What I Learned Exploring Banff Alone for a Winter Weekend

It's not what you think...

By: Matt Van Swol + Save to a List

I’d seen the pictures and that was enough for me. I booked my flight from Atlanta to Calgary and a country boy from South Carolina found himself 2300 miles away from home and 70 degree weather. For those who’ve never been, it’s life changing. I know everyone says that, but that’s only because it’s true. I’ve been to Colorado, Utah, Montana, Washington…but Banff stole my heart. You’ll find no other place on earth with so many beautifully clear glacier lakes, streams, and ponds. There are snow-capped mountains as far as the eye can see and endless places to explore.

What this amateur traveler didn't account for was the snow, ice, closed trails, frozen lakes, and freezing temperatures. The trail to Moraine Lake was closed in the winter, as was the trail to Johnston Canyon, and many others due to ice and snow. The lakes were crystal clear, but most were frozen over, allowing none of those beautiful reflections you see in so many photos of the Canadian Rockies. Honestly, I was a little bummed. Maybe I shouldn’t have gone in the winter…maybe I should have waited.

The truth is that I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Because all the major trails and tourist hotspots were closed…it forced me to go off the beaten path and seek out places I wouldn’t have gone to before and take photos I wouldn’t have taken if the main routes were open. I hiked through wooded forests to find elk fighting over a mate. I fell into frozen lakes chasing light around mountains. It stretched me, and I wouldn’t have changed a thing. It forced me to shoot photos in the pouring snow, freezing rain, and icy rivers. Unlike other trips, this one wasn't spent taking photos the whole time: most of the time I was just trying to get out of the cold. In fact, this may have been the first trip I spent more time taking in a view than taking photos of it. I know photographers can be really annoying at times, but I appreciate the few that know when to set the camera down and enjoy the moment, something I have trouble doing. 

Banff in the winter was not what I was expecting; it turned out to be so much better. There is just something about traveling alone, exploring alone, and experiencing alone that is indescribably beautiful; those who’ve done it know what I mean.  I’ve heard the age of exploration is dead:  we’ve explored and photographed every place there is to go…there’s nowhere left. While that may be true for humanity, it’s not true for you, me, or anyone reading this. You’ve never fully explored the world, and the truth is…even if you spent your whole life doing so, you’d still never be able to see everything there is to see. You don’t have enough time to hike every trail, kayak every river, and climb every mountain. To some, that’s depressing. For me, that’s so freeing. It means traveling will never get old, never be repetitive or redundant and I love that and that's what Banff taught me. Continue exploring. Continue inspiring. Continue living life to the fullest: after all, it’s the only one you’ve got.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

Do you love the outdoors?

Yep, us too. That's why we send you the best local adventures, stories, and expert advice, right to your inbox.


7 Epic Views You Will Only Find in Banff National Park

Alyssa + Hannah ODYSEA

A Winter Photography Tour in the Canadian Rockies

Nick Palastro

An Early June Photography Tour of the Canadian Rockies

Nick Palastro

It's Time to Plan Your Ski Trip to the Canadian Rockies

Kyle Frost

When Crowds Are Well Worth the View: Exploring Banff National Park

Karissa Frye