Are you looking for the ultimate winter getaway in North America? Banff National Park is the perfect place to visit whether you want a solo adventure, a romantic trip, or something for the whole family. Considered the gem of the Canadian Rockies, Banff is well-known as a bucket list destination year-round for patio-hopping in the summer, seeing golden larch trees in the fall, but mostly, for everything there is to do in winter in Banff.
I have lived in Banff for over a year and experienced every season this unbelievable landscape offers. I’ve put together this list of the very best winter Banff things to do, which will suit all styles of travel.
If you want to know what Banff offers beyond snowboarding and skiing, how to have a quintessential Canadian experience, and learn Banff’s history while escaping the harsh weather, then this is the Banff winter guide for you.
How To Get To Banff
Banff National Park is the oldest National Park in Canada, and people have been traveling to this region for centuries. And once you visit, you’ll see the appeal. There are several options to get to Banff, including renting your own vehicle, taking public transport, shared shuttles, or private taxis/shared lifts.
The nearest airport to Banff is Calgary International Airport (YYC), just a 1.5-hour drive away and the main visitor hub. You can choose several transportation options from the airport, such as public buses, transfer buses, private taxis, private shuttles, or use apps to share a ride with someone else.
The most popular option is to rent your own vehicle from one of the many rental car companies based at the airport for ease and comfort, and it is the ideal option for you to get around Banff once there.
Is Banff Worth the Visit in the Winter Months?
Absolutely yes! Winter in Banff can last for almost six months and reach temperatures of -35 degrees Celsius (although it can feel like -45 degrees Celsius). But that means that the activities in Banff in winter will be guaranteed, such as the snow-filled hills for snowshoeing, the freezing temperatures for the waterfalls, and the dark, cloudless nights for a chance at the Northern Lights.
Most of the following winter Banff things to do are between November and February, with the most magical time being December for all these places to see, as well as completing the Christmas in Banff bucket list!
12 Things To Do in Banff in Winter
1. Hit The Slopes
Skiing or Snowboarding is, by far, the most popular thing to do in Banff in winter. The town is tailor-made for this incredible winter activity with the surplus of slopes to choose from, the free shuttle bus there and back, the apres-ski availability, the lessons, and the equipment/gear shops in downtown Banff.
The three main ‘hills’ to go riding include Mount Norquay, Sunshine Village, and Lake Louise, also known as the Big 3. You can choose which of these places you’d like to go skiing or snowboarding on and can get a pass for all three or a pass for just one location.
The Sunshine Village pass is the cheapest and most popular, with epic runs, several bars and restaurants at the top, and the free shuttle from downtown Banff to get there.
Getting a ski/snowboard pass, lessons, and/or equipment is easy in Banff to do online before your trip or sort it all out when you get here. Most accommodations will have information and guides to help you hit the slopes in Banff, too!
2. See a Lake of Frozen Bubbles
One of the most unique things to do in Banff during winter is to visit Abraham Lake to see frozen ice bubbles on the lake. It is one of my most treasured memories because the sight is so unusual, and along the way, I was greeted by Mountain Goats and Big-Horned Sheep!
Abraham Lake is a huge man-made reservoir (20.7 square km surface area) that freezes for winter and has these bubbles trapped beneath.
This phenomenon occurs because of the methane gas produced by dead bacteria beneath the water and, as they travel to the surface, become trapped below the frozen lake.
There are only a handful of places in Canada where you can see frozen bubbles beneath a transparent lake, and being the spectacular place that Banff is, of course, it has a nearby lake where you can see them.
To get to Abraham Lake, drive from Banff toward the Icefield Parkway and turn off at Highway 11, continuing North until you reach the start of the lake. The journey takes about 2.5 hours, one-way, but it will be one of the most worthy road trips you’ve ever done.
3. Go Tubing
Mount Norquay, just 5 minutes from downtown Banff, is home to Alberta’s longest tube lanes, guaranteeing fun for the whole family. You can go solo, or with other people, on an inflatable tube and race down the ice slopes with a chair-lift to take you back to the top.
