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Your Guide To Banff, Alberta, In The Winter


My first time visiting Canada was in January, which was fitting since the country is probably most known in the U.S. for its winters. And I think Banff was a great introduction to it.


For those of you who don't know much about Canada, Banff is the name of a national park in Alberta. It's also the name of a charming little mountain town inside the national park. Sure, there are other towns that you can stay in, but Banff is probably best if you're looking to ski when you visit.


So for this blog post, I'll be using Banff fairly interchangeably and talking about some things you can do in Banff National Park as a whole as well as what the town of Banff is like. It's a destination for skiers and hikers as well as those just looking to chill in a cozy lodge or relax in an outdoor hot tub.


What You'll Find In This Post


 

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General Observations About Banff

Some of the things I noticed while in Banff are specific to this area and others are normal everywhere in Canada. I'll attempt to categorize each observation, but I'm also a rookie tourist when it comes to Canada, so take these as you will.


Nearly everything is in English AND French. Obviously, I knew many Canadians speak both before I went to Banff, but it was definitely something I had to get used to when it came to reading signs, menus and word-covered things. Sometimes the French version is more prominent than the English, which can be a little confusing.


Bathrooms are called "washrooms." This is a fun difference between the United States and Canada.


Banff is VERY touristy. I went to this national park during the winter, which is its off-season compared to the summer/early fall, and there were a lot of people, especially for it being such a small town. I can't imagine going during the most popular months. Banff National Park gets more than 4 million visitors every year, so if you're looking to avoid the big crowds, consider going during the really off-season months like April, early May, October and November.


I met more Australians and British people in Banff than Canadians. I'm sure there are more Canadians overall, but you'll definitely run into a lot of Aussies and British people when visiting. In fact, my constant encounters with them made me feel like I needed to say "brekkie" again. (For some background, I lived in Australia for five months in college.) Many of them are young adults working at the ski resorts or at the restaurants in town, and when I asked them why they were in Banff, they said they wanted to live in a mountain town for a little while, so they moved. Good for them!


Everything seems healthier and more sustainable. I'm sure many countries work hard to be health-conscious and sustainable, and as someone who wishes many areas in the U.S. would learn from this, I loved the various qualities I saw in Calgary and Banff. For example, as a foodie, I could just tell the food there is better for you and contains fewer harmful ingredients. There are also healthier options to choose from. I saw handwashing stations all over the airport. (I'm not sure if those were a Covid-19 addition or if they were available before then.) And by every trash can is a recycling bin and a bin for compost. I loved it!




Ways To Save Money On Your Trip To Banff

If you're visiting Banff in the winter, you're probably going to ski. And if you don't know this already, skiing isn't really a cheap activity ... aka, Banff isn't a cheap winter destination. So the first thing I'll tell you is that if you're just looking to ski in Canada because it would be cool but you have a really small budget, wait until you have more money saved up and in the meantime visit a cheaper ski resort in the U.S.


However, if you know what it costs to ski and have the money to ski in Banff but still would like to cut corners where you can, here are some ways to mitigate costs.


Get the package through Ski Big 3. After a lot of time researching, we found that the Ski Big 3 package is cheaper than other bundles or not buying a bundle at all. It includes lift tickets, ski gear rentals (skis, boots, helmets and poles) and free shuttle access. It can even offer cheaper hotel options. We saved $322.60 on our trip by getting this, but it's possible that you could save even more.


Additionally, going through Ski Big 3 gives you discounts at various restaurants and other establishments in Banff and at the ski resorts. (You can find all of these on the app.) Another plus is that if you ski on all three mountains while you're in Banff, when you're finished, you can go to the Ski Big 3 store there and get a foam plaque that says you've completed the trifecta challenge or another trinket plus a free drink from select places around town with the purchase of food.


Get a Ski Big 3 pass in advance for a discount. Keep in mind that there are a variety of Ski Big 3 deals, but many of them also have a specific end date. So do as much research as you can in advance and create deadlines for when you need to have made a decision about your travel plans.


Buy your plane ticket as far in advance as you can. Flights aren't as cheap as they used to be. They also can easily get A LOT more expensive the closer you get to your trip, so as soon as you know when you're going, buy your plane tickets. You could also flag flights to Calgary and get emails about any deals that come up.


