A Year-Around Guide to Doing Banff
The prevailing wisdom in most ski towns is that visitors come for the winter and stay for the summer. At Banff National Park, 90 miles west of Calgary, it’s quite the opposite: Banff is largely thought of as a summer destination despite that fact that its ski season runs through early May. In fact, this past February, Lake Louise and Banff Sunshine ski areas saw their largest snowfall on record (54 inches, to be exact)—guaranteeing solid spring skiing, plenty of powder, and a hearty base to take them through the next few months. As the snow melts, summer months bring a crush of day-trippers, who come for the explosion of wildflowers, meandering hikes, warmer lake temperatures, and wildlife—wolves, elk, moose, black bears, you name it.
Banff is a two hour drive from Calgary along the Trans-Canada Highway (we don’t usually gush about highways but this one really is remarkably well maintained). When you enter the park, which spans 2,500 square miles of the Rockies, you’ll be asked to purchase a permit for the duration of you stay. (The pass, about $15 a day, is good for use throughout Banff, Jasper, Kootenay, Yoho, Mount Revelstoke, Glacier, Waterton Lakes, and Elk Island.) Whatever time of year you go, there are a few places you’ll want to check out.
where to stay
Fairmont Banff Springs sits at 4,600 feet and is more castle than hotel. It’s been in operation since the late 1800s thanks to Canadian Pacific Railway manager William Cornelius Van Horne, who commissioned a luxury hotel at the convergence of the Bow and Spray River to drum up tourism in the region. And it worked. Banff Springs has 757 guest rooms, 11 places to eat (ranging from a chop house that features its own champagne cart to a wine bar that serves up cheese-and-charcuterie extravaganzas).
Many of the rooms have mountain views, and bathrooms are stocked with Le Labo products. The spa is a big draw here. It’s outfitted with several waterfalls (you read that right) as well as a mineral pool, hot tub, and sauna. In warmer months, the 27-hole golf course, winding along the Bow River, is as challenging as it is breathtaking.
Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise
About an hour’s drive from Banff, the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise is the grand dame of hotels here, given its location right at the edge of Lake Louise. In the winter, you can walk out onto the frozen lake (there’s also an ice skating rink and hand-carved ice castle for the littles), and in summer months, you can just sit back and marvel at how turquoise the water is. The sprawling grounds have a fittingly alpine feel and are comprised of several restaurants, shops, even a place to rent gear, so you barely have to leave if you don’t want to. It’s definitely worth upgrading to a lakeview room along the back side of the hotel just for the privilege of waking up to the Victoria Glacier every morning. Each of the 552 rooms are modern and thoughtfully appointed—in fact, there’s no trace of alpine kitsch or anything rustic—the muted palette is a mix of tans, leather, and mahogany furnishings. (The mountain air is exceedingly dry, so humidifiers are available upon request.)
Post Hotel & Spa
The red-roofed Post Hotel & Spa is an intimate chalet-style lodge with cozy suites and cabins. The hotel, run by two Swiss brothers, bets big on lodge-style charm (roaring stone fireplaces, well-worn leather sofas, and Canadian pine accents.) If you want to to spread out, check out the Watson House. It’s a 3,000-square foot property set on the banks of the Pipestone River, sleeps up to ten, and has a sprawling, fully stocked kitchen and plenty of outdoor seating. The hotel is surrounded by 120 miles of Nordic trails, too.
Sunshine Mountain Lodge
At 7,200 feet, Sunshine Mountain Lodge is the only ski-in/ski-out property inside the park—and is only accessible by gondola. The 84 room recently-refurbished lodge has options for groups big and small; the best rooms are the spacious duplexes in the West Wing, which have slopeside decks that face the chair lifts, plus heated floors. On property, the hot tub becomes a rowdy party scene come après time (it fits up to 40).
where to eat
Downtown Banff, anchored by Banff Avenue, is a quintessential mountain town reminiscent of Jackson Hole. The main stretch is totally walkable and dotted with restaurants, cafés, and stores like Patagonia, Helly Hansen, and North Face to stock up on any last-minute gear needs. The folks at SkiBig3 are super knowledgable about the mountains and can help you map out your game plan if you’re skiing. Bonus: you can drop off your gear the base of any of the three mountains so you don’t have to schlep it back into town when you wrap up your trip.
photo courtesy of Stevin Tuchiwsky
Probably one of the best spots in Banff, Park Distillery is everything you want a ski town eatery to be: the food is rich but deeply satisfying (the menu hits all the high notes from Swiss-style fondue to an aptly named Twenty-five Dollar burger, which includes a 10 oz. patty, truffle mayo, and Alberta cheddar), they make their own small-batch spirits (vodka, rye, and gin) on site, and the crowd is friendly and lively—everyone is ready to swap notes about what they got into that day. In chillier months, buffalo plaid fleece blankets thoughtfully hang on the back of each chair. They offer free distillery tours every day at 3:30 p.m. but reservations are encouraged.
