Are you visiting Banff National Park in winter and wondering about the best Banff winter activities?

Ask any Canadian where visitors to the sprawling country should go first and you are likely to hear “the Rockies” in response.

The Canadian Rockies occupy a vast area of western Canada, and the best way to get up close and personal with their splendor is to visit Banff National Park, in Alberta.

We’ve put together a list of the best Banff winter activities for any traveler.

While the beauty of Banff is witnessed year-round, there’s just something so magical about taking in the landscape in a winter wonderland.


Below, you will find insider tips on the top things to do if you are visiting Banff in the winter, where to stay in Banff, how to get around in Banff, and the best places to see the most unique natural wonders like the Northern Lights and ice bubbles.

While we focus on Banff winter activities perfect for families, we certainly did not forget about our couples visiting Banff for a romantic getaway.

There is a really good chance that this post contains affiliate links. If you click one of them, we may receive a small commission (for which we are deeply grateful) at no extra cost to you.

Mountain Goats are a common sight in Banff national park
Chances are you will need to hit the brakes for these mountain goats on your way to Banff National Park

Where is Banff National Park


Banff National Park is located in the Canadian Rocky Mountains in the western Canadian province of Alberta.

You may have already guessed that Banff National Park is a massive place, occupying an area of over 2,200 square miles on the eastern side of the mountain range.

The launching point for your winter adventure will be the town of Banff which is where you will find lodging, dining, and some of the winter activities mentioned in this article.

Banff is located 1.5 hours west of the closest major airport in Calgary, Alberta and to the south of another major Canadian national park, Jasper.

If you are looking for more amazing national parks in Canada, click here.


How do I get to Banff


There are several ways of getting to Banff National Park.

Flying

Calgary International Airport ( Canada )

The most accessible way to begin your trip is to fly into Calgary International Airport in Calgary, Alberta.

From there, you can rent a car and drive in about1.5 hours along the fabled Trans-Canada Highway to the Town of Banff.

Driving

Driving is one of the easiest and most comfortable ways to reach Banff in winter.

Furthermore, a car will really give you the flexibility to reach any of the below-mentioned destinations.

Be sure to book in advance and look online for the best deals.

If you are looking for a rental car, take a look at Rentalcars.com. Here you can easily compare the prices of different rental companies.  The site is one of the biggest of its kind, works with all large household names as well as most small niche rental car companies, and, therefore, has a global offering.

Check prices and availability:
Rentalcars.com

The journey from the airport to your hotel in Banff will take approximately 1.5 hours in regular traffic.

Train


If you opt for taking a more scenic route to Banff, there is a luxury option: train travel.

Start your trip in Vancouver, British Columbia and ride the Canadian National Railroad on the Rocky Mountaineer route.

The entire trip will take two days in a luxury train with beautiful views of British Columbia’s forests and the Rocky Mountains.

The luxury Rocky Mountaineer train
The luxury Rocky Mountaineer train (photo credits: Cwojtun)


Getting around Banff


At 1.5 square miles, the Town of Banff is the perfect size to navigate on foot.

However, getting around Banff National Park in the winter and reaching some of the best sights and activities will require another mode of transportation.

A rental car is the best way to see Banff at your own pace and in the comfort of a heated, enclosed space.

Parking is readily available at all major hotels, and at winter destinations such as ski resorts.

Throughout the winter, many ski resorts offer ski shuttle buses to transport you between the Town of Banff and the three major ski areas: Mount Norquay, Sunshine Village, and the Lake Louise Ski Area.

Banff FAQ

Here we answer some questions you may have about visiting Banff in winter.


Is Banff worth visiting in winter


Consider us biased, but we think Banff is best visited in winter.

While a summer trip to Banff is a great experience, there’s just no comparison to a winter wonderland Banff vacation.

Winter in Banff brings unique opportunities to skate along Lake Louise, sip wine or hot chocolate next to a roaring fire and look out at the mountain peaks or spot the Northern Lights from your hotel room.


How many days do you need in Banff in winter


The number of days to add to your Banff itinerary depends on how much fun you plan to have.

