Visitors to Banff National Park in December will find a mountain of delights to enjoy—if you know where to look. Whether you’re seeking outdoor adventures or cozy holiday festivities, Banff has something for everyone. In this guide, we’ll let you know everything you need to make a winter vacation to the Canadian Rockies sparkle. Get insider tips on what to expect from the weather, what to pack, the best winter activities, special Banff area events, and even ways to celebrate Christmas in Banff.
What to Expect from Banff’s December Weather
Oh, the weather outside is frightful, but the fires are so delightful! You can’t argue that December in Banff brings temperatures that are downright cold. December brings on the “brr” with average temperatures ranging from -10°C to -5°C (14°F to 23°F). It really gets chilly once the sun sets each day, so you’ll undoubtedly want to bundle up.
What else comes with the cold, you ask? Well, visitors will typically experience some form of precipitation during a December Banff visit. On average, Banff sees an average of 10-11 rainy days during the month. That adds up to just over 20 millimeters (.86 inches). Snow falls about every 3-4 days, giving December around 19 snow days and 177 millimeters (6.96 inches) of the white stuff.
Packing Essentials for a December Visit to Banff
When packing for a December visit to Banff, bundling and layers are the name of the game. The snowy conditions provide excellent opportunities for winter activities. However, to properly enjoy everything the Canadian Rockies has on offer, you need the proper gear. While there are a few standard staples that should be in everyone’s suitcase, your specific itinerary will dictate what other items you may want to include on your packing list.
To stay toasty warm while you’re enjoying Banff’s winter activities you’ll want to pack lots of warm clothes. This includes thermal layers and long sleeve shirts. Flannel makes an excellent option to protect against the low temperatures. When thinking about layers that can easily slip on and off, sweaters make a great addition to your packing list as well. You’ll want to include several different coats—a winter parka, a down jacket, and a lighter, mid-layer jacket. Don’t forget the hats, gloves, scarves, and warm socks.
Bring waterproof boots, pants, and a jacket to protect yourself from snow and moisture. Nothing can make you more uncomfortable out on the trails than wet toes in your boots!
Snow blankets Banff in December, and the reflecting sun can be brutal if you don’t plan ahead. Pack sunglasses, sunscreen, and lip balm to shield yourself from the sun’s reflection on the snow.
Sturdy, insulated boots with good traction are a must for walking on the icy surfaces you will encounter in Banff in December—especially if you plan on taking advantage of any of the many trails in and around the area. Popular hikes, even lower elevation trails such as Johnston Canyon, can be precariously slippery. So, you may even want to invest in microspikes or crampons for added stability on the ice and snow.
Don’t forget the camera! You will want to capture all the natural beauty, like the famous Northern Lights, you can see in Banff in photos so you can relive the memories time after time. Many smartphones have excellent cameras built-in. But there are no outlets in nature, so you may also want to bring a charger so you don’t miss any of the fabulous photo ops!
The Pros and Cons of Visiting Banff in December
December in Banff National Park brings a unique charm and beauty that is hard to resist despite the cold. The snow-covered landscapes, festive atmosphere, and wide array of winter activities make it an enticing time to visit. However, as with any travel destination, there are pros and cons to consider.
The stunning December scenery in Banff is reason enough to make a visit to the Canadian Rockies. The snow-capped mountains, frozen lakes, and glistening forests create a picturesque backdrop for plenty of outdoor adventures and scenic hikes. The stunning beauty of the park is at its peak during this time, offering breathtaking photo opportunities.
Visiting at this time of year offers a wide variety of unique seasonal activities. From skiing and snowboarding at world-class resorts like Sunshine Village and the Lake Louise Ski Resort to ice skating on frozen lakes and snowshoeing along pristine trails, Banff offers a plethora of options for outdoor enthusiasts. The crisp winter air and snowy landscapes add an extra element of excitement to these activities.
The festive atmosphere truly sparkles in Banff in December. The month burgeons with holiday cheer, and Banff embraces the festive spirit wholeheartedly. The town is adorned with twinkling lights, and various events and markets take place throughout the month. The Banff Christmas Market, Santa Claus Parade of Lights, and Christmas at the Castle at the Fairmont Banff Springs are just a few examples of the enchanting experiences that await visitors.
Jack Frost definitely nips at your nose in December! On many days, the temperature in Banff National Park can be absolutely frigid. So, while the snowy landscapes are undoubtedly beautiful, the cold temperatures can be a challenge for some visitors. Expect some days to drop below freezing, and be prepared for chilly conditions.
December is a popular time to visit Banff, especially during the holiday season. The town and popular attractions can get crowded, resulting in longer lines and busier trails. If you prefer a quieter and more secluded experience, it may be worth considering visiting during the shoulder season. Want to know more about the shoulder season? Check out our informative two-part series on the spring and fall.
