Last updated on November 3rd, 2022
Banff is one of the world’s most beautiful snow globes during the long winter season. From mid-November to April – and sometimes well into May -, you’ll find yourself immersed in a winter wonderland throughout Banff National Park, and there’s absolutely plenty to do surrounding these snowy Rocky Mountains. I’ve put together the top nine things you can do when visiting. Happy wintering!
Disclaimer: This post may contain affiliate links in which I make a small compensation if you make a purchase at no extra cost to you.
Important Notes to Know Before Your Trip
When driving through the mountainous roads, it’s better to have a set of snow tires on your car. All-weathers are manageable but not as reliable as winter tires. Most rental car companies in Alberta don’t offer winter tires on their fleets so if you can’t get them and you’re renting, at least aim to rent an AWD (four-wheel drive) vehicle for your trip.
Some of the roads may be closed off in the winter, for example Moraine Lake Road which closes after Canadian Thanksgiving weekend and opens back up end of May or early June. Icefields Parkway is also subject to closure when road conditions are poor. Be sure to check online for any seasonal restrictions! Often times, road closures may be in place to allow wildlife to thrive during crucial times of the year, which is typically at the tail end of winter and during spring.
You’ll also need a Banff park pass to be able to stop at any site within Banff National Park. It’s the same pass that allows you access to all of Canada’s national parks. You can order yours online or purchase one in person at the park border locations.
1. Go on a Self-Guided Sightseeing Tour
We’re going to start out with the obvious yet likely most overlooked winter activity. Winters in Alberta are not as gloomy as we see on the West Coast. We have a ton of sunshine that comes through our atmosphere, and when you mix that with the cold, crisp air, you get these gorgeous wispy clouds that drape across the light blue skies. The more I got out to the mountains in the winter time, the more I fell in love with these conditions. Sure the cold might hurt your cheeks, toes and hands, but you’ll brave through it just to enjoy another moment of these blissful views.
Spending hours at a time outside in the freezing -25°C/-13°F weather prompted me to find the most adequate outerwear and accessories to brave the cold. Here are some of my must-haves!
Alpine North insulated vegan down parka
Rated for -30°C
Baffin Jess boots
Rated for -50°C
FURTALK knitted toque faux fur pompom
There are so many easy-to-access photography spots in Banff and surrounding areas. Even the road to Jasper, Icefields Parkway, is filled with iconic landscapes that you simply have to stop and take in. Be sure to check out my top 10 must-visit locations in these necks of the woods!
TOP 10 EASY-TO-ACCESS PHOTO SPOTS IN BANFF
TOP 10 SPOTS ALONG ICEFIELDS PARKWAY
2. Take Your Skates Out on Frozen Lakes
At the break of winter, the lakes will start to freeze and create a shear and smooth layer of ice perfect to glide on. Not all lakes will freeze at the same time. The earliest ones would usually be Moraine Lake and Lake Louise as they lay on higher elevation, whereas some of the one that freeze later in the game are much larger bodies of water like Lake Minnewanka.
One lake in Banff that is properly zambonied throughout the season is Lake Louise, so you can always count on it being adequate for a fun skate. You can also rent your skis at Fairmont Lake Louise if you don’t have your own. If you want to retreat to a less crowded skating spot, and are happy to deal with whatever conditions welcome you, check out my top frozen lakes to skate on in and around Banff!
Important note: It is always vital to make sure that the ice is thick enough before stepping on. Ice should be about 3″-4″ thick and I go over some details of how to measure that in the blog post linked above. Skate at your own risk as there is no one present at the lakes to safeguard!
3. Cross-Country Ski or Snowshoe Along Alpine Trails
As the snow thickens in December and starts to accumulate on the frozen lakes, these vast and open areas make for the perfect scenic walks. But it can get tough to trudge through deep snow without the proper equipment.
Snowshoeing is the most affordable way to hike the trails and make your way across the lakes. If you’re staying at a hotel, ask the front desk if snowshoe rentals are covered in your room rate. We’ve managed to stay at a number of places in Lake Louise that offer complimentary snowshoes during your stay. Scroll down to see our recommendations for stays in Banff & Lake Louise!
Cross-country skiing is another great way to get some peaceful exercise outdoors in the winter months and there are tons of trails available in Banff National Park that accommodate this type of activity. Most of the trails are in fact maintained through the season which makes them much easier to follow and much harder to get lost. Cross-country skis are easy and affordable to rent, whether you’re grabbing them from a gear rental place like Sports Rent in Calgary or a local shop in Banff.
4. Hit the Slopes of SkiBig3
Carving through powder on the steep mountain slopes of Banff is one of the most exhilarating activities you can do. Alberta’s best ski resorts – scratch that, Canada’s top ski resorts – are among the SkiBig3 collection. Their mountains are Lake Louise Ski Resort, Banff Sunshine and Mt. Norquay. These are world-class ski destinations so you can’t miss out on them if you’re an avid skier or snowboarder visiting Banff in the winter. They come with different price ranges and you can head to Costco for ski pass discounts.
