A Complete Winter Guide to Alberta Canada

Have you ever been to a place and felt instantly connected to it? My journey began in Boston, then on to Toronto (I will be back for you), and ended in Alberta. I glanced out my window upon landing in Calgary and to my surprise it was completely flat. In my head I pictured this city to be surrounded by mountains, but alas it was a tundra! Alberta makes you work for those coveted views of the Canadian Rockies. Worth the work and the wait! The drive toward Banff is one of the most scenic drives I’ve ever been on. My jaw dropped upon seeing The Rockies for the very first time. It was a feeling I wish I could have for the rest of my life and a feeling I felt during the entire trip. Alberta was truly where I realized that Mother Nature is a force.

Lake Louise

If you wound up here, chances are you’re in the beginning stages of planning a trip to Alberta, Canada in the winter. I recently returned from this winter wonderland and it was everything I imagined and so much more. If you’re “iffy” about planning a trip here in the winter- don’t be! I can tell you, the landscape here in the winter is SO photogenic. I talked to many locals who said the landscape this time of year is so dramatic and very different from that of any other season. The cold temps and heaps of snowfall might deter you but don’t overthink it! Alberta in the winter is still perfect for outdoor adventures! Hiking, cross country skiing, downhill skiing, snowshoeing, dog sledding, or simply taking in the views from a cozy café are just a few of the options right at your fingertips. Before we get to the itinerary here are a few things to keep in mind.

Tips

Rental Car

Make sure when renting a car you get one with 4 wheel drive and winter tires. Winter tires are a necessity when driving here in the winter. While the main roads are maintained well, the roads through the national parks are a completely different beast. And honestly, I don’t think you can drive through the national parks without winter tires! The Icefields Parkway (the road through Banff and Jasper National Park) is plowed as well as it can be but the side roads are less of a priority (for example, the road to Bow Summit was barely plowed after a fresh snowfall). Knowing all of this, I went with a 2018 Dodge Durango through Alamo! Ice, snow and freezing rain are all things that can happen within 5 minutes of each other and the road conditions change by the minute. Always check the road conditions here and stay updated on avalanche threats here.

Alamo

Fuel and Facilities

Also worth noting, on the Icefields Parkway ALL facilities are closed which means there are no places to stop for food or fuel. There are bathrooms in nearly every pull off point. They aren’t heated but there was always toilet paper. Still bring some with you just in case! Pack snacks and fuel up in Banff or Canmore before hitting the parkway. There are only fuel stops in Banff or all the way in Jasper. As a reference or base line, the Durango used nearly a full tank of fuel from Banff to Jasper and back.

Parks Pass

Before starting your trip be sure you have your parks pass! For all of 2017 you can get your park pass for free here as Canada celebrates its 150th anniversary!

Cell Service

I have T-Mobile which means I have service in nearly every part of the world (ILY). But one of the places I don’t have service is on the Icefields Parkway meaning chances are you won’t either. Even more the reason you must fuel up and prepare to make the drive from Banff to Jasper. I can count on one hand how many other cars I saw during this three-hour drive so as the winter progresses I can only imagine these numbers dwindle. Save Google Maps offline of this area if you need to but really it’s just a straight shot down the Icefields Parkway to Jasper.

Resources

Banff & Lake Louise Tourism is a great place to get all kinds of information because they can answer all of your questions, trust me I had plenty. There are two offices that I visited, one in Banff and the other right at Lake Louise. They are truly the destination experts! You can plan your entire trip through their website. Everything from exploring the area without renting a car to local events to dining and nightlife suggestions and everything in between!

Rental Gear

You’ll see in the itinerary that some trails are closed and the ones that aren’t are super icy. Parks Canada does an amazing job at maintaining the trails as best they can but they don’t control the weather. After a fresh snowfall, rain or subzero temperatures the trails can be slippery. Ice cleats, snowshoes, cross-country skis, and cold weather gear can all be rented. I recommend checking out Banff Adventures or Wilson Mountain Sports for your winter rental needs.

