An alternative winter break in Alberta, Canada

Updated on 12 December 2019 | 0 Comments

Alberta is bursting with activities to help you make the most of your trip to this winter wonderland

Winters in the Canadian Rockies are long and cold, with thermals all but mandatory well into March. As anyone living here will tell you, you’ve only got two options when the snow arrives: hide indoors for months or get out there and embrace it. And with a handful of beautiful national parks in the mountains – including Banff, Jasper and Waterton – it's no surprise that most people enthusiastically choose the latter.

But for many visitors it can be a bit daunting to see locals enjoying a casual weekend of ice climbing, or adventure tourists heading out for a spot of heli-skiing. Luckily, there are plenty of less extreme ways to make the most of this stunning season. Here are a few of the best soft adventure activities in Alberta.

Alberta, Canada (Image: Daniel Huebner/Shutterstock)Daniel Huebner/Shutterstock

Skiing and snowboarding

It can be intimidating to see kids who’ve skied since they could walk bombing down a black diamond run, but the resorts in the Canadian Rockies are actually very beginner-friendly. In fact, they’re friendly in general – even if you stay in snowplough position the whole way down, you’ll be made to feel right at home.

Banff Sunshine has the Canadian Rockies’ longest non-glacial snow season, and with slopes on three mountains, the resort offers plenty of choice once you’re ready to move from the learner area onto the green runs. It’s also the leading resort for adaptive sports learning in the Rockies. 


A post shared by Banff Sunshine Village (@sunshinevillage) on

Lake Louise is another great option, with experienced instructors and special learning aids for kids – plus breathtaking views across to glacier-fed Lake Louise and the Bow Range. At 4,200 acres, the skiing area is also the largest in Banff National Park.


If you’re not keen on skiing but still like the idea of speeding down a mountainside, then tubing is the answer. Head up the slope, settle into your big rubber ring, and… down you go. 

While most of the resorts have a tubing area – and you can also enjoy tubing at WinSport, Calgary’s 1988 Winter Olympics venue – Mt Norquay’s is particularly impressive. It has eight lanes and a children’s play area, and is open on Friday nights for much of the winter.

Tubing in Alberta, Canada (Image: Ambrose Fung/Shutterstock)Ambrose Fung/Shutterstock

Winter hiking

The easiest way to experience the beautiful landscapes of the Canadian Rockies is, quite simply, to walk in them. Up close, you can see discrete layers of snow built up over days and weeks, slowly formed stalagmites of ice dripping down cliff-faces, and tracks of wild animals that walked these paths before you.

Unlike the rabbits, elk or bears, though, you should head out in sturdy hiking shoes and some crampons. If you’re unfamiliar with winter hiking, it’s best to go with a guide – plenty of tour operators in the area will provide you with gear, an expert guide and – vitally – tasty snacks for the trail.

Pursuit Adventures’ Icefalls and Ice Bubbles hike is a perfect introduction to David Thompson Country, a serene and spectacular area northwest of Calgary. It takes in Cline River Canyon, with its glittering water and the blue icefalls, and Abraham Lake, famous for the methane bubbles that form bizarre patterns in the thick lake ice, like shapes blown in glass.

Abraham Lake in Canada (Image: Pictureguy/Shutterstock)Pictureguy/Shutterstock

Discover Banff also runs excellent guided ice walks. Johnston Canyon is the most popular, with the huge, cathedral-like formations of its icefalls, but Grotto Canyon is the best choice for a more secluded tour. On this leisurely hike along a frozen riverbed you’ll not only see fascinating icefalls, but also ancient native pictographs on the canyon walls.


The kind of light, fluffy snow which invites snow angels is called powder, and there’s plenty of it piled up in deep drifts in the Canadian Rockies. As inviting as it looks, though, you’d be unwise to try walking on it without a little help – unless you don’t mind sinking up to your knees. Snowshoeing is the best way to get out on the snow, and luckily technology has progressed well beyond strapping a couple of tennis rackets to your feet and hoping for the best.

White Mountain Adventures’ First Tracks Snowshoe Explorer trip is ideal for first-time snowshoers, exploring the Continental Divide area in Banff and Kootenay national parks. With snowshoes on you can get off the beaten path easily and safely, and immerse yourself in the quiet, frozen landscape.


