things to do in Banff in winter

The Best of Banff in Winter: 10 Must Have Experiences

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Banff is at its busiest in the summer months, but it is equally as beautiful in winter.  Snow capped mountains, a beautiful winter wonderland, and a plethora of winter sports to keep you busy.  Visiting in the winter can be more economical and a totally different experience then visiting in the summer.  If you are an outdoor enthusiast or merely want to observe the mountains from inside your cozy hotel, Banff in winter makes a great destination.

Have you already read our complete guide to visiting Banff and the Canadian Rockies in the summer?

My brother lives in the Bow Valley and we are fortunate to visit the area frequently.  We want to share with you our favourite things to do in Banff in the winter and where to stay and eat.  This guide incorporates lots of local information from a resident as well as our experience in visiting the area.  Since we travel with kids, we also give tips relevant for families visiting the area.

The 10 Best Things to do in Banff in Winter

Skiing

Skiing the back bowls of Lake Louise

The Canadian Rockies offer world-class skiing with loads of fresh powder and terrain for all abilities.  Skiing in the Banff area is unique because you are skiing in a National Park, giving you a pristine wilderness experience.  Our favourite ski resort is Lake Louise (45 minutes from Banff) because it offers great snow, terrain, and an excellent ski school.  Other popular ski resorts in the area include Sunshine and Norquay.  If you can’t pick just one mountain to explore, you can ski all 3 through the Ski Big 3 Pass.   You can read about each of the mountains and what they have to offer in this informative article.

Lake Louise is located in Banff National Park and is our favorite.  If you are staying in Canmore or Banff, you will have a 45-60 minute drive each day to get to the ski resort, but it is well worth it. If you are an experienced or beginner skiier, this is a not-to-miss activity in Banff in winter.

With Kids: All of the ski resorts offer great learn to ski programs for kids.  In just five days on the slopes at Lake Louise, our kids became much more confident and comfortable skiers.  We got to ski with our kids first thing in the morning and later in the afternoon and enjoyed touring around on our own in the middle of the day.  The kids loved spending time with their instructors and other kids their age.  Our youngest attended the resort daycare where he also went out for 2-1 hour ski lessons each day.

Also Read: 5 Planning Tips for Family Ski Vacations

skiing with kids

Ski school at Lake Louise

If cross country skiing is more your thing, there are lots of trails in Banff, Lake Louise and Canmore. Canmore is home to the Nordic Centre, the training area for Canada’s nordic Olympic team and is a great place to cross country ski.  Rentals are available and they offer miles of groomed trails for traditional skiing and skate skiing (they have rentals for children as well). Lake Louise also has miles of trails to explore and you can rent equipment from the Chateau Lake Louise rental desk.   Check out this link for more information.

Nordic Centre Canmore

Lake Louise Ice Skating and Ice Castle

This lake gets lots of attention in summer, but it is equally as spectacular in winter.  Just 30 minutes from Banff, a frozen ice castle is built on the lake each year. You can view the majestic lake and ice castle from inside the hotel’s restaurants or even from your hotel room.

Rent ice skates from the Chateau Lake Louise rental shop and you can skate around the lake and through the ice castle.   There is nothing more Canadian then skating on a frozen lake! Afterwards warm up inside the Chateau Lake Louise with a hot beverage.

With kids: our kids love the Lake Louise ice castle.  The Chateau Lake Louise rental shop has kid size skates.  This is another great family friendly activity.  They will really appreciate the hot chocolate afterwards!

Dog Sledding

One year my brother gave this to our family for a Christmas present.  We love giving and receiving experiential gifts and this classic Canadian experience was amazing.  We learned about these amazing huskies and their love for running and we even got to drive our own sleds.  We did our dog sledding tour through Snowy Owl Sled Dog Tours in Canmore, which was a first class operation.  Dress really warmly because it is cold out there in the forest.  We dog sledded through the woods, across frozen lakes and ended the day with hot chocolate and snacks beside a warming bonfire.

winter in banff

Such an incredible experience dog sledding

With Kids: our kids loved this experience! The younger ones loved being cuddled into the sled and the older ones loved the opportunity to learn to drive the sled and dog team.

