Have you ever been to a place and felt instantly connected to it? That’s what this Banff winter guide is all about. My journey began in Boston, then on to Toronto and ended in Banff.
I glanced out my window upon landing in Calgary and to my surprise it was completely flat. In my head I always pictured Calgary as a city that is surrounded by mountains, but alas it was like a tundra, much like landing in Denver when flying from the East. From Calgary I made my way to Banff. This dang drive to Banff is still one of the most scenic drives I’ve ever been on. My jaw dropped upon seeing the Canadian Rockies for the first time. It was a feeling I wish I could have for the rest of my life and a feeling I felt during the entire trip. When I visited Alberta in 2018 I realized what a force Mother Nature is and so, I returned again in February 2020, and the feeling was no different.
There’s a little bit of something for everyone during a Banff winter adventure. Hiking, cross country skiing, downhill skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, dog sledding, or simply taking in the views from a cozy café are just a few of the options right at your fingertips. Known for its turquoise lakes and rocky peaks, Banff is just as much of a summertime getaway as it is a winter getaway! Here is my ultimate guide to Banff in the winter.
Entering Canada as a US Citizen
The pandemic has changed so much and travel is surely one of them. As countries re-open there are never before used entry requirements. To enter Canada as a United States citizen you must provide proof of vaccination, a negative COVID test and complete the forms in the ArriveCan app on your phone. There is a little confusion surrounding the acceptable test types for entering Canada. Personally, I got the Rapid Diagnostic Test (ID NOW) at Walgreens and received my results in less than 24 hours. Head here for full details on entering Canada. You’ll likely show all of your documents during the pre-boarding process of your flight.
Upon landing in Canada, you’ll head straight to customs where you’ll share your documents: passport, proof of vaccination, negative COVID test and your ArriveCan e-receipt proving you filled out the necessary documents to enter. Additionally, customs officers are required to fill a certain quota for random testing so you may be pulled for a random COVID test.
Re-Entering the US from Canada as a US Citizen by Air
As a US citizen re-entering the states from Canada, you must provide a negative COVID-19 test taken with 72 hours of your planned arrival back in the country. I found COVID testing isn’t as widely available as it is in the states and it is much more expensive. To find out where you can get tested in Alberta, head here. COVID tests are available at Calgary International Airport, you can find more information about that here. Additionally, here is a more in depth look at where you can get tested in Alberta.
COVID-19 Requirements in Alberta
Each Canadian province has different mandates and guidelines in place to help keep everyone safe. Please head here for all of the specifics when it comes to visiting Banff!
How to Get to Banff
There are many ways to get to Banff! The easiest is flying into Calgary International Airport (YYC) and renting a car from one of the many car rental shops at the airport! Having a rental car is the best way to explore the area in my opinion! If you want to opt for something else like a shuttle or bus, head to this link for more information about other options for getting to and around the Banff/Lake Louise area!
Where to stay in Banff
There are a lot of lodging options in and around the Banff area. And all at different budgets. Here are my favorites in the area:
This hotel is located in Canmore, about an hour and a half from Calgary and a 30-minute drive to Banff making it a good spot along the way to Banff. The rooms are ideal for longer term stays because there is a full in-room kitchen, outdoor patio with a grill, indoor living space, and a separate bedroom.
The town of Canmore is actually quite cute too and Stone Ridge is just a 5-minute drive to the center where you’ll find restaurants, cafes and grocery stores.
Rooms start around $150 USD
This hotel caters to guests traveling solo, with a plus one or getaways with a group of friends or family therefore, there are a number of different lodging options. I’ve now stayed at this cozy little hotel twice and plan to return on future visits to Banff!
There is an on property (delicious) restaurant serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. If anything, I recommend enjoying a slow morning on the property before starting your adventure-filled day! Soak in the hot tub (complete with mountain views) and then enjoy a deliciously satisfying breakfast at the Bistro.
