Things to do in Banff in winter
Beyond the typical postcard (or more relevantly now, Instagram shot) of Lake Louise, Banff National Park in the Canadian Rockies surprises all who visit with its unexpected culinary and nightlife scene, accommodation styles, and of course, accessible adventures. This is a destination that leaves visitors speechless with its protected nature and beauty – and like the country it’s in, lives up to expectations with charm, acceptance, diversity, and the Canadian hospitality Mr Hudson comes to expect. A day of winter adventure in Canada’s first national park is complemented by a fireside cocktail made from spirits distilled right in Banff. The Banff Upper Hot Springs soothes sore muscles with an evening soak, and iconic accommodation at the ‘Castle in the Rockies’ illustrates the European influence that established tourism in Canada. With the Town of Banff and hamlet of Lake Louise all within the Banff National Park borders, this is uniquely a destination like no other. Wondering what to do in Banff National Park in the winter? Mr Hudson has got you covered.
The best hotels in Banff National Park
With the discovery of hot springs, Banff National Park is where tourism was founded in Canada. The purpose? To help fund the nearly-bankrupt construction of the trans-continental railway in the late 1800’s. With this discovery of a lucrative tourism industry, the construction of the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel built the icon that is the ‘Castle in the Rockies’. Complete with several upscale dining options, wine bar, lounges, the award-winning Willow Stream Spa, its own skating rink, and high-tea, it might be hard to ever leave the property.
New and chic in downtown Banff is the Moose Hotel & Suites. Any guest here will be hard-pressed to find a reason to leave the rooftop hot pools, fireplace, and sauna – all with stunning elevated views of Banff’s most famous mountains – Mount Rundle and Cascade Mountain.
Cabins in the woods
Halfway between Banff and Lake Louise is a true hidden gem that offers the quintessential Canadian cabin experience. Storm Mountain Lodge is built from refurbished Canadian Pacific Railway log cabins – still furnished and decorated as one would expect with a log bed frame, wood burning fireplace, and clawfoot tubs fit for two. Storm is easily accessed by car and cooks up great mountain cuisine – but don’t expect Wi-Fi or a TV out here.
The most rewarding lodge accommodation is Shadow Lake Lodge in Banff National Park’s backcountry. This off-the-grid experience is only accessed by snowshoe or cross-country ski – but upon smelling the fresh baking on the window and observing the steaming wood-burning sauna, it’s quickly realized the trek is worth it. Snacks by the fire and incredible three-course meals fit for a mountain appetite are all included with your private log cabin stay.
Another icon of the Canadian Rockies is the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise on the shoreline of the famous lake itself. Complete with an ice bar, horse-drawn sleigh rides on the frozen lake, the Mountain Heritage Guide adventure program, upscale dining, and of course skating on what is constantly ranked among the world’s most beautiful skating rinks.
Things to do in Banff and Lake Louise in winter
Skiing in Banff National Park
Three world-class ski resorts in Banff and Lake Louise are all joined with one easy lift ticket that includes transportation from the hotels. Ski Big 3 is your one-stop shop where lift passes and rentals can be picked up from their ‘Adventure Hub’ in downtown Banff. Alternatively, you can book ahead at skibig3.com and have this all waiting for you upon check-in. For higher quality and more advanced ski rentals, check out Black Tie Banff – they bring the gear to your room and fit you on-site with butler-like service.
Each ski resort offers something different with Norquay being Banff’s closest resort and a great one to find your ski legs at, Sunshine Village with Banff’s only ski-in-ski-out accommodation, and Lake Louise Ski Resort, home to arguably the best in terrain, snow, and definitely views at one of Canada’s largest ski resorts.
The Banff Gondola just underwent a huge renovation revitalising it into a sustainable mountain-top experience
Not a skier? Not a problem.
Banff and Lake Louise have tons of winter activities such as dog sledging, guided ice canyon walks and snowshoe tours with White Mountain Adventures and Discover Banff Tours, introductory ice climbing experiences with Yamnuska Mountain Adventures, and cross-country skiing, snowshoe, fat biking, and skate rentals in both Banff and Lake Louise. Top rinks to romantically skate on in the area include: The Banff Avenue rink, illuminated at night and stocked with fire pits and wood, Fairmont Banff Springs skating rink, Vermillion Lakes in Banff, Baker Creek Mountain Resort & Bistro rink on the Bow Valley Parkway and Lake Louise
The Banff Gondola just underwent a huge renovation revitalising it into a sustainable mountain-top experience. The Sanson Peak Boardwalk guides visitors to the historic Sanson Peak weather station as it has done for years in the past, while the new Above Banff theatre gives visitors a birds-eye view of the Park. For the ultimate Banff Gondola experience, make a reservation at Sky Bistro and enjoy an alpine-dining experience overlooking the sunset from the top of Sulphur Mountain.
