Snowshoeing in Banff National Park is a must when visiting in winter. Adventurous yet also low impact, snowshoeing is a great way to take in the magnificent mountain scenery of the Canadian Rockies. It’s also a TON of fun in fresh powder!
To snowshoe beyond the beaten path, however, you must be knowledgeable regarding winter hazards. This includes avalanches, hypothermia, frostbite and thin ice. Trust me, you really don’t want to be snowshoeing in the wrong place in the Canadian Rockies.
Enter White Mountain Adventures (WMA). With the help of one of WMA’s professional guides, you can go further and explore beautiful backcountry areas that the average winter visitor will never see.
One such area is Sunshine Meadows. This place is a powder paradise, with miles of pristine knee deep snow and a backdrop of majestic mountains (including famed Mount Assiniboine!)
Sitting right on the border between BC and Alberta, this is one of the few places you can snowshoe two provinces in one day!
A gondola/chairlift combination removes the hardest ‘work’ of the day and offers the chance to see more for less effort. As a bonus, you won’t have to share the views or powder with anyone else!
In this post, I’ll share everything you need to know about snowshoeing Sunshine Meadows in Banff National Park, starting with an overview of our experience and finishing with a planning guide.
Here’s what to expect:
- Why go snowshoeing in Banff
- Sunshine Meadows snowshoe tour: our experience
- Essential details
Sunshine Meadows is part of part of Treaty 7 territory, the traditional lands of the Stoney Nakoda Nations of Chiniki, Bearspaw and Wesley as well as the Tsuut’ina First Nations and Blackfoot Confederacy Nations of Pikani, Kainai and Siksika.
Treaty 7 territory is also shared with the Métis Nation of Alberta, Region III. Before the signing of Treaty 7, the Ktunaxa and the Maskwacis people lived and travelled in this area.
We visited Banff in March 2022 and were hosted by Banff and Lake Louise Tourism. All opinions remain our own.
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Why go snowshoeing in Banff
There are so many reasons to go snowshoeing in Banff National Park. Snowshoeing offers the chance to:
- Explore remote areas otherwise difficult to reach on foot
- See beautiful views of snow covered landscapes
- Enjoy the peace and tranquility of walking on freshly fallen snow
- Try something new – if you can walk, you can snowshoe!
- Access quieter places, away from crowds
- Get a low impact workout – snowshoeing can burn up to 1000 calories an hour
- Learn more about the local wildlife, fauna and geology
- Have a lot of fun!
The best snowshoeing in Banff: Sunshine Meadows tour
White Mountain Adventures has been leading tours in Banff National Park for over 30 years. Simply put, they are outdoor adventure experts.
And that also means that they know that Sunshine Meadows is one of the best places to go snowshoeing in Banff! Read on for more information about our Sunshine Meadows experience.
Heading into the alpine
Our four hour snowshoeing adventure started at the bottom of the Standish Express chairlift at Sunshine Village Ski Resort, where we met our guide, Kristi. Most tours start in Banff or at the base of the gondola.
I say to say, it’s a bit of novelty getting to ride a chairlift in winter without skis or a snowboard. And in this case, it’s more just novelty too – taking the chairlift skips a long uphill section!
At the top, it was time to put our snowshoes on. The provided snowshoes were a little bigger than our own, but I’d soon find out why.
A few steps away from the chairlift and we passed underneath a brightly coloured rope. We were now officially out of bounds and exploring an unpatrolled backcountry area.
And that’s when our steps suddenly became very deep, even with the snowshoes. There was so much powder! Happy exclamations from Kristi indicated that today was a particularly good day.
Looking around, all I could see was an endless sea of white. A rocky snow covered ridge rose up on the right, with the 2,895-metre high Monarch Mountain obscured by fog behind.
Crossing the Continental Divide
Kristi soon took us aside to reveal that we had just crossed from Alberta to British Columbia. Sunshine Village, you see, sits right on the Continental Divide.