Across the street, even the locals wind up at High Rollers, a retro-meets-modern bowling alley that serves up New York-style pizza and beers (they’ve got 48 on tap, including some locally brewed options). There’s foosball, pool, and arcade games to keep everyone—kiddos included—occupied for several hours. They’re open nightly ’til 2 a.m.
Just off the main drag, Whitebark Café, inside the Aspen Lodge on Banff Avenue, is pretty much the best spot for a cup of coffee or latte in town.
Wild Flour Bakery
Wild Flour Bakery churns out the most delicious breads, both sweet and savory, baked daily in their stone hearth oven (look for aged cheddar sourdough and a walnut & cranberry rye). If you’ve got time in the morning, the homemade granola and croissants are no-brainers.
STOCK Food & Drink
If you’re staying up at the Fairmont Banff Springs, STOCK Food & Drink, a bright and modern gourmet grocery and café, is a good option in the mornings, though they’re open throughout the day. Settle into one of their communal tables with a latte and one of their homemade pastries. And even though we thought long and hard hard about ordering an avocado toast in Alberta, it was just as good as the ones back in LA.
The Dining Room at the Post Hotel
Farther afield, about 45 minutes from Banff, tucked inside the charming Post Hotel & Spa in Lake Louise, the hotel’s fine dining restaurant is a destination in its own right. Locals often drive in from Calgary for the delicate baked mille-feuille with eggplant, a grilled fillet of wild British Columbia salmon, and meat-forward dishes, like beef tenderloin, bison, and lamb, for which the region is best known. (Reservations are highly recommended.) The wine list is exhaustive, including several well-priced bottles as well as fancier options. An approachable sommelier is more than happy to steer you in the right direction.
Alpine Social, Walliser Stube & Lakeview Lounge
There are too many good restaurants inside Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise to count, but among the best: Alpine Social, a modern-day apres-ski hangout with 20 Canadian bourbons and whiskeys to choose from in addition to souped-up pub fare; and Walliser Stube, a dark, moody German and Swiss-inspired eatery, where the fondue is everything. The generously poured hot toddies at Lakeview Lounge make for a warming indulgence after a long day on the slopes, and each table looks out onto the water.
Originally built for the Canadian Pacific Railway, Station Restaurant is a wholly unique dining option. Serving lunch and dinner Wednesday through Sunday, the menu leans heavily on meat and fish dishes (grilled BC salmon, bison burger, pork schniztel) but there’s also lighter fare like salads and veggie sides for smaller appetites. Both the Great Room and East Room (the larger of the two dining areas) have crackling fireplaces to set off the coziness. On the way out, swing by the gift shop—the railway memorabilia and books make sweet souvenirs.
Given the significant amount of untracked powder at both Lake Louise and Banff Sunshine resorts, it’s hard to believe that ski season is considered the off-season here. (That said, it’s a whopping seven months long.) There are three nearby mountains—Sunshine, Lake Louise, and Mt. Norquay, all of which operate on the same SkiBig3 lift ticket, meaning you can mountain hop freely. Lake Louise is the biggest of the three—clocking in 4,200 skiable acres, 145 trails and easily accessible back bowls. Consider hiring a guide (the resort has a really great ski school) who will lead you to all the good runs through the trees—and who can arrange lunch at Whitehorn Bistro, a sit down restaurant at mid-mountain that’s become so popular, you should book a table in advance.
Fifteen minutes from Banff’s main drag, Banff Sunshine—which straddles the Continental Divide—is a little more chilled out and decidedly more popular amongst snowboarders; the village base sits high at 7,200 feet and is accessible by gondola from the parking lot down below. Because of the altitude, the snow stays fairly light dry throughout the season, making for consistently good conditions. While the lift lines generally aren’t too long, you may find crowds at over on Lookout Mountain at Teepee Town LX, a heated bubble chair lift—Canada’s first—equipped with a heated bench and cover to shield you from the wind. For one of the best lunches we’ve had on the mountain, the Chimney Corner at the Sunshine Mountain Lodge serves up surprisingly healthy farm-to-table fare for a ski area—think: halmoumi and veggie wraps, a beet and goat cheese salad, plus tried-and-true dishes like poutine (obviously) and chicken wings.