After getting the great white north winter adventure fix, wander around downtown Banff’s finer side of Rocky Mountain culture. Several galleries show just how the Rockies has inspired creativity for so long. The must-visit Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies is home to rotating galleries, historical exhibits, several art displays, and a gift shop stocked with locally made products. The galleries of Canada House, Willock and Sax, Carter-Ryan, and About Canada are all within a few blocks of each other as well and all worth a visit.
Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity is one of the biggest hidden gems in Banff – home to the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival which tours to 127 countries yearly, the Banff Centre has arts, theatre, and musical programming year-round. Complimenting an evening of mountain theatre with dining at their Three Ravens Restaurant & Wine Bar is the perfect way to spend an evening.
As the daytime sets to dusk, it’s worth paying a visit to the new and very hip Beatnik Salon to get fixed up with a beard trim while receiving local’s tips from the boys who have lived in Banff for years. Not to mention this is the perfect complement to cocktail hour by the fire.
This suspended walkway hangs in the canyon taking hikers to two sets of stunning frozen waterfalls
What to see in Banff National Park
No matter what season it is, Banff is alive with wildlife and unbeatable in scenic drives and hikes. Around Banff, it is common to see elk, deer, and bighorn sheep on the drive to Lake Minnewanka. Stop at Two Jack Lake on the way and while in town, keep an eye on the aurora forecast as this is a prime area to spot the northern lights from.
The Cave & Basin National Historic Site is the birthplace of the national parks system in Canada, and where the railroad workers discovered hot springs many years ago. Explore the surrounding ecosystem unique only to Banff via a network of boardwalks.
Venturing down the scenic Bow Valley Parkway is another perfect area to find wildlife and other pull-outs for prime photo opportunities. The Johnston Canyon trail is located along the Bow Valley Parkway but unless you plan on doing it with an organized tour, renting ice cleats in town first is a must for winter. This suspended walkway hangs in the canyon taking hikers to two sets of stunning frozen waterfalls with Narnia-like crystals and gushing spring-blue water following behind. Continue up to the Icefields Parkway armed with snowshoes and warm winter clothes for a trek up to the Peyto Lake Lookout from the Bow Summit parking lot.
Where to eat in Banff National Park
Owning its Rocky Mountain culture by creating some of the best cuisine found in Western Canada, restaurants all around Banff National Park focus on what comes from their backyard in the Alberta prairies. Game meats such as elk and bison are sourced from local ranches, along with the world-renown wheat and barley that is Alberta’s #1 export. Top picks for Banff include Sleeping Buffalo Restaurant, 1888 Chop House, and Block Kitchen + bar. For the best views complementing these Canadian culinary creations, check out Eden at the Rimrock Resort, Juniper Bistro, Three Ravens Restaurant & Wine Bar, and Sky Bistro at the Banff Gondola.
In and surrounding Lake Louise, top restaurants include Storm Mountain Lodge’s restaurant, Baker Creek Bistro, Mount Fairview Dining Room at Deer Lodge, and Alpine Social Club and Walliser Stube at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise.
The cocktail hour around here is also known as après – it means a day of adventure and exploring is being rewarded with a cheeky treat in a glass, crafted with award-winning local spirits. Nowhere else will you find a distillery in a national park, and Park Distillery has coined ‘glacier to glass’ since Banff’s water supply originates at six glaciers. There might be something in the water because the Banff Avenue Brewing Company serves up beer that is also award-winning and served at their restaurant on Banff Ave and widely throughout Banff National Park.
The Rundle Lounge at the Fairmont Banff Springs may have a piano going while cocktails are served up, or catch the Juniper Bistro’s après menu served in the afternoon. Block Kitchen + Bar adds a Canadian maple flair to their old fashion while the Grapes Wine Bar at the Fairmont Banff Springs and the Three Ravens Wine Bar at the Banff Centre serve up a more classy and elegant vibe.
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Lake Louise Ski Resort | Photo: Reuben Krabben
Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel | Photo: Fairmont Hotels
Baker Creek | Photo: Destination Canada
Beatnik Salon | Photo: Jonny Bierman
Whyte Museum | Photo: Whitney Arnott
Moose Hotel and Suites | Photo: Amelie Brun
Sunshine Village | Photo: Paul Zizka
Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel | Photo: Fairmont Hotels
Vermillion Lakes | Photo: Noel Hendrickson
Shadow Lake Lodge | Photo: Jonny Bierman