Why Canada’s Banff National Park Is More Than Just a Wintertime Escape
Prefer the après to the skiing? Don't fret: With new lodges and even more ways to experience the staggering beauty of the Canadian Rockies, Banff makes an ideal getaway year-round.
Stuart Back, the vice president of operations at Mount Royal’s parent company, had been with the brand about two years when the fire struck. He also happens to be a firefighter with the Banff Fire Department. “When the fire department pager went off and the details came through that it was the Mount Royal hotel, my heart sank,” recalls Back. “But I had to focus on the job at hand, knowing that the team on site would manage the guests’ safety.”
The fire that night lasted ten hours and the hotel closed to assess the damage, ultimately deciding to repair and renovate — a process that took close to two years. “During the course of the fire, I didn’t allow myself to think about the aftermath,” says Back. “But eventually, I started to think about what it meant. This building has had a long history. We got straightaway focused on the future for this property, the story it has, and the story it can tell.”
Last summer, following a $45 million restoration, the hotel reopened in its original buildings on Banff Avenue. The new Mount Royal features corridors hung with historic photographs and art that represent different eras of the hotel, and a newly installed large-scale piece on the outside of the hotel representing the history of the region by Bow Valley artist Fonda Sparks. The 133 well-appointed rooms are newly accessible, eco-friendly, and feature artwork curated by Vancouver-based art consultancy firm Farmboy Fine Arts. The centerpiece is a custom, handmade quilt made by Toronto’s Moss & Lam that has been fashioned into a headboard.
The hotel also sports a cozy library filled with guidebooks and history books of the region and a small museum featuring local artifacts and videos about the region’s exploration, curated in partnership with the local Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies. But the highlight is the new rooftop lounge with its steaming outdoor hot tubs and mountain views—the perfect spot to unwind at the end of a long day.
Banff is best known for being a snowy escape in the colder months, beloved by skiers and snowboarders, but its appeal lasts long after the spring thaw: striking landscapes make this a dreamy summertime destination, with opportunities for hiking, biking, and water sports on Lakes Louise and Minnewanka. The Banff Gondola runs year-round, shuttling guests up 2,292 feet to the summit of Sulphur Mountain, where they’re rewarded with sweeping views of six mountain ranges. The Sulphur Mountain Boardwalk and Sanson’s Peak recently reopened after an overhaul of the observation deck, which offers a glimpse of the Bow Valley. Up top, Sky Bistro has panoramic views and locally sourced dishes like Kuterra Farms salmon with Pacific clams (all seafood is certified by Ocean Wise as sustainable) or house-smoked Alberta Angus strip loin—wash it all down with one of the bottles on the extensive all-Canadian wine list.
Further afield, about two and a half hours’ drive from Banff, Glacier View Lodge opened this summer in the Columbia Icefield overlooking the Athabasca Glacier (one of the largest non-polar ice fields in the world); book the lodge’s all-inclusive package for a private tour of the glass-bottomed Skywalk that juts over the Icefields; a ride on the epic Ice Explorer, which drives guests out onto the glacier in a special vehicle to a place where they can walk on — and drink from — the mighty glacier; and a nighttime stargazing experience. (For more great getaways in scenic parts of Canada, check out our reader-selected list of the best resort hotels across the country.)
Banff transforms into a snow-covered winter wonderland in the colder months, ideal for skiers and snowboarders as much as those who appreciate the beauty of the imposing mountains without swooshing down them. Off the mountain, ice-skating on some of Banff’s beautiful lakes is a must-do — easily accessible Vermilion Lakes is a good option and, while it’s a bit farther away, gliding across a frozen Lake Louise is breathtaking. Snow tubing at Norquay makes for a fun afternoon, and for those who are extra adventurous, a climb up a frozen waterfall outside Canmore is sure to get the blood pumping. For the ultimate winter Canadian Rockies experience, book a helicopter ride with Rockies Heli Canada and fly over mountains, glaciers, and rivers before landing in a valley to snowshoe through untouched terrain. (Find some of more of our favorite spots for helicopter rides here.)
End the day with a soak at Banff Upper Hot Springs, with the mighty Rocky Mountains looming in the background. How else do you think the locals survive the winter?