Most people visit Banff National Park in Canada during the summer to see the beautiful turquoise lakes but do not sleep on visiting Banff in the winter!
First Things First
You are going to fly into Calgary airport which is the closest airport to Banff and rent a car (I use Costco Travel for all my car rentals). Now listen up about the car rental. I was pretty foolish and thought that the car rental would automatically come with snow tires, this is not the case and in fact snow tires cost extra… and they were sold out. I ended up in a Buick sedan with all-weather tires and allllll the insurance in case I ran this car into a tree. Luckily, everything was fine. The weather was good, the roads were in great condition, the car only lost traction once and that was in a parking lot.
Snow tires are not automatic
Call the rental place in advance
Don’t leave safelty to chance
Get the insurance
I highly recommend downloading the GyPSy Guide for the Canadian Rockies and playing it in your car while you are driving through the park. You are going to learn a lot and it will help you not only navigate your route but also plan your day.
National Park Pass
Every person who is visiting Banff needs to purchase a park pass to enter the park. Yes, even if you are staying at one of the hotels in the park. And, yes, even if you are just having a quick lunch in the town of Banff.
But the wait to get into the park can be long and you’ve got things to see and do! BEFORE you leave, head over to Banff Lake Louise website and purchase your parks pass. They make it super easy to figure out which pass will work best for your trip. You print it at home and toss it on your dash as you enter the park. Keep it there because I have read that people have gotten tickets on parked cars in the park that didn’t have their passes displayed.
The day pass option is good for entry to Banff, Jasper, Kootenay, Yoho, Mount Revelstoke, Glacier, Waterton Lakes and Elk Island national parks. You’re covered for it all.
If you do find yourself at the national park gates without the pass just remember this is NOT the place to ask your questions, they are trying to get through the line as quickly as possible, so wait until you reach a visitor’s center.
Where to Stay
Banff isn’t just the name of the national park it is also the name of a town in the park. This is probably one of the best places to look for hotels. There is a lot to see and do and eat inn the town and it makes a wonderful basecamp. However, I did not stay here. I opted to stay in Lake Louise and the reason for that is simple, the Fairmont Lake Louise has been a dream hotel of mine for a very long time. It’s normally way out of my price range however, during the off season when I visited, I found an amazing deal on Trip.com.
The disadvantage to staying in Lake Louise is that there isn’t much in the area for food and shopping. Most of the meals I had were at the hotel restaurants – which were fantastic – but not the cheapest option.
The advantage to the Lake Louise area is that is was more central in the park. I had easy access to getting to Yoho National Park, Icefields Parkway and of course Lake Louise was right outside the hotel.
What to Do
Ice Skating on Lake Louise
There are a bunch of activities that the Fairmont provides but probably the most famous is ice skating on Lake Louise. When I saw the photos of skating on Lake Louise it immediately was added to my travel dream list. Lake Louise usually freezes over in early December and the Fairmont maintains the rink daily. It’s free to come skate on the lake. You can bring your own skates or rent some from the hotel. Note that they only have hockey style skates. I personally prefer figure skates so this was a bummer for me. If you come later in the season, the Fairmont has an ice bar set up for some skating refreshments. And in January, there is an incredible ice sculpture contest that takes place on the lake.
One of the highlights of this trip was taking a ride with the Alaskan Huskies of Kingmik Dogsled Tours. It was so much fun getting to hang out with these pups for the morning. Kingmik is the ONLY company to offer dogsled tours in Banff National Park. They offer two different tours, The Great Divide tour starting in December and the other shorter, less expensive Narnia tour starting in January.
You want to make sure that you are bundled up for this tour because it can get very cold and you don’t move much in the sled. Pack your hothands and toasty toes!
I can’t think of a better way to see the Canadian Rockies than by helicopter. About an hour and a half drive from the Fairmont is the Cline River Heliport home to Rockies Heli Canada. I have never ridden in a helicopter so this was my pulse racing, comfort pushing moment of the trip. To top it off we landed in the middle of the mountains to do some snowshoeing!
Rockies Heli Canada was so wonderful! They answered all my questions before I booked my tour. I felt super safe and prepared and we had the best guide, Ralph (who is also the owner). Ralph was very patient with us two Texans trying to figure out snowshoes.
I booked the Love in the Rockies tour which was a private two person tour for my husband and I. The tour included a 20min helicopter tour and an hour long mountain hike in snowshoes. We enjoyed some adult hot chocolate at the top of the mountain and a light meal (which included the best homemade bread I’ve ever had) when we got back to the heliport.
Part of staying at a nice hotel is enjoying some of the finer things in life like Afternoon Tea. I’ve had tea all over the world and I can definitively say that the Fairmont at Lake Louise has one of the best views. This is the perfect way to warm up after a morning in the snow.
If you want to experience this view, here are my recommendations for getting the best table:
Make a reservation for right when Fairview Bar and Restaurant opens.
Let them know you want a window seat, they can’t guarantee it but will put a note in your reservation.
Show up early! I arrived 15min before my reservation to be first in line (and there was a line!)
Take note that most tables near the window only seat 2 people. There are a couple of 3 tops and 1 large round table that seats more.
Finally, there is one thing that I wish I had been able to experience when I visited but wasn’t able to, sleigh ride with Brewster. You can experience the magic of this winter wonderland by catching a ride on a horse drawn sleigh. Unfortunately, due to an avalanche (which are way more common than I realized) the road the horses take to get to the hotel for the winter was blocked until after we left.
Bonus side trip to Yoho National Park
Yoho is right next to Banff, quite honestly the only reason it is its own park is because it is a part of British Columbia instead of Alberta. Emerald Lake in Yoho National Park only gets a fraction of the visitors that the lakes in Banff get but I’m so happy I didn’t miss this little side trip. Emerald Lake is only a 20 minute drive from Lake Louise.
Some things to keep in mind when visiting, Emerald Lake Lodge is located on the lake with multiple cabins that are available for rent. Even if you don’t stay here, stop in for beverage or lunch. The parking lot is small. While we didn’t have any trouble finding parking (hello, off season!) I can imagine this gets busy during popular times of the year. Your Banff park pass is good for Yoho so no worries about having to pay for another pass.
There are some other sights to see in Yoho besides the beautiful Emerald Lake and they include the Natural Bridge which in winter is frozen and you can walk right up to and also the Spiral Tunnels. Note that the turn off to observe the tunnels may be covered in snow during the winter time.
Here is my exact itinerary for my 4 night trip to Banff:
Arrive in Calgary, pick up rental car
Drive to the town of Banff for lunch
Arrive at Fairmont Lake Louise
Dinner at hotel – Walliser Stube
Early grab and go breakfast
Drive to Emerald Lake Lodge in Yoho National Park
Explore Emerald Lake and have lunch at the lodge
Drive to the Natural Bridge, go for a short hike
Drive back to Lake Louise, stopping to take photos along the way
Ice skating on Lake Louise
Date night at hotel – Fairview Bar and Restaurant
Drive the Icefields Parkway to helicopter tour
Helicopter tour with Rockies Heli Canada
Light lunch provided on tour
Drive back to Lake Louise, stopping for sights and photos
Dinner at hotel – Alpine Social
Roasting marshmallows over the firepit at the hotel
Dogsled tour with Kingmik Dogsled Tours
Afternoon tea at Fairview Bar and Restaurant
Hike up to the Fairview lookout
Order room service for dinner
Sadly say goodbye and fly back home from Calgary
If you are interested in seeing more videos and photos from my trip to Banff, head over to my Instagram and check out my Canada highlight. And if you need to add some items to your winter wardrobe, check out my Winter Travel Essentials.
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