Banff National Park, located in the Canadian Rockies, is known for its beautiful scenery and epic skiing. Established after railway workers stumbled onto a thermal hot spring, Banff became Canada’s first national park in 1885 and today is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Remote although still relatively easy to get to, Banff’s powder and extended winter season attract skiers and snowboarders from all over the world.
Luckily, even if you don’t ski, there’s so much to enjoy and explore here during the extended winter season.
I would not call myself a winter sports enthusiast, and I don’t like skiing (mostly because I am terrible at it and fall a lot). Whether you are looking for après-ski things to do, want to take a break from the slopes, or prefer to enjoy the charm of Banff without getting near skis or snowboards, these activity suggestions will help you plan your fun. Here are eight things to do in Banff besides skiing or snowboarding.
Banff Lake Louise Tourism provided my trip, and a selection of the activities described below. All opinions are my own.
1. Evening Ice Walk In Johnston Canyon
I went on an evening ice walk in Johnston Canyon with Discover Banff Tours, which was my trip’s highlight.
Johnson Canyon is a water-formed canyon inside the park. The trailhead is about a 30-minute drive from downtown Banff. Exploring the canyon means walking along suspended catwalks built into the limestone walls of the canyon to reach the canyon’s lower falls, which is the turnaround point. The entire hike is 1.4 miles. If you think walking along a suspended catwalk sounds scary (I did) don’t worry. They’re very sturdy and make the hike easy for just about anyone.
We stopped a few times along the trail, and our guide pointed out various features in the rocks and ice. At the turnaround point, we got to go through a natural tunnel up to the viewing platform, which offered epic views of the rushing waterfalls. Our guide helped us with pictures and served us hot chocolate and maple cookies before we made our way back to the trailhead — so very Canadian!
Night Sky Viewing
On our way back, we turned off our headlamps and allowed our eyes to adjust to the night sky. It was a very unique, very peaceful experience. This is a great active adventure for anyone, but if you’ve got skiers and non-skiers in your group, this is a great thing for everyone to do together at the end of the day.
Evening Ice Walk Difficulty
Overall, this was an easy hike with a few gentle slopes. We were given ice cleats to use (these strap over your boots) and a headlamp. Discover Banff guests get to keep their headlamps as a souvenir. Allow about 3 hours for the tour, which includes transportation to the trailhead and back.
Pro Tip: You don’t have to book a tour to see Johnson Canyon. This is a public trail that’s open year-round and can also be visited during the daytime.
2. Banff Highlights And Nature Tour
I did a 3-hour Banff Highlights and Nature tour with Radventures. I asked my guide to take me to see frozen waterfalls and spots where I could get great views for pictures. I also expressed an interest in wildlife, so we went to Cave and Basin National Historic Site, which is located inside Banff National Park.
Birds And Boardwalks In Cave And Basin National Historic Site
There’s a network of trails behind the visitor’s center and a boardwalk extending out into the marshlands fed by Banff’s hot springs. The boardwalk has some stairs, and some spots don’t have railings (so you’ll have to take care to stay on the trail!), but most people will find it an easy hike with lots of opportunities to see hardy waterfowl that don’t fly south for the winter.
Why I Recommend Radventures
Radventures is a newer company that focuses on small group tours and giving guests more control over what they get to see. Tours take place in an SUV or a van versus a larger tour bus, and because the groups are small, you get a lot of one-on-one attention (and stories about the area) from your guide. My time in Cave and Basin National Historic Site felt very personal, like a friend was showing me around his city.
Pro Tip: Schedule your tour with Radventures as early as possible in your visit so it can help orient you to Banff as a whole. I did my Banff Highlights and Nature Tour on my third day in Banff, when I already had my bearings and knew my way around. I enjoyed my tour, but I would have scheduled it on my first day if I could have had a do-over.
Want a more DIY experience? Radventures also rents campervans, kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, and other gear.
3. Forest Bathing
If you’re thinking forest bathing sounds like a terrible thing to do in the middle of a Canadian winter, let me assure you there’s no getting into the water in the frigid winter temps.
Forest bathing is a Japanese practice designed to promote wellness through spending time in nature. Shinrin Yoku translates to “taking in the atmosphere of the forest.” Extended time outdoors can lower blood pressure and allows you to reset your focus, promoting sharper thought, improved decision-making, and increased creativity.
My Forest Fix guide led me in some exercises designed to help me get more in touch with my senses and what was happening in my own body as I experienced the outdoors. I felt more clear-headed and relaxed after our session and found it to be a good exercise in self-care.
Forest bathing isn’t exclusive to winter or Banff and can be done anywhere, but I thought it was especially beautiful among the snowy pines. If you have mobility restrictions of any type, just make that known when you book your session, and the guide can pick a location that meets your needs.
Forest Fix does individual and small group sessions in Banff and Lake Louise. Contact them directly for pricing.
Pro Tip: Go with an open mind. Even if you think being “at one with nature” sounds a little cheesy (or not quite your thing), you might be surprised at what it gives back to you if you let yourself become immersed in the exercise.
4. Banff Gondola
The Banff Gondola takes visitors 7,500 feet up Sulpher Mountain and treats them to above-the-treeline views of Banff and the surrounding area year-round. But if you’re visiting Banff during the winter, check out the Nightrise experience, available from early November through late March.
