The air is fresh, with a clean, icy smell, the snow underfoot has a satisfying crunchy feeling, and there’s a strange muffled quality to any sound thanks to the thick layer of snow for miles around. The Rocky Mountains are vast, wild, rugged and untouched. And to truly understand the awe these magnificent peaks inspire, you have to experience it for yourself.
The Rockies stretch from far-north British Columbia to New Mexico in the south of the US, and the Canadian Rockies alone comprise 194,000 square kilometres of epic mountains, mostly completely uninhabited. For Rocky Mountain first-timers, as well as annual visitors, Banff and Lake Louise in the World Heritage-listed Banff National Park are great places to start, with easy access, plenty of activities and some of the finest scenery you’ll find anywhere.
There are two ways to approach this part of the world. Many people fly into Calgary and rent a car to make the scenic and easy 90-minute drive west. Calgary is a great destination in its own right, though it’s at its best in July when the Calgary Stampede takes over the city. Roads are well maintained year-round, but you can also arrange a bus or private shuttle from the airport or downtown if you’re not sure about driving in winter conditions – you can easily do without a car during your stay.
The alternative is to fly into Vancouver – plan to spend a few days there, whatever the season – and embark on one of the greatest train journeys in the world. The Rocky Mountaineer will add a couple of days and upwards of $2000 to your trip, but this is a true bucket-list experience. Fitted with glass domes for incredible views of the scenery as you travel, this full-service train is the epitome of travelling in style. Depending on your route, the train will drop you either in Banff or Lake Louise, but you can easily move between the two.
Banff is a picturesque but bustling ski town with a lively winter population of working-holidayers, travellers and year-rounders. Most are there for the excellent skiing and snowboarding, but there are lots of other outdoor activities and, of course, plenty of après-ski. There is an abundance of accommodation, ranging from youth hostels to luxury boutique hotels, and more dining, drinking and late-night venues than you’ll have time to try.
Much smaller Lake Louise is a hamlet near the lake, with fewer accommodation options and a real dearth of budget options. (There is only one hotel on the lake itself, the world-famous Fairmont Chateau.) While Lake Louise is busy during the day in peak seasons, it empties out at night, giving you a bit of peace and quiet.
Banff and Lake Louise are beautiful in summer, spectacular in winter and simply magical at Christmas. They kick off the festive season in mid-November with the Santa Claus Parade through the extravagantly decorated centre of Banff, and keep the events rolling right up until the big day. The Banff Christmas Market, where you can get a photo with Saint Nick, is held over two weekends in November, and Carols in the Park happen on Saturdays in December, amid a host of other activities in the area.
If you’re here to hit the slopes, you have a choice of three resorts, collectively known as the Big 3. Mt Norquay, a small resort 15 minutes’ drive from Banff, is a great spot for beginners and families. For more experienced snow bunnies, Banff Sunshine ski resort has a lot more to offer. It has 137 runs over 82 kilometres – the longest run is eight kilometres – and the nearly 2200-metre elevation means the snow is light and powdery for most of the season (November to May). Lake Louise Ski Resort has even more runs, at 145-plus back bowls, with a total run length of more than 100 kilometres. It was also voted the best in Canada at the 2019 World Ski Awards, which is a big deal in a country perhaps best known for its snow. Expect to pay about $140 a day, or $380 for a three-day SkiBig3 combination ticket with extra benefits such as hot spring access. All the ski fields offer free shuttles to and from town; rent your gear from a shop in town the night before you start to make the most of your day on the slopes.
Not much of a skier? There’s plenty else to do before après-ski. Banff Gondola is a favourite; a cable car to the summit of Sulphur Mountain for unmatched views across the Rockies and the educational Above Banff interpretive centre. If you’re there in the lead-up to Christmas, you can visit Santa’s Workshop and meet the big guy himself. There are a few dining options, but the most-talked about is Sky Bistro, the fine diner with a view. If you have one splurge dinner in Banff, make it here, and then head to the viewing platform for up-close stargazing.