However, we found that the sweet spot for visiting Banff in winter is 3 to 4 days.

Here you can find a few Banff itineraries:


What should I pack for Banff in winter

Ice Cleats
Ice cleats

Winter is cold, but Banff in winter is propably colder. Temperatures vary day-to-day, but with average lows of -15°C in the winter and frequent snowfall, you need to be prepared for the elements.

Some key items to pack into your luggage are additional layers of warm jackets, warm hat, gloves and scarves.

The trails do get a bit icy and snow boots or ice cleats are a great idea as well (ice cleats can be rented in some places for a nominal fee).

If you plan on hiking a lot we advise you to wear winter hiking leggings and bring your own pair of ice cleats. Here you can find an overview of the best ice cleats for walking.

This might seem counterintuitive, though not if you’ve ever snowboarded or skied, but sunglasses and sunscreen are a must if you plan to hit the slopes as the rays will bounce off of the pure white snow and get in your eyes or leave a burn.

Oh, and one more thing: bring your swimwear. There are wonderful natural hot springs in Banff that are perfect for a soak on a snowy day.

For more tips on how to visit the Canadian Rockies in winter, click here.


Where to stay in Banff in winter


There are many places to stay in picturesque Banff during the winter months.

Where to stay in Banff in winter: Banff town center

Whether you are looking for a great view, a bargain rate, or a stay in a ski resort, we’ve got you covered on the best places to stay in Banff in winter.

A view on the iconic Banff Springs Hotel
The iconic Banff Springs Hotel
Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel
Fairmont Banff Springs

For over 130 years, guests of the luxurious Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel have had the most enviable view of the Town of Banff and the surrounding Rockies.

This hotel has been likened to a castle more times than we can count, and for good reason.

Guests have access to all kinds of amenities including indoor heated pool and spa treatments as well as award-winning dining.

More information and booking:

Booking.com

The Royal Canadian Lodge Spa
Royal Canadian lodge

The Royal Canadian Lodge Spa central location makes for a great hub from which to explore Banff National Park.

The hotel in the middle of the Town of Banff provides guests with delectable local dining options, large rooms, comfy beds, and suites equipped with gas fireplaces.

More information and booking:

Booking.com

If you prefer staying in an Airbnb in Banff national park, check out this list in which we share 15 best Airbnbs in Banff.

Where to stay in Banff in winter: Town of Canmore


If you are looking for a cheaper option during the peak winter season, look no further than Banff’s neighbor, the Town of Canmore.

Canmore is located within 20-minutes driving along the Trans-Canada Highway and has over a dozen options for great places to stay.

Whether you are looking for a boutique hotel or a brand-name stay to collect travel rewards, rates in Canmore are consistently lower than those in Banff.

Check prices and availability:
Booking.com

If you prefer staying in Airbnbs, check out this post about the best Airbnbs in Canmore.

Best things to do in Banff in winter


Winter at Banff National Park means endless fun.

We’ve compiled a list of the top things to do in Banff in winter that we know you will love.

Though the weather can change very quickly, we hope that you’ll come prepared with layers of warm clothes and all necessary supplies to explore Banff safely.

Visiting Johnston Canyon is one of the top things to do in Banff in Winter
Visiting Johnston Canyon is one of the top things to do in Banff in Winter


Explore the frozen Johnston Canyon


Want to see a wall of ice rivaling the one in Game of Thrones? Ok, we’re exaggerating, but not by much.

Pack your boots and ice cleats, we’re heading to the frozen Johnston Canyon.

Famous for its lower and upper waterfalls, a winter trip to Johnston Canyon rewards hikers with incredible views of frozen turquoise blue waters and large hanging icicles along the canyon walls.

Johnston Canyon is open year-round, and the hiking trail is accessible to people of all fitness levels.

We were serious when we suggested boots and ice cleats. The paths are mostly made up of steel catwalks that jut out from the side of the canyon and winding forest trails which ice over in the wintry Banff weather.

The entire trail is roughly 3 miles long, from the lower to upper falls.

The walk among frozen waters and massive snowy pines is glorious but gets better once you ascend to the upper falls and take a gander from one of the two observation platforms.

