5 Epic Things to do in Banff/Lake Louise this Winter
Updated: Apr 20, 2020
Had your eye on the beautiful winter wonderland that is the Canadian Rockies? Wondering what to do in Banff and Lake Louise in winter? In this article I will cover travel tips on getting around in Banff & Lake Louise and then we will dive into what to see and what to do in the area (listed below.) Visiting Banff is a lot easier than you might think, plus you don't have to rent a car, which makes this one of my favorite destinations for winter and summer alike.
1. Get oriented at the Visitor's Center and set off for the best easy day hike in Banff on the Bow River Trail, just minutes from Banff Avenue.
2. Go skiing at Sunshine Village and ride in their iconic orange covered and heated lifts.
3. Spend a day hiking and taking pictures at the Lake Louise Lakeshore and check out the Fairmont Chateau.
4. Snowshoe from Lake Louise up to Mirror Lake and the Lake Agnes Teahouse, plus facts about Lake Louise and Canadian tourism in the Rockies.
5. Ski at Lake Louise, the most scenic resort in North America.
There's a reason Banff and Lake Louise are at the top of the bucket list for people wanting to visit a winter wonderland and that reason is simply, it's perfect. Rugged glacial peaks, Swiss inspired architecture, glittering snow covered evergreens, this town typifies all that is good and cozy about a ski town. Whether you're an outdoor enthusiast or a novice adventurer, Banff National Park is a great place to explore. Their trails are well maintained and they do a great job with maps and trail markings so you know exactly where you are at all times. You'll feel safe and adventurous all at once, you can't say that about every park!
The drive from Calgary airport to Banff is under 2 hours, and there are many transportation companies in the area that offer shuttle service for about $80 RT per person. Need transport from YYC to the Banff area? I recommend this affordable shuttle service. There is no reason to rent a car, once you get to Banff or Lake Louise, public buses run constantly, serving both in town locations, ski resorts and even some of the hiking trail heads. You can tell the Swiss had a lot of influence in these town's development, as the public transit is so well done, it feels like you are somewhere in Europe. I'll cover a littler history in the section 4 and you can learn more about the history of mountaineering and the development of the town of Banff here. Now let's move on to where to stay In Banff and Lake Louise.
In terms of lodging, you can stay affordably in either Banff or Lake Louise for under $100 USD per day, or you can go really luxe. We did a bit of both, staying first at Elk + Avenue for $90 per night. The hotel is a centrally located option with views of Banff Avenue and an in-room Nespresso maker. It has limited frills (no room service and the like) but is within minutes to all the best restaurants, coffee shops and is across the street from both the grocery store and the Visitor's Center. You'll be able to get your hiking map and bus map and then pick up snacks at the store in one fell swoop. Hungry for something unique, the eclectic small plates and divine drinks are a must try at Block Kitchen + Bar down the street. For a more luxe accommodation, you can't go wrong with the Fairmont Banff Springs or the Fairmont Lake Louise, two iconic options in the area, where the service will make you feel like royalty. Both Fairmont's have great outdoor recreation rentals in-house and have tons area maps, which makes for pretty effortless exploration.
1. Visitor Center + Bow River Trail hike
Short day hikes in Banff are plentiful and you can walk to many trail heads. Grab a coffee at Whitebark cafe, bundle up and head over to the Visitor Center on Banff Ave. There they'll have tons of maps and trail condition information for you. If you need crampons or yak trax they also sell them, in case of icy conditions. Once you're oriented, head down Banff Ave toward the River, where you'll go for a pleasant scenic walk.
Bow River Trail is a 2.3 mile out and back easy walk with minimal elevation gain. You don't need to wear tech gear, just make sure you dress in layers and wear sturdy shoes. Bring your camera along and take pictures of the towering trees and the Fairmont Chateau Banff Springs in the backdrop. I love how dramatically mountain weather changes throughout the day, during our walk we went from full sun to a whiteout, check it out in the images below. In the quiet of the fresh falling snow we also saw a huge family of elk in the woods.
2. Ski at Sunshine Village
I always think I have a favorite ski resort and then I go to a new one in Canada and I change my mind. Sunshine has taken the place of Whistler for my top spot. It's old time ski resort vibes with new age equipment. One skier we met on the lift described it as a resort with soul. It doesn't feel manufactured. The resort and the town both have a rich history that hasn't been replaced with the gleaming facades often quickly erected by Vail Corp. at other resorts. Soul aside, Sunshine also has an orange colored covered and heated lift called TeePee Town LX. On a cold day TeePee Town is where you'll want to lap to get warmed up.
