By now everyone has seen pictures of the beautiful turquoise lakes of the Canadian Rockies. Banff and Lake Louise are the epicenter of the Canadian wilderness, and are equally worth a trip in summer or winter. Here is everything you need to know to visit Banff in winter - where to stay, the most impressive natural wonders to visit, how to pack for your trip, and the best things to do in Banff in winter. If you're planning to visit Banff National Park a bit earlier in the year, check out our blog post on the ultimate things to do in Banff in fall for travel ideas.
Make sure you don't miss our top five tips to make the most of your visit to Banff in winter at the end of this post!
Banff National Park History
Banff National Park is the most popular of Canada’s national parks, with the most annual visitors. And for good reason! Visiting Banff in winter means it is full of beautiful glacial lakes, majestic flowing rivers, and towering snowy peaks.
Banff National Park was formed in 1885, which also makes it Canada’s oldest national park. The park encompasses over 2,500 square miles (6,600 square km) of beautiful Canadian wilderness. With this much space, you can definitely find your own picturesque slice of nature.
The Canadian Pacific Railway was instrumental in the early growth of the park, building two of the most famous Canadian hotels here, the Banff Springs Hotel and Chateau Lake Louise. These magnificent hotels established Banff National Park as a popular tourist destination. Having a hot chocolate there on a cold day is an iconic thing to do in Banff in winter.
Winter tourism in Banff was fairly limited until 1968, when the Banff Springs Hotel modernized and became winterized! Previously it was only open during the warmer months of the year.
Getting to Banff in Winter
Even though Banff is in the middle of the Canadian Rocky Mountains, it is relatively easy to get to any time of the year. If you don’t already live within driving distance, you will most likely be flying into Calgary, which is about an hour and a half drive away. In comparison, our drive from Vancouver, took about 12 hours. Despite the snow, there are a lot of things to do in Banff in winter which you can't miss out on.
If you don’t want to drive through the Canadian Rockies in the middle of winter, there are a number of shuttle buses driving from Calgary to Banff. Additionally, once in Banff there is a good public transportation system, and you can visit some incredible off the beaten path destinations with tours, such as the Winter Wonder Tour.
That being said, if you have your own vehicle, or a rental car, you can explore all the best things to do in Banff in winter at your own pace! Ensure that you have winter tires, as they are mandatory on all highways during the winter months until April.
Things to Do in Banff in Winter
Banff National Park in winter is full of great winter activities. Here are some of our favorite Banff winter activities and Banff winter hikes that will keep you busy on your visit to Banff in winter.
Bow Valley Parkway
On of the best things to do in Banff in winter besides skiing is exploring the Bow Valley Parkway. The Bow Valley Parkway is the scenic alternative to drive between Banff and Lake Louise. The road stretches 31 miles (50 km) with many great sights along the way. It's the perfect place to start exploring Banff National Park and you can't miss out on what it has to offer. Exploring places like this in Banff National Park is one of the reasons why we recommend having your own rental car, so you can see everything at your own pace.
One of our favorite stops along the Bow Valley Parkway, Johnston Canyon is dramatically carved into the limestone bedrock with steep canyon walls, and plunging waterfalls. During winter, the falls freeze over, forming dramatic ice features. This is a very popular spot for Banff winter hiking, as well as ice walking and ice climbing and the views don't disappoint.
The two main falls, Lower Falls and Upper Falls, are a relatively easy 0.7 miles (1.1 km) and 1.6 miles (2.6 km) hike from the parking lot. If you're like us and are visiting in winter, we recommend you wear good traction hiking shoes or bring ice cleats. The path can be quite slippery and difficult to master without the right shoes. The temperatures can be a few degrees cooler at the falls than in the parking lot. Bring your warm jacket to ensure you don't get cold during your hike!
This is, not surprisingly, one of the most photographed spots in all of Banff National Park and also one of our favorite things to do in Banff in winter. And for good reason, as you can snap some epic pictures here. Canadian freight trains curve through Banff National Park, with the Bow River in the foreground and large mountains in the background.
Finding Morant's Curve is relatively easy as it is well signed. Once you get onto the Bow Valley Parkway (driving from the North), it is a short five to ten minute drive. There is a small parking lot right across the street from the viewpoint. However, getting an iconic photo with a freight train is the difficult part. The freight trains passing through here do not run on a schedule and run at different times every day. As such, you can wait for hours and not see a train, or you may spot one in just a few minutes. Either way, make sure you're prepared and bring snacks and water, and a lot of patience.
We visited the Morant's Curve twice during our stay in Banff. While we did not get to see a full freight train, we did see a small locomotive and snow plough come through Morant’s Curve.
Lake Louise in Winter
Lake Louise is another one of the quintessential Canadian Rockies “must-sees” that should be at the top of your list any time of year. It is definitely at the top of our list of things to do in Banff in winter. You might be familiar with the lake due to its striking blue waters that most people associate with the Canadian Rockies. When you visit Lake Louise in winter, the lake is covered in ice and snow, but it is no less beautiful.
Instead of canoeing through those beautiful blue waters, you will find Lake Louise in winter turned into a hockey rink, an ice castle, and the perfect place to snowshoe and cross-country ski. Some of the main trails around the lake are also suitable for winter hiking, though if you venture too far from the Chateau Lake Louise snowshoes will be required as the snow can get quite deep.
