There are so many amazing things to do in Banff in Winter. Prepare to be wowed by one of your favorite trips ever.
Most people go to Banff National Park in summer to see that gorgeous blue water and enjoy all the summer activities. But Banff winter activities can be downright magical.
I have one of those persistent kids who was determined to visit Banff in January to see the trapped methane bubbles in Lake Abraham, one of the top Banff winter attractions.
If you are wondering what to do in Banff in winter, this travel guide has all the best activities, where to stay in Banff, and what to pack so you can enjoy this adventure lover’s paradise,
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Planning Your Trip to Banff in Winter Last Minute?
If you are trying to pull together your trip quickly, here is a quick reference guide to the tours and hotels we recommend, along with helpful posts about Abraham Lake Ice Bubbles and Hiking in Johnston Canyon.
- TOP EXPERIENCES & WINTER TOURS IN BANFF
- BEST HOTELS IN BANFF
- Peaks Hotel and Suites (9) – one of the newest and most convenient places to stay in Banff.
- Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise (8.3) – We stayed here and loved the close proximity to activities and hotel amenities.
- Post Hotel and Spa (9.3) – a favorite boutique hotel in Lake Louise with a full service spa and terrific restaurant.
Best Time to Visit Banff Canada
The best month to visit Banff depends on what you want to see and do.
Banff in Winter (December-March)
Visiting Banff in winter is the best for skiing, ice skating, winter hiking, and a chance to see the northern lights.
To see the otherworldly methane bubbles at Abraham Lake it is best to visit Banff in December or January before snow piles up on the ice.
Spend Christmas in Banff in December or go for the famous Ice Magic Festival at Lake Louise, which is a highlight of Banff in January.
Honestly, I was a little scared of winter travel to Canada, but the first view of the majestic, snow-covered Canadian Rocky Mountains, A visit to Banff in winter should 100% be on your bucket list.
Aside from the beauty and fun Banff activities winter offers, the other advantage is skipping the crazy Lake Louise tourism that happens in summer.
Banff in Spring
If you want Spring Skiing, Banff in March or April is perfect. Columbia Icefield Day Trips start in May. You’ll be able to experience the Athabasca Glacier and Columbia Icefield Skywalk.
Banff in Summer
For the iconic blue water at Lake Louise and Moraine Lake that you’ve seen on Instagram feeds, it is best to visit Banff from June to October. Summer is also a good time to see the best sights along the Icefields Parkway.
Banff in Fall
There are two main advantages to visiting Banff in the Fall. The first is fall foliage which peaks at the end of September and beginning of October. The other benefit is fewer crowds and better hotel prices.
What to Pack for Visiting Banff in Winter
I’m sure you are aware that Banff winter temperatures can be downright freezing in winter. Keep in mind that some of the best things to do in Banff during winter involve wind or slippery ice.
Here is a basic list of things you should bring and then any any specialized gear for skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, etc..
- Warm winter coat – Women’s dream parka or very affordable parka or this men’s 700 fill down parka.
- High Quality winter gloves – If you have ski or snowboard gloves, they should be fine. Driving gloves or mittens won’t cut it.
- Hand Warmers – I used these in my gloves and shoes. They’re inexpensive and a total lifesaver in cold weather.
- Warm Hat – Get a warmer than usual hat like this fleece lined beanie that can fit under a hood or cute fleece Lined beanie.
- Face Mask – If you are a photographer out there for hours this face mask is inexpensive and you’ll be glad you have it.
- Crampons– There are a variety of quality levels but these are good quality at a decent price on Amazon. You need Ice cleats with spikes if you are going to Abraham Lake or walking on ice. You will also want spikes on your camera tripod.
- Insulated Waterproof pants – women’s waterproof pants or men’s snow pants are helpful if you will be doing something that requires protection like skiing or hiking.
Top Things to do in Banff in Winter
If you’re reading this post, there’s a good chance you are planning a winter Banff itinerary. If you are wondering what to do in Banff this list will give you a ton of ideas and lots of Banff in winter pictures.
