Banff National Park is one of Canada’s most valuable treasures – spanning 6,641 sq. km across a stunning natural landscape, complete with emerald lakes, abundant wildlife, staggering peaks and spectacular views, and in winter its beauty is crystalized, serene, and crisp.
Banff began as a 27 sq. km (6670 acres) hot springs reserve (and Canada’s first national park). Today, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was just named one of National Geographic’s “Best of the World” 2017 destinations. In winter, it’s a skier’s paradise, and if you know where to go it’s great for winter hiking and snowshoeing. The park also boasts more than 1,600km (994mi) of maintained trails – perfect for adventurous hikers and snowshoers. Need we say more?
Here we’ll take you through the basic overview of a winter trip in Banff National Park – including how to get there, where to stay, where to eat, what to see and what to watch out for.
Banff is essentially a year-round destination, but the more popular times to visit are from June to September. The warmest months draw the biggest crowds, but the winter draws the best savings!
From December to April, Banff’s cold weather (it rarely gets above freezing) deters many tourists, however this makes a winter trip to Banff a joy, as the crowds are reduced and you have more space to enjoy the stunning outdoors.
Mid-October is when the snow starts to fall (although sometimes it can come earlier than that). By mid-November the ski hills are usually open, but sometimes the snow gets patchy and the hills won’t open until December. The hills can stay open until May, but the valley bottom can warm up by mid-April.
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There are a few options to get around Banff National Park. The best option is to drive your own vehicle or rent a car at the airport or in the town of Banff. You will also need to make sure you purchase a Park Pass online or when entering the park.
You can also take public transit within the town of Banff – known as the “Roam” – which offers regular trips throughout the town itself and Bow Valley. There are also taxi services in Banff and Lake Louise area 24-hours a day and can be hailed on the street, called by phone, or found at one of several taxi stands throughout the town. Just remember that if you’re waiting for a cab or bus to wear your tuque and mitts (that’s Canadian for a warm wool beanie and warm gloves)!
Banff boasts a wide variety of accommodation options – whether you’re looking for a complete indulgence and luxury, a dash of design and history, or simply a place to rest your head at night.
If you’re looking for luxury, the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel is just the ticket. Nicknamed the “Castle in the Rockies” – as this is literally located inside of an old castle – this hotel is packed with everything you would want: a full spa and fitness centre, world-class dining, a golf course, and – of course – beautiful scenery in the heart of Banff National Park. This place looks so amazing covered in snow and frost, and the spa is the perfect way to warm up after a day outside.
For families, we suggest the Banff Hidden Ridge Resort. Tucked into a ridge that overlooks Banff town, these condos can fit up to eight people – complete with open fireplaces and outdoor hot tubs, which are amazing during the winter months. There are also some spectacular mountain views from your windows and a full kitchen.
We also suggest the brand new Moose Hotel and Suites. Just minutes from Banff centre, this accommodation also boasts two rooftop pools. As well, The Juniper is a rustic, cozy, and newly renovated locally-owned hotel in the heart of Banff National Park.
A pleasant place to stay is Buffalo Mountain Lodge. It’s charming and we have always had great stays there. It’s got a true Rocky Mountain aesthetic. It’s situated on Tunnel Mountain, which we think is a beautiful place to be.
Do you want the real experience of staying in a log cabin in the Canadian Rockies? Castle Mountain Chalets is the answer. These cabins are quiet and serene, and we love the isolation. The relaxing sounds of nature pair beautifully with a night of star-gazing. These cabins are also a great option for families.
Our last Banff accommodation tip is simple: check out Canmore. Ok, this isn’t a revelation, but somehow it slips people’s minds. There are loads of great Condos to rent for families or bigger groups of friends. If you’re place has a kitchen then already you’re saving money by eating in. Pack a board game, load up at the supermarket and you have the makings of a great trip. We routinely get 2-bedroom condos for $200 in Canmore using Expedia. This is a great deal.
Don’t forget that Lake Louise is also only 30 minutes away. We will share our secrets for Lake Louise in an upcoming blog post.
Banff has developed into one of Canada’s culinary hotspots, with local chefs serving up delicious dishes ranging from locally sourced “Canadian Rocky Mountain Cuisine” – typically featuring seasonal produce and beef and bison from Alberta – to meals from all over the world, from Japanese sushi to Swiss fondue, Italian pizza and pasta or spicy Thai curry, as well as anything from hearty pub fare to tasty vegan cuisine.
