If the wintery air has been whispering to you of a magical place abroad, allow us to let you in on a secret. Alberta is Western Canada's very own winter wonderland and yields the kind of festive experiences that holiday dreams are made of, be it sipping hot cocoa by the fire or running your skis along the snow of a freshly-groomed run.
From remarkable train rides and ice climbs to dining experiences and mountaintop views, it's all just a train ride from Vancouver or Jasper or a quick jaunt from Edmonton or Calgary by air. At this time of year, the question isn't whether or not you should visit Alberta, but when and how to do it right (tips on how to beat the cold included). Here we'll fill you in on the top three secrets:
Image Credit: Tourism Calgary
1. Spend Some Time Exploring Calgary
Whether you spend time at the beginning of your trip or the end, a few days in Calgary allows you to make the most of your holiday in the Rockies. Too many make the mistake of simply passing through, taking off after a night and regretting that they didn't properly explore. With a myriad of things to do, you can warm yourself by the lights of the city and make the most of these five stops:
Tuck away from the cold and into a cozy restaurant for some truly mouthwatering plates. Calgary Food Tours has four delectable options, from sampling Korean, Indian and Italian fare on 17 Avenue SW to combining a breezy Sunday brunch at a wine merchant with a farmers market on the weekend. On Thursdays you'll eat your way through the village of Kensington to delight in delicious cheese, cookies and tea, or you can treat your taste buds to Alberta's signature foods as you navigate quirky Inglewood.
Image Credit: Tourism Calgary
What's better than cuddling up to your loved one while admiring adorable animals? Doing so under the soft glow of two million twinkling lights. The Calgary Zoo is celebrating its 21st year of Zoolights, and that means plenty of new and enchanting experiences that are perfect for the whole family. Oh, and did we mention that you can have breakfast with the panda bears? It doesn't get much better than that!
Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre, holds a treasure-trove of 22 exhibit stages across five floors, each related to Canada's musical history. From concert halls to hands-on instrument areas you can try your hand at guitar, mix a track, sing in a vocal booth or simply admire the intricacy and enormity of the architecture.
Image Credit: Leblond Studio Inc
The Glenbow Museum is one of the largest museums in Western Canada, making it the perfect place for an activity when the outdoors are a bit too brisk. Wander through an endless range of exhibits showcasing various objects, documents, photographs and artwork and watch Western Canada's art and culture come alive before you.
Calgary has numerous city-run rinks that turn simply magical in the wintertime. Typically open from mid to late December through to February, you can strap on some skates and glide through the icy air, twirling until you tire or simply finding your feet on the frozen ground. Try the ones at Olympic Plaza or Bowness Park Lagoon if you need rentals.
Image Credit: Tourism Calgary
2. Arrive Aboard VIA Rail
Our second secret is to experience Canada's iconic train trip during winter to enjoy lower rates and an added element of magic. A timeless journey departing from Vancouver, you'll ride the rails into a winter wonderland while enjoying the comforts and attentive service that VIA Rail is known for. The train is equipped with private quarters to spend the night, dome cars for optimum sightseeing and fantastic meals. All that's left to do is sit back, relax, and watch the views roll by.
To get you started on your trip planning, we've highlighted four itineraries that truly capture the winter magic. All include transportation and one night of accommodation aboard VIA Rail, as well as Jasper, Lake Louise, Banff and Calgary. Even better? Add a night or two in Vancouver to truly experience it all.
- City Streets VIA Mountain Peaks (9 days / 8 nights)
- Snow Train to the Rockies (7 days / 6 nights)
- Winter Escapades (8 days / 7 nights)
- Winter Retreat (8 days / 7 nights)
Image Credit: Kristin Luna
3. Pick Your Park Activities Beforehand
Before you get swept away by all the winter magic, it's worth looking at the parks and their activities so you know a bit beforehand. Alberta has been home to five national parks since the 1880s, and while they pair perfectly with those in BC throughout the summer months, there are two that undeniably stand out in the winter, and that would be Banff and Jasper.
Maybe it's the magic of a guided winter journey along the Icefields Parkway, one of the world's most beautiful drives, or perhaps it's the opportunity to ski three legendary rocky mountain resorts in one day in Banff National Park. the iconic Lake Louise shows a softer side under the veil of an icy frost, and Maligne Canyon in Jasper seemingly stops time as its waterfall freezes to a halt.
For every landscape that's inspired you to take a winter trip to Alberta, there's an activity that can immerse you in it. Our Travel Designers have experienced the best of Alberta's winter, and can help to customize your trip so you can try whichever activity is for you. While this is by no means an exhaustive list, we've outlined some favorites below:
Image Credit: Tourism Jasper
Skiing and Snowboarding
Whether you've skied your entire life or have never so much as put on a boot, both Banff and Jasper have hills (and trails!) that cater to your skill level. Sunshine Village is just 10 minutes from Banff and receives 30 feet of snow each year, and Mount Norquay delivers thrills past dusk with night skiing and a lit terrain park. Lake Louise is a top choice as the largest ski area in North America, or if you want powder without the lines Jasper's Marmot Basin is the place. Staying in Banff and want to switch it up? Take our inside tip: the SkiBig3 pass gives access to all three of the foremost mountains.
