Things to do in Banff in the winter:
Banff is an adorable ski town. One main road with lodges and restaurants all on and off the main street. Sweet mom and pop everything stores and restaurants all super well kept with friendly shopkeepers and wait staff. Be prepared to watch and talk a lot of hockey in the winter. When you hear “Are you going to have the game on tonight?” they are talking hockey – not football. 😉
I flew into Calgary, Alberta and drove 1 1/2 hours west to the beautiful village of Banff. The highway between the 2 areas is mostly flat and very well maintained. While approaching Canmore (the cute town before Banff) the mountains are just stunningly laid out ahead of the highway. Ask for an AWD rental car if you have any reservations about driving in winter. There is also a shuttle service that runs between the two locations.
Day 1: Lake Louise Hiking and Ice Skating
Lake Louise is an absolute must – a magical experience. 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 (a world-famous luxury resort hotel built in 1890) 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 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.
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.
Other options are sleigh rides pulled by horses, cross country skiing on the lake and snowshoeing. All can be purchased at the Fairmont.
Food 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. Remember that Banff is a well-laid out ski town. A hotel that’s walkable to this restaurant area is ideal and most of them are close by. I stayed at the Royal Canadian which was a lovely hotel (worth it to get the fireplace in the room) within walking distance to the center of town. The hotel also had a hot tub, steam room and small indoor pool.
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 wasn’t really 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).