Banff National Park is Canada’s first national park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a bucket list destination for many. Banff and the surrounding Canadian Rockies is an unquestionable 4 season destination with an unlimited number of things to do in Banff in winter.
A Banff winter dramatically transforms the landscape into a winter wonderland opening up possibilities not available in the warmer months. You’ll never have to wonder what to do in Banff in winter! In fact, your Canadian Rockies itinerary just can’t be long enough.
So, whether you’re planning a Banff Christmas or just want to take advantage of the limitless Banff winter activities, you’re sure to be busy and to fall in love with this Canadian Rockies gem. Banff winter hikes,
20 Absolutely Breathtaking Things to Do in Banff in Winter
1. Ski the Big 3.
Obvious, of course, But, also strategically placed as #1 on this list of 20 for all the nonskiers who think Banff + winter = only skiing. Yes, a Banff itinerary in winter typically includes some skiing. But, the beauty is a nonskier can plan 3 days in Banff or A LOT more and never get bored.
This works out perfectly because the skiers will all but run to the slopes, with their 360° snowy mountain views and the smoothest, driest snow skis can glide upon!
Banff and the surrounding area has 3 ski resorts to choose from, Banff Sunshine, Lake Louise, and Mt. Norquay. Whether you’re looking to ski over the continental divide, go off-piste, cruise while taking in the incredible Canadian Rocky views, need a family-friendly set-up to accommodate skiers of all levels or just want to ski at an award-winning resort, Banff and Lake Louise’s 3 ski resorts have you got you covered.
2. Banff Ice Skating. (Absolutely epic)
Skating in Banff comes with plenty of options. When the temperatures drop, Banff outdoor skating begins! The lakes and rivers freeze solid creating glassy rinks surrounded by evergreen trees and jagged snow-capped mountain peaks. Two Jack Lake, Johnson Lake, Lake Minnewanka, the Bow River, and of course, the fairytale Lake Louise make for unparalleled natural rinks.
Lake Louise is maintained and cleared of snow, making it the safest natural rink all winter long. On the other naturally frozen surfaces, windy conditions (and skaters with shovels!) will move snow from the ice and make it easier to check the thickness of the ice.
For Banff skate rentals and even hockey sticks visit Banff Adventures. The friendly staff will set you up so you can head off to practice your spins and puck pass.
Don’t want to brave the cold? The Fenlands Banff Recreation Center has an indoor rink open to the public with skates available for rental right there.
3. Go tubing in Banff.
No need to be a skier or snowboarder to slide down a snow-covered mountain! The Mt. Norquay tubing park has a magic carpet to carry you and your tube to the top of the slope. The only thing left is the rush of sliding down in your own lane. Mt. Norquay’s tubing is open every day, as well as Friday and Saturday nights from 5 pm-9 pm. If you have a Ski Big 3 pass, tubing is included with your pass.
For those who want the simple pleasure of sledding, head just behind the Banff Springs Hotel, on Spray Meadows Hill. There’s a smaller hill for sledding and sleds can be rented in town.
4. Indulge in cozy warm foods.
What is winter without warm comfort food?! Take a moment to warm up in one of Banff’s cafes with a frothy cup or bowl of warmth guaranteed to ward off even the most persistent chill. All located within the town of Banff, goodies like this bowl of 5-grain porridge or a steaming cup of coffee from Wild Flour, Whitebark, or Evelyn’s will warm up your insides and can even be carried out if you’re off to your next winter adventure.
5. Ride the Banff Gondola for insane Rocky Mountain views.
The top of Sulphur Mountain offers breathtaking views of Banff, the Bow River, and the magnificent Canadian Rockies that stretch as far as the eye can see. In order to reach the top, you can hike or take the gondola. The gondola, of course, inflicts less pain your legs but a bit more pain on your wallet.
The Banff gondola ride whisks you (warmly) up the 7, 486 ft. up to the Sulphur Mountain summit. Once at the top, walk along the Banff gondola skywalk for jaw-dropping 360° Rocky Mountain views.
