I know this will sound incredibly cliche, but is there any place more magical than Banff in the winter? The mountains and pine trees peak out from underneath a layer of snow; the crowds are present but much more manageable.
Sure, many of the summer hikes aren’t available in the winter and you can’t exactly go backpacking, but there is more than enough to keep you busy. If you are in need of a little inspiration, let these photos and tidbits of useful information inspire you to make a trip to Banff in the winter. (And check out tips for planning your own trip to Banff in the winter).
And just to reinforce how spectacular Banff is, all of these photos were taken with an iPhone and none of them were edited in Photoshop/Lightroom. This is 100% Banff wintertime magic!
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17 Photos to Inspire a Visit to Banff in Winter
In the winter, there is no better place to catch blue hour than Vermilion Lakes.
My first morning in Banff I was greeted by the best blue hour I have ever experienced. I routinely alternated between stuffing my hands in my pocket for warmth and pulling off my gloves to snap yet another photo. One great thing about visiting Vermillion Lakes in the winter is the lake itself is frozen. You can step onto the ice and capture beautiful reflections in the pools of melt water. (Please be careful when walking on ice.)
There is no better place to catch the sunrise, either.
Following blue hour was an equally striking sunrise. Vermilion Lakes is a popular destination for sunrise (you can understand why), yet you won’t find serious crowds here in the winter. Both mornings I went to Vermilion Lakes and nearly everyone there so early in the morning was a pro photographer (well, other than me) and all were quiet and respectful, allowing each other to enjoy the sunrise peacefully.
Fun Fact: There are a total of five national parks in Alberta and Banff National Park receives the most visitors – up to 4 million tourists some years!
A visit to the frozen Lake Louise will leave you breathless.
And if it’s an especially chilly day you’ll be breathless for two reasons. Lake Louise has long been regarded as a heavenly wonder, a place so gorgeous you have to pinch yourself to ensure you aren’t dreaming.
Lake Louise was originally named Lake of Little Fishes by Stoney Nakota First Nation, but was later named Lake Louise after Princess Louise Caroline Alberta (another fun fact: the province of Alberta was also named after her).
Walking around Lake Louise always makes me feel a little like I’m a kid whose been plopped into the movie Frozen. There’s a horse-drawn carriage you can take around the lake. There’s an ice sculpture castle and natural skating rink. (If you have an enthusiastic skater in your family, a stop by Lake Louise would make an excellent gift for skaters).
A drive along the Icefields parkway is as beautiful as it is nerve-racking.
At least if you’re like me and don’t drive with snow tires. Huge mistake – but, as you can see from the photos, most definitely worth the occasional mild anxiety attack. (In all seriousness, get a rental car with snow tires.)
If you drive north on the Icefields Parkway, you’ll actually find yourself in Jasper National Park. With a single weekend, you likely won’t have time to venture too far into Jasper, but a short drive on the parkway will give you a taste of magical scenery. Another source of nerve-racking anxiety – you will frequently drive by Avalanche warning signs.
I don’t know if there is anything to prevent one (maybe don’t yell or fire Mulan-style cannons into the mountain) but they’re fairly uncommon from my understanding.
Read more: How to Spend a Winter Weekend in Banff
Take the gondola up Sulphur Mountain for gorgeous views of Banff.
The first three times I visited Banff in the winter I skipped over Sulphur Mountain. It seemed expensive and I expected it to be crowded. On my fourth trip I was with my boyfriend who really wanted to see Banff from above, so I relented.
And boy, was I wrong. We snagged a very affordable ticket (one that included a buffet lunch!) and were greeted by wonderful views of the town and surrounding mountains. Shortly after arriving at the top, a heavy fogged rolled in. Our encounter with the stunning views was short lived, but well worth the trip up.
Winter or summer, every sunset is spectacular in Banff.
There are few places with sunrises and sunsets of equal beauty. Personally, I think Banff is one of those places. I love how the soft golden hour light falls on the mountain sides, illuminating the pine trees and brightening the rock.
Lake Minnewanka, meaning “Water of Spirits” in Nakado, is a great destination for a sunset (as seen in the following photo). Alternatively, Two Jack Lake is a good bet as well (the following two photos).
Banff in winter is quintessentially Canadian.
You’ll find people ice skating on Two Jack Lake, playing hockey on Lake Louise, building snowmen and enjoying a warm beverage while snuggled up by a fire in a lodge.
In a country that gets two months of reasonable summer and six months of reliable snow, we know a thing or two about fun in the winter. Throughout Banff there are options for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, dog sledding (don’t dog sled here though, dog sled in Nunavut), ice climbing and more.
Visiting Banff in Winter for yourself
Getting around Banff
Your best option is to rent a car in Calgary. From there, Banff National Park is a little more than an hour’s drive. Having a car will be especially important when you are navigating to the various lakes and viewpoints throughout Banff. If you will be driving the Icefields Parkway, please get a car with snow tires!
Destinations outside of Banff
While all the destinations in this post are located in Banff, there are a ton of other beautiful places right about Banff National Park boundaries. Kananaskis is far less busy and offers equally stunning views. Jasper to the north has some beautiful – and iconic – spots to photograph. If you want to see more than just Banff, look for a longer itinerary with those parks included (like this 9 day Canadian Rockies itinerary).
Where to stay in Banff
Hostels: There are accommodation options for all budgets in Banff. For backpackers and those with smaller budgets, I have stayed both Banff International Hostel and Samesun Banff (both located in the town of Banff) and the Hostel International in Lake Louise. I personally preferred Samesun Banff because it had a more welcoming common area and bar, but all were clean and comfortable.
Hotels: There is an overwhelming number of hotels in Banff. In terms of quality and service, Moose Horn Lodge is supposedly the best whereas Tunnel Mountain Resort is the best value for money. Full disclaimer though – I haven’t stayed at any of these myself.
Luxury: If you can afford it, stay at the Fairmont Banff Springs. HOLY MOLY is it luxurious. So many celebrities and royal family members have stayed there, and the spa pools are exquisite. If you can’t afford it $850 per night (I sure as heck can’t) I found a hack to get a room for $220 and I’ve written about it in this blog post.