There’s something here for everyone. Starting with the reason we made the trip to Banff in January – the Abraham Lake frozen methane bubbles.
Abraham Lake is Worthy of Your Canada Bucket List
Our #1 thing to do in Banff is actually just outside the Banff National Park boundary (a 2 hour drive from Lake Louise). Abraham Lake in winter is a 100% bucket list place. People fly in from all over the world to see it and photograph it.
This man made lake that has methane gas coming from decomposing plants on the bottom of the lake. That sounds odd but the result in winter is the stunning view of the trapped gas bubbles in the ice.
It is so spectacular that you will have a hard time leaving. Make sure you have ice cleats and very warm winter clothes for this visit. It is very slippery and can be extremely cold. You can bring ice skates too for a super fun thing to do.
You can visit Abraham Lake on a guided tour and have someone else do all the winter driving. Plus they will take you to multiple points of interest along the Icefields Parkway, including snowshoeing at Peyto Lake.
Or if you have a car, you can do the trip yourself. Here are 12 Tips for Visiting Abraham Lake Alberta with important details.
Abraham Lake is best viewed in December and January before too much snow piles up on the ice.
RELATED POST: 12 TIPS FOR VISITING ABRAHAM LAKE ALBERTA ICE BUBBLES
Johnston Canyon Ice Walk is One of the Best Things to Do in Banff in Winter for Free
There are great photos of Johnston Canyon in summer but it’s a truly spectacular Banff winter hike. One of the best parts of this snowy wonderland is that it is a relatively easy hike or you can step it up with other activities like ice climbing.
The trail is well marked and even has railings set up in multiple places. It is 2 hours round trip to see the Lower and Upper Falls. Definitely go all the way to the upper falls, it’s not much further and there’s a huge payoff.
If you go in the morning, you will be able to see the ice climbers at the Upper Falls. Seeing people scale massive icicles is thrilling. Don’t forget your camera.
Here a few simple pointers for the Johnston Canyon Ice Walk but read our detailed guide with 5 Things to Know Before You Hike Johnston Canyon in Winter for more details.
- Make sure you pack crampons or Ice cleats or you will be miserable. You can also rent them or If you are staying at the Fairmont, they will lend you crampons that fit right over your boots. There are people unnecessarily sliding all over the place.
- Ice Walk group tours operate in morning or afternoon and include gear and transportation if you want someone to coordinate the trip for you.
- If you have a AWD car, you can do the trip to Johnston Canyon yourself for free. It is easy to find and there’s plenty of parking.
Ice Climbing Tops the List of Banff National Park Winter Activities
Most of us just watch these daredevils but you can actually try your hand at waterfall Ice climbing. The Canadian Rockies is known for having some of the best ice climbing in North America. Never tried it?
Do a Guided Ice Climbing Experience for Beginners with an expert climber. They will teach you all the necessary skills and take you to one of the best spots like Johnston Canyon (shown above), Canmore Junk Yards, , and Haffner Creek.
Check out our Banff video here with the ice climbers in action. There are Ice climbing courses that range from beginner to advanced all over the area in addition to Johnston Canyon. Canmore is another really popular spot.
For a Unique Thing to Do Hit the Lake Louise Ice Bar
There are fun things to do right outside the Fairmont door starting with a life sized ice castle an outdoor bar made of ice. It takes twenty 300 pound bricks of ice to build the bar each year.
Order a drink and mingle or grab a spot by one of the fire pits equipped with Adirondack chairs. Open daily from noon to 6pm, it’s surprisingly comfortable and a fun way to watch all the surrounding Lake Louise winter activity.
Ice Magic is the Best Banff Winter Festival
Fun fact – the Fairmont hosts the Banff winter festival called Ice Magic. It’s a competition with world class ice sculptors and one of the best things to do in Banff in January.
We booked our trip without knowing the dates and missed Ice Magic by a week. Even if you miss it, you’ll still see the ice castle that’s there for the whole winter.