The Alberta snow may be beautiful, but it can limit accessibility to certain areas and activities. Hiking trails may be closed or require additional precautions, and wildlife sightings may be less frequent. If your itinerary includes hiking, verify current trail conditions on AllTrails.
In all, visiting Banff in December offers visitors a unique and enchanting experience. The stunning winter scenery, thrilling and unique seasonal activities, and the festive atmosphere make it a captivating time to explore the park. Just remember to keep in mind the weather will be colder, you might experience an uptick in crowds, and some activities may be limited. However, with proper preparation and a willingness to embrace the winter elements, a December visit to Banff can be a truly memorable adventure.
Getting Around Banff in December—Winter Transportation Tips
Navigating Banff National Park in December requires some planning. Wintry conditions like ice and snow can potentially cause issues if you’re not adequately prepared. For instance, if you are driving, you need to be aware that certain thoroughfares legally require your vehicle to be equipped with snow tires or chains. Some roads even experience scheduled closures throughout the season. However, armed with the right information and available transportation options, exploring Banff during this time can still be a delightful experience.
December Road Closures in Banff
Banff National Park experiences occasional road closures in December. This happens due to heavy snowfall and hazardous conditions. Several roads also serve as protected wildlife corridors during the winter months. Fortunately, you can check for up-to-date road conditions and closures on the Parks Canada website and 511 Alberta. Both sources give reliable up-to-date information that will help ensure smooth travels around Banff. Here are two of the planned closures you might need to accommodate during a December visit.
Minnewanka Loop Road (West)
From November into May, the western section of the Minnewanka Loop Road remains closed to all vehicular traffic. The closure exists to help preserve a nearby wildlife passage. Keeping human activity in the area to a minimum helps ensure that the beautiful flora and fauna Banff National Park is known for continues to flourish for future generations.
Fairmont Banff Springs Golf Course Road
Like the Minnewanka Loop Road, the Fairmont Banff Springs Golf Course Road also closes to vehicular traffic to protect a seasonal wildlife passage. It reopens in May.
ROAM Around Banff In December
You can always sit back and leave the driving to Banff’s excellent public transit system. The ROAM transit system makes an excellent and inexpensive option for getting around Banff and the surrounding areas, especially in the winter. The ROAM transit system operates several regular routes that connect Banff, Canmore, and Lake Louise. These routes provide access to popular destinations, including ski resorts, hotels, and attractions.
Adult fares for travelers ages 13 and older on local routes 1 and 2 cost $2.00 CAD ($1.60 USD) for a single ride. Youth fares are available for travelers between the ages of 6-12 for $1.00 CAD ($0.80 USD) for a single ride. If you’re traveling with little ones under 6 years old, they can ride free of charge with your paid fare. These local routes travel to Sulphur Mountain, Fairmont Banff Springs, and Tunnel Mountain in December. Other regional routes to Canmore, Lake Louise, Johnston Canyon are available as well and range from $3 CAD ($2.22 USD) to $10 ($7.40 USD). In addition to single-ride fares, the ROAM transit system offers various pass options for frequent travelers. These include day passes, 10-ride passes, and monthly passes.
Where to Purchase
All passes can be purchased at the Roam Customer Service Desk inside the Banff Visitor Centre on Banff Avenue. They can also be purchased from ticket vending machines located at Banff High School Transit Hub, the Banff Elk West Transit Hub, Canmore 9th Street, Canmore Shoppers Drug Mart, Canmore Benchlands Trail Overpass, and the Lake Louise Lakeshore. You can also take advantage of the easy-to-use Token Transit app, which allows you to purchase passes directly from your smartphone.
The ROAM transit system provides a convenient and affordable way to explore Banff and its surrounding areas, especially during the winter months when road conditions can be challenging. It allows visitors to access popular destinations without the hassle of driving and parking.
Winter Activities in Banff and Lake Louise
Banff and the Lake Louise area offer visitors a wide and varied menu of winter activities to suit every interest. Here are a few must-try experiences.
Lace up your skates and glide across some frozen surfaces surrounded by some of the most stunning scenery Mother Nature can dish out. Several locations within Banff National Park offer visitors skating opportunities.
Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise
Lake Louise offers a picturesque setting and is perhaps the most reliable of all the area skating opportunities around Banff. Snowfall on the ice can often limit skating availability on many area lakes. However, the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise regularly clears the lake surface near the hotel, keeping it readily available for avid skaters. In addition, you can enjoy an aprés skate beverage from the ice bars that frequently pop up at the lake’s edge while warming up by one of the crackling shoreline fire pits.
