This is a bit different than the kind of post I usually write, but I just spent a full 7 days in Banff on a winter ski holiday. That’s pretty much the longest I’ve ever stayed in one place on vacation, so I actually feel like I have a lot to say about Banff in the winter – from skiing, to hiking, to skating, and where to eat and shop.
The easiest way to get to Banff is to fly to Calgary. If you’re in BC, you could consider driving, but since I was meeting Emily (who was coming from Newfoundland), I opted to fly as well. It’s actually relatively easy to get around without a car in Banff (there’s a pretty comprehensive bus system around town and to the ski resorts), so you can just take a shuttle from the airport into Banff if you prefer. Otherwise, you’re pretty much limited to renting a car, which is what we did – it’s about a 90 minute drive. Just be careful, most rentals come with 4 season tires, which we were fine with because we grew up driving in a snowy climate, but if you’ve never driven on snow, I recommend paying extra for proper snow tires. Along the main highway from Calgary to Lake Louise, you will be fine, but beyond that, winter tires are needed.
Where to Stay
Your options are pretty much to stay in Banff or Canmore. I think there is limited accommodations in Lake Louise, but there’s little else there, so I recommend Banff or Canmore. Banff is definitely more fun and attracts the tourists and crowds. Canmore is where more of the locals live, so it has a different atmosphere, but I do still really like it there. It’s cheaper in Canmore, so if you’re looking to save some money, it’s a good option. The thing about Banff is that it’s 20 minutes closer to all of the ski resorts and it’s actually located in the National Park, so it’s a lot of fun. We stayed in Banff and I recommend staying on the main road so you can walk into town for shopping and food. We were about 1.5km outside of the downtown, but we didn’t mind the 15 minute walk because parking in the downtown is a bit of a nightmare.
I’m going to be making an individual post about each of the ski resorts, but in a nutshell, there are 3 major resorts to chose from in Banff National Park. We opted to get the “SkiBig3” pass, which allowed us to hop around from resort to resort. With our pass, we had a 5 day span in which to do 3 ski days, so we did one at each mountain. The pass also includes tubing and night skiing at Norquay on the same day you ski there. As well as there are other perks and discounts with the pass at various stores and restaurants. If you need to rent gear, I recommend doing it in Banff to save yourself some time on the mountain. There are many rental places and you can pick up your skis or board the night before you use them.
Lake Louise – the furthest from Banff (45 min drive), but arguably the most popular of the 3. It’s located right off the highway, so it’s not as high elevation as Sunshine, but has some great runs on the back of the mountain for more advanced riders.
Sunshine Village – the highest and largest of the 3, it’s about a 20 minute drive from Banff and there’s a big gondola to transport you to the top. Probably the best resort for beginners as it had the most variety of terrain and on a sunny day you can see all the way to Mount Assiniboine. Because of its higher elevation, it generally gets the most powder.
Norquay – the smallest of the 3 mountains, but the closest to Banff (just 10 min drive). Norquay is the most diversified as they also offer a small area for night skiing and have tubing. That said, it’s a steeper mountain and I wouldn’t recommend for beginners.
Where to Eat
Advising on restaurants is way out of my normal wheelhouse, but I ate at so many that I wanted to share some of my thoughts. In Banff, most of the restaurants are located in the downtown core and they continue up along Banff Ave, with several located in the hotels. Canmore also has a really nice downtown area and it’s worth checking out for a day.
Ticino Swiss Italian – This was my favourite restaurant of the trip because they do a traditional cheese fondue and have a cute Swiss-ski vibe. It was also the most expensive meal I had on the trip, but I don’t regret it. The Grizzly House also does fondue and is located right in downtown.
Park Distillery – We almost skipped this one because we didn’t realize it had food – in addition to a HUGE cocktail menu, it also has a great food menu. I had the game bannock (elk and beef) and Emily had a vegan burger, both of which were delicious. I was extremely tempted by their bison burger as well and will have to return again!
Nourish Bistro – A completely vegetarian restaurant, we visited this one for Emily and ended up loving it. They also have a lot of cocktails (at very reasonable prices), as well as yummy salads, bowls, and burgers. A great option for non-meat alternatives.
Rocky Mountain Flatbread Co – I didn’t visit on this trip because they don’t offer vegan cheese for Emily, but it’s located in Canmore and is a fantastic pizza restaurant if you have a craving!
El Toro – A Mexican restaurant higher up on Banff Ave. We hadn’t been planning to eat there because it didn’t look like anything special, but it was the closest restaurant to our hotel and we were really lazy one night. They have a wide variety of choices and we ended up really loving the pasta! A great cheaper alternative.
3 Bears Brewing – We mostly visited this one for the beer, but it has a really great vibe and food as well. It’s in a new building with beautiful high ceilings – you can get a 6-beer flight and some really tasty eats to accompany your meal. We also visited Banff Ave Brewing, but liked 3 bears a lot more.
Grizzly Paw Pub – Similar vibes to 3 Bears, but located in Canmore, I really like their beer (which you can find in most AB liquor stores) and their burgers!
