I am going to start by saying that if you don’t like the cold then Canada in the winter is not for you. However, if you are willing to brave frigid temperatures, icy roads, and freezing fingers and toes, then Banff and Jasper in the winter is going to be one of the most incredible places you will ever experience. The temperature dropped as low as minus 35C, so bring something warm. All down everything and Merino wool under layers is the best bet to fend off the cold.
With so many awesome things to see in Banff and Jasper this list is just scratching the surface. All you need to do is drive and pull over when you see a sign, I guarantee everything you lay your eyes on will blow your mind.. It blew mine anyway!
Besides warm clothes, my next suggestion is to start by renting a car. It will allow you to see more than you would ever be able to by bus or on a paid tour, and it is a decision you will truly never regret!
Maligne Canyon is an incredible canyon that completely freezes over in the winter, allowing you to walk through the twists and turns, and take in every aspect of its immense beauty. It sits just outside of Jasper and is probably the most accessible area from the town. You will want a set of crampons (Spikey additions to your winter boots to increase traction); which you can either buy for about $40 USD, or rent for the day from any local outdoors store. Once you have these you will be able to go everywhere! Maligne Canyon is definitely one of the best places to visit in Jasper.
Pyramid Lake is another beautiful spot located just outside of Jasper that allows cross country skiing, ice skating, and ice hockey. If you’re not such a snow sports enthusiast, you can always go for a walk around the lake! Try taking the small wooden bridge out to Pyramid island, where you can walk beneath the snow-covered trees and take in the breath-taking view of Pyramid Mountain right in front of you.
Driving the Icefields Parkway
The Icefields Parkway is the road that connects Jasper National Park to Banff National Park, and is one of the most incredible drives you will ever take – eat your heart out Route 66! Besides the amazing scenery that you can enjoy without leaving the comfort of your car, you’ll also encounter endless wildlife along the way. Everything from moose, elk, and deer to wolves and mountain goats. Even though it is freezing, I really would suggest getting out of the car because this whole drive is littered with frozen waterfalls and canyons that you can walk through. The winding roads and endless mountain range provided one of the most amazing back drops you could ever imagine for a road trip, and landscape shots to make your Instagram feed pop!
Athabasca Falls will be one of your first stops heading south from Jasper towards the Icefields Parkway. It is a small canyon with a frozen waterfall and incredible blue water running into a small, unfrozen pool. It is framed on each side by fur and pine trees, and an incredible peak towering above everything to the back. You can walk down into the canyon, although it is not suggested. I did, but I was cautious and mostly worried the whole time haha. The normal walk around the area is beautiful anyway so don’t feel bad if you don’t feel like getting crazy here, walking on unstable ice isn’t the best idea anyway.
Peyto Lake is the next major spot as you head south. Between here and Athabasca falls you will have probably stopped at least 100 times for photos or small hikes. Peyto Lake is just north of Banff. From the lookout, it is an incredible lake that seems to have taken the shape of a wolf or coyote; which had to satisfy my desire to see any kind of large predatory animal. The hike from the car park to this lake is nice and short too, and leads to an incredible view.
Lake Minnewanka will be completely frozen, which is impressive because it is massive, but you can find places where some crazy people have been cutting holes in the ice to go ice diving. If you are lucky enough, you will stumble across a tent that is set up and get to witness it first-hand. The views here are also amazing! The boat house is completely frozen in and is surrounded by stunning mountains- can you say Cabin Porn? Photos are incredibly easy to take here, and in just a short walk around the lake you will be satisfied with your visit. You might even get lucky enough to come across some more mountain goats!
Canmore is probably Canada’s best kept secret and has numerous activities around it. You would not believe how many amazing hikes there are and incredible things to see and do. I ended up spending more time in Canmore than anywhere else in all of Canada. It is only 15-20min from Banff, so you’re never too far from the shared, private, or fancy log cabin rooms at the HI Banff Hostel.
I personally love hiking and started my time in Canmore with a few different hikes. The first one, and probably easiest, is Ha Ling. It’s steep, so plan about 3 hours to reach the beautiful views at the summit. After that there is East End of Rundle and Mount Lady MacDonald, these two were probably my two favorite hikes in Canada, but they did require crampons and even an ice axe if you have one. They are a little more intense but if you can do Ha Ling, which most people can, you should be able to handle these two as well. Just pack extra layers and snacks!
Outside of the extreme activities, there is the Grassi Lakes trail. Grassi Lakes is the perfect way to spend a couple hours since the walk to the lake is only a kilometre or two. The water color shifts from mind blowing blues to greens and is perfectly still, so the reflections are flawless. It also never completely freezes because it is fed from underground.
The Grotto Canyon walk is another canyon that is full of incredible blue ice and frozen waterfalls, and you’ll probably get to see some ice-climbers as well! It is pretty similar to Maligne Canyon but there is a lot less people.
This area of Canada has a relentless amount of activities. No matter how hard you try, you’ll still feel like you didn’t quite get around to everything. That being said, it is incredibly fulfilling, and you will have definitely experienced things you never would have anywhere else in the world.
About the author:
Dane Faurschou is a photographer, surfer and traveller from Byron Bay, Australia, who splits his time between the ocean and the mountains. Currently, he’s driving from Canada to Patagonia to search out as many waves and mountains as possible and anything else in between. Follow his adventures on his blog, Instagram and Facebook.