Lake Louise is located within Banff National Park in the province of Alberta, Canada. Just 35 miles east of Banff and a little over 100 miles west of Calgary, it is easily reached by bus or car from Calgary International Airport.
Best known for its iconic turquoise blue lake and soaring Victoria Glacier mountain backdrop, many tourists visit in the summer. However, Lake Louise is a hidden jewel in the winter for those brave enough to endure the cold and experience outdoor skating as it was meant to be: bundled up, on a frozen lake, in solitude -- gliding to the hollow sound of blades stroking the ice beneath your feet, breath frosted on your hair, hat and scarf, feeling absolutely alive. There can be no better backdrop for the ultimate ice-skating experience than to frame it with the mountains of Banff National Park and a frozen lake that goes for miles.
As a Canadian who grew up in Ontario, ice skating on rivers and lakes is familiar to me. I had spent many winters playing shinny hockey with the boys on Lake Simcoe after school or on weekends. But having spent the last 30 years in Vancouver, the opportunity for outdoor skating was limited. I had skated the frozen Ottawa Canal with a friend, but the ultimate ice skating experience -- skating Lake Louise on a clear, cold winter day -- was still a fantasy. Plus, having taken to playing hockey again in my mid 40s with a bunch of fun-loving women on a team called the Stanley Cupcakes, I figured a photo wearing my team jersey would make for a treasured keepsake of the experience long after I’ve retired my skates.
Whether you want to briefly imagine yourself as a pro hockey player or figure skater or simply want to bag the photo and bragging rights, a day on the ice at Lake Louise is an experience to remember. Moderate fitness, good balance, and coordination are in order, especially if you are new to skating.
Beyond that, here are a few additional tips for having the ultimate skating experience on Lake Louise.
1. Bring Your Own Skates Or Rent Them There
There’s nothing quite like the comfort of your own skates, but if you don’t own any or you’re packing light, rentals are available at the Fairmont Chateau Hotel and Chateau Mountain Sports, located just off the lobby. Hours are 8 a.m. to noon and 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. The cost of a two-hour skate rental is $13 for adults and $8 for children. A full-day rental is $16 for adults and $12 for children, but if it’s really cold, two hours will be more than enough. Skating on the lake is free.
2. Try Out The Game Canada Is Famous For
Numerous hockey rinks are located next to the skating rink. Nets are provided, and you can bring your own stick or rent one for $5. Pucks are scattered about, and impromptu shinny games of three-on-three often pop up. If you’re feeling the urge, ask to join a friendly game, or break out a couple of team jerseys with friends and have your own match.
3. Pick Your Time To Go
The Fairmont Chateau Hotel ground crew begins measuring ice thickness at the end of November. Once it is safe -- usually during the first week of December -- they clear large areas of snow for the ice rinks. Ice is maintained nightly by flooding the surface with a tractor and sprinkler (which works just like a zamboni) to maintain smoothness throughout the season. Although it has happened, it’s rare that the lake can be naturally skated on without snow clearing. A prolonged deep freeze in the early season would need to take place -- without a heavy snowfall. The rink is weather dependent and remains open until the end of March or early April when it begins to thaw naturally.
Flood lights illuminate the rink until 11 p.m. each night, so daytime or evening skating is possible. If you plan your trip around a full moon and get a clear night, the bright moonlight on white snow will be a memory on its own. Lake Louise is quite far north at 51.4 degrees north, so the sun sets at 4:35 p.m. on Dec 21, the winter solstice. Days get progressively longer after that, so typically you’ll have daylight until 6 p.m. by mid-February.
During the Ice Magic Festival before Christmas, large ice castles are built on the lake and remain throughout the season as long as the frozen lake can maintain their weight. Human-size and spectacular, the castles offer a “cool place” to find refuge from the wind, or just to hang out for a photo opportunity.
4. Know How To Stay Warm
Wearing the proper clothing is your first line of defense against the cold. While sporting my team jersey was great for photos, I had a turtle neck and fleece jacket beneath it, and promptly tossed a long puffer coat over top of it afterward. The day I visited was clear and cold at 5 degrees Fahrenheit with a cutting wind. Warm wool or microfiber ski socks are crucial, as is a warm wool hat (bonus points in Canada if you call it a toque) and mitts or gloves for your hands. If it’s a windy day, make sure the mitts have a shell. A scarf or neck tube is optional depending on temperatures.
You can rent warm clothing at Lake Louise too, since it is a world-class ski resort, but you may also wish to purchase some souvenir gear if you’ve come underprepared.
There are fire pits and benches set by the lakeshore, making it easy to change into skates and leave snow boots sheltered. You can bring your own hot beverage in a thermos (and perhaps something a little stronger to enjoy fireside), or you can slip back to the hotel lobby to warm up. Just know that skates must be removed before going inside. You can also visit a rink side “ice bar,” too. Built entirely of sculpted ice, they curiously have heaters underneath, allowing you to sip an adult beverage in comfort while still being outside.
5. Understand How To Access The Lake
If you’re staying at the chateau, access is right out your door. If you are staying within the town of Lake Louise, you will need to park in the public parking area and walk a short distance to the front of the hotel. Be sure that your car has a Banff National Park pass, which is required for cars left in public parking spaces. If you are renting out of Calgary or picking up a car in Banff, be sure to ask about this. Underground parking at the hotel is reserved for guests.
Eating And Drinking In Lake Louise
The Walliser Stube, located in the Fairmont Chateau Hotel, serves exquisite Swiss and Canadian options. The windows frame Lake Louise and the mountains, so you can watch others skate while you dine. Reservations are recommended. Try the Chateau Experience -- a seasonal three-course meal with wine pairing.
Grabbing a French onion soup and sandwich at the Lakeview Lounge is sure to warm you up while being a little more economical on your wallet. Within the hotel, there are views of the lake and lots of dining options for the whole family. Hotel guests have seating priority, so if you’re not a guest, go for a late afternoon lunch or early supper.
For those with transport, the highly rated Baker Creek Bistro, one of 30 restaurants within the town of Lake Louise, offers seasonal Canadian cuisine in a classic rustic log cabin setting, and is also vegetarian friendly with vegan and gluten-free options.
Where To Stay
The four-star Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise books up quickly and is the most expensive option in town. Of course, you can’t beat its lakefront location. That said, more economical options are available within the town of Lake Louise at one of many three-star locations such as Deer Lodge and Lake Louise Inn. Private rentals through Airbnb are another option. Depending on what other activities you wish to pursue, whether they’re skiing or related to visiting the area’s natural hot springs, staying in Banff and driving to Lake Louise for the day is also an option.
Lake Louise Travel Tips
If renting a car from Calgary, be sure the company provides snow tires on your vehicle, and if it’s not stipulated at booking, ask so there isn’t a surprise fee at the counter. SUV 4x4 vehicles are best. The roads to Lake Louise are well maintained, but driving can be nasty if you’re not familiar with winter conditions. While having a rental car provides the freedom to visit close by towns like Banff or ski during additional days at Sunshine, Lake Louise, or Norquay, there are also buses to these areas from the chateau, as well as a daily shuttle to the Calgary airport, so check with the hotel for details.
Still considering where to vacation? Here are nine reasons to visit Canada’s gorgeous Lake Louise.