Nightrise Winter Experience
This immersive, interactive gondola experience includes dynamic lights, projections, soundscapes, and more. Nightrise was created in partnership with the Stoney Nakoda Nation.
There are four levels of experiences, both indoor and outdoor, to explore once you reach the top of the gondola. Both stairs and elevators help guests move from floor to floor.
Dining And Gift Shop
If you want to extend your visit, there’s both a high-end bistro and a more casual cafeteria-style eatery. There are two gift shops — one at the base and one on the second tier of the viewing area.
The Banff Gondola operates year-round and offers a different viewing experience in the daytime. The hours vary based on the time of year. Kids 5 and under ride free but still need tickets.
Pro Tip: Make advance reservations if you’re interested in the fine dining option.
5. Banff Medicine Walk
If you want to really get to know Banff, dig into the area’s indigenous culture. Doing a Banff Plant Medicine Walk with Mahikan Trails, which is owned by Brenda holder, a Cree Knowledge Keeper of Plant Medicine, allows you to connect to the land through an indigenous lens and fosters a deeper personal connection through land-based teachings.
This experience introduces you to Mahikan culture as you walk with a guide who shares their knowledge of medicinal plants found in the forest. Expect to learn about plants that were used traditionally and medicinally by indigenous people. You may find some of these plants closer to where you live, giving you a deeper connection to the land back home, too.
The easy walk (about a mile) lasts about 90 minutes. If you have any mobility restrictions or concerns, reach out before booking.
Pro Tip: In the Banff area, Mahikan Trails enforces minimum group sizes. If you’re traveling solo, as a couple, or with a smaller group, you may be able to join a larger group Plant Medicine Walk.
6. Fat Tire Biking
A fat tire bike has larger tires that are specifically designed to provide traction in snow and ice, making it perfect for winter bike riding. Banff National Park’s trail system has over 1,000 miles of hike, bike, and horse trails, and you can explore many of them during winter on a fat tire bike.
If you can ride a regular bike, you’ll have no problems with a fat tire bike — you might even find it easier because the bigger tires provide more balance. There are multiple places in Banff to rent fat tire bikes and gear.
Pro Tip: If you’re a beginner or if you’re nervous about navigating unfamiliar trails, join a guided fat bike tour.
7. Ice Skating
The Banff area offers a great balance of outdoor rinks and natural ice skating. Popular places to ice skate in the Banff/Lake Louise area include:
- The outdoor rink at the Fenlands Meadow (skate rentals are available for on-site skating only)
- The outdoor rink at the Banff Train Station
- Lake Louise (behind the Chateau Lake Louise)
- Other natural outdoor ice surfaces, including 40 Mile Creek to Vermillion Lakes, Two Jack Lakes, and Lake Minnewanka
I did not get to go ice skating during my visit to Banff National Park because I ran out of room in my schedule, but it’s high on my list for my next visit. Everyone I talked to said Lake Louise is the best place to go ice skating in the area.
Other places to rent ice skates include Snowtips-Bactrax, Banff Adventures;
Ultimate Sports and Chateau Mountain Sports (Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel).
Pro Tip: If you’ve never skated on natural ice, make sure to review Park’s Canada’s safety tips and know what to do if someone breaks through the surface.
Banff’s main street is walkable and has many boutiques and chain retail stores, such as Columbia, Helly Hansen, and Lululemon. There are also two shopping malls, the Sundance Mall and Bear Street Mall. Neither mall is very big, but you’ll find souvenir shops and candy shops, and Sundance Mall has a tour operator desk with various activities available.
I’m admittedly not a huge shopper, but I found a few favorite local spots: the Big Bear Trading Company and Rocky Mountain Soap Company. Both are located on Banff Avenue and feature locally made gifts, apparel, and other products.
Even if you’re not big on shopping, Banff Avenue and adjacent Bear Avenue are fun to explore, and the scenery is just stunning. You might even see some ice or snow art.
Keeping Warm In Banff: What To Pack
All of these amazing non-ski activities in Banff have one thing in common: They take place outdoors. Even shopping has you out in the elements as you make your way in and out of the stores. I live in San Antonio, so I’m pretty quick to call anything below 60 degrees cold.
I recommend investing in a good pair of thermal underwear (top and bottom), a good ski parka, and ski pants for any extended time outdoors. Wool (not cotton) socks and good, waterproof boots are also a must to keep feet warm and dry.
My Reimot winter boots, while probably the least attractive footwear I own, did a great job of keeping my feet insulated. A warm knit cap (Canadians call it a toque), a buff (or neck warmer that can be pulled over your nose and mouth), and a pair of mittens designed for outdoor wear will complete your winter outdoor ensemble.
Getting To And Around Banff
Although Banff has a very “away from it all” energy, it’s pretty easy to get there. I got a direct flight from New York City to Calgary. There are direct flights to Calgary from most major U.S. airports.
I took the Banff Airporter Shuttle directly to my hotel. The Banff Airporter takes about 2 hours and costs under $80 each way.
Downtown Banff is walkable, with shuttles to the ski lifts and other recreation areas. Most tour companies will pick you up at or near your hotel. I stayed at the Mount Royal Hotel, which is within easy walking distance of shops, cafes, and restaurants.
There is no Uber or Lyft in Banff or Lake Louise, but there is a reasonably priced taxi service, Banff Taxi Company. I probably would have walked more if I’d visited during the summer. The outside temps ranged from -10 F to 5 F when I was there!