Banff is known globally as a winter ski destination with easy access to Banff Sunshine Village, Lake Louise, and Mount Norquay. But you don’t need to be a skier to enjoy a beautiful day around town. In fact, even skiers often need a day off to rest their legs after carving fresh Rocky Mountain Champagne Powder.
Situated in Banff National Park, the town of Banff is just 78 miles from Calgary, and airport shuttles offer frequent service to Banff-area hotels. If you plan to do some skiing, you’ll get free shuttle service with your SkiBig3 lift ticket, making it easy to get to and from town and the resorts.
But even if skiing isn’t on your itinerary, you can still have a lovely winter day in Banff. Here’s what to do.
Fall In Love With Main Street
Banff Avenue is the village’s main street. It’s home to many little shops, restaurants, and galleries where you can spend time dining, snacking, and browsing. The street is very walkable, since the snow is regularly cleared from the sidewalks.
The street tends to get busy in the late afternoon and evening when the skiers return to town, so if you prefer to avoid the crowds, head to Banff Avenue in the morning.
Most of Banff’s accommodations are within a couple blocks of Banff Avenue, and the local transit buses have regularly scheduled runs throughout town.
Hit The Trails
Several trails and pathways are suitable for casual strolls at any time of the year in Banff.
The short and flat 1.2-mile Fenland Trail at the edge of town goes through an old forest and along Forty Mile Creek. You can access the trailhead from the bridge near the Fenland picnic area, and the parking lot is off of Mount Norquay Road.
The Bow River Trail runs riverside through the town of Banff. This flat 1.4-mile trail offers scenic views and is usually cleared of snow. Access it from Central Park at the corner of Buffalo Street and Bow Avenue. If you’re feeling more energetic, the Fenland Trail can easily be added onto this walk.
The Bow Falls Trail starts at the south end of the Bow River Bridge and continues along the river for 0.7 miles to the Bow Falls parking lot. Once you have viewed the falls near the parking lot, you might want to walk along the road to the Banff Springs Golf Club for more scenic views and a chance to spot wildlife.
There are several flat walking trails near the Fairmont Banff Springs and the golf course. These trails offer beautiful mountain views, and you might even see an elk grazing near the hotel.
Go Winter Hiking Or Snowshoeing
If you’re feeling a little more adventurous, getting out of town for some winter hiking would make a great day activity. Snowshoeing is also fun, but is best after a recent snowfall. Winter hiking in Banff National Park, surrounded by a sea of peaks blanketed in snow, is a great way to experience the area. There’s nothing like a little crisp air in your lungs and sun on your face.
Ice cleats and climbing poles are advised, especially for hard-packed snow or ice on trails. Before venturing to any winter hiking locations, check with the Banff Visitor Centre for local conditions and warnings.
Johnston Canyon offers a 1.4-mile return to the Lower Falls and a 3.2-mile return to the Upper Falls. Start at the Johnson Canyon parking lot on the Bow Valley Parkway.
The Tunnel Mountain Trail offers a 3-mile return and scenic views of the town of Banff and the surrounding mountains. This trail climbs with a series of switchbacks initially, so it is best suited for reasonably fit individuals.
Parks Canada lists numerous snowshoe trails within Banff National Park. Banff Adventures, located in downtown Banff, offers guided snowshoe outings, as well as rentals, for self-guided touring. Snowshoes typically cost $15 per day. Banff Adventures also rents ice cleats and skates by the day.
Go Ice Skating
The SnowDays Ice Rink on Banff Avenue is an outdoor rink located in the Banff Community High School field. It’s typically open from late December through late March. Skating is free, and the rink is lit up for evening use.
If you’re craving a classic frozen lake ice-skating experience, you could also make an afternoon trip to Lake Louise.
Admire The Fairmont Banff Springs
If you’re not actually staying at the Fairmont Banff Springs, it’s worth walking from town (or taking the local transit bus up Spray Avenue) to see it. Overlooking Mount Rundle, the Fairmont Banff Springs is a historic hotel that was opened in 1888 by the Canadian Pacific Railway.
