Banff and its iconic mountain range and vibrant blue lakes are famous around the world as a mountain escape. Banff’s stunning scenery helped put Canada on the travel map and continues to attract visitors each year. Around 4.5 million people head to Banff each year and summer can be extremely busy as this tiny mountain town fills up with visitors.
If you’re looking for a quieter, more serene experience, visiting Banff in the winter is your best bet but this season is far from second prize. Winter is the best season to experience Banff’s magic and the ethereal beauty of the mountain town. From skiing to hot springs, heated patios and winter events, Banff is buzzing, even during the colder months. This handy guide will tell you everything you need to know before setting off to Banff for a winter vacation.
- Banff in Winter
- Top Tours
- About Banff
- History of Banff
- Where is Banff
- Tips for Winter Driving
- Weather in Banff
- Things to Do in Banff in the Winter
- 1- Ski or Snowboard with Next Level Views
- 2- Take a Romantic Sleigh Ride
- 3- Rocket Down a Mountain in a Tube
- 4- Ride in a Traditional Dog Sled
- 5- Skate on Lake Louise
- 7- Soak In Banff Hot Springs
- 8- Drink At The Lake Louise Ice Bar
- 9- Enjoy Mountain Views on the Banff Gondola
- 10- Go On A Winter Hike
- Banff Winter Festivals
- What to Pack for Banff in the Winter
- Where to Stay in Banff
Banff in Winter
Banff is one of Canada’s top travel destinations year-round. Both the town and the National Park are referred to as “Banff” and the town is within the national park borders.
Banff National Park has over 1600 km of maintained trails, glacial lakes and majestic waterfalls.
Many of these trails are accessible in the winter and there are additional activities like skiing and snowboarding to enjoy.
The town of Banff has a population of almost 10,000 permanent residents and enough shops, restaurants and bars to provide everything you would need for a comfortable stay, whether in an upscale hotel or roughing it in the wilderness.
History of Banff
Prime Minister John A. Macdonald established a small area around Banff hot springs as the designated park in 1885, which later expanded to include the current area.
This makes it Canada’s oldest National Park and arguably the most beautiful.
Banff was established as a town in 1990 and was the first town to be inside a national Park but the history of the area dates back much earlier.
Before European settlement, many indigenous groups inhabited Banff National Park; the earliest human activity on record is from over 10,300 years ago.
- Banff Legends and Landmarks – Historical Walking Tour
- Banff Ghost Walks
- Banff (Canmore) to Calgary Public Shuttle
Where is Banff
Banff is on the very western edge of Alberta in the Rocky Mountains, 110 km from the nearest international airport in Calgary.
There are many ways to get to Banff in the winter, but the routes are limited due to mountain snow and tire restrictions.
The easiest way to get to Banff in the winter would be to fly into Calgary and rent a car.
It is possible to fly into Edmonton or Vancouver and drive, but the distances would be much longer at around 396 km and 781 km.
Both of these drives are tough in the winter due to road conditions.
Driving on snow and ice can be very difficult if you’re new to winter driving, so it’s a good idea to take it slow when driving to Banff from Calgary or any other nearby city.
Winds caused by the Rocky Mountains can also affect driving conditions and visibility.
Tips for Winter Driving
● Keep emergency items in the car like a battery-operated radio, phone charger, emergency blanket, first aid kit, water and a repair kit.
● Slow down to below the recommended speed limit when taking curves and corners.
● When climbing hills, maintain a slow and steady speed and don’t let your foot off the gas but don’t increase speed on the hill.
● Leave plenty of space between you and the car in front to allow your reflexes some leeway in an emergency.
Most rental companies in Calgary and the surrounding areas should provide winter tires on their rental cars.
The best way to get around Banff year-round is by car, as even though buses are available in town and some run to the major trailheads and lakes, snow, ice and other extreme conditions limit the availability and reliability of public transport.
Weather in Banff
Banff experiences hot Canadian summers, cool weather in the shoulder seasons and frigid winters.
The average temperature in Banff during the winter can range from -10°C to -30°C.
January and February are the coldest months of the year, and temperatures in Banff can sometimes dip lower, reaching -38°C.
Due to Banff’s mountainous terrain, you can expect snow storms and high winds to swoop in and blanket the town in snow quickly.
