A Winter Explorer’s Guide to the Best of Banff National Park

Want to see the best that Banff National Park has to offer in the winter months while getting off the beaten path away from resorts, crowded streets, and tourist sites? Check out these trails and destinations below – and don’t forget to pack the snowshoes because you just might need them to access your cabin for the night.

Snowshoeing across Ptarmigan Lake in backcountry Banff National Park

Destination One: Skoki Lodge, Backcountry Banff

Trip Motivation: Trek into a historic lodge dating back to 1931, spend the night, and witness the beauty of the Lake Louise area, far away from the resort and ski traffic.

You’ll begin your backcountry trip to Skoki Lodge by uploading the Lake Louise Ski Resort gondola and then downloading a chairlift on the backside of the ski hill, arriving at Temple Lodge and the nearby trailhead to the Skok Valley. From there, it is a 6.8 mile hike or ski to the Lodge on a well maintained, ski-doo packed, trail.

On your way to the lodge, you’ll climb up and over two remote passes and cross scenic Ptarmigan Lake, enjoying views that few tourists to Banff ever get to see.

At the lodge, you’ll be treated with gourmet meals (some of the best found at a backcountry lodge in the Canadian Rockies) and a private bedroom inside the main building. There are also three cabins on site for guests wanting to upgrade their accommodations.

For more information on Skoki Lodge, please read my previous story:  In Search of the Ultimate Backcountry Ski Lodge (on Snowshoes)

The hidden side of Lake Louise – Skoki Lodge in  the heart of backcountry Banff

Destination Two: Shadow Lake Lodge, Backcountry Banff 

Trip Motivation: Explore one of Banff’s most beautiful backcountry lakes, and spend the night in warmth and comfort without having to pitch a tent in the snow.

Shadow Lake Lodge is most easily accessed via the Red Earth Creek Trailhead, located 20 minutes west of the Town of Banff. Follow the trail for a 6.5 mile hike or ski on an old road that is easy to follow. From the end of the Red Earth Creek Trail, it is only 1.5 miles to Shadow Lake Lodge.

Shadow Lake Lodge, Backcountry Banff

Once you reach the Lodge, you’ll appreciate having snowshoes if you want to do any touring in the area towards Gibbon Pass or Ball Pass. And while you can complete the outing as a long day trip, it’s much more enjoyable to spend a night at the lodge, where you’ll receive decadent meals and comfortable accommodations in a private cabin.

For more information on Shadow Lake Lodge, please read my previous story:  My Quest to find the Most Beautiful Destination in Backcountry Banff

Shadow Lake, Banff National Park (a destination that even families can visit in an overnight trip)

Destination Three: Sunshine Meadows, Sunshine Village Resort

Trip Motivation: Snowshoe across the Continental Divide with views of Mount Assiniboine, Canada’s “Matterhorn,” in the distance. Discover why Sunshine Meadows has been rated “Canada’s best day hike,” and enjoy what I would consider to be “the most scenic guided snowshoe tour in the Canadian Rockies.”

Snowshoeing on top of the world at Sunshine Village Resort

While Sunshine Village may be most well known as a ski resort in the winter months, I’ve found it equally enjoyable to explore on snowshoes. Jump through fresh mounds of powder, hike across frozen Rock Isle Lake, and enjoy hot chocolate on a snowy island. You’ll then finish your tour with a gourmet cheese fondue experience back at the Village.

Powder + fondue, and I have a favorite winter tour in the Canadian Rockies!

To read about my Snowshoe and Fondue Tour at Sunshine Village, please read: Snowshoe and Ski Vacations for the Whole Family.

Snowshoeing across Rock Isle Lake, Sunshine Meadows

Destination Four: The Wild and Remote Icefields Parkway

Trip Motivation: Spend the night in a small cabin tucked away in the wilderness of Banff National Park, off a road so remote, you’ll be tempted to make snow angels in the middle of the highway. Walk out the door of your cabin and explore a magical snowy world that will have you looking for a talking snowman or ice princess around every corner.

The Icefields Parkway is one of the most beautiful drives in Canada and links the Village of Lake Louise in Banff National Park with the Town of Jasper in neighboring Jasper National Park. Most travelers enjoy the winter views along this highway from the windows of their car, but a true explorer will want to spend the night at one of the remote wilderness hostels tucked off in the trees along the Parkway.