As Kristi explained, the Continental Divide separates North America’s drainage basins. All rivers on the eastern side drain into the Atlantic while all rivers on the western side drain into the Pacific.
The Divide provides a convenient border line between Alberta and BC and also supplies some pretty interesting weather patterns. This factor makes it difficult for the guides to accurately predict the type of conditions to expect on each snowshoe tour.
A wide valley appeared in front of us, beyond a steep drop-off. Kristi pulled out a photograph showing a summer version of the view. Just head was Rock Isle Lake, a popular summer scenic spot (we saw it when hiking back from Mount Assiniboine a few years ago).
The fun of falling
Continuing along to the right, we started to gradually descend into the valley. Before the first slope, however, Kristi stopped us and advised that we needed to learn how to get up after falling.
But wait, how likely were we to fall? ‘Oh, you will, everyone does,’ she laughed.
With so much loose snow, getting up really is a bit of a process. It’s not as simple as just pushing up with one arm, since that arm would potentially sink half a metre into the deep powder.
The best technique is to utilise the platform of someone else’s snowshoes and then rise up on a knee.
Kristi’s timing (as you’d expect from a qualified guide) was perfect. Just around the next corner, I slid down a steep slope and landed on my side.
With the soft snow providing the best cushion, it took a while for me to stop laughing. It set the tone for the rest of the tour.
Reaching Rock Isle Lake
We were all quite giddy as we slipped and slid our way down the hill, making our own tracks in the wonderfully deep powder.
In more serious moments, Kristi pointed out hoar frost on the trees, made us guess the age of the surrounding trees and taught us about the most prevalent predator in the Rockies (the pine marten).
My favourite part was when she pulled out her three metre long probe and made it disappear completely into the ground. That’s a lot of snow!
At times, it was hard to concentrate with so much beauty around us (and not a soul in sight!) But since falling wasn’t a problem, it didn’t matter too much. We all fell a few times, always with laughter.
At the bottom of the long hill, we crossed the frozen Rock Isle Lake to the small treed island. What an opportunity to explore such a iconic place! We shared hot chocolate and cookies while looking back at how far we’d come.
Returning to Sunshine Village
Leaving the island, we took a shortcut down a high cliff. Kristi and JR both tumbled down the steepest part while I inelegantly slid half way down.
Our return to the ski resort was slightly easier with the help of a rough snowcat track for the initial climb. I was pretty thankful as deep powder snowshoeing can be pretty tiring!
Huge mountains peeked out of the fog and low clouds to our right, offering a teaser of the distant wilderness. In the other direction, we could see skiers flying down the slopes of Lookout Mountain (2730m).
Crossing back into Alberta, we were also back within bounds of the ski resort. But it wasn’t quite over.
We took a meandering route through several tree groves, spotting animal tracks on the way. Kristi pointed out a tall larch tree, one of the oldest in the area. Our arrival at the gondola marked the conclusion of our fantastic alpine snowshoeing tour.
Essential details: Snowshoeing Sunshine Meadows
Want to experience the best snowshoeing in Banff? Here’s what you need to know about joining a Sunshine Meadows tour with White Mountain Adventures.
What to wear snowshoeing
High alpine weather can be extreme, with the potential for strong winds, heavy snow, very cold temperatures (-20°c and below) and freezing rain. Conditions can also change quickly.
No matter the weather in downtown Banff, you should be wearing the following:
- Waterproof winter pants (ski pants work well)
- Waterproof jacket (my favourite, as seen in this post)
- Warm hat (a toque)
- Warm gloves (some examples)
- Winter boots or waterproof hiking boots
Under the jacket, I’d recommend an insulated layer and warm base layer on top. Wear a pant base layer as well. I prefer the merino wool kind (soft, best warmth for weight, naturally antibacterial), which is what I have linked above.
Be careful not to wear too much as you don’t want to sweat and have damp clothes. Bring some extra layers (and a backpack) in case conditions change.
