Ice skating in Banff on a frozen lake surrounded by mountains is the most Canadian thing ever. The ultimate winter adventure is a bucket list for everyone visiting the Canadian Rockies. Learn everything you need to know – where to skate, when the best time to head out is and more.
Michal and I have a long relationship with ice skating. We used to play ice hockey on frozen ponds back in Slovakia and bought ice skates just a few months after we moved to Canada. It’s one of the most enjoyable activities for us, also because you can ice skate for about 4 months every winter season.
Our first ice skating session was on Christmas day when we bought each other skates and went out to test them. A huge lake in downtown Calgary was frozen and cleared of snow. It didn’t matter it was -20°C and no people anywhere on the streets. It was just us and the crackling noise of our skates.
We were hooked on wild ice skating again. And even though playing hockey on outdoor ice rinks around Calgary is fun, skating in the mountains on lakes is even better.
When the lake freezes and you’re able to ice skate on the crystal clear lake or a pond, let alone surrounded by mountains, the feeling of freedom and connection to nature is out of this world.
It’s graciously called “Wild ice skating”.
Ice skating in Banff National Park
We haven’t been always lucky to skate on crystal clear frozen lakes. And trust me; you do need luck on your side. We have waited 5 years for the best ice skating weekend ever.
There is a short weather window between the ice on lakes being thick enough for ice skating and being covered in snow. It’s the time when you can skate on clear ice with unreal mirror reflections. Sometimes the weather window lasts a day, sometimes a week.
Luckily there are still some good souls who clear the snow from a part of the lake so you can skate but once it’s snowed, the mirror reflections are gone.
Ice skating in Banff, on clear or snow-covered lakes, is nonetheless amazing. I’m going to show you where to skate in Banff National Park and approximate times when you should go. Or even better, I will show you where you should check if it’s a good idea to head out and also some safety tips.
Only 10 km east of Banff, this lake is a popular one. It usually freezes in the middle of November, as in the case of 2018, it was ready for ice skating November 10th, perfect timing for a long weekend. The mirror reflections were incredible.
UPDATE: There’s no ice skating possible on Johnson Lake in the 2019/2020 winter season because the lake was drained.
General rules say you can skate on a lake when the ice is about 10cm thick. Judging from the occasional cracks, we could see the thickness of the ice.
The best ice skating is in the morning when it’s the coldest. As the sun rose, we could hear occasional cracks echoing across the lake. The ice was incredibly smooth and ideal for playing ice hockey.
We even saw some people taking advantage of the rope on the tree and swinging on it. Although it may seem more of a summer activity when swinging and jumping into the lake, you can have fun in winter as well.
Johnson Lake is about 1km long so even when you don’t have a hockey stick, just doing loops is a great workout.
A group of 3 lakes which usually freeze in November as well. The 2nd and 3rd lakes were solid for skating when we visited in the middle of November 2018. There were occasional cracks and snow patches so not ideal for a hockey game but good enough for casual skating.
Vermilion Lakes are a great option and closest to Banff. You can just rent skates and walk to the lake.
UPDATE: Vermilion Lakes froze at the beginning of November 2019 and are covered with snow now. Some locals were clearing a patch of the lake so you might still be able to skate.
The ice was quite milky and not as smooth as on Johnson Lake but if the cracking sounds make you nervous, Vermilion Lakes are ideal. Most of the surface is very shallow so even when an incident happens and the ice breaks, it’s only knee deep.
Two Jack Lake
This must be the most popular lake close to Banff (15-minute drive) for year-round activities. Unlike Minnewanka, the water is usually calm and therefore great for kayaking and stand up paddleboarding. In winter, it usually freezes between mid-November and December. 2018 was a really good season and you could skate here for several weeks before it got covered with a big layer of snow.
UPDATE: As of right now (November 15, 2019) when you’re reading this, Two Jack Lake is good to go. Grab your skates and have fun!
The most popular lake in Banff for boat rides during the summertime is the last one to freeze due to its depth, usually mid-December. We haven’t had a chance to skate on Lake Minnewanka yet (fingers crossed for this winter).
Because it freezes so late, it’s usually almost immediately covered by snow. And you really don’t want to ice skate on a lake when you don’t see any possible cracks or uneven surface underneath you.
Lake Minnewanka is 28 km in length so ice skating would be an awesome treat.
Most of the time, you can only ice skate on Lake Louise on a patch of ice that has been cleared of snow. There are sections of ice cleared of snow and maintained throughout winter. One section is a loop with ice sculptures in the middle which are made during the annual Ice Magic Festival in January (next one is January 15-26th, 2020).
It’s literally ice skating around an ice castle in the valley surrounded by mountain peaks and Victoria Glacier in the far end.
The other section cleared of snow is a hockey rink with nets.
For current ice rink conditions in Lake Louise, check out their webcam.
