Banff is Canada’s first national park and also its most widely visited. In 2018, about 4.2 million nature lovers swarmed the wilderness area. Also recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the highly popular national park has two “on” seasons during which large masses of travelers flock.
In summer, outdoor adventurers visit the park to experience some of the best hiking, biking, rafting, and wildlife-spotting in the Rocky Mountains. But powder-chasers consider winter the best time to visit, as Banff National Park is home to three ski resorts that operate on one shared lift ticket. Even those who don’t ski or snowboard can enjoy other Banff winter activities such as snowshoeing and glacier hiking.
If you’re planning a trip to this Canadian Rockies hot spot during winter or summer, you might want to consider veering a bit off the beaten path. Here’s how to dodge the worst of the crowds while still seeing the best of Banff.
How to skip Banff’s summer crowds
Hiking the Trails
Reconsider: Ultra-turquoise Lake Louise is a stunner, sure, but due to its low difficulty level, the narrow lakeside path is one of Banff’s most popular hiking trails—and walking it during high season can feel more like standing in line. The route to Moraine Lake is another heavily trafficked (but insanely picturesque) loop. To beat the crowds at this glacial lake, an early morning start is required.
Go here instead: Banff’s more involved mountain trails boast clear alpine lakes, wildflowers, and unobstructed views of the Canadian Rockies—plus they tend to attract fewer tourists. “In-the-know” hikers hit the trail to Lake Agnes, where a walk through an old-growth forest culminates at a historic teahouse perched on the lake’s shores. A trail known as “Big Beehive” leads hikers past the lake and up a series of switchbacks toward unmatched views of the Bow Valley and Lake Louise.
Taking in the Views
Reconsider: The Banff Gondola provides a tame glimpse of the park’s beauty, hoisting visitors to a tourist-mobbed boardwalk and observation deck at the summit of Sulphur Mountain. This is most appropriate for those interested in a quick lift to a prime photo spot and less-suited for outdoor enthusiasts.
Go here instead: Earn your views by scrambling along a challenging course of ladders, handholds, and steel cables on Mount Norquay. The via ferrata route is the only one of its kind in Banff National Park, and it offers a shot of adrenaline the gondola can’t touch.
Snuggling Up for a Stay
Reconsider: The town of Banff flaunts a convenient location within the national park—plus a buzzy restaurant and bar scene—but its streets are swarmed during “on” seasons . . . and the souvenir shops can be somewhat predictable.
Go here instead: Choose Canmore as your base. This charming mountain town is brimming with affordable restaurants, hip boutiques, and beautiful hiking and biking trails. Bonus: It’s only 24 minutes from Banff by public shuttle.
Where to find fresh tracks during winter
Thanks to average winter temperatures ranging from low 30s (Fahrenheit) to the single digits, fewer travelers decide to hit the road for Banff during winter compared to summer. Still, the vast national park in Alberta, Canada, is a world-class winter sports destination, and its snow-covered peaks attract skiiers and snowboarders from across North America and around the world.
It’s not always easy to avoid the winter crowds at Banff’s ski resorts, but you can try to by waking up early to score the freshest tracks. After you hit the slopes at Mount Norquay, Banff Sunshine, and Lake Louise Ski Resort (all served by the same SkiBig3 pass), head to these spots for some unique wintertime fun.
Lake Minnewanka During summer, Lake Minnewanka welcomes an influx of eager hikers, bikers, kayakers, and fishers to its alpine shores. In the winter however, the 13 mile-long glacial lake is a quieter spot that’s perfect for cross-country skiing. It’s also one of the best places in Banff National Park to seek out the Northern Lights, when the right winter conditions align.
Stretching 144 miles along the Continental Divide, this winding parkway links Lake Louise in Banff National Park with the neighboring Jasper National Park. Most travelers take in the highway’s views from the warmth of their vehicles, but eager adventurers should embark on a guided “icewalk” to the towering Athabasca Glacier. Even though it’s North America’s most-visited glacier, the ice cap’s sheer size will leave you feeling anything but claustrophobic.
When Alberta’s Bow River freezes over during winter, its surface transforms into a natural outdoor ice-skating rink. If you want to avoid the crowds at maintained rinks at hotels such as the Fairmont Banff Springs and Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, venture to the Bow River skating oval just outside downtown Banff. The “rink” is generally maintained, but be warned: It’s still prone to small bumps in the ice—and sometimes even elk tracks!
A version of this article originally appeared in the July/August 2017 issue of AFAR. It was updated on December 20, 2018, to include current information.
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