Before we arrived in Banff, here’s what I knew about skiing at the area’s three alpine resorts.
Clearly, we were ripe for an education.
And after a fantastic spring break week in Banff, here’s what we learned and what we recommend.
More Than Meets the Eye
From the town of Banff, you can see Mount Norquay.
Or rather, you look up and see a steep pitch, covered in a rash of moguls. It looks like a bump lover’s dream, or depending upon your skiing and riding preferences, a knee-bashing nightmare.
The smallest of the Ski Big 3 resorts, Mount Norquay has 6 lifts, a vertical rise of 1,630 feet (503 meters), and 190 skiable acres. Just five minutes from Banff, it’s been the region’s “local” mountain for 90 years.
The crazy steep bump run you can see from town is Lone Pine, one of the steepest runs in Canada. But don’t be deterred: there is plenty of accessible beginner and intermediate skiing tucked ‘round the backside of the mountain.
Local Tip: On powder days when everyone else is racing for the North American chairlift, lose yourself in the trees and chutes off of Mystic Express for lap after beautiful lap.
Sunshine Village is even more deceiving, just a gondola station and large parking lot at the base. There’s not a ski run in sight, nor even a hint of the beautiful Rockies at the top of the resort. You’ve heard of false summits? Well, Sunshine Village has a false base. The real base is higher in the mountains, accessible only by gondola.
Sunshine Village is dominated by four peaks: Goat’s Eye Mountain, The Eagles, Lookout Mountain and Citadel Peak. It’s also famous for its extreme, restricted terrain, Delirium Dive, Silver City and The Wild West.
While the aspects vary, much of the skiing is above tree line. It’s glorious, with nonstop views along the continental divide into British Columbia and over to Mount Assiniboine.
Of course, when the clouds roll in, the visibility shuts down and smart skiers drop down to Wawa Ridge and Mount Standish. In these areas, you’ll find short tree-protected runs, excellent beginner terrain and a variety of chutes that’ll up your game from intermediate to advanced.
With 12 lifts, including the gondola, 5,440 feet of vert (1658 meters) and 107 named runs, Sunshine Village is a big, fun, jaw-droppingly gorgeous place to ski.
And with a new heated bubble chair for this season (replacing the TeePee Town Double), you can get to the top, take in the endless vistas, and ski the steep lines all the more quickly.
Local Tip: Take a snowshoe and fondue tour at Sunshine Village, a designated Canadian “signature experience.”
Lake Louise Ski Resort
And then there’s Lake Louise, the most deceiving of all.
As you drive up, only the Front Side of Lake Louise Ski Resort is visible from the road. There’s great skiing on this wooded Front Side, with lots of beginner and intermediate terrain, as well as a famous World Cup run. Still, big as it looks, the Front Side has only 32% of the resort’s skiable terrain.
Lake Louise has 4,200 skiable acres, 145 runs, a vertical drop of 3,250 feet (991 meters) and a set of back bowls to rival any other back bowls, anywhere.
In addition to the Front Side, beginners and intermediate skiers will find good snow and lots of fun on Larch Mountain. Larch Mountain offers long meandering greens, shorter rolling blues, and a variety of bumps and glades for advanced skiers. There’s also a 40-minute hike to an expert-only area known as Elevator Shaft.
And then there are the Back Bowls.
Had we known of these bowls in advance, we would have planned an extra day at Lake Louise.
Our first day was gray, with no visual relief, which made everything extra challenging. Skiing with a local, we found good snow, but couldn’t see well enough to ski his favorite chutes off of Mount Whitehorn.
The next day, the visibility was much better, there were several inches (more in centimeters!) of new snow, and my sons proclaimed it “the best day of the season.”
The Lake Louise Back Bowls are spectacular and vast. And for us, they were the very best sort of surprise.
Local Tip: Stop for lunch at Whitehorn Bistro on the Front Side. Good food. Stunning views.
The Most Family Friendly?
Each of these resorts is full-service with rentals, lessons, childrens’ centers and programming, along with plenty of special events and activities, including tubing and night skiing at Mount Norquay.
Still when it comes to family friendly, Lake Louise wins the crown. For the daycare center at Lake Louise takes infants as young as 18 days. Yes, you read that correctly, 18 days.
From Bumps to Backcountry
If you love and live for bashing bumps, Mount Norquay is your destination. Formerly the home of the Mountain Smoker competition, skiers raced to make as many Lone Pine laps as they could in three hours. The record, set in 1981, is 24 laps or 31,200 vertical feet.
The “must-ski” experience for experts at Sunshine Village is Delirium Dive. You’ve got to be backcountry savvy, with a beacon, probe, shovel and billygoating skills. Or, you can hire a guide and safety gear, along with lessons on how to use it, from the ski and ride school.
The safety restrictions keep numbers low, and the laps are long, steep and soft. While the skiing will test your skills, we thought the hardest part was navigating the last few steps to the drop in.
Finally, if you like your ski touring and backcountry exploration combined with luxurious lodging and gourmet food, we hear the Skoki Lodge at Lake Louise is unmatched.
When You Go…
Banff, Alberta is really easy to get to, with nonstop flights from many U.S. and Canadian cities into Calgary. The drive from Calgary to Banff is about 90 minutes.
The commercial hub of the National Park, Banff is about 5 minutes from Mount Norquay, 30 minutes from Sunshine Village and 40 minutes from Lake Louise.
Sleep and Eat
As for lodging, we recommend the Sunshine Mountain Lodge at Sunshine Village, the region’s only ski-in/ski-out accommodation. The modern lodge has two-story family rooms that are warm, welcoming and ridiculously convenient for skiing, dining and watching the alpenglow light up the towering Rockies that surround you.
In Lake Louise, we stayed at Deer Lodge, a historic tea and guest house with beautiful wood-paneled rooms, fantastic cozy duvets, a roof top hot tub and a top-notch restaurant.
The Fox Hotel and Suites in Banff was comfortable, with traditional and condo-style rooms and a large, grotto-inspired spa. It’s clean, simple and perfect for families.
Banff itself is full of fantastic bakeries, coffee shops and restaurants of all types. Check out The Bison for a special meal, emphasizing Alberta-raised meat and game, and the Banff Avenue Brewing Company for pub fare, elevated.
Pricing is reasonable, especially given the favorable exchange rate for U.S. visitors.
Beyond Skiing and Riding
There is an abundance of winter fun in Banff National Park. With over 1.6 million acres of wilderness to explore, there are waterfalls to climb, lakes to skate, hot springs to swim and mountaintops to visit (don’t miss the Banff gondola and boardwalk at the top of Sulphur Mountain).
We were scheduled to go ice climbing with Yamnuska Mountain Adventures, a well-regarded guide service, that gets rank beginners, such as us, up the falls. Unfortunately, an injury and unseasonably rainy weather prevented this trip.
Still, two locals friends, Sarah, a ski mom and enthusiastic climber, and Will Gadd, arguably the finest ice climber in the world, wholeheartedly recommend strapping on the crampons and going vertical. We hope to do it next time.
- Quebec City: My Kind of Ski Town, December 12, 2014.
- At Quebec’s Le Massif, We Can All Be Lugers, February 4, 2014.
- British Columbia’s Family Paradise: Silver Star Mountain Resort, January 27, 2014.
- Heli Skiing…Falling…And Getting Up Again, January 15, 2014.
- Revelstoke Mountain Resort: For Families Who Live to Ski and More, March 3, 2014.
- Why My Family Loves to Ski Whistler, British Columbia, November 14, 2012.
- Why My Family Loves to Ski Mount Washington, British Columbia, March 29, 2012.
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