You don’t need skis for outdoor thrills and luxury slope-side experiences in Canada’s winter hotspots of Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper, Alberta.
By Linda Barnard
These treasured Rocky Mountain regions are a powder lover’s delight and rightfully synonymous with downhill pursuits. But there’s far more to do here than ride a ski lift — unless it’s boarding the Banff Gondola to the summit of Sulphur Mountain to admire the sunset over Banff townsite and the Bow Valley before dinner at Sky Bistro.
Banff and the village of Lake Louise, a 45-minute drive away, are within Banff National Park. Jasper is the largest national park in the Canadian Rockies and includes the charming namesake town. It’s about a four-hour trip north of Banff along one of Canada’s most dramatically scenic routes, the Icefields Parkway. Officially called AB-93 North, the two-lane highway is framed by thick forest as it passes towering mountains, waterfalls, glaciers and lakes.
You may not need a car, something to consider given winter roads can be treacherous. There’s a shuttle bus from Calgary International Airport to Jasper. Another bus goes to Banff, and there’s a Lake Louise express bus to and from downtown Banff.
These are truly choose-your-own-adventure destinations, places that embrace winter with gusto. Here are some ideas to build your getaway. No skis required.
Move over, horsepower. For an exhilarating experience on snow, nothing compares to the athletic charge of a team of eight enthusiastic Alaskan huskies pulling your sled past mountains and forests.
Lake Louise-based Kingmik Dog Sled Tours runs 90-minute excursions that cross the Continental Divide and briefly pass into British Columbia.
Musher and champion long-distance dogsled racer Cynthia Lecours got us tucked into the sled for our trip. We sat like a bobsled duo beneath down covers and a waterproof wrap. The dogs leaped and barked, making it clear they wanted to run.
At Lecours’ command, the team began to pull the sled along a snow-packed trail at an enthusiastic trot. Lecours guided them with encouraging and calming commands, none of which included “mush.” These muscular dogs are elite athletes that need about 6,000 calories a day. She knows each one’s personality, quirks and unique strengths.
The sled’s runners made a soft whoosh on the show as the dogs paced along the trail through Kicking Horse Pass and beneath a massive wooden sign proclaiming our arrival in British Columbia. On the way back, Lecours guided the team through “the Narnia forest,” along a narrow, winding route that curved around immense trees.
At the finish, we rewarded the team with pucks of frozen chicken.
“I love my huskies,” said Lecours as she embraced the dogs one by one.
Chasing Frozen Waterfalls
Maligne Canyon is the deepest canyon in Jasper National Park and in summer, best viewed from the rim. The winter freeze lets you walk along the shallow frozen river bottom dozens of metres down, between the canyon walls.
For our Maligne Canyon Icewalk with SunDog Transportation and Tours, we put on safety helmets, insulated rubber boots and “icers,” what guide Jeff Hanson calls the pull-on rubber ice cleats. They came in handy as Hanson led our small group down sometimes slick paths into the canyon.
We stopped at overlooks and bridges to admire the views below and had an audience with “the Queen,” a 25-metre waterfall frozen into sculptural beauty. This isn’t a walk to do without a guide, Hanson stressed.
It was an uncanny experience to walk across the frozen river bed. We searched for fossils in the rocks and admired the organ pipe-like displays created by massive icicles, then walked behind a frozen waterfall, the frozen cascade making a dream-like curtain.
Maligne Canyon tours run until late March, depending on the weather.
There’s ice skating and then there’s ice skating on Lake Louise, where the Rocky Mountains, Victoria Glacier and an ice-block castle form the backdrop for what’s been called one of the most beautiful ice-skating rinks in the world.
The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise maintains the ice surface. Rent skates at Chateau Ski and Snow Rentals beside the front desk. And for some next-level pond hockey, sticks are also available for rent. Skating continues until mid-April, depending on the weather.
Afterwards, warm up from the inside out at the rink-side outdoor ice bar. Bartenders make warming concoctions like mulled wine and hot chocolate cocktails topped with a generous swirl of whipped cream.
Swim With a Toque
Who needs a bathing cap? When you go for a splash as the snow falls around you, a toque is the better option.
Heated outdoor pools at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge and the Fairmont Banff Springs are easy to ease into when the temperature drops, thanks to an indoor-to-outdoor curtain into the heated pool.
Admire the mountainous views of Mount Rundle and Cascade Range from the Banff Springs Upper Hot Springs pool. The outdoor hot springs have been bringing visitors to Banff since 1886 and the natural mineral spring waters are now often supplemented with municipal water.
Forgot your bathing suit? Rent one at the check-in desk in the circa-1932 bath house. Choose between a modern swimsuit or a surprisingly flattering one-piece romper-style historic design.
Winter is the best time to chase the northern lights, especially in Jasper, which is certified as a Dark Sky Preserve. The Jasper Planetarium at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge has a planetarium dome theatre. It runs guided tours outside with what it calls the largest, most powerful telescopes in the Rockies.
Aalto Restaurant at Pyramid Lake, about 6km north of Jasper, offers a Dark Sky and dinner combination through March, pairing a three-course menu with guided stargazing through telescopes.
There’s a pharmacy in the forest, as Cree-Iroquois master interpretive guide Brenda Holder pointed out on one of her traditional Native medicine walks around Cascade Ponds in Banff.
The owner-operator of Mahikan Trails talked to us about the land, explaining how her ancestors lived off its bounty as she identified plants and explained their uses. The forest is alive, even in winter, she said.
Matricia Brown of the Sturgeon Lake Cree Nation runs Jasper-based Warrior Women with her daughter, Mackenzie. She leads plant walks, makers’ workshops and hosts weekly fireside chats at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge and various other locations.
Indigenous Chef Shane M. Chartrand, co-author of the cookbook Tawâw: Progressive Indigenous Cuisine, is collaborating with The Maple Leaf restaurant in Banff on menus and special events. Chartrand’s signature dishes include alder-roasted mushrooms and bison tenderloin and marrow.
Sulphur Mountain was once a gathering place for the Stoney Nakoda First Nation. Hear their storytelling as part of the Nightrise multi-media experience on the outdoor decks around the Banff Gondola summit building. It’s free with a gondola ticket.
Where to Stay
Jasper bills itself as the “cabin capital of Canada,” with more than 800 cabins. They range from rustic to deluxe, such as the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, a 700-acre luxury resort on Lac Beauvert. The property has main lodge rooms and suites in cozy signature cabins, some with wood-burning fireplaces. There are also restored, self-contained heritage cabins that sleep two to 16 guests.
The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, called Canada’s “Castle in the Rockies,” has 739 luxury guest rooms and suites, many with inspiring Rocky Mountain views. Canadian Pacific Railway general manager William Cornelius Van Horne saw the tourism potential of this area early, planning to use the CPR to bring visitors to the stunning mountain landscape and natural hot springs. All he needed was a hotel. The original Banff Springs Hotel opened in 1888.
Linda Barnard was a guest of Banff & Lake Louise Tourism which did not preview this story.