We’ve said winter wonderland already, but let’s call Johnston Canyon an icy paradise!

Although you can easily do this hike on your own, as an alternative, you can join an organized tour.

The main benefit of taking such a tour is that you will be accompanied by a guide who shares tons of information about its history and the many sights.

You also don’t need to worry about ice cleats since they will be provided

Check prices and availability:
Johnston Canyon Icewalk Tickets

How to reach

Johnston Canyon is situated 25 kilometers from Banff.

You will reach the Canyon in 30 minutes by car.

It is 33 km from Lake Louise on the Bow Valley Highway.

A snowmobiling tour is an unforgettable Banff winter activity
A snowmobiling tour is an unforgettable Banff winter activity


Go snowmobiling in Banff


Since Banff National Park is in fact a protected area, visitors are prohibited from riding snowmobiles within its limits.

However, there are a several great tours available from neighboring Golden and Panorama, British Columbia.


Snowmobiling tours in Banff come in two flavors: full day and half day.

You will wake early in the morning and depending on the tour you purchase, make the 1.5-hour trip to Golden, BC, or 2 hours to Panorama, PC by private shuttle included in the tour price.

Professional snowmobile guides will take you up 7000 ft in elevation on private tours. Snowmobiles are available in 600cc and 900cc varieties for extra power.

This is an unforgettable experience in which few partake.

After an adrenaline-filled climb up snow-covered mountains, your tour will culminate lunch or snacks and a journey back to your hotel for much-needed rest.

Here you can read everything about our snowmobile tour in Banff.

Banff Gondola on a snowy day.
The Banff Gondola on a snowy day

Ride the Banff Gondola


The Banff Gondola is open year-round, but it is especially lovely in the winter.

The gondola offers panoramic views of Banff and Sulfur Mountain on the 8-minute long, 800-foot journey up Sulfur Mountain.

Once you arrive at the summit, you can take a self-guided hike to Sanson’s Peak or take shelter from the cold inside the Sky Bistro, where a roaring fire will keep you warm as you look out over a snow-covered Banff.

If you wonder if visiting the Banff Gondola in winter is worth it, click here to read our full post.

Check prices and availability:
Banff Gondola Tickets

How to reach the Banff Gondola

The Banff Gondola is roughly 1.5 miles away from downtown Banff with parking available on site.

While the free shuttle only runs in the summer months, you can choose to leave the car at the hotel and take public transit.

Banff ROAM transit line 1 ( green line ) departs the town center every 30 minutes and costs $2 CAD for a one-way journey. Note that they only accept cash.

Go skiing or snowboarding


Of course, no winter trip to the mountains is complete without some skiing or snowboarding.

Fortunately, Banff is replete with slopes of the best powdery snow.

We’ve reviewed the three major ski resorts in the area for skiing and snowboarding in Banff National Park.

Tip: purchasing a SkiBig3 lift ticket will give you access to all three major ski resorts at a discounted price and even includes free access to the Upper Hot Springs in Banff. But more on that later.


Mt. Norquay Ski Resort


Banff’s Mt. Norquay Ski Resort is special in that it is the only resort that offers night skiing (and night tubing) in the Canadian Rockies.

When the sun goes down, the floodlights come on and illuminate the slopes from 5 pm to 9 pm on Fridays and Saturdays.

Take to over 10 miles of snowy slopes over 60 runs on skis or snowboard.

Rentals of skis, poles, boots, and helmets are also available for a reasonable price.

How to get to Mt. Norquay Ski Resort from Banff

Mt. Norquay Ski Resort lies 6km ( 4 miles ) from Banff. You can drive or take a shuttle bus from various Banff hotels.


Banff Sunshine Ski Resort


Banff Sunshine Village has runs for all levels of athleticism: easy greens to double blacks.

The high altitude is responsible for snow that is renowned as some of the best in the Rockies.

The resort boasts of 115 named runs over 3,358 acres of diverse terrain.

