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13 Things to do in Banff in Winter (including Free Activities)

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Banff’s Best Winter Activities

Banff is the gateway to the Canadian Rockies, one of the most beautiful parts of the world! Even though Banff gets most of it’s hype from its Summer activities like hiking and checking out the canyons, Banff in the Winter is truly magical.

The entire town turns into a Winter wonderland and there are some really unique outdoor Winter activities you can do like Dog Sledding and ice climbing an actual frozen waterfall!

Banff is a great Winter holiday destination for families with kids, couples and solo adventurers. There is something for everyone from relaxing in hot springs or frolicking in the snow, to going on a Winter snowshoeing adventure!

📌 Looking for activities tour to do in Banff during Winter? Check out Banff’s best Winter Tours!

If you have a chance to visit Banff during the Winter, this guide will help you plan the best Winter activities while you are there as we will share our favourite 13 things to do in Banff in the Winter. The list also includes free things to do in Banff in the Winter.

To help you plan the most amazing trip ever, we will go over when exactly to visit, where to stay, and a list of the best things to do and see.

Couple standing in front of a frozen Lake Louise during Winter
Lake Louise in November

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Where is Banff

Banff is located in the Canadian Rockies, in Alberta Canada. The nearest international airport is Calgary which is 1.5 hours drive from Banff.

Things to Know Before Booking Your Winter Trip to Banff

The first thing you need to make sure you are aware of is that Banff can get extremely cold in the Winter. For reference, we visited Lake Louise in early – mid November and it got down to as cold as -15 degrees Celsius!

We found that in these kind of temperatures we needed to have warm socks and shoes, coats, beanies and neck warmers. I will go over our full Winter packing list in this guide.

You also need to be prepared to drive in the snow if you are hiring a car. This was something that we had never done before our trip to Banff and luckily it wasn’t as bad as we thought it would be, although it was quite slippery around the town.

The bears hibernate in the Winter, however, don’t let that make you think that you won’t see any wildlife. There is still plenty to see in the Winter such as moose, deer and elk.

The last thing you should know before booking your Winter trip to Banff is that it is absolutely worth it to see Banff in the Winter and you won’t regret it.

When to Visit Banff

If you are planning on visiting Banff in the Winter, late November or late January is a great time to avoid some of the Winter crowds but still get to enjoy a magical Winter wonderland!

We were there in early – mid November and Lake Louise hadn’t completely frozen over yet so we weren’t able to skate, however the timing on this will vary from year to year. If you want to make sure the lakes are ready for skating, visit in late January.

How Long to Stay

photo of Banff in the Winter from the bridge

You can stay in Banff for as little as 1-2 days to get a taste of the what the town is like, however we recommend staying 3-4 days to have enough time to enjoy the town and also get out and do some fun Winter activities.

How to Explore (Should you hire a car?)

Hiring a car will definitely make your trip to Banff easier, however there are also plenty of options to see and do things in the way of tours. There are also public buses through Roam Transit that you can use once you are in Banff to get around to a few of the points of interest.

If you do choose to rent a car, make sure it has snow tyres. You won’t want to drive on the roads without them! Having an all-wheel-drive will also help with traction on the snow but its not 100% necessary.

Getting From Calgary International Airport to Banff Without a Car

If you choose not to hire a car, and need to get from Calgary International Airport to Banff, you can book a shuttle or a private shuttle.

Alternatively, you can catch public transport, however this will take a lot longer (3 hours instead of 1.5 hours).

To get public transport from Calgary International Airport to Banff, you will need to first catch bus 300 into the city which will take around 20 minutes. Then you will need to take the RiderExpress towards Vancouver which will take around 2 hours to reach Banff.

National Parks Pass

When you visit Banff, all of the places you go to see surrounding the town will be located in Banff National Park. This means that you will need to purchase a National Parks Pass.

You can either buy this at the gate at the entrance of the National Park, or you can buy an annual pass online. If you are planning on visiting the national park for less than 7 days, you can purchase a shorter term pass at the gate.

If you are visiting for 7 days or more the annual pass will work out to be more affordable.

Some Cozy Places to Stay

There are some really nice resorts and hotels in Banff. Here are some of our favourites:

For a larger list of Banff hotels, click here!

