Out here in the Canadian Rockies, we’re often blessed with up to 8 months of winter! And that can mean only one thing; Banff is a winter paradise!
Crackling fires, fluffy powder, crystal clear ice and a mountain of s’mores make Banff the perfect place to spend a winter vacation.
But maybe there are a few more things to do in Banff in Winter than you realized? Maybe you’re just planning on taking a trip out to the mountains from Calgary for the day and are looking for something new to do!
Here’s our list of 20 of our favourite winter activities in Banff!
Our favourite things to do in Banff in Winter
Ice Skating in Banff or Lake Louise
Ice skating on a frozen lake or even on a skating rink is such a quintessentially Canadian thing to do. In Banff and Lake Louise there are 11 great spots that you can enjoy, with some being available for the entire winter and others often only appearing for a day or two!
There are plenty of places to rent skates in Banff and Lake Louise, so there’s no excuse! You can even rent hockey equipment, round up your friends and play a quick pickup game! Make sure you read our complete guide to ice skating in Banff and Lake Louise for all the best locations and most up to date information!
Play outside on a really, really cold day
Ok, being outside when it’s 30 or 40 below freezing isn’t exactly my idea of a good time, and to be honest, we’re not recommending spending a long time outside when it’s that cold. However, there are some really unique things that happen when the temperatures drop that low that are quite fun to see.
- When you breathe, the moisture in your breath can turn your hair crispy!
- When you’re in a hot spring (or maybe you’ve just left the shower), get your hair wet and see how it turns crispy. It’s even better when you wet long hair and stand it on end!
- Boil a kettle and fill a cup with the hot liquid. Throw it in the air and watch it immediately turn to snow! (Note: it has to be REALLY cold for this to work, and don’t do that thing where you throw it back over your head. That’s a great way to get third degree burns on your face!)
If you’re heading outside and it’s that cold though, make sure you wear very thick clothes, gloves, hats and boots. Stuff your gloves with heat packs and make sure you’re never too far from a heat source (hot car, hotel etc).
Go tobogganing on the hill behind the Banff Springs Hotel
Sledding or tobogganing in Banff is something you might not have considered, but it’s a really fun family activity that we often do when we’re feeling like getting out of the house. It’s a really good option especially if you have young kids with you.
Head down to Bow Falls in Banff, park and then walk a little further around the corner and directly in front of you you’ll find the perfect hill for sledding!
The hill varies in steepness, depending on which part you tackle, and there’s a fairly long runout at the bottom so you won’t crash into anything.
Things to keep in mind:
- If it hasn’t snowed in a while, the hill is extremely slick and fast. The snow also gets compacted so you won’t have a very soft landing.
- Some parts of the hill gradually get moulded into jumps and bumps. You might go flying if you pick the wrong line.
Where can I get a sled in Banff?
You best bet for buying a sled in Banff is actually to head to Canadian Tire in Canmore. They usually stock a huge selection of sleds ranging from cheap crazy carpets to fancy GT cruisers. Alternatively, try the dollar store in Banff on Bear Street.
Visit the Ice Castle and the Ice Magic Festival in Lake Louise
The Ice Magic Festival is an absolute must see for any visit to Lake Louise, and is one of the most unique things to do in Banff in Winter. Though the actual festival/contest runs in mid January, the ice sculptures stay up for months (so you don’t actually need to pay for the festival). I visited again in March, and while the sculptures are still standing, they were starting to lose some of their intricate details. I’d say that Mid Jan-Mid Feb is a safe bet.
If you want to read more about the Ice Magic Festival, read our post on winter activities at Lake Louise!
Dog sledding and/or sleigh riding through the Rockies
Dog sledding is an ancient Canadian tradition that you can easily find in the Bow Valley! Most outfits are only permitted to operate outside the national park, so Canmore is generally your best bet for dog sledding companies. Kingsmik is the only company that operates inside the national park, and operates along the Great Divide trail by Lake Louise.
Keep an eye out for the dogs as you drive to Lake Louise!
Alternatively, dog sledding in revelstoke is a great option. This is where we tried dog sledding in Canada and we had an absolutely fantastic experience.
As a dog lover, I was always concerned that the sled dogs were being exploited and might not have been enjoying themselves. Now having done it I can tell you honestly that those dogs were born to run. I’ve honestly never seen happier dogs in my life. If this is a concern for you, it honestly needn’t be.
Grab a beaver tail in Banff
Beaver tails are a Canadian obsession and they’re the perfect winter snack. Extremely high calorie comfort food is all you want on a freezing day, so head to one of the two locations on Banff Avenue, or the third location in Canmore.
