A woman in all black running through the snow towards a log cabin

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Dreamy Banff in Winter – a First Timer’s Complete Guide

Banff National Park in Alberta is the most popular National Park in Canada. If you visit, you’ll see this is certainly with good reason. You’ll be surrounded by the majestic Canadian Rockies, clean fresh mountain air and shimmering jewel-toned lakes. But what about Banff in winter?

I’m here to tell you, do not count out Banff in winter – it’s another breed of natural beauty. And when it comes to winter wonderland getaways in the North American region, this is undoubtedly one of the best choices.

Snow capped trees in the foreground of a snow capped mountain set against a blue sky
View of the snow capped Canadian Rockies from the top of the Banff Gondola

First things first: What to pack

Let me just preface this with, I am a Californian born and raised.

As such, the majority of us don’t own “real” winter clothing.

If you’re from a true cold weather region, feel free to skip over this part. If you’re like me and need to make sure you really have the right things to wear for Banff in winter, read on. Having the right attire for this trip will set you up to be comfortable and really enjoy your experience.

Must Haves:

Parka, puffer or snow jacket good for cold, wind and snow

Snow shoes or boots

Warm, wool socks

Scarves, snow gloves, mittens, neck and ear warmers

Thermal undergarments

Winter hat or beanie

Blue skies against the snow capped Canadian Rockies, a frozen lake next to a giant snowy pine tree

How do I get there?

If you’re flying in, you will likely fly into Calgary International Airport. Calgary is often thought of as the “gateway” to Banff.

Honestly, Calgary is a pretty cool city.

I was only there for a couple days but really enjoyed my time in Calgary.

I don’t know many people that travel there for purely touristic purposes, so I didn’t really have any expectations. From my experience, everyone was polite and friendly and the city was vibrantly diverse and delightfully multicultural. If you aren’t pressed for time, I’d suggest carving out some time to hang around the city and explore.

Brunette woman standing in front of Calgary Tower in Calgary, Alberta Canada
Had to snap a pic at Calgary Tower before heading to Banff

There are a few ways to get from Calgary to Banff. Choose the option that best suits your budget and overall needs. The Banff On-It public bus is only $10 CAD each way, but only runs May – September. So, if you decide to visit Banff in winter, you’ll want to use one of the transportation methods below:

Ways to Get to Banff from Calgary

Private Transfer – some accommodations offer private airport transfers

Rental Car – there is always the option to rent a car upon arrival in Calgary. This is a great option because it allows you to drive around on demand and travel to different lakes and points of interest in Banff. Keep in mind that in the winter the roads will be icy and snow filled, so evaluate if you feel comfortable driving in that environment.

Uber – you can reserve a ride on the Uber app up to 30 days in advance to go from Calgary to Banff. Keep in mind, Uber and Lyft are not available in Banff National Park.

Taxi Cab – a cab from Calgary to Banff is a flat rate of $250CAD. Depending on circumstances and whom you hire, it could be a bit less or more. I have used Calgary United Cab. The nice part about hiring a cab, especially if you get an accommodating driver, is the customizability. Need to stop to stretch your legs? Want to take a photo? Make a Tim Horton’s pitstop? All possible with a private taxi – but it’ll cost you!

Banff Airporter – the Banff Airporter is $77.99 per adult and departs at scheduled times from 10:00am – 10:30pm. There are discounted rates for seniors and children. This shuttle will drop off one of the Banff accommodations on their list of stops.

Brewster Express – the Brewster Express has fewer departure times than the Banff Airporter. It runs from 9:30am – 8:00pm. Tickets are $79 per person. This shuttle will drop off one of the Banff accommodations on their list of stops.

Tour Bus – another way to get from Calgary to Banff is to join an official tour, whether it is private or a group. Joining a tour is a good option if you don’t to handle any logistics and just want to enjoy your journey.

Person in a black parka and a fur lined hood overlooking Banff gondola
Taking in the view on an observation deck at the top of the Banff Gondola

Arrival at Banff National Park – What to Expect?

First things first, don’t forget that there is a National Park fee to enter Banff National Park. Banff in winter is the same entrance price as any other time of year.

Similar to the USA, you have the option to purchase an annual pass. The Parks Canada Discovery Pass gives you access to 80 National Parks.

The annual pass is $72.25 CAD per adult or $145.25 CAD for a family. It’s obviously a great deal… that is, if you’re going to use it. More than likely, if you’re not local to Canada, you’ll pay by the day, which is $10.50 CAD per adult, per day or $21.00 CAD daily, per family or group.

Tip: You can keep up to date with current Banff entrance fees, here.

Where to stay – an important discussion

First, I’ll share with you where I stayed. It was truly a magical stay and I couldn’t have wanted for anything more. If you like Bed and Breakfasts, you’ll love Beaujolais Boutique B&B at Thea’s House.

The epic Bed & Breakfast I stayed in, three walking blocks from downtown Banff

You can read everything you need to know about staying there, here.

