If you’re looking for the perfect winter blend of stunning, frosty scenery, warm hospitality, and “away from it all” without being too remote, look north to Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada.
Located in the Canadian Rockies, Banff National Park is known for winter sports. The park was established when railway workers accidentally stumbled on a thermal hot spring. It became Canada’s first national park in 1885. Banff was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984. While Banff is a four-season favorite of travelers from around the world, the extended winter season makes it popular with skiers, snowboarders, and anyone wanting to pair off the slopes winter activities with stellar in-town amenities.
Here are five reasons to visit Banff National Park in winter, just in case you need a nudge to dig out your winter gear and search for plane tickets. This might be the universe telling you, “Go to Banff.”
1. It’s Surprisingly Easy to Get There
Even though Banff has a lovely, remote feel, it’s not hard to get there. Banff is about 80 miles—although be aware that Canada uses kilometers—from Calgary International Airport (YYC.) Direct flights to Calgary are available from most major US and Canadian cities. I flew into Calgary from New York City and out of Calgary directly to Dallas-Fort Worth. Although there are a lot of flights in and out, the Calgary Airport doesn’t feel like a large airport and is very easy to navigate. Getting to Banff from Calgary is also straightforward. You can rent a car and make the drive, but if you’re uncomfortable with winter driving, you can hop on the Banff Airporter Shuttle. The shuttle has ten scheduled departures per day from YYC. The ride in a comfortable motorcoach takes about two hours and runs about $60 for a one-way ticket and about $120 for a round trip. Expect some fluctuations in price based on the exchange rate. Reserve your tickets in advance, as the shuttle isn’t large and fills up during busy periods.
2. Epic Skiing and Snowboarding
A long ski season—early November through late May—is one of Banff’s biggest draws for snow sports enthusiasts.
Banff has three ski resorts that offer 29 lifts and 362 runs, so no matter your experience or ability, there is something for you here. Banff has just one ski-in, ski-out resort, Banff Sunshine, which sits high on the Continental Divide. Sunshine Lodge has all types of rooms, including lofts and waterfall rooms, allowing you the best views of the mountains and ski runs. There’s also onsite dining and a spa to care for those sore muscles après ski.
Lake Louise Ski Resort offers skiing with views of Lake Louise, although I don’t think you can go wrong with the views anywhere inside the park. Mt. Norquay has night skiing—the only place in Banff you can ski at night—and snow tube runs.
All resorts offer ski schools for both kids and adults. Banff Sunshine and Lake Louise also offer daycare. All lodges have beginner, intermediate, and advanced runs. Banff Sunshine and Lake Louise’s runs are about 50 percent intermediate, and Mt. Norquay is heavier on the advanced runs.
Can’t Decide Where to Ski? That’s Okay
I am not a skier, but I talked to many travelers in Banff this past January. Several groups of skiers were staying at my hotel, the Mount Royal Hotel in downtown Banff, and the folks there to get some serious skiing in were bouncing back and forth between different resorts.
If you’re having trouble picking a resort, the good news is that you don’t have to. Purchase SkiBig3 lift tickets and ski at all three resorts. Although staying at a ski-in, ski-out resort offers a lot of conveniences, it’s easy to get to the slopes from downtown Banff. Lift tickets can be delivered to your hotel so they’re ready when you arrive, and there are shuttle services from your hotel to the slopes. The best deals come with at least three days of skiing and purchasing at least 21 days in advance.
3. Picturesque and Walkable Downtown
Downtown Banff isn’t huge, but there are enough boutiques, candy stores, and places to grab food and drinks for at least a half-day of shopping and exploring adventure, more if you like to take your time browsing. The two main streets are Banff Avenue and adjacent Bear Avenue, and finding your way around is easy. Familiar stores like Columbia, Helly Hansen, and Lululemon are mixed with locally-owned shops. There are also two small shopping malls. I’m not a huge shopper when I am traveling. I pack light, and besides a small trinket here and there, I don’t usually buy things on a trip. I still enjoyed popping in and out of the shops and checking out locally-made soaps, chocolate, and other fun things.