Best Things to do in Banff in Winter

1. Explore Banff Town

photo of Banff in Winter

Even if you don’t leave the town, there is so much to see in Banff. You can walk around the streets, checking out the shops and the restaurants or you can walk down to Bow River and take some photos.

There are lots of nick nacky gift shops where you can get souvenirs and also some outdoor shops like Lululemon.

The festive vibes of the town during the Christmas season in December are especially lovely with the fairy lights in the trees and around town.

2. Do the Tunnel Mountain Trail

Distance: 4.5km return | Elevation: 300m | Time: 1.5-2 hours | Dog Friendly: Yes

📌 Note: You will need a National Parks Pass if you want to park your car at the trailhead.

The Tunnel Mountain Trail in Banff is short but steep and is one of the best Winter trails in Banff. The view from the top give you awesome panoramic views of Banff and the surrounding mountains.

This hike is 4.5km / 2.8 miles return with an elevation gain of 300m / 984 ft and will take you around 1.5-2 hours.

If you decide to do the Tunnel Mountain Trail in Winter, I recommend wearing micro spikes on you hiking boots or Winter boots as the trail can be icy and slippery in the Winter..

We used to hike without them but now we never go anywhere without our micro spikes in our backpacks. They make Winter hiking much more enjoyable!

3. Visit the Fairmont Banff Springs

The Fairmont Banff Springs is a luxury mountain resort that looks a lot like a castle and was built in 1888. The grounds are huge and it is a place that I always like to visit when we are in Banff because it is so impressive!

If you want to visit the Fairmont Banff Springs while you are in Banff, it is best to catch the bus or walk as there is limited parking for non-guests.

If you decide to walk, it will take you around 30 minutes. You will need to walk down Banff Avenue, cross the bridge over the Bow River and then take a left onto Spray Avenue. From there, you just need to go straight all the way up to the Fairmont.

To catch public transport, it will take you 10 minutes from town. You will need to take the #2 bus towards Banff Springs Hotel. The bus costs around $2 and you can plan your trip using the bus time table on Roam Transit.

Once you arrive at the Fairmont, you can explore the impressive grounds around the “castle.” There area lots of different bars and restaurants and some shops.

4. Take a Soak in the Banff Upper Hot Springs

relaxation in the Banff Upper Hot Springs in Winter
Dave enjoying the Hot Springs after a hike!

Winter and hot springs go together like burgers and fries! We loved taking the time after doing some hiking and exploring to have a much needed soak in the Banff Upper Hot Springs.

While you are relaxing in the hot springs, you can choose to bring a book with you to read, chat with friends or just chill out in silence.

The water from the hot springs comes from a natural source high in the mountains which we think is so incredible! Banff Upper Hot Springs are located near the top of Sulphur Mountain with views of the surrounding mountains and are around 12 minute drive from Banff.

You cannot reserve a spot at the hot springs. You can only book on arrival. There is a parking lot if you have a car, however with limited spots, or alternatively, you can catch the Route 1 bus or a taxi.

There are also change rooms, a gift shop and a café located on site.

5. Check out the View from Surprise Corner

Couple sitting at Surprise Corner viewpoint in Banff

Surprise Corner is such a great name for this viewpoint! It is located on a bend in the road which you can drive to and park in the small parking lot. It is only a 5 minute drive from Banff town or a short 25 minute walk uphill. Unfortunately, this is one spot that the bus does not go to.

Once you have parked, cross the road, carefully watching for traffic and walk up the boardwalk stairs to the viewpoint. From here, you will see the beautiful Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel across the river.

If you are like us and prefer a little more adventure in your holiday activities, you can venture down closer to the river on the opposite side of the road to the viewpoint. Be careful though, it is a long way down!

6. Go Skiing or Snowboarding

If you are visiting Canada to go Skiing or snowboarding, Banff may not be the place for you. Instead, you are going to want to go to the famous ski resort near Vancouver, Whistler.

However, if you are in Banff for the Winter and want to go skiing or snowboarding for a day, there are a 3 different ski resorts to choose from.

What awesome about Banff, is that if you want to visit all 3 ski resorts, you can purchase what’s called SkiBig3. SkiBig3 is a lift ticket that allows users to use the ski lifts at all 3 resorts.

