A magical wonderland of snow-covered mountains, gondola rides over the tops of tall pines, ice skating on frozen lakes, and endless cups of warm cocoa.

Welcome to winter in the Canadian Rockies!

Our tips for visiting the Canadian Rockies in Winter will get you through some of the coldest days and most beautiful days at this unique other-worldly travel spot.

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I would think the region sells itself now that you have seen the above video. Not yet convinced? Here are two more reasons to visit the Canadian Rockies in winter.

It is less crowded than in other months

The tourist towns around the Canadian Rockies are well-traveled, especially in the summer. While the area is the home of many national parks, Banff and Jasper are two incredibly popular ones during the warmer months.

Here you can find a 3 day Banff itinerary. If you have 4 days in Banff, click here.

However, a Canadian Rockies winter adventure provides a respite from the crowds.

You will have less competition on hiking trails, and errant limbs and heads won’t obstruct photos of famous sites such as Lake Louise and downtown Banff.

In winter, the Rocky Mountains tend to stay peaceful in both the national parks as well as the lodging towns. The only exception to this are the holiday periods around Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year.

When visiting the Canadian Rockies in winter you sometimes seem to have the whole place to yourself
When visiting the Canadian Rockies in winter you sometimes seem to have the whole place to yourself

It is cheaper to visit the Canadian Rockies during winter

Besides skating over frozen lakes and snowshoeing, visiting the Canadian Rockies comes with another perk: it is cheaper.

With the exception of the winter holidays, travelers to Banff and Jasper will be able to cut costs where it counts, in lodging and car rentals.

The low tourist turnout means significant savings at area hotels, especially boutique hotels and lodges in Banff and neighboring Canmore.

Renting a car is recommended if you plan to visit the whole area and not just the towns and the surrounding ski stations.

Take a look at Rentalcars.com for a wide selection of rental cars.

The site allows you to see the prices of different rental companies side-by-side.  It is one of the biggest sites of its kind. You will not only find the large household names but also loads of small niche rental car companies.

Check prices and availability:
Rentalcars

Driving in the winter requires M+S tires.  However, it is better to opt for snow tires if you have no experience of driving on icy and snow-covered roads.  It will make your journey so much more comfortable.

Now that we convinced you that the Rocky mountains are worth a visit in winter, read our below tips on what you absolutely should know before visiting this winter wonderland.

Winter in the Canadian Rockies can be very cold, so dress accordingly

The Canadian Rockies in the winter are colder than they look, which is saying a lot.

The winter months see tons of snowfall, and average high temperatures hover around -5 degrees Celsius.

Don’t say we didn’t warn you!

The best way to prepare for the freezing weather is to bring lots of layers.

That means warm jackets, hats (or touques as they say in the Great White North), winter gloves, and scarves.

If you plan to stay out in the elements, whether hiking, skating, or tubing, you will benefit from buying some hand warmers at a local convenience store.

Even the least avid hikers will need to bring or rent ice cleats.

While more advanced routes might be blocked off in avalanche zones, even short hiking trails to frozen waterfalls and snowy woods will get icy in the winter.

Seeing the best parts requires a National Park Pass

National parks in the Canadian Rockies don’t maintain themselves.

The cost of park staff salaries and conservation efforts is paid for with national park entrance fees.

Depending on what you plan to see in the Canadian Rockies, you will need some version of a Park Pass.

If your trip is contained within Banff, Jasper, Yoho, and Kootenay National Park, you are in luck. The cost to enter any one of them will give you access to all four.

However, if you do venture into any other national park in the Canadian Rockies, you may want to consider the Discovery Pass.

The Discovery Pass offers visitors access to over 100 different parks, historic sites and marine conservation areas. The pass is valid for a full year from the date of issue.

That means access to parks all across Canada, not just the Rocky Mountains. Depending on your age, an adult will pay anywhere from $60 to $70 CAD for the Discovery Pass.

Or, if you are visiting by car with your family, opt for the family pass, which covers up to 7 people for $140 CAD. Children under 17 get free access!

The popular Lake Louise Ski Resort in Banff National Park
The popular Lake Louise Ski Resort

The Canadian Rockies are known for world-class skiing

It should come as no surprise that the Canadian Rockies are home to world-class skiing.

