It’s no secret that Banff – pretty much all of Alberta – has some of Canada’s best areas for outdoor winter activities, right? For downhill snowboarders to snowshoers to cross-country skiers, this area is a winter paradise. But what about all our ice skaters out there? You’re right to think that frozen lakes are insanely abundant and form some of the biggest and best natural ODR’s (outdoor rinks) we can ask for.
Keep reading to see which lakes in Banff National Park and the surrounding area are some of the locals’ favourites to glide on!
Disclaimer: As there are nearly zero restrictions on where you can skate in the winter in and outside Canadian national parks, apart from any signage you may see onsite, it is the skater’s responsibility to ensure the safety conditions and thickness of the ice prior to getting on. The descriptions below do not express by any means that these lakes are safe to skate on as these are strongly influenced by the weather conditions that change day by day. Skate at your own risk.
These next two lakes are undeniably and equally the most popular and reliable ODR’s within the Banff limits. They both find themselves along the Lake Minnewanka Loop drive (a must-do scenic drive in Banff!) and can be busy all year round. Because they’re frequented by many, the road and parking lot have undergone improvements to make them two lakes very accessible.
If you’re coming out here, the loop drive is usually done counter-clockwise allowing you to hit up Johnson Lake first. Both Johnson and Two Jack are often very smooth depending on when the first snowfall hits after the lakes freeze. Sometimes the snow will melt and create layered bumps on the ice, but the width and openness of these two lakes is so great that the snow is usually blown away before it can compress against the ice.
Two Jack Lake
Two Jack is usually the smoothest of the two and can be so clear that you see through the ice all the way to the lake floor! We love Two Jack so much because it has a wider 360-degree view of the mountains. Fun fact: stick around till nightfall to stargaze on a clear day! Two Jack Lake is one of the best spots nearest Banff town for astrophotography!
If you have some extra time, don’t forget to drive to Lake Minnewanka as well. Minnewanka is THE biggest lake in all of Banff so it will never fully freeze but lucky for us, it’s so immense that it freezes a little later in the winter months and you’ll be able to find a smooth patch to skate on. The snow almost never sticks on this massive frozen lake!
Though this area does not consist of one grand lake but a series of smaller, shallow bodies of water, Vermillion is a much quieter place to skate compared to the others I list. It definitely gives a feel of multiple rinks separated by trees and pond weeds, making it feel more intimate. Vermillion Lakes Road extends quite far west along Bow River so you can find a spot all to your group and feel like there’s no one else around. Vermillion is also a very open area so you’ll find that the ice will tend to be smoother with less snow piled on top. And you really can’t beat a view like this!
When I said that Two Jack and Johnson Lakes get busy during skating season, it probably won’t come close to how crowded it can get at Lake Louise! Count your blessings if you find yourself here the day it flash freezes. It’s a once-a-year opportunity to see the frozen lake completely aqua blue and crystal clear. No other place can really come close to being as beautiful as Lake Louise the day it freezes! Due to its location and elevation, Lake Louise witnesses a lot of snow in the winter. Great fun for snowshoeing and skiing, not so much if you’re hoping to take to the ice. Despite it getting lots of snow, people are always here to shovel it off to create their own little rink during the first 4-6 weeks of it being frozen. In mid-December, the Fairmont hotel starts to send someone out with a bobcat to zamboni the ice. This only typically covers a section of the lake where multiple people might come to conglomerate. In order to avoid the crowd, check out the tip below!
Outdoor skating tip: If it has been snowing, bring a shovel and a snow brush! The last time we skated at Lake Louise – not even 4 days after it gloriously froze, it already had inches of snow accumulated – it would’ve been impossible to do so had we not thought to bring a shovel. The snow brush helped to make the ice even smoother as shovelling doesn’t get the cracks and such.
Regardless of how snowy Lake Louise can get, it’ll still remain one of the best places to skate in the winter. Not only because of its majestic view. But because the conditions here are so consistent, it’s much colder so the ice remains incredibly thick, there are always people around to help in case of an accident and there is frequent maintenance to ensure it stays the wonderful ODR that it is.
On the east side of Banff, this one is much closer to Calgary. It’s actually right in Canmore on Highway 1A making it very accessible, still immersed in the Rockies AND you don’t need a park pass to get here! It’s very much like Johnson and Two Jack in that it’s a vast and open lake. The winds can be very strong in this area though, both a good and bad feature: good because it blows lots of the snow away, bad because it can get REAL COLD! Not to mention it could be a safety issue as the wind could blow you right off your feet! (Poor Jason.) But what we absolutely loved about Gap Lake was that you could get a whole area to yourself without anyone in site. We noticed that the lake starts to freeze on the west end so head towards the outhouse and park there. You’ll see a picnic table downhill from the parking lot cul-de-sac near the lake. This was where we were able to reach the frozen area.
Be aware that most of these larger lakes that are further east of the Rockies are still experiencing warmer weather in November/December and are not entirely frozen or not thick enough to safely skate. Check out the following tip to address this!
Outdoor skating tip #2: Be sure that the ice is at least 3 inches thick before getting on. There are a couple of methods and instruments (cheap and expensive) you can use to measure the thickness. If you don’t have the tools, bring someone who’s experienced in this. Note that even if the ice was fine a week ago, doesn’t mean it’s safe today. This area gets chinooks with crazy warm weather after you already thought that the winter had settled in. It’s always best to take to the ice with people who are experienced and after seeing others already on the lake.
Another gorgeous and lesser known one near Canmore! Not many folks will make the rougher drive to Spray Valley Provincial Park, but if you do in the winter, you will find yourself saying it was completely worth it! This was the most unique skating experiences for us. Pristinely smooth ice not far from rushing water yet the ice was still very thick, and tree stubs and roots at the bottom of the lake could be eerily spotted from the surface because the ice and water were SO clear. It’s a manmade lake as it feeds the Canmore reservoir, which is why these trees are spotted down below. But it made for a crazy skate!
Now this one might be a little bit out of the way for some, especially coming from Calgary, but it is THE spot to find the abundant methane bubbles trapped in the ice. That’s why Abraham Lake is so known and worth the long drive through Icefields Parkway and Highway 11 (David Thompson Highway). The best area to skate on on this massive lake is the south end. A decent sized parking lot is situated here and you can down some rocks to reach the icy shore. Be extremely careful, this lake isn’t like any other. The ice is not flat around the shore and actually has broken thick slabs that slant upwards and downwards, making it a lot harder to walk to the flat section of the lake. The wind is Clearwater County has also caused the ice to have a wave-like appearance making it all the more difficult. You might even notice ice cliffs on the lake where the Clive River continues to run. This area is the least stable and should be avoided entirely. Veer south to reach the flat, smooth, ice-bubble filled part of the lake to enjoy a smooth skate!
What lakes in Banff and vicinity are among your tried-and-true? And which of the above can you not wait to visit?