Man skiing on Mt Norquay in Banff
Dave skiing at the Mount Norquay Resort

Mount Norquay

Mount Norquay is the closes ski resort to Banff town centre and will take you around 10 minutes driving. It is thought of as the best resort for beginners and this is where we went for a half day when we visited Banff in the Winter.

Unfortunately, I cannot remember much of our trip to Mount Norquay as I was came down with a fever that day and all I wanted to do was sleep.

Sunshine Village

The Banff Sunshine Village Ski resort has 11 lifts with something for everyone. To reach the actual resort, you will need to take a 15 minute gondola ride with unparalleled views to the top of the mountain. The Sunshine Village Resort is 20 minutes from the centre of Banff.

Lake Louise

Lake Louise is one of North America’s largest ski resorts, with 4,200 acres covering four mountains! The Lake Louise Resort has something for everyone with runs ranging from beginner to expert in difficulty. The views from Lake Louise are also absolutely epic!

You can see endless forests as well as the surrounding mountains such as Mount Temple, Mount Victoria and Mount Hector. The downside to the Lake Louise Ski resort is that it is a 40 minute drive from Banff, whereas the other 2 are located much closer to Banff.

7. Walk to Vermillion Lakes

Couple standing at end of dock at Vermillion lakes in Winter

One of the things we did during Winter in Banff was walk to Vermillion Lakes via the Fenland Trail. We found that all of the parking lots around Vermillion were closed at the time so we opted to park our car in Banff and walk from there.

The walk took us past the Banff Town sign so we got some photos with the sign before continuing on.

map showing the Fenland Trailhead for Vermillion Lakes

Once you reach the Fenland Trailhead should on the map above (also a parking lot if it has been ploughed), you can take the Fenland Trail into the forest, following the signs to Vermillion Lakes. I recommend downloading the All Trails maps to ensure you don’t get lost.

8. Watch the sunset at Two Jack Lake

Two Jack Lake is one of our favourite lakes in Banff for paddle boarding in Summer and during Winter, it is still just as beautiful!

You can drive all the way to Two Jack Lake and Park in the parking lot there. Be careful when walking down to the lake though, as the ground can be super slippery! Attaching micro spikes to your boots would help with this short stroll down to the lake.

I can highly recommend visiting Two Jack Lake at sunset as the colours are just gorgeous if you have the right conditions.

Best Day Trips From Banff in the Winter

9. Johnston Canyon

Half frozen Johnston Canyon in Winter
half frozen waterfall tiers of Johnston Canyon in Winter

Johnston Canyon is stunning in the Summer, but in the Winter it is magical and surprisingly less crowded even though personally, we both think it is more beautiful.

You can do a self-guided walk of Johnston Canyon along the normal trails, or choose to see a completely different side of Johnston Canyon on an Ice walk Tour.

During Winter, you will see frozen waterfalls and walk along a snowy path. The trail can be slippery and so I recommend wearing micro spikes. The Lower Falls are 2.2km /1.4 miles return with an elevation gain of 30m / 98 ft. The Upper Falls 5.4km / 3.4 miles return with an elevation gain of 120m / 393 ft.

Allow two to two and a half hours to do the return trip taking in both the lower and upper falls, and approximately one hour if just doing the lower falls.

To reach Johnston Canyon from Banff, if you have a car it will take you around 30 minutes or you can catch bus #9 to Johnston Canyon which will take around 40 minutes.

10. Icefields Parkway

photo of couple hugging to keep warm at the Peyto Lake Viewpoint
Peyto Lake Lookout in the Winter

The Icefields Parkway is open all-year-round and it a completely different kind of beautiful in the Winter. It is a road full of incredible stops at frozen waterfalls and frozen lakes such as the very popular, Peyto Lake.

The Parkway closes if weather conditions become dangerous. For example, if there is a snowstorm during Winter which means the road is unsafe to drive, it will be closed.

There is no cell service for most of the parkway and so you should prepare and take extra caution when travelling in Winter. There was a little bit of a snowstorm while we were there and even though the road was open, we completely chickened out of driving it.

