I don’t need to waste any of your time telling you how beautiful Banff is or why you definitely need to add it to your bucket list. I will, however, take a moment to say that Banff in the winter is truly magical and it is the perfect way to spend a weekend. Significantly fewer people, snow covered pine trees and mountains tops – it’s the epitome of a winter wonderland. So here are a few of my recommendations for things to do in Banff in the winter.
Things to do in Banff in the Winter – Map
I’m going to assume you’re coming to Banff to see the mountains and beautiful scenery, so I’ve focused this section on doing just that. You won’t have time to do all of these activities in a single, two-day weekend, so choose your favourites and use the map below to plan your route. And remember to bring warm boots, a pair of gloves and your camera!
1. Watch the sunrise at Vermilion Lakes
Just outside of Banff is the Vermilion Lakes Scenic Drive. When you first turn onto the road, you’ll go through a minute of forest and then the left hand side will open up to beautiful lakes and magnificent mountains. Since it’s the winter, the lakes will be frozen and the mountains will be snow capped and it’s a really magical scene at any time of day. I’ve visited this spot a few times and my favourite is definitely at sunrise.
2. Take the gondola up to Sulphur Mountain
The first two times I went to Banff I skipped out on the gondola because it was pricey and didn’t seem worth it. But the third time my boyfriend convinced me and I’ll be the first to admit I was seriously mistaken. It wasn’t as expensive as I’d thought (and you can find deals on their website to get the cheapest ticket possible) and the views were absolutely incredible. We splurged a little and did the Northern Lights Lunch and it was probably the best view I’ve ever during lunch. After lunch, we walked along the boardwalk-style trail to the summit of Sulphur Mountain, but by then the clouds and blowing snow had completely obstructed the view. Apparently, the view from the top of the Banff gondola is spectacular, but we didn’t get to see much of it.
3. Go skating at Two Jack Lake
This lakes turns into a natural skating rink in the winter, and you’re sure to see a handful of people playing hockey in front of a backdrop of mountains (possibly the most Canadian thing I’ve ever scene). If you don’t have skates you can also walk a on the lake in boots, but this isn’t as fun as having skates.
4. Check out Lake Minnewanka
This lake is just a little passed Two Jack Lake and has some beautiful views at all times of day. You can walk on the frozen lake to get close to the mountains. There are also a number of places to pull to the side of the road to see the mountains from higher up. Overall, this stop is really nice and an easy one to make!
5. Photograph Castle Mountain
This stop is purely for the photographers out there, so if trudging through snow for ‘that shot’ isn’t your thing, feel free to drive on by.
Here is how to get to the view point: Take the scenic Highway 1A from Banff to Castle Junction (you can throw ‘Castle Junction’ in Google Maps and follow that route, however there are signs leading the way). Right before you get to Castle Junction, you’ll see you have to cross a bridge. Right before the bridge, there is a little parking lot on the left. Leave your car here and cross the bridge by foot. After the bridge you will see a big fence on your right. Go through it (you’re not trespassing, the fence is to keep wildlife off the road. Please close the fence when you are done). Walk down to the water and feast your eyes on Ccastle Mountain!
6. Explore Lake Louise
Lake Louise is an iconic destination in Banff – and for good reason. It’s absolutely stunning and will leave you breathless (both because of scenery and because of the cold!). Fair warning, Lake Louise gets busy at any time of year. However, the scenery is so beautiful that it’s easy to get distracted by it and forget about the other people around you.
You can also skate on Lake Louise! Unlike at Two Jack Lake, you can rent skates at the Fairmont Hotel at Lake Louise, however it get’s pretty busy, so if you can I’d still recommend Two Jack Lake for Skating.
7. Drive along the Icefields Parkway
The Icefields Parkway isn’t a maintained road in the winter, so depending on conditions it may not be open for your trip. Check the Parks Canada report before heading out. I was fortunate enough that the road was open, so I spent about three hours in total driving and taking breaks to walk around.