The Banff gondola price is $56 when purchased 48 hours in advance, or $62 at the gate. Banff gondola tickets are $28 when purchased in advance for kids ages 6-15. Children 5 and under are always free, as are all children every day before noon.
If you do opt to hike, the strenuous hike is a series of switchbacks leading to the observation deck at the top. In winter, the conditions are generally very poor on the trail. Ice cleats and/or snowshoes are recommended. Check Parks Canada’s Trail Report for the latest on the conditions. The plus is, in the winter, you can ride the gondola down for free.
6. Discover the winter forest with a little (or a lot of) Banff snowshoeing.
The Banff winter hike typically includes snowshoes and, luckily, there’s an endless number of Banff snowshoe trails around town and in the surrounding Lake Louise area. You can follow hiking trails or set your own path across lakes and into the backcountry. The full-body aerobic workout will get your heart pumping and keep you warm even in the coldest temperatures. But, no matter your physical shape, the incredible scenery will take your breath away!
Beginners may want to start with a snowshoe to Stewart Canyon where you can walk along the icy Cascade River as it feeds into Lake Minnewanka. Or, snowshoe the loop around Johnson Lake as it weaves through a variety of evergreen trees and provides sweeping views of Cascade Mountain and Mount Rundle.
My personal favorite snowshoeing outing was along the Spray River East Trail. The Spray River Valley was absolutely picture-perfect covered in white with icy bluish frozen chunks suspended in time until spring. Even better, the trail is quieter than others so don’t be surprised if you’ve found your own spot in Banff National Park’s winter wonderland.
If you need snowshoes and poles, rent everything you need at Banff Adventures. I was so impressed with the quality of their gear and how quick and easy it was to get set up for the day.
Traveling to Banff soon?
7. Hunt for the Parks Canada red chairs.
Are you up for a challenge? Parks Canada has placed pairs of red chairs throughout Canada’s National Parks. When you find a set, you just can’t help but sit down…no matter how cold that chair is! Why? Parks Canada found spots with epic views of mountains, lakes, rivers, and all the natural beauty you can imagine in between. Spend just a few moments in the chairs and let the peace of the scenery in front of you settle in your mind and heart. Take it from me, though. The longer you sit, the more you won’t want to leave.
8. Photograph a gorgeous Banff sunrise.
Just a few minutes outside of downtown, the Vermillion Lakes in Banff sit at the base of Mt Norquay. Sulphur Mountain and Mount Rundle are perfectly positioned behind the lakes making for an incredible spot to watch the day’s first light brighten the sky and reflect the mountains on the lakes. When the sun finally peaks above the horizon, it’s nestled just so between the 2 mountains for a brilliant display of rays and warm light.
Yes, a winter’s morning Banff sunrise is bound to be quite cold, but the sun also rises later in winter. You can actually sleep to a respectable time, grab a coffee, and head to the Vermillion Lakes just in time.
9. Finish your Banff sunrise over breakfast at Juniper Bistro.
After you’ve filled your camera with gorgeous sunrise photos, make the 2-minute drive to the Juniper Hotel and Bistro. The restaurant has a wall of windows facing the Vermillion Lakes and the mountains beyond. You can watch the sun lift higher and brighten the national park while eating a top-notch breakfast.
(The Juniper Bistro serves absolutely delicious dinners, too. In winter, though, expect it to be already dark by the time you sit to eat. The fireplace and bar area make for a toasty warm spot for pre-dinner cocktails. The Juniper Hotel in Banff is also my top hotel choice in Banff!)
10. Grab your Icefields Parkway map and hit the road!
One of the most spectacular drives in the world, the Icefields Parkway is an absolute winter adventure! Visitors can drive the parkway for the jaw-dropping views and scenic photo pull-offs. Or, rent gear at Wilson Mountains Sports in the village of Lake Louise just before the Icefields Parkway to snowshoe or cross-country ski into the snow-covered forests and frozen-over lakes along your journey.