Tour the Heritage Rail Hotels

Even if you aren’t staying at one of these beautiful hotels from a bygone era, it doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy them.  Walking through the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel is a must when in Banff.  This hotel was built in 1888 along the Bow River and is in walking distance to the town.   During the Christmas season they are both festively decorated and at their best.  There are gingerbread creations, Christmas lights and trees galore and a cozy, festive feel.   Walk through the Heritage Hall and see photographs of the hotel when it opened and read more about the history of the hotel.  There are lots of lovely restaurants to have lunch and get your fill of this classic hotel.  Weekend brunch is a tradition we do every year when we visit and the food is phenomenal.

The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise is also a classic heritage hotel.  You can’t beat the location of the Chateau and it is definitely worth wandering through the hotel when at Lake Louise.

Banff Springs

Touring the heritage hotels is a must!

WITH KIDS: Our kids find the history of these hotels really interesting, especially if it involves a lavish buffet breakfast or high tea after looking around.

Snowshoeing

I know it can be quite hard to step outside a cozy hotel into the chilling white of winter for a winter activity.  But once you step outside into the fresh, crisp air and look out at the mountains, you will be glad you did.  Snowshoeing allows you to walk on the deep snow and the modern versions of these devices are not nearly as hard to walk in as their traditional relatives.

Depending on your experience, you can snowshoe as part of a tour, independently just outside of town or head farther out for a back country experience.  Click here to get some ideas of area routes from Parks Canada.

You can rent snowshoes in Banff or Canmore and this is a great way to get active for all ages.

With Kids: kids’ size snowshoes are available and some of our kids found it more difficult then others, but it is such a great activity to do together as a family.

Sulphur Mountain Gondola

Maybe you aren’t a skiier, but you still want to get to the top of one of the mountains in the Rockies.  Luckily, the Banff Gondola at Sulphur Mountain has recently undergone an extensive refurbishment and is a great thing to do in the Canadian Rockies.  The panoramic views from the top are the same, but the dining options have been  taken up a level.  Brewster Canada runs this attraction along with many other activities in the area.   This mountaintop experience takes you 2900 feet above Banff for incredible views of the Canadian Rockies.  The Sky Bistro offers up top notch food with those spectacular views and is definitely worth a splurge. It is often closed for a few weeks in January for annual maintenance, so check before you head out.

Gondola tickets are $56/adult, $28/child (6-15) and free for kids under 6 when purchased in advance.

WITH KIDS: our kids loved the views from the top and of course taking a gondola is always a hit with the kids.

Hiking at Johnson Canyon

Just because it is winter, doesn’t mean you cannot hike.  One of our favourite things to do in the winter is hike up Johnson Canyon, which is 25 km from Banff.  You can rent ice picks (Yak Tracks) in Banff or Canmore, which are definitely needed on the snow covered walk up through the canyon (2.7 km to the Upper Falls).  It isn’t a hard walk, but does require good mobility.  Often you can see ice climbers at the falls.

With Kids: we did this activity without kids, but I think it is definitely do-able with kids over 6 years old.

See Some Wildlife

We always manage to see some wildlife while we are in Banff National Park, but don’t expect to see all the quintessential Canadian animals in one trip.  I have only ever seen one moose in my whole life (and that was in nearby Kananaskis country in the summer).

Elk, big horn sheep, and deer are common sights in Banff in winter.  You may see a coyote or mountain goat if you are lucky.

WITH KIDS: kids will love looking out for wildlife as you drive and walk around the area and this is one of the most popular things to do in Banff National Park.

Soak in the Hot Springs

The Canadian Rockies offers up lots of natural hot springs that locals and visitors have been enjoying since the 1800s.  I love the hot springs in the winter the best. The Banff Upper Hot Springs are 100% fed from the spring and is a great low cost activity (entrance is $7.30/adult, $6.30/child and $22.50/family (2+2)).  The indigenous people have used the hot springs as a sacred place before they were discovered by Europeans and developed.  You can read more about the history and see photos of the Springs over the years.  Be warned that the springs look more like a pool then a natural hot springs, but are still very enjoyable.

There are also hot springs run by the National Parks at Radium and Miette (only open in the summer).  If you want a completely undeveloped hot springs, check out Lussier Hot Springs, a 3 hour drive into British Columbia.

WITH KIDS: the temperature of the hot springs varies by season, however, our kids love going.  Just make sure to have them pop out for a few minutes once in awhile to cool their core temperature down.