How to get to Banff Sunshine Ski Resort

Here you can find more info on how to get to the Banff Sunshine Ski Resort

Lake Louise Ski Resort. Ice skating on the lake is a famous Banff winter activity
Lake Louise Ski Resort

Lake Louise Ski Resort


Since 1920, Lake Louise Ski Resort has been a premier destination for winter sports enthusiasts.

There are 4,000 acres of skiable terrain making Lake Louise Ski Resort one of the largest in Canada if not all of North America.

You’ll want to bring hand warmers as the wind gets very cold at altitude.

Lake Louise Ski Resort offers ski and snowboarding lessons for all ages and has some of the most spectacular views from its lifts.

How to get to Lake Louise Ski Resort

The ski resort can be found 40 miles from Banff at Lake Louise, which offers other activities that will make your ski trip a full day of fun.

You can drive or take a shuttle from and to Banff. The shuttle runs daily from several destinations in Banff. You can find more info about the shuttle here.

Relax at a hot spring


Winter in Banff means you’re braving the elements all day.

Why not warm up in one of Banff’s steamy natural mineral hot springs to relax your tense muscles after a jam-packed day of skiing and hiking?

Banff Upper Hot Springs on a snowy day
The Banff Upper Hot Springs are great to warm up during a snowy day

Banff Upper Hot Springs

The most famous hot spring in Banff is the Upper Hot Springs near the top of Sulfur Mountain.

Easily accessible from the Town of Banff, the Upper Hot Springs have water so warm, Parks Canada recommends cooling off every 10-20 minutes. How cozy!

Access to the Banff Upper Hot Springs is included in the SkiBig3 lift package.

Otherwise, single entries can be purchased for under $10 CAD with different prices for children.

Hot spring at the Fox Hotel & Suites


Nearby Cave & Basin is another beautiful mineral hot spring.

Unfortunately, it has been closed to swimmers for the better part of the last century. But fear not, there is a Cave & Basin themed hot spring inside the Fox Hotel & Suites.

The grotto may be fake, but the relaxing warm water sure isn’t.

Giving the dogs a breather at the Kicking Horse Pass
A dog sled ride over the Kicking Horse Pass

Go dog sledding


Dogs have pulled sleds in the arctic for millennia as part of regular hunting activities of the areas indigenous peoples.

Though not quite the arctic, Banff National Park has some exciting dog sledding tours to choose from. Packages range from 30 minutes to 2 hours and trails vary depending on the time.

The sleds are pulled by Siberian Huskies and Alaskan Malamutes, with each sled fitting 2 people, though some can even fit 3.

The most popular Banff dogsledding tour is 1.5 hours and traverses 10 miles of fresh snow at Lake Louise.

You’ll wind through snow-covered pines at the base of towering mountains and make your way to Kicking Horse Pass. Before your journey comes to an end, you’ll have an opportunity to take the reins and be the guide.

As dogsledding is only available for 4 months of the year, bookings fill up fast.

Go Hiking


Hiking at Banff National Park is an incredible opportunity. There are seemingly infinite trails to choose from.

We already mentioned the otherworldly Johnston Canyon, but here are two more great trails close to the Town of Banff.

Marsh Loop


Marsh Loop is a 1.5-mile/ 2.8 km loop starting at the Cave and Basin National Historic Site.

The trail circles the marsh near the Cave and Basin hot springs and is a great location to see animal tracks in the fresh snow.

Here you can find more information about the trail.

Tunnel Mountain Summit trail


Tunnel Mountain Summit trail can be found below Banff Centre in the middle of the Town of Banff. You can reach the summit of a mountain for incredible views of Bow Valley in 1.5 miles/2.4 km, one way.

Here you can find more information about the Tunnel Mountain Summit trail.

There are many more winter hiking trails to choose from in Banff National Park, from Canmore to Lake Louise and beyond.

For a complete list of the best winter hikes in Banff, click here.

Sylvia walking on show shoes
Snowshoeing turned out to be a lot of fun

Go snowshoeing

Snowshoeing is like hiking with a twist, and some massive shoes.

Ok, so they’re not that big, but either way, we’re comfortable looking goofy for this rare winter activity.

Snowshoeing is a winter staple in Canada and the origins of the sport date back thousands of years.