Don't book a pricey hotel. If you're skiing, you won't be in your room much anyway, so this is an easy way to save some money. That said, if you came to Banff simply to be cozy and to relax, this might be an area you don't want to skimp on. Head to the accommodation section for more information about where you can stay and note that you can find cheaper hotels if you do the bundle through Ski Big 3.


Check out the shuttle services. As mentioned above, you can ride a free shuttle from your hotel to the ski resorts if you get a Ski Big 3 pass. And when it comes to figuring out how to get from the Calgary airport to Banff, you should do some research because you can book a shuttle through Ski Big 3 or through the airport and these options seem to be cheaper than renting a car for the week. Plus, if you're nervous about driving in winter weather, these shuttles could be your preference regardless.


Don't buy expensive meals. Although there are quite a few fancy restaurants in Banff, there are also some normal-priced ones that still offer good food. It's possible to only spend about $15 (U.S.) per person per meal. Some of the bakeries are so cheap you could probably get away with $10 (U.S.) per person when you visit them. You could also consider buying food (sandwich stuff, for example) from the grocery store and eating it during your vacation to save even further. Head to the food and beverage section for more on this topic.


Buy your national park pass in advance. You must purchase a pass when visiting any national park in Canada. We forgot about this step and had to buy one on our drive to Banff, and it was expensive. So if you want to get the best deal for your group, look at the options online first. Especially if you plan on going to Canada again to visit another national park, you should check out the various passes.



JUST A NOTE: Remember that you'll be seeing Canadian prices when you're in Canada. For example, if you're from the U.S., right now every transaction will be cheaper when the U.S. dollar amount is shown on your card. If the Canadian dollar is cheaper than your country's, however, it will be pricier.


Another thing to keep in mind is that when you run your cards, you might be charged a foreign transaction fee. Our Visa credit cards have a 3% foreign transaction fee in Canada. It's just some cents or dollars extra, so it was still worth it for us to use our credit cards, but if you prefer to avoid this, then get your Canadian money ready.




Accommodation Options

There is a wide array of places to stay in Banff, but before you start looking for your accommodation, answer these three critical questions.


What's your mode of transportation? This question is important because if you don't rent a car and plan on using the shuttles to go skiing, you need to make sure you pick a hotel in the town of Banff that's close to a shuttle pickup location or look around for shuttle options in other areas. If you have a car and plan to drive to the ski resorts yourself, Banff is still a great location, but there are other accommodations you can look into too.


How much money can you spend on your accommodation? From lodging at $100 a night to $1,000 a night, Banff has it all. If you're on a strict budget, you'll likely be staying at a cheaper hotel in which all you'll have is a small room to stay in and not much else. Anything pricier and you'll have more amenities. And if you want to learn how to book hotels for cheaper prices, be sure to check out the money-saving section in this blog post.


What are you looking to get out of your hotel stay? Being aware of what you want your accommodation to be like and what amenities you prefer is important when deciding what hotel to book with.


For example, my husband and I stayed at Irwin's Mountain Inn to save money. It wasn't a gross room but wasn't nice either. However, it worked for us because we weren't in our hotel room much; really, it was just where we slept. Our relatives, on the other hand, stayed at the Moose Hotel and Suites, which was about twice the price we paid, though still not too expensive, and it had an indoor pool, an outdoor hot tub and sauna and much nicer rooms. It was definitely a bonus to enjoy their big hot tub rather than go to the one at our hotel, which was indoor and about the size of a bathtub (lol). But without access from our family, we would have never gotten to enjoy a nice hot tub after skiing all day, so next time, I know that that'll be a must when we book our hotel.


If money is of no importance and you really love luxury when it comes to lodging, you can take a look at staying at the Fairmont Chateau at Lake Louise (not the ski resort). There are restaurants and bars there that only guests of the hotel can access, and you'll be close to the Lake Louise ski resort, though you'll have to drive further to get to the other two ski resorts and the town of Banff.


