Epic Winter Adventures Await in These Canadian Mountains
Climber Mike Libecki, a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, is driven by exploration. He thinks winter is the hottest season of the year—and the Canadian Rockies in Alberta are the perfect playground. "One of my passions—or better yet, obsessions—is adventuring in the most beautiful, magical, powerful places on the planet," he says. "Alberta is one that keeps me coming back."
Together with National Geographic photographer and filmmaker Keith Ladzinski and group of snow-ready friends, he shows how to play the Libecki way across Banff National Park and Jasper National Park, following the Icefields Parkway. Here are his tips for experiencing some of the best adventures winter has to offer.
Hit the slopes
Set deep in what’s widely regarded as the world's most scenic ski area at Banff National Park, the award-winning Lake Louise Ski Resort invites everyone from first-timers to advanced shredders to its 4,200 acres of skiable terrain, with every chair leading to routes for all levels. The resort has one of the longest seasons in North America (November to May), when an average of more than 30 feet of light, dry powder falls on its chutes, glades, gullies, and bowls.
Climb a frozen waterfall
The largest national park in the Canadian Rockies and part of the UNESCO Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage site, Jasper National Park plays host to more than 70 animal species, including robust grizzly bear, moose, and elk populations, across its 6,759 square miles of mountains, glacial peaks, forests, and meadows. Rivers lead to steep falls, which freeze into epic ice climbs as early as October at higher elevations, and valley climbs form just a month later. While experienced climbers can tackle the frozen waterfalls without a guide, beginners need not shy away: Experienced outfitters like Rockaboo Mountain Adventures run learn-to-climb clinics in Maligne Canyon and in the heart of the Columbia Icefield at Tangle Falls.
Blaze a trail in the snow
Just off the Icefields Parkway sits the Athabasca Glacier, an ancient relic among the massive Columbia Icefield. While it’s recommended to access the glacier only with an experienced guide, the area surrounding it offers cross-country skiing and snowshoeing trails that lead to the glacier’s toe and present spectacular views of the icefields at Wilcox Viewpoint. No matter your mode of transport, this area is one of the darkest in Canada, which means the night sky provides a perfect backdrop for the dancing northern lights—so dress extra warm and make a late trek to glimpse one of nature’s most colorful wonders.
Where to Stay
Set against the Rockies and on the lake from which it takes its name, Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise was built more than a hundred years ago as a base for outdoor enthusiasts and alpinists, roots still honored today. Close to downtown Jasper, the Crimson provides explorers a solid base camp, with in-suite kitchenettes and an indoor hot tub in which to unwind.
What to Eat and Drink
For campfire-inspired cooking with spirits distilled on site, head to Park Distillery in Banff to refuel with shareables or entrees with add-ons like foie gras and truffle butter. Free tours of the distillery depart at 3:30 p.m. daily. Servicing both après-ski and late-night needs, low-key Jasper Brewing Company was the first brew pub in a national park in Canada, offering taps of their own crisp beers alongside hearty fare. There’s an outpost in Banff as well, appropriately called Banff Ave. Brewing Co. With moody lighting but bright flavors, Downstream in Jasper is the ideal spot for a nightcap, with a long and tempting list of signature cocktails and boozy coffees.
The month long SnowDays festival takes over Banff National Park each January. Cultural and sporting events, including ice carving and the Big Bear ski and rail competition, unfold throughout the event, but the real treat comes at the start, when live music fills the streets during the kickoff party, and a beer garden and ice fire pit keep revelers warm.
Know Before You Go
The Canadian Rockies line Alberta's southwestern border, roughly 10 hours by car from Vancouver. Fly into Calgary International Airport for the easiest access to Banff, just a 90-minute drive away. Flying into Edmonton is another option, though the drive to Jasper is much longer (about 3.5 hours) and not nearly as scenic. Train service aboard the Rocky Mountaineer provides a slower approach but also an unparalleled experience with a traverse through the Canadian Rockies. Once on the ground, the roads are well maintained year-round, leaving little need for four-wheel drive.