A post shared by White Mountain Adventures (@whitemountainadventuresbanff) on

Cable cars

The Canadian Rockies, unsurprisingly, have some truly jaw-dropping views. Luckily, for the days when a hike doesn’t appeal, the mountains are laced with a network of cable cars (usually called gondolas or tramways).

Opened in 1959, Banff Gondola is Canada’s oldest. Its modern facilities are fully accessible and the one-mile ride takes just eight minutes. At the top, you can wander along the 3,280ft (1km) boardwalk to Sanson’s Peak, take the short South East Ridge Trail higher up Sulphur Mountain or stick to the 360-degree observation deck (where stargazing sessions are sometimes held). You can also get a casual meal at Northern Lights or linger over an indulgent dinner at the Sky Bistro, both offering tasty dishes made with regionally-sourced produce.

Banff Gondola (Image: Rybarmarekk/Shutterstock)Rybarmarekk/Shutterstock

For the longest and highest aerial tramway in Canada, head to Jasper SkyTram. In just seven minutes it takes you from the base station (at 4,127ft/1,258m) to the upper station (7, 424ft/2,263m). Here you can grab a bite to eat before following the boardwalk to the summit of Whistlers Mountain (a gentle 3,937ft/1.2km route), or going out onto the alpine trails – the Whistlers Trail is a rewarding four-mile (6.6km) hike back down the mountain.

Ice skating

Whether you’re wobbling your way around or happily pirouetting, ice skating is always good fun. In Alberta, you’ll have your pick of rinks, whether you want somewhere indoors, a maintained outdoor rink or a huge frozen lake in the backcountry.

Ice skating rink at Olympic Plaza, CalgaryJeff Whyte/Shutterstock

Olympic Plaza in Calgary is a great place to start, as are Hawrelak and Rundle parks in Edmonton which are monitored and maintained by the city. For a slightly wilder experience, head to Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise – the famous lake is covered in thick ice every winter and around the annual Ice Magic Festival, skaters can glide by a sculpted ice castle.

READ MORE: 6 essential experiences you must have in Calgary

Among the best unmaintained ice surfaces are Policeman’s Creek (near Canmore), Lake Minnewanka and Abraham Lake (where you can admire the ice bubbles as you skate past). You’ll need to take extra care on unmaintained ice and might want to bring a shovel in case there’s snow on a particularly inviting patch.

Spas and hot springs

After all this walking, skating and skiing, you’ll probably want nothing more than a hot bath. Luckily, there are several excellent spots for al fresco bathing in the area – Banff National Park (Canada’s oldest) was originally founded to protect its hot springs.

You can visit the original springs at Cave and Basin National Historic Site but can’t bathe there. Instead, head to nearby Banff Upper Hot Springs or if you’re in Jasper try Miette – both are natural mineral hot springs with good facilities.

Banff Upper Hot Springs (Image: Adam Hinchcliffe/Shutterstock)Adam Hinchliffe/Shutterstock

Over the border in British Columbia are Lussier Hot Springs, a set of wild springs maintained by park rangers in Whiteswan Lake Provincial Park, which provide more of a back-to-nature experience.

If you’re feeling indulgent, try Pomeroy Kananaskis Mountain Lodge’s Nordic Spa. Allow plenty of time to try all its pools, saunas, steam rooms and heated hammocks, following the hot-warm-cold-rest-repeat formula which is designed to boost circulation and ease aching muscles. There’s nothing quite like soaking in a steamy pool while snow falls around you and the fleece-lined, hooded tartan robe helps take the edge off the chilly dashes between pool and sauna.

Getting there: Visit the Canadian Rockies with Travel Alberta. Canadian Sky (01342 889355) offers a seven-night alternative winter holiday in Alberta from £1,349pp (room-only basis; two adults travelling together and sharing accommodation). The price includes return Air Canada flights from London Heathrow to Calgary, eight days’ car hire and seven nights’ accommodation (two nights at Pomeroy Kananaskis Mountain Lodge, two nights at Baker Creek Mountain Resort, two nights at Moose Hotel & Suites, one night at Alt Hotel).

Main image: BGSmith/Shutterstock


Be the first to comment

Do you want to comment on this article? You need to be signed in for this feature

Copyright © All rights reserved.