Three of Canada’s top ski-able mountains are located within 30-minutes drive of each other.

With a SkiBig3 pass, you can ski or snowboard at Banff Sunshine, Mount Norquay, and Lake Louise Ski Resort for one package deal.

With 142km of slopes, Fernie Alpine Resort is the largest in the Canadian Rockies, but if you can’t make the drive to East Kootenay then Lake Louise’s 138 km will have to suffice.

Lake Louise is by far the most popular and largest of the three Banff area ski resorts. 2 hours from Calgary Airport and 45 minutes from the town of Banff, Lake Louise is also at the highest altitude which offers unparalleled views of the area.

Contrasted with Lake Louise is Mount Norquay which is smaller, cheaper and more befitting beginner skiers.

The slopes of Mount Norquay are only 15-minutes drive from Banff and there is a free shuttle bus that can take you there and back to Banff (if that is where you are staying).

Plenty of fun things to do, even if you don’t ski

There are plenty of other things to do if skiing just isn’t your thing.

We wrote about them in our best things to do in Banff in winter blog.

If you’d rather save a click, here is a short taste of everything you can do in the Canadian Rockies.

Ice Bubbles in Lake Minnewanka in the Canadian Rockies
Ice Bubbles in Lake Minnewanka

Visit frozen lakes

Visit lakes for ice skating or ice bubble hunting.

Though you won’t get to see Lake Louise’s famous turquoise waters, you will be able to skate its surface with plenty of space for everyone who wants to take part in the fun.

Ice bubbles, a natural phenomenon of methane gas trapped in the water under the ice, create very picturesque scenes.

They can be seen at Abraham Lake, Lake Minnewanka, and Vermillion Lake.

Relax in a hot spring

Hot springs are great all year round, but especially in the winter.

You can relax your muscles after a full day of winter activities in the thermal pools of Banff.

Go Northern lights hunting

If you are hunting the spectacular aurora borealis (also known as the Northern Lights), there is a good chance that you will happen upon the lights without much effort.

You can see them the best from Lake Minnewanka and Peyto Lake.

However, if you are worried about getting stuck far from your accommodations in the middle of the night in the wintery Canadian Rockies, you can book a sightseeing tour specifically for the Northern Lights.

Intrepid travel has an amazing 11-day Canadian Rockies & Northern lights tour. The tour starts in Edmonton and ends in Calgary.

You can book this tour through Tourradar.

Read reviews and check prices:
Canadian Rockies Tour

Tourradar is a trustworthy company where you can book organized tours. Booking a tour with Tourradar is sometimes cheaper than booking the same tour directly with the tour operator. Click here if you want to learn more about Tourradar. 
Hiking Johnston Canyon is one of the highlights of visiting the Canadian Rockies in the winter
Hiking Johnston Canyon is one of the highlights of visiting the Canadian Rockies in the winter

Hike the frozen Johnston Canyon

An ice walk through Johnston Canyon is another activity that you shouldn’t pass up. The trail leads past frozen waterfalls and the walkway is built into the side of a cliff.

Don’t be nervous, as you will be hiking the bottom and not the top of the cliff’s edge.

Just be sure to tie up your hiking boots and strap on some ice cleats before you make your way through the canyon.

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.

If you are looking for more winter hikes around Banff, click here.

Dog sledding in Lake Louise
Dog sledding in Lake Louise

Other fun winter activities

Snowmobiling, dog sledding, and snowshoeing are all additional options for great fun in the Canadian Rockies and we can tell you where to do them all here.

Plan ahead, roads may be closed

Before driving out to see the natural beauty of the Canadian Rockies or to hit the slopes, check to make sure that roads are open.

When the snow or freezing rain starts to fall, national park staff begin to close roads for public safety.

Some popular places, such as Moraine Lake Road, are closed all winter due to avalanche risk. The icefields parkway, popular among tourists in both summer and winter, is also closed during harsh winter conditions.

To help you plan ahead, the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia have set up phone-in services to check road closures.

You can call 511 in Alberta or 1-800-550-4997 in BC.

You can also check this road report website for up to date information. It will also alert you of full parking lots.