Tip for Being Prepared on the Icefields Parkway in Winter

  • Bring extra layers and a blanket or 2
  • Bring extra food and water
  • Speak to someone at the local information centre before heading out onto the Icefields Parkway
  • Triple check the weather conditions and road conditions on 511 Alberta
  • Let someone know where you are going (if you can).
  • Know where the nearest emergency stops are.
  • Make sure you have Winter tyres
  • Have a full tank of gas
  • Start early and try to finish your drive in the daylight hours.

Some of the best Icefields Parkway stops in the Winter are:

11. Visit Lake Louise

Couple admiring Lake Louise in Winter

If you are visiting Banff in the Winter or the Summer, Lake Louise should be on the top of your list! The lake is completely transformed in the Winter time.

Lake Louise is the definition of a Christmas movie destination, with its frozen lake, snow-capped mountains and hot chocolate by the fire. There are loads of different activities to do at Lake Louise in Winter like ice skating on the lake, snow shoeing through the forests around the lake and checking out the ice castles at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise!

You can also still hike in Winter at Lake Louise. One of the best Lake Louise Winter hikes is the Fairview Lookout. Don’t forget your micro spikes because the trail may be slippery!

You could even check out the Fairmont’s Ice Bar where you can sip on a mulled wine or a spiked hot chocolate whilst gazing out across the stunning frozen lake.

📌 Note: To get to Lake Louise from Banff, you can drive and park in the parking lot at the lake or catch the #8x bus to the Lake Louise Lakeshore.

12. Go Dog Sledding

Yes, you read that right! You can dash through the snow in your very own sled let by a band of dogs! Dog sledding was historically a transportation method for the indigenous Canadian Inuits and it continued to be used frequently as transportation well into the early Banff settlements.

The only dog sledding that is located in Banff National Park is run by Kingmik which is located in Lake Louise.

They have a 2 different tours available but the one that stands out to me from looking at their website is “Narnia,” purely from the name. This is the shorter and cheaper tour. It is only 30 minutes, whereas their other tour “Great Divide Tour” is 1.5 hours.

Going dog sledding is an exhilarating way to see Banff National Park and an experience that you will never forget!

13. Hike or Snowshoe to Grassi Lakes

Distance: 4.3km / 2.7 miles return | Elevation: 203m / 666 ft | Time: 1-2 hours | Dog Friendly: Yes

Grassi Lakes is located in Canmore which is a 30 minute drive from Banff. It is the perfect trail to do with family and friends and is a great Winter hike to do whilst in Banff.

The hike is a steady climb from the parking lot all the way up to the lake, which is bright green/turquoise when thawed and perfectly stunning all-year-round!

Don’t forget your micro spikes! We were slipping and sliding all over the trail before we put ours on. 😆

Banff Winter Trip Packing List

When visiting Banff in the Winter you need to be prepared for cold temperatures. Here is a packing list for all the most important items that you should make sure you have.

  • Merino Base Layers (tops and bottoms)
  • Fleece Jacket
  • Puffer jacket
  • Winter accessories – gloves, beanies and a neck warmer (believe me these all help!)
  • Waterproof outer layers – waterproof jacket and pants
  • Ski or Snowboarding Clothes – If you have clothes for the snow, bring them! Alternatively, you can hire clothes in Banff for skiing.
  • Skis, snowboards or snowshoes if you have your own – If you don’t have these, you can hire them in town.
  • Hiking boots that are waterproof and insulated. There’s nothing worse than having cold, wet feet!
  • Snow traction devices like microspikes – When hiking in the snow it is likely that you will come across icy sections, especially on the more popular trails.
  • Sunglasses and sunscreen – Don’t be fooled by the fact that it is Winter. Even on a cloudy day, the sun can reflect off the snow and give you a really nasty burn!
  • Nice clothes for going out on the town!
  • A swimsuit for the hot springs
  • Your camera!

Our Thoughts on Visiting Banff in Winter

Although Summer will always be our favourite season to spend in Banff because we just love hiking and backpacking, Winter is definitely a special time.

I love how many adventurous activities there are still available to do during Winter and reasons to get outside! Banff is a very unique part of the world in this way. Not only does Banff have skiing and snowboarding, but there are also frozen waterfalls and skating on lakes and so much more!

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