What a delight the Pigeon Mountain hike near Canmore turned out to be. Once you…
There are an incredible number of things to do in Banff in winter. I personally think it’s a better time to visit than in the summer. The crowds are gone. Hotels are generally far less expensive and it’s way easier to score a restaurant reservation. No matter what the temperature is outside (even if its -25°C), you can slip into Banff Hot Springs (except during COVID) at the end of the day to warm up and relax.
Enjoy this cross-section of 13 activities in Banff in winter. If someone in your party hates winter, send them to the spa at the Banff Springs Hotel. You won’t hear a complaint from them again!
Getting up to date information on Banff in winter
For the most up to date information I always recommend checking in with the Parks Canada people. They have an office on the main street (Banff Avenue) in Banff but they also have a new Visitor Information Centre and Parks Canada desk at the Heritage Train Station.
The bonus to going here is the free parking, killer views of Cascade Mountain and lots of coffee. Not only can you pick up a map but you can check out their interpretive panels and historical photographs.
If you’re visiting Banff for the first time be sure to read Banff Travel Guide – Tips for Your First Trip to Banff National Park
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Things to do in Banff in winter – go snowshoeing
Snowshoeing is a popular activity and if you can walk, I always say you can comfortably snowshoe. From the Cave and Basin area head out along the Bow River and continue all the way to the Healey Creek trailhead if you’re looking for exercise.
But if you’re looking for beauty, head up Sundance Canyon. Alternatively head for Lake Minnewanka and do the trails paralleling the lake. The Spray River Loop, starting at the Banff Springs Hotel is another popular trail for snowshoers.
If you want something a little harder and longer, snowshoe up to the aptly named Ink Pots near Johnston Canyon. I also highly recommend Sunshine Village’s Signature Snowshoe experience.
Snowshoeing at Sunshine Village
Skiing is one of the big reasons to visit Banff in winter
There are three downhill resorts to choose from with Mt. Norquay and Sunshine Village the closest to the town of Banff. Lake Louise is another 30 minutes away – and offers truly beautiful skiing if there’s lots of snow. But it’s Mt. Norquay that has the best ski deals. Check out their website as they change it up every year.
Go cross-country skiing around Banff
Not only is the cross-country skiing in and around Banff stellar, there’s a lot of choice. Try the Cascade Fire Road near Lake Minnewanka if you want to be out for a full day.
Another excellent trail is the Redearth Trail that takes you up to Shadow Lake Lodge. Strong skiers can easily do and up and back in a day, stopping for a “tea” at the lodge before returning. Near Lake Louise the Fairview and Tramline trails are an excellent choice.
Try fat tire biking
Rent a bike in Banff at Soul Ski and Sport or Bactrax and head out on nearby trails for a few hours. If you’ve got energy to burn make your way to Tunnel Mountain where there are trails that include everything from beginner to expert. The Spray River Loop trail near the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel is an excellent choice as is the trail along the Bow River.
Fat tire bikes are big. Tires are the width of your hand, so it’s a lot easier if you can peddle right from the stores in downtown Banff than it is trying to load a bike onto the back of a car in winter, especially if you’ve arrived in a rental car.
Go caving near Canmore if its a bitterly cold day
If you don’t mind tight spaces, especially if it’s a cold outside try the Canmore caving tour. (Caves maintain a constant temperature above 0°C.) Pick a tour depending on how long you want to be underground.
If you love caving I recommend their adventure tour that includes an 18 m rappel into the darkness and a slide down the very aptly named Laundry Chute. The tour is not for the faint of heart but it sure shows off the beauty of the underground caves.
Do the Johnston Canyon Ice Walk
The Johnston Canyon Ice Walk can be crowded so aim to get there at the beginning or end of the day. You can also sign up for a night tour. The walking is easy but sometimes you need “icers” (always provided on tours) if the trail has become slippery.
Not only is it interesting to see the engineering that went into making the steel catwalks, but the frozen waterfalls and world of ice is exceptionally beautiful.
On weekends especially you’re likely to see ice-climbers at the far end of the canyon. That’s a tour you can try as well – even if you’ve never ice-climbed before.