You never want to be stuck in the middle of nowhere in a snowstorm. That is why keeping informed of the weather conditions is also critical.

You can read more about that below.

Planning ahead for drivers means keeping your car full of fuel and equipped with winter tires. You should also have essentials in your car including a flashlight, first aid kit, paper map, water bottles (they’ll freeze, but that is ok), hand warmers, windshield snowbrush and ice scraper, and some emergency snacks.

Check with your car rental company to make sure that your vehicle is equipped for winter driving before you leave the lot.

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

Check the weather conditions in advance

Speaking of safety, weather conditions can change quite quickly in the Canadian Rockies.

You should check the weather conditions in your area throughout the day if you are spending the day outside, whether it is hiking, driving or just drinking in the indescribably beautiful surroundings.

It is not enough to look out the window or get the forecast in the morning so stay vigilant.

Visit the visitor center to ask for tips and recommendations

There are a dozen or so visitor centers sprinkled throughout the Canadian Rockies where you can get up to the minute news on the national parks in the area and get any other information you might need to make your trip a pleasant one.

Talk to the friendly Canadian rangers at the visitor centers and you’ll find them to be quite knowledgeable about recommending and navigating trails.

They can also inform you about road conditions and share tips about places to go.

Each visitor center also houses a gift shop for those who like to bring back souvenirs.

Mountain Goats are a common sight in Banff national park
These mountain goats are not hard to spot in winter. They like to drink the salty water on the roads.

Respect the wildlife

Winter in the Canadian Rockies is a great time for wildlife watching. While the bears might be sleeping, there are other wintry creatures out and about.

You will undoubtedly catch glimpses of racoons, owls, elk, deer, and bighorn sheep all of which are plentiful in the area’s national parks.

Wolves and coyotes are much rarer and should be avoided if you ever happen upon them.

The same goes for moose which are typically very shy, but very large, strong, and territorial.

You wouldn’t want to cross paths with a bull moose on a trail or on the road.

Make sure you obey speed limits and drive with caution when in your vehicle and do not pet wild animals, ever.

Although it’s easy to spot wildlife on your own, by joining a wildlife tour you will be learning a lot about the park and his four-legged inhabitants. We enjoyed listening to the sometimes hilarious stories of the tour guide.

This made joining a guided tour absolutely worth it.

Check prices and availability:
Wildlife discovery tour

Respect the wilderness

Visitors to the Canadian Rockies should follow the 7 Principles that the Center for Outdoor Ethics outlines for all nature travelers.

We mentioned several above, but we’ll list the rest below.

Respecting the wilderness means to Leaving No Trace that you were there, to ensure conservation efforts and to keep the natural environment as it was for generations that will come after you.

The 7 Principles are:

  • Plan ahead and prepare
  • Travel and camp on durable surfaces
  • Dispose of waste properly
  • Leave what you find
  • Minimize campfire impacts
  • Respect wildlife
  • Be considerate of other visitors

It is important and very easy to keep these seven principles in mind when visiting the Canadian Rockies.

Stay on designated trails and leave everything that you find along the way to ensure that the area is undisturbed.

Winter is a more precarious time in the wilderness with frigid temperatures and snowfall making for potentially dangerous situations.

Following the principles and being prepared will keep you and the Rockies safe for everyone.

Discovering Banff National Park with your camper
A few campgrounds stay open all year round

Most campgrounds are closed

We hope you aren’t too disappointed to learn that the majority of campgrounds are closed in the winter.

This is more of a safety and maintenance issue than anything else.

However, there are four campgrounds that operate throughout the year including the Lake Louise Campground, Tunnel Mountain Village II Campground, Wapiti Campground, and Mosquito Creek Campground.

If you are planning to pull over on the side of the road and just sleep in your car, we are here to tell you that this is unsafe and illegal.

Instead, check out the campgrounds above (in advance, as they might be full – you never know) or stay at a lodge between destinations.

Conclusion

Winter time is the right time to visit the Canadian Rockies and its magnificent national parks.

Whether you are staying for a long weekend or an entire week, take advantage of everything the area has to offer; from winter sports to toasty hot springs, and be sure to stay safe in all weather conditions.

Categories: Canada