Or maybe you're into unique experiences. If you plan on skiing in Banff, one alternative you can consider is staying at Sunshine Village, one of the ski resorts in Banff. If you wish to, you can literally ski down to your accommodation at the end of the day. However, keep in mind that you have to take the gondola up to your lodge from the parking lot, and it closes at 5 p.m. (or when it gets dark) in the winter, leaving you without a way to get to your mode of transportation. So your food choices will be very limited.




Food and Beverage Options

Banff has many different restaurants, which vary in price, cuisine and atmosphere. To learn more about the food scene within the town of Banff, check out this blog post. It includes restaurant recommendations plus some more general thoughts on what will be available to you on the main streets.


When it comes to the ski resorts in Banff, you'll find that they have decent food. At least I'll never complain about it! Sure, they have your typical burgers and hot dogs type food, but they also have pizza, soups, plus healthy meals like salads, fruit cups, wraps, etc. I had a delicious chicken wrap and yogurt parfait on the first day, chili on the second, a chicken Caesar salad and sweet potato fries on the third, and a pulled pork sandwich on the final day.




Skiing In Banff: What To Know

As I mentioned in the money-saving section, there are three main ski resorts in Banff: Mt. Norquay, Sunshine Village and Lake Louise.


I'm not going to say too much about them in this section simply because I was a first-time skier when I visited. I will share the negatives and positives of each and what you'll find there when you go, but you'll have to do some additional research to see what avid skiers think about them.


However, if you are a beginner skier, check out this blog post, which shares the best slopes to start with on your trip.



Mt. Norquay

Mt. Norquay is the smallest ski resort and was probably our least favorite of the three. It has shorter runs than the other ski resorts and didn't seem to get as much powder as the other ones too. In fact, it was icy and chunky by the afternoon. That said, there are some positives about it and reasons to go there.


First, it's the closest ski resort to the town of Banff. It only took about 10-15 minutes to get there, whereas the other two resorts take about 30-40 minutes. Second, it had fewer visitors than the other ski resorts, so the slopes weren't crowded and neither were the parking lot and small dining area. Finally, it would be the second ski resort I'd recommend to beginner skiers since the greens aren't as scary as the ones at Lake Louise.


Take a look at the trail map for Mt. Norquay here.


Sunshine Village

I think our party as a whole loved Sunshine Village, so I highly recommend it! This is the perfect place to try the greens as a beginner or if you just prefer more gentle, easy slopes. It's also a fun place to go if you want to challenge yourself, as I know some in our group enjoyed the blues and blacks there. Personally, I loved the slopes here because they are a bit more open with fewer drop-offs, and I was able to do the greens and the blues with no issues and less fear (FYI in case you're confused, it was only my third day of skiing ever).


Whereas Mt. Norquay is easy to navigate since it just has ski lifts, Sunshine Village has a gondola and several areas to choose from. So I suggest that you look at the maps in advance and plan out where you want to ski. We rode the gondola all the way to the end to Standish Mountain and spent a full day there.


Take a look at the trail maps for Sunshine Village here.


Lake Louise

Lake Louise is the most crowded ski resort of the three, but for good reason. It has the biggest bunny slope and holds the most classes and training. That said, for a beginner, once you get off the bunny slope, it can be a bit of a terrifying place. The green runs are a little too scary at times due to the cliffs, but I enjoyed them more the second day I was there, and I know the more experienced people in our group liked the runs well enough. I also think I would have liked Lake Louise even more on our second day if it hadn't been so cold.


The Lake Louise ski resort might have my favorite mountain views, though, even if it wasn't my favorite place to ski. There are many spots that are great for snapping photos, whether they're just of the mountains or of the mountains and your group.


Take a look at the trail maps for Lake Louise here.




Winter Hiking In Banff: What To Know

There are so many different trails you can go on in Banff, even in the winter (as long as you have the proper gear). And you'll see some beautiful sights while you're hiking them, too.


Tips Before You Go:

  • Bring trekking poles AND crampons. You don't necessarily need these tools for the easy hikes that everyone can do, though they still might come in handy. But you definitely need them if you plan on going on medium to hard winter hikes in Banff. Some of the trails are pure ice or covered in snow with unexpected and deep drifts. If you plan on wading through the less traveled paths, you might even want to pack some gaiters.

