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A 6,641 sq km hinterland in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, there are a lot of things to do in Banff in winter for adventure enthusiasts like ice climbing, skiing, snowshoeing, and more.
If you’ve always wanted to visit the Rocky Mountains then Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada, is an incredible opportunity to experience a minuscule portion of their 3,000-mile North American stretch.
Although this mighty cluster of peaks is beautiful all year round, the sheer amount of things to do in Banff in winter via a host of adventure activities is undoubtedly the season to see its raw beauty.
A seemingly never-ending showcase of snow-capped peaks with unbeatable panoramas from over 2,000m high, corridors of glacier walls, frozen lakes and waterfalls that become a canvas for play, and a dense wilderness full of diverse wildlife.
What’s more, the window of time with which to experience this season isn’t short. The winter season in Banff is where snowfall and crystallised layers can last for up to seven months of the year.
- Why You Should Spend Winter in Banff
- Adventure Winter Activities in Banff in Winter
- Cultural Things to Do in Banff Town in Winter
- Visit Lake Louise
- Visiting Banff During Winter?
- Further information on Planning a Winter in Banff
- Thinking of Visiting Banff in Winter? Pin It!
Why You Should Spend Winter in Banff
One of the world’s most stunning mountain destinations, Banff is famous for good reason. Aside from being a spectacular hinterland mass of 6,641 square kilometres, it is Canada’s first designated National Park after some locals stumbled upon a hot spring in a cave and decided that beauty needed to be shared and saved.
That was back in 1885, with Banff now a highly protected ecosystem (one that runs from the Yukon to Yellowstone National Park in the US). However, we must not forget that the First Nations people long occupied the area for over 10 thousand years before this.
The dedication given to Banff today for it to survive for thousands of more years to come means experiencing a real adventure into one of the planet’s best wilderness areas. And winter might well be the best time to visit Banff National Park, which becomes a prime ground for adventure and the opportunity to experience nature in its magnificent and unfiltered form. Even if the bears are sleeping.
It’s also a chance to see the province of Alberta outside of its capital, Edmonton, and the wild mountainous plains that contrast with the flat prairies of the province.
NOTE: A National Park Pass is required to enter Banff National Park, with a one-day pass costing 9.80 CAD per adult. This money goes towards the protection and conservation efforts of the park.
Adventure Winter Activities in Banff in Winter
Ice Climbing in Banff – Climbing Frozen Waterfalls
The Canadian Rockies are considered by many to be the ice climbing capital of the world, with this high adrenalin rush deemed to be one of the top Banff winter activities. So I went straight into the adrenalin action the morning after arriving for some beginner lessons. Armed with a pair of ice axes and fixed into some ultra-sturdy crampons, it was time to tackle nature’s best wintertime climbing wall – a frozen waterfall.
It was a short 15 to 20 minute climb up a fast forest track to a waterfall that stands just outside of Canmore – the neighbouring town to Banff. Here I was taught the essential skills for ice climbing with the help of the accomplished climbers from Yamnuska Mountain Adventures.
It’s exhausting in an exhilarating way for the two hours you try and mercy with the strength of nature, but you soon get into a groove of how to swing your ice axe with a momentum that comes from the lower arm and elbow in a swift motion.
The crunch and clunk of gripping your feet into the ice using the toe spikes of your crampons become second nature as you find a way to scramble up a jagged veil of thick, glistening blue-toned ice – all before lowering yourself down it with the top rope belay.
While taking a few seconds of rest balancing in a small ice grove, take the time to look behind you a little. The panorama of the Rocky Mountains in Banff is always hugging you while you absorb these mighty details burrowed within its basin.
Skiing in Banff in the Rocky Mountains – Banff Sunshine Village Ski Resort
To ski in Canada is a dream come true since it’s all a part of the mountain obsession. To say you’ve skied in the Rocky Mountains is an even bigger dream. Banff Sunshine Village Resort is one of the main Banff ski areas, located a short drive from Banff town, where you have three mountains with the freshest, powder-soft snow and incredible views at your disposal.
By staying in the Sunshine Mountain Lodge at the top of the main cable car line, you can step out of the door and STRAIGHT into the ski action. It adds to the excitement, being one of the first to make some S’s in the now and shaving time off the ground-village-to-higher-altitude journey.
The three peaks are easy to navigate when it comes to knowing your skillsets and what level of the slopes you want to take on. Skiing in Banff means taking on 3,358 acres of skiable terrain in the Sunshine Village resort alone.
Ski instructor, Ellen from Sweden had me back to my ski-pro-in-training self in no time at all. I can’t recommend her enough for beginner training here.