Take a Sleigh Ride

This is a great way to enjoy the winter wonderland without being too active.  Cuddle up under a blanket and hang on as you travel over frozen lakes and through the forest on a sleigh ride.  Learn about the mountains, see some wildlife and watch the tireless horses.  Sleigh rides are available at Lake Louise and Banff.

sleigh ride

A great way to experience the mountains

With Kids: this is a great family activity for kids of all ages.  Kids will love sleigh riding like Santa and this unique way of moving around.

Canada truly is a winter-activity wonderland and there are so many things to do in Canada in winter.

Stay in a Backcountry Lodge

The Canadian Rockies are home to many backcountry lodges where you can immerse yourself in nature.  Most of them are remote and require helicopter flights in or hiking or skiing in.  For those looking for a once-in-a-lifetime experience, this is an incredible way to see the Rockies.

Lake Louise is home to Skoki Lodge set in a beautiful high alpine region in Banff National Park.  It dates from the 1930s and was the first facility for ski tourists in Canada.  You will have to work to get there – it is 11 km from the access road.  In winter, you can snowshoe or cross country ski there.  Once at the lodge, enjoy the cozy and rustic atmosphere as you eat delicious meals family style, play games by the fire and meet guests from all around the world.  THIS is the place Prince William and Kate visited for their honeymoon.

A great winter alternative is a stay at Mount Engadine, which you can access by car.  This beautiful lodge is located near Canmore in Spray Lakes Provincial Park.  They have a number of winterized tents, lodge rooms and even a yurt.  The food is delicious and it is a great base for exploring the pristine wilderness – complimentary snowshoes, yak tracks and fat bikes are provided.  If you aren’t going to stay the night, come for the afternoon tea.

Where to Stay in Banff

Staying in Banff National Park is an amazing way to experience the Rocky Mountains and allows you to easily explore the region.  Here is our list of the best hotels in Banff.  You can get some great deals in the winter months and for even better value, consider staying nearby in Canmore, a 30 minute drive away, with a wide range of accommodation.  Click here to check the latest prices of accommodation in Canmore.

These places to stay in Banff all provide cozy, mountain styled accommodation with great views of the Rockies.

Fairmont Banff Springs (Luxury) – there is no better place to stay in Banff then this luxurious 19th century grand railway hotel.  The location is absolutely spectacular with incredible views of the Rocky Mountains, but still within walking distance to the town centre.  Soak up the rich history of the hotel while enjoying the many fabulous restaurants and hotel grounds.  This is the best hotel in Banff.  WITH KIDS: They have great activities for kids through their kids club and youth programming. 405 Spray Ave, Banff

Click here to see the latest prices at the Fairmont Banff Springs

The Rimrock Resort Hotel (Luxury) – this hotel consistently gets great reviews and many prefer its quieter setting 5 minutes outside of the town of Banff.  This Banff lodging provides amazing views, classic elegance and there is a shuttle service into town.  300 Mountain Ave, Banff

Click here to see the latest prices at the Rimrock Resort Hotel

Samesun Banff Hostel (Budget) – this is a great budget option located right in the centre of Banff.  Hostels aren’t just for backpackers and Samesun offers clean and quaint 8 bed dorms.  433 Banff Ave, Banff

Click here to see the latest prices at Samesun Banff Hostel

Banff Hidden Ridge Resort (Mid-Range) – this property provides good value with their condo style Banff accommodation with full kitchens, fireplaces and great views just outside Banff. Great views and the opportunity to spot wildlife, along with a great pool and hot tub will make the whole family happy.  There is no restaurant on site, but you can make your own meals or walk 20 minutes in to town. ***Great Family Option*** 901 Hidden Ridge Way, Banff

Click here to see the latest prices at Banff Hidden Ridge Resort

Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise (Luxury) – another one of the iconic Canadian hotels set right beside beautiful Lake Louise.  The Chateau also has a rich history and will impress with its service, facilities, luxurious rooms and incredible views.  Don’t choose between Banff Springs and the Chateau; try to do a few days at both because they offer such different experiences.  WITH KIDS:they offer a kids camp and family activities in addition to inter-connecting rooms for families.  111 Lake Louise Dr, Lake Louise

Click here to see the latest prices at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise

Mount Engadine – backcountry lodge near Canmore that you can access by car.  A truly magical experience with great food and loads of outdoor activities to enjoy.

Click here to see the latest prices at Mount Engadine.

Skoki Lodge – backcountry lodge in Banff National Park that William and Kate honeymooned at.  11 km ski or snowshoe in to the lodge for gourmet foods and unlimited outdoor adventures.

