Having a few days off before Christmas break, a friend and I decided to take a spontaneous road trip to Banff National Park. The trip was a blast, and I can’t wait to share our photos and videos from the trip. Our experience was spectacular and fun even with a university-student budget. In this post, I will share some useful information and helpful tips about our journey that might help you plan your own Canadian adventure!
Before deciding the go on the trip, I was very hesitant to visit Banff National Park in the winter. Many summer roads are closed for the season, and some of the open ones can be treacherous depending on weather conditions. I felt as though the activities aside from skiing would be limited, because I was eager to explore the amazing landscapes of the park. Don’t let the season shy you away from this trip, because in just two days my friend and I were able to explore a ton and partake in many winter activities. Having our own vehicle definitely made the trip easier, giving us the freedom to go wherever we want whenever we wanted. If you don’t have a vehicle for this adventure, some of the highlights from our trip would not be accessible; however, some places have tour groups and shuttles that take tourists to and from the Banff town. Here are some destinations you should make sure to include on your trip:
Johnston’s Canyon– This short winter walk was spectacular to witness in the winter season. The walk is mostly on a catwalk that trails through an amazing canyon over frozen river streams. Located 15-20 minutes north of the Banff town, this trail is easy to get to and open all year long. There are two main spectacles on the trail: the lower falls, and upper falls. Both are spectacular, although the upper falls definitely trump the lower ones. There is also a very cool cave that is slightly off the trail facing a frozen water fall and horsehoe-shaped canyon. It wasn’t easy to get down there from the trail up above, but it was amazing and worth the short trek (this is that iconic rock that all those travel-photographers and bloggers go to, so I wanted to get my own shot of this scene).
The walk is only 1.5 miles away from the parking area and is scenic the entire way. It can be VERY slippery, and ice-climbing footwear is recommended. My friend and I definitely don’t have this kind of fancy footwear equipment but we made the trip just fine. We had our fare share of tumbles, so it just depends on comfortable you are walking on ice. We arrived to the trail just as the sun was rising and had the entire trail to ourselves other than some ice pickers climbing up the upper falls! As we started our way back, we began to notice the trail becoming more busy with tour groups. I personally love nature trails being quiet and unpopulated, so depending on what you’re wanting to experience I would recommend going as early as possible. My friend who lives in the area said it can be very packed as it gets closer to the holiday season and of course all summer. The entire road-side stop took only 1.5-2 hours and makes for a great morning activity.
Bow Summit Lookout at Peyto Lake– This is an amazing scenic view overlooking Banff National Park. This iconic view overlooks Peyto Lake and is easy to access year round. In the summer the lake is turquoise blue and rich with wildlife. During the winter, the lake is frozen and the surrounding landscape is blanketed with snow. The viewpoint is located off the Ice field Parkway which is only drivable with vehicles suited for winter conditions. Driving this road without winter tires can be very dangerous and unpredictable. Although it’s about 1 hour and 10 minutes north of Banff (34 minutes from Lake Louise), the view is phenomenal! We lucked out with the weather, giving us clear views of the surrounding valley. The lookout is only an uphill 1/2 mile from the parking area. The road going up to this lookout is transformed into a cross country trail, so if you don’t have skis make sure you have footwear that can trek through a bit of snow.
Lake Louise– Lake Louise is a must-see iconic destination in Banff National Park. The lake has several hotels, cabins, and tourist traps in the area and is located about 30 minutes from Banff. This was the first place we stopped upon arriving to the park and it definitely gave us our first taste of Canadian Rockies. If you’re into a more boujie vacation, then definitely stay at the Fairmont Hotel sitting right next to the lake. The lake is frozen during the winter, making it possible to walk almost entirely across it. Along the main shore, the frozen lake is converted to a fun-filled ice rink for skating, hockey, and of course slipping. There are many surrounding cross country ski trails if you’re into more outdoorsy activities. If you don’t have you’re own vehicle, there is a shuttle that provides access between Banff and Lake Louise (in the winter though it runs much less frequently).
Moraine Lake– Okay so I didn’t actually make it to Moraine Lake but still can still provide information about getting there in the winter. Moraine Lake is definitely a highlight in Banff National Park according to all of my friends who live in the area. The truth is I just wasn’t prepared to make the trek. In the summer, Moraine Lake is flocked with tourist wanting to witness the iconic colorful-kayaks-docked-on-the-turqoise-blue-lake-with-spectacular-mountains-in-the-background photo. The road in the winter, however, is blocked off because of heavy snowfall and converted into a cross country trail. The road is open usually in May-October depending on weather. Witnessing this view in the winter poses much more of a challenge in the winter. Even with cross country skis, the road only makes it about 3/4 of the way to Moraine Lake. The remaining 1/4 is unplowed trail that is only accessible if you have the stamina and equipment to get there. It is possible if you’re up for the adventure. If I had an extra day in the park and had brought some cross country skis, I would have definitely made the trek. Finding information about accessing this site in the winter was difficult to research, so I hope this paragraph helps explain what to expect.