There are three sessions to choose from: morning, afternoon, or evening on Friday and Saturday, and you must pre-purchase tickets on the Banff Norquay website. The minimum age requirement is four years old, and ticket prices start from $29, depending on age.
4. Ride The Banff Gondola
For decades, the Banff Gondola has been transporting guests to the summit of Sulphur Mountain for the best views of the Canadian Rockies.
The ride from the base to the summit takes between 8 and 12 minutes in a closed apparatus with surrounding windows for 360-degree views of the journey above Banff and the Bow Valley. At the top, there is an entire floor dedicated to learning about the history of Banff and the Gondola, a chance to see Mountain Sheep, two restaurants, a coffee shop, and a rooftop area for awesome views of the surrounding mountains and a boardwalk to hike to Sanson Peak (which was the old weather station in Banff).
To get to the gondola, take bus number 1 from downtown Banff heading toward Sulphur Mountain, and if you pre-purchase your gondola tickets, the bus ride should be included if you show the driver your gondola pass.
5. Soak in Hot Springs
Banff Gondola is stationed on Sulphur Mountain, and you might be wondering where this name derives from. It could be because adjacent to the mountain are natural hot springs known around the world to give off the smell of Sulphur!
Regardless of this stench, soaking in the natural Banff Hot Springs is a must-do in Banff in winter, especially when it’s snowing and cold. Dipping into the warm pool is a great way to relax after a day of exploring Banff.
The Hot Springs are located next to Banff Gondola, so taking the same bus (route 1) will get you right outside this attraction from downtown Banff.
6. Ice Skating
A classic and easy winter activity in Banff is ice skating. You can do this either indoors or outdoors, but wild ice skating on a frozen lake is definitely a special thing to do in Banff. It just comes with many hazard warnings. According to Parks Canada, the recommended ice thickness is 15 cm for walking or skating alone and 20 cm for skating parties or games.
Parks Canada does not monitor the lakes or ponds for skating safety, so it is at your own risk. You can use an ice angler to drill a hole into the ice to measure the thickness as best practice.
Some of the best places to ice-skate outdoors include Vermillion Lakes, Two-Jack Lake, Lake Minnewanka, and Cascade Ponds, which are within a 10-minute drive from downtown Banff.
If you’d prefer to ice-skate in an indoor setting, head to Fenlands Centre in downtown Banff for daily drop-in sessions and the safety of the up-kept rink.
7. Winter Hiking
Banff hiking is at its best during summer, but that doesn’t mean there are no options for hiking in Banff during winter. Some of the big mountain hikes are not suitable during winter because of the danger, but the mostly flat trails are fun hikes that give the hiker great winter scenery.
Winter hikes in Banff include Fenland Trail, Marshland Loop, Hoodoos Lookout, Sulphur Mountain, the perimeter of Two-Jack Lake, the perimeter of Johnson Lake, and Johnston Canyon.
My favorite winter hike is climbing Tunnel Mountain for sunset because reaching the summit takes under one hour. You see beautiful views over the town, and the sun sets over the Rocky Mountains, making for epic photography. Being winter, the sun sets fairly early, so you don’t have to start the walk too late.
Alltrails is a good website to reference when doing any of these hikes to find the trailheads, get the best advice for hiking, see weather information, and look out for safety warnings. Purchasing and wearing crampons or shoes with spikes is the safest and most comfortable way to hike winter trails in Banff.
Snowshoeing is a Banff winter activity that is very much like hiking but relevant for the weather and made for the snow.
A snowshoe is a large, paddle-like apparatus that you slip your winter boots into and this helps you go on longer treks in deep snow because the wide surface prevents your foot from sinking into the snow. It’s a fun activity you can do yourself by purchasing or renting snowshoes.
Still, it is much better when you go on a guided tour because it means you can walk and discover places you wouldn’t otherwise be able to see with the assistance of a tour and the snowshoes!