If you’re more of an adrenaline-seeker, try your hand at ice climbing. Yamnuska Mountain Adventures runs introductory courses for beginners, as well as excursions for more experienced climbers, and it’s a great way to get the blood pumping. Or pick up speed on a dog-sled tour; Howling Dog Tours offers two-hour and half-day options, with a team of huskies pulling your sled through the frozen wonderland of the Spray Lakes. Alternatively, join Canmore Cave Tours to explore Rat’s Nest Cave, one of the longest caves in Canada; time it right to catch one of the unusual underground Christmas concerts.
When the cold gets too much for you, pop into the Whyte Museum for a crash course in the history and culture of the area, then settle in at the nearby Banff Ave Brewing Co for a local beer made with glacier water.
To ease sore muscles after a day on the slopes, head to the Banff Upper Hot Springs to “take the waters”, as travellers have done for more than a hundred years. Soak in the naturally heated waters flowing from Sulphur Mountain while looking out across the Rockies or up at the clear, starry skies.
Over in Lake Louise, the highlight of the winter season is the Ice Magic festival, which runs for 12 days in January. Ice sculptures, ice bars and the ever-popular annual Ice Castle dot the frozen lake, while the ice-carving competition and a speed-carving challenge bring artists to the fore. Entry is free Monday to Friday and early morning on weekends; in peak weekend hours you’ll pay a small entry fee, though many nearby hotels offer their guests discounts or free passes.
If you miss the Ice Magic festival, there’s plenty more to do in the area. You can rent skates from the Fairmont Chateau and take a spin on the frozen lake, or pick up gear from a rental shop in town and try cross-country skiing or snowshoeing in the network of trails through the forest. And when you’ve had your fill of the frozen stuff, find a fireplace and a hot drink and enjoy whatever the Canadian version of hygge is.
Much is made of the famous Canadian hospitality and it has to be said that, despite the cold outside, you’ll never get a warmer welcome.
Where to stay
When it’s a fair way below zero outside, it’s important your accommodation is a great retreat at the end of the day. Banff has a greater range of options than Lake Louise, especially in the budget to mid-price range, so if you’re set on staying near the lake, book early to get your first choice.
Fairmont Banff Springs
The other Fairmont outpost in the area, known as the Castle in the Rockies, is just a short walk from downtown Banff, and has the same heritage appeal and high-quality service. During the festive season, it runs Christmas at the Castle, including daily live performances of A Christmas Carol. From $520 per night.
Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise
This famous lakeside retreat may be the closest you ever get to staying in a fairytale castle. It was originally built for outdoor enthusiasts and mountain climbers more than 100 years ago and it has retained its old-world charm. It offers year-round activities, a kids’ camp, a luxury spa and fine dining. From $440 per night.
Sunshine Mountain Lodge
Banff’s only ski-in-ski-out accommodation is in the heart of Sunshine Village, and offers a range of rooms and suites, and ski/gear/stay packages. Dinner options are limited, but if you’re here to spend as much time on the slopes as possible, this boutique hotel is the place for you. From $260 per night.
Baker Creek Mountain Resort
Just a few minutes from Lake Louise sits this fabulous resort, which won the Banff Heritage Tourism Award for its authentic mountain lodging. Check into one of its cabins for a full into-the-woods experience, complete with roaring fireplace and bear warnings. They can arrange a huge range of indoor and outdoor activities and have an excellent on-site bistro. From $240 per night.
This gorgeous alpine-style hotel has cosy rooms and suites, and a wonderful location just a 13-minute walk from the heart of Banff. It’s a little dated but great value for money, with an onsite restaurant and indoor pool. From $110 per night.
HI Banff Alpine Centre
For a budget option, try this Hostelling International location. It’s a few minutes’ drive to town, but the rate includes a free local bus pass and discounts on ski-and-gear packages, as well as loyalty points for other HI hostels in North America. There’s an OK on-site restaurant and a bar where you can have a few rowdy post-slope drinks. From $45 per night.
Take me there
Fares with Air Canada for flights from Melbourne or Sydney to Vancouver or Calgary can be had for about $2000 for select dates in January 2020.
The Rocky Mountaineer is a two-day rail trip Vancouver to Banff or vice versa, overnighting at a hotel in Kamloops, from $2000 per person.
Explore more: banfflakelouise.com