Banff Travel Notes

Welcome to Banff, Alberta / For two weeks, Emily and I lived out a fantasy winter life in the Canadian Rockies, hiking and drawing all day long, perpetually putting on all our winter gear, and sweating profusely whenever we got inside.

Banff Arts Centre / Our Banff Artists in Residence program was held on this mountainside campus. The residency included a spacious art studio, hotel-style room, meal plan, and access to art facilities (think ceramics studio, printmaking shop, sound equipment, even SLRs). It’s an artist’s dream.

We hiked when the weather cooperated and climbed at the indoor gym when it didn’t. We also did a great job of balancing all that exercise out with buffet-style meals at Vistas. The other dining option is an a-la-carte cafe and bar, Maclab, that stays open late enough for a quick nightcap.

To get to the Centre, we took a shuttle in from Calgary airport and went almost everywhere on foot. Taxis are available, as is some public transportation via the Roam Banff bus.

  • Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity / 107 Tunnel Mountain Dr, Banff, AB T1L 1H5
  • Banff Airporter shuttle / $125.98 CAD round trip from YYC to Banff Centre. 2 hours one-way

You don’t have to be part of a residency to enjoy this campus. We often dined and climbed alongside people who were staying in Banff town or who were here also staying at the Banff Centre for a conference.

Performances by musicians are also open to the public. We heard new scores on instruments we’d never seen before, like the contrabass recorder. Pianist Noriko Ogawa performed using myochin chopsticks as musical chimes, except that the metal used for these chopsticks was originally made into samurai swords.

The mix of musicians, artists, and writers alone is worthy of a visit. One composer recently backpacked in Greenland with a poet he’d met at Banff. Another trio of Banff residents jammed together via electric guitar, drums, and kamanche (an Iranian stringed instrument). Where else would we hear that combination?

Dressing for the weather / A winter stay in the Canadian Rockies means preparing for temperatures ranging from -24F to 30F. We were surprised to find that the coldest, snowiest hikes were also the most beautiful, despite unexpected difficulties like frozen eyelashes and air so dry and cold that it made us cough. What is it about finding beauty in the most remote of environments?

You’ll probably want to invest in a good jacket and “toque”, the Canadian word of choice for a warm hat or beanie. Emily and I each had our own weird solutions to staying warm, often using hand and toe warmers. It was much warmer to keep my fingers wrapped around a pack in the palm of my glove rather than keeping the digits separate. Emily’s secret weapon was to wrap the toe warmer around the top of her cold toes, rather than under the sole.

The flip side of surviving this weather is that 30F will feel like a heatwave.

Some trail switchbacks are often very icy in the winter, so we would recommend wearing ice cleats or microspikes for any icy or uphill terrain. You can rent these on a daily basis from a couple spots in town. If switchbacks aren’t your idea of fun, rent snowshoes or cross-country skis instead. There are plenty of flat trails around town.

  • Snowtips-Backtrax / 225 Bear Street, Banff, AB T1L 1B5
  • Stubai Antislip 4 Point Crampons: $14 per day / $7 CAD per half day. $53.95 CAD on Amazon. Adjustable for any winter boot, easy to pack away
  • Grab a quick lunch from Barpa Bill’s Souvlaki or Wild Flour Cafe while you’re at it.

Tunnel Mountain Summit Hike / This short hike is so close to campus that it could be your regular morning walk. The summit brings you a sweeping view of Mount Rundle and the Bow River Valley. If you keep an eye out, you can see the change from darker clastic rocks to lighter limestone rocks as you approach the summit. Finding limestone above clastic layers is telltale evidence for shifting tectonic plates in this mountain range. Geology is fun.

  • Elevation gain: 948 ft / 300 meters
  • Distance: 2.7 miles / 4.3km round-trip
  • Time: allow 2 hours round-trip

Dogsledding / We went for a magical 2 hour dogsled ride over Goat Pond by Spray Lakes. You’ll be hitched up with a team of 7–8 dogs, learn how to give commands and direct the sled, and still have plenty of time to bond with the dogs. The ride will end with hot cider and some sweet snacks by a campfire.

Our guide told us that he’s trying to get into skijoring, a sport where two sled dogs are harnessed to a driver on skis. Amazing.

Surprise fact: the word “mush” was never said even once over the course of the entire trip.

  • Dress like you’re about to go snowboarding or skiing. It was quite windy, so Emily’s ski goggles came in handy against the blowing snow.
  • Get ready to run alongside the sled on uphill climbs. The dogs will love you all the more for it.
  • There are quite a few operators who will pick you up from Banff town and transport you to and from the site. They offer a variety of lengths and trips.

Banff Upper Hot Springs / Relax in one of eight Banff hot springs. This one is operated by Parks Canada and sits at the foot of a 3.4mi trail that leads all the way up Sulphur Mountain to the Banff gondola. We found that this trail is absolutely beautiful after a fresh snowfall. Next time we’ll do the round trip hike and then reward ourselves with a nice soak.

Local tip: wear a hat into the hot spring area when it’s extra cold out or snowing. We ended up grabbing a quick lunch post-soak in the cafe, which carried Japadog-style hot dogs!

  • $7.30 CAD for adults
  • Lockers, towels, and old-timey swimsuits are available for rental. We brought our own towels and bathing suits.
  • Open from late October until mid May
  • Hours from 10am-10pm Sunday-Thursday and 10am-11pm Friday-Saturday
  • Taxi from Banff Arts Centre to the hot springs: ~$15 CAD one way
  • Roam Bus from town to the hot springs: $2 CAD one way

Johnston Canyon Upper Falls Hike / This is a very popular hike, regardless of season — and for good reason. In winter, the Johnston Canyon waterfalls freeze over, transforming into a gorgeous cascade of ice (and prime conditions for ice climbing). As you pass through the dense sub-arctic forest, you’ll see icicles forming from the slow buildup of water dripping off rock. Spotting walls of these meter-long icicles should have you channeling your inner David Attenborough. Look even more closely at the rock walls and you might even spot some fossils left by ancient coral reefs.

  • About a half hour drive from Banff Centre
  • Look up Walk with Ronna if you’re interested in a guided tour. She will explain the way that the canyon has been formed by water, and even brings hot tea and cookies to enjoy.
  • Distance: 3.4 miles / 5.4km round trip to Upper Falls and back
  • Elevation: 215m / 700ft elevation gain
  • Time: allow 2 hours round trip

Bow River Falls Walk / If you have extra time, there are a number of short walks you can do from Banff town. To walk along the Bow River to the Bow Falls, cross one of two pedestrian bridges from Buffalo Ave, one off Muskrat St and the other off Banff Ave. A half hour walk, guided by a wooden staircase, will take you to the falls. We recommend that you then reward yourself by spending an hour and half eating a victory lunch in town.

Don’t forget to stop by one of the many gift shops for some souvenirs! We recommend any of the elk / moose / bear poop chocolates. For something classier to take home, visit Park Distillery for shirts or spirits, or find beautifully designed Forest and Waves goods at Branches just down the street.

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For more information on winter hiking in Banff, try visiting these sites:
http://www.pc.gc.ca/eng/pn-np/ab/banff/activ/skidefond-xcski/banff.aspx
http://parkscanadahistory.com/brochures/banff/winter-trails-banff-e-2011.pdf
https://www.banfflakelouise.com/hiking/banff-area-trails

by Julia Kuo