There are several Icefields Parkway points of interest in winter including Bow Lake and Peyto Lake that are worth a stop. Both have beautiful snowshoe trails to explore, just be sure to check the trail conditions before venturing out.
Don’t lose sight of the fact that you are in the Canadian Rockies in the winter. Icefields Parkway winter conditions should be checked and taken seriously. The road is only maintained in the daylight hours and will likely have a layer of compacted snow or ice. Icefields Parkway hotels, gas stations, and other service stops will be all closed.
Check the weather for a bright blue sky day, wear the proper winter gear, pack food and water, and go slowly. You can absolutely enjoy some of the incredible beauty the Icefields Parkway has to offer.
11. Join one of the Lake Louise Sleigh Rides for a winter win.
Lake Louise is gorgeous in any season, but in winter it’s like walking into a snowglobe. The Lake Louise ice castle, Lake Louise skating, and Lake Louise snowshoeing and cross-country skiing across the lake combine for a scene from a winter wonderland movie. Take all of this in from a horse-led sleigh ride on a path alongside the lake. Bundle up in a blanket or cozy up next to your travel companions. If you’re lucky, someone will shake the snowglobe and flurries will fly!
12. Explore the endless natural beauty on a few Banff scenic drives.
After days of skiing, snowshoeing, and ice skating, it’s nice to let your muscles recoup and take in the picturesque landscape from the warmth of your car. The Icefields Parkway is the iconic scenic drive which rightfully deserves a spot on this list and its own post. But, there are plenty of other can’t miss Banff scenic drives.
The Bow Valley Parkway which connects Banff and the Lake Louise area weaves through the landscape with evergreen and mountains as far as the eye can see. In winter, you can’t drive all the way to Lake Louise, but enough of the road is open to admire the beauty. The narrow road and close-in evergreen trees sparkle after a few inches of fresh snow.
The Lake Minnewanka Loop is perfect for capturing the immenseness of the lake and the snowcapped mountains all around. Along the way, admire frozen-over Two Jacks Lake or turn off to see Johnson Lake. Be sure to look for the bighorn sheep that hang out in the area.
The hill up to the Mt. Norquay ski area also leads to the Norquay Lookout. You’ll gain a birds-eye view of the town and a perspective on how looming the mountains are surrounding it.
The Vermillion Lakes Road is short but a great drive to see the colors of dawn and dusk, as well as look for wildlife.
And, lastly, the 35 miles of TransCanada Highway that cover the distance from Banff to Lake Louise has to be one of the most beautiful highway drives on the planet.
Traveling to Banff soon?
13. Strap on ice cleats (or snowshoes) and do the Johnston Canyon ice hike.
One of the most popular things to do in Banff in winter is to strap on a pair of ice cleats and do the Johnston Canyon ice walk. The frozen waterfalls create a Narnia-esque winterscape full of dramatic beauty. Hike to Lower Falls and then follow the path to reach upper falls for a 5km round trip adventure. If you have more time and the trail conditions allow, continue on to the Ink Pots.
The Johnston Canyon winter ice is also sought out by climbers looking to hone their ice climbing skills. On any given day, you’ll likely be able to watch the climbers on their way up.
14. Do some Banff National Park wildlife spotting.
No matter which season you visit Banff and the Canadian Rockies, you’re entering the home of countless animals, large and small. In Banff, the most easily spotted are mule deer, bighorn sheep, and elk.
However, moose, black bears, grizzly bears, wolves, lynx, and cougars live in the area. The bears will be hibernating in the winter, but the other’s are still active in the winter months.
On this Banff winter trip, I was lucky enough to see wildlife along the Bow Valley Parkway, the Lake Minnewanka Loop, and at the Mt. Norquay Lookout. Please remember, you’re in their territory. Be respectful. Keep your distance. And, help keep the Banff National Park animals wild. Absolutely no feeding wildlife.