  • Bring warm clothes even if you get hot while hiking. Your brain can easily deceive you after you've started a hike and are already shedding all your layers by telling you that you shouldn't have brought them with you. But take it from me: despite the fact that you probably won't need them on the hike up, when you get to the top of some of these mountains, the wind is going to be strong and it's going to be absolutely frigid. And if you don't have your warm clothes with you, you'll be pretty miserable. So pack them anyway.

  • Steer clear of some hikes that aren't safe during the winter. In addition to checking out the hikes I went on during the winter in Banff below, Google what hikes locals suggest you should go on and don't go on the ones they tell you that you shouldn't go on. It's one thing for a hike to be challenging. It's another for a hike to be unsafe.


Now, let's get into the winter hikes I went on while in Banff. (Of course, I'll continue adding to this list after my other visits.)


Lake Louise Lakeshore

Difficulty: Easy

Length: 2.8-miles

Elevation Gain: 354 ft


This trail follows the lake and is really flat, so it makes for a great place to bring kids or older adults who can't do as much as they used to. The view of the lake is also gorgeous because of the mountain peaks behind it. So, if you decide to spend a day at Lake Louise, this is definitely an activity to add to your itinerary.


Johnston Canyon To Lower Falls

Difficulty: Easy

Length: 1.4-miles

Elevation Gain: 344 ft


This is a walk that any level of hiker and any age can go on. It's flat and after you get through the woods includes a lot of grated catwalks. As you make your way through the canyon, you’ll get to see multiple frozen turquoise waterfalls. And at the end of the lower falls trail, there’s a bridge and then a tunnel that takes you to a better, more up-close view of the final waterfall, which flows into a pool. The overlook area in the tunnel is very small, so I would be courteous of anyone who is already inside and wait until there's some space for you to see it.


If you want to go on a longer hike after the lower falls, you can also do the upper falls trail. It will turn your trip into a 3.3-mile hike. Although we didn't have time to do it, I'm sure it gives another great perspective of the frozen waterfalls.


We didn’t need trekking poles or crampons when we went on this trail (there was a lot of packed snow but no ice), but I would bring them just in case. Even your skiing poles would do. I would also ask that you watch your children on this hike. The catwalks are safe, but there are various transition parts that might have a hole or opening that they could fall through and hurt themselves. Additionally, the tunnel portion was very slick, so be careful there. I actually slid down the tunnel's "stairs" on my butt upon coming back through because it was easier.


Tunnel Mountain Summit

Difficulty: Moderate

Length: 2.7-miles

Elevation Gain: 879 ft


This trail goes out from Banff, and the mountain actually looks like a buffalo when viewed from the town. I actually learned from a local that this mountain shape was one way the indigenous people in the area knew where they were years ago.


At the summit, you'll find several different views. On one side you can get a gorgeous shot of Mt. Rundle and Bow River. The other side overlooks the town of Banff. There are even two red chairs that you can sit in for a photo (see the first picture of this blog post) or just to take in the sight.


In the winter, you will likely need crampons to get to the top. Trekking poles would be helpful too, but crampons would be much better since the trail was pure ice when we hiked it.


Lake Agnes Trail To the Big Beehive/Little Beehive

Difficulty: Hard

Length: 4.6 - 6.7 miles

Elevation Gain: 1,427 - 2,552 ft


This trail goes out from Lake Louise and winds through a forest before ending at a cute tea house by the lake. (Unfortunately, the tea house isn't open during the winter.) But at the trail's end, it also splits off into other trails, so you have various options to lengthen your hike. This isn't an easy hike either. In fact, you'll be traveling upward with switchbacks just about the whole time until you come down.


You’ll definitely need trekking poles in the winter because there will likely be deep snow in a lot of areas. In fact, we were originally going to go all the way to the Big Beehive for about a 6.7-mile hike, but once we got to the teahouse, the snow was so deep and no one had traversed the path, so we switched and decided to go to the Little Beehive. The Little Beehive still has a great view. From its overlook, we could see the chateau, the lake, the big beehive and other mountain peaks.




