Victor and I just returned from an amazing trip to Banff, Alberta, Canada. If you’ve been following me for a while, you may know that we took the same trip last year. But this time, we tried out some different adventures and visited new places. Between last year and this year’s trips, we’ve learned a lot about what to do and not to do on a trip to Banff.
Last year, before we went to Banff, I had a friend say to me, “Oh so you’re going to ski?” When I told him Victor and I don’t ski, he laughed at me, “What are you doing in Banff then?”
I’m happy to report that there are plenty of things to do in Banff and Lake Louise without skiing. In fact, I’m not sure how we would have made time for skiing if we wanted it on our agenda! If you are a skier, I would recommend going to Banff with that sole mission. You may get a chance to visit a few other places while you’re there, but from what I hear, skiing the big 3 is plenty to keep you occupied. But if you are like my husband and me and opt not to ski, there’s no shortage of adventures in Banff.
When to Go to Banff
Both times Victor and I have gone to Banff, we went in early December. It’s cold enough to do winter activities without being insanely freezing (especially for us Florida folks!), and it’s also early enough in the winter season to beat the Christmas break rush. I would highly recommend aiming to visit Banff and Lake Louise during this time. As Victor and I look towards return trips to Banff in the future, we will continue to plan for the same time of year because we have had such great trips the last couple of years.
This year, we pushed it a little bit. We went from December 11th through the 15th, and on our last full day, the people started showing up in droves. But as long as you plan your visit for before Christmas break, you should be good to go.
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I would recommend aiming for your main activity days to be weekdays. Most travelers wait until Friday or Saturday to arrive, but if you can swing to come into town on a Tuesday or Wednesday and leave on Sunday, you’ll find your trip much more enjoyable.
Summertime in Banff is very crowded and touristy as is peak Christmas season. If you’re into that, go for it! But for Victor and I, we love to enjoy the lake and mountain views with as few other people as possible. It’s difficult to feel close to God and nature when you’re fighting crowds.
Top Things to Do in Banff for Non-Skiers in Winter
Banff National Park is more than just the town of Banff itself. It’s a whole national park for goodness sake! So we’ll break this list of activities in Banff for non-skiers into three categories: activities in Banff, activities at Lake Louise (a world renowned destination in the national park), and activities beyond!
Winter Activities in Banff
1. Banff Gondola and Sulphur Mountain Boardwalk
The Banff Gondola is one of the top things to do in Banff in general. It provides one of the best views of the town of Banff you’ll find anywhere, plus it’s great for the whole family. Take a leisurely ride up the gondola, enjoy a nice cup of coffee, and eat at the restaurant at the top if you’re looking for a meal with a view. There’re even interactive activities for kids to enjoy!
At the top of the gondola, you also have the option of walking the stunning Sulphur Mountain Boardwalk. About 1 km long, the boardwalk offers stunning 360 degree views of the Canadian Rockies and makes for an easy, safe, and relaxing stroll. With plenty of lookouts along the way, this boardwalk is also provides plenty of great photo opportunities.
2. Johnston Canyon
The Johnston Canyon ice walk is also a popular activity in Banff. Its an out and back hike through the woods and along a river. Each step offers new picture-perfect views. When Victor and I did the hike, there was a couple doing their engagement photoshoot there…that’s how gorgeous it is all along the way.
Part way through the ice walk is a little cave opening you walk into that opens up on the other side to reveal a majestic frozen waterfall. Depending on the weather, you may even peek running water still moving behind the frozen top layer. This would be a good enough place to stop if you’ve got kids with you or are ready to turn back, but for the more adventurous hikers, I highly recommend you keep on trekking. At the very end of the trail is another frozen waterfall double or triple the height of the first waterfall. It’s a popular spot for experienced ice-climbers and offers a once in a lifetime type view. There’s plenty of mountains and lakes to see around Banff, but the Johnston Canyon frozen waterfalls are their own special brand of splendid.
