Unmissable Things to Do in Banff in Winter

Man stands on frozen canyon

Banff National Park is what winter dreams are made of. Nestled in the heart of Canada’s Rocky Mountains, the town of Banff is surrounded by magical mountain views, snowy outdoor activities, and hot springs to warm up in when your fingers and toes get a bit too frosty. Even if you aren’t the biggest fan of the snowy season, one trip to Banff is sure to make you fall at least marginally in love with winter. Here are the top things to do in Banff in winter.

** Some of the links in this post may be affiliate links. If you click one of the links and make a purchase we’ll earn a small commission at no cost to you. Just like the travel backpacks we build, we’re very particular about products and we only recommend products, services, or accommodation we trust and use ourselves.***

Banff town at night

Top things to do in Banff in winter

Icewalk Johnston Canyon

Johnston Canyon is one of Banff’s most famous trails. During the summer months it gets completely overrun with hordes of tourists. This is one of many reasons visiting Johnston Canyon in winter is so incredible. Rent a pair of ice cleats (around $15/day) in Banff (at Banff Adventures) or Canmore (at GearUp), to prevent a nasty slip on the ice (I made the mistake of not having these one year and it made for a dangerous journey) then start your walk on the suspended catwalk cut into the canyon’s cliff. As you work your way up the canyon, you’ll pass snow covered trees and frozen waterfalls. If you’re looking for even more of an adventure, head to Johnston Canyon with a headlamp for one of the night ice walking tours.

Man stands on frozen canyon

Go ice skating on Lake Louise

Lake Louise is incredible any time of year, but there is something especially enchanting about this Banff National Park hot spot when it’s covered in ice and snow. The section of lake nearest to Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise is cleared daily between December and April, and even lit up in the evenings for night skaters. You can bring a pair of skates from home or rent a pair ($20) at Chateau Ski and Snow. Adding to the magic, is the yearly ice castle built on the rink. Once you’ve gotten your exercise (and your toes, and or fingers, are frozen), head into the Chateau for a warm drink.

Family skates on frozen Lake Louise

Ski Lake Louise, Sunshine, or Norquay

Tourists visiting Banff in winter are more often than not avid skiers. For good reason. The National Park is home to three incredible ski hills within the vicinity of Banff: Lake Louise, Sunshine Village, and Norquay. Each hill has different perks to offer. Norquay offers hourly ski rates (amazing for a quick two hour ski), Sunshine is a family favourite, and Lake Louise is, well world class Lake Louise. These ski resorts continue to get more popular as the years go on, and when you catch a good snow day here, it’s really a good snow day. 

Man skiing with powder

Go tubing at Mount Norquay

While we’re on the topic of Norquay, even if you’re not interested in skiing you won’t want to miss this thrilling adventure. Grab a snow tube, take the magic carpet and spin/slide down one of Mount Norquay’s 8 tubing lanes. It’s a fun and quick activity not far from Banff Townsite. You can find rates for tubing here, starting from $27 CAD for adults in the last hour of the day. 

Cross country ski Two Jack Lake

There are plenty of great trails to go cross country skiing near Banff. You can check in at the visitor center to get the latest trail conditions and recommendations. Two Jack Lake is one of my favourite areas for cross country skiing because it’s close to the townsite and it also gets nice sun rays. You can rent cross country skis in town if you don’t have your own along with you.

Snowy road in Banff

Snowshoe Lake Louise

A new fan favourite activity in the Banff area, snowshoeing is a great way to explore and easy for anyone to do. Lake Louise has a number of great snowshoe trails, and you can rent snowshoes for $13 CAD at the base of the ski resort. Alternatively, take one of Lake Louise’s amazing snowshoe tours where you can be led on an incredible interactive walk.

Person snowshoes with dog

Go for afternoon tea at the Banff Springs

The Banff Springs is simply iconic. There is something about this classic grey building covered in snow and surrounded by white-capped trees and mountains that makes it at its most iconic. After admiring the Banff Springs’ snow covered spires, head inside to warm up over afternoon tea as you admire the mountain views out the large glass windows. At $55 CAD, this is not a cheap outing, but it is a really memorable one. 

