Winter is a great time to visit Canada, especially for the adventurous. From unique activities such as dog-sledding to the more traditional winter activities such as skiing and skating, there is something for everyone. Also, Canada boasts some of the world's biggest and best winter festivals this season.
The height of winter is freezing cold in most places in Canada, except for Vancouver and the rest of the British Colombian coast, where winters are moderate. Whistler is just two hours inland and gets loads of snow, and is a major ski destination until May. Winter in the Canadian Rocky Mountains is long, with lots of snow and winter sports in Banff and Canmore, both in Alberta.
Eastern Canada, including Toronto and Montreal, has a short, fierce winter and sub-zero temps are not uncommon from December to February. At least one or two snowfalls of 8 inches or more will likely hit in January and February.
Despite the cold weather, though, many cities across the country host seasonal events and activities in the winter. From staying in an ice hotel to ice skating on the Rideau Canal, there's no shortage of winter fun to be had in Canada.
Due to the heavy amount of snowfall experienced across this northern country, Canada is known for its many ski resorts and slopes, which are open for over half of the year.
Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia is one of the top ski resorts in North America and was home to many of the events during the 2010 Winter Olympics. Meanwhile, Banff and Lake Louise are an easy ski escape outside of Calgary, Alberta, and Mont-Tremblant—just 90 minutes north of Montreal in Quebec—is a charming winter alpine village. These resorts are excellent by any standard, featuring long runs, sharp drop-offs, and spectacular scenery plus a range of unique activities, such as heli-skiing and glacier skiing.
The Quebec Ice Hotel is spectacular to behold and is one of the most unique visitor experiences in the world. The cathedral-like hotel is carved entirely of ice, including the furniture and icy candelabras hanging from the 18-foot ceilings.
What's even more special about this unique attraction is that the Quebec Ice Hotel is rebuilt each year, opening its doors from January to the beginning of April. The walls are four feet thick and insulate the hotel to a crisp but comfortable 23 to 28 degrees Fahrenheit (-5 to -2 degrees Celsius). Visitors may choose to just pass through for a tour and a drink at the ice bar or settle in and stay overnight.
The one-time residents of New France, now Quebec, had a rowdy tradition of getting together just before Lent to eat, drink, and be merry. Today, the Québec Winter Carnival carries on this tradition with the biggest winter carnival in the world, celebrated annually at the end of January through mid-February. The event is staged largely for families to enjoy and they come out in droves to embrace and celebrate the cold while all wearing the traditional red sash. There are parades, pop-up events throughout the town, live music, and culinary offerings. Aside from accommodations for the event, a trip to the Québec Winter Carnival costs relatively little.
Skate the Rideau Canal in Ottawa
Every winter, Ottawa's Rideau Canal becomes The Rideau Canal Skateway and at just under 5 miles (7.8 kilometers) long, it's the world's largest skating rink. Locals and visitors alike make the most of this frozen roadway in winter, using it both as a means of transportation and form of recreation.
It's important to keep in mind when planning your trip that the skateway generally opens in January or February when the canal is sufficiently frozen and safe for skaters. Skate rentals and sharpening, as well as boot checks, are also available, and you can even rent sleighs so children can sit while adults push them along the canal.
Canadians celebrate sub-zero temperatures and waist-high snowdrifts by staging great winter festivals across the country, and the version in the nation's capital city is Winterlude. For the first three weekends every February, Ottawa puts on a winter festival that features ice-skating on the world's longest rink, ice sculptures, a snow playground, concerts, and more. One of the biggest events of the festival is Trotting on the Rideau, a horse race that takes place on the frozen surface of the Rideau Canal.
Dogsledding is one of the more memorable Canadian adventures available in the winter months. Whether you want to spend a few days or weeks in the outback or just try it for an afternoon, dog sledding is an activity available almost anywhere in Canada that gets lots of snow. The Call of the Wild is an award-winning, established adventure team that offers dogsledding day excursions and year-round adventures in the beautiful Algonquin Park, located right between Toronto and Ottawa.
Sit back and soak up the majesty of the Canadian Rockies in the winter on a train trip across Canada. Spectacular sceneries await you on Rocky Mountaineer rides that range from the leisurely to the downright luxurious. Vacations include train travel from Vancouver to Calgary or vice versa, passing through the majestic Canadian Rockies and stopping in Banff. On the other side of the country, use VIA Rail to travel from Montreal through Quebec for an 836-mile trip that goes all the way to Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Once used by trappers and traders traversing the snow-covered terrain, snowshoeing today is mostly a form of winter recreation. Contemporary lightweight snowshoes make this traditional form of winter travel easier and more fun than ever.
