Tucked in the heart of the perpetually picturesque Rocky Mountains, Banff, Alberta is a skier’s dream. With three world-class resorts a snowball’s throw from Banff village, there’s no shortage of powder for snowboarders and skiers.
But what if you don’t want to strap on heavy equipment and face the windchill? Don’t worry. #WCTExplorer Amy Attas recently visited this mountain town and has a long list of activities for thrill-seeking (and embracing cosy season) away from the slopes.
1. Bow Falls
A flat walk from downtown and just 1.2 kilometres one way, Bow Falls Trail is a beautiful year-round attraction. In winter it’s harder to see the water’s signature turquoise colour through the ice, but the rocks and back-eddies create marvellous (and photo-worthy) ice formations. Most of the trail ambles on a wide path under magpies and spruce trees, but to get to the falls you have to navigate a set of stairs that can be icy in winter (or drive to the Bow Falls parking lot).
- Fun fact: Marilyn Monroe, the Son of Lassie and other movie stars have been ‘swept over the falls’ in Hollywood films.
- Know before you go: The stair section of the trail is not maintained in winter, and is sometimes closed. Strapping extra traction to your hikers or using trekking poles will improve your chances of completing the whole trail, but use caution and exercise your own judgement as conditions change frequently.
2. Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies
Banff has been a gathering place for millennia, attracting hunter-gatherers, adventurers, painters and movie-makers to explore the rich landscapes. Learn about the culture sculpted by these mountains at the Whyte Museum, founded by local artists and philanthropists Peter Whyte and Catharine Robb Whyte.
The Whyte’s paintings create the backdrop for many mountain stories, a rich archive offers photo evidence of female mountaineers climbing peaks in skirts and Stoney Nakoda setting up teepees over 100 years ago, and artifacts like ice picks, buffalo hides and plein air painting tools help bring it all to life.
- Fun fact: The Whytes guided members of the Group of Seven to iconic mountain vistas, and painted alongside them.
- Know before you go: Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
3. Banff Gondola
Enjoy views from the top, without the climb. Ride the Banff Gondola to the top of Sulphur Mountain for panoramic views of craggy peaks and the glistening lights of Banff far below. During the day there are four floors of indoor exhibits where you can learn about Canada’s first national park. When the sun goes down it’s time for Nightrise, an interactive light display, immersive Stoney Nakoda storytelling exhibit, party-in-a-box and instant-memory-maker that’s sure to strike a chord no matter your age or sensibility.
It’s about the journey, and the destination. The four-seat gondola cars with 360-degree windows feel almost like flying, and if you go for Nightrise, the stories and sounds accompany you on the way up and down the mountain.
- Fun fact: There are two restaurants at the top, plus the remnants of a Cosmic Ray Station from 1957.
- Know before you go: Book in advance for extra savings! Ages five and younger ride free. Roam Public Transit Route 1 offers frequent service from downtown Banff to the base of the gondola for just two dollars.
4. Mountain skating
A full day on the hill might be a bit much, but outdoor skating lets you experience an authentic Canadian past time in a fraction of the time (and a fraction of the cost). In town, there are outdoor rinks at the Train Station and Fenlands Meadow (where the skating trail winds through young trees), or you can hop on Roam Public Transit to skate at iconic Lake Louise.
- Know before you go: Many environmental factors affect the thickness of natural ice on local lakes; ice should be a minimum of 15 cm thick for skating alone. Skate rentals are available at Fenlands Recreation Centre and Chateau Lake Louise.
5. Hot springs (and hot tubs)
Soak in the mountain views from the natural hot springs at Banff Upper Hot Springs, treat yourself to the spa at Fairmont Banff Springs, or relax under the stars in Mount Royal Hotel’s rooftop hot tubs.
6. Tunnel Mountain
Compared to the rugged peaks of Cascade and Mount Rundle, Tunnel Mountain looks more like a hill — until you start hiking it. Climb 266 metres over 2.3 kilometres in gentle switchbacks on a wide trail that’s accessible year-round. At the top (and along the way) enjoy unbeatable views of Banff and Fairmont Banff Springs.
7. Dinner to remember
The Banff food scene has blossomed in recent years. Yes, you can still find fast food tucked into the rustic facades of the main strip, but you’ll also find morning-fresh hand-made gnocchi, slow-roasted Alberta beef brisket, ginger pork bao buns, and forage-to-table fine dining.
8. High Rollers
Eat, drink, bowl. Skiers and snowboarders are usually exhausted at the end of the day, which means more room for the rest of us at High Rollers on Banff Avenue. Lace up your bowling shoes, shoot a round of pool or simply sip a craft beer and make new friends in a festive atmosphere.
From souvenirs to outdoor apparel, downtown Banff has you covered. Window shop for handmade keepsakes from local artists, stunning fine art worthy of the Rocky Mountain scenery and jewellery using local gems, fossils and award-winning designs. Satisfy your sweet tooth at one of the local candy stores, snack on Mary’s Banff Mix Popcorn, take a bite from a Beaver Tail or try a treat from one of many local bakeries. Between Banff Avenue and Bear Street, you’ll be entertained for days.
10. Lake Minnewanka
Just a 10-minute drive from Banff lies Lake Minnewanka, where winter hiking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and skating can keep you entertained. If you’re not in the mood for exercise, it’s a spectacular spot for photography or simply taking in the view.
11. Sleigh rides
By horse or by dog team, snuggle up under a bundle of blankets and take in the scenery from the back of a sleigh! Trips take off close to town, and include your own personal cowboy or musher, plus a toasty apple cider or hot chocolate.
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