Enjoy The Natural Hot Springs
There’s nothing quite like soaking in a geothermal heated pool after a day of skiing, walking, hiking, snowshoeing, or skating. And, let’s face it: Even if you spent the day shopping and eating, soaking in a natural hot spring in the outdoors is spectacular.
The water in Banff Upper Hot Springs bubbles up to the surface from 1.8 miles within the Earth’s crust and flows through the Sulphur Mountain Thrust Fault, a large fracture in the rock layers.
The hot springs are located just up the hill from downtown. They’re open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, with extended hours on Friday and Saturday evenings. Adult admission costs $8.50. Bring your own towel and swimsuit, or you can rent either for $2 each.
Eating In Banff
Your trip to Banff wouldn’t be complete without a taste of the celebrated Canadian BeaverTail. This deep-fried dough pastry is hand-stretched to resemble a beaver’s tail, and then topped with sweet or savory flavors. Be sure to try the chocolate hazelnut or the classic cinnamon and sugar.
Here are some of the village’s best dining spots.
Sky Bistro at the top of the Banff gondola takes dining to a whole new level -- it’s located 7,510 feet above sea level. You can get there by taking the gondola from the base of Sulphur Mountain. For the ultimate experience, plan your dining around a Rocky Mountain sunset in the winter, around 7 p.m. in February and a little later during March.
The menu features distinctly Canadian flavors and a handpicked selection of regionally sourced meats, vegetables, and other ingredients. Reservations are recommended.
Three Ravens Restaurant & Wine Bar
Named one of the top 100 restaurants in Canada by OpenTable, Three Ravens Restaurant & Wine Bar offers fine dining and exceptional service in a small setting. The restaurant overlooks the western Bow Valley from its location on top of Tunnel Mountain. Reservations are recommended.
Block Kitchen + Bar
Block Kitchen + Bar, located just off Banff Avenue, offers a tapas-style menu of small bites in a rustic, intimate space with an urban vibe. Enjoy a craft cocktail while nibbling on the tasty homemade flatbreads and hearty dinner mains.
Sushi House Banff
What could be cooler than being served a wide assortment of sushi, sashimi, and small-plate Japanese treats via a model Rocky Mountaineer train that circles a track as the chef crafts pieces before your eyes? Part dining, all entertainment, Sushi House Banff is known by locals as the “Sushi Train” for good reason.
Eddie Burger + Bar
Eddie Burger + Bar serves up some of the best burgers in town. Get your Canadian on and order a classic Alberta beef, Stampede bison burger, or Eddie Mac cheeseburger and wash it down with a shake. Eddie’s also offers a veggie burger and gluten-free options. The vibe gets even better if there’s a hockey game on -- especially if the local rivals, the Calgary Flames and the Edmonton Oilers, are playing.
Where To Stay In Banff
There are many accommodation options in Banff, ranging from the high-end Fairmont Banff Springs, with rooms typically priced at $485 per night in February, to the extremely economical but centrally located YWCA Banff Hotel, with private double rooms priced at $68 per night. There are many options in between, with approximately 50 hotels within the Banff area ranging in price from $100 to $200 per night.
The weather in Banff can be bitter cold, so you’ll need to bundle up in a warm jacket, hat, scarf, mittens, and boots. While the winter often sees clear and sunny skies, don’t be fooled -- the air is still cold, and the wind chill can make it seem much colder. In January, Banff experiences average highs of 25 degrees and lows of 7 degrees. Things warm up in March, with average highs of 39 degrees and lows of 17 degrees.
If you decide to rent a car in Calgary to explore the destination on your own terms, be sure to ask for snow tires. Parking is free throughout Banff, but you will need a parking pass when entering Banff National Park. Renting a 4 x 4 SUV with snow tires would be advisable if you’re traveling between December and April. If you’re planning on venturing into the backcountry, check for avalanche warnings after snowfalls.