Banff Stories and Tips

Out and About: Winter in the Rockies

Marble Canyon Photo, British Columbia, Canada

We were married on a cold Michigan night 25 years ago, trudging through snowdrifts and road salt to the rehearsal dinner, our wedding, and the reception. Back then, it seemed appropriate to head south for a honeymoon, and we woke after a few brief hours of sleep to board a freezing cold plane for a week in Cancun.

But for a silver anniversary celebration, we thought it would be fun to indulge our long-time delight in mountain landscapes and head west, fulfilling an idea that we’d first had while exploring the wonders of Yellowstone: spend a week in the mountains in wintertime.

We thought about returning to Yellowstone, and exploring that amazing but somewhat familiar landscape via skis and even snowmobile. That would have been a great trip, but we decided instead to head someplace (largely) new: the Canadian Rockies, and Banff and Jasper National Parks. I’d been to Banff as a kid, as part of one long, fantastic trip along the Rockies from Denver to Calgary, through the Tetons, Yellowstone, Glacier and Banff. But my memories were mostly clustered on the American side of the border, with Banff having served as a brief, final way station before heading home.

To the surprise of most who heard our plans, we’re not skiers. My downhill experience started and ended on the slopes of Michigan, mostly at places like ‘Mount Brighton’, having ventured north to the state’s best slopes a single time, 30 years ago. And although I spent a lot more time on cross-country skies, those haven’t been out of the garage since we landed in Missouri nearly two decades ago.

So this vacation was built around a different set of activities. We’d sample all the other things winter has to offer: dogsledding, snowshoeing, ice canyons, and wildlife; good meals, warm fires, and cozy cabins; finishing with an nightly retreat to the fireside with a good book.

The weather can range from hospitable to intolerable. We arrived the Sunday after Christmas, and the first words from nearly everyone we met were "Oh, I’m glad you weren’t here last week." Then, temperatures had hit 40 below, the magic point that reads the same on both the Celcius and Fahrenheit scales. The weather had warmed considerably since then, hitting highs of -10 to -5 during our stay (or 14 to 23 F; we liked using the minus signs in telling family back home just how cold it was).

That was more than warm enough to get outside, provided you were dressed right. And we were: thanks to Igo polar expert MilwVon, we headed north with good boots (bravo Sorels!) and multiple layers. My running silks worked just fine, but a big key is Merino wool socks. Don’t skimp on Merino content, or on good gloves: I ended up paying twice, buying real ones to replace the $8.97 pair that seemed ‘good enough’ on a cold Missouri day.

Properly equipped, we had a blast outside. We hiked Marble Canyon in Koontenay National Park, and immediately followed it up on the catwalks of Johnston Canyon back in Alberta and Banff NP. Winter hiking was terrific: the scenery was fantastic, and we had Marble Canyon completely to ourselves (and Johnston nearly so).

On our first full day, we headed into the Spray Lakes region south of Canmore for a dogsled ride with Snowy Owl Tours. What a great experience! We seriously debated whether to come back and do it again. The combination of the animals, the landscape, and the quiet was amazing.

The Town of Banff is an odd combination of mountain outpost, tony resort, and jumping off point. We had some great meals here and in Canmore (chronicled in other journals), and explored the origins of Canada’s National Park system at the Cave and Basin, and the Banff Park Museum. Both are worth a visit if you’re looking for in-town things to do; if you’re out in the mountains already, stay there. Chances are you’ll get more out of a visit to the Whyte Museum of the Rockies, if for no other reason than to visit the excellent gift shop. Browse their photographic archives, or the excellent traveling exhibits: it’s definitely worth a stop.

We made two trips to Lake Louise, both on the grayest days of our visit. The world-famous view down the lake to the now rapidly retreating glacier didn’t look the same when you had to squint through the snow, but it was fun to walk out on the ice. The Chateau Lake Louise perched on its shore looked much different than my first view 37 years ago: the additions, renovation, and new beige skin made it seem out of place, in contrast with its sister property, the brick castle Banff Springs Hotel back in Banff. A downsizing may be in order. But a short hike along the lake’s edge was a good antidote to looking at the acres of plaster in the hotel’s façade.

Thanks to our hosts at Storm Mountain Lodge, we headed out on snowshoes late on New Year’s Eve. This classic mode of travel was easier than I’d thought, and doing it with an experienced guide by moonlight (and finishing with a midnight champagne toast ‘round the bonfire at midnight) gave us an unforgettable start to 2009.

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