And it is absolutely stunning. I’m sure it’s beautiful in the summer too, but with all the snow on the mountains and pine trees in the winter it really is a winter wonderland. One of the walks I did was a small portion of the Bow Summit walk. This is also a great place to go backcountry skiing if you have experience and some people to accompany you.
Along this road you’ll also find the lookout for Peyto Lake and take that iconic Instagram shot!
8. Play around on the frozen Abraham Lake
Abraham Lake is known for its methane bubbles frozen inside the ice, but truth be told, when I went it was super underwhelming. I’m convinced everyone else is just photoshopping their photos!
That said, I had a super fun time playing around on the uneven ice. This man-made lake is met by a river and that causes some funky currents. When the lake freezes over it isn’t flat and there are crevasses and ice chunks sticking out at an angle. Plus the view is lovely. But its so far from Banff, I would only recommend it if you’re in town for more at least three days.
10. Wander Johnston Canyon
Explore the frozen river amidst looping canyon walls. The Johnston Canyon hike is most popular in the summer, but in the winter you’ll find fewer people and frozen waterfalls – sounds good to me! You can do this remarkable ice walk either guided or unguided. I did it the guided with Johnston Canyon IceWalk and had a really good time – they provided ice spikes for my boots (so I wouldn’t slip), snacks, and lots of interesting information about the history and geology of the canyon.
I later learned there’s actually a secret cave you can access from the canyon. My friend at My Backpacker Life has written a post on how to find the secret cave.
10. Ski one of the Big 3
Banff has some really amazing opportunities to going skiing or snowboarding. There are three different ski resorts to choose from: Lake Louise, Sunshine and Mt. Norquay. Single day lift tickets typically range from $80-120 CAD. If you visit Banff for longer than a weekend, you can also get a Ski Big 3 Pass for $300 CAD. I’ve only skied on Lake Louise, so I can’t speak to the others, but wow the skiing blew me away. It was my first time skiing in Western Canada and I couldn’t believe how different is was from skiing in Eastern Canada (the runs are longer, the scenery is nicer, there’s more variety in the runs, overall amazing).
Where to stay in Banff
I’m not going to go into too much detail about this here, because I have an entire post dedicated to it: Where to Stay in Banff and Lake Louise: Accommodations for any Budget. That being said, I have stayed at Samesun Banff (hostel) and Banff International Hostel and both were pleasant (I preferred Samsun personally). And of course, my brief time at the Banff Fairmont Springs was just as luxurious as I’d imagined it.
Where to eat in Banff
Since I was staying at a hostel, I cooked all of my meals. I purchased groceries at the IGA in Banff, which I was expecting to be much more expensive than it was. I spent a total of $40 CAD and got enough food for two dinners, two lunches, two breakfasts and snacks.
How to get around Banff National Park
Long story short: Rent a car.
If you live in the Calgary area and have your own car, definitely use that. Otherwise, I would strongly suggest renting a car for the weekend. Sure, you can take a bus from Calgary to Banff, but once you get there how will you get around? I met other backpackers who hadn’t rented a car and they told me some days they didn’t even leave the town because they weren’t able to hitchhike or guarantee a ride back to town at the end of the day. Rent a car!
If you’re going on your own, it can be a bit expensive. My three day rental came in at $95 CAD (however, I also bought the best insurance and had to pay an expensive underage driver fee).
My best advice for car rentals in the winter
People say you don’t have to worry about getting a 4WD car, and I didn’t. However, if you can afford to pay a little more for the rental I would strongly recommend it (that and ensure your car has snow tires on it). Although the main highway between Calgary and Banff is clear of snow and ice, this isn’t always the case between Banff and Lake Louise, and it definitely won’t be the case for the Icefields Parkway. I experienced a fair amount of anxiety about my car while I was driving, so if I could do it over I would spend a little more on a better car and save myself some piece of mind.
So what do you think? Are you going to make a spontaneous trip to Alberta now?