Juniper is only a 5-minute drive to Banff and a 10-minute drive to the nearby Vermillion Lakes.
Rooms start at $99 CAD ($78USD)
Another repeat property for me! I’ve stayed at Buffalo Mountain Lodge twice now and will likely stay here again, too! It’s up Tunnel Mountain and situated on 9 acres of pristine land, so as you can imagine, the views are incredible. Tunnel Mountain was formerly called “Sleeping Buffalo” by the First Nations that lived in this region which is where the lodges name comes from.
On the property, there is a coffee shop, restaurant and an idyllic stainless steel hot tub. The rooms might be my favorite out of all of the properties I’ve stayed at in the area. It’s lodge style accommodation provides that home away from home feeling, with plenty of privacy. The rooms are comfortable with fireplaces to cozy up to featuring heated floors and mountain style architecture including post and beam construction and high open ceilings.
Rooms start at $219CAD ($172USD)
Fairmont Banff Springs, also known as the “Castle in the Rockies,” was built by the Canadian Pacific Railway to pursue opening Western Canada to tourists. Today, much of the hotel has been renovated, but it still feels like you’re taking a step back in time upon entry with its Baronial-style architecture.
This property is massive with a lot to explore! There are daily optional activities like s’mores at the outdoor fireplace and ice skating. The Willow Stream Spa is must-have experience. It’s reminiscent of the natural hot springs that called travelers to its mountainous landscape 100 years ago. In addition to treatments, there is a mineral pool, pulsating waterfalls, indoor and outdoor hot tubs, and saunas. Hiiiighly recommend!
Rooms start at $399CAD ($313USD)
Here are some honorable mentions in the accommodations category:
- The Dorothy Motel used to be known as the Bumpers Inn. It’s Banff’s first boutique motel with 42 rooms and was inspired by pioneering women of the Bow Valley. It’s located at the start of Banff Ave. adjacent to the woods, with the majestic Cascade Mountain visible behind it.
- The Banff Park Lodge opened the Peaks Hotel and Suites this spring. It’s a 71-room hotel that’s located in the heart of Banff and as you might be able to tell from its architecture, its contemporary designed was inspired by our natural surroundings.
What to see + do
You really can’t go wrong during a Banff winter getaway! Banff and Lake Louise recently launched their Trip Planner. This tool allows you to build a dream board of your future trip to Banff and Lake Louise based on all of your interests. So once you’re there, all of the guesswork is taken out and you have a complete itinerary to go off of! And below are all of my absolute must do’s to add to your itinerary.
Sunrise at one of the iconic lakes
Two of my favorite lakes to catch the sunrise at are Two Jack Lake and Vermillion Lakes. Banff winter sunrises are unlike any other, I suppose there is no real explanation needed so I will let the pictures do the talking.
Have High Tea at Fairmont Chateau and explore Lake Louise
On your way to the lake, make sure you grab a hot cup of coffee or cocoa from the Trailhead Café at the beginning of the road up to Lake Louise. Being at the lake early will give you the advantage of seeing it without another soul in sight. And let me tell you, it’s worth it.
Spend a few hours on the lake, walking out on the ice, ice skating, taking photos, and stopping in to marvel at the Fairmont. You can rent equipment from the shop at the Fairmont, too! Also worth noting, there are a few walking trails and cross country ski/snowshoeing paths! I chose to walk across the lake bringing me closer to those snow dusted, rocky peaks.
In the afternoon, head inside the Fairmont for afternoon tea or lunch. It’s important to make a reservation in advance for this- they book out far and fast! Be sure to request one of those iconic window seats.
Explore Emerald Lake
One of the most popular places in the area. While its technically located outside of Banff and in Yoho National Park, it’s a must in my Banff winter guide! You’ll be hard pressed to spot another soul wandering around the lake this time of year. So, take advantage of the silence and walk around the lake or sit on the dock and take in beautiful views of Mount Burgess and Wapta Mountain.
