Covid-19 Editor's Note: We took this trip in early 2020 before the pandemic hit. As of January 7th, 2021, air travelers to Canada five years of age or older are required to present a negative Covid-19 test 72 hours before departure and quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. Train travel is gradually returning to service in Western Canada with changes to onboard service and limited train routes.
ALBERTA, CA — With spectacular snow-capped peaks, frozen glaciers, cozy mountain towns, castle lodges, and the longest ski season in North America, Jasper and Banff National Park are little slices of paradise for winter enthusiasts around the world. The slopes on the four mountains — Marmot Basin, Mount Norquay, Sunshine Village, and Lake Louise Ski Resort — are uncrowded, with wide open runs and reasonable lift tickets compared to U.S. destinations. With fresh powder through May, a ski vacation can be the sole reason for visitors, but there's plenty to do off-piste. Snowshoeing, dog sledding, ice skating, and guided wildlife tours are all available for those keen on finding winter wonderland without strapping on ski boots. And for those who'd rather warm up than suit up, there are multiple thermal pools and hot springs to visit, grand lodges with excellent spas, high-alpine restaurants, and popular whiskey distilleries and brewpubs to explore in the picturesque mountain towns.
And for the ultimate way to reach solitude and unplug in the majestic Rocky Mountains, take the scenic route aboard VIA Rail's The Canadian glass-domed train ride that winds through the mountains and ice valleys with luxury sleeper cars, dinner on board, and cozy nooks to stare out at the scenery. With frequent departures from Vancouver or Toronto, adding a night or two on the train to your itinerary is easy, with rail tour operators like Vacations By Rail offering travel packages including transportation to and from the parks, hotel accommodations, and guided wildlife tours and expeditions.
In January, I spent a week road tripping through the vast national parks, where I skied across Canada's continental divide, spent the night in a castle, and tested my thick skin in temperatures below -40F — it was magical. Here's my guide to where to stay, explore, drink whiskey, and take in the views.
Jasper National Park
This Alberta beauty — the largest national park in the Canadian Rockies — is wild in every sense of the word. Its landscape covers an expansive region of backcountry ski trails, rough-and-tumble mountains, deep-blue reservoirs, and a healthy population of local residents including grizzly bears, moose, and elk. I spent two days exploring the quaint mountain town, walked across its frozen lakes at sunrise, and experienced what was at the time, the third coldest place on the planet.
Where to Stay
Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge — On the other side of the Athabasca River, this 700-acre luxury resort stretches across the shores of emerald-green Beauvert Lake, with a number of well-appointed cedar chalets and signature log cabins connected by picturesque walking paths. Don't be surprised if you encounter the friendly neighbors of elk and mule deer roaming the property. It’s also where the Jasper Planetarium dome theater is located with nightly telescope expeditions and live Dark Sky tours. Rates start at $259.
Sawridge Inn — On the outskirts of town in a quiet and relaxed setting, this cozy lodge provides all the comforts you need to recharge from a day of winter adventure, including a spa with eucalyptus-infused steam room, indoor pool and hot tub, and restaurant lounge with a large fireplace serving breakfast and dinner. Rates start at $139.
Where to Eat + Drink
Jasper Brewing Co
624 Connaught Dr, Jasper; +1 780-852-4111
Welcome to Albeerta! Founded by three Jasper-bred beer enthusiasts, this local brewpub is Canada's first national park brewery, pouring seasonal ales since 2005 with clever batches such as the 6060 Stout named after the midnight black "Bullet Nosed Betty" steam engine, and the town's mascot "Jasper the Bear," brewed with honey from the Okanagan valley. Warm up after a morning wildlife tour with a six-pack sampler of the latest on tap, with warm-buttered soft pretzels, duck steam buns, and the brewery's take on classic poutine.
610 Patricia St, Jasper; +1 780-852-4742
Doesn't it seem that no matter how remote the destination in the world, somehow a worldly Australian manages to open a trendy coffee shop? Opened by a local Jasperite and her Australian partner who longed for the unique cafe culture of Byron Bay, the pair took on the challenge of sourcing oat milk and avocados in the dead of winter in northern Canada. Housed in a bright and airy dome-shaped atrium, the cafe serves delicious and healthy breakfast and lunch, with outstanding coffee, and serious good vibes.