Banff Springs hotel in winter

Take a dip in the Banff Hot Springs

Almost as iconic as its mountains, the natural hot springs in Banff National Park are not to be missed. These hot springs get busy, especially on weekends. They’re a great place to warm up and soak your aching ski/snowshoe muscles. An adult ticket costs $8.48 CAD. 

People soak in hot springs

Drive the Icefields Parkway

Some of those frosty winter days, you might just feel like staying warm and relaxing after an overload of outdoor winter activities. This is the day to take a drive on one of Canada’s most beautiful roads – the Icefields Parkway. This stretch of highway goes from Lake Louise towards Jasper, snaking through some of the Rocky Mountains most beautiful sections. It’s a nice way to rest your legs and still soak in some of Banff’s most beautiful sites. If you feel ambitious, you can go all the way to the iconic Columbia Icefields

Road in Icefields Parkway during winter

How to get to Banff

The main center closest to Banff is Calgary, where you can access Banff by Calgary’s International Airport (YYC). From here it’s a 1.5 hour drive/bus ride to Banff townsite.

Where to stay in Banff

Depending on your budget, here are some of the top accommodation choices in Banff:

Budget places to stay in Banff

If you’re looking for an incredible, rustic experience – head to HI Rampart Creek Wilderness Hostel, just past Lake Louise towards Jasper. With a wood-burning sauna, solar powered systems, and access to trails for winter activities right outside the door, this is the perfect place to experience the joys of Banff in the winter. Each cabin has 6 beds and winter rates are around $30 CAD per bed. 

If you want to be in Banff townsite (and close to all of the night action), Same Sun Hostel is the place to be as a backpacker. No spot in Banff is truly budget friendly, and unfortunately the winter months rule out camping. A dorm bed at Same Sun ranges from $40-50 CAD depending on how many beds are in the room. 

Midrange places to stay in Banff

Irwin’s is a no-frills, perfectly located midrange spot in Banff. If you pick up a deal, you can get a room here for under $100 CAD per night (which is a steal in Banff). 

Airbnb

Airbnbs are a perfect option for those looking for a cozy find at a lower cost. A number of options are available for around $70 CAD per night, like this one

Upscale places to stay in Banff

Rimrock Resort Hotel or Fairmont Banff Springs

If you’re really looking to treat yourself, head to the two fanciest places in town:  Rimrock Resort Hotel or Fairmont Banff Springs (rooms starting at $400 CAD per night). Both offer iconic views of the mountains. Choose the Rimrock for nicer rooms, but the Banff Springs for a true castle experience.

Solo cabin with snowy mountain behind

What to pack for a trip to Banff in winter

Layers are the name of the game for a trip to Banff, no matter which season you’re visiting in. Here’s everything you need for your trip:

    • Winter jacket
    • Snow pants
    • Toque
    • Mittens
    • Neck tube 
    • Hand warming packs (these come in handy for a day exploring)
    • A versatile day pack, like our Kiri backpack
    • Water bottle and thermos to put a hot drink in while you’re out exploring – you can pack it in Kiri’s Side Hustle Kit for easy access while you’re on the move
    • A set of long underwear to wear under your outer gear 
    • Warm, moisture wicking socks
    • Sunglasses
    • Sunscreen (the sun is intense when it reflects off the snow)
    • Snow boots with good tread
    • A map (paper or digital)
    • A book to curl up with by the fire after a long day outside

Cambodia’s Best Motorbike Trips | 3 Incredible Adventures in the Kingdom of Wonder

Man sits on rock overlooking hills and cloud on Bokor Mountain

With a majority of the country unexplored by travellers, hopping on a motorbike is the perfect way to access the parts of Cambodia many people miss. From hidden temples and green rice fields to incredible smoky sunsets and abandoned hill stations, you won’t want to miss these rides.

Unfortunately a number of Cambodia’s roads are either heavily trafficked or heavily potholed. That said, if you’re willing to go the extra mile, there are three motorbike journeys in the country you should miss only at your own peril.

