglasses, but they do make a huge difference from the crappy $10 ones.
Skin cancer is for real, even in the mountains! Don’t forget your SPF when traveling around Jasper. We recommend ordering some online before leaving the house as you will need it underneath the sun in the summer.
We highly recommend getting an eco friendly sun cream that does not contain harmful chemicals.
Hiking Shoes or Boots
If you’re wondering what necessities to bring to Banff then sturdy shoes are perhaps the most important thing you will need before you get to Canada.
I ALWAYS have a down jacket with me on every single hike I go on in the Rockies. They aren’t just good for hikes, but doing anything in the mountains. Even in July, you may still find yourself reaching for a jacket!
Down jackets pack up light and small so there is no reason NOT to have one in your bag. Seriously it could save your life in a bad situation. We wrote a whole post on our favorites (hint –Feathered Friends, Arc’Teryx Cerium LT Hooded Jacket, Patagonia Down Sweater, REI Coop Down Jacket)
We’re building up a collection of shell jackets. We always carry one in our pack and they’ve come in handy a number of times. They are lightweight, durable, packable, waterproof, and windproof. We have a bunch of different shell jackets after several years, but my favorite right now is from Arc’teryx.
Any jacket can do the job, but the top dollar ones will hold up and really help in inclement weather.
Please consider purchasing a travel water bottle before your trip! We hate to see one time use plastic bottles ending up in the ocean. The tap water is so good here – seriously please don’t be one of those tourist that buys plastic water bottles in Jasper. It’s a waste of money and plastic!
I love my buff. I usually wear it for keeping my hair back, but it’s also served its purpose as a scarf and wet rag too. Buffs last for years and aren’t only helpful in the mountains. I actually wear mine every day when I’m snowboarding even traveling in the desert. It’s been one of my top travel accessory investments ever!
The best way to get all around Alberta is with your own rental car. See all our tips on how to rent a car in Canada here.
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