Downtown Banff– Of course, make it downtown Banff. This quaint ski town is full of action all year round! The vibe in this town is fun and exciting with gorgeous mountains visible in every direction. The town of Banff is in the southern area of the park and a popular place to book lodging for ski trips. Banff Avenue is the busiest street full of shopping, restaurants, pubs, hotels, and ski shops. Name any out-door brand and there’s a store for it in Banff. Despite it’s small size, Banff also has two nightclubs! After experiencing the town, I wasn’t surprised because of all the festive skiers and snowboarders that want to party after a day on the slopes. Both night clubs were highly recommended to visit although we only made it to one: The Dancing Sasquatch. The Hoodoo Lounge and Nightclub seemed equally as fun. We only made it to one because we didn’t want to pay for more than one entrance fee (we’re cheap college students!). According to some local sources, each club can be more lively depending on what day of the week it is. Supposedly on Wednesday and Friday, The Dancing Sasquatch is where it’s at! It can get really busy and the line can extend outside into the bitter Canadian cold, so a local recommended to get our entrance stamp from the club before 10pm to skip the line later. In short, my friend I had a blast and met a lot of fun people here. Although, like any night club, they find anyway to overcharge people. Drinks are pricy, the entrance fee was $10 and the coat check was $3 Canadian. I recommend visiting a festive pub right next door to the Dancing Sasquatch. The Toque Canadian Pub Bar and Restaurant serves happy-hour prices on select drinks from 10pm-12pm. This was a great place to hang out, play darts, and drink cheaply before the club. Have fun!
Banff Gondola– If you’re looking for something to do in Banff for a morning or afternoon, pay a visit to the Banff Gondola. We weren’t able to get to this place but it would have been easy if our trip wasn’t so short. The gondola is a pricy $62, $56 Canadian if booked online in advanced. The price kind of steered us away, but we have heard great things about the gondola ride and summit. If you’re interested to find out more, check out https://www.banffjaspercollection.com/Attractions-Sightseeing/Banff-Gondola/
Banff Hot Sprints: This is another place we didn’t make it to but heard great things about. It’s right outside of the Banff downtown area. This is Canada’s highest thermal mineral springs that provide panoramic views on the Rocky Mountains. This site is open from October-May and can be a fun relaxing experience in the winter. The cost is $7.50 Canadian for adults and it’s usually quite busy. I’m not personally into hot springs because of sharing warm bathwater in pools that smell like egg water, but the 1930s-styled bathhouse and views make this location unique. For more information visit http://www.hotsprings.ca
Trans Canadian Highway– Okay, so this doesn’t exactly sound like a very interesting destination. I just want to say that this highway going through Banff National Park offers spectacular views of the rockies. As simple as it might sound, this is an amazing place to just drive. There are new and exciting peaks at every turn making it the perfect road trip destination.
Banff Fairmont Springs– No, this grand hotel isn’t where I stayed in Banff, but it is worth checking out. Located 10 minutes from the downtown is this iconic chateau hotel. Upscale accommodations make it the most idealistic lodging for an extravagant Banff vacation. My friend and I walked around this hotel just to see what it was all about and enjoyed touching things in name-brand stores and galleries within the hotel. We were even offered a ride in a horse carriage! We saw some amazing gingerbread creations, a luxurious hot springs overlooking the mountains, and fancy Christmas lights for the holiday season. It was worth a quick visit because this hotel was where the appeal to Banff began.
Ice Skating at Two-Jack Lake– Eager to explore, my friend and I decided to drive around some lakes just outside of Banff. To our surprise, we saw hundreds of people ice skating on Two Jack Lake. The weather was beautiful and the conditions were perfect for skating. Had we known about this spectacular place earlier in the day or at all, we would have definitely rented skates to join the fun. Lucky for you, you now have this information before hand. I witnessed people skating all the way across the lake which looked amazing! This is definitely on my future Banff trip itinerary.
Where To Stay– If you’re into fancy and expensive accommodations, this is not the section you should be reading. If you’re curious about affordable accommodations for penny-pinchers like us, we recommend staying at the Hostel International Banff Alpine Center. This was the perfect place for us to stay in Banff! It has a cozy winter-lodging feel and it honestly felt like a small hotel. The hostel is located 6 minutes from downtown. If you don’t have a vehicle, there is a bus stop right outside of the complex. The hostel reception can provide cheap bus passes during your stay which is what the majority of guests use for transporation. If for some reason you can’t find the bus stop outside, follow the crowds of college students waiting alongside the road. The partner hostel, the Hostel International Banff, is another great option that is located even closer to downtown. This hostel has a great breakfast cafe and several lounge areas. The downstairs bar is always vibe’n with different events happening each night (karaoke, band, billiards tournament, etc.) As for most hostel experiences, I met some amazing and fun people in our place. The accommodations vary from mixed dorms, deluxe mixed dorms, private rooms, female dorms, and even a private cabin! We stayed in the deluxe mixed dorm for only two extra dollars a night, which gave us an on-suite bathroom to share with only two other roommates. The showers are private cubicle rooms in the hallway which were very private and comfortable. Contrary to other hostels in Banff, the HI Banff Alpine had fewer beds per room. Based on our research prior to visiting Banff, prices at this hostel were some of the cheapest in Banff. Plan on spending about $30-40 Canadian a night for regular dorm bookings. The service was great, check-in is 24 hours, and the overall the experience was great. Highly recommend!
Here is their website for information: http://www.hihostels.ca/en/destinations/alberta/hi-banff
Map– I created a Google map pinpointing the destinations mentioned in this post. Click here to view.
Here is a short video recap from our trip. Subscribe to my YouTube channel for more:
I hope this post provided some useful insight about visiting Banff National Park in the winter! To stay updated on more travel photography, videography, blogs, and posts follow this site and follow me on Instagram: jeff_hyer. For more gallery and travel posts, explore the travel menu on this site. Thanks for reading!
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