It goes without saying that visiting a world renowned mountain town in winter starts and ends with visits to the slopes but when it comes to Banff, that’s just one item on the list of the possibilities to experience. From national parks to mighty peaks, 5 star resort and local dives all in clumped together, the Canadian Rockies coins the phrase “chose your own adventure.” So while winter in Canada may not seem like the place to start your holidays, for the bold (or just the well insulated), the options of what to do are nearly endless.
However, before I jump into all the fun to be had, let me offer up this warning that the tourism sites won’t say: Banff is not your artificial, mild-mannered ski village. Temperatures average just below freezing for much of winter and plowed snow on the roads is just par for the course. Shuttles and buses connect Banff to the world for the tourist but many roads and trails disappear at the first storm, shop hours get limited, even the Gondola shuts its doors for months. For me, that’s all part of what makes mountain towns so fun to visit and if you’re up for the elements and catch the right weather window, the reward is stunning and full of fun indoors and out.
Hike to the top of Tunnel Mountain.
In winter, your feet are the best way to explore Banff. From the city trails to wandering around downtown, you’ll reach places cars can no longer go and Tunnel Mountain is no exception. The road that usually cuts half way up closes down after the first snowstorms but thankfully the trailhead is just blocks behind downtown. As far as casual adventures, this one is legitimate, a moderate (in winter conditions) hike 2.7 mile trail with around 1,000 vertical feet of gain. Along the way you’ll be treated to occasional mountaintop views before clearing most of the trees entirely… welcome to Banff!
Stop for a sunset view of the Fairmont Hotel .
Just across from Tunnel Mountain Road is the Banff Center and just behind it is the viewpoint at Surprise Corner. I must have visited this point 3 or 4 times sharing the design work of the Fairmont hotel as it blends into and yet stands out of the mountain scene with other travelers I met along my journey. Come by around dusk for whatever color may be in the sky contrasted against the lights coming on in the rooms and Bow River flowing on by below. Speaking of Bow River, be sure to swing on down to the Bow Falls, accessible via drive-up parking lot just a couple minutes below the Fairmont property.
Explore one of Banff’s many museums.
There’s plenty to learn in Banff too from Cave & Basin park (open select days in winter) to the Whyte Museum of the Rockies, the Banff Park Museum, Fenlands Recreation Centre and the Buffalo Nations Luxton Museum. All offer something different while there is admission fees for some (park passes cover others), it’s a great way to duck out of the weather and explore the heritage, history and natural wonders of the area.
Enjoy a great lunch at Park Distillery.
If there’s one thing downtown Banff is not short on it’s tourist shops — just kidding, it’s all about the food! Much as the 3 subway locations may help your budget, it is nice to step it up at least a few times and Park Distillery does a great job meeting in the middle with reasonable prices and yummy eats. I had a chicken sandwich which was good but the group’s real winning meal was fish tacos… Mahi, Mahi and fairly fresh too. Obviously a craft beer to wash it down and the ice axe on the door sealed the deal on my recommendation as we headed back out to town.
Make the 30 minute drive to Lake Louise.
One of the perks of winter is the lack of crowds and no where does that seem to be more true than at Lake Louise. With the benefit of a large hotel (the Fairmont) and a small town, there’s plenty of reasons for the plows to keep running all winter long while the cold keeps most of the visitors away. At a minimum, walk up to the Lake for a stunning view before having a hot chocolate at the hotel’s 24 hour cafe but for a little more fun, button up the snowshoes and head down the trail towards Mirror Lake or just the back of the mountains and glaciers!
Visit a Roaring Waterfall at Marble Canyon.
Banff is surrounded by a host of national parks all of which have stunning sights their own to explore starting with Marble Canyon. The canyon is located half way between Banff and Lake Louise, just a few minutes off the main highway 1 on highway 93 south in Kootenay National Park (BC). It’s well marked and equipped with ample parking for the winter crowd plus a few working restrooms too. Snow will likely cover the easy ~1/2 mile trail but it’s popular enough to be well beaten down while guard rails keep navigation simple. After walking back and forth up along the impressive canyon walls, you’ll come to the end of the major trail at the spectacular main falls. On the drive back, swing by the Continental Divide marker — you’re exactly halfway between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans!
Drive Back on the Quiet but Gorgeous Bow Valley Parkway.
Hidden just behind the Transcontinental Highway (aka highway 1) is Bow Valley Parkway or 1A. This road runs for 30 or 40 miles from Lake Louise to Banff offering local access to a host of adventures or just sights as you drive down from town. View points include Temple Mountain, Castle Mountain, Muleshoe and Mt. Ishbel as well as access to waterfall hikes, cross country skiing and Johnson Canyon (which is currently closed as of November, 2015 for major repairs). On the way be sure to stop in at the Castle Mountain Chalets store for a local snack or gas refill and a friendly local tip or two.
Shop your heart away for Christmas gifts or new snow wear.
Unlike most mountain towns that may consist of a couple hotels and a bar or two like Lake Louise up the street, Banff is a small city, complete with everything from a supermarket (Safeway) and numerous shopping options. There is outdoor apparel and gear shops, mountain inspired decor & furnishings, jewelry, electronics, and of course the typical (and very cookie-cutter) gift shops. So if the weather outside is frightful, have an adventure indoors, heck, there’s even a movie theater if you’re that stuck.
Find the perfect photo at one of the stunning lakes just outside town.
Heading east out of town but still on city streets, you’ll leave Banff proper and pass under Highway 1 now on Lake Minnewanka Scenic Drive. The road narrows and almost immediately signs start to pop up talking about parks and lakes — snowy, quiet, there’s no reason not to visit them all! Johnson Lake is the first major turn off and worth a visit for it’s bridges and open mountain views. Then comes Two Jack Lack which you’ll find parking for further up the road than the markers. Finally you’ll dead end at Lake Minnewanka, a huge park and though all the summer buildings are closed, the views on even a blah day are something else once again!
Grab a well earned pint at an authentic Irish Pub
Talk to the people behind the counter and you’ll discover that Banff is a collection point for world travelers many of whom come to work a season or two in the middle of the mountains. As a result, there’s a fair number of drinking spots catering to the combination tourist / local tourist crowd. While the Irish Pub is no dance venue (that’s down the street), it’s a lively place at night, a good bite at dinner and late night option on a slow week day. Didn’t get any photos but I assure you, it’s worth a stop.
Finally, hit those slopes
With resorts like Sunshine, Lake Louise and Norquay all within 30 minutes of the city and all accessible by shuttle or bus, there’s plenty of ways to hit the powder and go big, go for a first lesson, or just go sledding up and down a giant run. Personally I’d rather climb, hike and explore up but zipping down is never a bad way to end the day either.
This is just a taste of adventure possibilities Banff offers up.
I traveled to Canada expecting to make a tour around but ended up changing that all, building a base in Banff and exploring out — it was just that good a place to be with people, sights, and some epic snow too. For a bigger adventure from Banff, be sure to check out my article on Driving the Icefields Parkway in winter, just be sure your car is equipped for the trek to come!