It takes some time to get to Banff in Canada’s Alberta province, but it’s worth it. Whether you fly into Calgary and drive 90 minutes west, or spend the entire day traveling along the TransCanada Highway from Vancouver, one thing’s certain—you’ll be mesmerized by the changing landscape as the Canadian Rockies jut skywards from the earth like lines on a Richter scale.
Once you arrive in the mountain village, you’ll easily see why it’s a popular destination year-round: open skies for miles, those towering mountain peaks of the Canadian Rockies, and a charming downtown with laidback vibes. However, most people stick to the warmer months, not realizing the area is just as enchanting—if not more—when it snows. Maybe it’s because they don’t know what Banff has to offer in winter. Well, we’re here to fix that problem.
1. Hit the Slopes
Whether you’re looking to shred, carve, get air, race, or simply learn how to stand on two skis or a snowboard, Banff and the surrounding area have plenty of trails to hit the fresh powder: three ski resorts within a 45 minutes’ drive, to be exact.
Twenty-eight trails are ripe for skiers and snowboarders to tear through during the season at Mt. Norquay, just 10 minutes from Banff. The mountain’s fresh powder changes the landscape daily, making each run different from the one before. Once your legs turn to jelly from being vertical all day, take a tube down the mountain for a different ride.
More than 100 runs await at Sunshine Village, 20 minutes southwest of Banff and accessible by a three-mile high-speed gondola, which gets the adrenaline pumping right from the start. You’ll be shocked by the scene once you reach the top—9,000 feet—with its unobstructed views of Mother Nature’s winter wonderland.
With 139 runs across 4,200 acres, the Lake Louise Ski Area (45 minutes from Banff) is one of the largest in all of North America, and the second largest in Canada. Don’t be intimidated, though—all skill levels will find runs to suit their talents, or lack thereof, from beginner to intermediate and expert.
Too hard to choose which place to ski during your stay in Banff? Don’t! The Tri Area pass makes skiing each of these mountains as easy as 1-2-3.
2. Eat, Drink, Shop
Sure, there’s plenty of après-ski to be found on the slopes, but don’t choose that over downtown Banff (pictured at top) when it comes to recovery. If you’re inspired to up your game, shops are filled with ski and snowboarding gear, and local pubs pour liquid courage; Banff Ave. Brewing Co. pours its own labels on tap, and features regional brews for tasting. For some of the best pizza around (not hard to be), order a pie from The Bear Street Tavern, served with a twist: two bottles are set down at the table—one filled with honey, the other with Thai chili-infused oil. Your server will suggest combining the two and dipping the pizza—it sounds odd, but odd sure does taste good.
3. Soar in a Gondola
Even if greens, reds and blacks don’t mean anything to you, you can still find some terrific views from the mountaintops around Banff. Though the very popular Banff Gondola to the top of Sulphur Mountain is closed through summer 2016 for extensive renovations to the upper terminal facilities, stunning views are also afforded aboard the Lake Louise Gondola, just 45 minutes or so from Banff. The 14-minute ride in a fully enclosed gondola—or open chair, if you dare—lifts you up 6,850 feet for spectacular views of snow-covered peaks and glaciers. Those hitting the slopes don’t get the best vantage points anymore!
4. Walk on Ice
When Canada’s not a frozen winter playground, water dramatically rushes through Johnston Canyon, continuously carving and changing the landscape. In the wintertime, though, drama unfolds as the water freezes and turns into natural ice sculptures, seemingly harkening back to the ancient glaciers that formed this very same canyon … or Frozen … Take your chances and go slip sliding along the icy paths. And if you take a guided tour, you’ll hear about how the rocks and ice formations tell the area’s history. Don’t worry too much about slipping, though—ice cleats are provided on each tour to keep you firmly grounded.
5. Soak in the Hot Springs
The railway workers who discovered Banff’s natural hot springs in the mid-19th century were on to something, and that something remains pretty much the same today. Banff Upper Hot Springs, the highest hot springs in all of Canada at 5,200 feet, is open to the public and a terrific spot to soak away a full day on your feet in Banff, whether you were shopping or on the slopes. The soothing hot water—ranging from 98 to 104 degrees (F)—and the magnificent views make the hot springs popular with visitors and locals alike. The hot springs have a medical use too, for those who need to soothe achy post-ski muscles. Little did those railway workers know that when they tried to commercialize the hot springs, they essentially initiated the start of the Canadian National Parks system, and to them we owe major props.