Take a Sleigh Ride For a Fun Activity With Kids
A winter sleigh ride is the quintessential Banff winter activity. Bundle up for a sleigh ride in Banff through snowy meadows surrounded by incredible glacier carved mountains. At the end, warm up with a delicious cup of hot cocoa.
Want something a little more romantic? Cuddle up on a private horse drawn sleigh ride for two.
You can also take a sleigh ride around Lake Louise departing from the Fairmont Lake Louise and heading around the tree lined edge of the lake to the frozen waterfall at the far end.
Skating is a Highlight of Lake Louise in Winter
Lake Louise is a massive lake so there’s no wonder they can fit multiple rinks right outside the Fairmont. Whether you just want to figure skate or play some hockey, Lake Louise is completely free and tons of fun.
It’s also free to skate on other lakes in Banff too as soon as they freeze over but once they accumulate too much snow, you’d be better off with snowshoes. The best time for skating is December. On Lake Louise, they maintain the ice all winter.
You can rent skates (skis and snowshoes too) in the Fairmont Ski shop or at Wilson Mountain Sports in the Lake Louise village. It’s a lot chillier than I expected so bundle up before you go.
Snowmobiling is prohibited in Banff National Park. But don’t worry adventures lovers can still take a snowmobile tour and whip through the snowy terrain.
Another option is in Golden BC, only one hour away from Lake Louise and 1.5 hours away from Banff, you can go on an exciting 2-hour guided snowmobile tour with an experienced guide.
Enjoy captivating views as you speed through pristine snow over a hill or around large pines and make unforgettable memories at the same time!
Snowshoeing is One of the Top Banff Canada Winter Activities
There are opportunities everywhere in Banff for snowshoeing. The north side of Lake Louise to the waterfall has a great trail. The trail at Emerald Lake (above right) is a good one for beginners.
Or you can take a snowshoeing tour of stunning Marble Canyon in Kootenay National Park. It’s one of the most beautiful places to see on a trip to Banff and a guided small group tour is the perfect way to do it!
Another one of the best Banff winter tours is Snowshoeing on Top of the World through the backcountry of Canada with a knowledgeable guide.
You’ll get 360 degrees of breathtaking Rocky Mountain scenery and views you wouldn’t want to miss.
The tour offers a journey from Banff, taking you across a high ridge with pristine fresh powder, before winding its way through peaceful backcountry areas, where you’ll be able to spot animal tracks, trees and beautiful snow formations.
Best of all, it even culminates with a trip to frozen Rock Isle Lake – too beautiful for words. Of course, don’t forget to bring your warm winter clothing like coats and boots – because Canada really knows how to serve up some chilly weather!
Snow Tubing is a Highlight of Banff in Winter
For those that don’t want to hit the slopes but still want the downhill experience, one of the great family things to do in Banff in winter is snow tubing.
Norquay Tube Park has the largest snow tube park, which is only 5 minutes from downtown. You can enjoy morning, afternoon and night rides down 8 lanes that are great for ages 4 and up. The minimum height requirement is 42″ tall.
If you’re looking for something even more suitable for younger children there’s a 2 lane Sunny Tube Park at Lake Louise Ski Resort, available for any age above 3 years old.
Spend Time in Downtown Banff
Downtown Banff is your perfect charming winter town with shopping, art galleries, museums, bars and more than 100 restaurants with delicious international cuisine and Canadian food.
Banff Avenue is a great place to walk around and soak up the lively atmosphere. Don’t miss breakfast at Melissa’s Misteak or the fondue dinner at the Grizzly House.
If you’re feeling adventurous why not try out High Rollers Bowling Banff for some fun competition? There’s also the Lux Cinema on Bear Street where you can catch a movie. Downtown Banff really has something for everyone.
Skiing & Snowboarding is Why Most People Come to Banff in the Winter
I was on this trip with my mom and son, both photographers so that was the focus of the trip. Many people specifically go to Banff for a ski trip.
Known as the big three – Lake Louise, Banff Sunshine, and Norquay are top ski and snowboard resorts in the Canadian Rockies. You can rent equipment at any of the ski resorts or conveniently inside the Fairmont ski shop.
