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Lonely Planet Writer

Alberta on ice: Winter adventures in the Canadian Rockies

We’ve all seen the Instagram photos – turquoise colors of Lake Louise, vibrant Rocky Mountain hiking trails, and waterfalls aplenty. But what happens when the snow flies and it all freezes? That’s when the ski hills open, the lakes turn to rinks, and Alberta, Canada is transformed into a winter wonderland like no other.

The best part? You have it almost all to yourself in this undiscovered season. Winter’s adventure runs deeper than the snow is high. This is where you need to go to find the best of Alberta on ice.

A snow-swept road is bathed in golden light as it appears to run straight into a mountain
As the highest and most spectacular road in North America, the Icefields Parkway takes you about as close as you're going to get to the Rockies' craggy summits in your vehicle © Jonny Bierman / Lonely Planet

Scenic drives and the ice bubbles

The Icefields Parkway connecting Banff and Jasper National Parks is famed for its glacier-capped peaks, wildlife, and rugged landscape. Plus, it’s the best way ­– and the only scenic way – to get between Banff and Jasper. In the summer, you’ll be joining thousands of other tourists on this beautiful drive but come winter, you’ll likely see fewer than 10 cars in 3 hours. Pack a lunch, fill your 4X4 or SUV with gas, and get ready to experience a side of Alberta that is rarely seen. Scenic viewpoints include Athabasca Falls, the Columbia Icefield, Bow Lake, and several pull-outs along the way.

Halfway between Jasper and Lake Louise is the turnoff for Highway 11 toward Abraham Lake. Here, methane ice bubbles are trapped in the water as it freezes creating an ice bubble phenomenon and highly Instagrammable photos.

Edmonton Ice Castle

Any fan of the movie ‘Frozen’ will be in heaven after arriving at the ice castle in Edmonton. Similar ice castles are found in the United States, but this is the only Canadian location. Giant ice slides, fireside marshmallow toasting, water fountains, and nighttime illumination displays are complimented with events in the castle like yoga classes and a visiting ice princess. After snapping your magical photos, warm up with Edmonton’s bustling cocktail scene at Baijiu or Bar Clementine.

A very small looking person gazes up at a huge curtain of solid ice made from a frozen waterfall.
In the winter, Maligne Canyon waterfalls freeze solid into sheets of white ice and are popular with ice climbers © Jonny Bierman / Lonely Planet

Maligne Canyon Icewalk

In summer, Maligne Canyon is an impassable torrent of glacial melt carving its way through limestone in a flow that not even expert kayakers would attempt. But in the winter, it’s the Rockies’ most unique hike and an ice climber’s dream. In order to safely explore the Maligne Canyon Icewalk, a guided experience is recommended. Sundog Tours will bring you down the frozen flows in ice cleats as you pass icefalls and geological phenomena.

Rocky Mountain skiing

Four Canadian ski resorts set themselves apart by being within two National Parks. They’re protected playgrounds where common powder days are measured in feet and views of glaciers remind you of the ancient ice ages that sculpted the peaks beneath your skis. The uncrowded slopes are enjoyed at lift ticket prices much lower than competing resorts in the States (not to mention the currency discount if you’re using USD in Canada). Ski or ride Jasper National Park’s Marmot Basin or Banff National Park’s Mt. Norquay, Sunshine Village, or Lake Louise Ski Resort with a tri-area lift pass at Ski Big 3.

Ice climbing at Johnston Canyon

Also a famous summer hiking spot in Banff National Park, Johnston Canyon transforms into a series of frozen waterfalls along an elevated pathway that snakes alongside and above the canyon. Crystal clear water flows over and under ice as it gasps for new routes that change daily depending on temperature. Yamnuska Mountain Adventures offers several introductory ice climbing courses throughout the Banff area, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a more scenic and dramatic location than Johnston Canyon.

A tipi sits nearby as a group of people talk around a campfire and look up at a sky full of stars
Jasper National Park is a dark sky preserve - so far from population centers that there's very little light pollution to compete with the stars © Jonny Bierman / Lonely Planet

Stargazing at the Jasper Dark Sky Preserve

Jasper National Park is one of the world’s largest dark sky preserves. At the Dark Sky Plateau Experience at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge you can witness a night sky painted with countless stars and, if you’re lucky, the northern lights. It all starts in a 50-seat outdoor domed theatre, where Jasper Planetarium astronomers explain the night sky through local aboriginal constellations and scientific storytelling. After the virtual tour, discover the real stars and planets using the most powerful telescopes in the Rockies, before sitting down to fireside s’mores and hot chocolate.

Chasing Auroras throughout the province

Aurora Borealis in the great white north is easier to find in the winter due to the shorter days. The best chance to spot the dancing purple and green lights is with low moonlight, no cloud cover, and a strong solar storm from the sun. For an Aurora forecast and to find out where the lights are shining, try auroraforecast.com. Depending on your location in Alberta, the best places to see them are in Elk Island National Park if you’re near Edmonton, a wide-open area at Lake Minnewanka near the Banff townsite, or anywhere in Jasper.

Smoke comes from the chimney of a rustic mountain lodge, with snow covered evergreens all around and fat bikes parked in front.
Sundance Lodge is accessible by fat bike (offroad bicycles with oversize tires), cross-country skis or snowshoes © Jonny Bierman / Lonely Planet

Backcountry lodge life

Off the grid and off the beaten path - Sundance Lodge in Banff National Park is a winter escape that you can glide, ride, or stomp your way to. It’s the only lodge in the park accessible by fat bike (offroad bicycles with oversize tires), or you can choose to cross-country ski or snowshoe there as well. No matter what mode of transport you choose, a warm fire, a digital detox, and a Canadian culinary experience you might not expect from the backcountry will be waiting upon arrival.

Front country lodge convenience

Full-day adventures with the promise of backcountry luxury isn’t always in the cards for everyone, but Banff also has winter front country lodges that guests can drive to. Baker Creek Mountain Resort and Storm Mountain Lodge offer the quintessentially Canadian log cabin experience, located in a seemingly remote Rockies wilderness. Each lodge has its own Canadian cuisine, locally sourced culinary and cocktail menus and a crackling fire in your cabin. A bath drawn in a clawfoot tub at Storm Mountain Lodge or a jacuzzi suite at Baker Creek is the perfect way to end a day in the Rockies.

Rewarding and unwinding at Kananaskis Nordic Spa

Newly opened in early 2018, Alberta’s only Nordic spa welcomes the sore muscles of adventurers to five pools (From hot and warm to cold), four saunas (banya, Finnish, and barrels), two steam rooms (alchemist and eucalyptus), an exfoliation cabin, and – perhaps best of all ­– heated hammocks. Located at the newly renovated Pomeroy Kananaskis Lodge at the base of Nakiska Ski Resort, this is a lesser known part of the Alberta Rockies that often gets overlooked by its big neighbor Banff National Park. Enjoy activities such as guided snowshoeing, fat biking, or cross-country skiing with Kananaskis Outfitters, skating at the lodge, downhill skiing at Nakiska, or simply toasting marshmallows outside.

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