3. Two Jack Lake
Two Jack Lake is one of my personal favorite spots. It tends to be quiet and secluded, so if you’re needing a moment away from the hustle and bustle, this is a great place to visit. Along the Lake Minnewanka loop, Two Jack Lake is typically frozen by early December with its banks covered in snow. Moderate to well-experienced ice skaters are known to bring their skates out there for a good turn about the ice (Though I don’t recommend venturing too far from the shore or walking on the ice at all if you’re not familiar with frozen lake safety). The spot is picturesque, surrounded by mountains and snow-covered trees.
When you walk toward the lake from the parking lot, to your right you will find a tree-shaded area with a few picnic tables and a little island with more trees barely offset from the shore, just enough to make for some great photos. To your left, you’ll see a little hill with a pair of Banff’s famous red chairs at the top. It’s worth the short walk over to the chairs. They are positioned to offer the best view of the lake.
4. Lake Minnewanka
Beyond Two Jack Lake on Lake Minnewanka loop is Lake Minnewanka itself. This is a more popular spot than Two Jack because it’s a good starting point for cross-country skiers. This vast lake with rocky shores offers great photo opportunities, too. In fact, you may run into some professional or semi-professional photoshoots going on at this spot. We walked past a maternity shoot as well as a dog (yes, dog) photoshoot when we were there. In addition, there’s another set of those red Banff chairs at the top of a little hill along the lakeshore. It’s a stunning spot worth visiting.
5. Tunnel Mountain Hike
This activity is not for the faint of heart, though you also don’t have to be a mega-athlete to enjoy it either. As far as climbing a mountain goes, it’s a pretty quick trip. My husband and I took our time and we went up and back in about two and a half hours. It’s a good workout with increasingly better views as you go up…you’ll find this hard to believe when you start your journey because you’ll find yourself stopping all along the way thinking, “this is the best view yet!”… “no, THIS is the best view yet!”. But just wait until you get to the very top!
I would recommend good hiking boots or even crampons if conditions are more on the icy side just to add some extra stability. I wore my hiking boots and was good to go, though I did find myself catching my balance a couple of times. My husband wore smooth sole shoes and was slipping all over the place (nothing enough to get injured, but made his heart skip a beat a couple times!), so definitely wear something that’ll give you some traction for the steeper parts of the trail.
Also, be sure to pack a water bottle or two, a snack just in case, and your camera! The views on both sides of the mountain are to die for. You’ll find several good lookouts as you near the top and another pair of those famous red chairs, too! And by the end of it, you’ll be able to say you climbed a mountain in the Canadian Rockies!
6. Go Snowshoeing
Victor and I snowshoed the first time we visited Banff, and the first piece of advice I would give is to make sure you’ve got a good pair that stay on snug! The only downside to snowshoeing was that one of my snowshoes kept coming loose every few steps.
There are lots of great spots to go snowshoeing in the Banff area. Ask around at the local rental places and the visitors center for the ideal spots when you’re visiting. Some spots may be better suited depending on recent weather conditions.
Snowshoeing is a great activity because it’s straight forward walking through the snow. No inclines or ice needed. You’ll be able to get deeper into the beauty of nature all while enjoying the best of walking in a winter wonderland.
7. Cross country ski
This is one that Victor and I haven’t done yet but are hoping to do in future visits. Cross country skiing requires a moderate amount of balance and core skills plus some self-confidence and willingness to wobble a time or two. But it’s very popular around Banff and doesn’t have the same thrill-factor as full on skiing. You can enjoy the views and get deeper into the woods surrounding the mountains as you trace your own trail (or, probably more safely, follow in previously made cross country trails). It’s a great workout without the danger of down hill skiing.
Lake Minnewanka is a popular spot to start your cross country ski journey. There are also several spots along the Icefields Parkway that experienced cross country skiers like to stop for a more adventurous journey. Like snowshoeing, though, I would recommend checking at the local rental places and visitors center to find out the best spots to go based on your skill and experience level. Always plan to go to the locations where other people will likely be. As a visitor, you may feel like you’ll be fine, but wisdom would suggest you stay on a path where other people will be traveling just in case something goes wrong.