For beginner or intermediate skiers, there’s really no better place to learn and get practice in. The views are unbeatable and so is the experience. We managed to hit all three mountains in a single weekend with our SkiBig3 Roam Wild passport and we had the time of our lives despite our sore hips and shins. If you’re hoping to ski for multiple days, you can be properly fitted and grab rentals at SkiBig3 Adventure Hub in downtown Banff. They also have a great service where they can pick up your rentals from your accommodations after you’re done with them if you aren’t able to drop them back off at their location.
5. Go Snow Tubing at Mt. Norquay
Mt. Norquay isn’t just for skiing. They have the largest snow tubing park in Alberta with an incredibly long track. It’s so much fun to come here as a couple, a family, group of friends, you name it. You just grab a tube, make your way up the conveyor belt and the attendants will do the rest to ensure you have a blast on your way back down.
For prices and timetables, head to their website!
6. Explore Ice Caves and Frozen Canyons
One of the most awe-inspiring sightseeing adventures you can do in the winter is go on an icewalk! Whether you head to the renowned Johnston Canyon or visit the underrated Grotto Canyon, you’ll get to discover one of the ultimate winter must-do’s in Banff. Be surrounded and captivated by the icy beauty of the ice walls that appear to have been touched by Queen Elsa. Be sure to dress extra warmly with water resistant snow gear and don’t forget your crampons for this one!
You can adventure on your own but we highly recommend booking a tour so that you can be guided by the experts and perhaps uncover more territory with them. Check out Banff Tours for available tour packages!
7. Ride the Banff Gondola and Experience Nightrise
One of the most relaxing things you can do is ride up the Banff Gondola to the top of Sulphur Mountain and peer at all the snowy peaks of the valleys that surround you at all angles. You can take a brisk walk along the viewing platforms of this mountain top and head back in for a warm and cozy meal at Alpine Kitchen or Sky Bistro.
But if you come up the Banff Gondola after sundown, you’ll get to experience a unique journey for the senses called Nightrise which only happens during the winter months. Learn more about Nightrise by checking out my in-depth visit through this interactive and immersive experience that pays tribute to our First Nations and to the beautiful nature that make up the Canadian Rockies.
8. Enjoy the Winter Spirit at Fairmont Château Lake Louise
Lake Louise and its historic lakeside hotel transform into the epitome of a winter wonderland during the cold months. It’s not far off from a dream out of the Frozen movies. You can ride a classic horse carriage along the white trails, skate around the castle fort carved out of ice, and sip hot cocoa or grab a maple syrup snow candy from the Fairmont’s Ice Bar.
If you’re visiting for the day, you can hit the ice for a skate, snowshoe around the lake and dine or enjoy Afternoon Tea at the Fairview Restaurant. Or if you choose to, take it to the next level and spend the night at the winter oasis. Read up on our pre-Christmas experience of staying at the Château Lake Louise or watch our vlog below!
9. Go Dog Sledding
Take off an a quintessential Nordic adventure of mushing through the peaceful snowy landscapes of Banff National Park with a happy herd of new furry friends. Allow these excited and hard-working huskies to take you on a journey while you learn the old ways of transportation through deep snow in the Arctic Circle.
Photo from Canva
If there’s any winter activity that you should prioritize within your budget, I would say put dog sledding at the top of your list! It will be a memorable experience, especially if you have never done it before. Enjoy the ride and some puppy love!
10. Steer in Style with a Snowmobiling Tour
Last but most definitely not least is the adrenaline-inducing experience of riding a snowmobile in the backcountry on the outskirts of Banff National Park. People from all over Canada will drive for miles to come here and take to the trails with their own mountain sleds or trail sleds. There are insane scenic views that we wouldn’t be able to capture with our own eyes unless we trekked for days, but you can see them within hours along an exciting ride. There are a number of tour companies like Banff Adventures that will take you along these remote trails with majestic views that most of us never get to see.
Check out our insane weekend learning how to snowmobile in Crowsnest Pass with Crow Snow Riders!
Where to Stay in Banff
We’ve stayed at every one of these hotels and found them to be suitable for their ratings and prices. All of the above hotels in Banff town, apart for the Fairmont, are located on Banff Avenue, making them in walking distance from great restaurants and shopping. For more secluded options that are away from traffic, check out the Buffalo Mountain Lodge and Juniper Hotel! Canalta Lodge hosted our group of seven once and it was a ton of space on a two-floor loft as well as very affordable.
Lake Louise’s Mountaineer Lodge is much better than a 2-star in our opinion, especially with the recent renovations of their suites and most of their guest rooms.
There are tons of accommodations in the entire national park and surrounding towns in Canmore that will meet your needs. Above are just our recommendations to be in closest proximity to all the great activities and must-see sights in Banff!