Snowshoeing is both a wonderful way to explore the great outdoors and an effective and gentle form of exercise. Many ski resorts and winterized lodges—such as the fairytale-like Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise—provide or rent snowshoes for casual outings.
Go Ice Fishing
Ice fishing is a magnificent way to enjoy the Canadian winter and commune with nature. Not only does Canada offer the necessary climate, but it has a huge array of excellent resorts and lodges that range from basic to luxury, with all of them offering chances to fish on the ice. One of the favorite ice fishing outfitters is Andy Myer's Lodge on Eagle Lake in Ontario. Canada is one of the most popular ice fishing destinations and you'll find the quality of accommodation and hospitality high.
Take in a Winter Light Festival
Canadians don't hibernate over winter but instead, they create reasons to enjoy the outdoors. One way is with light festivals, such as the Winter Festival of Lights in Niagara Falls. While seeing the lights reflected off of this famous waterfall may be one of the most photogenic sights in all of Canada, it's by no means your only option. You can also see elaborate light displays in Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver, Airdrie, Montreal, and others.
See the Northern Lights
Also known as the aurora borealis, the Northern Lights are one of the most well-known natural phenomenons in the world and they are most commonly seen in the winter months. Some of the best spots to view the Northern Lights in Canada include Yellowknife in the Northern Territories, which are home to an Aurora Village where you can camp, see fireworks, and enjoy roasted marshmallows under the celestial spectacle.
However, you don't even need to travel to such a remote location to see them. Other locations that get frequent Northern Lights events include Athabasca, Alberta, which is less than two hours north of Edmonton, or Thunder Bay in Ontario, right on the edge of Lake Superior and just across the border from Minnesota.
Sip on Some Ice Wine
While many people may prefer coffee and hot chocolate to warm up in the winter months, many Canadians choose an icy beverage for the season. Ice wine is a type of dessert wine made from frozen grapes, and this tasty beverage has become popular across Canada, by far the largest producer of ice wine in the world. Ontario is a major hub for ice wine production, but you can also attend a number of ice wine festivals throughout the season including the Okanagan Wine Festival, the Niagara Icewine Festival, and the Nova Scotia Winter Icewine Festival.
Cheer for Pond Hockey Teams
A simpler version of ice hockey known as pond hockey is played on frozen ponds during the winter across Canada. It's so popular, in fact, that each year, the World Pond Hockey Championship in Plaster Rock, Brunswick, invites over 100 teams to compete from around the globe. If you want to try this sport yourself, backyard ice rinks created by locals themselves or frozen ponds in public parks across the country are great places to practice.
Relax at a Hot Springs or Spa
When it comes to staying warm and relaxed in the frigid Canadian winter, there's no better way to unwind than visiting hot springs or spas this season. Among the most popular spas in the country is the Nordik Spa in Quebec, which offers a wide variety of steamy spas and thermal waterfalls surrounded by lush views of the Jacques-Cartier Valley. For hot springs, try the Banff Upper Hot Springs in Alberta, the Miette Hot Springs in Jasper National Park, or the Prophet River Hotsprings Provincial Park in British Columbia.
Visit the Frozen Falls
While Niagara Falls on the border of New York State and Ontario is a great attraction year-round, winter here offers visitors a unique opportunity to see the mighty waterfalls covered in ice formations. With the added bonus of the Niagara Winter Festival of Lights taking place from November through January, visiting Niagara Falls in the winter is truly a treat.
The truly adventurous may also want to go heli-snowshoeing with Rockies Heli Canada, which is located between Jasper National Park and Banff National Park and flies clients to beautiful and remote locations in the Canadian Rockies. The helicopter pilot will choose the place to land depending on the weather and snow conditions. You may find yourself at a high alpine meadow or at a river, where you'll snowshoe to a frozen waterfall. After your adventure, enjoy hot chocolate with Irish cream before flying back.
Zip Along a Zip Line
At the Marble Mountain Ski Resort in Newfoundland and Labrador, there’s a winter zipline network open for both daytime and nighttime zip lining. Marble Zip Tours touts that they offer "eastern Canada’s longest, tallest, and most exhilarating zip lining rides." As you zip from station to station, you can see the Humber Valley and Marble Mountain Resort in the distance.