I remember the first time I walked the Banff high street, thrilled to be in the snow-capped mountains at last. But I was strangely disappointed. Where was that towering peak from that iconic high street photograph? I assumed it was simply skilled photography. But, by the time I reached the bridge at the end of the street, I turned around, and my jaw dropped. The mountain had ‘snuck up on me’, and only looking back down the street did I see the view. And it was better than any photograph. Banff in winter is an unforgettable experience. There’s so much adventure to be had! What follows is a list of, in my opinion, ten must-do experiences, to make the most of your time in this incredible winter wonderland.
Skiing/Snowboarding at Lake Louise or Sunshine Village
I didn’t even visit Banff to ski or snowboard, but trying snowboarding turned out to be one of the most fun and memorable experiences of my trip. If you’re a newbie, remember: ‘skiing is easy to learn, hard to master, and snowboarding is hard to learn, easy to master’. Here’s another thing: you don’t necessarily need an instructor. Banff is an incredibly friendly, young place full of adventurers, and many of them will be more than happy to give you an hour or two of coaching. I’m very grateful to the 'Torontonians' who taught me – even though I spent most of my time falling over! If you’re experienced in winter sports, you’ll find yourself at home on the stunning slopes of Lake Louise or Sunshine Village. Remember to get a discounted booking through your accommodation if you can.
Tunnel Mountain Hike
This is a hike for everyone. The easy path means it can be done in an hour or two starting from the main street. It rewards hikers with stunning views over Banff, especially on a sunny day. Just be careful on the ice – a friend of mine slipped and broke her arm at the summit, and we had to create a makeshift sling and slide her down the mountain to an ambulance. Moral of the story: always bring a first aid kit. And, of course, don’t miss this hike.
Sulphur Mountain Hike/Gondola
A more challenging hike for the real adventurers. It’ll take a couple of hours depending on your fitness level. Be sure to enquire at the Information centre about weather conditions and if you need to hire cleats (shoe straps with metal grips), and, as a bonus, you’re likely to get a discount card on cleat hire. The real treat though, is that in winter, hikers get a free gondola ride down the mountain – an experience usually costing $60CAD! Not to mention stunning views, and, if you time it right, a sunset view over Banff. (Be sure to check at the Information Centre to see how long the gondola is running – some days it closes early.)
Johnston Canyon Frozen Waterfalls and Ink Pots Hike
Want to see the huge masses of ice that are the Johnston Canyon Frozen Falls? It’s a short hike with well-kept walkways, and well worth it for those towering blue-green icicles. For those who want a bit more exercise and want to get off the beaten track, hike further to the Ink Pots, where naturally-coloured pools have formed (blue, green, teal, turquoise…). Just enquire about snowfall before you go – it’d be a shame to find the magnificent pools have been hidden. Similarly, cleats are often recommended for this hike as there are plenty of steep icy patches.
Photo by Zachary Kyra-Derksen on Unsplash
All that hiking makes for sore muscles. What better way to ease the aches than to soak in the Banff Hotsprings? It’s affordable, great fun to do in a group, and always entertaining to watch your hair grow icy streaks as it freezes. Oh, and if you or a friend has forgotten their swimsuit, they rent out hilarious old-fashioned, full-coverage costumes…
Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary
An unmissable experience a short drive from Banff, Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary allows you to get close to these incredible (and often mistreated) 'wolf-dogs' – part dog, part wolf. The talks are fascinating, plus you get unique photo opportunities, and all the profits go to supporting the Sanctuary. I got chills down my spine when the wolf-dogs howled together. Be sure to read the clothing restrictions, and book in advance as there are limited spaces available for the close encounter tours!
Abraham Lake and Peyto Lake Day Trip
Rent a car with some new friends or find a local through 'CouchSurfing' to go explore the Rockies on your doorstep. Make a day trip to Abraham Lake, the most Instagram-able lake imaginable. Methane bubbles freeze in the lake, which appears turquoise. It's frozen thick enough to walk and slide on. Make sure you drive around the lake for longer than you think to find the patch where snow blows off (if in doubt, ask the Banff Information centre). Be sure to stop at iconic Peyto Lake on the way back to get even more Instagram shots.
Poutine and 'BeaverTails'
After your adventures, you'll need some fuel, and what better fuel than iconic Canadian fare? There are not one but TWO BeaverTail shops in Banff, so there’s no missing this delicious fried pastry (lemon and sugar is the best topping). Round off the day with a dinner of poutine (hot chips, gravy and cheese curds to die for). It may not be diet material, but you’ll have earned it after those days hiking and skiing.
Banff High Street at dusk
Dance the night away at the Rose And Crown or the Dancing Sasquatch
Whether you’re into live music or clubs or both, there’s something on Banff high street for you (including traditional country music that’s simply a must-see if you’re visiting Canada). Banff has so many young, energetic travellers – you’re bound to find nightlife you'll enjoy. I recommend the Nova Scotiables, who often perform in Calgary and Banff. Their fun, high-energy performances and great setlist are sure to get you on your feet!
Cure Your Hangover With A Caesar Cocktail
They’re not for everyone… but they are an experience. The Caesar cocktail is claimed to be the best hangover cure by many Canadians. Give the unique combination of celery, tomato, vodka and asparagus a try. Who knows? It might work wonders…
Final tips for an incredible winter adventure:
The best time to go for most winter sports is February, however, prices are high and crowds are likely. Try late February or March for a cheaper-but-still-beautiful trip, or if cold and longer dark hours don’t faze you, try going in January. Late March and April are not recommended for most snow sports as there’s no guarantee there’ll be enough snow. Don’t catch the many shuttle bus services from Calgary to Banff and back. They are exorbitantly expensive! I highly recommend looking into ride-sharing apps such as Poparide. I had some wonderful conversations with locals for a fraction of the price, both to and from Banff. Stay at a hostel! It may involve shared spaces, but it’s hands down the best way to meet fellow travellers. I stayed at Samesun Banff and bonded with friends I’ll have for life. And, FYI, the fourteen-bed room is split into three rooms with a shared bathroom, so there's much more privacy. They also provide free breakfast, organised activities like karaoke, and are only a short walk from the main high street. Finally, if you're going at the end of winter/start of spring, remember your bear spray. Have fun!