Banff is one of Alberta, Canada’s most popular mountain towns surrounded by snowy peaks and vivid turquoise lakes.
It is a post-card village with ski resorts, hot springs, fragrant pine trees, and it is just teeming with nature and wildlife (like roaming wild elk and grizzlies). After our quick one-day visit to Banff, it was easy to see why so many people come to experience this curated town, not just in summer, but year-round!
That’s right, Banff during winter can be just as magical as Banff during the summer. It’s one of the rare destinations where there isn’t much of a low season. Banff is popular among outdoor lovers year-round for its hikes in the summer and its frosty ski slopes in winter. So what is there to do in Banff during winter if you just have one day?
Here’s my short and sweet guide to visiting Banff, Alberta in 1 Day: Winter Edition! Read on to discover the top things to do in Banff in winter for short trips.
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Know Before You Go
On our first visit to Banff, we were extremely surprised to realize that you had to pay the Banff National Park fee each day you wanted to visit Banff or partake in any activities. So any activity you do or campgrounds you stay at requires you to have a valid pass into the national park.
- Costs: $10.00 per adult beginning January 1st, 2020
- Gives entry to Banff, Jasper, Kootenay, Yoho, Mount Revelstoke, Glacier, Waterton Lakes, and Elk Island national parks until 4:00 p.m. on the day after purchase (renewable)
Banff Visitor’s Center: In hindsight, the Banff Visitor’s Center should be the first thing you do in Banff, as this is where you’ll get the most up to date accurate information about the available hikes, slopes, and conditions of trails, along with other essential information like road closures, weather updates, or wildlife spottings. When we visited the center, signs warning us about aggressive elk decorated the place. It wasn’t until hours later we saw several wild elk walking on the sidewalks in downtown Banff that we realized what they meant. Wildlife here gets very up close and personal, and it’s not just elk, but grizzly bears come out to wander too!
10 Things to Do in Banff in the Wintertime
Banff is a resort town with lots of things to do. But it does close some of its trails and lakes during the winter, which we found out when we visited the Banff Visitor Center.
Although winter starts generally in December, these trails/lakes can close down as early as October 15 due to icy road conditions and the risk of avalanches.
So before you get your hopes up (like I did), here’s what you CAN’T do in Banff in winter:
- Visit the turquoise Moraine Lake after mid-October
- Road trip the Icefields Parkway (it is risky even with snow tires and therefore best avoided)
P.S It’s still possible through mid-October to visit Lake Louise and even camp there. Only 1-2 campgrounds stay open in winter in Banff and Lake Louise.
So now here is what you CAN do in Banff during winter (this list is much longer!)
1. Visit the Fairmont Banff Springs & Bow Falls
Dubbed “The Castle of the Rockies,” the Fairmont Banff Springs is actually just 1 out of 11 luxurious Fairmont castles across Canada.
But Banff’s somehow comes with an additional charm as it’s set against a breathtaking backdrop surrounded by mountains, pines, and hot springs. Just a short 20-minute walk down the slopes of the hotel is the iconic roaring rapids of Bow Falls. Visiting the falls makes for a great outdoor activity in Banff in winter.
Fairmont Banff Springs as seen from Bow Valley
2. Ride the gondola up to Sulphur Mountain
If you can’t hike up close to the Rockies during summer, then viewing their snowy peaks from a fully enclosed gondola is the second-best option. As you soar above Banff, you get unparalleled 360-degree views of six mountains in the Canadian Rockies. Prices aren’t cheap, though, so make sure to carve out time (and money) if you want to do this during your trip to Banff.
Costs: $66/person | Book your tickets in advance here
3. Dog-sled or take a helicopter ride with Banff Adventures
Banff Adventures is a locally owned and operated adventure tour company in Banff for the past 20 years. They do all sorts of guided tours; canoeing, kayaking, hiking, ice walking, helicopter tours, and even dog sledding! If you only have one day in Banff, consider booking an all-inclusive tour so you don’t get FOMO.
4. Go ice skating
You have two options for ice skating in Banff in winter. You can either skate indoors at the public Fenlands Rec Center or go to the outdoor ice skating rink in the evenings after mid-December at the Banff High School downtown. The Banff Visitor Center even mentioned they often skate on the river or even the frozen pond in front of the Fairmont Banff Springs!
5. Hike the short Hoodoos trail
Let’s hunt for hoodoos! What’s a hoodoo, you ask? A hoodoo is a spire of soft rock and shaped like a pyramid, spiral, tent, sometimes dubbed fairy chimneys (my favorite). Banff has a hoodoos trail that directly faces Mt Rundel and the valley leading up to the Fairmont Banff Springs.