This is another one that Victor and I haven’t done, but we’ve wanted to both years. It may or may not be open when you visit, though, so be sure to look it up beforehand or ask about it at the visitor’s center before making the trip to Mount Norquay. We’ve heard excellent things about snowtubing, though. It’s great fun for the whole family. You get the thrill of heading down hill but from the safety of a tube instead of on skis. The only skilled required for snowtubing is knowing how to have fun!
This is a no-brainer. On top of countless little locally owned souvenir shops, Banff is a great place for regular shopping, too. With high fashion, sporting and outdoor, and cold weather clothing options (just to name a few), there’s something for everyone. There’s PJ stores, bookstores, and stores with all local hand-made goods. You can easily spend a day or more exploring all the shops Banff has to offer….just make sure you left plenty of room in your luggage to bring home all your finds!
I won’t elaborate too much on this one because I’ll be sharing a post later about all the best places to eat in Banff, but let’s just say, the options are endless. There’s numerous little coffee shops to choose from, loads of Beavertail and candy options, and cuisine from all over the world. You’ll want to be sure to eat at some of the most well-known spots as well as one or two more hidden eateries where the locals eat!
Winter Activities at Lake Louise
1. Ice skate
Lake Louise is the dream ice skating location. With mountains draping the background, you can glide around on the smoothed over lake in the picture-perfect setting. Okay, to be fair, it’s not actually perfectly smooth, though the Fairmont does keep the designated skating area cleared off as much as possible. You’ll also find that lots of people have the same idea as you do, but if you get to the lake early (some time between 9:00am and 10:30am), you’ll be able to enjoy the ice more.
Even if you just ice skate for a few minutes, it’s worth a try. I wasn’t super successful when I did it, but hey! I’ve skated on a frozen lake in Canada for goodness sakes! So visit the local rental stores or rent your skates from the Fairmont, lace up, and get your Ice Princess on!
2. Horse drawn Sleigh ride
This will forever be one of my favorite memories from mine and Victor’s first trip to Lake Louise. There is a beautiful little path that traces along the right bank of Lake Louise. Book your sleigh ride inside the Fairmont hotel. You’ll climb into the sleigh right at the edge of the main entrance to the lake itself, cover up with a blanket ready to keep you warm, and off you go through the Narnia-like woods along the edge of the lake. It’s really a fairytale moment. The jingle of the bells and the ever-changing view is one of a kind. Plus it’s a great way to take the edge off after some of the more rigorous activities like ice skating or hiking you may be doing. Just be sure to grab yourself a hot coffee or hot chocolate before hopping on! You’ll need it to keep you warm along the journey.
3. Hike Fairview Lookout
Lake Louise also has a great little hike worth the trek. To the left of the lake, you’ll find a little path that disappears into the woods and looks like it would take you on a magical adventure. And, indeed, it does! Take that trail on forward following the signage and being sure to stay on the route to Fairview Lookout, and you are in for a treat of a sight at the top. The lookout oversees the entire lake and the Fairmont Chateau, plus you can see ranges of mountains for miles behind it all. It looks exactly like something out of a dream or a Hallmark Christmas movie.
Be mindful when you take this journey up, though. It definitely is a moderate climb. Victor and I are beginner climbers and were fine, but it required a good bit of stamina to make it up. Though it’s a shorter journey than climbing Tunnel Mountain, it’s a good deal steeper at times. We went with just our hiking boots, and Victor had to grab my hand a couple of times to add some extra stability. We passed a group of more experienced hikers on the way down the mountain who were using hiking poles and seemed to be having a much easier time of it as a result, so I would look into that.
Like Tunnel Mountain, be sure to pack some water for the trip up, and also allow yourself to take breaks as needed. I wouldn’t consider this a kid friendly hike, but anyone with a decent level of fitness should be just fine. You’ll know as you start your journey whether or not you are up for the challenge as things get steep quick. If you do decide to go for it, you will be glad you did, because the views are worth it.