9. See Frozen Waterfalls
One of the most wonderful things I’ve witnessed while living in Canada is waterfalls completely frozen, mid-fall! Banff National Park has many beautiful waterfalls to visit, but these become extra special during winter because they freeze over to make them look like a still photograph.
The best frozen waterfalls to easily visit include Bow Falls, Natural Bridge, and Troll Falls in Kananaskis (just a one-hour drive from Banff).
10. Visit Banff Museums
For the ultimate thing to do in Banff in winter to escape the cold, hit one of the many museums in Banff town.
The best museum to visit is the Buffalo Nations Luxton Museum for a chance to discover ancient traditions, culture, stories, and beliefs of the First Nation People of the Canadian Rockies.
To learn the human and cultural history of the mountains in which you are visiting, head to The Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies.
Lastly, visit Banff Park Museum National Historic Site to observe and learn about Banff’s wildlife including hundreds of animals, plants, and minerals.
11. Wait for the Northern Lights
Also known as the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights are a special phenomenon of dancing, colorful lights that brighten up the night sky in certain parts of the world. Banff National Park is one of the best places to see the Northern Lights due to its elevation, long and dark winter evenings, and minimal light pollution.
The best way to be notified about the chances of seeing the Northern Lights is to download specific apps and join specific Facebook groups in your area.
The best app is ‘Aurora’ which will track your location, send you notifications when there is a high chance, and indicate cloud coverage, the Aurora Borealis location, and direct links to webcams around your area to see them from a height.
If you do get information that the lights could be out, then your best chance to see them is to have a vehicle or hitch a ride with someone else because you’re more likely to see them in darker places like lakes, ponds, and viewpoints rather than downtown Banff.
Some of the best and closest places to head to from Banff include Lake Minnewanka, Cascade Ponds, Mount Norquay Lookout Point, and Vermillion Lakes. A little further away, we also have great spots such as Ghost Lake, Boom Lake, and Lake Louise.
I’ve personally seen the Northern Lights in Banff four times while living here, and every time was during winter, so the chances are definitely greater for a winter trip. It is a truly magical spectacle that draws people from all corners of the globe to Banff, where they can witness the mesmerizing display of the Banff Canada Northern Lights.
12. Visit Lake Louise
Lake Louise is just a 40-minute drive from Banff and is known as one of the world’s most beautiful and spiritual places due to its dramatic, mountainous backdrop and location as an energy vortex.
The best time to visit Lake Louise is during winter thanks to its abundance of activities such as ice-skating, walks around the lake, chateau restaurants, ice-castle competitions, and ice bars for a cozy drink next to a fire at night in Lake Louise.
Top Planning Tips for Banff in Winter
- Getting around Banff is easiest if you have your own vehicle, but it is very doable by using the local bus system known as ‘Roam Transit’ with clear bus routes throughout Banff and nearby attractions like the lakes, canyons, and other towns.
- You’ll be spoiled for choice when it comes to eating and drinking in Banff, as every other storefront is either a restaurant, bar, or souvenir shop selling some sort of food or beverage. The top-rated places to eat in Banff include Chuck’s Steakhouse for Alberta beef, Balkan for Greek cuisine, Hankki for Korean fast food, and Canadian Brewhouse for poutine.
- When visiting in winter, be sure to pack suitable clothing. The best things you can bring are thermal layers, a warm hat, a scarf or neck warmer, insulated gloves, and proper winter boots for the deep snow you might have to walk through. A famous Norse proverb says, ‘There is no such thing as bad weather – just bad clothing,’ and anyone who lives in the mountains can attest to this quote!
- There is a variety of options for accommodation in Banff, including luxury-style at Fairmont Banff Springs or Rimrock Resort, mid-range at Elk and Avenue or Moose Hotel, and budget at hostels such as Samesun, HI Alpine or Banff International Hostel.
Shireen from The Happy Days Travels is a writer from Wales but living in the Canadian Rockies and her writing focuses on travel guides, filming locations, book reviews and where to find the best food.