Is there any greater joy than skating on a frozen lake below a hanging glacier, until dark?
Is there any greater joy than skating on a frozen lake below a hanging glacier, until dark? (Photo: Courtesy Discover Banff Tours)

Banff’s Top Family Adventures

On the slope and off, there's plenty to do

Is there any greater joy than skating on a frozen lake below a hanging glacier, until dark?

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If winter bypassed your town this year, it’s not too late to squeeze in a spring ski trip north of the border. With three resorts within a 45-minute radius that stay open well into May, Banff, Alberta, is the perfect place to experience the staggering terrain of the Canadian Rockies. Because all three resorts are located entirely within Banff National Park, Canada’s biggest and oldest, you’ll find none of the second-home sprawl that’s creeping into most U.S. ski towns. Development is strictly regulated and wildlife abounds—it’s not unusual to see moose or elk strolling down Banff Avenue, and cougar and wolf sightings are common. Long days and late sunsets—it’s light past 8:30 p.m. in April—mean you can shred all day and still have time to sneak in a hike before dark. And at these latitudes, the snowpack—well above normal for this banner season and drier than neighboring British Columbia—will hold well into May. Everything is bigger and stretches further in Alberta, including your U.S. dollar. Here’s the definitive guide to doing it up with kids.

Best Downhill Bragging Rights

Lake Louise is the biggest of the three family-owned resorts near Banff, with 3,200 feet of vertical (much of it in the alpine), legendary back bowls, and legit front-side steeps that play host to the men’s and women’s World Cup each winter. On bluebird powder days, the Summit Platter is a rite of passage for little rippers: The Poma lift climbs steeply to the resorts’ high point, offering intermediate to expert access to untracked stashes, hike-to terrain that can be tailored to kids, and access to the aptly named Paradise lift.

Best Luxe Launchpad

Chateau Lake Louise, on the south shore of stunning Lake Louise, was built in 1890 as a remote outpost for intrepid Banff Springs guests. Today, it’s a lavish eight-story mountain hotel with a cadre of Swiss guides who lead guests on mountaineering expeditions throughout the area. Despite its size, the hotel is dwarfed by and seems right at home amid the surrounding peaks, including Mount Victoria and its hanging glacier at the far end of the lake. The Swiss influence is still alive and well with a wood-paneled fondue restaurant and a robust guiding program. Splurge on a lakeside room with views of the glacier, avalanche chutes on the lake’s north side, and no fewer than five separate ice rinks right out the front door.

Best Après Action

Rent skates and hockey sticks from Chateau Mountain Sports in the chateau’s lobby, buy a souvenir puck for $4, and hit the ice. Is there any greater joy than skating till dark on a frozen lake below a hanging glacier? Break for cocktails and poutine at the Lakeside Lounge, then head back out to skate under the lights until 10 p.m. The lake stays frozen through much of April.

Best Ways to See Wildlife

From April through October, Discover Banff Tours runs two-hour twilight wildlife safaris to find wolves, caribou, elk, mountain goats, and even grizzlies. Mike in the Guides’ Cabin at Chateau Lake Louise knows the best places in the area to see wolves. The hotel’s guiding program—including snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and hiking—has its origins in the illustrious Swiss Mountain guides. For DIY wildlife viewing, head to the Banff Springs golf course, where elk like to congregate, and detour off Trans-Canada Highway 1, the main drag through the park, for the quieter two-lane Bow Valley Parkway along the Bow River.

Best Place to Stretch the Season

Banff Sunshine has the latest closing date of any nonglaciated ski area in Canada: May 21. Tucked into a high valley 20 minutes from Banff, Sunshine is vast and open, more like the Alps than Canada, with long on- and off-piste runs above tree line spanning three separate peaks, including double-black glades on Goat’s Eye Mountain. The centralized base area, reached via a 20-minute gondola ride from the parking lot, provides a convenient family-friendly layout, with slopes fanning out in 360 degrees. The ski school is top-notch, with optional outings to the vertiginous South Chutes if the kiddos are up for it. The views to Mount Assiniboine in British Columbia are astounding, and the Great Divide Chairlift crosses the border into B.C. and back to Alberta three minutes later. In the base village, the recently revamped and swanky Sunshine Mountain Lodge is the only ski-in, ski-out accommodation in Banff National Park.

Best Outdoor Pool

Yes, you read that right. The ski season may be seven months long in Banff, but you can still swim outside all winter at the iconic Banff Springs Hotel. The pool, heated to 92 degrees, has epic views of the Bow River Valley, towering Mount Rundle, and Tunnel Mountain. You can climb the latter via a manageable 45-minute hike to the summit even for the littlest of legs—but only if you can tear the kids out of the pool.

Best Only-in-Banff Moment

Where else but the Canadian Rockies will you find a designated Sleigh Desk in your hotel lobby? Proceed there directly after check-in and book the twilight ride, which allows you to glide to the far side of the lake for a look at the ice falls, with the twinkling lights of the chateau guiding you back.

Best “Slackcountry” Lodge

Western Canada is famous for its remote high-country huts and lodges, accessible only by helicopter or via a long tour in on skis or snowshoes. Mount Engadine is that rare find: a warm, intimate lodge surrounded by untrammeled peaks and trails, but only 45 minutes by car from Banff. Snowshoe or cross-country ski through secluded Moose Meadow, ski tour up Tent Ridge to make some turns (avalanche gear is a must), fat-bike up the snow-packed road, or tear up the tobogganing hill next to the main lodge. Or arrange to go dogsledding with Howling Dog Tours in nearby Spray Lake Provincial Park. Après, high tea is a serious tradition at Mount Engadine, with an over-the-top charcuterie plate and Earl Grey in proper china. Locally sourced meals are served family-style with the other guests around a big table.

Best Cross-Country Skiing

Three miles up the road from Mount Engadine Lodge, the Mount Shark trail system offers nearly 30 miles of classic and skate-ski trails in six interconnected loops, from beginner to advanced. A short connector trail leads to the Watridge Lake Trail, which goes all the way to Banff National Park and Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, across the border in British Columbia. There’s no trail fee or infrastructure, so rent skis at Gear Up in Canmore before you arrive.

Best Way to Blow Off Steam

If you have an early flight in or a late flight out and are looking to add one more ski day to your tally this season, you can’t do better than blasting laps at Mount Norquay. Ten minutes from Banff, with great views of town and Mount Rundle, this locals’ hill has a storied race history, dating back to its opening in 1926. The oldest chairlift in Canada, the North American double (circa 1948), ferries you to the summit for a black diamond thigh-burner run down Lone Pine, the longest sustained pitch on the mountain. On weekdays, you can roll up midmorning and still get third-row parking right at the base. Afterward, hit High Rollers in town for New York–style pizza, family-friendly bowling, and more than 40 Canadian craft brews on tap.

Lead Photo: Courtesy Discover Banff Tours