Skating in Banff

As much as I loved skiing in Banff National Park, I can’t deny that one of the real highlights of the trip for me was when we went skating on Lake Minnewanka. Lake skating is such an iconic Canadian activity, yet I get so few opportunities to do it living in Vancouver. I was super keen to go skating while we were in the Rockies, so I crammed my skates into my checked luggage.

While you do have a lot more freedom to set your own schedule when you bring your own skates, it’s definitely not necessary. Emily didn’t bring it any, so we still had to rent them while we were there. We assumed we’d get the opportunity to skate on Lake Louise, but I was still keen to find a less commercial skating experience. The hardest part about free skating on natural ice is timing. You want the ice to be thick enough, but if you wait to late in the season, the ice will likely be covered in snow, resulting in a lot of work to shovel the skating surface. How the ice freezes will also play a large role in how easy the skating will be.

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Since we were visiting in March, I figured our odds of getting to go lake skating were pretty slim. But it had been really cold and sunny the week before we visited, so I was hoping some lakes might be clear. It was calling for snow most of the week we visited, so the first thing we did was search for some ice before it got covered again in the following days.

There are several places to rent adventure equipment in Banff – we rented from Banff Adventures for $15. I was told Lake Minnewanka and Two Jack Lake were good places to try, but the rental place told Emily the surface wouldn’t be good, so we decided to try the outdoor rinks first (I think the rentals are hesitant to recommend lake skating for liability reasons, so do your own research).

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If you’re nervous about lake skating, there are a few options in Banff, there’s a small natural rink by the train station and a bigger one behind the curling arena. Driving by the train station rink first (and seeing how small it was), we opted for the arena. I’m glad we went here first because it had been several years since either of us had been on skates and it was a comfortable place to get used to it again. There were a few people around with hockey sticks, but it wasn’t overly busy, so we had a good time doing laps.

But I was still really keen to at least check out the lakes while we had the rentals, so we decided to go to Minnewanka anyways, figuring if we couldn’t skate we could at least go for a little hike. You have to drive by Two Jack Lake on the way to Minnewanka, so we scoped it out, but it was a mix of very bumpy ice and snow, so we kept going to Minnewanka. Likewise, Minnewanka was a bit of a mix of ice and snow, but there were much larger ice patches and lots of people out exploring around on the ice, so we figured it was worth a try.

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Minnewanka is a huge lake, extending 28km up through the mountains. It’s absolutely wild to me that such a large lake is able to completely freeze in the winter. The shallow part of the lake was completely covered in snow, so you have to walk about 500-1000m to get to the parts where you can skate. Always be cautious if you are going out of the ice. It had been -20 degrees the entire week before we got there and we’d read up that people had been out skating all the previous week before visiting. It is somewhat risky going out on the snow to get to the ice because it provides a relative feeling of safety, but you can’t see the ice quality until you’re further out.

It was jarring when we did finally reach the ice. The ice in Newfoundland generally doesn’t freeze very evenly and is usually completely opaque, but the ice in Minnewanka is clear and we could quickly see that we weren’t going to have any concerns about ice depth. From the ridges in the ice, you can easily see that it’s at least 1.5-2 feet thick. 6 inches is the safe depth for skating, so we weren’t worried about ice depth at all, just freaked out by how scary it is to be able to see right down through the ice!

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It was very cool though. When we got to the edge of the snow we laced up our skates and put our boots in our backpack to go for a skate. The ice was bumpy in places, but it was a much smoother surface than I was expecting and there was tons of room to skate all over the lake. You can see all the air bubbles frozen in the ice as they tried to rise to the surface and we kept skating around looking for interesting features. It was pretty windy skating on the lake, but I think that’s why more of the snow was gone. Pretty much every other lake we saw was snow covered, but I think the wind blows it off Minnewanka since it’s so large. It’s such a fun experience and frankly, I’ve never felt more Canadian then when ice skating on a frozen lake.