Visit During the Banff SnowDays Festival in January
The 2024 dates are January 19 through February 3, and the streets of downtown Banff will be full of ice and snow sculptures. The skijoring demonstration is worth planning your visit to Banff around, so keep an eye on the SnowDays calendar of events as you plan your winter trip. Skijoring is an extreme winter sport that involves trick riding and epic ski stunts. Seeing a skier pulled by a horse flying down Banff Avenue is quite a sight to see, and I highly recommend jumping at any opportunity to catch this in action.
Sam Mitchell, the founder of Skijor Canada, said skijoring translates into “ski chair.” The sport is truly breathtaking to watch, and to see how in synch the horses and the skiers are as they execute their moves was one of the highlights of my trip to Banff. I still want to go back and experience the summer scene, but the fun of watching skijoring makes me want to do a repeat visit when SnowDays is happening.
4. More Choices for Winter Fun Off the Slopes
Like me, if you don’t ski or snowboard, there are still multiple opportunities to have fun outdoors during winter. No matter what your preferred activity level, from high energy to mild, you’ll not lack choices for outdoor activities. I spent a week enjoying the cold January weather and had plenty of fun things to fill my time.
Choose from rink skating and natural ice at the following spots:
- Lake Louise, behind the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, is universally accepted as the top skating spot in the area
- The outdoor rink at the Fenlands Meadow (skate rentals are available for on-site skating only)
- The outdoor rink at the Banff Train Station
- Other natural outdoor ice surfaces, including 40 Mile Creek to Vermillion Lakes, Two Jack Lakes, and Lake Minnewanka
If you don’t have your own skates, no problem. Rent them at Snowtips-Bactrax, Banff Adventures, Ultimate Sports, and Chateau Mountain Sports at Fairmont Banff Springs hotel.
Johnston Canyon Evening Ice Walk
This is an excellent activity if you want to enjoy the snowy winter landscape without skiing. The evening ice walk in Johnston Canyon offers gorgeous views of a partially frozen waterfall, the night sky, and maybe even some wildlife.
I booked my trip through Discover Banff Tours and enjoyed the snowy 1.4-mile hike along suspended catwalks built into the limestone walls of the canyon. Don’t worry; it sounds much scarier than it is. You can take the hike without booking a tour, day or night—the trail is open to anyone—but if you’re unfamiliar with the park, it may feel more comfortable to go with a guide, especially after dark.
See Banff from 7,500 Feet
Ride the Banff Gondola to the top of Sulfur Mountain and gaze into the treetops from above. The Banff Gondola operates year-round, but the Nightrise experience, available from early November through late March, is an extraordinary way to experience winter in Banff. Nightrise, created in partnership with the Stoney Nakoda Nation, allows visitors to take in the view combined with immersive experiences that include lights, projections, and soundscapes.
Winter Forest Bathing
Forest bathing is a Japanese practice designed to promote wellness through spending time in nature. Shinrin Yoku translates to “taking in the atmosphere of the forest.” Extended time outdoors can lower blood pressure and allow you to reset your focus, promoting sharper thought, improved decision-making, and increased creativity.
Forest bathing isn’t exclusive to winter or Banff and can be done anywhere, but it’s a beautiful and gentle experience when practiced among the snowy pines. It’s a great activity option for anyone who wants something focused on mindfulness and wellness. Forest Fix offers group and individual sessions in Banff.
Where to Stay in Banff
I stayed at the Mount Royal Hotel, which was comfortable, warm, and in a fantastic downtown location. Buffalo Mountain Lodge has a cozy and more secluded vibe, as it sits a bit away from downtown Banff. I didn’t stay here but had dinner at their restaurant, The Prow, and loved the hygge-style atmosphere.
If you’re looking for luxury or a true splurge, the Fairmont brand has two properties: Fairmont Banff Springs and the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. No matter what style of lodging you’re looking for, Banff has a lot of options.
Check out a more robust list on the Banff Lake Louise Tourism site. There are many choices, from hostels to mountain cabins and everything in between. If you spend the night in Calgary as you’re coming in and out of Banff, the Fairmont Palliser Calgary offers a fantastic luxury stay.
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Now is the Time to Plan Your Winter Trip to Banff
No matter your winter activity choice, you can find it in Banff. Whether you are a diehard skier who wants options on what to do off the slopes or want to enjoy clean air and a gorgeous winter wonderland, Banff will check the boxes.