With the expansion of tourism, it’s easy (and cheap) to rent a motorbike in any of these locations. I’ve always been a lucky passenger on these trips, as I have yet to master the art of riding a bike myself. If you aren’t comfortable renting your own bike and going at it solo, drop me a line in the comments below and I can recommend someone in the area as a driver.

Now, it’s time to motorbike Cambodia!

Girl wearing backpack looks out at sunset in Mondulkiri

Motorbike Cambodia's Hidden Temples

Siem Reap Town to Beng Mealea, Siem Reap Province

Distance: ~140km roundtrip

This full day temple outing is worth the layer of dust you’ll end up covered in. You’ll be rewarded with solo adventuring at some of Angkor Wat’s most incredible outlying hidden temples. Leaving the tourist mania of Siem Reap town, you’ll soon be surrounded by the real charm of Siem Reap province. Pass by tiny roadside towns selling fresh fruit, admire the green rice fields stretching as far as the eye can see, and take in the country’s signature red dusty roads. 
 

Start your day of adventuring early in the morning to avoid the midday heat. First up on the temple tour is tiny Banteay Ampil, 35km east of Siem Reap town. When I visited in 2018, the only road access was a tiny dirt single track that was often too muddy/washed out to use in the rainy season. I know there were plans to build a larger road in this area so it may be a different journey to get there when you visit. Ask a local in the area before you rent a motorbike and head out here. 

Once you arrive, you should have tiny Banteay Ampil to yourself. This temple is located outside of the Angkor Wat complex and apart from a few boards propped haphazardly to hold up stray stones, the temple is beautifully unrestored. The trees entangling the crumbling stones are incredible. It’s easily my favourite temple in Cambodia for these reasons.

Banteay Ampil

Carry on from Banteay Ampil another 30km in the direction of Beng Mealea. You’ll past rice fields and school children biking the dirt roads to get to class. Beng Mealea is where your big exploration off the bike continues. If you avoid the big tour buses, you’ll usually only see a handful of other people at this temple and you can largely explore it in solitude. It can take around 2-3 hours if you allow yourself to get lost in Beng Mealea’s beautiful dark corridors. Watch out for snakes!

It used to cost just $5 to visit Beng Mealea, however as of 2020 the temple is now included in the regular Angkor Wat admission fee and you will need a full pass. Check out this site before you visit for the latest information on tickets.

Hop on your bike for the long road home, making sure to stop for a coconut and some mangosteens or rambutans at one of the roadside markets to keep your sugar levels up for your motorbike ride home. 

Renting a bike: Expect to pay $10 for a basic bike or more for a dirt bike rental in Siem Reap town. 

Lady walks along path in hidden temples of Siem Reap

Sunset Hills Motorbike Ride

Sen Monorom to Andong Sne, Mondulkiri Province

Distance: 40km roundtrip

Winding through Cambodia’s wild eastern province of Mondulkiri, the 20km road from capital Sen Monorom to Andong Sne is freshly paved, largely devoid of traffic, and, simply put, stunning. You’ll pass by pine forests and hills that turn golden as the sun sets. It’s nothing short of magical, but this road is also bittersweet.

It used to have far more forest coverage than it does today. In spite of the fact that the majority of Mondulkiri province is designated as protected area, illegal logging in the area is strikingly evident. It’s part of what makes this drive so powerful. It’s a reminder of the fragility of our planet and our responsibility to do better as humans. 

Take a pit stop at “Build Love” Hill for a sunset view, and then carry on back to Sen Monorom town for dinner. It’s not a long day on the bike, but it’s a beautiful sunset ride.

Mondulkiri road at sunset

For the more adventurous, add on a trip to Bousra Waterfall earlier in the day (80km roundtrip from Sen Monorom). This road was under construction when I visited and made for a bumpy ride. I would easily say it was still worth it to see the stunning waterfalls waiting there.

Renting a bike: You can rent a motorbike in town for around 5-7 USD per day.