Town of Banff
Banff will always be one of my favorite mountain towns. The main road through the town, Banff Ave, is lined with shops, restaurants and galleries and of course the iconic views of Cascade Mountain and Mount Rundle on each end. I love meandering down the street stopping in shops owned by locals, taking in the views and sipping hot cocoa.
Banff Upper Hot Springs
Iceland isn’t the only place you can submerge in hot springs in subzero temps! The upper hot springs are unfortunately closed but normally when it’s open, its best to get there early to beat the crowd. The cost for entry is $8.48CAD and $1.90CAD for a towel and $1CAD to rent a locker. Check the Banff Upper Hot Springs website for updates.
Take the Banff Gondola Up Sulphur Mountain
Located 2 minutes up the road from Banff Upper Hot Springs is the gondola! It’s a 10 minute scenic ride to get up to the top of Sulphur Mountain. From the top you can see all of Banff, the Bow Valley and 6 surrounding mountain ranges. Yes, 360 degrees of natural beauty.
There is indoor space with bathrooms, a cafe, the Sky Bistro and restrooms which all provide a little shelter from the icy cold temps! Once toasty head out, brave the cold and walk the Sulphur Mountain Boardwalk. The full walk, to the top, is about 30 minutes and I cannot recommend it enough. Especially at sunset! I easily spent 5 hours here (on both visits) just walking around and taking photos. These Banff winter views are iconic.
Prices range from $37CAD to $56CAD, for ages 6-15 prices start at $28CAD, and kids 5 and under are free!
Drive the Bow Valley Parkway
The Bow Valley Parkway, also known as Highway 1A, runs parallel to the Trans Canada Highway but is all the more scenic. Two of the most scenic spots? Castle Mountain Lookout and Morants Curve.
Morants Curve requires a bit of patience while waiting for the train to chug on by. The locals I’ve chatted with say that the train is busiest during traditional business hours, think 9-5, and can come through the valley every 30 minutes to one hour!
Drive the Icefields Parkway
Put that Parks Pass to use and make your way through Banff and Jasper National Park. A few key highlights are Bow Lake, Peyto Lake (look for signs for Bow Summit), Athabasca Falls, Pyramid Lake and anywhere along the way (in respective order of driving toward Jasper, Alberta).
I suggest sunrise at Bow Lake and move on to catch the rest of the morning light at Peyto Lake. The walks around Bow Lake and up to Bow Summit are fairly easy when the snow is packed. A safe bet is to rent some snowshoes just in case! Bow Summit is where you will pick up the trail to Peyto Lake overlook. The walk up is about 15 minutes!
Once you’ve arrived to Jasper, Athabasca Falls is an easy, relatively flat walk on a paved walkway providing absolutely stunning views of frozen waterfalls and deep canyons. In my experience, some areas were quite icy so microspikes like these might be worth purchasing or renting from a shop in Banff!
On your Icefields Parkways tour, Pyramid Lake is the last stop and is located right in Jasper. This cannot be missed! It’s one of 20 small lakes left behind by a retreating glacier and what remains is a beautiful view of Pyramid Mountain.
Hike through Johnston Canyon
The walk through Johnston Canyon is absolutely breathtaking. It weaves in and out of the rock formations alongside snow dusted trees and a flowing river. The main points of interest are the lower and upper falls; the lower falls are easily accessed while the upper falls are a bit more of a hike. The entire walk through Johnston Canyon to the upper falls is 2.7km (1.6 miles).
You can also hike to the Ink Pots via the Johnston Canyon trail, I haven’t had the chance to do the hike yet but from what I read the hike to the Ink Pots is 5.8km (3.6 miles) and moderately easy.
While you can explore the boardwalk on a guided walking tour, I highly recommend going at your leisure. The boardwalk can be icy in spots so cleats or microspikes are super helpful!