Beaver tails are a deep fried pastry that you can smother in various sweet toppings. The most popular toppings are generally a combination of Nutella, ice cream and fruit. Personally, I love the lemon and sugar option because everything else puts me into a food coma.
Go Tubing at one of the ski resorts
This is a whole lot of fun for not very much money, and easy for anyone to enjoy. Grab a giant inflatable donut and throw yourself down one of the tubing chutes. It’s super fast and super safe!
In our opinion, Norquay Ski hill easily has the best tubing run of all the local ski resorts, and it’s also only a 10-15 minute drive from Banff! Read more about our experience here!
Go night skiing in Banff
If you love skiing, why not take the experience to the next level and try night skiing! Mt. Norquay is probably our best night skiing option in Banff, and well worth a visit. I used to go night skiing every week while I was doing my ski season.
While it’s only a small part of the mountain that’s opened up for night skiing, it’s still a barrel of laughs. People that will benefit most from the night skiing are those interested in the terrain park and learning tricks; the entire terrain park and gigantic XXL kickers are floodlit and fun to take on after a long day on the ski hill!
Night skiing at Mt. Norquay operates on Friday and Saturday evenings, and you can either purchase a one off ticket or a night skiing season pass for relatively little investment.
Catch the Northern Lights by Lake Minnewanka or Vermilion Lakes
“Can I see the Northern Lights in Banff” might just be our most frequently asked question. And the answer is, yes you can see them in Banff (see our photo below), but conditions have to be absolutely perfect.
That means the following has to line up perfectly:
- Cosmic ray storm with a Kp level of 4.5 or higher (in my experience)
- Clear skies
- Very little moonlight
- Darkness (you’ll have more chance of seeing them during our long winter nights)
There are various ways to track the northern lights and improve your odds, and I highly suggest reading our guide to seeing the northern lights in Banff before you attempt to see them!
Go on a winter walk to Johnston Canyon
Johnston Canyon is arguably Banff’s most popular winter walk. It can take between 1-3 hours, depending on whether you visit the upper or lower falls, and it’s a fantastic way to see a unique river canyon with towering chunks of ice.
It’s even a great spot to try ice climbing for the first time! You can read more about the Johnston Canyon Winter Ice Walk here.
Top tip: rent ice spikes or cleats from Banff or Lake Louise before you attempt this in winter. The ice along the trail can be absolutely lethal if you don’t have the right footwear.
Alternatively, why not try some other popular winter walks in the Banff and the surrounding area!
World class skiing at Lake Louise and Sunshine Village
It goes without saying that the skiing in Banff and Lake Louise is world class. Occasionally we dabble with Mt. Norquay too, but if the snow sounds good it doesn’t get a sniff.
For big mountain skiing with plenty of wide, steep groomers and the occasional amazing tree run, Lake Louise is your best bet. For variety of terrain, chutes and tree runs, head to Sunshine Village.
If you’re trying to do some general research on Canadian ski resorts, we’ve written a broad guide to Western Canadian Ski resorts here.
Try Cross Country Skiing in Banff
Cross country skiing is a surprisingly enjoyable way to get active in the National Park, and is one of our favourite things to do in Banff in winter. Yes, it’s a workout, but it’s way better than walking or snowshoeing! On a bright sunny day, there are few things more enjoyable than heading into the quiet forest on your cross country skis.
Our favourite routes are all around the Lake Louise area, and we regularly either ski across Lake Louise itself or ski up the Moraine Lake Road. You can also try cross country skiing at the Canmore Nordic Centre.
XC ski rentals are possible in Banff and Lake Louise. Read more about our last XC ski experience at Lake Louise here
Visit a backcountry cabin like Bow Hut or Mary Shaffer Cabin (Lake O’Hara)
Not for everyone of course, but backcountry adventures don’t just stop because it started snowing! Many of the Alpine Club of Canada huts remain open year round, meaning you can embark on multiday ski or snowshoeing adventures, even in the dead of winter.
One of the most popular ski adventures is the Wapta Traverse in Banff; a multi day backcountry skiing adventure across the Wapta Icefields up by Peyto and Bow Lake. The best way to do this is via an organised expedition with an experienced company. Yamnuska Tours is probably the most respected operation at this time.
Drop into waist-deep pow with some Heli-Skiing or Cat-Skiing
Pockets bulging with cash? Heli skiing is an amazing option to explore then! Climb in a helicopter, fly into the backcountry and experience some of the best powder of your life!