Several cozy little wilderness hostels, run by Hosteling International, are so hidden, you’d never see them if it weren’t for a small sign on the side of the road (often buried in snow.)

Spend a couple of nights at the HI Hilda Creek Wilderness Hostel on the Icefields Parkway

Top Winter Experiences on the Icefields Parkway:

– Exploring the secret ice falls and canyon across the highway from the HI Mosquito Creek Hostel.

– Hiking or skiing across Bow Lake to the far end (where you should turn around before you enter avalanche terrain)

– Hiking to the Peyto Lake Viewpoint from Bow Summit, the highest point on the Icefields Parkway

Off the Beaten Path at Mosquito Creek along the Icefields Parkway

– Hiking frozen Mistaya Canyon from nearby HI Rampart Creek Hostel

– Spending a couple of nights in your own private wilderness retreat at the HI Hilda Creek Hostel, one of the only wilderness hostels without a manager on site, and where you can rent out the entire hostel which sleeps 6 people. This is a true winter camping adventure and you’ll have to snowshoe to the hostel, located a short distance off the highway. From the hostel, we love hiking up to the moraines below the Hilda Glacier. (Avalanche awareness and training recommended)

– Hiking to the toe of the Athabasca Glacier at the Columbia Icefields Centre, a short 5-minute drive from the Hilda Creek Hostel. (Some years you’ll even find an ice cave here.)

To read more about winter along the Icefields Parkway, read my previous story: Family Wilderness Getaways in Banff National Park.

Snowshoeing on the Icefields Parkway near the HI Hilda Creek Wilderness Hostel

Destination Five: Lake Minnewanka, Banff’s longest lake

Trip Motivation: Lake Minnewanka is one of the most popular tourist destinations near the Town off Banff in summer with professional boat cruises running up and down the lake. Visit in winter for a more peaceful experience and enjoy hiking out across the 13-mile-long lake. (Time your visit just right and you might even be able to skate across the lake if it’s well frozen and snow free.)

Solitude can be hard to find in the Town of Banff (even in the middle of winter, the quiet season,) but fortunately a short 20-minute drive leads you away from the store lined streets and tourists. Drive out to nearby Lake Minnewanka, strap on your snowshoes, and go for a scenic hike across the lake, stopping to make at least a couple of snow angels in the middle of the lake.

For a loop hike, follow the summer lakeside trail for Stewart Canyon and then return across the lake once you reach the bridge. (assuming it’s well frozen.)

Snow Angels in the middle of Banff’s Lake Minnewanka

Bonus Destination: Johnston Canyon, Banff’s most popular hiking trail

Trip Motivation: This is a bonus destination because you definitely won’t be venturing off the beaten path, finding solitude, or avoiding tourists. However, you’ll still encounter less than a third of the traffic on this trail in winter than you would on a beautiful summer day. And, it is Banff’s most popular hiking trail for a reason!

Grab a pair of ice cleats or spikes for this trail and prepare to be inspired by two large frozen waterfalls along with multiple smaller ones (including a secret one if you venture off the official trail down to a cave near the Upper Falls.)

Not a bad place for the annual Christmas card photo –  Johnston Canyon at the secret waterfall below the Upper Falls

Johnston Canyon is the ultimate winter canyon hike in the Canadian Rockies. Follow the official hiking trail for 1.7 miles to reach the Upper Falls where you’ll most likely see ice climbers putting on a show. You’ll also pass by the Lower Falls (at the 0.7-mile mark) with a cave that you get to crawl through for a close-up view. You can also sneak down into the canyon shortly before the Upper Falls to find a secret set of waterfalls, accessible by a large sheet of ice.

You won’t need snowshoes for this trail but that you should have some ice cleats when the trail is slippery. Otherwise, be prepared to descend the trail on your bum for much of the way.

Looking down on the Lower Falls of Johnston Canyon with the cave you crawl through for best viewing

To read more on Johnston Canyon in winter, you can check out this previous family focused story I wrote:  Ice Caves and Frozen Waterfalls in Banff National Park.

Book your trip to Canada to experience these destinations!

About the author

Tanya Koob

I am the mom of an active teenage boy and I live in Calgary, Canada at the doorstep to the fabulous Rocky Mountains. Our family makes it a priority to get out to the mountains most weekends for big adventures from hiking, camping, biking, and paddling in summer to skiing and snowshoeing in winter. I am the author of the blog, Family Adventures in the Canadian Rockies, http://www.rockiesfamilyadventures.com/

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