Before travelling to Banff, it’s a good idea to check the weather forecast as the last thing you want is to be snowed in on your vacation.
Things to Do in Banff in the Winter
There are plenty of activities to do in Banff during the chilly winter months, so bundle up and head out to enjoy a magical winter wonderland.
1- Ski or Snowboard with Next Level Views
Being in the Rockies, Banff has top-notch resorts to ski and snowboard in the region with many different runs.
My Norquay is a smaller but popular mountain in Banff, with over 60 runs ranging from easy to difficult.
Take in the twinkling lights from the town on a night run or race through powder-filled trails during the day.
This ski resort has something for all levels.
Rentals and lessons are available throughout the winter, and the hill is open from November to April.
If you plan to ski at Mt Norquay, check out Lone Pine for an expert-level run.
All of the other runs at Mt Norquay are wide, which is great for beginner and intermediate skiers to practise turns.
Sunshine Village is another popular Banff resort for thrill seekers.
This resort has 12 lifts and 120 runs, mostly geared towards high intermediate to expert skiers.
If you can handle more intense runs, the views from the top are breathtaking when the snow blankets the mountains.
If you want to get your adrenaline going, check out the South Divide for a one-of-a-kind view of Mt Assiniboine and a heart-pumping challenge.
End the night in style with an apres ski at Max Trappers.
Rentals are available at Sunshine Village, and the hill is open from November to May.
Lake Louise Ski Resort
Lake Louise Ski Resort is one of the region’s top skiing destinations.
This massive resort covers two hills and over 164 runs.
There are plenty of beginner and intermediate-level trails that are good for families or new skiers.
Nothing beats the views of the Rockies as you jet down the hill on your skis.
The resort is open from November to May and has year rentals available.
If you want some great views on a run that’s good for any level, you have to try Saddleback.
This run offers sweeping, snowy mountain views, and the wide, flat run is the best place for practising turns.
2- Take a Romantic Sleigh Ride
Nothing is as enchanting as a horse-drawn sleigh ride through the snow.
The beautiful mountainous backdrop in Banff makes it even more romantic.
This popular activity is available through the winter months as long as there’s snow, usually from December to March.
You can choose to ride along Lake Louise or in Banff itself, but book in advance as this activity is a fan favorite in Banff.
3- Rocket Down a Mountain in a Tube
If you’re looking for a thrill, try sliding down Mt Norquay on a tube.
At Mt Norquay or Lake Louise ski resort, you can rent tubes for this adrenalin rush.
Enjoy the view as the tow rope pulls you up the hill, and feel your heart in your throat as you speed down the mountain.
Tubing is available for all ages from December to April.
4- Ride in a Traditional Dog Sled
Thinking of a unique winter activity to do in Banff? You simply must try dog sledding.
Dog sledding was a method of transport used in the far Arctic regions of Canada and has become a popular winter activity.
Hop in a cosy sled and enjoy the view as a musher steers the pack of huskies along the trail.
The views of the wintery Banff scenery are jaw-dropping.
Dog sledding is available in Banff from December through until April.
5- Skate on Lake Louise
Lake Louise is an iconic turquoise blue lake that freezes over during the winter and is the perfect spot to go ice skating.
The mountains and stunning Fairmont Château Lake Louise are a fairytale backdrop as you glide past the stunning ice castle created on the lake every year or enjoy a night skate under a starry sky.
Rental skates are available near the lobby of the Fairmont Château Lake Louise and the skating rink is running from December to March.
6- Go Ice Climbing
If you’re ready for a real adventure, book an ice-climbing lesson.
An experienced instructor will guide you on how to use the equipment and teach you climbing techniques before you set out to climb a frozen waterfall.
This is one of the memorable things to do in Banff if you’re looking for an adrenaline rush.
Tours operate from Banff from November until April, or as long as there’s ice.
7- Soak In Banff Hot Springs
Banff Hot Springs is a popular spot year-round, but the best time to take a dip is in winter, when you can soak the chill away.
These hot springs and the nearby cave basin are what made up the original Banff National Park.
The hot springs has changing and locker facilities and guests are allotted a specific time to stay in the pool, so soak up the views while you can.