Evil Dave’s Grill
622 Patricia St, Jasper; +1 780-852-3323
Locally sourced and globally inspired, Evil Dave's serves an extensive menu of locally sourced seafood, Alberta-raised beef and bison, and a medley of Mexican, Asian, and Thai dishes. The hearty selection was perfect for such a chilly night. For the adventurous foodie, try the 'cowboy sushi,' prepared with grilled beef tenderloin rolled in nori and lightly battered, deep fried, with sticky sushi rice and wasabi. (Even Canadians get sick of poutine.)
608-B Patricia St, Jasper; +1 780-852-4550
The simple kind of shop you hope to find in every cozy mountain town, serving house made breads and soups. A great option for vegetarians as well.
What to Do
Discover Jasper's wildlife with Sundog Tours: Spot elk, moose, goats, coyotes, and wolves with a three-hour tour around Jasper National Park. You'll learn about the history of Bow Valley and the wildlife's behavior, habitat, and winter survival adaptations. Tours run from October to April and cost $69 for adults and $35 for children. If you can request tour operator Wes (pictured above), who has lived in Jasper for over 40 years and collects shedded antlers of the wildlife, educating his guests on the natural process with a few epic "tails from the trails" along the way.
Maligne Canyon: Explore the deepest canyon in Jasper National Park, traversing its four bridges across the gorge, and descend 160 feet down to the canyon, shaped by millions of years of rushing water and framed by gigantic ice pillars famously named Queen of Maligne and Angel Ice Falls. Make your way through the self-guided interpretative trails, with the short loop reaching the upper levels of the canyon, and a longer trail entering the base of the gorge. Mountaineering shops in town rent out ice cleats for traction, or are provided with a guided tour.
Marmot Basin Ski Resort: Most hotels in town provide shuttle service to the nearby ski resort, a 20- to 30-minute drive south of town. A smaller mountain compared to Banff's Big 3, with more affordable prices and way fewer crowds, making it ideal for families with small children.
If there's one place in the world that truly resembles a shook-up snow globe, it's Lake Louise — a hamlet in Banff National Park known for its turquoise, glacier-fed lake ringed by high peaks and overlooked by the stately Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. In winter, the property utilizes the snow-covered frozen lake, creating a winter village complete with a hockey and ice skating rink, snow shoeing and cross-country skiing trails, and an ice bar serving hot toddys with blankets and fire pits. I spent one adventurous night at the property, taking advantage of their post-dinner snow shoeing excursion, as the full moon guided the group along the back trails of the property. And in the morning before my departure to Banff, I made my way around the lake on cross-country skis, as the sun rose above the Victoria Glacier, and my eyelashes froze to my face.
Where to Stay
Slumber soundly inside the snow globe, with rates at Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise starting at $219. As the only property at the base of the lake, all of the winter activities are located right outside your door, in addition to three restaurants, spa, indoor pool, scenic sleigh rides, and an après ski bar serving an extensive list of Canadian whiskeys. Rent cross-country skis, ice skates, and hockey sticks from the hotel for an active morning or afternoon on the frozen alpine lake. Or sign up for a guided expedition of ice climbing Louise Falls, or hike to Johnson Canyon with ice cleats into the upper and lower falls.
Skoki Lodge — Built in the 1930s, the historic wooden building was the first ski-in/ski-out lodge to serve skiers in Canada, and quite possible North America. Located almost seven miles from the nearest road, it's only accessible via back-country skis, or snowshoes (while carrying your overnight pack), which takes about three to five hours. Very little has changed since the '30s, as there's no electricity or running water, and cozy log cabins and family-style gourmet dinners served by candle light. It's not for every traveler, but if you enjoy the otherworldly quiet of being among snowy mountains with no one else around, a good book beside the fire, and stargazing — it's magic.
What to Do
Every January, the alpine town comes alive with the twelve-day Ice Magic Carving Competition, where teams of sculptors from around the world — Russia, Latvia, the Philippines, Japan, and the U.S. — battle it out with craftsmanship and mastery of intricate ice castles, dragons, and kings.
Ski the Big 3 — Banff National Park's three ski resorts, Lake Louise, Sunshine, and Mt Norquay, are conveniently located less than an hour from each other, making it accessible for avid skiers to hit each slope, especially in the spring time when the sun doesn't set until 8 p.m. or later.
