Snuggled into Alberta’s majestic Canadian Rockies, Banff and Lake Louise are among the most exquisitely beautiful places on Earth. It’s also one of the most popular destinations for travelers from around the world, but you can avoid the crowds by visiting in winter – especially near Christmas.
Once Old Man Winter settles in, something magical happens – the land turns into a wintry wonderland, bringing with it a seasonal shift of adventures best enjoyed with snow. Banff National Park is home to three world-class ski resorts, Banff Sunshine, Lake Louise Ski Resort, and Mt Norquay, but there are plenty of other ways to keep yourself entertained. Cross your fingers for a good northern lights forecast, pack your warmest layers and head to Banff and Lake Louise to see how much frosty fun you can have.
Sulphur Mountain summit
Perhaps the best way to acquaint yourself with the lay of the land is to summit Banff’s Sulphur Mountain (7486ft / 2281m). Climb the six-mile alpine switchback trail, which begins at the Upper Hot Springs parking lot and emerges at the summit. Or ride the Banff Gondola to the top, which takes less than ten minutes. As you stroll around the rooftop observation deck, you’ll see six snowy mountain ranges and have sweeping views of the Bow Valley and the town of Banff below. Between mid-November and Christmas, you’ll find Santa’s workshop in full swing at the summit of the Banff Gondola.
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Johnston Canyon ice walk
A local outfitter will supply you with ice cleats and hiking poles for the moderate trek to the must-see cerulean blue waterfalls in Johnston Canyon. On the three-mile round trip journey, you’ll be treated to dramatic views of frozen waterfalls and snow-covered trees inside the towering canyon walls. Johnston Canyon is also a popular place for ice climbing, so you may see climbers making their way up the icefalls as you hike along the icy trails and catwalks. If this inspires you to try ice climbing, you’ll find Johnston Canyon has an excellent range of routes from beginner to expert.
Moraine Lake forest bathing
Don’t worry – this is a fully-clothed activity. Forest bathing originated in Japan and is known there as shinrin-yoku, which means "taking in the atmosphere of the forest." Hire a guide from Forest Fix to lead you through a guided meditation and take a hyper-conscious slow walk in the woods, listen to the birds, smell the trees and breathe in the crisp mountain air. Over the past few years, this form of nature therapy has caught on everywhere, and Moraine Lake’s solitude makes it the perfect location to try it out.
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Open year-round, the Rat’s Nest Cave near Canmore has more than two miles of tunnels and plenty of geological features to keep it interesting. Once you reach the Grotto, you’ll be more than 180ft underground. Your guide from Canmore Cave Tours will give you a lesson in natural history as you delve into this subterranean safari and worm your way through the Challenge Squeeze. If you’re there between December 20 - 23, wriggle your way to the cave’s Grand Gallery for a holiday concert unlike any other.
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The best way to appreciate the staggering grandeur of the Canadian Rockies is to fly high above them, getting a close look at the snow-capped peaks and marveling at the dazzling turquoise-hued lakes in the valleys below. Alpine Helicopter Tours will whisk you away in a helicopter, piloted by an expert aviator, for 12 - 45 minutes of glorious sightseeing and have you exclaiming “Heli-yeah!” as you soar among the clouds.
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Banff Upper Hot Springs
After a day of cold adventures, relax in the steamy Banff Upper Hot Springs while watching the sun go down behind snowy peaks. Banff National Park’s only hot springs pool is also the highest operating hot spring in all of Canada (5200ft) and has a sustained water temperature between 98 and 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Forget your swimmers? No problem – rent a 1930s-inspired heritage bathing suit for less than $2, absolutely worth the price considering you’ll walk away with some of the best photos of your trip. The suits are properly sanitized between uses, so it’s not that weird.
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Learn about ancient plant-based remedies with a Mahikan Trails medicine man or woman on a snowshoe tour through the woods at Cascade Pond. Your guide will educate you about the various Indigenous plants and trees and their secret healing powers at this day-use area inside Banff National Park, which also has arguably the best views of Mount Rundle and is a good place for spotting wildlife.
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The Banff and Lake Louise holiday season kicks off with the annual Santa Claus Parade of Lights in November, when everyone gathers around the fire at Banff Avenue Square to welcome Kris Kringle to town. Find fairytale activities throughout the town including browsing locally made artisan gifts at the Christmas Market, celebrating Christmas traditions at the Fairmont Banff Springs “castle” and taking a horse-drawn sleigh ride to Brewster’s Barn for a cozy holiday dinner.