Banff is a magical winter wonderland with fun for all ages! Here are our top 10 things to do in Banff during the snowy season.
1. Hike to spectacular ice falls at Johnston Canyon
Johnston Canyon is a winter wonderland when the snow falls and the waterfalls freeze. It’s 2.2 kilometres round trip to the Lower Falls or 5.4 kilometres round trip to the Upper Falls. Microspikes are recommended from late fall through spring as the snow gets packed down and slippery/icy.
2. Snowshoe or hike around Johnson Lake
From Johnson Lake, you can enjoy awesome views of Mount Rundle and Cascade Mountain. The lakeshore trail is suitable for all ages as it’s only 2.8 km roundtrip with no elevation gain.
When the ice is at least 15 cm / 6 ” thick, you can snowshoe or skate on it! See my pond and lake ice safety tips before venturing on to the ice. For places to ice skate in Banff, please see this post.
3. Lake Minnewanka Area: Cross country ski at Cascade Valley or hike to Stewart Canyon
Cascade Valley’s rolling terrain is suitable for strong beginners (starts with a downhill) or intermediate skiers and is located just minutes from downtown Banff. It’s 13 km round trip from Lake Minnewanka Day Use Area to the first bridge; and 30 km round trip to Stoney Creek bridge. A shorter option to do with kids is Lake Minnewanka Day Use to Upper Bankhead (2.6 km return).
Prefer to hike? Hike along Lake Minnewanka to Stewart Canyon! The scenic trail is only 3 km round trip.
4. Experience Mountaintop Christmas or Nightrise at the Banff Gondola
The Banff Gondola is an amazing year round mountaintop destination with great dining, an interpretive centre, gift shop, and the best views in Banff, but in winter, you can also enjoy Christmas festivities, or an immersive multimedia evening experience. Treat yourself to Holiday Brunch at Northern Lights Alpine Kitchen, or a gourmet dinner and cocktails at Sky Bistro, explore the interpretive centre, then head up to the rooftop viewing deck or take the Sulphur Mountain Boardwalk (1 km return) to Sanson’s Peak and the historic cosmic ray station for breathtaking views.
Don’t miss these special winter events at the Banff Gondola:
- Banff Gondola’s Mountaintop Christmas brings Christmas magic to Sulphur Mountain. Enjoy crafts, cookie decorating, a holiday film, and visit with Santa on Saturdays & Sundays December 2 – 24, and daily from December 25 to 30, 2023 (*but no Santa visits after the 24th). For details, read our story: Make it Merry at the Banff Gondola’s Mountaintop Christmas. Book tickets from Pursuit Banff.
- Nightrise, an immersive multimedia experience created in partnership with the Stoney Nakoda Nation, runs from November 17, 2023 until March 30, 2024. Read about our experience in this story: Nightrise Lights Up the Night at the Banff Gondola, and get tickets from Pursuit Banff.
5. Recharge at Banff Upper Hot Springs
Warm up, relax, and make crazy, frosty hairstyles at Banff Upper Hot Springs. Winter is my favorite time to visit the hot springs because I can soak forever without overheating!
6. Go skiing and tubing at Mount Norquay, Sunshine Village, or Lake Louise Ski Resort
See why people from all around the world come to ski in Banff! Mount Norquay is the closest ski resort to the town of Banff with Alberta’s best tube park (longest runs and biggest vertical drop); Sunshine Village boasts the longest season and all natural snow; and Lake Louise Ski Resort is the largest ski resort in the area.
Read about our tubing day at Mount Norquay and stay at Banff Caribou Lodge & Spa: A Fun Tube & Stay Winter Weekend in Banff.
Cave & Basin, the birthplace of the National Parks system, has an interpretive centre with exhibits about the park’s history, flora, and fauna; a 4-screen HD film about Parks Canada’s history; gift shop; and outdoor interpretive trails. Take the Discovery Boardwalk trail (400 m) to the cave vent, former hotel site, and snail pools. Please look, but don’t touch. The tiny snails are endangered!