Feeling adventurous or want to try something different? Ice climbing could be for you. Our partners at Rockaboo Mountain Adventures take travelers out to one of three locations in Jasper National Park , Maligne Canyon, Edge of the World or Tangle Falls , and gives you all the gear and knowledge necessary to scale a frozen waterfall. Complete with ice picks and special cleats, it's a little like rock climbing in the winter, and can be a fun challenge for everyone from novice to advanced.
Image Credit: Tourism Jasper
â€œIf you can walk, you can snowshoe.â€ This seems to be the mantra of guides in the Rocky Mountains, eliminating any intimidation that tends to come with winter activities. White Mountain Adventures takes groups snowshoeing on top of the world with their expert guides, where incredible views and a fun challenge combine for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Wear solid snow boots and warm winter gear , snowshoes will be provided, and memories will be made.
If you want to experience the frozen falls of ice climbing but without having to scale them, a guided canyon walk can be the perfect happy medium. Sundog Tours takes you through Maligne Canyon , the deepest accessible canyon in Jasper National Park , or Discover Banff Tours can take you to Johnston or Grotto Canyon, each equally as stunning as the next. Listed as a Canadian Signature Experience, you can't call a trip to the Rockies complete without having done at least one.
Image Credit: Canada by Design team member, Anna, marveling at the sights on a guided canyon walk
Combining a modern glass-enclosed gondola ride with exceptional views, the Banff Gondola is a great for any age. Listed as Banff's number one attraction, you can soak up the sights of six different mountain ranges and feel entranced by the underlying Bow Valley. With a boardwalk, two restaurants and a world-class interpretive center at the top, you'll have every inclination to stay awhile, so leave some wriggle room in your schedule to settle in and enjoy.
A welcome break from all the action comes in the form of a Christmas classic. Sleigh rides are available at Lake Louise through Brewster Adventures, a family-run company that's been keeping tradition alive for the past six generations. Grab your loved ones and cuddle up under the softness of a warm and cozy blanket , the horses will do the work as you glide through this iconic Canadian landscape.
Image Credit: Banff & Lake Louise Tourism / Paul Zizka Photography
Bonus Tip: Pack for the Cold
Maybe it's November and the mountains are getting their largest dumps of snow, or perhaps it's March and the temperatures are once again warming under the sun. Regardless of when you go in the season, you need to come prepared. Here's a bonus packing list for winter in Alberta to help get you started:
Insulated Jacket and Pants
Ski jackets and pants aren't only useful for the hill , they can come in handy for ice climbing, skating and even walking too. While you won't always need to wear a pair of snow pants over your initial bottom layer, the jacket will come in handy pretty much the entire trip. A longer parka-style coat will help to keep you warmer, though anything insulated and weather-proof ought to do the trick.
Image Credit: Canada by Design Travel Designer Teagan in the Rockies
Lots of Layers
Pack lots of layers and then pack some more. Opt for materials like fleece and merino wool over those like cotton , the latter will hold onto moisture and actually make you feel more chilled, regardless of how many layers you have on. Fabrics that are breathable, quick-drying and will wick away sweat are going to be your best friend on a winter trip.
Waterproof Snow Boots
It might sound extreme, but you'll want to pack footwear that has been rated for -30 Celsius or lower. We're not saying the temperatures will always be that low, but it isn't worth risking cold feet for, especially when your feet can regulate a large part of your overall body temperature. Waterproof is important, too.
Image Credit: Emma Dau
Scarf and Hat
Similar to your feet, your head holds onto a lot of heat. If that escapes, it can make you feel colder overall, so wearing a hat and scarf to keep your head warm can make a world of difference. Beanies (or toques as called by Canadians) are often the style of choice in the mountains, and a fleece lining on the inside will help to keep the cold winds out.
Sunscreen and Sunglasses
Most people don't associate winter weather with sunscreen and sunglasses, but trust us when we say it's important. The snow is bright white, meaning it will reflect the sun onto your skin similar to the way that water does in the summer. That, and the elevation means you're actually closer to the sun and therefore its rays are stronger. Even overcast days can surprise you, so protect your eyes and skin throughout your trip to be safe.
Image Credit: Canada by Design Travel Designer Tasha soaking up Alberta's winter sunshine
Get in touch with one of our Travel Designers to customize your own magical winter experience. Prefer to simply stay in touch? Subscribe to our newsletter for up-to-date deals, trip ideas and more!