Tales from the Banana Trail

Cambodia's Misty Mountain Motorbike Ride

Bokor Mountain, Kampot Province

Distance: 80-100km roundtrip

If you’re craving an escape from Cambodia’s heat, Bokor is your dream motorbike destination. Base yourself in the relaxed haven of Kampot town and rent a motorbike to head to Bokor Mountain for the day. Once you enter the park, a recently repaved road awaits and it makes for a lovely snaking drive up to the top of the mountain surrounded by trees on either side. Once you get above the clouds, you’ll see a large Buddha which makes for a good pit stop to stretch those driving legs. 

Man sits on rock overlooking hills and cloud on Bokor Mountain

Carrying onwards, you’ll pass swan paddle boats on the mountain’s lake, a seemingly out of place casino, and an old church. If you’re into ghost stories and time travel, stop at the old hill station for a quaint high tea experience in the often deserted old building. Alternatively, bring a picnic from one of the great restaurants in Kampot, and stop at Popokvil Waterfall to eat your lunch at the waterfall (which is at its most impressive during rainy season).

Head back down the winding road into Kampot town for a dinner at one of the town’s amazing restaurants.

Renting a bike: A full day costs $5-7 USD at any guesthouse in Kampot. 

Man sits on waterfall near Kampot, Cambodia

Howe Sound Crest Trail – Your Guide to Hiking the HSCT

View from Magnesia Meadows on the Howe Sound Crest Trail

The Howe Sound Crest Trail (HSCT) offers the ambitious hiker a taste of the best of the incredible BC backcountry!  The 33 km HSCT crosses over and around some of the North Shore’s most iconic mountains including the Lions, James Peak, Mt. Harvey, and Brunswick Mountain. Along the way you’ll be inundated with stunning vistas of the coastal mountain range and Howe Sound. Frequent scrambles, mild exposure, and a few precarious sections with chains/ropes make the Howe Sound Crest Trail an ambitious 1-2 night backcountry trip (or an even more ambitious trail run) not for the faint of heart. To the ambitious hiker the rewards of this journey are unmatched by anything with this proximity to Vancouver. 

** Some of the links in this post may be affiliate links. If you click one of the links and make a purchase we’ll earn a small commission at no cost to you. Just like the travel backpacks we build, we’re very particular about products and we only recommend products, services, or accommodation we trust and use ourselves.***

View of the lions on the Howe Sound Crest Trail
Photo Credit Stephen Evans

How to get to the Howe Sound Crest Trail

The Howe Sound Crest Trail is typically done as a point-to-point hike from south to north starting from Cypress mountain near West Vancouver and finishing at Porteau cove. North to south navigation is also possible, but adds significant elevation gain to your hike.  There is no Translink (public bus) available to Cypress mountain or Porteau cove, but Parkbus does offer transportation to the Cypress provincial park on weekends during the summer months.  

Without Parkbus, a multi vehicle solution or a generous friend willing to pick you up and drop you off is required. It is also possible to hike up the Baden Powell from Horseshoe Bay (public transit accessible) to begin your hike, but this will add an extra 9km and over 1000 meters of elevation gain to an already long and strenuous adventure.

Important considerations for the Howe Sound Crest Trail

Water: As the trail spends a lot of time meandering along ridges and on summits, water can be an issue on this hike. Come prepared by carrying at least 5L.

Dogs: There are several segments of the trail that your furry friend will not be able to negotiate and there have been several forced evacuations as a result of people trying, so make sure to leave your dog at home for this one.

Cell Reception: Good reception is available until Brunswick lake. After that, expect to lose it until the gruelling final slog down the 5km of access road.

Insurance: If you’re travelling from outside Canada, make sure your travel insurance covers you for this type of adventure. If you’re looking for comprehensive coverage, World Nomads has many great options for protecting adventure lovers.

Backcountry Camping: No outhouses, no camping pads, no bear caches. Come prepared with your trowel, and rope for hanging your food and don’t forget to pack out everything you bring in.

Bears: You’re in bear country. Make lots of noise, bring bear spray and be extra noisy in the obvious areas overgrown with berries (I spooked a bear in the berry-laden meadow between David Peak and Magnesia Meadows).