Lake Louise is easily accessible by car and is a 40 minute drive away from Banff. If you're planning to visit during the holidays or on weekends, make sure you get there early in the day. It can be very busy and the parking lot fills up quickly. Also be sure to check the weather before you plan your trip there as it can be dramatically different from Banff. Generally speaking, the temperature at Lake Louise will be a few degrees colder than the town of Banff due to its higher elevation in the Rocky Mountains.
No need to worry about the thickness of the ice on Lake Louise in winter, as it is closely monitored. If you see people out skating on the lake, then the thickness of ice is at least 11 inches (28 cm). The famous ice castle built on the frozen lake isn't constructed until the thickness of the ice is 20 inches (51 cm). Once the lake freezes over, it generally doesn't thaw until at least the first week of June! That gives you a long time to explore Lake Louise in Winter!
The Vermilion Lakes are actually less than 2 miles from the town of Banff, and yet they feel like they are a million miles away! You may have seen pictures of beautiful reflections of Mount Rundle at any time of the year, and this is where the pictures were taken from!
The great part about going to Vermilion Lakes in the winter is that there is almost no one there. We spent a few hours one afternoon at Vermilion Lakes. During our time we only saw a handful of other people out enjoying the beautiful weather. This makes Vermilion Lakes easy to schedule into your itinerary any time of day and a must add to your list of things to do in Banff in winter.
If you are feeling adventurous, Vermilion Lakes is a great place to test the waters, quite literally, and take a polar dip. There are a few areas of the vast lake that are not covered in ice, if you are in need of a refreshing dip! Just be sure to have a warm car waiting for you.
Where to Stay Near Banff
We were hosted by the Grande Rockies Resort and had a wonderful time at the resort. We are excited to share our stay with you in Banff in winter. As always, all of the opinions are our own. Thank you for supporting the businesses that support us!
Canmore is a great place to base your adventures of Banff National Park, as accommodation, food, and all other essentials are easier to come by and more affordable in Canmore compared to Banff and the entire town is less busy. We stayed in nearby Canmore, at the Grande Rockies Resort.
Our stay was in a one-bedroom suite which was perfect for our time in Banff National Park as it allowed us the room to relax in the evenings by the fireplace and make a delicious home cooked meal.
If you're looking to explore the trails around Canmore, the Grande Rockies Resort has fat tire bikes and snowshoes that can be reserved for free. We took the fat bike on a spin and it's incredibly smooth to ride in the snow and such a fun thing to do in Banff in winter. They also have a wonderful indoor swimming pool, indoor-outdoor hot tub, and heated indoor parking!
What Should I Pack for Banff in Winter?
The weather can get properly cold in the Canadian Rockies during the winter. During our visit the nightly low temperatures reached -18C (0F), but -30C (-22F) would not be unheard of. Since you will be exploring the best things to do in Banff in winter, you should be fully outfitted in winter gear from head to toe with a toque (Canadian warm winter hat), scarf, warm jacket, gloves, warm pants, and winter boots. If you are spending a few hours outdoors a very worthwhile investment are the glove warmer packets! We used these each day outside, and they easily lasted the whole day.
The Next Trip Top 5 Tips for Things to Do in Banff in Winter:
1) Prepare for the cold
This is winter in the Canadian Rockies, and as we already mentioned it can get really cold! Even if you already live somewhere that has cold winters, it pays to be prepared for your trip to Banff in winter. Often when we travel we spend a lot more time outdoors, so be sure to pack all warm clothing and hand warmers!
2) Stay Hydrated
We noticed that our skin was very dry during our stay in Banff. This is partially due to the cold and dry air outside and the hot dry air inside from the building heaters. Another important factor is that we tend to drink less water when it is cold outside! Packing a thermos with some warm water, tea, or broth on your outdoor adventures is a great way to stay hydrated and warm at the same time!
3) Cook your own meals
While there are some fantastic restaurants in both Banff and Canmore, as they are located in a small remote resort town, they are priced accordingly! The easiest way to save a large amount of money on your trip to Banff is to cook a few meals in your hotel room. Our one-bedroom suite at the Grande Rockies Resort was perfect for us to cook some of our meals ourselves!
4) Hit the slopes
While we didn't have enough time on our trip to get some skiing and snowboarding in, this is a fantastic area for winter sports. Banff Sunshine and Lake Louise are by far the biggest and most popular ski mountains with tourists. Smaller Norquay is nearer to Banff, and can be a great alternative to escape the crowds when hitting the slopes in Banff in winter.
5) Have a flexible schedule
This is the number one mindset to have to enjoy your trip to Banff in the winter. Winter weather is unpredictable, and can be rather unfriendly towards winter travelers whether you visit Banff in December, January, or February. On our trip we encountered multiple road closures, rain, snow, and sunshine. You never really know what the weather conditions will be, but you just have to be able to roll with it. That being said, it's great to always have a secondary plan in the back of your mind if your first plans don't work out due to weather.
Save this post to your Canada travel Pinterest board for when you compile your list of things to do in Banff in winter or plan your next vacation!
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