You’re trying to decide if you should visit Banff in the winter or summer. Summer is a beautiful time to enjoy Canada’s very first national park. But, I have some information that might change your mind!
I’m a huge advocate and believer that everyone in their lifetime should visit Canada’s Banff National Park.
And if possible, the other regions that make up the Canadian Rocky Mountains (Yoho National Park, the Kootenays, Jasper National Park, etc).
You might also like: Banff or Jasper, Where Should You Go?
BUT there’s a catch.
You really, really should visit in the winter time! As somewhat of a local (I live 3 hours’ drive away), I visit the mountains several times a year.
I honestly think the scenery, the feelings, and the experiences are way more magical and beautiful in the cold and snowy season.
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A lot of great things come from winter. Here in Alberta, we get so many sunny days and blue skies.
Because we’re on the east side of the mountains and at the beginning of the foothills which turn into prairies, the clouds and the bad weather don’t stick around.
Vancouver, on the other hand, is on the west side of the mountains and on the pacific ocean’s coast.
As a result, it’s rainy, grey and cloudy most of the year. I do love Vancouver though, it’s just a different vibe than what I love about the mountains and Alberta.
Back to my point about why I love winter! The sunny days and cold temperatures make for the best photos. If you’re wondering when you should visit Banff, picture this:
Something about the way the sun glistens on the snow and reflects on everything else around it. Photos just seems to pop.
This makes it ideal for those perfect glassy natural ice that you can skate on!
I mean, you can’t unleash your inner Disney ice princess and go ice skating on Lake Louise in the summertime can you!
It’s always less busy in the winter as well. There aren’t too many places I’d rather be after a snowfall blankets everything in a fresh coat of pillowy softness.
Or sitting by the fireplace with a cup of tea watching big chunky snowflakes gracefully fall from the sky.
Visiting between November and March basically doubles the amount of things you can do in Banff National Park. There are so many amazing winter activities to experience.
I’ve already mentioned ice skating with mountains as your backdrop. You can go dog sledding, skiing and snowboarding, snowshoeing, watch ice carvings come to life and see the northern lights in their prime.
Honestly, winter is the best time to visit the mountains here!
So, if I haven’t been able to convince you to visit this beautiful area in the winter yet, keep reading! Below are my best tips, hacks and ideas to help you have a much smoother experience when you visit Banff in winter.
Like I said, I travel to the Rocky Mountains several times a year. Usually 2 or 3 of these visits to Banff in winter (I’m a snowboard and outdoor ice skating fanatic if you haven’t figured that out by now).
Over the years, these little tips have made all the difference in making travelling through the mountains and visits to Banff in winter much more enjoyable.
Best Time to Travel to Banff in Winter
The busiest winter season is usually from Mid-December to the end of March. Keep in mind, anywhere from a week before Christmas to the first week of January is considered high season because of the holidays.
Prices not only skyrocket, but you might have to book your preferred hotel months or even a year in advance.
Particularly if you’re looking to rent a winter cabin, these are the first to go!
Tip: If you’re visiting Banff in winter as a non skier, you’re in luck. Early November is the perfect month to visit Banff because you get all the winter views without the crowds.
The ski resorts aren’t usually open until mid or late December, and even still, the crowds don’t pick up until about a month later.
November is usually considered very off-season, so that means less people and cheaper hotels!
Tips for Choosing a Banff Hotel in Winter
When choosing a hotel, look for one that’s within walking distance from restaurants and shops, cause it’s gonna be chilly!
The hotels furthest from the action are often the cheapest, so if you have winter boots and a warm winter jacket you’ll be okay.
A Couple Great Options for Staying Close to Downtown:
Banff Ptarmigan Inn: best value for closest to downtown and great breakfast included. I’ve stayed here lots and always enjoyed it.
The Mount Royal Hotel has the best rooftop hot tub views. It’s located in the heart of downtown and has a cozy vibe. It’s my favorite hotel to stay at in winter in Banff.
Another tip, if you do not have remote starter, look for hotels that have underground parking garages. These are heated and will make your your mornings much more enjoyable!
Alternatively, if you have remote start, try and find a room that you can park your car in front of and start your car out the window!
Banff Winter Road Trip Hacks
First, your bible will be 511.alberta.ca. This is the website to check all highway road conditions in Alberta. Before you head anywhere you can check road conditions for weather and it will tell you if there are icy patches, snow covered areas or dry pavement.
It also shows construction areas and traffic accidents. You can also download the mobile app.
If you’re not from Canada, a very Canadian thing to start any road trip (and especially in winter) is to make your first stop Tim Hortons for some coffee!
If you’re going to rent a car, most do come equipped with winter tires. This is okay though, but I would recommend an SUV in case it snows a lot on your trip.
Having an SUV will provide you with higher ground clearance which is essential for driving in the snow.