In 2019 though, a very rare event occurred when the temperatures dropped rapidly for several days in a row and the lake froze. Very few people took the chance to skate on it. First of all, there was still some open water and second of all, most people were keeping close to the shore.
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A week ago a very rare and special event occurred in #lakelouise. We had some cold temperatures and the lake froze over very early in the season, allowing some adventurous souls to embrace the spirit of winter on one of the most scenic skating rinks in the world. This has only been possible five times in the last 30 years. Doesn’t it look like glass? 😍 Please note we have had some snow since then. Please check with the concierge for current conditions. 📷: @victor.jutr
I know of one local guy who is a big ice skating enthusiast who ventured much further but he was wearing a dry suit, PFD (personal flotation device) and had a pick to get himself out of the water if he was to break through the ice. He did break the ice at the end but it wasn’t a big deal since he was skilled and experienced enough to know what to do.
Unfortunately, then there are people who try their luck without really knowing the real dangers. At least one other person broke through the ice here and even though he was wearing a PFD, he had trouble getting back on ice because the PFD was inflatable and was getting in the way.
Lesson learnt: if you’re unsure, wear a PFD, rope and skate with at least one person.
We had a throw bag with a rope few times with us but never wore PFDs while ice skating as e didn’t go on very thin ice. What you’re wearing depends on the level of your comfort and confidence. If you’re anxious about ice but would like to try it out, wear whatever makes you feel safe!
Moraine Lake is not a usual spot for ice skating, mostly because it freezes after the road is closed (mid-October every year) and not many people are willing to bike in 10 km just to check conditions. But, in October 2019 a true miracle happened. I’ve heard the last time the same happened was 10 years ago (so don’t get your hopes high if you’re visiting ;-))
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Getting Canadian at Moraine Lake. Magical night under the Ten Peaks. Self-portrait, Banff National Park. – A reminder to always take care on the ice, especially this early in the season. Make sure to check the thickness before going onto the ice and educate yourself on safety first. 👍
Town of Banff
There are 4 options:
- Outdoor rink at Banff Community High School (maintained rink)
- Bow River – I’ve heard of an oval on the river cleared of snow in winter for ice skating but haven’t been able to skate there yet
- Outdoor rink near The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel (maintained rink) – it’s located below the Waldhaus Restaurant, has a comfortable heated shelter AND a bonfire. We bought some sausages before we went and made a nice lunch after ice skating. The best spot in Banff.
- Fenlands Banff Recreation Centre (maintained rink) – the indoor & outdoor rink with on-site skate rentals is open for public and costs 6,50CAD, check their schedule here.
Check out our post 100 things to do in Banff National Park for more winter (and summer) activities.
Other options in Kananaskis Country
This one is a bit “out of the way” with 60 km from Canmore along Kananaskis Trail. We went cross country skiing in Kananaskis and on the way back to Calgary stopped by Wedge Pond. The conditions were good enough and we couldn’t just let the opportunity pass by.
34 km from Banff and only 10 km from Canmore, you can find Gap Lake along the Bow Valley Trail. This one froze early in 2019 but then the sudden (and usual) change of weather caused open water again.
Once the lake freezes, it doesn’t mean the conditions are good from that time on. Always check the thickness and open water before you go out, especially if the weather was warmer the past few days.
Carrot Creek is between Banff and Canmore along Trans-Canada Highway. If you’re driving from Calgary, it’s 2.5 km past the Banff National Park gates. The trail heading down to the creek is on the eastward side of the highway (direction towards Calgary).
It’s an awesome spot as you get to see all the mountain peaks you usually see on a Legacy Trail bike ride. Truly breathtaking.
Good to know before you go
- All the outdoor rinks mentioned above are free.
- Ice skates rentals are available at Bactraxor Ultimate Sports in Banff or the University of Calgary Outdoor Centre has affordable prices, check here for more options in Calgary. I recommend buying a used pair from a 2nd Chance Sports (in Calgary).
- Recommended minimum ice thickness (for new clear ice): 7cm or less – stay off, 10cm – walking, xc skiing, 12cm – one snowmobile or ATV.
- Black ice is usually better for skating (as you see on the Johnson Lake picture above), white (milky) ice (as you see on the Vermilion Lakes picture) has air or snow in it and should be considered with caution.
- It might be a good idea to carry a throw bag with rope in your pocket and watch the self-rescue video if an incident happens.
- Personal note: I like to go skating anywhere where I can see recent tracks or people skating. It gives me peace of mind.
Join the Facebook group Bow Valley Wild Ice for a very good info on what lake is available for ice skating each season. There’s plenty of members who actually go out and drill to the ice to test the thickness. We always go ice skating based on the info we find here.
An important disclosure: Ice skating on a lake is never 100% safe. It’s up to every individual to check if the ice is safe and have proper gear for ice skating. Don’t venture out by yourself on a lake where you don’t see any tracks, try to skate in a group and follow recent tracks.
Who’s ready for ice skating in Banff National Park? Share your experience with us below.
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