Winter is always an amazing time of year to visit Banff National Park because there are fewer crowds and there is generally a more peaceful atmosphere. And to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday this year, there’s no better time to experience the magic of a winter wonderland in Banff because admission to Canada’s National Parks is free for the whole year of 2017! Seize this rare opportunity to explore Banff without having to buy a Park Pass, and try some of my family’s favorite winter fun activities.
1. Go skating on a frozen lake or river. There are fewer things more ‘Canadian’ than skating on a frozen lake or playing a game of outdoor pond hockey. A great place to skate in the Banff Town area is below the Banff Springs Hotel at the rink that is built beside Bow Falls. There’s also a great sledding hill there, so don’t forget your sled for a multi-activity afternoon. (And don't forget: helmets on heads for sledding.)
When the Bow River is well frozen in downtown Banff, there is also a skating oval cleared and maintained beside the Banff Canoe Club dock along Bow Avenue. This is a rare opportunity to skate on the Bow River; it’s a lot of fun to skate there when the conditions are good.
2. Visit an ice castle. To continue with the theme of skating, my family loves gliding around frozen Lake Louise on the small rink in front of Chateau Lake Louise. We try to time our visit for just after the Ice Magic Festival has finished so that we can skate around the ice castle and walk around after to see all of the amazing ice sculptures. The Magic Ice Festival runs from January 19 to 29, 2017.
Tickets must be purchased to watch the ice carvers at work the first weekend of the festival, but you can freely walk around and look at the sculptures after they are complete. Once the festival is finished, the sculptures and the ice castle will remain available for public viewing until they melt. Visit any time in early to mid-February 2017 and you’ll definitely get a chance to see these magnificent ice sculptures!
Note: If you want to find parking at Lake Louise during the Ice Magic Festival, arrive really early to find a spot - I’m talking the crack of dawn early. You can also take a shuttle bus up to the lake from Samson Mall in the Village Market. Again, arrive pretty early to take the shuttle and dress warmly as there could be a long line of other people waiting to take the shuttle, too.
3. Visit an ice playground during SnowDays. This festival runs January 13 to February 5, 2017. While there are many fun things to do during this festival, including attending Ice Magic at Lake Louise, the highlight for kids will be a visit to the ice playground.
This year, the ice playground will be built on the high school grounds in downtown Banff. It will consist of an ice maze and slide. There will also be a skating rink on-site. For event details on Ice Magic and SnowDays, visit banfflakelouise.com/snowdays.
4. Hike a frozen canyon. Johnston Canyon is magical in the winter with two frozen waterfalls, one that is approached through a cave, and a third ‘secret’ waterfall that you can crawl behind. The trail is a lot less busy in the winter, and you’ll just need a pair of ice spikes or cleats to make the journey up the slippery path.
Hike to the Upper Falls in a 6-kilometre return trip to watch ice climbers in action. If you’re hiking with young children, you can hike to the Lower Falls in an easy 2-kilometre return trip. To find the secret waterfall, descend down into the canyon shortly before the Upper Falls. From here, follow the canyon to reach the Upper Falls when the creek is frozen.
5. Visit the newly-renovated Banff Gondola. The Banff Gondola has recently undergone a $26 million renovation and there’s now a fabulous interpretive centre in the upper terminal. There’s also a movie theatre, roof top viewing platform, and a formal restaurant. Visit Friday nights for star gazing (included with admission) or make a reservation at the new Sky Bistro, which often includes gondola admission.
For those looking for a more budget-friendly way to visit the gondola’s upper terminal, the 5.5-kilometre long trail to the top is open for hiking year-round and you can purchase a one-way down gondola ticket for $25 per adult ($13 for a child ages 6 to 15). Riding the gondola is free for children under age 6.
Note: If you are planning on hiking up to the top of the gondola, it’s a 655-metre climb up and you’ll need spikes or ice cleats for grip on the packed but potentially slippery trail.