I personally use high top waterproof hiking boots (these ones) for snowshoeing. Winter specific boots would provide additional warmth.
WMA does recommend bringing ski goggles for this snowshoe adventure. I wore polarised sunglasses during the tour but had a pair of goggles as a back-up. JR felt more comfortable wearing his ski goggles.
If you’re not dressed appropriately for your tour, it will not continue as planned. Our guide did confirm to us that this does occasionally happen.
Read Next: A Complete Beginner’s Guide to Snowshoeing
What to bring snowshoeing in Banff
As well as the guiding know-how, White Mountain Adventures supplies the all important snowshoes for this tour.
Even if you have your own pair of snowshoes, plan to leave them at home. WMA provides the most appropriate snowshoes for the terrain and conditions.
Planning to go snowshoeing in Banff without a guide? Be sure to bring the 10 Essentials. These items can help prevent small inconveniences from becoming life threatening emergencies.
What to expect
White Mountain Adventures’ Sunshine Meadows tour is rated to be moderate to strenuous in difficulty. I’d say moderate is pretty fair due to the deep powder. No experience is needed, so this experience is suitable for first timers.
Our route was 5km return with around 100m of elevation gain and 150m of descent.
The adventure starts at the top of the chairlift, with your guide leading the way. Expect plenty of stops for photos, instruction and interpretation during the three hour tour. There is a long break for hot chocolate and cookies as well.
The type of experience you will have varies according to the weather conditions. On clear, sunny days the views will stretch for miles. After recent snowfall, the powder will be particularly deep. On snowy days, the views will be limited but the experience will be atmospheric!
We didn’t have the best visibility during our tour, with intermittent cloud obscuring the distant mountains.
But that is the reality of snowshoeing at this elevation and along the Continental Divide. The particularly special aspect of our tour was the sheer amount of pristine powder.
No matter what happens, you’re guaranteed a fun time with plenty of laughter.
White Mountain Adventures’ Sunshine Meadows snowshoe tours run daily between late November and mid April. In 2022, the price was $109/adult. A minimum of four adults is required for the trip to run.
Alternatively, you can book a private tour. The 2022 price was $656 plus $30/adult for the Sunshine Village gondola/lift ticket.
I would recommend making a reservation as soon as possible to avoid disappointment.
Other places to go snowshoeing in Banff
While Sunshine Meadows is definitely one of the best places to go snowshoeing in Banff, here are some other ideas for independent adventures:
Lake Louise Shoreline: Easy lakeside trail with great views of Victoria Glacier and surrounding mountains, with frozen waterfall at the end. 4km return with no elevation gain.
Lake Louise Fairview Lookout: Short and steep trail to an elevated viewpoint over frozen Lake Louise and the Fairmont Chateau. Be sure to return via the same path. 2km return with 100m elevation gain.
Johnston Canyon: This quiet yet easy trail provides an alternative access to the upper falls in this scenic canyon. Start at the Moose Meadows parking lot (not the main Johnston Canyon one). 5km return with 120m elevation gain.
Ink Pots: Intermediate level extension of above trail leading to brightly coloured mineral hot springs (partially covered in snow in winter). More information on HikeBikeTravel. 12km return with 220m elevation gain.
Depending on recent weather, the above trails may feature packed down snow. In that case, snowshoes would not be needed and a pair of hikers and microspikes would be more appropriate.
For more advice on snowshoeing in the Banff area, chat with knowledgeable Parks Canada staff at the Banff Visitor Centre (located at 224 Banff Ave) or the Lake Louise Visitor Centre (located at 201 Village Rd).
Looking for other exciting winter activities in Banff? We’ve put together a huge guide with all the best things to do in Banff in winter – check it out!
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One half of the Canadian/British couple behind Off Track Travel, Gemma is happiest when hiking on the trail or planning the next big travel adventure. JR and Gemma are currently based in the beautiful Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada