Banff in the winter is straight magic. It feels completely different then it usually does if you were to visit in the summer. For one, everything is blanketed with a beautiful layer of snow so the landscape is stunning. There are fewer people (even though the ski season is in full force). Activities you wouldn’t be able to do in the summer are available (ie. dog sledding, ice skating, etc.). On my recent trip to Banff, I experienced new and old places and activities—all of which I will outline in today’s blog post.
To kick things off, I wanted to thank Travel Alberta and the Banff Centre for hosting me this past March. I stayed at the Banff Centre and it was a perfect homebase for several reasons. First, it was really close to downtown Banff—a short 10 minute walk in fact. Secondly, the people there were incredibly kind and helpful. Lastly, the energy and passion for the creative industry was inspiring to be around because along with a hotel, the Banff Centre is a school for students in the creative arts, a place for entertainment and performances to take place!
The easiest way to get to Banff is to fly into Calgary, Alberta and then rent a car and drive 1-2 hours into the Canadian Rockies. You’ll want a car in order to drive to different spots on your trip. I also wanted to note a few things about the winter season in Banff. It’s cold—so be prepared to wear a parka, winter boots, gloves, toque and more as it usually is around-20 C. To really enjoy yourself, I suggest exploring outside for a few hours, popping inside to warm up or grab coffee, then going back and exploring more. Below is a list of 10 rad spots that are in and around Banff. Enjoy!
1. Lake Louise
This lake is a true classic. Even though it’s still crazy busy in the winter, catching a sunrise here is something that just can’t be beat. From Banff, Lake Louise is only a 45 minute drive away. The best part about visiting in the winter is that you can ice skate and play hockey right on the lake. If you’re hungry on your way back to Banff, pop by the Trailhead Cafe—the food is unbelievable.
2. Lake Minnewanka
This was my first time to Lake Minnewanka and it was glorious. It’s a really short drive from Banff and is the 2nd longest lake in the Canadian Rockies. It’s a great spot to take photos, hang out, eat a snack and simply take in the views. I suggest popping by around sunrise or sunset since I only saw a few other people there at that time!
3. Johnston Canyon
The Johnston Canyon hike is a classic in the Canadian Rockies. It’s accessible to all ages and fitness levels, and is open all year round. After only a 30 minute drive from Banff and a 2-2.5 hour walk, you can get to both the lower and upper falls. During the hike, you’ll walk on raised walkways and take in the canyon views. In the winter, the the water is frozen which makes is a rad spot to check out! This is a popular hike, so I’d head here early in the morning.
4. Castle Mountain
If you’re like me, you love to take photos—this spot overlooks Castle Mountain and is a great place to do just that! It’s absolutely beautiful at sunrise and not far from Banff. Just drive to the Castle Junction exit, which is before Lake Louise and park by the bridge. Then, walk through the wildlife gate on the left side and you’ll be right by the river. Make sure to close the gate on your way in and when you leave.
5. Take a helicopter flight
I’ve been lucky enough to experience a few helicopter flights, but this one above the Canadian Rockies was one of my favourites. Our pilot flew us at 10,000 feet and the views were epic. Seeing hundreds of jagged peaks and snowcapped mountains from the air is unbeatable. During the winter, hiking is limited, so this is a great alternative. I flew with Alpine Helicopters and would definitely recommend them. They are situated in Canmore, a 30 minute drive from Banff. My favourite part of the flight was flying right up to the Three Sisters—Faith, Charity and Hope.
6. Grassi Lakes
This area is Canmore once more, which is a 30 minute drive from Banff. To get here, drive towards the Canmore Nordic Center, and once you get there, pass it and take the next left (where there’s a sign pointing to the Grassi Lakes Parking Lot). We explored the area here and found an open pool of water to take some photos at. The actual Grassi Lakes hike is quite easy and takes about two hours. You’ll get views of a few lakes and of the town of Canmore along the way.
7. Icefields Parkway
Icefields Parkway has been one of my favourite parts of Banff National Park. I’ve driven this road numerous times on my way up to Jasper National Park. I recommend taking a day to drive up the parkway and take in the views. My friends and I usually pull over and park (where it’s safe) to get out of the car and take some photos so it always takes much longer to get to Jasper than we anticipate. There are some epic spots on this road that will stop you in your tracks.
8. Peyto Lake
Peyto Lake is another classic in Banff National Park. It’s right up Icefields Parkway, so it’s a great spot to stop along the way. There’s a winter route which will take you to the view point—which will only take about an hour. The shape of the lake resembles a wolf and the views are out of this world. To me, this hike has a low effort for a huge reward.
9. Abraham Lake
This lake is one of the best spots to see on a trip to Banff in the winter season because when the lake freezes, you can see millions of bubbles on the surface. These bubbles are actually frozen pockets of methane that are rising up! If it’s the dead of winter (December-February) you can walk on the lake to get a closer look at this amazing phenomenon. For the best experience, visit the lake after there has been sun in the forecast so that you can see the bubbles. When it snows, it blankets the lake and, in turn, the bubbles are covered. When I was at Abraham Lake, there were only spots that had been previously cleared by other explorers but it was still rad.
10. The Three Sisters
This spot is a photographer’s dream! It has unobstructed views of the Three Sisters and, if you’re lucky, you’ll get a reflection, too. To get here, drive 30 minutes to Canmore and head to the off leash dog park just past the helipad on the Bow Valley Trail. From there, walk underneath the railroad tracks (do not walk across them), and then walk 5 minutes to the river spot. There is a slight trail that will take you there. I’ve been to this spot in both the summer and winter and I prefer it in the winter. If you’re looking for a spot to take in sunrise, this is it.
Other spots/experiences that I didn’t get to but it’s on my list are:
The Banff Gondola
The Big Three Ski Resorts (Banff Sunshine, Lake Louise, and Mt Norquay)
Two Jack Lake
Banff National Park has a special place in my heart, so I hope that this blog post inspired you to take a trip there. If any questions come up to you, let me know in the comments—I’d love to help any way I can.