Banff Gondola is One of the Top Banff Winter Attractions
The Banff Gondola ride in winter is a must! Take the 8 minute trip to the top while enjoying panoramic views of the Bow Valley below. Once you arrive there are plenty of fun things to do.
You will definitely enjoy the viewing platforms at the top with 360 degree views from over 7,000 feet above Banff.
The Suphur Mountain boardwalk to Sanson’s Peak has the best views of all. Don’t miss the Cosmic Ray Station where scientists studied space particles.
Hikers will enjoy the South East Ridge Trail at the top or the 5.5km hike up Sulphur Mountain and take the gondola back down.
At the Mountaintop Discovery Center, you can go to the Above Banff Theatre for a simulated bald eagle’s experience soaring over Banff. You’ll also learn about the weather patterns in the area.
Eat lunch or dinner at one of the 3 restaurants at the Banff Gondola Summit at Sulphur Mountain. Sky Bistro is perfect for a romantic dinner.
Until March 31st you can head up the mountain at night for Nightrise, an evening experience with beautiful light installations.
Book tickets in advance to get a better price, save time and have an easier time parking. It can get crowded so get there before 10am if possible and if you go in the evening time your visit to catch the sunset at the top.
Dogsledding in Banff in Winter
Embark on an ethical dog sledding tour in Banff and Canmore, where the pristine winter wilderness comes alive with the energy of well-cared-for dogs.
During guided tours, you will learn all about mushing and driving a team of sled dogs across snow-covered trails.
The breathtaking scenery, combined with the joyous spirit of the dogs, makes this experience a testament to the beauty of ethical and eco-friendly adventures in the heart of the Canadian Rockies.
Wear warm clothes to participate in this Banff winter activity. Howling Dog Tours is a reputable company or you can check here for more information on Canadian sled dogs.
Best Banff Winter Photography & Things to Do
One of the best things to do in Banff National Park is visit all of the unbelievably beautiful places to take photos. It’s a photographer’s paradise. There are multiple spots where you can show up and find photographers and tripods set up all over.
There’s a fun camaraderie between everyone. You end up meeting professional and amateur photographers from all over the world. Here are the best spots to visit for beautiful Banff winter photos.
Emerald Lake is an Iconic Banff Winter Photo Spot
Emerald Lake is one of the prettiest places ever! It’s actually just outside of Banff National Park in Yoho National Park. This area is a great place to go snowshoeing or cross country skiing.
It’s so serene, dreamy, and the most perfect winter wonderland. Even the road to get there was so divine, we had to take photos. It’s approximately a 20 minute drive from Lake Louise.
Morants Curve, along the Bow River is popular because you can capture a Canadian Pacific Railway train en route in the midst of a stunning vista.
We were there late in the day and it was cloudy – obviously not the best conditions but it is what it is. The morning light is the money shot. Check the train schedule so you know when to show up.
You can just use google maps to find Morant’s Curve and there’s a parking lot on Bow Valley Parkway right across from the photo spot. Wear warm clothes because it can get very cold and you might be waiting a bit for the train.
Bow Valley Parkway is a Beautiful Banff Winter Scenic Drive
Bow Valley Parkway is a nice wide road where everything gets blanketed in fresh snow and you can see wildlife. It parallels the highway and is a gorgeous drive.
I’m a nervous winter driver and the driving conditions still felt very safe even though it was 100% snowy. They regularly plow the road but check the conditions before you drive it.
There are multiple places where you can walk up to the train tracks. It’s the same road that you take to the Johnston Canyon Ice Walk.
Vermillion Lakes is Prettier in Winter
About 5 minutes from Banff town is the Vermillion Lakes area which is spectacularly beautiful in winter. This is a great place to go to watch the sunset. It’s surrounded by autumn color foliage so it looks different that everywhere else.
The pink cast of the sky right before sunset at Vermillion Lakes is nothing short of spectacular.