Every ski pro country has its set ways of layout and difficulty, and Banff skiing is no exception. Canada works differently from Europe, where a Green run is European Blue, Blue is a European Red, and Black is split into two levels (Double Black is the most extreme).
Sunshine Village resort has 137 runs (longest is 8km), 12 lifts and an average terrain of 20% beginner (Green), 55% intermediate (blue), 25% advanced (black).
As a beginner skier looking to move to intermediate level, a winter in Banff spent exploring Lookout Mountain was great for gentle, scenic runs and steeper slopes to carve out better techniques.
On one side of the mountain, I practised on the broader and steeper inclines (like the long Green run: 34) where you were nothing but a speak on white with a wide-open view, before moving on the forest-lined and wilderness runs on the other side, with names like ‘Miss Gratz’, ‘Pilgrims’ and ‘Cottontail’.
‘The Eagles’ is the peak between Lookout mountain and Goat’s Eye Mountain and is home to the Eagle Basin, and the ‘Delirium Dive’ extreme freeride zone. All riders must carry an Avalanche Pack.
While sporting a long Blue Run (71), Goat’s Eye is the place for those seeking Black and double Black adrenalin routes. However, the runs from Lookout mountain eventually connect with the basin of Goat’s Eye, so not all is lost when taking on lighter runs since you will get to sample it in some form. Mount Standish is the area to enjoy for more Green and blue runs aside from Lookout Mountain.
Cultural Things to Do in Banff Town in Winter
Banff National Historic Sites
Spending winter in Banff doesn’t mean limiting yourself to high impact sports and crazy adrenalin – Banff Town’s historical legacy is worth uncovering to better understand the heritage and traditions of this region.
Banff Cave and Basin
As the point of the initial ‘discovery’ of what became Canada’s first national park, the Banff Cave and Basin is one of the National Historic Sites worth visiting. It may be a tiny cave hole with a pungent sulphur stench radiating from the aqua pool of water, but it has enormous significance to the indigenous history of the National Park and the people who lived here before it became a place of public interest.
Banff Park Museum and Hot Springs
You can learn more about the region’s history in the neighbouring exhibition space of the Banff Park Museum before continuing to the other hot spring and layers of woodland outside. If you are here during the Banff Winter Festival then you’ll get the chance to practice Curling and enjoy the handbuilt ice palace.
Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel
Banff town is small enough to be navigated on foot, or a scenic drive where you can reach tucked away viewpoints such as ‘Surprise Corner’ that looks over the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel – the first hotel to be built in Banff that almost looks like the town’s very own Hogwarts.
More National Historic Sites of Banff
Other National Historic Sites of Banff, including the Cosmic Ray Station on Sanson Peak, Skoki Lodge, Abbot Pass Hut and Howse Pass, require varying degrees of hiking and backcountry access, which is all a part of the wilderness fun and pristine seclusion.
For all the things to do in Banff in Winter, you certainly need more than one season to experience it all. Maybe a lifetime. Banff is a playground that reminds us that as much as we try and dominate nature, it will always be mightier than us. And in its protection, we are shown how this patch of the earth once existed, long before we did.
Visit Lake Louise
The spectacular 2.5-kilometre-long expanse of shimmering water of Lake Louise is famed in summer for canoe rides with a Rocky Mountain backdrop, but it’s also a must-see destination during winter in Banff.
The meltwaters of the Victoria Glacier that fill Lake Louise to 90 metres deep freeze over, creating a giant ice rink, hugged by a frosted basin wall and overlooked by the majestic Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise Hotel.
From up high, the Peaks of Lake Louise Ski Resort are a prime spot for snowshoeing in Banff, where you will get up close to the Rocky Mountain ridges and experience one of the best panorama viewpoints of the snow-capped peaks. To experience nature from below, try Dog-sledding in Lake Louise, whooshing through the forest at high speed with rescued Huskies.
READ MORE: Winter in Lake Louise, Banff – Canadian Rocky Mountain Adventure
Visiting Banff During Winter?
Things to Know About Banff
Banff Town is located in Alberta’s Rockies along the Trans-Canada Highway, approximately 126 km west of Calgary. It extends to Lake Louise and eventually connects to Jasper National Park further north.
Banff Sunshine Village Resort
The Sunshine Village Resort in Banff has the longest non-glacial ski season in Canada – open for around seven months from November until May.
At an altitude of 7,200 feet, fresh powder snow is guaranteed almost daily. The resort is open from 9 am until 4 pm, with gondola hours from 8 am until 5:30 pm with extended weekend hours.
How to Get to Banff
The closest airport to Banff is Calgary National Airport. From there, it’s a 90-minute drive to Banff Town, which itself is a scenic journey as you venture further into the heart of Banff National Park.