15. Walk through town & discover the best of Banff shops and restaurants.
Banff’s pedestrian-friendly main avenue and smaller side streets are lined with shops, restaurants, and bars. In winter, once the sun starts to set, visitors shop for treats at Banff’s Sweet Shoppe or look for the coziest Banff sweatshirt and fleece-lined socks complete with moose silhouettes. When thirst or hunger strike, pop into a bar or restaurant for an apres-drink and food ranging from pizza to steak to fondue and everything in between.
16. Don’t miss out on a dinner at Park Distillery Banff.
Speaking of places to eat in Banff, it would be unfair if I didn’t share my top pick. Of all the restaurants in Banff, my heart belongs to just one, Park Distillery. So much so, I couldn’t leave Banff without returning for a second time.
Dubbed as campfire cuisine, the menu has wood-fired dishes like roast chicken, seared salmon, and vegetable sides like creamed kale and grilled carrots. Ingredients are locally sourced from nearby farms and expertly prepared. Your campfire cookout never tasted so good!
I was a satisfied happy camper with my veggie bowl containing fava bean falafel and egg! My husband and I even fork-fought for the last chunk of roasted squash. The coziness of the fireplaces inside and the comfort from the warm, fresh food strikes the perfect balance on a winter night after a day of adventure in Banff National Park.
Best of all, Park Distillery is an actual distillery. Vodka, gin, and rye are all handmade in Banff in small batches with grain from local high-altitude farms and glacier-fed water. If you’re interested in the process, Park Distillery offers free daily tours at 3:30 pm.
17. Soak in the Banff natural hot springs.
Banff National Park was initially established to protect the natural hot springs that had been used by Indigenous people for years for ceremonies and healing. Not coincidentally, the naturally heated mineral water is the perfect remedy day or night to soak tired muscles and restore your body’s defenses from the winter cold.
Bring a bathing suit. Towels can be your own or rented there. During the winter, the Banff hot springs hours are from 10 am-10 pm during the week and until 11 pm on Friday and Saturday nights.
18. Stay up late and wait for the Banff Northern Lights.
Seeing the Northern Lights anywhere is an experience on many a bucket list. It’s truly a wondrous night sky event. When the Banff National Park Northern Lights come out for a show, it’s nearly impossible to take your eyes off the sky. Head away from sources of artificial light for your best chance to see the green glow. Lake Minnewanka is a dark spot, close to town, with wide open skies over the lake. You can check the odds of the Banff Aurora Borealis appearing on this Aurora Watch website.
19. Go dog sledding from Lake Louise or Banff National Park.
Kingmik offers the only dogsledding tours in Banff National Park. Unfortunately, this is the only activity I ran out of time for on my trip. However, I have gone dog sledding in Finland and can speak to the experience. The rush of the sled as it glides over the snow and races through a snowy forest is unforgettable. You’ll forge a connection with the dogs and appreciate their enthusiasm and work while forming a bond with the natural beauty surrounding you.
There are several tour options to choose from, with dog sledding from Lake Louise or Banff National Park available.
20. Take a day trip to Yoho and/or Kootenay National Park.
Just over the Alberta line in British Columbia, Yoho and Kootenay National Parks sit waiting to be explored. They’re easy day trips from Banff and are generally quieter than Banff and Lake Louise.
Marble Canyon in Kootenay National Park is just across the Continental Divide. While snowshoeing the trail, you can’t help but gush over the stunning mountain vistas and icy turquoise water from the mixing of the Vermillion River and Tokumm Creek.
In Yoho National Park, Emerald Lake and the surrounding snowy forests are out of a storybook and perfect for snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, or simply finding a snow-covered spot on a winter hiking trail.
Banff National Park and the Canadian Rockies is no doubt a 4 season destination. But, in winter, the landscape transforms itself into a snowy paradise with endless activities and sights special only to the season.
Which winter activities would you like to do in Banff?
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Disclosure: Banff Lake Louise Tourism provided us with an Alive Pass which gave us access to several activities and attractions in the area. As always, all opinions are my own.
Traveling to Banff soon?