Today, you can explore hiking trails that are inaccessible without the special snowshoes which displace your weight and make you nearly hover above the snow.

There are some great recreational snowshoeing trails in the Banff area, and we recommend going with a guide for your own safety.

Snowshoeing takes you along hiking trails that are covered in snow and this does pose some risks, including entering avalanche zones.

The Lake Louise Lakeshore trail is an easy scenic route to take with no elevation gain and a round-trip of 2 miles.

Start at Chateau Lake Louise and make your way towards a frozen waterfall at the end of the lake.

Go tubbing at the Mount Norquay Tubing Hill


We mentioned Mt. Norquay Ski Resort before and it’s status as the only night skiing location in the Rockies.

But Mt. Norquay also offers night tubing as well!

If you grew up with snowy winters, you likely have fond memories of sledding or tobogganing down a steep hill.

Snow tubing is almost the same thing, but with an inflatable tube donut between you and the cold snow.

You’ll fly down the tubing hill at Mt. Norquay at legendary speeds and the best part is that you won’t need to drag your vehicle back up the hill. Mt. Norquay’s epic hills are equipped with an automated towing system which will bring you right back up again.

An exhilarating and safe activity for all ages, tubing is accessible to children over the age of 4.

View towards Athabasca Glacier on the Icefields Parkway
The Icefields Parkway in the winter

Drive down the Icefields Parkway

The Icefields Parkway is a 140-mile highway that runs straight through Banff National Park and Jasper National Park.

On a sunny summer day, you can drive the entire length of the parkway in just over three hours, without stopping for photos or activities.

But the Icefields Parkway in winter is an entirely different beast.

The views from the snowy road are breathtaking and almost otherworldly. Large banks of snow and ice sandwich the parkway on either side and the road ahead opens up to panoramic views of mountains and valleys.

You will be sure to make many stops along the way at places like Bow Lake, Peyto Lake, and even the Columbia Glacier near Jasper National Park.


Safety tips for driving the Icefields Parkway in winter

The roads are covered with snow, so precautions need to be taken to avoid skidding, sliding, and hydroplaning.

Snow tires are mandatory on the road and a full tank of gas will ensure that you don’t get caught running on fumes in the middle of nowhere.

Be sure to check weather conditions before you depart.

Ice Bubbles in Lake Minnewanka
You don’t have to drive all the way to Abraham Lake to see ice bubbles

Go ice bubble hunting at Lake Minnewanka or Vermillion lake


Ice bubbles are a naturally occurring phenomenon of methane gas from organic matter decomposing on the lake floor.

These bubbles of gas become trapped beneath the frozen surface creating a breathtaking sight.

You will not be able to see this at just any lake in Banff on your winter getaway.

One of the most photographed locations for ice bubble hunting is Abraham Lake, just outside of Banff National Park.

Unfortunately, the long journey north isn’t always possible on a short itinerary and in wintery road conditions.

We recommend visiting Lake Minnewanka or the Vermillion Lakes for a closer alternative to Abraham Lake.

And we mean closer, as the drive to these lakes takes a mere 10 minutes from the Town of Banff.

Note that the ice bubbles are not visible if it has snowed. The snow usually stays on the ice for quite a long time.

The Northern Lights seen from Pyramid Lake
The Northern Lights seen from Pyramid Lake

Go Northern Lights spotting


There are few things in life that are more life-changing than seeing the Northern Lights for the first time.

Solar winds interact with the atmosphere to paint the sky white, green, yellow, and red.

Winter in Banff is the perfect time to see the Northern Lights. Most travelers who gaze into the night sky waiting for the neon green light show have the best luck between midnight and 3 am.

Though the aurora can be seen from the Town of Banff, you will have more luck if you drive just outside the reach of city lights.

Best places to go Northern Lights spotting in Banff

We mentioned Vermillion Lakes as a great place to see ice bubbles below the surface of the lake, but you can also see the Northern Lights here if you look up in the middle of the night.

Lake Minnewanka, 17 minutes’ drive from the Town of Banff, is another great location to see the Northern Lights and return to your hotel in time to catch a few hours of sleep before the sun comes up.

