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December 30, 2011

Winter's Best: Banff & Lake Louise Off-Season Travel Guide

Ice climbers on a frozen waterfall in Johnston Canyon, Banff National Park (Heather Hansen)

Banff National Park is easily Canada's most-visited park, drawing over three million visitors a year to gape in wonder at its Rocky Mountains magnificence. Together with adjacent Jasper National Park, threaded by the stunning Icefields Parkway, these two parks accounted for 40 percent of visitors to Canada's national parks in the past year. It's a gem, but certainly not one that remains undiscovered.

Go in winter, however, and you'll almost feel like you've got the place to yourself. It can be bitterly cold, with the mountains, rivers, and lakes in the grip of snow and ice, but this is a season of countless chilly delights. Here are some of my favorite activities for a winter vacation to the Banff area.

Read's vacation guide for going to Banff, Alberta

Icefields Parkway, True to Its Name
The 143-mile-long Icefields Parkway, running between townships Lake Louise and Jasper, remains open throughout the year, although services in winter are limited and the road is liable to closure. However, with the right driving equipment (or by signing up with a local tour company), you can discover a road free of tour-bus gridlock. The famous scenic byway is flanked by over 20 glaciers and seven sprawling icefields, breathtaking mountain vistas around every turn, and vivid frozen waterfalls (perfect for ice-climbing!) lining the route.

Read's vacation guide to the Icefields Parkway

Rip It Up on the Slopes
Three world-class ski resorts lie within minutes of downtown Banff. Sunshine Village wins most of the plaudits for the quality of its terrain, though 4,200-acre Lake Louise is no slouch, either. Both promise spectacular scenery, a variety of slopes for all levels, and excellent skier amenities. In fact, you'll probably leave asking yourself why there aren't more people jamming the slopes. Mt. Norquay is a smaller hill close to Banff that's popular with locals. Almost half the terrain here is classified advanced/expert, a feeling you'll notice immediately at a base lodge that's shadowed by dramatic, sheer granite cliffs.

Read's guide to Alberta's best skiing and snowboarding resorts

Winter Wonderland at Lake Louise
One of the continent's most-photographed scenes, sparkling Lake Louise hides under a thick sheet of ice during winter. But that's not to say things are dead up here. The historic Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise is a special place at which to bed down, but even if you can't afford the luxury there's a slate of winter activities for day-trippers to sample after getting that snowy photographic souvenir of the frozen lake and distant Victoria Glacier. Strap on a pair of rental skates or cross-country skis to cruise the lake and lakeside trails, before returning to the hotel for hot chocolate and pastries. Horse-drawn sleigh rides are also available for the romantically inclined.

Read's vacation guide for going to Lake Louise, Alberta

Get Outdoors!
Situated at a base elevation of 4,540 feet, the Banff mercury spends most of its winter in the sub-zero regions, but that's not to say a roaring fire inside the lodge is your only comfort. Join local outfitter Nature in Focus for a half- or full-day snowshoe hike to discover winter wildlife that you might otherwise miss. Or try something a little more technical, like ice-climbing in Johnston Canyon, a stunning cathedral of frozen waterfalls and icy grottoes that lies just south of Banff. Canmore-based Yamnuska Mountain Adventures offer private daily instruction for novices and groups, plus an excellent two-day ice-climbing seminar that will have you picking your way to the icy top in no time!

The Logistics
Calgary is the main gateway to both Banff and Jasper national parks, though Edmonton (250 miles northeast of Banff) is another option. Major carriers servicing Calgary include Air Canada, American Airlines, Continental, Delta, Lufthansa, and United. Edmonton includes Air Canada, Continental, and United. The Banff Airporter shuttle service departs approximately every hour; return tickets cost $110 for the 80-mile journey to/from Banff. The journey from Edmonton to Jasper is best enjoyed aboard VIA Rail Canada's Snow Train, departing at 8:55 a.m. three times weekly (Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays) and costing $110 for a one-way fare to Jasper. The journey takes five hours, ten minutes; VIA Rail offers connecting motorcoach service between Jasper and Banff, which will include a trip down the Icefields Parkway.

Where to Stay
Accommodations run the gamut from five-star luxury to simple hostels. For the big splurge, The Fairmont chain operates the laid-back lakeside Jasper Park Lodge, spectacular Chateau Lake Louise, and old-world Banff Springs. Other mid-range alternatives include the convenient and comfortable Sawridge Inn & Conference Centre in Jasper or Banff's downtown Mount Royal Hotel. Because the area's ski resorts lie within national park boundaries, there is no slope-side accommodation, with the one exception of the Sunshine Inn at Sunshine Village. In addition, look for ski-lodging deals at the three Banff area resorts by visiting the Web site of Winter accommodation is generally easy to organize given that the Banff/Lake Louise area boasts over 100 hotels, lodges, condos, and B&Bs ready to handle the much bigger summer influx of tourists.

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Related Topics: Canada Travel · Trip Ideas


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The best thing about the lake Louise area is the spiral railroad tunnels and the railroad itself. It is amazing to watch 2 mile long trains running up and down the valley every 20 minutes or so. The colorful trains add greatly to the beautiful vistas.

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