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The Best Things to do in Banff in Winter

This is a guest post written by Nick Kembel of Spiritual Travel

Banff National Park is Canada’s first and most famous national park. In winter, Banff transforms into a winter wonderland that will truly take your breath away.  Visitors to Banff in winter are rewarded with quintessential Great White North views.

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At this time, Banff’s dramatic Rocky Mountain peaks are draped in snow, enticing skiers from all corners of the globe. Meanwhile, the park’s stunning turquoise lakes are framed in white before freezing over, begging to be skated upon.

As a local Albertan, I’ve been visiting Banff regularly since I was a kid. In this article, I’m going to cover everything you need to know for planning an epic winter trip to Banff!

Why Is Winter the Best Time to Visit Banff?

There’s no denying that Banff is gorgeous in every season of the year. Visiting Banff in Summer is understandably the most popular, by a long shot. But only in winter does the park’s landscape take on such a dramatic, otherworldly look.

Visiting Banff in winter you will truly face the elements, but with adequate preparation, you’re in for the adventure of a lifetime. And after a full day of winter activities, a hot spring bath has never felt so rejuvenating! After dark, there’s a good chance of seeing aurora (Northern Lights) in Banff; head away from Banff townsite for the best results.

Yet another plus to visiting Banff in winter is that the tourist numbers (and hotel room prices) are way, way down, even with the ski season. The only exception is the week between Christmas and New Year when many locals visit for their holiday.

One thing to be aware of is that daylight hours are short in winter. On the shortest day of the year (December 21), the sun doesn’t rise until 8:45 a.m. and sets before 5 p.m.!

Frozen Lake in Banff National Park Canada, with footsteps leading across the snow towards a dramatic snowy mountain in the distance
The Best Time to Visit Banff is the winter | Credit: Nick Kembel

Winter Weather in Banff (& Best Months to Visit)

Winter weather in Bannf can vary, with the temperature fluctuating wildly. It could be 0°C (32°F) and sunny, in which case you’ll see locals walking around in T-shirts, or it could just as easily drop down to -35°C (-31°F), at which point ski hills usually close.

Generally speaking, I don’t recommend visiting Banff in November. Falls colors have passed, but winter hasn’t quite arrived yet. Visiting Banff in December is pretty because the snow is there, but the turquoise lakes are still visible.

January and February in Banff tend to be the coldest and quietest. The lakes freeze over, so you can skate on them. From March on it starts slowly warming up, but snow can last on the ground as late as May or even June at higher altitudes.

The ski season generally lasts from around the second week of November to mid-May. Skiing is most pleasant when the weather is around 0 to -15°C (32°F to 59°F).

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What to Wear in Banff in Winter

The smartest thing you can do to prepare for visiting Banff in winter is to bring many layers. Start with long thermal underwear, top and bottom, and double up on socks. On top of that, go with regular clothing and perhaps a hoodie or sweater.

Finally, get a good pair of snow pants, a winter jacket, toque (that’s Canadian for a winter hat or beanie) and thick winter boots. It’s especially important to protect your extremities (toes, fingers, ears), which get frostbitten first.

When doing outdoor activities, you may be surprised at how warm and sweaty you can get. Thus, I recommend bringing a daypack for carrying any layers you decide to shed. Still, it’s always safer to have too much than not enough.

Banff is also extremely dry in winter. Lip balm is a must to avoid dry cracked lips. Skin cream also helps, as does drinking lots of water. The sun can also be very bright and reflects off the snow, so don’t forget good UV sunglasses and even sunscreen for skiing.

Frozen Johnston Canyon in Banff National Park
Frozen Johnston Canyon in Banff National Park | Credit: Nick Kembel

Things to Do in Banff in Winter

There are loads of outdoor activities to enjoy in winter in Banff. Plan to have many indoor breaks from the cold between activities, especially if you’re visiting Banff with kids.

Banff Gondola

The Banff Gondola to the peak of Sulphur Mountain beside Banff town remains open in winter, except for a few weeks in early January when it closes for maintenance. Riding the gondola comes with unbeatable views, a boardwalk walk at the summit, and a kid-friendly museum, café, theatre, restaurant, and campfires at the top.