Tip: There are over 53 boutique accommodations to choose from in Banff ranging from Motels, to Bed & Breakfasts and Mountain Lodges. One of the best things about this location is that it is only three walking blocks from down town Banff where all the restaurants, stores, coffee shops and bus stops are. A huge, gourmet breakfast is also included in your nightly rate!

While I have not personally stayed in any of these, here are some other popular options to check out:

Storm Mountain Lodge & Cabins – definitely seems a bit far from the downtown area, however, there is a restaurant on site, and the cabins look charming, romantic and cozy!

Banff Bear Bed & Breakfast – highly rated and says it’s about a 5 minute walk from downtown.

Holiday Lodge Bed & Breakfast – I almost stayed here! Everyone is singing their praises and it’s also a close walk from the center of downtown Banff.

Peaks Hotel & Suites – if you’re seeking more of a modern hotel meets ski lodge vibe that’s also close to the city center

Banff Boutique Inn – this is a great option if you’re looking for a PROUD certified stay

Moose Hotel and Suites – large ski lodge vibes

Fairmont Banff Springs – I am a fan of the Fairmont brand and have stayed in them in other destinations. This location is definitely a journey by bus from downtown Banff, but is lakefront to Lake Louise and all the activities to do in that area.

snowy road leading to Lake Louise, surrounded by snow capped trees
A snowy, ultra cold, but completely magical walk to Lake Louise

What are the ‘must do’ activities?

Banff Gondola– this is one of my favorite experiences in Banff. When I saw that it was rated the #1 most popular activity to do in Banff on Trip Advisor, I was skeptical. But you know what? The half day I spent at the Gondola and atop the mountain were one of my absolute favorite moments.

Don’t miss the Banff Gondola when you visit Banff!

Even if you aren’t a skiing or snowboarding enthusiast, you can enjoy summit views, Honestly, this activity can bring delight to all ages and people with varying interests. The gondola ride itself, of course, is fun. But at the top you can explore the walking trails, views on views, photo ops, a museum, a couple restaurants, an “igloo.” You can’t miss the Banff Gondola.

Tip: Save yourself time and buy your tickets in advance, here. I often use Viator to book my excursions and this is where we booked our tickets!

Lake Louise – if you stay at the Fairmont Banff Springs, you’ll be lakefront or, rather, frozen lakefront. There are food and drink options inside the hotel (including high tea, if you’re interested). You can go ice skating, sledding, snowshoeing, or hiking, take a carriage ride or just simply play in the snow. Yes, everyone is playing in the snow here, of all ages!

Husky Sledding & Tours – This is something that you will really want to decide if you really want to do it in advance. It’s incredibly popular during the winter and will likely be fully booked if you decide on the fly you want to try and reserve a spot.

Winter Hiking – Banff is obviously not only a winter wonderland, but a Elysium for scenic hiking. Though, it’s important to honestly assess your skill level when it comes to hiking in freezing temps and snow. Don’t be afraid to get a guide if needed! It’s important to be knowledgeable about best practices when hiking in these conditions and general avalanche safety and awareness.

Moraine Lake – you know the imagery you see floating around the internet of a picture perfect turquoise lake surrounded by flawless mountainscape? That’s Moraine Lake. However, the roads and thus, this attraction, is closed during the winter. It’s okay. You can take in all that frozen-lake-surrounded-by-snowcapped-mountain goodness at Lake Louise.

Tip: As of 2023, personal vehicles are now banned from Moraine Lake. If you wish to visit, you can bike there, take public transit or join an official tour. Moraine Lake is open June – mid October.

Of course, there is the obvious, skiing and snowboarding. But one of the big draws of Banff, in my opinion, is its wide array of activities to choose from even if you aren’t a skilled snow sport enthusiast.

Know Before You Go

I didn’t use cash once the entire time I was in Banff, card is accepted literally everywhere. So you don’t need to take out cash if you don’t want to.

It can’t be emphasized enough, if you really want to do the Husky Tour, reserve your tickets as soon as possible.

Have any questions about visiting Banff? Drop them in the comments, below!

Travel Tips & Resources to Help You Plan an Epic Trip!

Going – I’ve subscribed to Going (formerly, beloved, Scott’s Cheap Flights) for awhile now and it’s an amazing resource for finding… did you guess cheap flights? Yes, you can set your preferences from airports to flight class and get destination deals right to your inbox. It’s fab! I use the Premium paid version, but they have a FREE version too. So what are you waiting for?! Let’s get Going!

Booking.com – the majority, if not almost all of my stays are booked on Booking.com. It’s a reliable site to book and manage your reservations. It’s a great way to find boutique stays and unique accommodations at the best rates! You can also easily communicate with your accommodation through the app.

Expedia – If I am looking for a flight to a specific destination for specific dates, I find myself booking many flights on Expedia. It’s user friendly and straight forward. I often find the most cost effective rates, while earning points for every flight I book (in tandem with the points I receive from the credit cards I pay with).

Viator – most of the activities, tours and excursions I book for my trips are booked through Viator. Whether you’re seeking a guide for the day, a group tour, a cooking class, Viator has you covered!

Get Your Guide – this is another great marketplace to find tours, excursions and activities to book for your upcoming trip.

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