We were mesmerized by a graceful kite skier touching down on the ice and flying back up into the sky doing tricks that looked easy but probably took forever to master.
There are multiple vantage points and each seems better than the last. If you are an amateur photographer, don’t miss this area. I found a pile of photographers lined up by a pool of water – obviously the money shot.
RELATED POST: Best Places to Travel in January
Catching a Banff Winter Sunrise
If you regularly follow this blog or The Evolista on Instagram, then you know we are huge fans of sunrise. Just to clarify, we don’t love waking up for sunrise but some of our best moments on this planet have happened right as the sun was coming up.
We visited Lake Abraham at sunrise. You can see the photographers waiting for the shot. Make sure you arrive a minimum or 30 minutes before the stated time of sunrise or sunset (if you can’t wake up).
Things You Can’t Do in Winter in Banff National Park
- You can’t see Moraine Lake. The road is closed from October-May.
- See the stunning blue water that you’ve probably seen in pictures. First the lakes have to clear of ice (around the beginning of June) and then it takes at least a week for the runoff to make that special color.
- Columbia Icefield Tour in nearby Jasper National Park – The bus with the massive tires that drives up on the glacier opens mid April and is available all summer.
Most people head to Banff in winter to go skiing but there are so many amazing things to do in this winter wonderland beyond the basics.
For all the people that just head to Banff to see the beautiful blue lakes in summer, you wouldn’t believe how cool it is to walk on a frozen lake with trapped ice bubbles. Banff in winter was an adventure we never thought of taking that turned into a favorite destination. You can check out our Banff video here.
Where to Stay in Banff – The Best Lake Louise and Banff Hotels
The Banff Lake Louise area has so many hotel options but choosing the right place to stay will depend on the things you want to do. Both towns are 30 minutes apart and Banff is closer to the Calgary airport.
Best Hotels in Lake Louise
We opted for Lake Louise for two reasons. First, there are a ton of Banff winter activities right at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise like the skating rink in your backyard.
Second, it’s 30 minutes closer to Abraham Lake, which we knew we would visit at sunrise. It’s also closer to Emerald Lake. Lake Louise is a very small town but the resort offers a ton so you will have everything you need.
- Post Hotel and Spa (9.3) European ambiance with wood burning fireplaces in the rooms, a full service spa and terrific restaurant are all reasons that guests love this hotel so much.
- Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise (8.3) – The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise has spacious, comfortable rooms, tons of activities and restaurants right on site and the views are extraordinary. For such a big hotel, they really do a great job.
- Lake Louise Inn (7.3) – A good lower price accommodation. One of our nights was already booked at the Fairmont so we stayed here and it was a pleasant surprise. It’s very clean and the restaurant is great. Book their newly remodeled rooms. The older rooms have bad reviews online making their overall hotel score lower.
Best Hotels in Banff
If your Banff activities include ice climbing, skiing at Mount Norquay or things that are closer to Banff and Canmore, it’s better to stay there so you’ll have less driving.
Banff is a great base if you want to be in a bigger town with lots of stores and restaurants nearby. It feels like more of a city/mountain town stay. Another reason to choose the town of Banff is that it’s closer to the Calgary airport.
- Peaks Hotel and Suites (9) – One of the newest hotels in Banff with tastefully appointed rooms, great staff and convenient location.
- Moose Hotel and Suites (8.9) – Cozy hotel rooms or spacious suites with kitchenettes. Great location in the heart of Banff with a good restaurant, hot tub with gorgeous view, and electric car charging.
- Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel (8.6) – 5 star hotel in a stunning location.
Final Thoughts About Planning a Trip to Banff in Winter
What better place to experience a Canadian winter than in Banff! With all the activities available, there’s something for everyone.
Whether you’re looking to take photographs of the beautiful snow-covered wilderness or want to explore the surrounding areas on an exciting winter tour, Banff is the perfect destination for an unforgettable vacation.
Don’t forget to check out the amazing views from the gondola and skate on Lake Louise to make your adventure even more enjoyable. Book your trip today and enjoy Banff in winter like never before!
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