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Banff in Winter is a sight you have to see at least once in your lifetime. A winter weekend holiday to Banff National Park – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – is an unforgettable experience that will leave you longing for the stunning scenery, abundance of activity and fresh mountain air long after the season ends and the snow melts. While many people think winter in Banff is reserved only for downhill skiing, that’s definitely not the case – there is so much to do and see! There is great cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and a number of other great winter activities in Banff National Park.
Winter is our favorite time in Banff, with lower crowds come lower costs, with incredible hotel and meal deals, especially midweek.
Did you know you could walk through Johnston Canyon in winter, exploring frozen waterfalls? What about skating on spectacular Lake Louise below towering glaciers, wandering around a brilliant old castle and cross-country ski ing through some of the most stunning mountains in Canada? Just to name a few examples, of course.
how to get to banff national park in winter
Banff is located in western Canada and is easily accessible via a 90-minute drive on a well-maintained highway from Calgary International Airport. While there are buses that go between the airport and Banff, we recommend renting a car. This will give you the flexibility to explore all the sheer awesomeness that the region has to offer. All visitors ages 18 and older will need to pay a daily admission fee or present a valid Parks Canada Discovery Pass to enter the park.
Winter Driving in Banff National Park
Many tourists are rightfully concerned about winter driving in Banff National Park. Typically the highway from Calgary to Lake Louise is kept in good shape, though there are often icy patches. Furthermore, driving conditions deteriorate during and right after a snowstorm.
We suggest driving slowly and getting winter tires on your vehicle rental.
Insider tip: December and January are typically quite cold. If you can handle the cold you can expect cheap prices and no crowds.
Where to stay in banff in winter
Banff is blessed with an abundance of accommodation options, from economic to extravagant, state-of-the-art to historical – and all that’s in between.
Luckily in winter, there is typically ample parking in Banff, so you don’t necessarily need to stay right in the center of Banff town. That said, it is nice to walk out of your hotel and directly to the restaurant or coffee shop you want to visit.
For families, the best option in Banff is Hidden Ridge Resort. A 15-minute walk from downtown Banff, these condos are tucked into a ridge overlooking Banff proper with beautiful views of the world-class scenery and town below. The newer luxury condos that can sleep eight are the best – ideal for families or groups – and the open fireplaces, outdoor hot tub and kitchen make this place a truly magical weekend setting. If you’re booking a smaller room, make sure it’s not a lower level room, as these can be dark and loud.
For a bit of indulgence, the Fairmont hotel chain has two luxury hotels in Banff National Park. The first is the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, nestled in the heart of Banff. Nicknamed the “Castle in the Rockies” this stunning heritage hotel has it all. With a wonderful spa, upscale shops, local walks and delicious food and beverage choices, the only negative is you’ll never want to leave! If you go, make sure to save time for the massive outdoor hot tub. This is our favorite treat and keeps us coming back again and again. We also love stopping into the tiny Grapes Wine Bar for wine, cheese and charcuterie.
With a jaw-dropping backdrop of towering mountain peaks and the grandiose Victoria Glacier, the second Fairmont hotel is located approximately 30 minutes away on the banks of the world famous Lake Louise. Aptly named Chateau Lake Louise , this hotel is a wonderful winter base. With the Lake Louise ski resort a 5-minute drive away from the hotel, you can go XC skiing, sledding, ice-skating and dog sledding. The rooms with lake views are something to be experienced. You don’t want to miss out on a weekend stay here!
There are two other gems that offer guests both great service and a great setting. The Post Hotel in Lake Louise brings European quality to the Rockies. Recently rated one of the World’s Most Beautiful Ski Lodges, staying at the Post is unparalleled luxury – with an award-winning wine cellar and restaurant to go along with it.