To the left is an image I snapped at the top of Goat's Eye, my favorite area for high speed cruisers and some winding tree action. Some people hate low visibility days, but there is certain beauty in the moonlike landscape of flat light.
3. Hike Lake Louise Lake Shore & Tour the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise
Lake Louise is the most idyllic winter wonderland I have ever been to. Ice skaters dance around the natural skating rink at the foot of the lake, while tourists bundle up over alcoholic hot cocoa drinks at a near by Ice Bar. In the distance the rugged peaks create a natural frame for Lake Louise and cross country skiers glide back and forth. One feels as if a reindeer should shoot out of the sky with Santa in tow. It is just that perfect. I see why Alec Baldwin lists this locale as his favorite in the world, and he has been everywhere so I feel that says a lot... also I really like Alec Baldwin so I'm giving his upvote some credence. (*Watch The Edge with Alec Baldwin to see Mt Assiniboine and The Canadian Rockies in an survival/thriller movie.)
Once you arrive at the Lakeshore trail head, just to the right of the bus depot, you'll see this cute little info center, pictured left. From there you can go right to continue onto the Lakeshore Trail, or go left and check out other short viewpoint trails.
It should take you about two hours with plenty of photo stops to walk the 2.5 miles out and back. crampons could be useful if the trail is hard packed, but snowshoes would be better in a fluffy snow situation. We just hiked in boots and were fine. After your hike, go check out the castle like Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise for a drink and a snack. Their restaurants feature interesting preparations of local game meat and some of the best cocktails I've ever tried. But if you really want to have an amazing culinary experience, try the breakfast buffet pre hike and try not to fall asleep after!
4. The Best Snow Shoeing in Lake Louise - From the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise to Mirror Lake and the Lake Agnes Teahouse
In the early 1900s The Canadian Pacific Railway and local government enlisted the assistance of Swiss Mountaineers to help bring tourism to the area. In order to pay for the costly railway system, Canada needed tourism in the rockies to boom (see photo below for vintage tourism ad.) The Swiss knew that to draw hikers in they'd need to create easy to follow trail systems and construct teahouses to add accessibility and charm to what was an expansive wilderness. In 1900 the Swiss and the Canadian government began work on the trail system with the Stoney Nakoda people of Alberta, and in 1901 they began construction at Lake Agnes, where today you'll find a rustic Teahouse cabin offering up over 100 teas and local baked goods. In winter the Teahouse is closed but it is still a cool landmark to hike up to at 2,135 feet in the air.
The hike up to the Teahouse starts at The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In the Chateau basement you will find a pro shop that can outfit you with snowshoes and maps if you don't have your own. Exit the Chateau heading right, into the woods and you are on your way. On the snowshoe route up to the teahouse you'll pass by Mirror Lake as well as smaller mountains referred to as beehives. There is Little Beehive which you'll see at Mirror Lake and Big Beehive which you can hike up after your summit the Teahouse (not advisable in the winter without ice gear.) To hike to the Lake Agnes Teahouse is 4.5 miles RT with a 2,000+ ft elevation gain. The Teahouse is at 7,003 ft and in good light has incredible views of this glacial lake and the surrounding mountains. Make sure you don't go off trail or linger too long in avalanche zones, we witnessed a small avalanche when we were breaking fresh trail and we just about had a heart attacks and got the heck out as fast as we could. Safety first!
Clockwise from top left- Little Beehive and Mirror Lake, Views from Agnes Teahouse, Walking down the trail in deep snow.
5. Skiing at Lake Louise
Lauded as Canada's most scenic ski resort, this is place not just of beauty but of challenge. I'm glad we got our ski legs at Sunshine, because the terrain at Louise is steep and sometimes narrow. We didn't have the best visibility so we didn't ski the bowl much, since it was near white out conditions. Hanging out on the Larch side of the mountain proved to have good visibility and pockets of fresh powder here and there. Spending time on that side also gave us a chance to hang out at the cantina themed outdoor eatery at Temple Lodge, where you can grab margs, pitchers of Corona and tacos. We didn't check out the Apres scene but it looked pretty poppin' and the main lodge is absolutely stunning, it reminded me of what I wished I could have built my Lincoln Logs into back in the day. A true timber frame castle with modern amenities like a sushi restaurant and great coffee.
Clockwise from top left- Lodge of the Ten Peaks, Riding up Ptarmigan, Temple Lodge, Posing in the trees.
And that wraps up my top 5 activities for an epic, bucket list trip to Banff and Lake Louise! What would you want to do if you went to the area? Comment below!