Other information: Check BC Parks website for important updates on trail access or warnings.

View from the campsite at magnesia meadows
Photo Credit Stephen Evans

Camping spot recommendations for the Howe Sound Crest Trail

1 night on the trail: Magnesia Meadows

 A long first day brings to you this beautiful campsite situated in a gorgeous alpine meadow with an incredible sunset view of Mt. Harvey and out towards the Howe Sound and Sunshine Coast. Magnesia Meadows has a good consistent water source provided by a small tarn that is a close walk from the emergency shelter.

2 nights on the trail:

For night 1 find a spot with access to a tarn for water near Unnecessary Mountain or the East Lion. For night 2 camp on the beautiful shore of Brunswick lake.

How long will it take to hike the Howe Sound Crest Trail

To give you an approximate idea, here’s my rough timing for the Howe Sound Crest Trail done as 2 days and 1 night. Please note I added several hours and a lot of energy by hiking up the Baden Powell trail from Horseshoe Bay. If you go this route, I’d suggest taking the first possible morning bus to Horseshoe Bay to limit the potential of being forced to hike in the dark. As a baseline, I’d classify my pace on the faster side. Leave early on day one to avoid hiking in the dark, especially in the fall as the days grow shorter.

Horseshoe Bay to Cypress Mountain via Baden Powell Trail – 2.5 hrs

Cypress Mountain to Magnesia Meadows (with a couple quick stops and 30 minute lunch) – 9 hours

Magnesia Meadows to Highway 99 (including ascent up Brunswick Mountain, swim in Brunswick lake and lunch) – 7 hours

Hiking the Howe Sound Crest Trail:

From the parking lot at Cypress Mountain pass the lodge on the left hand side and head toward the main wooden sign post for the ski resort. You should see several sign posts indicating St. Marks summit and the Howe Sound Crest Trail.

View from St Marks Summit near Cypress Mountain

Cypress Mountain to St. Marks Summit

You’re off! The first 6km of the Howe Sound Crest Trail meanders through the trees before making several switchbacks to the top of St. Marks summit. The first part of the trail is relatively uneventful and can be quite busy. St. Marks is a hugely popular day-hike and the throngs of running shoe, jean clad, hikers may leave you wondering if you’ve somehow gotten lost … fear not! Following St. Marks the crowds thin and the hike becomes a lot quieter.

Once you’ve reached the summit of St. Marks, follow the paths off to the left to find the best view spots and take a moment to savour your first great vista. You likely won’t have the view to yourself, but it’s gorgeous nonetheless and worthy of a snack stop (or lunch if you’e been really ambitious and come up the Baden Powell from Horseshoe Bay or are taking 2 nights to complete the trail).

Once you’ve savoured the views you’ll drop steeply down the backside of St. Marks before beginning the steep ascent up the appropriately named Mt. Unnecessary.

St. Marks to Mt. Unnecessary

While not the most technically challenging part of the trail, I found the ascent up Unnecessary to be the most mentally gruelling. It’s in the trees, your pack is at its heaviest (assuming you haven’t already eaten too much food) and the toll of descending St. Marks just to make an unnecessary up again (pun intended) is a touch taxing.  After making the slog up for a while, the trees begin to thin out and you’re granted an incredible view of the Howe Sound – the perfect antidote to unnecessary suffering!

The Lions from Unnecessary mountain

Unnecessary Mountain to the Lions

From the top of Unnecessary mountain you’ll make a scramble down a steep roped section before the grade eases briefly as you continue towards the base of the Lions. Keep your eyes peeled for a small detour trail to the right of the main Howe Sound Crest Trail that provides a potential water fill up spot should the need arise! There’s also a few spots in here to make camp if you’re planning a multi-nighter. From here, the trail begins to ascend steeply giving you a taste of the scrambling and challenges to come! Near the top of the ridge a stunning view awaits with huge cliffs dropping off around you! If you’re spending several nights on the trail and time is on your side the Lions provides the opportunity for a scramble and the chance to bag another summit on your epic Howe Sound Crest Trail adventure. Near the base of the Lions, the trail cuts down to the right and the more technical part begins!