Last but not least, just outside Banff National Park is the historic Emerald Lake Lodge. Sitting on the shores of the mesmerizing Emerald Lake and surrounded by some of the Canadian Rockies’ most striking peaks, a stay here will be unforgettable. Accommodation is inside one of 24 cozy wooden cabins – offering the perfect balance of relaxation and remoteness for the perfect romantic weekend. Be warned there are no TV’s or cell phone signals here.
banff winter Hikes
Another fun activity in Banff is to go winter hiking. Many people assume you can’t hike in winter – but that’s not the case! Most outdoor stores rent microspikes with mini-crampons that greatly improve your balance in snow and ice.
One of the most popular winter hikes is Johnston’s Canyon, where you can see frozen waterfalls and a winter canyon wonderland. Another great walk is the shoreline trail on Lake Louise, where you travel almost to the end of the lake. This is also the perfect route to bring a sled – it’s flat and on the way back there is a hill near the Chateau Lake Louise to sled on.
One of our favorite winter hikes in Banff is the route up Tunnel Mountain. The trail may be covered in snow, but it’s usually well packed down, especially in early spring. Walking up these lightly forested slopes is a pure delight, with magnificent views of the surrounding snow-capped peaks.
The Spray River Loop is a popular year-round trail, but we think it’s an especially lovely Banff winter hike. It’s possible to hike, snowshoe and ski along this trail, which loops around the beautiful Spray Valley. The short circuit around Johnson Lake is also an excellent winter hiking trail in Banff. Make sure you bring microspikes if you expect icy conditions, but the lake and surrounding snow-capped mountains create some fabulous photo opportunities.
Other Great winter Activities in Banff National Park
With so many activities, a break in Banff is great for families, friends, and couples of all ages.
Downhill Skiing Resorts in Banff National Park
To begin, there are three ski resorts in Banff to choose from – Mt. Norquay, Sunshine and Lake Louise. All the resorts are impressive, however Lake Louise is most suitable for both expert skiers and learners as they have wonderful long magic carpets. Mt. Norquay is the closest to Banff and has great lessons and a fun tube park. Finally, Sunshine Village has the best snow of the three and offers an added bonus: you can stay on the hill.
For more information on downhill skiing check out the extensive guide on skiing in the Canadian Rockies.
Snowshoeing in Banff
Snowshoeing is an increasingly popular winter sport, and Banff has plenty of snowshoe trails. From short and easy excursions to all-day adventures, Banff has you covered.
Perhaps the most beautiful snowshoe suitable for beginners in Banff National Park is the route from Sunshine Meadows. This route is a highlight and provides outstanding views. Other good winter walks/snowshoes are Bow Lake, across Lake Louise and Peyto Lake Viewpoint.
If you are going to go snowshoeing in Banff National Park, make sure you have avalanche training or confirm with Parks Canada the route you are going to take has no avalanche risk.
Cross-country Skiing in Banff
For cross-country skiers, the area around Lake Louise is abundant with skiing options, as the snow stays soft and dry due to the cold temperatures. Fairview Loop is a great xc-ski trail. There is also great XC skiing from Canmore to Banff and a magnificent trail to the end of Emerald Lake in Yoho National Park. You can arrange rentals and lessons through your hotel concierge.
Dog-Sled Tours in Banff National Park
Finally, you can’t be in the mountains in winter without checking out a sled trip – with the option to be pulled by dogs or horses, of course. Kingmik Dog Sled Tours operates in Lake Louise and offers trips ranging from 30 minutes to the entire day. You can also go for a traditional sleigh ride around Lake Louise with a pick-up directly in front of the Chateau. Banff Adventures also provides sleigh rides in Banff, either with others or as a private tour.
Quite frankly, a weekend isn’t enough time in Banff National Park for most. Once you get a taste of the magic of Banff in winter, you’ll be sure to come back over and over again to enjoy the stunning scenery and abundance of exciting activities.
Don’t Forget! If you sign up for our newsletter – or if you already are signed up for our newsletter – you can get a copy of our free guide on Saving Money on your Winter Trip to the Rockies! We can show you how to save up to 45% off accommodations, get a ski pass for $2, and save 10% off of dozens of restaurants all throughout The Rockies!