By Angela Caraway-Carlton
While steadily, and somewhat breathlessly, hiking up the trail of Tunnel Mountain—Banff’s smallest and easiest summit- stop to appreciate one of the many astounding panoramas. As my eyes eagerly take in the beauty of the Bow Valley below, I’m startled when a woman suddenly scurries over the side of the rocks; one-by-one, a group of climbers effortlessly follows suit.
One day later, we buzz through the sky in a helicopter, gasping at glaciers, snow-capped mountains, and a turquoise-hued lake. That’s the beauty of the Canadian Rockies: no day is ordinary or the same. Locals and visiting adventurers choose to scale a rock or rocket down a steep ski slope rather than settle for mundane vacation activities.
Located in Banff National Park, west of Calgary in the province of Alberta, Banff and Lake Louise will transfix you with their natural beauty and constantly nudge you out of your comfort zone with their arsenal of activities. Here, we’ve put together a guide to experiencing the best of Banff and beyond—can’t you just smell the fresh alpine air?
WILD & FREE
Heli-hiking. For a heart-pounding helicopter ride over Rocky Mountain peaks and spectacular glaciers, adrenaline junkies should reserve a bucket-list tour with Rockies Heli Canada. Depending on the season, guides will expertly land next to a stream and take guests on a hike through a peaceful forest to a dual waterfall where they’ll break out the bubbly for a toast to an epic adventure. rockiesheli.com
Dogsledding. It will feel like a dreamy holiday movie during this must-do adventure with Kingmik Dog Sled Tours. After you’re snugly tucked inside the sled, eager Alaskan huskies will take you on a thrilling ride through the powdery forest to see some of the park’s most stunning scenery, including Kicking Horse Pass at the Continental Divide. It’s especially magical after a fresh snowfall. kingmikdogsledtours.com
Ski or Snowshoe. While skiing is king in the winter, a snowshoe tour allows you to slow down and soak up the peace of the white-cloaked forest. Escape to Lake Louise Ski Resort which boasts 4,200 skiable acres of world-class terrain. Take a 14 minute gondola ride to the top of Mount Whitehorn to walk among the snow-covered spruce and subalpine firs and stop for breathtaking vantage points of the Canadian Rockies. skilouise.com
Ice Skating. Drive an hour north to famous Lake Louise, where the normally mesmerizing turquoise lake is frozen solid and transformed into a winter wonderland for ice skaters. Considered one of the grandest rinks in the world, skaters can glide across the ice with views of Victoria Glacier or skate under the stars at night. (By Christmas, the hotel builds a towering ice castle on the rink.) Escape the cold and cozy up at a coveted window seat at the posh Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. fairmont.com/lake-louise
With all the extreme adventuring, you’ve earned some well-deserved pampering. Head to Banff Upper Hot Springs, Canada’s highest-elevation hot springs, where the steaming, mineral-rich waters are medicine for tired muscles. Arrive in the morning or at dinner time to beat the crowds. hotsprings.ca
For the ultimate indulgence, book a spa treatment at the serene Willow Stream Spa—you’ll want to carve out extra time to soak in the spa’s mineral pool and let the pulsating waterfalls pound away tension. In downtown Banff, Cedar & Sage is a Zen-like respite where rubdowns are done with cedar and sage essential oils, known for their relaxing properties. Couples should book the Grand Wetaskiwin treatment, which includes bouncing between the cedar infrared sauna and contrasting hot-and-cold-showers, along with a decadent 90-minute massage. fairmont.com/banff-springs/willow-stream; banffsholisticlounge.com
Banff is one of the few mountain towns to offer inspiring culture—and its beloved gem is the 85-year-old Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. While located just minutes from bustling downtown, the centre feels like its own peaceful world, nestled in a forest and flanked by mountains. It functions as a creative hub and is home to a series of 50 huts where artists of all disciplines, from all parts of the world, come to practice and perfect their craft. One of the most unique nooks: a boat where famous author Yann Martel, who penned “Life of Pi,” spent time working. Banff Centre offers a full calendar of cultural events, but its shining star every fall is the Banff Centre Mountain Film and Book Festival. The nine-day event is spread out over the centre’s four theaters, and tickets go fast for films and readings from trail-blazing authors, photographers, and filmmakers showcasing thrilling adventures and mountain culture. banffcentre.ca
Divine Dining, Stunning Views. Tucked away on the campus of Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, Three Ravens Restaurant & Wine Bar’s artfully prepared dishes and enchanting views of the mountains meeting the sky, will compete for your attention. The executive chef focuses on regional produce and impresses with dishes like creamy apple and celery soup, a perfectly cooked elk rack served with organic quinoa, green bean succotash topped with parsnip chips and melt-in-your-mouth bison with candied fingerling yams. banffcentre.ca/three-ravens-restaurant-wine-bar
Dine Like the Swiss. At Ticino, a family-owned Swiss-Italian gem that’s been around since 1979, you’ll find real-deal cheese fondue made with a mixture of imported Gruyère and Emmental (you’ll have to seriously contain yourself from scraping the pot), along with made-from-scratch dishes such as gnocchi with house-smoked duck breast in a walnut sauce and osso bucco made with slow-braised Alberta elk. ticinorestaurant.com
Pinkies Up. For a regal afternoon, make reservations for high tea at Banff’s grand dame, Fairmont Banff Springs. Inside The Rundle Lounge, which is also an essential meeting place for après-ski cocktails, you’ll sip a variety of teas and nosh on savory scones, dainty finger sandwiches and more. fairmont.com/banff-springs
Where to Stay
Standing majestically above Bow Falls and located within walking distance to downtown Banff, the historic Fairmont Banff Springs offers 764 rooms and suites that extend sweeping views of the nearby mountains and scenic Bow Valley. Designed after a Scottish baronial castle, guests will feel like royalty as they climb the grand staircases to roam the expansive halls leading to outdoor patios and numerous dining options. fairmont.com/banff-springs