If you have a good camera zoom, you can see the hotel far away! The views from this trail are impressive but check winter trail conditions before venturing out. You can find the start of the hoodoos trail near the Tunnel Mountain campgrounds in Banff or learn more here.
6. Go skiing or tubing at Mount Norquay or Sunshine Village
Okay, skiing in Banff in winter is the number one reason to visit Banff during winter. But I put it as number 5 because you likely won’t have time to visit Banff in one day if you go skiing and do other stuff.
However, if you plan to stay in Banff for at least two days or more, then splurging on a ski resort trip is exactly the best thing to do in Banff in winter, without a doubt! Alternatively, you could spend a full morning skiing at Sunshine Village or go snow tubing at Mount Norquay and then soak in the Banff upper hot springs later in the evening.
7. Visit the public lakes near Canmore
If you’re like me, you will want to at least see some turquoise-hued lakes set against jaw-dropping mountain peaks. I mean, maybe? If so, you can voyage outside of Banff to nearby Canmore, where there are several mountain ranges towering over several clear lakes.
Although they might not be as vivid blue as others such as Peyto Lake, Lake Louise, or Moraine Lake, they still give you an immersive experience of the Canadian Rockies. I’m so glad we decided to stop over and do this on our way to Banff. And plus, visiting these places costs us nothing!
P.S. Lakes will start to freeze in mid-winter, so it’s best to visit the lakes before the end of October.
Canmore has many beautiful peaks and lakes to check out and is just 15 minutes from Banff
8. Go ice walking in Grotto Canyon + Johnston Canyon
A guided ice walking tour is another way to discover the wintertime charm of Banff! Several guides operate tours during the winter to various locations such as Grotto Canyon or Johnston Canyon.
Both are heart-pumping adventures with dropping views over canyons along steel catwalks and both afford visitors another breathtaking chance to experience Albertan’s love for the outdoors.
9. Soak in the Banff Upper Hot Springs
The Banff Upper Hot Springs is perhaps the most popular thing to do in Banff during winter as the hot springs operate from mid-October to mid-May. The price is fairly cheap and gives you access to the steamy hot pool until late into the evening.
Costs $8.30/adult for access to the hot springs and around $7-8 for the radium hot springs. More information here.
10. Hit up the cute restaurants and shops
The best thing to do in Banff is to just marvel at the curated streets, signs, and log-style shops and houses. I say curated because Banff is a mountain town through and through. Even the street signs are named after wildlife! During winter Banff becomes especially cozy in the evenings when the festive holiday lights are aglow and the sun sets perfectly on Mt Rundle.
There are many trendy restaurants, pubs, and bars to discover in Banff as well, so take advantage of eating out when you can. Restaurant highlight: Park Restaurant & Distillery is a special Banff restaurant known for mountain camp fire-style food with creative spirits.
A magical Banff sunset
Bonus Activity to do in Banff: The Whyte Museum
Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies sits in the heart of Banff and is a great indoor activity if the weather turns sour. The museum showcase a large exhibition showcasing the area’s beautifully rich culture and historic heritage. You can learn about women in history, the First Nations, among local heroes and other stories from Banff and the Canadian Rockies. Get your admission ticket to the Whyte Museum here!
What to Do in Banff in 1 Day Itinerary
As you can see, there are so many things to do in Banff during winter that it would be impossible to do all of this in just one day. So here is my itinerary suggestion on what to do in Banff if you only have one day!
1 Day in Banff itinerary in Winter
- Early Morning: Gondola ride up to Sulphur Mountain
- Morning-Noon: Ski, dogsled, snow tube, ice skate, snowshoe, etc.
- Late lunch in Banff (Nourish Bistro & Eddie Burger Bar are great lunch choices)
- Afternoon hike to the hoodoos
- Early evening ice walk to a canyon with Banff Adventures
- Evening: Soak in Banff Upper Hot Springs (until 10 pm weekdays, 11 pm weekends)
- Dinner out at Parks Distillery
Feel free to swap out the activities above, but I think this one-day itinerary for what to do in Banff in winter pretty much gives you a good insight into the possible activities you can do!
If you plan to stay in Banff for 1 night or more, check out these top-rated places to stay. Whether it’s a campground to park your camper van, a cozy B&B, or a mountainy boutique hotel, Banff has great accommodation options for one night or many.
With so much to see and do in Banff, there’s no doubt we’ll be going back. We’re hoping to visit Banff and Lake Louise for much longer during our next trip!
Have you ever explored Banff? What was your favorite thing to do there?