In the social circles of powderhounds around the world, Banff and Lake Louise are discussed with near-religious reverence. The Canadian Rockies are collectively a world-renowned ski destination, and the Ski Big 3 ski resorts in Banff National Park — Lake Louise Ski Resort, Banff Sunshine Village, and Mt. Norquay — are in a league of their own and have the devout fan base to prove it. But the snow dumped here every winter is manna from heaven for more than just powderhounds. There are many ways to enjoy this area in the winter that don’t require a lift pass and allow you to experience the national park in a different light. From traditional winter pastimes like ice skating or tobogganing to unexpected thrills like descending into the icy heart of the Canadian Rockies, these are the best winter activities you can do in Banff — that aren’t skiing.
Snowshoeing is a wonderful way to explore Banff’s trails and backcountry. With the snowshoe evenly distributing your weight over a larger surface area, you don’t sink as far into the snow and can cover more ground faster. Wildlife abounds in winter here, including elk, deer, and moose. There are tons of great trails to choose from, but start with the Johnston Canyon to Ink Pots trail, 3.6 miles from trailhead to the Ink Pots, an idyllic grouping of colorful mineral springs. The trails around Lake Louise, such as the Lake Agnes Teahouse trail or the lakeshore walk, add stunning mountain views to the mix, right along the crystal-blue lake. Alpine Social, inside Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, is an excellent spot for a warm apres-snowshoe drink.
2. Dog sledding
Dogsledding is one of those activities that, unless you’re from a snowy and remote area keen on the breeding of malamutes, is more of an Iditarod-inspired dream than something that is actually doable. Not here. Banff’s early settlers initially used dog sledding teams to transport goods through the untamed mountain wilderness, so the practice has a long history in the area. Now, it’s just done for fun, both for you and the dogs. Using traditional sleds and well-trained teams of energetic, powder-loving huskies, all you have to do is dress warm, hop into the sled, and watch the snow-covered forest and mountain peaks glide by. Some tours even allow you to step into the driver’s seat for a while. Discover Banff Tours offers some of the best dog sledding tour options in the area, including taking in the scenic environs around Lake Louise and another that ascends to a pass along the Continental Divide.
3. Forest bathing
Forest bathing is a form of outdoor meditation that gained popularity in Japan in the 1980s. Known as shinrin-yoku, or “taking in the atmosphere of the forest,” it’s partly based on forestry science and partly on the age-old knowledge that spending time in nature is good for you. Japanese scientists discovered that trees give off organic compounds called phytoncides that offer humans a host of health benefits, like boosting our immune systems and decreasing stress and anxiety. Banff is a perfect place to practice this style of meditation, home as it is to ancient forests full of quiet paths and hidden places to reconnect with nature.
But it’s not just about being outside: There are certain mental and physical exercises you incorporate to help guide the mediation, which is why it’s useful to go with a guide. Forest Fix offers both private or public forest bathing sessions around Banff, and after having learned the simple steps of forest bathing, you can practice it yourself wherever you go in the world. Science aside, who hasn’t felt better just taking the time to walk in the woods?
4. Ice skating
Take your pick of venue when it comes to ice skating in Banff, from maintained rinks to natural lakes and ponds that freeze over and are safe to go skating on. Every year, the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise opens an outdoor rink right by the water’s edge, so you can go skating surrounded by the spectacular Victoria Glacier. During the Ice Magic Festival, which takes place in mid-January, you can also marvel at the ice sculptures that are created right on the lake. For something less man-made, Vermilion Lake, Lake Minnewanka, and Johnson Lake can all be skated on during the winter, conditions permitting — so always check to make sure it’s safe to skate there before heading out. And no need to bring your own gear: There are plenty of skate rental places in Banff and Lake Louise, including the Fairmont Chateau.
5. Winter hiking
It can get seriously cold in Banff during the winter: Lows are often in the single digits. But there are over 100 trails in Banff National Park, and many are still open and accessible during the winter months. In some cases, all you’ll need are sturdy, warm winter boots and waterproof gear, but in others, you’ll need more specialized equipment such as crampons and trekking poles. Tunnel Mountain (2.8 miles roundtrip) is a popular winter hike right near downtown Banff, summiting a short hill overlooking the town and offering a panoramic view of the Bow Valley and the surrounding mountains. Johnston Canyon (3.6 miles out-and-back) is another epic winter hike, as you’ll strap on ice cleats to traverse the icy walkways that wind their way through the canyon to frozen waterfalls. Check trail conditions online at Parks Canada before setting off to make sure you’re properly outfitted, and the trail is safe to use.
6. Ice climbing
During winter, the park’s many waterfalls freeze into solid columns of sculpted ice, making Banff the world capital of ice climbing. There are options for multi-pitch routes or easy beginner ascents. Johnston Canyon is one of the best places to go, as you can hike up the trail to the Lower or Upper Falls and then ice-climb your way up the falls. If you’re interested in learning or are an expert looking for a guide to take you to more advanced climbs, Yamnuska Mountain Adventures bring decades of knowledge and experience and have a variety of tours for all ages and experience levels. All it takes are some crampons, ice picks, safety equipment, and a sense of adventure.
While the natural inclination when visiting Banff is to look skyward at the mountains, looking beneath them is equally worthwhile. Under Grotto Mountain, roughly a half-hour drive from Banff, there’s an extensive limestone cave system known as Rat’s Nest Cave, which at nearly 2.5-miles long is one of Canada’s longest such systems. Full of delicate cave formations and archeological treasures like pictographs and bones, it’s a protected site and access is restricted except as part of a guided tour with Canmore Cave Tours.
Note, however, that when they say caving, they mean actual caving. After a short hike to the cave’s entrance, you will be suited up in a sturdy jumpsuit with rappelling harness, ropes, and safety gear to descend into the cave. En route, you’ll scramble over rock piles, rappel down walls, and squeeze through tight passages. There are several different tours available that explore different sections of the cave, use different skills, or have varying levels of intensity, but every tour requires a moderate degree of physical activity. Throughout the year, the cave stays a cool 41 degrees Fahrenheit, so you’re never too cold.
8. Tubing and tobogganing
Return to the simple childhood joy of sledding down a hill by going tobogganing or tubing. Both Mt. Norquay and Lake Louise Ski Resort have their own designated tubing areas on gentle hills, with maintained tracks you can gleefully slide down on. As for tobogganing, it’s up to you to find a snowy hill and go for it — the Cascade Ponds are an especially popular spot for locals. And don’t worry about having to pack your own sled and tube, there are rentals available at both ski resorts and in Banff.
9. Sleigh rides
During the holidays, horse-drawn sleigh rides are available around the town of Banff and out into the Bow River Valley, with plenty of cozy blankets to snuggle in, hot cocoa or cider, and a warming bonfire with roasting marshmallows at the end of the ride. Sleigh rides are also offered at Lake Louise, taking a ride around the edge of the frozen lake to take in the snowy sights for a romantic daytime or nighttime experience.