4. Drink a cup of hot cocoa
Inside the Fairmont Chateau is a great little shop to buy coffee, hot cocoa, and pastries. I highly recommend taking a little break there to get warmed up. The coffee and hot cocoa are both delicious, and the view from the windows inside the Chateau are unmatched.
Activities Beyond Banff and Lake Louise
1. Icefields Parkway
Another must-do activity for non-skiers in the Banff area is the Icefields Parkway. This is a stretch of road that connects Banff to the town of Jasper. It’s a pretty good drive if you’re wanting to go all the way to Jasper, so be sure you’ve got plenty of gas and supplies just in case. Victor and I just went a little way on the Parkway, though, because we weren’t planning to go all the way to Jasper.
The Icefields Parkway is a scenic drive year round, but in the winter, it’s debatably even more stunning. You are winding through the mountains on a two lane highway with Narnia-like trees flanking either side of the road and wild animal tracks clearly visible on either side. And when I say you’re winding through the mountains, I mean the mountains are like a wall directly on either side. Like all roads through the Rockies, the view changes moment to moment with new angles and perspectives. It’s peaceful. And it’s the perfect time to throw on some Christmas tunes and get in the spirit of the holiday!
Be very careful when you are driving this parkway. It is avalanche country, and in the winter, the road is not as highly monitored as it is during peak season. Don’t take advantage of the lack of traffic to see just how fast you can go. Abide by the speed limits or even stay under them. There will be other cars on the road, so you won’t be alone which is always good for safety. Even still, if you do pull off for some pictures, try to make sure there are other vehicles nearby or you are at a designated lookout point. Don’t ever wonder off the beaten path. Trust me, the Icefields Parkway itself is positioned for some of the most perfect views you can imagine.
2. Bow Lake
Bow Lake is one of the spots off of the Icefields Parkway that is a great lookout spot. There is a little lookout off the parkway itself that you can stop at. Or if you go a bit past that, there is a small cabin style resort area. You can pull in and park there for a closer up view of the lake. This is what Victor and I did, and boy was it worth it. There will likely be a fresh trail through the snow you can follow to the little boardwalk bridge over the frozen lake. It’s the perfect spot for pictures if you ask me.
Bow Lake is by far the most beautiful spot we visited in my opinion. It was quiet and secluded with only a couple other cars in the vicinity and no one else in the little area we stopped at. The lake is vast and the mountains splendorous.
My only bit of caution is to not walk on the lake itself. Because it’s not a frequented spot, Bow Lake tends to be covered in snow in winter which can be deceiving. There’s no way of telling how thin the ice is at any given spot. Stay on the banks of the lake, and you’ll be treated to stunning views that will stick in your memory for a lifetime.
3. Bow Valley Parkway
The Bow Valley Parkway is another scenic drive you won’t want to miss. It is actually the road that takes you to Johnston Canyon, but the canyon is not the only thing worth seeing on the road. There’s several spots to stop along the way for some good photos as well as some hiking options (though be mindful of which ones are open in the winter season). But you don’t even have to get out of the car for this drive to be worth it. The views are stunning, and you may even catch a glimpse of some wildlife.
Like the Icefields Parkway, maintenance on this road is secondary to the main highways in the winter, so drive mindfully. Parts may be iced over or have banked up snow. As long as you abide by speed limit laws and are aware and alert while you’re driving, though, you should have nothing to worry about.
Enjoy Banff without Skiing
As you can see, you don’t have to strap on a pair of skis to have the time of your life in Banff National Park. In fact, I’d tend to argue that you will see more of the beauty the place has to offer if you don’t ski! You’ll probably find that you don’t have time to do everything, and that’s okay. It just means you’ll have to come back again some time!
Know of more things to do in Banff for non-skiers? Leave me a note in the comments. I’d love to learn about more great activities!