Tip: if you rent a car, make sure they provided you with a snow brush!
Remember that in the winter months it gets dark early! When you’re in the mountains from early December to early February, it’s dark by 5 o’clock in the evening. Plan your day accordingly!
Also, you will need a park pass to enter, travel through and stay in any of the national parks in Canada. This includes Banff, Lake Louise and the Icefields Parkway.
My top travel trip is to buy your parks pass advance, so you can drive straight through and bypass the visitor gates. Sometimes the the wait can be over 30 minutes long.
You can purchase your pass online at the Banff Lake Louise website, and it will automatically determine the lowest price for your group size and selected dates.
You can take a bus! If you’re staying in or visiting Canmore and don’t want to drive, you can easily take a transit bus from Canmore to Banff or vice versa. It’s about a 25 minute ride, and you skip the national park gate lineups.
The best part, you don’t need to worry about parking in downtown Banff, which is not very fun when it’s busy.
The bus service is called Roam and more information about fees and schedules can be found here.
Banff Winter Activities
Before we get into things to do in Banff in the winter, keep in mind that some attractions are seasonal. A lot of popular attractions are closed in the winter.
For example, the popular Via Ferrata (assisted rock climbing experience) is only available in the summer.
If you’re planning to head north to the mountains of Jasper National Park, the Miette Hot Springs and the Glacier Sky Walk are closed for the winter season.
Or, if you’re planning to visit Lake Louise, note that it does freeze for the winter and will be snow covered. It’s still open for viewing and ice skating though.
You just won’t get the turquoise lake views. That is, unless you follow my earlier tip and visit in early November, you should be able to still see the emerald waters!
But, Banff Upper Hot Springs, the Banff Gondola and Cave and Basin are open all year round.
The same goes for winter hikes. Some roads are considered seasonal and are closed for the winter.
So if you are planning to do some winter hikes in Banff, you can head to Parks Canada website where they keep an updated list of the trails that are open and they usually report trail conditions as well.
One thing to note is that winter weather brings clouds and storms at any moment. On any winter visit to Banff you will be at the mercy of the weather.
This means that for any plans you have for hiking, visits to scenic viewpoints or a trip up top to the Banff gondola may run the risk of low visibility.
To explain, you could be in the town site of Banff low below the clouds, but as soon as you gain a little altitude you might only be seeing clouds.
As you can see in the images above, the mountains below aren’t totally visible; these photos are taken minutes apart. In the first photo you would have no idea that there are multiple mountain peaks behind me!
And then a few minutes later we managed to get a hazy glimpse. And for reference, these photos were taken on the first weekend in May…still winter weather! Banff in winter can be unpredictable!
Winter Hiking in Banff
If you’re planning to do any sort of winter hiking, even if it’s considered an easy hike, wear ice cleats! Even if you have hiking shoes, it may not be enough.
For example, if you’re planning to do the Johnston Canyon Hike, it’s considered an easy hike.
But the trail to get to the canyon is sloped downhill, making it very slippery if it’s snow and ice covered.
Here are a couple more great suggestions for winter hikes in Banff:
Hoodoos Trail: you’ll start at the Surprise Corner viewpoint. Bonus tip: this is one of the best spots to photograph Banff.
More Ideas for Non Skiers
If you’re a non skier, or don’t have time to ski, you can still head to Lake Louise Ski Resort and take ride up the gondola for some sightseeing. Plan to have lunch or dinner at the the ski lodge.
It’s built like a huge winter log cabin, super cool!
If you want to avoid the crowds, however, I would recommend heading to Mt. Norquay Ski Area. It’s only about 15 minutes from the town of Banff and you can still ride the chairlift for some epic scenery.
You’ll experience much different and epic panoramic views that are different from everyone else’s photos and Instagram feeds from the Banff gondola or Lake Louise gondola.
Also! There’s a free shuttle service from the town of Banff to Mt. Norquay.
The drive up the mountain is absolutely spectacular. From there, you can explore the trails and go for a winter hike or try snow shoeing!
If it’s a clear day, Lake Louise is still beautiful to be seen in person, either to ice skate or take a leisurely stroll around the frozen lake.
Head inside the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise for a hot chocolate or plan to have dinner.
Best Spot to View the Northern Lights in Banff
Lake Minnewanka! If you’re in Banff when the conditions align for northern lights (aurora borealis) viewing, get yourself out to this lake for the best spot to view them.
It’s also a great lake for some outdoor ice skating.
Alternative Places to Visit in the Winter
If you’re interested in exploring other regions within Canada’s Rocky Mountains, check out my winter road trip post about exploring the mountains beyond Banff.
If you’re looking to get away from the crowds, get off the beaten path or extend your itinerary, there are lots of great ideas about where to go and what to do!
Save a pin below for your future trip planning!