Fortunately, if you’re still a bit nervous about the idea of finding your own ice, you can skate on Lake Louise. It’s still not a totally risk free activity as the ice isn’t managed by anyone, but so many people skate there and it’s very close to shore, so I think it’s more manageable risk. Lake Louise does get covered in snow though, so you can’t skate on the entire lake, just the section at the end near the chateau where people keep in shoveled.

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Later in the week we wanted to make a go for Lake Louise as well. It’s such an iconic place, so we figured it was worth skating there too. Unfortunately the day we visited was the worst weather we had on the trip. It was overcast most days, but on the day we went to Lake Louise it snowed pretty heavily and the clouds and visibility were really low. The rink wasn’t shoveled when we got there, so we decided to snowshoe across the lake instead. Cross country skiers traverse across the lake and walkers go up and down the edge to the back of the lake where there are some ice climbing opportunities.

Unfortunately we didn’t catch much of the views with the poor visibility, but we have been there in the summer, so we just tried to enjoy the snow on the trees instead. There were some people starting to clear the ice when we got back, but it was a relatively small surface and a lot of people, so we decided to skip it since we’d had so much success at Minnewanka already.

So that’s my advice on skating in Banff National Park. Definitely go for it because it is a super fun activity, but stick to your comfort level and always make sure the ice is safe before going out onto it!

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Ski Resort Series: Sunshine Village

I’m excited to finally have some more ski resorts to write about! Last week I posted a Banff Winter Guide about my trip in early March; I had a lot of fun exploring different restaurants and shops, but of course the skiing was one of the real highlights of the trip and the main reason I went.

I’ve done a lot of skiing in BC’s interior, but this was my first time skiing in the Rockies. There are lots of different resorts to visit, but the resorts near Banff are definitely some of the most accessible. We flew into Calgary and decided to ski the “Big 3”. It was tempting to explore further and check out Kicking Horse, but the highway from Calgary to Lake Louise is really well maintained and we didn’t have the proper winter tires to go all the way to Golden.

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But no problem because the ski resorts accessible from Banff are all top notch! The locals seem to all have their favourite mountain and I’ve heard arguments for why each resort is the best. The main arguments I heard for Sunshine Village is that it’s the highest, so it gets the most powder; it’s closer if you’re doing a day trip from Calgary; and on a sunny day it has some of the most epic views, including a vista all the way to Mount Assiniboine!

Unfortunately it wasn’t sunny on the day we visited, but there was about 10cm of fresh powder from the previous night, so all in all, we couldn’t complain. I had the opportunity to visit Sunshine Village in the summer in 2021 when I hiked from Mount Assiniboine, so I had already been treated to the amazing views. We couldn’t see all the way to Assiniboine on this trip, but what we could see was still phenomenal. The snow completely transforms the landscape and even though I’d been there before, it was unrecognizable to me in the winter.

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It’s about a 20 minute drive from Banff and there’s a huge parking lot. If you don’t feel like driving or don’t have access to a car, there is a free shuttle that runs from Banff. Having passed this shuttle on our way to the mountain, I would recommend getting up early for it and trying to board earlier in the route from one of the hotels rather than from the main bus stop. There was a massive line for the shuttle at the main bus stop, even on week days.

How Sunshine Village differs from the other resorts is that you take a gondola up to the base from the parking lot. For this reason, the ski resort is at a higher elevation, which is why some people claim it gets the best snow of the 3 resorts. I’m not sure if it’s actually the biggest resort, but it felt the largest to me. There are a ton of lifts going up to all the surrounding mountain peaks and we tried to explore as many areas as possible. There were some clouds hanging around the tops of the peaks in the morning, so we moved around based on where the best visibility was.

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We started on the Angel Express chair, which we had mixed feelings about. The skiing was great, especially in the morning when there was still fresh powder to sail through, but there were also a lot of beginners on this chair and it made us feel a little weary because a lot of them didn’t really seem to know what they’re doing. My general impression of Banff was that it attracts both beginners and experienced skiers. Skiing the Rockies was quite unlike skiing in BC for me because there is a lot more alpine in the Rockies with wide open areas and some pretty advanced skiing in some places. I’m also not exaggerating when I say we saw about 20-25 people hobbling around Banff on crutches throughout the week, so I do think some people get into trouble.