Bears

Yes. You are in Bear country. While I never had a single encounter with a bear, only your average mountain goat, I was still very aware of the concern. For more information and how to prepare (bear spray is needed), head here.

Eats

Foodie finds are always my favorite! Here are a few spots worth checking out in Canmore and Banff.

Communitea – Known for their tea! Plenty of menu options for lunch and an early dinner. Go with the Tangled Thai Salad and the chocolate mint tea.

1001 6 Ave, Canmore, AB T1W 3L8, Canada

Communitea

Iron Goat Pub & Grill– Great casual dinner spot!  So many delicious menu options. I went with the roast chicken with a stewed tomato sauce. It was drool worthy.

703 Benchlands Trail, Canmore, AB T1W 3G9, Canada

Iron Goat Canmore

Nourish Bistro – Vegan, gluten free and vegetarian friendly eats. My favorite bites were the King Kong Noodles and Curry du jour!

110, 211 Bear Street, Banff, AB T1L 1A8, Canada

Nourish Bistro

Wild Flour Bakery –The coffee spot in downtown Banff. There are a couple different café locations. Its also a great spot to post up with your computer and get some work done.

211 Bear St #101, Banff, AB T1L 1B4, Canada

Wild Flour Bakery Banff

Trailhead Café – Stop here before or after heading to Lake Louise! There are tons of options for breakfast and lunch and of course, plenty of drinks to keep you toasty! Gluten free and dairy free options are available!

101 Lake Louise Dr, Lake Louise, AB T0L 1E0, Canada

Trailhead Cafe Lake Louise

Other Paw BakeryLocated in Jasper, the perfect spot for a late lunch before hitting the road back to Banff! Just 15 minutes from Athabasca Falls. There are two locations, go to the one on the main road as it has many more options than its sister location.

610 Connaught Drive, Jasper Alberta

Other Paw Bakery

Packing

The main thing you should focus on is staying warm and dry. How to do it? LAYERS! I will do a complete post on what to pack for a trip to Alberta in the winter. For now, just know layers are your BFF!

Now that we’ve covered the business part of things, on to my itinerary! Here is my 5 Day Winter Itinerary in Alberta, Canada.


The Itinerary

Day One

Grab your rental car and check into your hotel.

Choosing a hotel can seem like such a burden, especially if you’re traveling with family and friends. Lucky for you I did the field research. Here are two lodging options located in the Banff area.

Stone Ridge Mountain Resort

This hotel is located in Canmore, about an hour and a half from Calgary and a 30-minute drive to Banff. The town of Canmore is actually quite cute, Stone Ridge is just a 5-minute drive to the center where you’ll find restaurants, cafes and grocery stores.

Here I really felt that home away from home feeling. And not to mention the views!

Pros

  • Closer to Calgary, shaving off a half hour upon arrival to Alberta
  • Full in-room kitchen with separate bedroom and living area
  • Fireplace (!!!)
  • Grill and patio
  • GYM
  • On resort café for coffee, light breakfast and lunch
  • Heated swimming pool and Jacuzzi
  • Mountain views

Cons

  • Further from Banff and spots to explore by a half hour
  • No on property restaurant for dinner

Stone Ridge Resort

Juniper Hotel & Bistro

There are a number of different lodging options ranging from a standard deluxe room to the Woodland Cabins. This hotel caters to guests traveling solo or with a plus one or mini getaways with a group of friends or family. My experience was in a deluxe room.

Pros

Cons

  • Further from Calgary, adding a half hour to your travel time arriving or departing

Juniper Hotel

Day Two

Lake Louise

Start your day here. Whether it’s for sunrise or shortly after. Make sure to grab a hot cup of coffee or cocoa from Trailhead Café at the beginning of the road up to Lake Louise. Being at the lake early will give you the advantage of seeing it without another soul in sight. And let me tell you, it’s worth it. I arrived at about 9 am, parked and walked up the short trail. The trail opens to the iconic mountains that surround the snow covered lake.

I could have spent hours here. But alas, there is more to see! Spend an hour or two on the lake, walking out on the ice, ice skating, taking photos, and stopping in to marvel at the Fairmont. Also worth noting, there are a few walking trails and cross country ski/snowshoeing paths!