6. Ski or hike across a frozen lake. One of our yearly highlights is hiking or skiing across beautiful Bow Lake on the Icefields Parkway. It’s a great outing if you’re driving north to Jasper for a weekend or staying in the Lake Louise area (and looking to escape the Ice Magic crowds). We’ve made snow angels on the lake, skied to the far end, and enjoyed solitude where we were the only people on the entire lake.
Note: It’s always safest to stay to the middle of the lake to avoid any potential avalanches that could slide off neighboring mountains. You’ll also want to make sure the lake is well frozen so be careful as Spring approaches. Also, it is not advised to continue on past the lake into the trees as there is avalanche hazard en route to Bow Glacier Falls.
Another lake that we’ve enjoyed hiking across when frozen is Lake Minnewanka. Hike to the entrance to Stewart Canyon and return on the summer trail for a pleasant loop of roughly 3 kilometres. (Be careful as you get close to the canyon because the Cascade River might still be flowing as you approach the bridge. It’s best
to jump on the official hiking trail above the lake at this point.)
7. Go skiing and tubing at Mt Norquay. There’s no place more fun than “Tube Town” at Mt Norquay on a wintry day in Banff. Spend the morning skiing at Mt Norquay and then add some tubing on at the end of your day with the Norquay Quality Time Family Package, available to purchase online for $199. This package includes Ski Lift Tickets for 2 Adults and 2 Children/Youth (up to 17 years) with a tubing upgrade ($50 included in the above price).
All-Inclusive (Ski/Tube/Sightseeing) Passes can also be purchased for $85 per adult, $69 for youth, and $34 for children (ages 6 to 12).
Note: Children must be 42” tall and 4+ years to use the tube park.
8. Go snowshoeing at Sunshine Village Resort. While Sunshine Village may be better known as a ski resort, it’s also a great place to go snowshoeing to Sunshine Meadows. White Mountain Adventures runs a couple of different tours to the meadows. My favorite thing to do is finish up the day with a cheese and vegetable fondue after enjoying hot chocolate and cookies on the trail!
Tours are suitable for children 12 and older with younger children welcome on private group bookings at the discretion of the tour operator. Tours are suited for all fitness levels and guests get to upload the Standish Chairlift for easy access to Rock Isle Lake.
9. Climb a mountain. Banff’s Tunnel Mountain is a popular hike year-round and with just under 300 metres of height gain, it’s a good trip for little feet. Spikes or ice cleats are recommended in winter, but the trail is generally well packed down and easy to walk on.
Follow up your hike with a trip to the Banff Hot Springs to warm up and relax those aching muscles, followed by dinner out at the Banff Ave Brewing Co. where children are welcome.
10. Try cross-country skiing at Lake Louise. My family loves cross-country skiing, and there are a few trails at Lake Louise that are very easy to do for children or families who are new to the sport. Our favorite is the Tramline Trail, which loses gradual height as you ski down from the lake to the village below in an easy 4.8-kilometre distance (195 metres of height loss). The trail is never very steep and the one big hill can always be walked. It’s a great place for mastering your glide with gravity in your favor. Once you reach the bottom of the Tramline Trail, the Bow River Trail is another easy option for families and is generally flat as it circles the Village and campground in a 6.6-kilometre loop.
We always set up a vehicle shuttle or have an adult ski back up to get the car so that the children only have to ski down to the village. There is a coffee shop conveniently located at the Samson Mall should you need someplace warm to wait. The Visitor Centre also has a day-use area to hang out in with a small interpretive centre for the kids.
For the easiest option at Lake Louise, ski across the lake in an easy 4-kilometre return outing that is entirely flat.
For ski rentals, visit Wilson Mountain Sports in Samson Mall. They also rent snowshoes, skates, and downhill gear should you be planning a multi-sport weekend in Lake Louise.
Tanya is a freelance writer, and a mom to a spunky nine-year-old. She loves hiking, camping, skiing, and all things mountain-related. She is the author of the blog, Family Adventures in the Canadian Rockies, rockiesfamilyadventures.com.
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