Secrets to handling winter in Banff National Park, Alberta Canada
Well, I definitely didn't mentally prepare for winter in Banff. This place blew my mind and froze my face off! If you haven't heard of it, you have to visit.
Banff was way colder I realized it would be and far more beautiful than I could actually pictured in my head. A few friends warned me about the temperatures, but you have to feel -10 degrees Fahrenheit to actually understand what that means. I'm not a pansy in weather either! So in order for you to rightfully prep yourself and have the most incredible experience possible, here are some travel tips:
1. Rent a car
There are shuttles that take you from Calgary International Airport to Banff, but if you want to capture the most beautiful photography at Lake Louise, Abraham Lake or in Jasper, you'll need a car with all wheel drive. I can't tell you how many front wheel drive cars we saw on the side of the road, stuck deep in about 5 feet of snow and ice. Make sure you get insurance for your vehicle to avoid that mess. I think its about $30 a day (Canadian). The best rental service as far as speed, affordability and availability was Alamo, located right in the Calgary Airport. We went to all the services trying to get the best rate and they beat out all the other companies. You can't really walk very far in the winter, as it's way too cold, so a car is definitely a must.
You can't mess around when packing for Banff. Pack a ton of layers, long johns, hand warmers, hats, high quality gloves/mittens, face mask for skiing, a fleece, snow jacket, multiple thick winter ski socks, Sorel boots (or similar), waterproof snow pants, all camera equipment (including a tripod), hats, long insulated snow jacket and a GPS. There's spotty service in the mountains!
The first thing the locals told us was, "Make sure you have a face mask and goggles." We didn't prepare for it to be -15F at the peak of the slopes, so we had to buy those when we got there. My hands were throbbing and completely red with two layers of gloves on, so hand-warmers were completely necessary. You have to cover every tiny area of skin on your body with layers of clothing in order to feel comfortable in that kind of weather. Pack snacks and make sure you get to the slopes in the morning if you want to be on the mountain all day. For instance, Sunshine Village closed at 4:30pm, which felt somewhat early.
Rankings for ski resorts:
1st Sunshine Village - best variety of blues, greens and blacks, 25 minutes from the town of Banff
2nd Lake Louise - great option if you're staying close to Lake Louise
3rd Mount Norquay - mostly blacks
4. Find the good food
If you're going to stay in the town of Banff, make sure you take a walk through the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. It was built in the early 1900s, is definitely haunted, has a secret Gold Floor, boasts a beautiful outdoor heated pool in the snow and has some of the best restaurants in the area. Samurai, located on the first floor, has really great sushi. It's not super cheap but worth it! (And I'm a sushi snob.) The town of Banff has mostly pubs and your average Canadian comfort food so we kept choosing the Fairmont restaurants time and time again. There are 12 dining options to choose from there!
5. Be adventurous
Make sure you don't simply go wherever the top spots to visit are. Lake Louise, of course isn't something you want to miss, but get out there and drive a ways out of town to find remote places that you can make your own. We took a long walk into the woods, not knowing where we were going and it was a blast. There was a wolf warning (a first for us) at the time, so we were careful, but other than that it was perfectly peaceful.
Spots not to miss:
Johnson Canyon (there are two waterfall locations, both beautifully frozen in winter. Prepare for a 30-minute hike to the lowest point and a bit longer if heading to the upper waterfall. Can be icy, be careful!
Banff Upper Hot Springs
Fairmont Banff Springs
Leaving Banff can be hectic during the wintertime because airports and flights often get cancelled due to weather conditions. Our flight was cancelled and rescheduled for the next day. It might be safe to save a day after your trip for potential flight issues!