Other Things To Do In Banff

If you're not a big skier or hiker, or simply want to do a variety of activities, this list will help you put together your perfect Banff experience. And I'll continue adding to it as I make more trips to the area.


Shop on the main streets.

The main strip, Banff Ave, is where most of the hotels are located. It also includes the visitor's center, popular restaurants, clothing and outdoor stores, souvenir shops and more. Right next to it, connected by Wolf Street, is Bear Street, which has more shops and food places. I would say these are the two main hubs where you can get your shopping done, and despite there being a lot of stores, you don't have to walk far to see everything on both streets.


Plan a spa day.

Although I didn't do this on my trip to Banff, others in my party did and had a great time. There are some spas in the town and also some of the hotels have spas. For example, my relatives went to Fairmont Banff Springs and there's also a spa at Fairmont Chateau at Lake Louise.



Hang out at Lake Louise.

Lake Louise is a place that's buzzing with activities. You can walk around or on the lake in the winter, go on a hike in the area, ice skate or play hockey on the lake, enjoy a drink at an outdoor ice bar or even make a reservation for brunch at the Fairmont Chateau. It's also a great place to snap some beautiful photos because the lake sits in front of some mountain peaks.


Look for the Northern Lights.

Yes, you can actually see the Northern Lights in Banff! And although Canada isn't the easiest place to see them, you might as well give it a try if you're interested. We left town to try to view the Northern Lights on a night when the activity level was at a 7 out of 10. However, we still didn't get lucky.


If you do decide to have a Northern Lights night, here are a few tips that we read online and were given by the locals:

  • Check the Aurora Borealis forecast. You definitely don't want to be out there in the frigid cold if its activity is only at a 3 out of 10. We checked the forecast every single day. There are several sites you can use to gauge its activity, so simply do a Google search, and you'll find general forecasts and forecasts specific to Canada.

  • Bundle up before you go. Trust me, you need really warm clothes if you're going to stand outside in the middle of the night in Canada during the winter. In fact, you might as well wear your skiing outfit and bring some other warm accessories.

  • Go as late (or is it as early?) as you can. You likely won't see the Aurora Borealis at 9 p.m. It needs a little more time to get even darker. Prime time seems to be around midnight, according to most sites.

  • Drive to an open place without light so that you can actually see it. There are several prime outdoor spots near the town of Banff to see the Northern Lights. Head to this link to learn about them.

  • Turn off all lights as you look for the Aurora Borealis. Keeping your car lights or phone lights on can hinder you (and others!) from seeing the Northern Lights. So be respectful of others and turn them off!

  • If you have a nice camera, bring it! Especially if you know how to work your camera, snapping a photo of the Northern Lights can be a great way to see more of it and more vivid coloring. In fact, sometimes when you can't see the Aurora Borealis with your eyes, the camera will still pick it up!



Soak in a hot tub.

Especially if you're skiing in Banff, spending some time during the evenings in a hot tub feels heavenly. It can relax those muscles that have worked hard all day. Most of the hotels have hot tubs for this very reason, but not all of them are alike. The one in our cheap hotel was about the size of a bathtub, while the one at our relatives' hotel was large, outside and also had a sauna you could pair with it.


Visit the hot springs.

This was the one thing I wish I would have had time to do in Banff but didn't. (Next time!) There are two hot springs in the national park. The Cave and Basin National Historic Site has a thermal spring (which looks pretty naturally kept) plus informational exhibits, short films and other experiences. The Banff Upper Hot Springs is another place you can visit. They've made it into a big pool, but it also looks much bigger than the Cave and Basin spring. There are different entry fees and hours for both, so be sure to do some research or call ahead of your visit.



Check the Banff events schedule.

We got so lucky and were in Banff during the week of its Winter festival, called SnowDays, which included a play zone for kids, snow and ice sculptures all over the town and at Lake Louise as well as skijoring. If you don't know what skijoring is, I didn't either until this trip, so here's a link that tells you more about it. Unfortunately, the event happened the same day we left, so we weren't able to watch it.


There are other events during the winter that you can look into as well. Some are food- or drink-based, others are Christmas-themed, etc. Here's a helpful link to learn more about what festivals might be happening when you go.


 

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