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Best Ski Towns in North America: Banff, Alberta

Set inside one of the world's most beautiful national parks, this Canadian Rockies town is bubbling with charm and authenticity.

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Town of Banff illustration
Banff, AlbertaOriginal work by Josh Cochran

Banff might be my new favorite ski town. It’s got all my requisite must-haves: walkable downtown with mountain views, great restaurants, fun après scene, gurgling creek running through town, plenty of character-filled hotels, and a handful of ski resorts within a 20-minute drive. If only it wasn’t a 20-hour drive from my home in Denver. Details, details.

5 Great Ski Towns: Take SKI’s North American Ski Town Challenge

Seriously, though, Banff really does have it all, and no vacation to the SkiBig 3—Lake Louise, Banff Sunshine, and Mt. Norquay—would be complete without spending a couple days soaking in its charms. Play pick-up hockey in one of the town rinks (this is Canada…), visit the Whyte Museum for a glimpse of early Banff life, or explore the grounds of the historic Fairmont Banff Springs, even if you’re not overnighting there. The 19th-century Scottish Baronial chateau sits just above Bow Fall on grounds teeming with local fauna. It’s a veritable winter wonderland.

Like all good ski towns, Banff’s off-slope activities are plentiful. Outdoorists can keep busy hiking or snowshoeing on the miles of trails that splay out from town; for excellent views of Banff and beyond, try the Tunnel Mountain hike, which switchbacks up the side of Sleeping Buffalo, rising over town. Those looking to get further off the grid should venture into the expansive Banff National Park trail system, where the options are nearly endless, and the crowds are nearly non-existent.

Main Street Banff
Main street.Photo courtesy of Lake Louise Tourism

Banff Avenue is the town’s main drag, and while there are certainly plenty of kitschy T-shirt shops lining it, dig a little deeper and you find lovely, locally owned gems peddling not only their wares, but also that imminently friendly Canadian spirit. That’s the thing: Banff is not just a ski town, it’s a warm and welcoming hub filled with like-minded outdoorsy types. What’s not to love about that? (Aside from the 20-hour drive, that is.)

Banff By the Numbers

Population: 8,224
Median Home Price: $1.6 million CAD
Male/Female Ratio: 55/45
Average Income: $81,018 CAD
Median Age: 35

(Updated to 2020 stats)

Here are our picks on what to do, see, eat drink, and more in the town of Banff.

Johnston Canyon Ice Walk

Johnston Canyon Ice Walk
The Ice Walk.Photo courtesy of SkiBig3 / Jake Dyson

This series of steel walkways and bridges through a majestic canyonscape is beautiful any time of year, but it’s particularly otherworldly in the winter, iced-over and sparkling in that Frozen kind of way. Stroll past waterfalls eerily stuck in time and icicles dangling from limestone outcroppings.

Moose Hotel and Suites

This newish renovated former motel doles out moose ears to young visitors upon check-in, and serves up a delicious, complimentary breakfast centered around the Bread Bar—a selection of self-grilled breads and fresh homemade jams. The rooftop heated pool and hot tub are a welcome amenity.

High Rollers

Chow on wood-fired pizza and craft beer lane-side while bowling a few games at High Rollers. The sleek bowling alley/eatery boasts six full-size lanes, plus a menu of apps, salads, and sandwiches in addition to plenty of pizza options. But first, pull on some bowling shoes at the front desk and peruse the 48-tap beer list. Priorities.

Sulphur Mountain Gondola

There’s no shame in taking the easy way up, especially when the view is as jaw-dropping as it is from the top: six mountain ranges and a sweeping panorama of the Bow Valley. Adventurers can take it even further and climb one additional kilometer via the Skywalk.

Fairmont Banff Springs

If you’ve been wanting to bed down in an historic castle, here’s your chance. Opened in 1888 as a stop along the Canadian Pacific Railway exclusively for summer travel, the hotel actually didn’t open for winter until the 1970s. Trust us when we say that winter is an amazing time to stay here.

Park Distillery

Park Distillery Banff
Wise words.Photo courtesy of Park Distillery / Orange Girl

Head upstairs to the woody, upper level at this new-last-year distillery and restaurant and settle in for some tasty concoctions made with Park’s own spirits. The distillery is known for its award-winning gins, vodkas, and rye, made from glacier water from six high alpine sources and grains from family farms in the Alberta foothills.

Local Tip:

Michael Hall

Hit Juniper Bistro, the most beautiful breakfast spot in Banff. Diners are treated to postcard views of the sun rising over Mt. Rundle and Vermillion Lakes, as well as the most delicious breakfast in town. (There’s no Benny better than the Juniper Benny.) Its location on the outskirts of town near the highway make it an easy stop on the way to the ski hills. – Michael Hall, SkiBig3 Ambassador.