8- Drink At The Lake Louise Ice Bar
The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise pops up an ice bar outside the hotel each year, where you can enjoy an ice-cold beverage (literally) with beautiful views of the mountains.
It’s a wonderful way to relax after a skate on the lake.
9- Enjoy Mountain Views on the Banff Gondola
Marvel at the sweeping views of Bow Valley, Banff, and other Rocky Mountain ranges as you ride up to the top of Sulphur Mountian.
At the top, you can learn all about the rich history of Banff National Park before enjoying a treat at Castle Mountain Coffee.
If you want to take your summit visit to the next level, book a table at the Sky Bistro for elegant cocktails and upscale Canadian and international cuisine.
10- Go On A Winter Hike
Some of Banff’s stunning winter trails are maintained year-round, making winter hiking a unique experience by hiking popular trails under a blanket of snow.
Sulphur Mountain Boardwalk, Hoodoos Viewpoint, Johnston Canyon, Tunnel Mountain, and Maligne Canyon are just some of the picturesque trails that are open in winter.
Taylor Lake, a more advanced hike at 14 km and 924m elevation gain is also open for the winter.
If you’re attempting a longer winter hike in the Rockies, there are some winter hiking considerations to take before heading out on your adventure.
Hiking in the winter is an ethereal experience, especially if you get a clear, sunny day but the weather in winter can be fickle.
It’s important to pack and dress appropriately when heading out in Mother Nature, especially during unfavourable weather.
Here are some winter hiking tips to consider before you head out.
● Dress in light layers, with enough layers to keep warm, including thermals, hats and gloves.
● Avoid cotton and choose hiking clothes made of synthetic materials or wool. Merino wool is a great choice.
● Waterproof your boots to avoid wet feet.
● Pack spare socks, clothes, water and snacks.
● Bring a fully charged phone and an emergency GPS.
● Tell someone your hiking plan, route and when you plan on coming back.
● Do not engage or try to feed wildlife.
Banff Winter Festivals
SnowDays is a fun, family-friendly celebration of winter in Banff in late January.
It’s a magical festival that involves snow sculptures, activities and skijoring.
Ice Magic is a unique event on the frozen Lake Louise that occurs in January and February each year, where world-class carvers show off their talent and skills.
Stunning ice carvings can be seen around Lake Louise, and visitors can walk or skate around to view them.
Banff Christmas Market
The Banff Christmas Market is in late November each year, as the town gets too busy during the Christmas season to host a significant event.
Warner Stables hosts over 100 vendors, live music and Santa’s house, making it the perfect place to grab a Banff souvenir from your trip.
What to Pack for Banff in the Winter
Banff is a chilly destination in the winter, so it is always best to spend time packing correctly.
Packing depends on what kind of activities you plan on doing in Banff.
If you love the outdoors and plan on hiking or skiing, pack items like waterproof boots, ski pants, a thick jacket, hats, gloves, scarves, and many warm light layers.
If you plan to stay closer to the town and enjoy festivals, restaurants, and simple attractions, you don’t have to worry much about heavy gear.
A warm winter jacket, hats, gloves, and boots should do the trick.
Thicker pants will help keep the cold at bay, but ski pants aren’t necessary.
If you’re prone to getting cold, try layering nylon tights under your regular pants.
Where to Stay in Banff
Banff has so many wonderful places to stay and various options depending on your price point. Here are some excellent Banff hotels in all price ranges.
● Fairmont Château Lake Louise, 440$ CAD per night
Why stay here? For an elegant, upscale, once-in-a-lifetime stay with magical views and easy access to Lake Louise activities.
● Moose Hotel and Suites, 340 $ CAD per night
Why stay here? Rustic mountain lodge vibes while being right in the town of Banff, close to bars and restaurants.
● Tunnel Mountain Resort, 145$ CAD per night
Why stay here? Clean, comfortable rooms and a relaxing heated indoor pool
● Hidden Ridge Resort, 150$ CAD per night
Why stay here? Rustic charm with an outdoor hot tub and rocky mountain views.
● Dorothy Motel, 120$ CAD per night
Why stay here? Clean and modern-looking rooms with great access to the amenities in Banff
● High Country Inn, 125$ CAD per night
Why stay here? Great access to amenities in Banff and a large indoor pool and hot tub.
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