Go skating in Banff’s secret spot
Skating is also a great way to spend time in the Banff area. While there is a rink in town and one near the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, you can also try Carrot Creek – Banff’s secret skating spot. Just read the post before you head to Banff National Park or you’ll never find it.
There is also lots of wild skating – depending on conditions in the park. One example is on Johnson Lake pictured below. It can be accessed from the Lake Minnewanka Road. As you can see, it’s not a secret!
Ice-climbing looks intimidating. And it can be if you get onto really gnarly, exposed ice. But it’s also a great sport for beginners – and even kids to try if you start on an easier icefall. Johnston Canyon not far from the Banff townsite is an especially popular place. Sign up for a novice tour – and you’ll be given all the gear you need along with instruction.
Trust me, climbing an icefall is an empowering experience and one I highly recommend.
Have fun on a dogsledding adventure in Banff National Park
Dogsledding crosses off all the boxes for a fun winter activity. It can be romantic snuggled up to your partner. If you’re traveling as a family, chance are your kids will fall in love with the dogs and have a blast at the same time. Maybe you’ll even get a chance to drive the sled which is a huge thrill in my books.
In Lake Louise, sign up with Kingmik Dogsled Tours, located within 10 minutes of the Fairmont Chateau lake Louise. On weekends, reservations are a great idea.
Soak in the Banff Hot Springs
The Upper Hot Springs in Banff, discovered in 1884, are one of the town’s most iconic attractions. The backdrop is stunning – and the waters are particularly soothing after a day outside in winter.
The springs are generally open from 10 AM to 10 PM, a bit longer in summer and on Fridays and Saturdays. In 2019 it’s $8.30 per adult to visit – and that includes a locker token. Youth are $6.30 and kids three and under are free.
Drive up to beautiful Bow Lake
If you want to see more of the beauty of Banff National Park, drive 37 km north of Lake Louise to reach Bow Lake. You could also continue for another 7 km past Bow Lake to reach Peyto Lake.
I’d only recommend the drive on a good weather day – but the reward is quiet roads and stunning mountain scenery cloaked in winter white. Do go prepared with a shovel, warm clothes and hot drinks. Cell service pretty much disappears once you’re on the Icefields Parkway.
Take the Banff gondola up Sulphur Mountain
Take the Banff Gondola up to the top of Sulphur Mountain. From there enjoy a walk about, enjoying truly epic views. When you’re hungry, head for their restaurant and enjoy some of their locally sourced food. Allow a half day on this activity.
For all the details on pricing and dining reservations visit the Banff Gondola website.
Spend a night or two in a backcountry lodge
One of my favourite things to do in Banff in winter is to head to a backcountry lodge on skis. There are several including Skoki Lodge, Shadow Lake Lodge and Sundance Lodge. Sundance is one of the few that permits one night stays. The other two – unless they have room – require two night stays.
No matter what, it’s a real treat to combine exercise outdoors with a stay at a well-appointed lodge with delicious food. If you haven’t done this sort of thing before, I think you’ll find Sundance Lodge the easiest of the three lodges to access, and Skoki the hardest.
Skoki Lodge can be accessed on cross-country skis or snowshoes. Getting to the lodge can be tough under snowy conditions, especially if it’s a first trip and you’re unsure about navigation. One other option is Shadow Lake Lodge, now run by the Alpine Club of Canada. The trail to it is easy to follow, and not to difficult until the last 15 minutes. It’s also readily accessible from the Trans-Canada Highway.
What to carry with you on a winter trip to Banff
Always carry the 10 essentials and check trail reports for closures before you leave, especially with COVID around.
Go prepared because if anything goes wrong its never pretty. Take extra high energy food, along with lots of hot drinks if you’re heading out on the trails.
Everyone should have a headlamp.
Consider bringing some extra clothes. Layering is always a great idea. I like a lightweight down jacket for instant warmth. Always take an extra pair of dry socks. Never ever wear cotton or you’ll freeze.
If you want to sit down, it’s way more comfortable and you won’t lose as much heat if you have an insulated sitting pad like this one.
Ideas of where to stay in Banff
There’s lots of choice when it comes to hotels in Banff – across a whole range of price points.
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