The Rental Center at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise offers skate rentals for adults and children. Adult skates can be rented for four hours or eight hours for $23 and $33 CAD ($17.02 and $24.43 USD) respectively. Junior skates are available for $13 and $23 CAD ($9.62 and $17.02 USD). Do note that skates are available on a first-come, first-served basis and cannot be reserved.
Fenlands Banff Recreation Centre
The Fenlands Banff Recreation Centre provides a covered rink for all-weather skating. Prices range from $10 to $15 CAD ($8 to $12 USD) for adults and $6 to $10 CAD ($5 to $8 USD) for children. A rink fee is required in addition to the skate rental. Adults ages 18 and above cost $7 CAD ($4.44 USD). Youths ages 17 and under cost $4.75 CAD ($3.52 USD). Families can skate for $15 CAD ($11.10 USD). As this is an indoor rink, you will find the temperature milder than the outdoor skating opportunities, which may make it a better option for those sensitive to the cold.
Embark on a magical sleigh ride through the snowy landscapes of Banff with Banff Tours. Enjoy the jingle of bells as you take in the scenic beauty then enjoy a warming beverage back at the stables. Adult ticket prices for ages 13 and over start at $47 CAD ($34.76 USD). Children’s tickets for ages 4-12 start at $37 CAD ($27.37 USD). Infants up to three years of age can ride free of charge. Banff Tours currently offers a 10% discount for online bookings made at least seven days in advance with code ONLINE2SAVE. If your plans change, you can even cancel within 24 hours of your reservation. While not included in the ticket price, you can make the tour extra cozy and yummy with a blanket or s’mores add-on.
Ice Climbing with Yamnuska Adventures
For the adventurous souls, Yamnuska Adventures offers thrilling ice climbing experiences. Learn the basics or challenge yourself on frozen waterfalls under the guidance of experienced instructors. Prices vary depending on the length and difficulty of the climb starting at $479 CAD ($354.30 USD) per person.
Kingmik Dog Sled Tours: Unforgettable Dog Sledding Adventures in Banff National Park
If you’re seeking an exhilarating dog sledding experience in Banff National Park in December, look no further than Kingmik Dog Sled Tours. With their commitment to animal welfare, stunning locations, and thrilling trips, Kingmik offers an unforgettable adventure through the snowy landscapes. Here’s what you need to know about dog sledding opportunities with Kingmik in Banff National Park:
Kingmik Dog Sled Tours operates in the heart of Banff National Park, providing access to some of the most breathtaking backcountry trails in the area. Their base of operations is located just outside the town of Canmore, Alberta, which is approximately 20 minutes from Banff.
Prices for the Great Divide experience start at $575 CAD ($425.58 USD) for a 90-minute tour. During the dogsledding experience with Kingmik, you’ll have the opportunity to learn about the history and techniques of dog sledding, as well as the unique bond between mushers and their sled dogs. You’ll be guided by experienced mushers who will ensure your safety and provide an informative and enjoyable journey.
Exploring the Best Winter Hikes in and Around Banff in December
Banff National Park in December offers a winter wonderland for outdoor enthusiasts, with a plethora of hiking trails to choose from. While the Tunnel Mountain and Johnston Canyon trails are popular options, there are other fantastic winter hikes in and around Banff that deserve attention. Here are three of the best winter hikes to consider, excluding the Tunnel Mountain and Johnston Canyon trails.
Plain of Six Glaciers Trail
Difficulty Level: Moderate to Challenging
Length: 14.6 kilometers (9.1 miles)
Duration: Approximately 5-7 hours
Elevation Gain: 365 meters (1,198 feet)
The Plain of Six Glaciers Trail is a breathtaking winter hike that takes you to stunning viewpoints of glaciers and mountain peaks. You’ll find the trailhead located near the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, approximately 57 kilometers (35.4 miles) northwest of Banff.
The trail winds through a picturesque valley, offering panoramic winter views along the way. Do be prepared as the hike becomes more challenging as you ascend towards the Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House, which is closed in winter. Proper winter hiking gear, including traction devices such as hiking poles, microspikes, and crampons are essential for this trail.
Cory Pass Loop
Difficulty Level: Challenging.
Length: 14.6 kilometers (9.1 miles) loop.
Duration: Approximately 6-8 hours.
Elevation Gain: 915 meters (3,002 feet).
Looking to set the bar a little higher? Skilled hikers can challenge themselves on the Cory Pass Loop. The trailhead for this hike can be found in the Fireside Picnic Area, approximately 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) west of Banff on the Trans-Canada Highway (Highway 1).
If the hike doesn’t leave you breathless, the views of the surrounding peaks and valleys will. The trail takes you through dense forests, along a ridge, and past frozen waterfalls. A favorite among experienced hikers, the Cory Pass Loop is well worth the trip. Due to the steep and rugged sections of this hike, proper winter hiking gear and caution are necessary.