How to Join a Small Group Tour in Banff
Travel with Discover Banff Tours
I was whisked around this vast space by Discover Banff Tours, which specialises in private and small group tours, to get you right into Banff’s heart, history, and culture – whatever the season. That means avoiding the crowded tour buses and masses of people when exploring the Banff landscape, instead of being one-on-one with the guide or in a small setting.
Banff is so large that it may be hard for you to find things on your own or navigate the enormous space, long drives and, in my case, what could be treacherous winter conditions I’m not used to in my own country. Discover Banff Tours knows the secrets, the best viewpoints, and where it is best to visit at a particular time. A special shout out to my guide, Noam, a chief wildlife spotter!
You can book packages from single to multi-day excursions for all manner of Banff winter tours. Choose from wildlife spotting, Lake Louise trips, the Johnson Canyon Ice walk in the narrow ice-laden canyon and snowshoeing in the Vermilion River Valley. You can even visit the 40-meter deep gorge of the Marble Canyon and experience the frozen creek bed of the Grotto Canyon Ice Walk. Get even higher with heli-sightseeing and heli-skiing days.
Winter Day Trips in Banff
- A National Park Pass is required to enter Banff National Park, with a one-day pass costing 9.80 CAD per adult. This money goes towards the protection and conservation efforts of the park.
- You can also purchase a Banff National Park Hop-On-Hop-Off Bus Day Pass via Get Your Guide to travel at your own pace.
- If you are looking at doing various activities and planning to visit multiple sites, also consider some of these Bannf trips and tours.
Short on Time? Want to Include Jasper National Park?
- Banff to Jasper: One-Way Sightseeing Tour – A 10-hour journey with a guide through the incredible mountainous scenery to capture the best of everything. This tour also runs from Lake Louise to Jasper. Prices from €179, including pick up.
For Gondola Views
- Banff Gondola to Sulphur Mountain – Including the 2,900ft ridgetop boardwalk.
- Banff Sunshine Village Sightseeing Gondola – Banff’s longest and biggest gondola up to 2,164m and from the village ride up to over 2,400, for a 360 view of the Rockies.
Sightseeing Tours and Walks
- Banff Johnson Canyon Ice Walk – Choose to go in the morning or afternoon.
- Banff Guided Walking Tour – A 1-hour and 15-minute small group guided walking tour.
- Banff Hot Springs – For a relaxation day, including the spa.
- Buffalo Nations Museum and Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies.
- Cave and Basin National Historic Site – The birthplace of Canada’s National Park system, with Banff being the first.
- Mt Norquay sightseeing chairlift for sightseeing at 2090m.
Activities on Lake Louise
- Lake Louise Sightseeing Gondola and heritage walk from Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise.
- Lake Louise and Moraine Lake sightseeing tour.
Winter Accommodations in Banff
Hotels in Banff Town:
I stayed at the 4-Star Moose Hotel in Banff Town, located right in the very heart of Banff town on Banff Avenue. Situated on one of the main roads, you’ll be just a short five-minute walk away from downtown Banff and all the amenities, including restaurants and bars. The hip coffee shop, Whitebark Café, is located next door for coffee enthusiasts like me (it’s hard to find good coffee in these parts!).
Using timber and stone throughout, Moose has the design philosophy to bring nature and the outdoors to indoor spaces. Facilities include a Spa and various pools, including private outdoor hot pools with a prime view of the Rocky Mountains.
Where to Stay When Skiing in Banff:
The Sunshine Mountain Lodge at Banff Sunshine Village Resort stands 7,000 feet high, up away from everything, and ensures you are the first to ski on fresh snow every morning. Mountain views, warm interiors, a spa and games room, and a selection of upscale and casual dining onsite like Eagle’s nest and Chimney Corner for breakfast, ski-day lunches and dinners means having everything you need up in the wilderness.
You can also find quick eats, café and grill bars in other onsite lodges such as Goat’s Eye Grill, The Lookout and Alpine Grill.
Further information on Planning a Winter in Banff
Visit the dedicated Banff and Lake Louise website for more details on planning your activities, accommodations, where to eat and general park planning in winter and year-round. The Travel Alberta tourism website is also a helpful resource.
I undertook this trip with the help of Banff and Lake Louise Tourism and Travel Alberta in the hope to inspire you to visit Banff in winter and be inspired by this incredible and pristine part of Canada.
All opinions remain my own; all images required minimal edits, and this landscape is the dream it appears. Mountain lovers – this is one for your list.
Thinking of Visiting Banff in Winter? Pin It!