The Icefields Parkway — The highway linking Jasper and Banff is known as one of the most scenic drives in the world, winding through two national parks, jagged mountains, pine forests, glaciers, and frozen lakes. It takes approximately three hours to drive from Jasper to Lake Louise (or vice versa), but you'll want to plan for that to double with various scenic lookouts, hiking trails, and wildlife sightings along the way.
Banff National Park
Canada's oldest national park is also the country's busiest with approximately four million visitors each year flocking to the picturesque mountain town surrounded by towering snowy peaks. It's also the town with the most action, including a variety of cozy restaurants, breweries and distilleries, cannabis dispensaries (also why its so popular), and the Banff Upper Hot Springs.
Where to Stay
Fairmont Banff Springs — Towering above Banff at an altitude of 4,639 ft, the "Castle of the Rockies," built in 1888 by the Canadian Pacific Railway, is one of the earliest Canadian grand railway hotels, situated at the confluence of two rivers and the expansive Bow Valley. Upon arriving, you immediately get the sensation that you're at Hogwarts, only the sorting hat gave you access to luxury amenities including mineral soaking baths, culinary and wine workshops, and spa treatments to ease aching joints after a day on the slopes. Rates start at $429.
Elk + Avenue Hotel — Steps from the quaint streets of the Rocky Mountain town and a ten-minute ride to the gondola, this minimalist modern lodge is perfect for groups of friends, couples, or solo travelers who are looking for the après ski scene and want to be close to the happenings in town. Rates start at $109/night.
Where to Eat + Drink
Perched on the summit of Banff’s Sulphur Mountain at 7,510ft, Sky Bistro is a dining sanctuary in the sky. Accessed via the Banff Gondola, the scenic alpine restaurant is ideal after an afternoon strolling the mountain boardwalk, hanging in the heated igloo lounges, or after hiking up the zig-zagged trail to work up your appetite. Keep in mind that the sun sets in the winter around 5 p.m., so plan to eat an earlier dinner or late lunch. The menu includes seasonal and locally sourced dishes, including house-made roasted beet dumplings, fresh Atlantic cod with a sun choke puree, and Albertan-raised braised short rib.
The Park Distillery Restaurant and Bar: Where better place to find a great distillery than in the heart of the Rocky Mountains? Named Best New Restaurant by Banff Dining when it opened in 2016, The Park distills small batch spirits to pair with campfire cuisine such as cheese and whiskey fondue, cornbread, stuffed vegan mushrooms, and game meatballs. Look out for the Parkway Caesar, the Canadian version of a Bloody Mary, with a signature spiced rim.
Block Kitchen and Bar: On the pulse of Canadian-fusion cuisine (also the best meal I had in Banff), the gastropub serves a daring mix of Korean BBQ, Japanese Izakaya, curried stews, and vegan flatbreads — and it works. My favorites included Tokyo fries, nori-dusted shoestrings served with Japanese bonito flakes and a miso BBQ sauce, vegan bao buns, salmon poke bowl, and the matcha cheesecake with a yuzu sauce.
Banff Ave Brewing Co: Part of the same brewery group as Jasper, the Banff outpost serves its own unique brews in a large space with pool tables, darts, and a shared menu with next door Athena Pizza joint.
Tommy's Neighborhood Pub: The hidden gem, no-frills neighborhood pub essential to any ski bum town.
Dancing Sasquatch: Late-night dancing bar with live DJs, drink specials, and questionable decisions.
What to Do
Banff Upper Hot Springs: The best destination for a spa day or late-night soak in the large outdoor geothermal baths to soothe your body aches from the winter chill and countless laps on the ski hill. Local tip: Plan your visit to the springs in the early morning or late evening for the smallest possible crowd and views of the sun rising or setting behind the mountains.
Wythe Museum: If it's a snowy or blustery day, warm up at the local arts and culture center displaying artifacts and adventure tales from dare-devil mountaineers around the world and contemporary art exhibits that rival those from big name museums.
Coinciding with Lake Louise's Ice Magic festival, Banff hosts the annual SnowDays, a free 11-day-long event with live snow sculpting competitions, outdoor cocktail tastings with large fire pits, family hockey games, and a play zone where kids (and adults) can go for a spin on the fat tire bike course and try human curling and axe throwing.