The Lions to James Peak

After dropping down slightly the trail traverses a gully along which a series of rock ledges give you your first taste of some exposure. Following the traverse, you’ll ascend steeply to a beautiful spot before another brief descent and level off  to yet another beautiful viewpoint! From the viewpoint, you’ll descend steeply before entering a talus field. Mind your footing through the ankle twisters and keep your eyes peeled for the occasional orange trail marker indicating that you’re on the right path. Towards the left side of the field you’ll exit and begin a steep journey up James Peak. Once at the summit you’ll find a chain rope that can be used for support in crossing a thrilling ridge!  Once across, James peak opens up into a meadow – a great spot to stop and catch your breath!

Scaling the ropes accross James Peak
Photo Credit Stephen Evans

James Peak to David Peak to Magnesia Meadows:

When you’re ready to continue, look for orange markers or flags toward the left side and descending through the meadow. Avoid the false trails leading straight, they end abruptly in descents that would only work with a squirrel suit!

Once you’ve completed your descent through the meadow after James peak, you’ll come to a fork in the road. The left fork leads up and over David peak with a steep scramble through the bush and several roped sections. To the right, the trail circumnavigates David peak, losing significant elevation before forcing you to regain it. During my hike in September of 2019, the route left over David peak appeared to be the only option and was clearly marked as the main route. After ascending and steeply descending David peak the trail veers off to the left passing through a field of berry bushes and ascending towards Harvey pass. Make lots of noise in this area, as tons of ripe berries make this prime prime bear feeding territory late in the season. I spooked a black bear fattening himself up for hibernation on my hike. Once you’ve ascended through the berry-lane you’ll reach Harvey pass and almost immediately see the Magnesia Meadows emergency shelter. Magnesia Meadows is a stunning location to spend the night and the views of Mount Harvey and the Howe Sound are nothing short of spectacular! Set up camp, savour the sunset and rest well, the hardest part of the Howe Sound is now behind you!

View from Magnesia Meadows

Magnesia Meadows to Brunswick Mountain trail:

After packing up, continue past the emergency shelter before veering to the left and hiking through the trees and several meadows with a few views of Mt. Harvey. Around 2km in you’ll encounter a fork in the road for the Brunswick Mountain trail. If you’re up for it, dump your pack and make the 30 minute scramble to bag yet another peak, not to mention some incredible views of the Howe Sound, Mt. Harvey, and the Coast mountain range.

Brunswick Mountain on the howe sound crest trail
Photo credit Stephen Evans

Brunswick Mountain to Brunswick lake:

When you’ve finished the detour up Brunswick mountain, continue along the trail crossing another meadow and a forested area with several tarns before descending to the sublime beauty of brunswick lake. Brunswick lake offers an incredible spot to camp if you continue a ways past the emergency shelter and take a right at the fork to the lakes south shore. It also provides a great spot for a refreshing dip to help cool those aching muscles and joints before continuing the bone crunching descent!  

Brunswick lake the perfect spot for a swim
Photos credit Stephen Evans

Brunswick Lake to Deeks Lake

After you’ve enjoyed some time relaxing at Brunswick lake follow the fork to the left and cross a small rock bridge (another great spot to swim). After descending further, you’ll reach a roped section that helps ease a slippery section by a waterfall. From here you’ll pass along meadows and rocky sections before descending and then eventually crossing a small stream. Eventually you’ll reach deeks lake and traverse the lake through beautiful trees and mossy grounds to the log jammed area and campsite at the opposite side.

Deeks Lake
Photo credit Stephen Evans

Deeks Lake to Highway 99

From Deeks Lake you’ll descend and pass a small waterfall before continuing to descend uneventfully through the forest. From the boundary of the trail, you’ll slog the last 3.5km along a gravel road before shooting out near Porteau Road. Chuck off your pack, pat yourself on the back and drive down the road for a celebratory brew or post adventure feast in Squamish! 

Questions about the Howe Sound Crest Trail? Flip me a note in the comments below and I’ll do my best to help you out!