Whether dangling off a frozen waterfall, hot soaking in sub-zero temperatures or exploring spectacular terrain, it’s time to embrace the Canadian winter like never before. The season has always presented challenges, especially this year, and yet winter is accompanied by local experiences that illuminate even the coldest, darkest days. I’ve always maintained a bucket list experience should be unique, memorable and make a great story. Barring any lockdowns and minding regional travel restrictions, this is the winter to be creative, a little ambitious, think local and bring the family along, too. Across the country, here are some of my winter favourites:
See the Northern Lights
There’s no guarantee the weather will play ball, but there are ways to stack the odds in your favour. Yellowknife sits below a halo-like ring known as the aurora belt, where the Northern Lights flare with increased intensity. With its high percentage of clear winter nights and few obstructions, the aurora is particularly active from mid-November to mid-April. It’s best seen late at night, and local operators provide warming cabins, hot beverages, thick blankets and ideal locations beyond the city’s lights.
Start here: yellowknifeoutdooradventures.com
Christmas lights in Capilano
Vancouver’s world-famous Capilano Suspension Bridge is the centrepiece of Canyon Lights, an annual illuminated North Shore spectacle. The bridge sparkles with more than a million lights, into the surrounding rain forest, from Dec. 8 to Jan 3. Walk between the world’s eight tallest Christmas trees and traipse through an eye-popping light tunnel on the adjacent Cliffwalk. Warm up with hot chocolate, firepits, sugar shack treats and festive live music. With family discounts available, everyone can have a “whoa!” on the wobbling, 70-metre-high bridge.
Start here: capbridge.com
Ski in a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Banff National Park requires no excuse to visit any time of year, but the bragging rights of skiing in a UNESCO World Heritage Site is a fine one nonetheless. The park hosts three great ski resorts – Lake Louise, Sunshine and Norquay – all focused on million-dollar views, not million-dollar condos. While it’s doubtful you’ll spot local wildlife like moose and elk on the slopes, the champagne powder and gorgeous terrain will more than suffice.
Start here: skibig3.com
Watch out for wolves
Grey wolves are among the most elusive and fascinating of all Canadian wildlife. A winter excursion into Prince Albert National Park provides one of the best habitats to encounter the world’s largest wild canine, whether you’re sledding, snowshoeing or exploring the park by road. Tracks, scat and other evidence of the park’s estimated 60-100 strong wolf pack can be found amidst the snow and frozen lakes, along with resident bison, black bear, elk, moose, otter and lynx.
Start here: sundogs.sk.ca
Winnipeg’s Thermea is the most scenic spa in the prairies, but wait for the gong. This signals the start of Aufgass, a traditional sauna ceremony. Snow orbs are infused with essential oils and dropped over burning stones. By waving a towel in elaborate circles, a Sauna Meister ensures hot, heavily scented steam infuses every cell in your body. Fifteen minutes later, exit the sauna to catch your breath, and enjoy a soak in the snow-banked thermal pools.
Start here: thermea.ca
Skate the Rideau Canal
Let us dismiss the excuses not to strap on skates for a glide on Canada’s most iconic skateway. No skates? Rent a pair with safety gear at one of several skate shacks located right on the ice. Too cold? Warm up in a heated chalet along the way. Rough ice? Check online for the latest conditions. Too busy? The skateway is open 24 hours a day, ready to welcome a memorable starlit skate across the nation’s capital.
Start here: ncc-ccn.gc.ca/places/rideau-canal-skateway
Scale a frozen waterfall
Mont Ste-Anne is one of the few spots in North America to experience the thrill of commercial ice canyoning, combining elements of hiking, rappelling and climbing. Nerves tingle with more than cold as you descend a 40-metre frozen cascade with flowing formations of ice crystal. Thick clothes, sharp crampons and expert instruction mean you can take comfort in knowing that the most dangerous part of the adventure is crossing the highway from Mont Ste-Anne’s adjacent ski resort.
Start here: canyoning-quebec.com
New Brunswick/Nova Scotia
Join the Polar Bear Club
Plunging into freezing waters on New Year’s Day is a symbol of rebirth, invigoration, community spirit and hydro (not to mention hangover) therapy. Public events take place across the country but I’m particularly fond of a dip in the Bay of Fundy, one of Canada’s great natural wonders. With its high salt content and unusually high tides, the bay maintains a frigid temperature between 4 C and 6 C, ready to host a memorable and rejuvenating plunge any day in winter.
Start here: bayoffundytourism.com
Keep up to date with the weekly Sightseer newsletter. Sign up today.