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Banff is Canada’s most famous and visited national park. Known for its vibrant turquoise lakes and dramatic mountain peaks, the park takes on a whole different vibe in winter. If you’re looking for the quintessential Rocky Mountain winter experience, this is surely it!
Below are 11 things to do in Banff in winter that you’ll remember for a lifetime, from ice skating on iconic lakes and skiing some of the world’s best slopes to soaking in thermal springs and gazing at frozen waterfalls. Growing up in Alberta, making a trip to the Rocky Mountains is an annual ritual, and we Albertans sometimes take for granted just how amazing a place Banff is, despite all the tourists!
To find out how to piece it all together for your trip, here’s my recommended three day Banff itinerary. When visiting Banff in winter, remember to dress warm, drive safe, and don’t get too close to the wildlife!
Where to Stay in Winter in Banff National Park
Best Things to Do in Banff National Park in Winter
In no particular order, here are 10 incredible things to do in Banff in winter! Please note that I have left out experiences involving animals, such as dog sledding and riding horse sleighs.
1. Skating on Lake Louise
Topping my list of incredible Banff winter activites is ice skating on Lake Louise, the most iconic lake in Banff National Park. I’ve probably been to Lake Louise a dozen times since I was a kid, but it was only recently that I took my own kids to experience the lake and skated on it for my first time.
All I can say is: what a magical experience! Gliding around while surrounded by towering peaks was nothing short of magical. Our kids loved it too, and we spend a big part of the time just plopped down with our skates on at the sides of the rink to admire the 360-degree views.
Ice skating on Lake Louise is an easy activity to prepare for. If you don’t have your own skates, pop in to Wilson Mountain Sports in Lake Louise Village on the drive in to the lake. Rentals were only $12 a pair per day when we visited. You can also rent them from Chateau Ski And Snow in the lobby of Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise hotel right beside the lake, but that’ll cost you $20 for two hours.
The rink is usually open from early December to around mid-April, but you may want to time your visit with the Ice Magic Festival (see below).
2. The Ice Magic Festival
Speaking of magical experiences at Lake Louise, The Ice Magic Festival truly lives up to its name. At this time, you can see skilled carvers from around the world shape enormous blocks of ice into incredible sculptures.
Besides snapping selfies in frozen castles, you can also watch speed ice carving competitions and more. The 2021 Ice Magic Festival is slated for January 20 to 31, but you can still see the ice sculptures for several weeks after. We actually snapped these pics in early March, and the sculptures were just starting to melt.
And before you leave Lake Louise, don’t miss the next entry:
3. Having a Drink in an Ice Bar
Yet another quintessential Banff winter activity to enjoy at Lake Louise is having a drink in a real-life bar made entirely of ice. You can choose from steaming hot drinks like coffee and hot chocolate, or something stronger for a body-warming buzz.
The Ice Bar usually sets up between Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise and the lake, and remains open as long as it can stay frozen.
4. Hitting the Ski Slopes
Banff National Park offers some of the best skiing in the world. From amazing powder to jaw-dropping scenery, the “Big 3” ski resorts in Banff are the only ones in Canada that are located within a national park.
The Big 3 are Norquay, which is closest to Banff town, Sunshine Village, which you’ll get to ride a scenic gondola just to reach the bottom of, and Lake Louise, the most well-known ski resort in Banff.
If you plan to ski all three resorts, you can get a Big 3 Pass.
5. Soaking at Upper Hot Springs
What would a day of skiing be without soaking in steaming hot water after? The mineral-rich thermal waters pouring out from the slopes of Sulfur Mountain are in fact the raison d’être for Banff National Park (see more on that in the next entry), so by taking a dip at Upper Hot Springs, you’re participating in Banff’s history!
The hot spring spa is located a 7-minute drive or bus ride up Mountain Ave from Banff townsite. The start of the Banff Gondola (see #7) is a few steps away.
Note that Upper Hot Springs is closed until further notice (last updated early 2021).
6. Uncovering Banff’s History at Cave & Basin
To learn more about how it all started, you can’t miss Cave & Basin National Historic Site at the bottom of Sulfur Mountain . This is the original site where Canadian Pacific Railway workers uncovered an underground hot spring, leading to the development of Canada’s first national park. It was once called “Lower Hot Spring” to distinguish it from Upper Hot Spring up the mountain.
Besides the actual cave and hot spring, there is a small museum on site, and in winter, a number of kid-friendly activities such as curling and ice hockey can be enjoyed in the courtyard where the historic hot spring pool once was.
7. Riding the Banff Gondola
For unparalleled, birds-eye views of Banff townsite and the surrounding valleys & peaks, you can ride Banff Gondola to the summit of Sulfur Mountain. Gaze at wintry landscapes from above, explore the summit trails, and warm up in one of the atmospheric restaurants on top of the mountain.
In winter, there are holiday activities galore, such as cookie decorating, giant board games, children’s crafts, sparkling tattoos, and Santa himself makes appearances.
The Banff Gondola is not cheap, but it’s an experience of a lifetime. See the latest packages and book your spots online here.
8. The Johnston Canyon Ice Walk
In winter, stunning Johnston Canyon takes on a new life, with icicles hanging from rocky cliffs and frozen waterfalls. You can budget one return to Lower Falls, two hours return to Upper Falls, or more serious hikers can go all the way to the Ink Pots (four hours return).
The trail is easy enough for kids, but can be slippery in winter. Although not totally necessary, ice cleats or crampons do help.
The canyon is 30 minutes out of Banff town on Highway 1A, which is parallel to the main highway between Banff and Lake Louise. In winter, there’s no public transportation to Johnston Canyon.
9. Snowshoeing a Wintry Trail
It doesn’t get much more Canadian than snowshoeing, does it? Snowshoeing is not only super fun and low impact but also a good form of exercise. Some of the most popular trails include Johnston Canyon, Sunshine Meadows, and the trail around Lake Louise. See a more detailed list of snowshoeing trails in Banff here.
To rent snowshoes for the day, try Banff Adventures in town ($15 per day).
10. Cross Country Skiing
Yet another way to get close to nature in winter in Banff National Park is by cross country skiing. This popular activity can be a surprisingly good workout, and allows you to cover more ground than snowshoeing.
Some of the best cross country trails in Banff are the Fairview Loop, Moraine Lake Road, and Cascade Valley.
11. Seeing Ice Bubbles
In recent year, ice bubbles have become all the rage on social media. Ice bubbles are formed with bacteria on the water feed on decaying plants and release methane. This methane gets trapped in frozen layers of ice on the surface of the lake, creating a stunningly beautiful effect.
Ice bubbles can been seen at many lakes in the Canadian Rockies, but Lake Minnewanka usually has the best ones. Seeing them can be a little dangerous, though. You’ll need to see them early enough in the winter that the lake hasn’t been covered in snow yet, but if you go too early, the ice could be too thin and you could fall in. In fact, 4 people fell into the freezing water of Lake Minnewanka in a single weekend in early 2021 and had to be rescued. So please, be careful!
The absolute best place for seeing ice bubbles in the Rockies is at Abraham Lake, which is just outside of Banff National Park. See my detailed guide on how to see ice bubbles at Abraham Lake.
Final Thoughts on Visiting Banff in Winter
Going to Banff in winter is an experience of a lifetime. No matter which combination of the above activities you do, it will surely be unforgettable. Even just one of them alone is worth the trip, so chances are you’ll be coming back to experience winter in Banff National Park again and again!