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Upper Hot Springs

Right beside the Banff Gondola station, Upper Hot Springs is the only public natural hot spring spa in Banff. It’s incredibly dreamy in winter, with snow peaks all around you (and if you’re lucky snow falling on your head while you bathe!)

Upper Hot Springs in Banff - a steaming turquoise pool amidst snowy backdrop with people swimming and sitting next to it in bathing suits
Banff Upper Hot Springs – Things to do in Banff in Winter | Credit: Nick Kembel

Banff’s Three Ski Resorts

Banff has three main ski resorts to choose from; Lake Louise Ski Resort, Mt. Norquay Ski Resort, and Sunshine Village. Lake Louise is the most famous, Mt. Norquay is the smallest and closest to Banff town, and Sunshine Village has a good mix of high-altitude terrain straddling the Alberta-BC border.

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Cave & Basin National Historic Site

At the bottom of Sulphur Mountain, this is the original hot spring that sparked the creation of Canada’s first national park. You can no longer bathe in it, but the museum on site has lots of interactive activities, and you can enter the original hot spring cave, which is home to an endangered hot spring snail.

Cave & Basin National Historic Site - inside a cave stained yellow with sulphur
Cave & Basin National Historic Site in Banff National Park | Credit: Nick Kembel

Johnston Canyon Ice Walk

Walking through narrow Johnston Canyon in winter is a surreal experience. Along the way, you’ll be surrounded by snowy cliffs, hanging icicles, and frozen waterfalls. The walk to the first waterfall is easy enough even for kids, but continuing to the second waterfall gets a little more challenging and you may want to get ice cleats to avoid slipping.

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Ice Skating on Lake Louise

Strapping on a pair of skates and zipping along the surface of Canada’s most beautiful lake is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. You can rent skates on the spot at Chateau Lake Louise, or save a few dollars and rent them in nearby Lake Louise village. After you skate, warm up with afternoon tea in the Chateau, one of Canada’s most beautifully situated hotels.

Skating on a Frozen Lake Louise in Banff in Winter
Skating on a Frozen Lake Louise in Banff in Winter | Credit: Nick Kembel

Lake Louise Ice Magic Festival

From mid to late January, the Ice Magic Festival takes place at Lake Louise. The festival’s biggest draw is the impressive ice sculptures and castles created on the lake’s shore. It’s a fantastic time to skate on the lake, and make sure to hit the Ice Bar for a warm-up drink after!

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Other Banff Winter Activities

You name it, Banff has it: snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, dog sledding tours, snowmobiling, helicopter tours, snow tubing, tobogganing, ice fishing, and more. Choose your own winter adventure! 

My Kids at Lake Louise Ice Magic Festival with an ice castle behind them
My Kids at Lake Louise Ice Magic Festival | Credit: Nick Kembel

Spending Christmas and New Year’s in Banff

Christmas is a magical time to be in Banff. Starting in late November and last through December, you can expect Christmas lights, Christmas markets, and a Santa Claus parade that kicks off the season. Oh, and a whole lot of hot chocolate!

On New Year’s Eve, there are usually small family-friendly activities and performances to enjoy around in Banff town.

Heads up that many locals from Alberta and BC spend their Christmas holidays in Banff, so it’s wise to book far in advance for the week between Christmas and New Year’s, and expect room prices to go up a little.

Snowman outside the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel - Christmas in Banff
Snowman outside the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel – Christmas in Banff

Where to Stay on a Banff Winter Visit

If your budget permits, stay in a hotel with a hot tub, ideally one that is outside.

Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel is Banff’s most iconic hotel, and its heated outdoor pool comes with unbeatable views.

In town, Banff Aspen Lodge has an outdoor hot tub and fireplace, while just out of town, Hidden Ridge Resort has one of the most beautiful outdoor hot tubs around.

FIND ACCOMMODATION IN BANFF

I hope you’ve found all the information you need for planning an epic winter trip to Banff National Park. Let us know in the comments how it goes!

About the Author

Nick Kembel was born and raised in Alberta. After traveling the world for two decades, he’s now back in Canada getting reacquainted with his home province. Read more about his adventures locally and abroad at nickkembel.com.

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