8. Experience Christmas at the Castle
Christmas at the Castle (Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel) happens every December and includes several daily festive events including crafts, gingerbread house decorating, scavenger hunts, letters to Santa, and more! We love going for brunch (with Santa on the weekends!), looking at the gingerbread houses and decorations, skating, and cross country skiing at nearby Spray River Trail (the trailhead is behind the Banff Springs Hotel). Be sure to check out Bow Falls while you’re in the area!
9. Celebrate New Year’s Eve in Banff
Central Park will host the NYE festivities (live entertainment, activities, and fireworks) from 6 pm ’til midnight. Visit the Town of Banff for more information.
10. Celebrate Winter with Banff SnowDays & the Ice Magic Festival
Banff Snow Sculpture, Lake Louise Ice Castle, Lake Louise Light Tunnel
Banff SnowDays runs from January 19 – February 4, 2024 with tons of fun events (most of them FREE!) in Banff. For a complete events listing, visit Banff & Lake Louise Tourism.
The Lake Louise Ice Magic Festival will return in 2024 as a ticketed event from 6 pm to 9 pm on January 26-28 & February 2-4, 2024. Shuttle service from Lake Louise Ski Resort is included. Tickets will go on sale ($0-14) on December 12, 2023.
Bonus: In Search of Christmas Spirit (Christmas Lighting Trail)
Venture out “In Search of Christmas Spirit” on Banff’s Christmas Lighting Trail. Allow 45 minutes to walk through the illuminated art installations and listen to the story of how the animals found Christmas spirit. Get your free timed-entry tickets from Banff Lake Louise Tourism.
Dates: Select dates from Nov 17 – Dec 31, 2023
Time: 4:30 pm – 9:30 pm
Where to Eat
- We love Farm + Fire for its fire-roasted goodness and delish cocktails. Read our review, Farm + Fire Restaurant: Classy comfort food in the heart of Banff, for more information.
- Brazen, one of Banff’s newest restaurants, features bold flavors and fantastic cocktails and mocktails. For more info, see our story: Brazen + Nightrise: A Night to Remember.
- Maple Leaf Grille “features Canadian cuisine including Alberta beef, game, fresh fish and seafood.”
- Sleeping Buffalo Lounge, at Buffalo Mountain Lodge, is perfect for a romantic date night with gourmet Canadiana fare and an award-winning wine list.
- The Banff Springs Hotel’s Vermilion Room has the best Sunday Brunch Buffet in town.
- For casual fare, try the Old Spaghetti Factory (my kids’ fav), or Chaya (Japanese food).
Where to Stay
Know Before You Go / Getting Here
Parking fees are in effect in downtown Banff, but there is free all day parking near the Banff Train Station (Banff Eco Transit Hub).
We recommend using public transit to get around Banff to reduce traffic/pollution and save money/time looking for parking. For bus routes, and a listing of hotels that provide free bus tickets to guests (Roam Transit also provides free transit into town for people staying at local campgrounds), visit Roam Transit.
What to Bring
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Base layers, insulated winter boots, a down jacket and windproof/waterproof shell (or insulated ski jacket/parka), gloves or mittens, and toque are must-haves. See our fall/winter hiking gear guide for product recommendations. You should also carry The Ten Essentials including: water, extra food, extra clothes, a headlamp, a GPS/satellite communicator (or compass) and map of the area, sunscreen (this one is safe for babies), and bear spray. Carry bear spray in a Frontiersman Bear Spray Holster (attaches to your backpack or belt) or Scat Belt.
In snowy/icy conditions, we recommend traction devices such as Kahtoola Microspikes (Available from Amazon, MEC, and Valhalla Pure Outfitters), or Hillsound Trail Crampons (Available at Valhalla Pure Outfitters and Sport Chek) and trekking poles with snow baskets. For snowshoeing, see our Snowshoeing Gear List.
A Garmin inReach Mini 2 satellite communicator is highly recommended for contacting Search & Rescue and emergency contacts in the event of an emergency, or communicating with friends and family when you are out of cell phone range. You can send text messages and your GPS coordinates via satellite (but a monthly plan is required)!
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