We quickly switched over to the Continental Divide chair, which was great later in the day when the clouds moved off, but it’s also one of the highest points on the mountain, so the visibility wasn’t great in the morning and it was pretty icy at the very top. Eventually we landed on the Teepee Town chair, which is Canada’s only heated chair lift – we skied a few nice runs in that area before heading off to explore another part of the mountain.

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We finished off the morning on the Wawa Chair, which is a shorter chair in pretty easy terrain, but we ended up really liking this area. Emily was still getting her ski legs and preferred the shorter runs to have breaks in between. In general, I had a great time in all areas. I like skiing around the trees and I liked that Sunshine had a lot of trees without having to go down dense glade runs. I spent a lot of the morning messing around in the powder and trying to find small jumps in and around the trees.

The lodge at Sunshine Village is a bit annoying though. They don’t let you bring your backpacks inside the lodge, which I think is ridiculous, and you instead have to leave them outside on shelves. We had brought a lunch with us, so we had so stumble upstairs with our hands full of snacks. Sunshine also had the most crowded lodge, although we ate right at 12:30pm, so it might have been our timing (we are earlier or later at the other resorts).

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In the afternoon we adventured over to the Mount Standish chair, which is similar to Wawa in that it’s a bit shorter. The difference is that Standish kicks you out into more alpine-like terrain, with wide open skiing and some pretty awesome views! We did a few runs there before heading back over to the Divide chair for a few more runs. We’d been playing it pretty safe in the morning, doing mostly blue runs and a few blacks, but we got a bit more adventurous in the afternoon and tried out some more blacks. In general, I found most of the black runs to be within my skill level, we would just be cautious about whether they had big moguls on them or not. The mogul-free runs were no problem, but some of them have pretty well defined moguls, so we generally tried to avoid those on longer runs, but did do a few short mogul runs.

At this point Emily was getting pretty tired and we still wanted to check out Goat’s Eye Mountain, so we decided to make our way in that direction. Like I said, Sunshine is really big and Goat’s Eye is a bit separated from most of the other lifts. However there are a lot of green runs nestled at the base of Goat, so if you’re a beginner, I recommend checking out the Jack Rabbit, Wolverine, and Strawberry Chairs, which sadly we didn’t have enough time to explore.

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Goat’s Eye Mountain is definitely an experience on it’s own and felt quite different than the rest of the resort. It definitely has some more advanced skiing, but I found it did have more runs than I thought that I was pretty comfortable doing. We were only planning to do one run to say we did it, but since there was more intermediate terrain than expected, I ended up going back for a couple extra runs by myself (Emily was tired and just did one). My take-away would be to play it safe at the top of the mountain, which is alpine and very exposed (but excellent views) and get a little more adventurous further down where most of the runs are a bit easier.

We thought we were going to have to take the gondola back down to the parking lot, but discovered there is one run that goes all the way to the bottom called Banff Avenue. I got some serious deja vu on this run though because I had hiked the whole 7kms with Brandon last summer. Usually in the summer you can still take the gondola up to the top and Banff Avenue functions as a service road, but last summer the gondola was closed and we had to hike the entire thing. I can confirm, it’s a lot more fun to ski down!

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So overall we had a great time at Sunshine Village! We skied on a Monday, so it wasn’t too busy and we never had to wait longer than a minute or two to get on the lift. Overall, I think Sunshine Village was my favourite of the three resorts we visited, but it could be related to the conditions (namely the powder). That said, I think it would be even more fun on a sunny day, so I think it might be the terrain that I liked. Plus it’s very large and there’s a lot to explore – I would have loved to go back for a second day. The only thing I will caution is that I can’t see Sunshine being a favourite for snowboarders. There are several flatter sections through the resort and I could see it being a bit frustrating as a boarder. But as a skier I had a lot of fun!

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Banff Winter Guide

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.

Getting There

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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

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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.

Skiing Guide

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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

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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

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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.

Attractions

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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.