Mad Dogs & Englishmen Expeditions offer winter activities in Banff. // © 2011 Mad Dogs & Englishmen Expeditions
Banff and the smaller hamlet of Lake Louise are surrounded by the 2,568-square-mile Banff National Park which, at 125 years old, is Canada's oldest national park. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a park among parks, with Kootenay National Park just to the south, Yoho National Park to the west and Jasper National Park to the north. Adjacent and nearby to those parks are additional public lands under provincial or Canadian government protection. Among them, they offer winter adventures that range from mild to wild, many of which are ideal for a multigenerational vacation. Clients visiting during the winter also enjoy low lodging rates, an absence of crowds, untrammeled scenic beauty and a rich portfolio of activities.Soft-Adventure Activities
Banff National Park contains two palatial hotels, Fairmont Banff Springs and Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, and three significant downhill ski areas -- the giant Ski Lake Louise, the high-elevation Sunshine and the in-town Mt. Norquay. Ski Big 3, a joint venture between this trio of resorts, sells a single lift ticket that accesses nearly 8,000 acres of skiable terrain, and free shuttle buses connect towns and mountains. (Expect the ski season to stretch into late May.) A new must-do activity is the Alpine Lights evening -- a Saturday night ride on the Ski Lake Louise gondola to an on-mountain lodge for a prime rib dinner.
For non-skiers, the Chateau Lake Louise maintains an ice surface on its namesake, Lake Louise, for ice skating against a drop-dead gorgeous mountainscape. Every afternoon in the magic of waning daylight, the hotel puts on a party with steaming cups of hot chocolate, music and a crackling outdoor fire. Nearby, winter trails wind throughout the park and several outfitters offer ski-touring and snowshoeing excursions, providing the companionship of a small group and the security of following a guide. Tours range from a couple of hours to a full day in length, and from easy meandering excursions with a focus on the mountain environment to vigorous full-day trips. Guides are trained in backcountry navigation, first aid and, of course, they know how to create a fascinating experience for clients of all ages and skill levels.
A guided ice walk deep into a snowy canyon during the day or evening is a different sort of experience. The Johnston Canyon route begins on elevated walkways and ends up at a frozen waterfall. The Grotto Canyon ice walk follows a frozen stream. For the fit and adventurous, ice climbing instruction is also available.
Dogsleds and snowmobiles, which began as practical north-country transportation, are now popular as recreation. Snowmobiles are prohibited in the national park, and only one operator, Kingmik Dog Sled Tours, has a permit for dogsledding within park boundaries. By and large, non-motorized activities such as dogsledding operate from Canmore and the beautiful Kananaskis Valley on the east side of Banff National Park. Snowmobiling and heli-skiing day trips are available across the provincial border near Golden, west of Banff National Park.
Whether for two hours, a half day or a full day, a rollicking ride on a sled pulled by a team of enthusiastic and powerful huskies is an unforgettable thrill. Excursions often include stops for taking photographs, a snack and a hot drink and, on all-day tours, lunch is provided. Most sleds can carry two adults and one child. The professional musher/guide can control the team or teach clients mushing basics. All outfitters encourage clients to interact with the dogs.
Mad Dogs & Englishmen Expeditions, a small tour operator, also provides basic instruction in skijoring, whereby a dog (or a horse or vehicle) pulls a person who is on cross-country skis. This short, easy ride is perfect for families, budget-minded clients or anyone who is hesitant about dogsledding. It includes about 40 minutes on a gentle route with a stop at a native teepee along the way.
Snowy Owl Dogsled Tours' Flight of the Great Snowy Owl combines a thrilling 30-minute helicopter flightseeing tour with a dogsled excursion. The region's other one-day helicopter experience is conducted with Purcell Helicopter Skiing out of Golden. They offer three runs for those new to deep-powder skiing or snowboarding and five runs for advanced to expert snow riders.
Snowmobiles can carry people far deeper into the backcountry than skis can, and heated handles, warm snowmobile suits, overboots and helmets make rides safe and comfortable. Clients need to bring their own goggles and gloves. While riding single is an option, it's more expensive. Tours last from two hours to all day and include stops for leg-stretching, photography and a snack.
For those who simply want to sit back and relax while touring through some of most stunning landscapes on the planet, Brewster Vacations Canada offers a range of sightseeing trips. One popular package is the seven-night Winter Wonderland package from Vancouver to Calgary -- including Banff and Jasper -- that includes a night onboard a Via Rail luxury train.
Simply put: there's an activity for every visitor in this stunning and unique region, regardless of fitness ability or interest.