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Nestled among the jagged peaks of the Canadian Rockies, Banff is a picturesque mountain town that’s been luring travelers since the 1880s. Though many people visit during the summer for warm-weather adventures in Banff National Park, this region in Alberta is also an ideal winter destination—especially if you’re a skier or snowboarder.
This year, unearth your passport, pack your Ikon pass, and head north to Banff for fluffy powder, dramatic landscapes, scrumptious food, and a rich arts and culture scene. Here’s how to make the most of your trip.
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Grab your skis and hop a flight from Denver International Airport to Calgary International Airport. United offers daily nonstop flights throughout the Canadian Rockies’ (very long) ski season, which typically extends well into May. Upon arrival, leave the driving to the professionals and board the Banff Airporter shuttle for a stress-free journey up into the mountains.
You don’t need a car in Banff, as the downtown area is totally walkable. On top of that, SkiBig3—the collection of resorts spanning Banff Sunshine, Lake Louise, and Mt. Norquay—offers comfortable free shuttles to all three ski areas. Banff also has an easy-to-use public transit system called Roam. It’s not free—each one-way ride is $2 Canadian for adults—but the buses run frequently and the routes can take you anywhere you want to go. You can pay with U.S. or Canadian currency or, if you don’t tend to carry cash, via the Token Transit mobile app. Many of the hotels in Banff also provide their guests with free transit passes, too.
On the Hill
Banff’s big draw is its central location among three ski resorts, all located within the bounds of Banff National Park: Mt. Norquay, Banff Sunshine, and Lake Louise. Together, they’re known as SkiBig3 and, combined, they offer nearly 8,000 acres of terrain to explore on skis or a snowboard. If you have the full Ikon pass, you get seven total days at SkiBig3; with the Ikon base pass, you get five days. If you have time, try to hit up all of them, as they each have their own unique personalities and features. Here’s a quick rundown of each.
With 190 acres of skiable terrain, Mt. Norquay is the smallest of the three resorts by far. But don’t let its compact size fool you: This mountain packs a punch. An estimated 44 percent of its runs are designated for advanced skiers. It’s also the closest mountain to downtown Banff—just a quick 10- to 15-minute shuttle ride—which makes it ideal for powder days and quick laps if you’re crunched for time. Mt. Norquay doesn’t tend to get crowded, either, so you won’t be stuck waiting in long lift lines. If your legs have more runs in them, check out Mt. Norquay’s night skiing sessions on Fridays and Saturdays; the ski area also has a large snow tubing park.
Located about 45 minutes northwest of Banff on the Trans-Canada Highway, Lake Louise Ski Resort is a little farther afield—but well worth the slightly longer travel time. Of all the SkiBig3 mountains, this sprawling, 4,200-acre playground is most reminiscent of Colorado’s ski areas. Its runs are long and spacious, and they offer sweeping views of the craggy Canadian Rockies at every turn. Lake Louise also has four terrain parks, a licensed daycare for little ones, and a snow tube park. For lunch or an apres-ski snack, the on-site sushi bar, Kuma Yama, is a light, refreshing option, while the Powder Keg Lounge offers hearty bar food.
Sunshine Village, aka Banff Sunshine, is a large, family-friendly resort with 3,358 acres of skiable terrain that’s a roughly 25-minute drive from town. When you arrive, you’ll hop on the main gondola, which will whisk you up and away to Banff Sunshine’s three mountain areas: Goat’s Eye, Lookout, and Mount Standish. Much of the resort’s terrain is above treeline and, since it sits on the Continental Divide along the border with British Columbia, it offers panoramic views for miles around. To refuel, pop into Mad Trappers, a divey bar and restaurant that dates back to 1928, or grab one of Canada’s beloved “beaver tails,” a light, fried, oblong-shaped pastry that can be covered in an array of tasty toppings.
Off the Hill
Though summer is Banff’s busy season, there’s still plenty to do and see in the winter—even if you don’t ski or snowboard. For instance, you can take a dazzling “ice walk” (aka a guided hike) to see the icy, frozen waterfalls of Johnston Canyon inside Banff National Park with Discover Banff Tours. The outfitter offers traditional daytime excursions, as well as a unique evening session under the stars. I recommend booking the night-time tour, as your group will have the entire canyon to yourselves and crunching through the snow in the dark (with provided headlamps and ice cleats) is magical and serene.
For a taste of arts and culture, check out the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Cave and Basin National Historic Site, and Banff Park Museum, which offer insights into the history and natural surroundings of the region. Banff is also home to an array of art galleries, such as the Carter-Ryan Gallery and Live Art Venue, the Willock & Sax Gallery, and the Brandon T. Brown Wilderness Gallery.
Also make time to relax in the mineral-rich waters of Banff Upper Hot Springs, which range from 98 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit. You can also go ice skating on Lake Louise, pedal across the snow on a guided fat biking tour, enjoy a scenic sleigh ride, and glide across the powder on cross-country skis.
Eat & Drink
From exquisite fine dining to soul-warming pub food—and everything in between—Banff’s food scene offers something for everyone. Eden, a high-end restaurant located inside the Rimrock Resort Hotel offers three-, five-, or eight-course tasting menus with optional wine pairings, caviar service, cheese flights, and other enhancements. Here, chefs thoughtfully prepare delicate dishes, inspired by the mountainous surroundings, ranging from smoked elk tartare to dry-aged duck. Impressive French cuisine aside, the hospitality is warm and genuine—never stuffy or awkward.
Bluebird—one of Banff’s newest restaurants—has immaculate mid-century modern ski chalet vibes, complete with a perfectly curated playlist of 1960s and ’70s tunes. Slow-roasted Canadian prime rib, offered in an array of different cuts, is the star of the show at Bluebird, but the menu also features a diverse selection of steaks, seafood, chicken, pasta, vegetables, and more casual fare, like a double cheeseburger and a cheesesteak dip.
For access to all three resorts, plus downtown shopping and restaurants, stay at one of the many cozy hotels in Banff. The Moose Hotel and Suites has a roaring lobby fireplace, a tasty on-site Italian restaurant called Pacini, and bright, airy rooms with balconies. The rooftop, however, is what really sets the hotel apart. Next to the indoor pool and fitness room, you’ll find two large hot tubs that are perfect for taking in the views while soaking your aching muscles after a day on the slopes; there’s also a sauna and a firepit. Conveniently, the hotel is just a few steps from both the SkiBig3 shuttle and public bus stops.
Another great option is Peaks Hotel and Suites, which is a brand new Banff hotel with a fresh, contemporary design. For a more luxurious experience, book into the Rimrock Resort Hotel or Fairmont Banff Springs. And if ski-in/ski-out is a must, the slopeside Sunshine Mountain Lodge at Banff Sunshine is your best bet.
If You Do One Thing…
Drink a Caesar, which is basically a bloody mary made with Clamato juice (tomato juice with sugar, spices, and clam juice). As the story goes, a restaurant manager in Calgary named Walter Chell developed the beloved drink in 1969—and, since then, it’s become Canada’s unofficial national drink. Though they’re often made with vodka or tequila, bartenders will gladly make them with any spirit you like. You’ll find Caesars on nearly every drink menu in town—and some of them can be a little over the top (in the best way). Skewered toppings range from dill pickles to chicken wings to beef sliders.