In Banff, we recommend the Park Restaurant and Distillery. With campfire-inspired cuisines such as rotisserie chicken chowder, cheese and whiskey fondue, tinfoil trout, bone-in rib eye and wood-fired broccoli this place is seriously delicious. Oh, and did we mention they also serve a variety of homemade spirits? How can you go wrong?
For a decent meal that focuses heavily on Canadian-inspired meals try The Maple Leaf Grill and Lounge in Banff. Or, to get more specific, try some Albertan cuisine (read: Albertan steak) at Chuck’s Steak House. You can get a great piece of beef paired with stunning mountain views.
If you live in Alberta, however, maybe you don’t want Albertan cuisine. Maybe this is your weekend away and you want a little vacation. If that’s the case, head to Magpie and Stump for some Tex Mex and margaritas. The atmosphere is so fun you might forget you’re still in Canada.
The Eden Restaurant is Banff’s finest dining experience. Based on French cuisine and influenced by local ingredients they offer elegant tasting menus as well at two, three and four course meals. Reservations are required and it is very pricey – but it’s a five-diamond restaurant and spectacular all the same.
For something out of the ordinary, check out the Balkan restaurant. They’ve been serving up traditional Greek recipes for three generations such as roasted lamb shank, charbroiled homemade pita and Greek shared platters – all with authentic Greek dancing, plate smashing and belly dancing every Tuesday and Thursday night.
If you’re looking for comfort foods, check out The Eddie Burger Bar. They offer hearty burgers, hot dogs, wings, salads and “the best poutine in town” – as well as a milkshake bar, a variety of cocktails and beers. For a quick bite, we recommend the crispy, hand stretched crusts from Aardvark Pizza – which you can get in thin or thick! They also have a wide selection of subs and sides. They are Banff #1 late night food stop.
If you’re looking for a great cup of coffee freshly baked pastry, the Whitebark Café is the perfect choice. Located right on Banff Avenue they serve up fair-trade, organic roasts and teas from the Banff Tea Company. Another favourite of ours is Evelynn’s Coffee Bar serving up premium blends from all over the world as well as delicious sandwiches.
High Rollers is great if you’re looking for some bowling and booze. Maybe treat yourself to a white Russian while you’re at it. Or, if a pub with fair prices is what your after then you better check out The Rose and Crown.
Aside from spectacular hiking routes, Banff also offers visitors plenty of both indoor and outdoor activities. At the top of the list, we must include the Upper Banff Hot Springs. This naturally, geothermally heated water begins bubbling roughly three meters into the earth’s crust. The emerging surface water can reach up to 47°C (116°F). Luckily, the springs are open year-round – and it’s a perfect place to watch sunrise or sunset especially with a layer of snow on the ground.
There is three ski resorts to chose from near Banff: Mt. Norquay, Sunshine and Lake Louise. All three resorts are impressive, however Lake Louise is most suitable for both expert skiers and learners as they have wonderful long magic carpets. Mt. Norquay is the closest to Banff and has great lessons and a fun tube park. Finally, Sunshine has the best snow of the three and, it offers the added bonus of staying on the hill. If you’ve never experienced staying on a hotel on the hill it really is something special.
Banff also boasts a sightseeing gondola – providing exceptional bird’s eyes views of the landscape below without any hiking.
You can also contact Yamnuska Mountain Adventures to find a variety of guided activities for the adventurous. Imagine learning to climb a frozen waterfall, ski untracked powder or climb a local mountain in winter!
As well, companies such as Banff Adventures offer a number of activities such as dogsledding, winter tubing, icewalks, ski and board rentals, heli-skiing, snowshoeing, and even ice fishing! The winter has easily as many great activities as the summer, so what could you be waiting for?
For some arts and culture, visit the Banff Center for Arts and Creativity – home to galleries and theatres, hosting a variety of shows, art exhibitions and even offering art classes. You’ll be surprised at the quality of the musical acts the Banff Centre can get, and you may see a favourite band in a small intimate setting if you’re lucky.
You can also check out the Banff Park Museum, housed in a log cabin constructed in 1903, this is a spectacular museum designated as a Heritage Sight of Canada.
- Never feed or approach wildlife. Always carry bear spray.
- Even though it may look pristine, make sure you boil, treat or filter all water before drinking it.
- Pay attention to avalanche conditions. Many places that are safe in summer are in prime avalanche territory. Don’t be a statistic, make sure what you are doing is safe by talking to Parks Canada Information.
- Weather can change quickly. Make sure to bring multiple layers.
- The roads can be dangerous in winter, even when they look dry they may hide black ice. Drive carefully!
- Always bring sunglasses, a hat and wear sunscreen – even in winter. The sun at the alpine altitude is very strong.
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