For littles, the outdoor ice rink at Chateau Lake Louise is a great—albeit chily—spot to take in the scenery and snow-capped Rocky Mountains. The staff at Chateau Mountain Sports will set you up with rental skates, and it’s totally worth it to end the day with a lap around the rink under the stars. (They’re open ’til 11 p.m.) Afterwards, grown-ups can wind down and warm up at the hotel’s ice bar, where they’re pouring mulled wine or Bailey’s spiked hot cocoa.
There are several dog sledding outfits across Lake Louise and Banff, but Snowy Owl Sled Dog Tours is repeatedly recommended for their responsible and deeply humane approach to caring for their Huskies. There’s a 2-hour-long “Powder Hound Express” tour that makes a pit stop at Goat Pond during the 6-mile journey and ends with s’mores, warm drinks, and a campfire.
Summer in this part of the world means hiking, canoeing, fishing, and the general feeling that you’re in a Patagonia catalogue. If you’re looking for something a little less sporty, the recently renovated Banff Gondola is a solid start. Located at the base of Sulphur Mountain, five minutes outside of town, the gondola runs year-around, but the vistas are particularly stunning in the summer. The eight-minute ride to the summit boasts impressive views of the Rockies via its 360-degree observation deck. For kids, the Above Banff Interpretive Center is also full of interactive displays on the history of the town and its indigenous flora and fauna.
About nine miles from Lake Louise, the road to Moraine Lake is open from May through October. Once you get there, the striking, glacially-fed lake’s turquoise waters will stop you in your tracks. Moraine tends to be a starting point for many hikes into Larch Valley and Sentinel Pass—this is where you will see some of the most jaw-dropping natural beauty of the entire area. A note: day trippers are only allowed within the park between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., which means an evening canoe paddle once the crowds die down an enticing option if you’re staying local.
Bow Falls is beautiful no matter what time of year you go. If you’re staying in downtown Banff, it’s an easy walk from the main drag. Pack a picnic from STOCK or Wild Flour Bakery and head to one of the well-marked trails for a few hours on the south shore. The walk will only take about 20-25 minutes. There’s a parking lot at the base, which makes for easy access (there are also separate trails for cyclists).
Lake Agnes Tea House
Start on the shore of Lake Louise (near the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise) for the popular—ok, fine, crowded—Lake Agnes Tea House hike. The uphill climb is a wide switch-backed path for about two miles, and takes anywhere from one to two hours. But the pièce de résistance is the picturesque Lake Agnes and its namesake tea house which was built by the Canadian Pacific Railway back in 1901 as a rest stop for hikers. Open from June through October, this family-run tea house has no electricity—in fact, flour and sugar for their baked goods are helicoptered in at the beginning of the season. The menu includes 100 different varieties of loose leaf tea, plus freshly made soups and sandwiches, perfect for a mid-hike refuel. We’re particularly fond of the tea biscuits and homemade banana bread for dessert. During the busiest months, prepare to wait a while.
Plain of Six Glaciers
If you’re looking to leave the tourist crush behind, the Plain of Six Glaciers is a lesser-known tea house hike that’s equally atmospheric. (It also starts at Chateau Lake Louise viewpoint.) The hike itself is moderately challenging but the views are a sweet reward: you’re close to the heart of Mount Lefroy, Mount Victoria, and the Victoria Glacier. The wildlife spottings range from the sweet Snow White ones—chipmunks, squirrels, and their ilk—to the ones you’ll want your camera for—pika and mountain goats, in particular. Be sure to layer up, even in warmer temps, as you near the glacier. It’s a glacier, after all, and the air cools down significantly as you approach. If you don’t want to go at it alone, outfits like Timberline Tours lead guided day trips that range from two to five hours long.
At Johnston Canyon, it’s easy to take a choose-your-own-adventure approach; there’s a relatively leisurely 20 minute hike to the lower falls or a more rigorous 1-1/2 mile climb to the upper falls. (There’s plenty of shade along the way, too.) From there, if you have the stamina, it’s worth continuing out of the canyon and through the forested trail over to the Ink Pots—mineral spring pools of bubbling emerald water. And yes, they’re as magical as they sound.
photo courtesy of Jon Sinclair