Aurora Tip: You can find the best time to view the Northern Lights on the aurora watch website, which is updated whenever the likelihood of seeing the display of lights increases.

Take a Helicopter Ride


Ascending the mountains of Banff National Park is one thing.

Flying high above them is something else. You can book a winter helicopter ride in Banff and soar over the Canadian.

Tours from Banff Adventures come in different varieties (12, 25, or 30 minutes) and winter is the perfect time to see Banff National Park in its icy glory.

Every tour takes a different flight path with views of Spray Valley, Goat Mountain range, Gloria Glacier, and Mount Assiniboine.


Prices range from $150 to $330 for the standard tours.

You can also treat yourselves to a private couples’ flight that features a 20-minute stopover near Aurora Lake. The price for this special journey is $1100 per couple.

Banff is a good base for these winter activities
Banff gets super busy during the Summer but is an enjoyable charming town in the Winter.

Stroll around downtown Banff


Taking a break from the sights of Banff National Park doesn’t mean a boring time in town.

Downtown Banff is lovely in the winter. There are many things to do and see on a stroll around the Town of Banff.

For a week in January, the main street of Banff Avenue becomes home to SnowDays, an annual festival with plenty of events and dining experiences. You can see live snow sculpting, outdoor food and drink tastings, and skijoring.

No, we didn’t make that word up. Skijoring was once an Olympic sport, but today it’s a great way for Albertan cowboys to compete and blow-off steam.

The sport involves getting pulled by horses while on skis and is a lot of fun to watch.

Grab a hot chocolate and walk around downtown Banff. You won’t regret staying in.


Explore Banff’s museums


Did you know that Banff is home to 8 different museums that focus on the history of the area and cultures of people who have lived in Banff, some before it was a tourist destination?

Here are our two choices for museums to visit in Banff during winter.


Banff Park Museum


Banff Park Museum is the oldest natural history museum in the province of Alberta and, in fact, all of the western provinces.

A perfect way to spend an hour in town with your family. Here you will find over 5,000 vintage specimens of wildlife and a massive book collection.

Taxidermy is not everyone’s thing, but there’s no better opportunity to see a grizzly bear up close.

The low price is worth it for the chance to see and learn about the habitats of some of the most majestic creatures that call this National Park home.


Buffalo Nations Luxton Museum


The Buffalo Nations Luxton Museum’s purpose is to preserve and display the different cultures and traditions of the First Nations peoples of North America.

This museum is an important reminder that, before the arrival of European settlers, the land now known as Canada was a place where many different nations of indigenous peoples live (and still do!); people who traded with one another, fought one another, but lived side-by-side and shared in many traditions.

You will be able to learn more about the First Nations people’s ways of life and explore the pre-colonial history of Canada.

Ice Skating on Lake Louise in the Winter
Ice Skating on Lake Louise in the Winter

Explore Lake Louise in winter


Lake Louise, one of the most famous lakes in Canada, is the kind of special place where you can do just about any winter activity. Famous for its turquoise blue water, Lake Louise becomes a frozen paradise in the winter.

Lace-up your skates and glide across the frozen surface of the lake.

You can hike or snowshoe along the trails that surround Lake Louise (we mentioned a good one above), the lakeshore trail culminates in a 100-foot-tall frozen waterfall.

When you’re ready for a drink, drop by the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise Ice Bar. That’s right, a bar made entirely of carved ice.

The bartenders serve premium liqueurs and wine as well as non-alcoholic drinks like coffee and hot chocolate.

The Fairmont Chateau is also the place from which you can take a romantic horse-drawn sleigh ride around the lake.

Conclusion


There are plenty of things to do and see in Banff during winter. When friends ask us if visiting Banff is worth it in Winter, we have to laugh because it might be the best time for a trip.

The adventure never ends when you visit Banff National Park during the peak winter times for winter sports, picturesque views of the Canadian Rocky Mountains, or to stay cozied-up with your partner in one of Banff’s luxury hotels.

Whatever you choose to do on your winter visit to Banff, it’s sure to be an unforgettable time.

Categories: Canada