Things to do in Banff in the winter:
Welcome to Banff, a winter wonderland where snow-capped mountains, frozen lakes, and charming ski towns come together to create an unforgettable experience. As soon as you arrive in this picturesque destination, you’ll be captivated by the stunning scenery, friendly locals, and endless activities that Banff has to offer.
The journey to Banff is an adventure in itself, with a 1.5-hour drive from Calgary, Alberta that takes you through the heart of the Canadian Rockies. Ask for an AWD rental car if you have any reservations about driving in winter. As you approach the town, you’ll be mesmerized by the panoramic views of towering peaks and snow-covered pine trees that line the highway. If you’re not comfortable driving in the snow, no worries! There’s a shuttle service available that will take you straight to Banff.
Once you are settled in Banff, you’ll want to check out the town’s charming shops and restaurants, all nestled along a quaint main street. It’s easy to get caught up in the town’s cozy atmosphere, chatting with friendly locals, and watching exciting hockey games at local bars.
Day 1: Lake Louise Hiking and Ice Skating
The real adventure begins when you head out to explore the great outdoors. One of the top winter activities in Banff is ice skating on the frozen Lake Louise – a magical experience. Picture yourself gliding across a frozen turquoise lake surrounded by snow-capped mountains, it’s an experience unlike any other.
I have to admit that until I got to Banff – I thought that Lake Louise was right in town. Actually Lake Louise is about a 45 minute drive from downtown Banff but gorgeous the entire way with tall pine trees layered in snow and snow covered Canadian Rockies (especially Castle Mountain) which are absolutely stunning. This is also a mostly flat and easy drive with cleared roads if it isn’t currently snowing.
Lake Louise is one of those turquoise blue lakes, in the warmer season, that you see in all the photos. (Other turquoise blue lakes at Banff National Park: Peyto Lake, Bow Lake, Lake Minnewanka, Moraine Lake)
To get to Lake Louise – navigate to the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise which is the impressive landmark hotel of the area that sits alongside the beautiful, frozen Lake Louise. Parking is free in the winter.
We hiked the flat yet picturesque trail #4 next to the frozen Lake Louise which is surrounded by thousands of ginormous snow covered pine trees outlining the lake in splendor. A beautiful and magical sight to behold!
Hike out (on trail 4) to the massive frozen waterfall. There was a woman ice climbing her way to the top while we were there. Terrifying even to watch, actually. The trail continues into the forest past that point or turn around and walk back on the frozen lake.
Of course, no trip to Banff is complete without experiencing the world-famous Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. This luxurious hotel, built in 1890, is a landmark in the area and sits alongside the breathtaking Lake Louise.
Rent some ice skates from the hotel and enjoy a skate while taking in the stunning scenery. The Fairmont rents good quality ice skates near the lobby of the hotel. The skating is right on Lake Louise in an area that is checked frequently for the integrity of the ice, so I had no reservations about safety. It is probably the most scenic place to ice skate in the world!
There are a few restaurants at the Fairmont and even a very cool outdoor ice bar. Note that the food options are expensive at the Fairmont, but the reviews are that all is delicious and there’s always that fantastic view.
And if you’re feeling adventurous, you can try horse-drawn sleigh rides, cross-country skiing, or snowshoeing. All can be purchased at the Fairmont.
Food options in Banff:
After a long day of adventure, you’ll want to indulge in some of the delicious food that Banff has to offer. Whether you’re in the mood for Italian, pizza, or something more exotic, you’ll find plenty of options in Banff. The restaurants in the town of Banff are located mostly on and around Banff Avenue and Wolf Street. It’s a cozy little area with loads of restaurants and paid parking. Banff seems to have a restaurant for most every type of cuisine.
And if you’re looking for a cozy place to stay, the Royal Canadian hotel is an excellent choice, with a fireplace in the room (worth it) and a hot tub, steam room, and small indoor pool to help you relax after a day of adventure. It’s also within walking distance to the center of town.
The restaurants that were reasonable (for a remote ski resort) with delicious food and great service were Pacini (Italian food with an all-you-can-eat-bread bar – toast your own bread and choose from a variety of breads and spreads), Bear Street Tavern was a cozy nook with seriously good pizza and sandwiches plus a bar area that was like a sports bar. There are so many restaurants and breakfast nooks in this area that there’s really no need to plan out your destination ahead of time – just take a walk and see what strikes your fancy. Unless it’s the busy season – then make reservations ahead.
Day 2: Cross Country (Nordic) Skiing and Hot Springs
Cross country ski rental was very reasonable at Snow Tips and included skis, boots and poles plus some advice on locations to ski. We headed to Tunnel Mountain Campground , right outside of downtown Banff, which is great for beginners with mild ascents and descents and gorgeous mountains surrounding the quiet and peaceful area. It had just enough of a slope to be exciting without getting out of control. The campground has about 1 1/2 miles of groomed tracks (albeit it’s back and forth down roads covered in snow, but it’s really a lovely area) for beginners and those who have classic skied a few times.
After working up a sweat an option is to head over to the Banff Upper Hot Springs.* The water is a toasty (ok, super hot) 104 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s like really hot! It’s good on the muscles and relaxing for a bit. However, please do not expect to be outdoors in a secluded, quiet and rock covered little oasis, like I expected. *The Upper Hot Springs are an outdoor chlorinated, crowded pool with lifeguards. Honestly, it really wasn’t for me. 🙁
Northern Lights at Banff
Hopefully you are lucky enough to be in Banff when the Northern Lights appear. They did make an appearance the night before we arrived, so close. Get the app: Aurora (it’s purple) and it will give the probability and location of the Northern Lights near Banff (or anywhere, for that matter).
Overall, Banff is an incredible destination that has something for everyone. Whether you’re looking for thrilling outdoor adventures or a cozy ski town experience, Banff has it all. So what are you waiting for? Pack your bags and head to Banff for a winter getaway you’ll never forget!