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 the British Colombian coast, where winters are moderate. Whistler, two hours inland from Vancouver, on the other hand, gets loads of snow and is a major ski destination through May.
Winter in the Canadian Rocky Mountains is long. Calgary, however, does not get much snow, but it stays around in the higher altitudes; Banff and Canmore—both in Alberta—may get two feet in April. Meanwhile, southern Alberta gets winter relief from warm Chinook winds.
Eastern Canada, including Toronto and Montreal, has a short, fierce winter: sub-zero temps around -4 degrees Fahrenheit (-20 degrees Celsius) are not uncommon from December to February. At least one or two snowfalls of eight 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 this year.
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 ski resort in British Columbia was the site of the 2010 Winter Olympics Nordic events. Meanwhile, Banff and Lake Louise are an easy ski escape outside of Calgary, Alberta, and Mont-Tremblant, 90 minutes north of Montreal in Quebec, is a charming winter alpine village. These resorts are excellent by any standard—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 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 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.
Every winter, Ottawa's Rideau Canal becomes The Rideau Canal Skateway and at just under five 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, such as Ottawa's Winterlude. For the first three weekends every February, the nation's capital puts on a winter festival that features ice-skating on the world's longest rink, ice sculptures, a snow playground, concerts, and more.
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 most anywhere in Canada that gets lots of snow. The Call of the Wild is an award-winning, established adventure team that offers dogsledding excursions and year-round adventures.
Take a Winter Rail Vacation
Sit back and soak up the majesty of the Canadian Rockies in the winter on a train trip across Canada. Rocky Mountaineer offers spectacular Canadian winter train vacations that range from the leisurely to the downright luxurious. Vacations include train travel to/from Vancouver/Calgary, transportation to and between Banff, Jasper, and Lake Louise, plus opportunities to explore some of the country's most magnificent scenery and two great Canadian cities.
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.
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 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 overall, you'll find the quality of accommodation and hospitality high.
Take in a Winter Light Festival
Canadians don't hibernate over winter; instead, they create reasons to enjoy the outdoors. One way is with light festivals, such as the Winter Festival of Lights in Niagara Falls. You can find many more across the country including:
- Winter Festival of Lights, Niagara Falls
- Christmas Lights Across Canada, Ottawa
- Toronto Cavalcade of Lights, Toronto
- Vancouver Festival of Lights, VanDusen Botanical Garden, Vancouver
- Airdrie Festival of Lights, Airdrie (22 miles from Calgary)
- The Montreal High Lights Festival and Celebration of Light festival
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.
Sip on Some Ice Wine
While many people may prefer coffee and hot chocolate to warm up in the winter months, many Canadians prefer 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, the second-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.
See the Arctic Reindeer
For a true adventure, find out about how people live in the far north and experience the unusual beauty of the Arctic tundra. On this 4-day tour offered by Tundra North Tours, you'll visit a herd of 3000 reindeer, traveling next to the herders on a snowmobile, and stay at a B&B in Tuktoyaktuk on the Arctic Ocean. Experience local foods and cultural activities with your Inuvialuit hosts and, if conditions are right, you may even see the Aurora Borealis.
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.