Discovering winter in beautiful, magical Banff
The world loves Banff, Alberta's picturesque mountain town in the Canadian Rockies. And winter here is nothing less than glamorous and exciting -- it's also magical. Just an hour and a half from Calgary and framed by the Rockies, you really don't have to leave the area to try everything from an ice-walk, heli-snowshoeing, and hot springs dip, to vodka tasting and dining out. Here are the top winter to-dos in Banff.
Take in the snow-capped mountain landscape in a traditional way -- whisking along on a sled pulled by a pack of yapping Huskies. Experienced outfitters introduce you to their enthusiastic canine teams, then zip you through snow-frosted forests and frozen meadows. There are several guides to choose from: KingMik Dogsled Tours is the only one that takes guests through fabled Banff National Park, Canada's oldest. Howling Dog Tours leads private excursions through Kananaskis Country and the wilderness outside Canmore. Family-run Snowy Owl Sled Dog Tours offers various creative options, including full-day and overnight outings.
Pull up a chair at trendy Park Distillery, the only one in a North American park. Take a tour of the facility, which taps pure glacier water from the surrounding mountains, and sample some award-winning spirits -- namely, vodka, gin, and rye. The distillery is also a rustic-chic Canadiana restaurant and bar (some say Banff's best) that specializes in "campfire cuisine" roasted over a wood-burning flame, aka mouthwatering BBQ. So plan to spend an afternoon devoted to food and drink. Cheers!
Play on the lake
An hour or two on sparkling Lake Louise is a pure delight. And your backdrop? Iconic Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. Take a horse-drawn sleigh ride wrapped in a cozy blanket or ice skate on the frozen lake past a life-size ice castle. Or take part in a quintessentially Canadian pastime and play pick-up hockey, known as "pond hockey," outside in the fresh air. Rent all the gear you'll need from Wilson Mountain Sports nearby.
Rockies Heli Canada can take you way out into the wilderness for a snowshoeing adventure, not to mention the dramatic views you'll enjoy en route. There are several cool trips to choose from, for example, the Bubbles Tour. This one combines a snowshoe hike with hot cocoa and lunch, plus a photo safari of Abraham Lake and its methane gas bubbles that freeze plants at varying depths under the surface for an unusual and artistic effect.
Hit the backcountry
Discover your inner explorer with a cross-country ski far into the pristine backcountry of Banff National Park. There are several outfitters who can take you on guided expeditions or you can ski on your own into cozy hideaways like Sundance Lodge, a 1923 Old West-style 10-room log cabin that's a 10-mile ski or snowshoe in. Another top spot is historic Canadian Pacific Railway cabin Skoki Lodge, which is home to a crackling fire and wood-burning sauna waiting for you as a well-earned reward. Plus, they serve a gourmet dinner.
Dip into the natural hot springs
It's hard to beat the snow-plus-hot springs equation, and the large pool at Banff Upper Hot Springs is the traditional spot. Discovered back in 1883, it's now the only one in the area open to the public. Go in the morning to enjoy some solitude in the steaming mineral-rich water, geothermally heated to about 116 F in the winter. You can rent towels and lockers onsite. Banff Trail Riders puts together fun combo packages like sleigh ride + hot springs + gondola or sleigh ride + snow tubing + hot springs.
Go for an ice walk
You don't have to be hardcore to ice walk in Banff. You can venture into the steep limestone cliffs of overhanging Johnston Canyon on a nicely maintained steel catwalk that winds through the trees and rock tunnels to take in the frozen falls, sculpted in frozen blue. It's an easy hike and is especially peaceful on winter mornings. Discover Banff Tours takes guests on guided treks to the canyon as well, gear provided, and you might spot hardy thrill-seekers ice climbing the falls.
Hit the town
Pull on your hiking or cowboy boots and hit the downtown hot spots on Banff Avenue. The crowd is international, loves a good time, and likes to stay up late. For line dancing and mechanical bull riding, it's Wild Bill's Legendary Saloon. Dining favorites include seasonal nouveau-Canadian farm/ranch-to-table at The Bison; ribs, exotic meats like alligator, and fondue at The Grizzly House; and budget-friendly Mexican and tequila at Magpie and Stump. If you visit in late November, don't miss the Banff Craft Beer Festival. A top watering hole is the always-packed Tommy's Neighborhood Pub, which is conveniently located below the other fave, Dancing Sasquatch Nightclub.
Ski and snowboard
Downhill at Banff is a must, and you've got three gorgeous places to choose from. First, there's the classic resort Sunshine Village -- massive and with all the attractions and activities. Sunshine boasts Canada's first heated chairlift, has fast lifts, huge views, and consistent powder, plus you can ski in Alberta and British Columbia on one run. Another plus: The town's biggest hot tub is here -- to the right of the ski hill at Sunshine Mountain Lodge.
Then there's Lake Louise with incomparable views of Banff National Park and its glacier-fed turquoise lakes. Finally, Norquay, close to Calgary and overlooking the town of Banff is best for beginner riders and downhill skiers, and also offers Alberta's largest tubing park. A Tri-Area lift ticket buys you access to all three.
If you're wondering, really the only thing better than winter in Banff -- is summer in Banff, or spring or fall -- and perhaps a warm-weather Rockies road trip.
Ready for Banff? Get the details at the Travel Alberta website.