Ever since seeing the Molson Canadian 2010 Winter Olympic commercial featuring a lone hockey player skating an open frozen lake, with a backdrop of mountains, the camera in pursuit from above as he gained speed chasing a puck, I have fantasized about skating an open lake in the Canadian Rockies, wearing my team’s hockey jersey.
As a Canadian who grew up in Ontario, ice skating on rivers and lakes was familiar. I had spent many winters playing shinny hockey with the boys on Lake Simcoe after school. But living in Vancouver the last 30 years, indoor arenas was as scenic as it got. I skated the Ottawa Canal with a friend one time, which was pretty epic, but the ultimate – skating Lake Louise surrounded by mountains on a clear, cold winter day was still a fantasy. Plus, having taken to playing hockey again in my mid 40s with a bunch of fun-loving women on a team called “The Stanley Cupcakes”, I figured a photo wearing my team jersey would make for a treasured keep sake of the experience, long after retiring my skates.
Lake Louise, located within Banff National Park, is best known for its iconic turquoise blue lake and soaring Victoria Glacier mountain backdrop. While many tourists visit in the summer, the lake in the winter, for those brave enough to bare the cold, is how ice skating in Canada was meant to be: bundled up, in solitude, gliding to the hollow sound of blades stroking the ice beneath your feet, with frosted breath on your hair, hat and scarf, feeling absolutely alive. There can be no better backdrop for the ultimate ice-skating experience, than to frame it with the mountains of Banff National Park, and a frozen lake that goes for miles.
So, when a conference I had been attending in Banff ended midday, and an opportunity to grab a rental car with snow tires came up, I jumped at it, calculating the 55km drive to Lake Louise would allow me a couple hours skating on the lake just before sun set, with time to safely return to the Banff Upper Hot Springs that evening for a soak.
If you are staying within the town of Lake Louise, or driving in from Banff as I was, you need to park in the public parking area and walk a short distance to the front of the hotel. Underground parking at the Chateau is reserved for guests. And be sure that your car has a Banff National Park pass displayed when left in public spaces. Apparently, I got lucky for a couple hours!
There’s nothing quite like the comfort of your own skates, and I was truly missing my Graf’s that day, but rentals were available at the Fairmont Chateau Hotel, and Chateau Mountain Sports, located just off the lobby. Cost for a two-hour skate rental was $13 for adults and a full-day was $16. If it’s really cold, two hours would be more than enough. Rental hours were 8am – noon, and 3-7pm. Skating on the lake is free.
Fairmont Chateau Hotel staff begin measuring ice thickness at the end of November. Once it is safe, usually the first week of December, they clear large areas of snow for the rinks. Ice is maintained nightly by flooding with a tractor and sprinkler in tow – Zamboni style, to maintain smoothness throughout the season. It’s rare that the lake can be naturally skated on without snow clearing, but prolonged deep freezes early season without a heavy snowfall have happened, offering the ultimate endless rink. Skating is weather dependent, usually wrapping up at the end of March or early April when the lake begins to thaw.
Flood lights illuminate the rink until 11pm each night, so daytime or evening skating is possible. If you happened to hit it on a full moon, and a clear night, the bright moonlight on snow would be stunning. Days are short this far north, with sunset at 4:35pm late December, but by mid-February, when I visited, there was daylight until 6pm.
Large ice castles are built on the lake during the Ice Magic Festival before Christmas, and remain throughout the season as long as the frozen lake can maintain their weight. They are a spectacular attraction all on their own.
Numerous hockey rinks are located next to the skating rink. Nets and pucks are out, and you can bring your own stick or rent one for $5. I joined an impromptu shinny game of three on three while there, so it would seem if you’re feeling the urge, it’s ok to ask to join in. Lake Louise hosts an annual Pond Hockey Classic tournament the third week of February each year. Now in its 11th season for 2020, teams flock from afar, and entry sells out early.
While sporting my team jersey was great for photos, I had a turtle neck and fleece jacket beneath it, and promptly tossed a long puffer coat over top afterwards. The day I visited was clear and cold at -15C with a cutting wind. Warm wool micro fibre ski socks were crucial, as was a wool toque, mitts and scarf.
There are fire pits and benches by the lake, making it easy to change into skates and leave snow boots sheltered. You can bring your own hot beverage in a thermos, and perhaps something a little stronger to enjoy fire side, or you can slip back to the hotel lobby to warm up. Just know that skates must be removed before going inside. You can also visit a rink side “ice bar”. Built entirely of sculpted ice, they curiously have heaters to stand underneath, allowing you to sip an adult beverage in warm comfort while still being outside.
I wasn’t staying in Lake Louise on my trip, but for those that plan to, you can’t beat the 4 Star Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise for view and location. It books up quickly though, and is the most expensive option. More economical stays are available within the town of Lake Louise at one of many 3 Star locations such Deer Lodge, and Lake Louise Inn. Private rentals through Airbnb in the area are another option. Depending on what activities you wish to pursue, such as skiing or visiting natural hot springs in the area, staying in Banff and driving to Lake Louise for the day like I did is a great option.
If renting a car from Banff or Calgary be sure the company provides snow tires on your vehicle, and if it’s not stipulated at booking, ask so there isn’t a surprise fee at the counter. Roads are well maintained, but driving can be nasty if you’re not familiar with winter conditions. While having a rental car provided freedom to visit close by towns or ski on additional days at Sunshine, Lake Louise or Norquay, there are also buses to these areas from the Chateau and Banff, as well as a daily shuttle to Calgary International airport, just 180km east of Lake Louise.
As I removed my skates sitting on an outdoor bench by the firepit, I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. My fingers were bare and cold, by my heart was warm and full. And that hot rum drink at the ice bar was beckoning.
If you go, check out the official Banff / Lake Louise Tourism website for up to date information and events. Check the Weather Network here, for current conditions and the 7-day forecast for Lake Louise. And if you’re looking for accommodation in the Lake Louise area, search your dates and options here!
And don’t forget to “pack light” and experience more! Download my TRAVEL LIGHT PACKING TIPS sheet here. This handy PDF contains all my secrets for being able to travel the world with only a carry-on bag. I also update this list of essential GEAR when I find something really useful. It contains guide books, comfort gear, and stuff that’s handy to have. Check it out!