After my recent trip to Montreal and Quebec City, I had fallen in love with America’s neighbor to the north, Canada. I enjoyed French Canada so much, that I decided I wanted to explore more Canadian cities as soon as possible. Since the moment I saw pictures of Banff and Lake Louise, I knew that I had to get there – Banff truly appeared to be a real life winter wonderland! (Literally, all it took was ten minutes of internet research and several google image searches and my trip planning to Banff had begun).
Banff is a small, picturesque resort town that seems like it’s straight out of a movie set. Interestingly, the city of Banff is actually located in the Banff National Park, which has been deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You would think that the world famous skiing would be what draws people to this gorgeous area, but, interestingly, winter is not Banff’s peak season – September is (think hiking and mountain biking around the beautiful glacier lakes). Although I can’t personally speak about summer or fall in Banff, I can assure you that winter in the park was fantastic – the snowy scenery was beautiful and there was a plethora of winter activities to partake in.
What Should You Do in Banff?
Ski, of course! There are three ski hills in Banff – I chose to ski at the most famous (and expensive) of the three – Lake Louise. (This was mostly because my husband had dreamed of skiing at Lake Louise for years, so I wasn’t willing to crush his dream to save a couple bucks). Lake Louise has a ton of different runs for all different levels of skiers, and despite choosing to ski on a Saturday, the slopes weren’t overly crowded. Most importantly, from this novice skier’s perspective, the views were A-mazing. Even while on the bunny hill (where I only spent time during my warm-up… of course), I was surrounded by snow capped mountains.
If you ski at Lake Louise you MUST find the ice bar which is about halfway down the mountain. The bar, complete with an ice luge to take shots on, provides for a nice mid-run watering hole.
Downhill skiing too adventurous for you? Try cross country skiing! Although there are dozens of places in the park where you can cross country ski, Bow Lake was recommended to us. It was a lot more fun skiing on the frozen lake than I anticipated (and, for some in our party, a lot more difficult than they anticipated). And of course, like everywhere in the area, it was extremely picturesque.
Prefer to stay off skies all together? Just because it’s winter doesn’t mean you can’t hike! We had a few hours to burn, so we rented ice crampons and chose a relatively easy hike through Johnston Canyon. The Canyon is a great hike because your turn around point is several frozen waterfalls where you can watch the ice climbers scale the falls.
Prefer something a little less active? Banff offers a ton of other winter activities such as carriage rides or iceskating. Regardless of how you decide to spend your days, I would recommend an evening dip in the thermal hot springs. Having never been to a hot springs before, I wasn’t certain what to expect… Perhaps naiively, I didn’t expect the springs to basically be a hot swimming pool. Nonetheless, I’d recommend a trip to the upper hot springs to relax and soak your muscles, even if I wouldn’t classify it as a “must see.” If you’re seeking something more luxurious than the hot springs, Banff has several top notch spas where you can spend your day being pampered.
All of the above activities were fantastic, but if you travel to Banff in winter, you MUST go Dog Sledding. Although it was absolutely freezing out the morning of our ride, the experience was still (hands down) my favorite of the trip. We booked our dogsled adventure with Kingmik Dog Sled Tours and chose their Great Divide route which cost $330.00 per couple. The ride lasted approximately two hours and we traveled 10 miles from Banff National Park through Kicking Horse Pass at the Continental Divide.
On the route back, our guide taught us some dog sledding skills and we were able to mush the sleds ourselves! Aside from the natural beauty of the park, the helpfulness of our guide and our interaction with the dogs, I loved our experience with Kingmik because it was personalized – it was just us! I loved that we weren’t grouped in with a large tour group.
Where To Eat in Banff:
Banff offers a plethora of unique restaurants in just a couple block radius. We dined on bacon wrapped elk at the upscale Maple Leaf Grille and enjoyed Swiss Fondue at Ticino, but surprisingly, my favorite meal was at Nourish Bistro – Banff’s well-known vegetarian restaurant! Now, I am a Midwestern beef-eating gal, but Nourish’s food was positively delightful and will satisfy even the heartiest of eaters. Everything we tried was delicious and the portions were huge, but the stand-out was Nourish’s “famous nachos,” which were unlike any nachos I have ever had the pleasure of tasting before. These nachos had 27 different and unexpected toppings on them ranging from strawberries to dill pickles. Most of the time I had no idea what I was eating, but just trust me on this one – the seemingly random culmination of strange ingredients worked beautifully and the nachos were well worth the $24 price tag.
Where to Stay in Banff:
While in Banff, I chose to stay at the Rimrock Resort & Spa, and I can’t go on enough about how much I loved the resort. The staff was more than helpful, the rooms were comfortable and large, and the views were unparalleled.
The Rimrock is a large resort and offers all the amenities you could possibly want, including an ice skating rink, full service spa and several restaurants and bars. The lobby bar and restaurant has a roaring fireplace and offers a nice place to relax, sip a glass of champagne and watch the snow fall over the mountains. If booking at the Rimrock, request an east facing room in the south wing of the hotel for the most picturesque mountain views.
The resort itself is just bit off the main drag, Banff Avenue, but the hotel provides you with a free, unlimited ROAM shuttle pass. The shuttle picks up guests right outside the hotel’s lobby, and can take you downtown, to the gondola or the upper hot springs, among other places.
How to Get to Banff:
To get to Banff, you will need to fly into Calgary. From Calgary you can take a train or rent a car and drive the 1.5 hours to Banff.
I knew that I would enjoy Banff, but I had no idea the extent that I would fall in love with the park and village. I’m already thinking about my next trip to Banff – next time in September to experience Lake Louise’s aqua glacier water and the area’s famous hiking trails. (Plus, I’ve been craving Nourish’s famous nachos)!