Canary Coffee – A very cute little coffee shop in Canmore that has the kindest owner! Recommend if you’re looking for a hot drink or a tasty snack.
Beaver Tails – There are 2 locations in Banff and a third in Canmore. BeaverTails are iconic canadian pastries shaped like, you guessed it… beaver tails, and you can customize with your own toppings. It’s a bit of a must have if you’re on a winter trip to the Rockies!
Other places we tried included Farm + Fire, which is a beautiful restaurant that had mildly disappointing food, and Graze, in Canmore, which likewise was mildly disappointing. The next time I return I would like to visit The Bison or Saltlik, which seem to be the higher end restaurants. There’s also several Indian, Mexican, and Italian restaurants that we never made it to. We wanted to visit Block, which is a tapas restaurant, but it’s very small and cramped and Covid is still a thing, so we opted not to risk it.
Where to Shop
Banff has a plethora of crappy souvenir shops that I kind of despise (please if you are buying something associated with indigenous culture, make sure it is authentic!), so we skipped pretty much all of those, but there’s still a bunch of great shops in both Canmore and Banff. To be honest, I even kind of prefer the shopping in Canmore because there’s less of the touristy crap and more locally made wares.
Banff Tea Co – I’m obsessed with tea and I go here every time I visit. The workers are so nice and they have so many great flavours, as well as health teas. Lots of the teas are named after local landmarks and it’s such a fun place to shop.
Evoolution – This was a new discovery for us and there’s a shop located in both Banff and Canmore. They sell specialty oils and vinegars and have the whole store set up as a tasting bar. Try as many as you want with bread and check out their recommended pairings to bring a few small bottles home with you!
Cafe Books – There are no book shops that I’m aware of in Banff, but there’s a great one in Canmore! Cafe Books is split into two sections, with new books in the front shop and used books in the back shop. They carry a ton of specialty items and special editions and I had the best time browsing through both parts of the shop!
Big Bear Trading – This is the one souvenir shop I did like because they carried a wider variety of items and featured more locally made items. If you want to get specific Banff related items, then I would recommend this one.
Alberta’s Own Marketplace – Located in Canmore, this is the much more authentic place to buy souvenirs. Everything in this shop is hand crafted and beautiful! They have tons of beauty products, hand knits, clothing, jewelry, and prints. I got a gorgeous handmade merino knit headband.
Project A – Similar to Alberta’s Own Marketplace, Project A has a beautifully curated selection of jewelry, clothing, and beauty products. My top pick is the candles from Land of Daughters, which is a female, indigenous owned business (FYI, you can also get these at Coastal Bookstore in Port Moody).
Banff Doghouse – Definitely stop in here if you have a dog. They have all kinds of great toys and treats, so we had to get a little souvenir to take home for Sadie (she’s already eaten it).
A few other shops I’m a fan of are The Tin Box and Mountain Mercantile in Canmore, as well as the Canmore Tea Co. I didn’t like it quite as much as the Banff Tea Co, but I still bought some tea to take home from both! There’s also a few nifty stores in Banff, including Cabin 108, The Spirit of Christmas, and Monod Sports.
If you’re looking for any outdoor clothing or gear, there’s also a ton of shops to choose from. They’re all franchises, so I won’t go into too much detail, but it’s great to be able to visit SmartWool, North Face, Patagonia, and Atmosphere, which are more often stocked in other stores rather than having their own flagship stores.
In addition to skiing, there are lots of other outdoor attractions in Banff, here’s a few that we tried just to get you started:
Banff Upper Hot Springs – Located just outside of town and up on the mountain, it makes for a great side trip! You can drive or take the bus and the springs is owned by Parks Canada, so it’s actually very reasonably priced at just $10pp.
Johnston Canyon – Located on the Bow Valley Parkway, it’s a fun walk out to some ice waterfalls through the canyon. The trail will be covered in snow and ice though, so make sure you bring microspikes, or rent cleats in town.
Lake Louise Skating or Snowshoeing – One of the most iconic scenes in the Rocky mountains, in the winter you can skate on the lake or rent snowshoes or cross country skis to explore across it. We were hoping to skate, but it was a very snowy day when we visited, so we hiked to the back of the lake instead.
Lake Minnewanka – Probably the highlight of the whole trip for me. Lake Minnewanka is a huge lake that completely freezes over in the winter. Similar to Lake Louise, whether you will be able to skate or snowshoe on it will largely depend on the weather. If you opt to skate on any lake, make sure you check the ice conditions and research the weather from the previous week. Blue ice is the safest. Stay away from grey ice.
Other Things to Note
There’s just 2 random things I wanted to note. The first is to make sure you get your park pass when you enter the park on the way to Banff. You will need it to park everywhere inside the park. It’s $10 per person, per day, or you can get the family pass for the whole year for $145. This is what we did since I plan to be back in the Rockies again later in the summer.
The second thing is to watch your speed. The speed limit on the highway inside the park is 90km/h, which is 20km/h less than on the highway from Calgary. The speed limit in Banff is 30km/h. I’ve never seen so many cops prowling around the streets as in Banff, so pay close attention to your speed or you might be going home with a fine.