Click here to see the latest prices at Skoki Lodge.

Where to Eat in Banff

If you are looking for fine dining, the best coffee or delicious pub fare, we have you covered.  Here is our list of the best places to eat in Banff.

Bear Street Tavern – we love the pizzas here and the best part is they serve it with honey on the side.  Try it, it is amazing! Located right in the town of Banff, this place can get busy. 211 Bear St, Banff  ***KID FAV***

where to eat in Banff

Have you tried honey with your pizza? So good!

Park Distillery – one of the hottest tables in Banff at the moment, Park Distillery serves crisp and clean flavours with their signature craft alcohols.  219 Banff Ave, Banff

Nourish – Banff’s vegetarian oasis, this farm to table restaurant serves lots of creative options.  We love the Num Num Nachos, a classic with 29 toppings including strawberries and dill pickles.  A must try!  110, 211 Bear St, Banff

Sky Bistro – this newly refurbished and redesigned restaurant on the top of Sulphur Mountain is accessed by the Banff Gondola.  In addition to having the best views in Banff, this restaurant serves up delicious bistro food.

Chuck’s Steakhouse – for a first class splurge, sample the best beef Alberta has to offer.  Even the side dishes are fabulous at this cozy restaurant.  101 Banff Ave, Banff

White Bark Cafe – this is the best coffee in town and serve pastries and healthy sandwiches.  401 Banff Ave, Banff

High Rollers – the bowling alley reinvented!  Serving yummy pub grub served right to your lane, a DJ putting out great tunes and a hopping bar, this is a great indoor activity.  110 Banff Ave, Banff ***KID APPROVED***

Beavertails – this Canadian classic pastry is a must try when visiting Banff.  Choose from a variety of toppings, but I like mine plain-jane with just cinnamon sugar.  2 locations: 120 and 201 Banff Ave 

Beavertails Banff

A Canadian Class: the beavertail

Where to Shop in Banff

Banff Avenue is the main street in Banff and there can’t be a more picturesque place to shop.

Roots Banff

Classic Canadian wares at Roots

Banff Tea Co – we love their high quality loose tea from all over the world.  Try the Banff Rocky Mountain Blend or Black Bear. Best of all 25% of their profits are donated to charity. You can also order online. 208 Caribou St, Banff

Rocky Mountain Soap – we love their products so much and always stock up when in Banff or Canmore.  100% natural, toxic free soaps and beauty products make perfect gifts for friends or yourself!  You can order online too. 204 Banff Ave, Banff and 820 Main St, Canmore

Cabin 108 – cute clothes and jewelry at affordable prices, I always stop by this shop.  108 Banff Ave, Banff

Branches Marketplace – a beautiful store showcasing local artist’s work, we love their home decor, jewelry and unique souvenirs.  202 Wolf St, Banff

Roots – there isn’t a more Canadian retailer than Roots and you will want to stop by here to pick up your cozy cabin socks and plaid shirts.  227 Banff Ave, Banff

Cool As A Moose – this is a tourist shop but a good one!  They have lots of Banff memorabilia with a great selection of kids stuff.  115 Banff Ave, Banff

Getting Around

Banff in winter

While there are buses and shuttle service available between Banff and many of these sites and experiences, it is easier if you have your own car.  If you are comfortable driving in winter conditions, you can easily pick up a rental car in Calgary.  You definitely want to pay the surcharge to have winter tires on your rental.  We have had great success booking cars with Expedia.  Check their latest prices here.

Temperatures in Winter

December until the end of March is the best time to visit Banff if you want to participate in winter and snow activities.  Visiting during the Christmas season is lovely because all of the hotels are decorated and you certainly get that white Christmas experience.  The two weeks over Christmas and New Years are high season and will be more crowded and more expensive.  Travelling in January and February will ensure good snow and better prices.

The Canadian Rockies and Banff in winter can have very low winter temperatures and you need to make sure you are prepared for the elements especially when participating in outdoor activities.  Make sure you are dressed appropriately as frostbite is a real risk.  Consult the National Park websites before setting out on trails as there may be avalanche danger in the area.  Always travel in groups and make sure you are prepared with adequate water, food and communication devices.

You can read about our last trip to the Rockies in the winter in this post.

We hope this post has given you lots of ideas about what to do in Banff in winter.

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