I’ve done it once out of Panorama with a company called RK Heli and can highly recommend them. I only paid for a half day though, which was 3 runs at a cost of about $500. The weather was poor and we only could really ski for about 15 minutes total. It’s a big hit for such a short opportunity.
Having said that, I can see that a full week or several days of this would be an out of this world experience, especially if I had a ton of cash to burn!
For anyone looking to experience backcountry conditions but that doesn’t have the budget necessarily for full blown heli skiing, cat skiing might be an option for you.
Cat skiing means jumping in the back of a converted piste basher, and slowly chugging to the top of a backcountry ski hill. Again, you’ll have a chance to rip down some pristine back country powder like you’ve never seen!
Cat skiing isn’t nearly as expensive as heli-skiing, but significantly more than regular skiing. It might be something worth exploring if you’re looking for a completely unique experience!
Soak in some natural hot springs
What could possibly be better than soaking in a natural heated thermal hot spring. Sure, there’s an option in Banff itself (the Banff Upper Hot Springs), but nothing kills my buzz faster than soaking with 100 other people. Human soup, anyone? no thank you.
Hop in the car and drive west to the East Kootenays and you’ll find an abundance of natural hot springs that are significantly quieter than those in Banff. We’ve written a guide to our favourite springs in the Canadian Rockies here, so make sure you check them out!
Be warned though, heading to Radium or beyond will take most of the day in winter and may involve driving on very snowy roads. Only attempt this if you have extra time to spare.
Go on a snowshoeing adventure
There are literally dozens of great places to go snowshoeing in Banff. Some mean you can stay relatively close to civilisation (like at Lake Louise or out the back of Sunshine Village), others will require you to disappear into the backcountry.
Snowshoes make a huge difference when trudging through the snow, and you’ll really learn to appreciate them if you attempt to go anywhere with recent snowfall! Here is a great list of snowshoe trails in Banff that you could try!
Go searching for frozen bubbles on frozen lakes
Banff has become notorious for the frozen methane bubbles you can find in some of it’s lakes. The most popular is definitely Abraham Lake near Nordegg, and when the conditions are just right you’ll find literally millions of bubbles trapped in the ice.
With that being said, Abraham Lake is a huge drive from Banff, so not everyone wants to trek all the way out there on the off chance that they might see some bubbles. Definitely don’t go if it’s been snowing recently, and it’s good to know that the bubbles are always best at the beginning of winter.
So what alternatives do you have?
Actually any man made lake that was created by flooding natural vegetation is a good bet. Lake Minnewanka, Two Jack Lake and Spray Lakes Reservoir are all great options that you can check out. Again, it only makes sense to try if there’s visible ice on the surface of the lake. Don’t bother if it’s covered by a foot of snow!
Sit down for a fondue in Banff
Not all winter activities have to involve flying through the snow at breakneck speeds. Sometimes you just want to sit down and munch on something greasy. Well look no further than the fondue restaurants in Banff and Lake Louise.
For fondue, you really have 3 strong options in Banff. My favourite is undoubtedly the Walliser Stube in Lake Louise, followed by the Waldhaus at the Fairmont Banff Springs, and finally, the Grizzly House on Banff Avenue.
All three are absolutely fantastic though, and you can’t really go wrong. Read our huge guide to restaurants in Banff for a more in-depth look at the fondue restaurants in Banff, as well as the other options that are available to you!
Head to the Spa in Banff!
Again, the latter part of this post is dedicated to those that would rather just chill, slow down and smell the roses. And what better way than to treat yourself to a spa day!
Banff has a couple of great options for spas, most notably the Willowstream Spa at the Fairmont Banff Springs and the Meadow Spa and Pools at the Moose Hotel.
However, if you want a truly unforgettable spa experience then you really have to head to the Kananaskis Nordic Spa in Kananaskis (about an hour from Banff). The area has truly become a destination in itself and we regularly now head out there when we’re in dire need of some R & R. Make sure you don’t miss it!
Have a romantic dinner on top of a mountain
Banff has a number of gondolas, but the most famous is the Sulphur mountain gondola. Although it’s arguably too expensive to get up there, the Sky Bistro at the top makes for a unique opportunity to enjoy some fine dining with incredible views!
If you want an even higher dinner, head to the Eagle Eye Restaurant at Kicking Horse Ski Resort. The food here is absolutely top notch and worth a visit, particularly if you’re skiing there anyway!
There are so so many great things to do in Banff in Winter, it’s almost difficult to know where to begin! Hopefully this list gives you a great place to start!