Dog Sledding with Snowy Owl Dog Sled Tours
One of my favorite memories during my Banff winter adventure. The morning started early and we made our way through the winding mountain roads of Canmore. Destination: the remote wilderness of the Canadian Rockies. I spent half the day mushing dogs through the epic landscapes of Western Canada and ever since, I can’t get the views out of my mind.
Unlike some other dog sled tours, I had the opportunity to command my own pack of pups – it was both terrifying and exhilarating all at once. The other half of the morning I spent in the sled while my friend commanded the pups. Best of both worlds! This is one of the only dog sled companies that will permit guests to mush their own sled in the area! At the end of the excursion, you finish where you started and get to enjoy some hot beverages and tasty treats next to a cozy fire.
I support Snowy Owl Dog Sled Tours because they are a huge advocate for animal welfare. An entire section of their website is dedicated to the things they do to ensure the best possible life for their pups. Here is an excerpt:
“As a dog first company, we are advocates for animal welfare. We are in support of the practical and legal concept of animal ownership and in practice, love our sled dog pack and share our lives with them. With over 30 years of expertise in the sled dog sport, we recognize the human-animal bond and the immense value in sled dog welfare, purposeful breeding and supporting advancing science to ensure we maintain an outstanding sled dog care program.”
Spend the morning skiing or snowboarding at Sunshine Village
Would a Banff winter guide be complete without a day spent on the slopes? I think not. Ikon Pass holders unite! Sunshine Village is one of the mountains available to you with that pass. It’s also part of the Ski Big 3 Pass which includes Sunshine Village, Mt. Norquay and Lake Louise!
Here I took a private snowboarding lesson! I felt beyond comfortable with my teacher and he exercised so much patience with me. I’d never been up a lift with a snowboard before but with his encouragement we went up and did a few runs. The views at Sunshine Village were unlike anything I’d seen before. Absolutely beautiful!
Foodie finds are always my favorite! Here are a few spots worth checking out in Canmore and Banff.
Communitea – Known for their tea! Plenty of menu options for lunch and an early dinner. Go with the Tangled Thai Salad and the chocolate mint tea.
1001 6 Ave, Canmore, AB T1W 3L8, Canada
Iron Goat Pub & Grill– Great casual dinner spot! So many delicious menu options. I went with the roast chicken with a stewed tomato sauce. It was drool worthy.
703 Benchlands Trail, Canmore, AB T1W 3G9, Canada
Nourish Bistro – Vegan, gluten free and vegetarian friendly eats. My favorite bites were the King Kong Noodles and Curry du jour! But to be honest, I ate here several times during each visit.
110, 211 Bear Street, Banff, AB T1L 1A8, Canada
Wild Flour Bakery –The coffee spot in downtown Banff with a couple different café locations. Its also a great spot to post up with your computer and get some work done.
211 Bear St #101, Banff, AB T1L 1B4, Canada
Trailhead Café – Stop here before or after heading to Lake Louise! There are tons of options for breakfast and lunch and of course, plenty of drinks to keep you toasty! Gluten free and dairy free options are available!
101 Lake Louise Dr, Lake Louise, AB T0L 1E0, Canada
Park Distillery – This restaurant is known for their upscale camp cooking inspired meals. You can expect: wood-fired, spit-roasted, smokey-savoury and locally sourced ingredients.
219 Banff Avenue, Banff, AB
Banff Ave Brewing Co.– This spot is loved by tourists and locals and for good reason! Delicious (more upscale I’d say) bar food and a massive selection of beers!
110 Banff Ave, 2nd Floor Clocktower Village Mall, Banff, AB
Bear Street Tavern– Signature pizza’s, sandwiches & cast iron specialties that will satisfy any hungry Banff adventurer. Pro tip: ask for honey to drizzle on your pizza- you will not regret it.
211 Bear St, Banff, AB
Hello Sunshine– A Sushi, Japanese BBQ, Karaoke Joint in Downtown Banff.
208 Wolf St #101, Banff, AB
Three Bears– This brewery in downtown Banff is bringing the outside in.
