Winter visit to Banff National Park
January 6, 2019
A winter visit to Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada calls for time. Time to stop and take photos. Time to drive across its seemingly endless acres. Time to hike while looking for bighorn sheep, deer, or bear. Time to sit quietly and watch the sun play on the mountains.
Banff National Park’s east gate is approximately a 2-hour scenic drive from the Calgary airport.
When renting a car, request an upgrade to snow tires. These are mandatory during winter months in British Columbia and will give you more driving options in Alberta.
In December, the public shuttles inside the park are not running. Be sure you are confident driving on snow-covered roads.
Two main roads are used to cross east-to-west through the park – Bow Valley Parkway and the Trans Canada Highway. The Parkway is a slower-speed secondary road with a better chance of seeing animals. The Trans Canada highway is higher speed and gives you fantastic mountain views. Try both roads as you meander through the park.
Plan on buying a park pass as you enter the park. Stopping anywhere in the park (at a pull-out, to eat in town, etc.) requires a park pass.
We found that the rental car’s GPS lagged in giving directions for turns. When we missed a turn on the Trans Canada highway, it was some distance before we could cross-over to the opposite bound lanes via a u-turn lane or an exit.
Bring appropriate winter gear especially for outdoor adventures. Average December temps for the park are between -8 degrees and 15 degrees Fahrenheit. Locals told us that it ‘was a lovely warm day today’ during our visit. By North Carolina standards, 34 degrees Fahrenheit isn’t warm but in Canada it is.
Gear should include, but is not limited to:
- Layers – base layer, mid-weight layer, heavier outer layer, wind-proof layers
- Gloves/mittens. I found hand-warmers to be helpful.
- Food/water. At altitude, hydration is key. And the winter temperatures require calories to stay warm.
- Headlamp – Daylight hours are limited.
- Hiking boots
- Winter grippers such as ice cleats or Yaktrax. You can rent these in Lake Louise or the town of Banff but we found it more convenient to bring our own. These will be useful for ice walks and general hiking.
- Paper map of the park. It’s handy to know what river or mountain you are viewing and to plan your next stop.
There is no shortage of outdoor wintertime fun in Banff National Park.
While we skipped a few activities (ice skating, downhill skiing, Banff Hot Springs), we did get to pack in quite a few adventures.
We definitely recommend a dog sled excursion by Kingmik Dogsled Tours. The two-hour tour, near Lake Louise, gives you the chance to:
- Experience a portion of the old Trans Canada highway from a new vantage point
- Quiz your guide on all things Banff and dog
- Feed the dogs frozen snacks
It is possible to spend a few days just in the Lake Louise area. Ice skating and snowshoeing are options on the frozen lake. Downhill skiing is an option at the nearby Lake Louise ski resort.
You might find festivals or events at the Lake when you visit. The prep work for the January ice festival was underway while we were there. Thus, a few ice sculptures were on and near the lake.
Hiking near Lake Louise during the winter is somewhat limited due to avalanche concerns. See winter hikes for our suggestions.
Winter hiking in the park takes some advance planning. A few factors to consider:
- Limited daylight hours
- Avalanche risk
Our group was not fully acclimated to the altitude so long winter hikes were not an option. A few of the shorter hikes (e.g. Stewart Canyon, Hoodoos Viewpoint) looked interesting but we were unclear on the avalanche risk.
So we opted for two front-country winter hikes:
- Lake Louise shoreline walk. An hour or so gets you to the Lake Louise Icefalls and back.
- Johnston Canyon ice walk. A few hours are needed for the out-and-back hike to view ice falls and canyon beauty.
You could easily spend an entire day on just photography. Dress warmly as the cold and the wind can sneak up on you.
For sunset photos, we found that ‘sunset time’ was not the same as ‘mountain sunset time’. Next time, we will shift our sunset photos to earlier in the day since the sun is behind the mountains at least an hour before the actual sunset time.
A few of our favorite spots for ad-hoc photos are below. Next trip, we will allow for scouting time and long duration photo shoots. Allow time in your day for pulling off at turn-outs to capture snapshots and photos.
Perfect for sunset photos that include Mount Rundle and a partially frozen Vermilion Lake.
Access the Vermilion Lakes Road from Mount Norquay Road outside the town of Banff. The road dead-ends in about 3 miles. There are pull-offs along the road.
Two Jack Lake
Fabulous for sunset photos that include Mount Rundle and a mostly frozen Two Jack Lake. It is eerie listening to the lake groan as the ice shifts and moves.
Day use parking is available past the campground off of the Lake Minnewanka loop. Part of the scenic drive is closed to vehicles during the winter so you can not drive the full loop. Next time, we want to explore, via hiking, the closed area for more photo opportunities.
Great for photos of Lake Louise (don’t expect the ‘blue’ that summer photos show), icefalls, and Fairview Mountain. The lake shore walk gives you access to different viewpoints.
A must for photos of Johnston Canyon, ice falls, a frozen creek and snow-covered trees.
Bow Valley Parkway
The entire Parkway is approximately 30 miles long. We drove the 10-mile segment from Johnston Canyon trailhead east towards Banff.
Expect to drive slowly as you navigate a snow-covered road while searching for wildlife.
Trans Canada Highway
This is the higher-speed highway. It is lined with fences to reduce animal crossings. It may not be labeled a scenic drive but that didn’t stop us from saying “Wow! Look at that!” every few miles. There were fewer pull-outs available on this highway so many photos were taken from our moving car.
This didn’t pop on visitor guides as a ‘scenic drive’ but we felt it qualified as one. The road takes you south from Banff National Park towards Columbia Valley. It travels through Kootenay National Park and has many pull-offs for trailheads and photo opportunities including a Continental Divide spot.
Traffic speeds were faster and sections of it were not fully plowed or cleared.
This is the road to take between Lake Louise and Jasper. The locals highly recommend this drive and spending time in Jasper. Unfortunately, we did not have snow tires or the time to try this drive so it’s back on the future trip list.
Our Banff visit was a day trip from Columbia Valley so our indoor adventures were limited to a couple of meals.
The town of Banff did have many options for shopping, eating, and adult beverages.
We barely scratched the surface of a winter visit to Banff National Park and the surrounding area. So a Banff National Park winter visit is back on our bucket list with the word ‘time’ bolded beside it.
- Trip date: December 2018
- Name: Banff National Park
- Location: Alberta, Canada
- Cost: $