The Cory Pass Loop is a challenging winter hike that rewards hikers with breathtaking views of the surrounding peaks and valleys. The trail takes you through dense forests, along a ridge, and past frozen waterfalls. The loop offers a variety of terrains and stunning vistas, making it a favorite among experienced hikers. Due to the steep and rugged sections, proper winter hiking gear and caution are necessary.
Difficulty Level: Moderate to Challenging
Length: 12.8 kilometers (8 miles)
Duration: Approximately 4-6 hours
Elevation Gain: 670 meters (2,198 feet)
The Cascade Amphitheatre trail is a hidden gem in winter, offering a peaceful and scenic hike away from the crowds. The trailhead is located at the Mount Norquay Ski Area, approximately 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) northwest of Banff.
Lose yourself in the snow-dusted forested area before the trail opens up to a stunning amphitheater surrounded by towering peaks. The solitude and beauty of this trail make it a must-visit for winter hikers. Do note, this hike can be challenging, especially in snowy conditions, so it is not suitable for families with young children. Proper winter hiking gear and caution are also necessary.
The Best Snowshoeing Trails in Banff for December Exploration
One of the best ways to immerse yourself in the pristine beauty of Banff National Park is snowshoeing. December offers enthusiasts a variety of snowshoeing trails to choose from. Here are three of the best snowshoeing trails.
Johnston Canyon Icewalk Trail
Difficulty Level: Easy to Moderate
Length: 5.4 kilometers (3.4 miles)
Duration: Approximately 2-3 hours
Elevation Gain: 135 meters (443 feet)
Located approximately 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) west of Banff, off the Bow Valley Parkway (Highway 1A), the Johnston Canyon Icewalk Trail is a popular choice for snowshoeing in December. This trail takes you through a stunning canyon, offering breathtaking views of frozen waterfalls and ice formations. The well-maintained path is relatively flat, making it suitable for all skill levels.
Lake Louise Lakeshore Trail
Difficulty Level: Easy
Length: 4 kilometers (2.5 miles)
Duration: Approximately 1-2 hours
Elevation Gain: Minimal
The Lake Louise Lakeshore Trail is a picturesque snowshoeing route that offers stunning views of the iconic frozen lake and surrounding mountains. You can find the trailhead near the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, located approximately 57 kilometers (35.4 miles) northwest of Banff. The trail is relatively flat and well-marked, making it suitable for beginners and families. You can rent snowshoes for the whole family at Wilson Mountain Sports in Lake Louise for $12 CAD ($8.88 USD) per day.
The adventure of snowshoeing can be exhilarating, but always keep safety in mind. When planning a snowshoeing adventure in Banff in December, dress appropriately for the weather and carry essential safety equipment, such as a map, compass, and avalanche gear. Yamnuska Adventures offers a two-day beginners’ course in avalanche skills training in nearby Canmore or Calgary for $299 CAD ($221.08 USD). Participants in the course receive instruction from ACMG and IFMGA-certified guides, classroom materials, and avalanche safety equipment to help ensure their safety during all their snow adventures. It’s also advisable to check the Parks Canada website for any trail closures or safety advisories.
Special Events in Banff and Lake Louise
December is filled with special events that add to the festive atmosphere in Banff and Lake Louise. Here are a few notable events:
Banff Christmas Market
Experience the charm of a European-style Christmas market at the Banff Christmas Market. Browse through local vendors, enjoy live entertainment, and indulge in delicious treats. This family-friendly event takes place at the Warner Stables, 100 Sundance Road in Banff on December 1-3. Hours are Friday & Saturday 10 AM – 8 PM, Sunday 10 AM – 4 PM. Visitors can stroll through Central Park and along the new Bow River pedestrian bridge and follow the path to the right toward Warner Stables. Just look for the big red barn and festive lights!
In Search of the Christmas Spirit
Usher in Christmas and connect with the wildlife that calls Banff National Park home with a special outdoor Christmas experience. In Search of Christmas Spirit takes place in the Cascade of Time Gardens on select nights during the holiday season. Visitors follow a story through a festive, lighted trail dotted with illuminated sculptures and accompanying sound effects. Learn the story of the indigenous wildlife and the natural space they occupy. While free, this is a ticketed event. Tickets become available starting October 23, 2023. Event hours are 4:30-9:30 PM daily.
Without a doubt, a visit to Banff National Park in December promises visitors a truly enchanting experience. From the snowy landscapes to the array of winter activities and festive events, Banff offers a vacation experience certain to leave you with unforgettable memories. Embrace the magic of the season, explore the breathtaking scenery, and immerse yourself in the holiday spirit in Banff in December.