205 Bear St, Banff, AB
Shoku Izakaya– Easygoing restaurant serving Japanese & Pan-Asian dishes like steamed buns, sushi & grilled meats.
304 Caribou St, Banff, AB
The Uprising Craft Bakery– Serving up handcrafted bread, pastries and has an espresso bar!
202 Banff Ave, Banff, AB
The Radiant– A parlour, lounge, and stage offering boutique cocktails and shareable plates.
111 Banff Ave Unit 101, Banff, AB
Farm & Fire– Relax and refuel with farm fresh, wood fired dishes and cocktails influenced by earth’s natural elements.
333 Banff Ave, Banff, inside the Elk + Ave Hotel, Banff, AB
The Prow– Formerly the Sleeping Buffalo serving up mountain-themed tapas, game meats, excellent shareables, and pastas made proudly in house.
700 Tunnel Mountain Rd, Banff, AB
Other Paw Bakery– If you make it to Jasper along the Icefields Parkway, this is the perfect spot for a late lunch before hitting the road back to Banff! Just 15 minutes from Athabasca Falls.
610 Connaught Drive, Jasper Alberta
Here are a few things to keep in mind when planning your ultimate Banff winter getaway.
Renting an SUV with 4 wheel drive and winter tires is a must. While the main roads are maintained well, the roads through the National Parks are completely different beasts. And honestly, I don’t think you can drive through the National Parks without winter tires! The Icefields Parkway (the road through Banff and Jasper National Park) is plowed as well as it can be but the side roads are less of a priority (for example, the road to Bow Summit was barely plowed after a fresh snowfall). Knowing all of this, I went with a Dodge Durango and Toyota 4Runner during both of my Banff winter getaway.
Ice, snow and freezing rain are all things that can happen within 5 minutes of each other and the road conditions change by the minute. Always check the road conditions here and stay updated on avalanche threats here so that your Banff winter trip can go off without a hitch.
Before starting your trip be sure you have your parks pass! Head here for details.
Fuel and Facilities
Also worth noting, on the Icefields Parkway ALL facilities are closed in the winter which means there are no places to stop for food or fuel until you reach either end of the parkway. There are bathrooms in nearly every pull off point, not heated but there was always toilet paper; as a rule of thumb, always bring some with you just in case! Pack snacks and fuel up in Banff or Canmore before hitting the parkway. As a fuel reference, both the Durango and 4Runner used nearly a full tank of fuel driving from Banff to Jasper and back.
I have T-Mobile which means I have service in nearly every part of the world (ILY). But one of the places I don’t have service is on much of the Icefields Parkway. Even more the reason you must fuel up and prepare to make the drive from Banff to Jasper! As winter progresses, there are less and less people making the drive per day between Banff and Jasper along the Icefields Parkway. While the drive is a straight shot, I saved the Google Map of the area offline just in case something went awry.
Banff & Lake Louise Tourism is a great place to find the answers to all of your questions and you can plan your entire trip through their website. Everything from exploring the area without renting a car to local events to dining and nightlife suggestions and everything in between!
While Parks Canada does an amazing job at maintaining the trails the best they can; fresh snowfall, rain and subzero temperatures are inevitable. Which means trails can be slippery, sheer ice or full of mud. Lucky for you, ice cleats, snowshoes, cross-country skis, and cold weather gear can all be rented from Banff Adventures or Wilson Mountain Sports.
While I never had a single encounter with a wild animal during my Banff winter adventure, only your average mountain goat, I was still very aware of my surroundings and the simple fact that I was in a wilderness unfamiliar to me. For more information and tips on how to prepare, head here.
Adventuring in the Banff and Lake Louise area of Alberta is a bucket list experience. I hope you found this post helpful while planning your dream trip to one of the most beautiful places in North America!
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This post contains affiliate links and is written in partnership with Banff Lake Louise Tourism as always, my opinions are my own.