*Driving time to Lake Louise from Banff 39 minutes, 57km

Lake Louise

Emerald Lake

Head here after Lake Louise. It is a lesser known area and also a lodge. This time of year you’ll be hard pressed to spot another soul. Take a walk around the lake on the path or sit on the dock and take in yet another beautiful view.

*Driving time to Emerald Lake from Lake Louise 40 minutes, 40 km

Emerald Lake

Town of Banff

End here! You’ll be closer to your hotel and be able to grab a bite at my favorite restaurant in Banff, Nourish (vegan/vegetarian/gluten free friendly bistro)! Take a stroll down Banff Avenue and grab a Beavertail or coffee from Wild Flour Bakery.

*Driving time to Banff from Emerald Lake 1h10m, 94 km

Banff Total driving time on Day Two: 2.5 hours

Day Three

Banff Gondola to Sulphur Mountain and Banff Upper Hot Springs

Start your day at Banff Upper Hot Springs. Iceland isn’t the only place you can submerge in hot springs in subzero temps! It opens at 10 am. It’s best to get there early because again, you will beat the tourists. The cost for entry is $7CAD and $1CAD for a towel and $1CAD to rent a locker.

Located 2 minutes up the road is the gondola! It takes about 10 minutes to get up to the top of Sulphur Mountain. For adults it is $56CAD and ages 6-15 it is $28CAD and kids 5 and under are free! Once you’re at the top, you will find some of the best views. You can see all of Banff and its surrounding lakes. There are mountains for as far as the eye can see. 360 degrees of natural beauty. I know it will be cold, but make sure to walk the boardwalk at least a little ways. The full walk, to the top, is about 30 minutes. I easily spent 5 hours here just walking around and taking photos. The pro about visiting this attraction in the winter is that there are far less tourists because of the cold.

 

Sulphur Mountain

Day Four

Drive through Banff and Jasper National Park

Banff

Put that Parks Pass to use! Make your way through Banff and Jasper National park! A few key highlights are Bow Lake, Peyto Lake (look for signs for Bow Summit), Athabasca Falls, Pyramid Lake and anywhere along the way (in respective order of driving toward Jasper, Alberta). I suggest sunrise at Bow Lake and catch the rest of the morning light at Peyto Lake. The walk around Bow Lake is super easy and there are bathrooms here. Bow Summit is where you will overlook Peyto Lake. The walk is about 15 minutes on a trail, in the winter it is covered in packed snow (unless you’re there right after a fresh snowfall then you’ll be walking through powder). Athabasca Falls is a super easy walk on a paved walkway. In the winter be super careful as there are parts that are super icy. Pyramid Lake is the last stop as it is located right in Jasper.

Pro tip, enjoy a late lunch or grab a latte from the Other Paw Bakery Café!

*Total time one way 3h40m, 288km

Banff

Peyto Lake

Peyto Lake

Athabasca Falls

Pyramid Lake

Day Five

Johnston Canyon

I saved this for my last full day in Alberta. I knew by the end of the week I would be exhausted and had read this was not an activity that required too much use of energy! You’ll walk through Johnston Canyon on a boardwalk, weaving in and out of the rock formations. There are the lower and upper falls, lower falls are easily accessed and the upper falls are a bit more of a hike. The entire walk through Johnston Canyon to the upper falls is 2.7km. Careful when walking through the canyon, it is super icy and ice cleats are recommended. I almost wiped out a few times! You can also hike to the Ink Pots via the Johnston Canyon trail, I didn’t get the chance to do the hike on this trip but from what I read the hike to the Ink Pots is 5.8km and moderately easy.

Johnston Canyon

Johnston Canyon

If this itinerary hasn’t convinced you to visit Alberta in the winter I’m not sure anything will. It is truly in its own category of beauty. I’m already planning a trip back in July! Gotta see those iconic lakes for myself.

Banff

This post is written in partnership with Banff Lake Louise Tourism, Stone Ridge Mountain Resort and Juniper Hotel and Bistro, as always, my opinions are my own. 

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