Sitting Pretty

Beautiful Banff National Park and its stunning ski resorts may be Alberta's best-kept secret.
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The writer and family appreciate the scenery from the overlook at Mount Norquay's Cliffhouse, at 7,000 feet over the town of Banff

The writer and family appreciate the scenery from the overlook at Mount Norquay's Cliffhouse, at 7,000 feet over the town of Banff.

Six inches of cold, dry powder has already fallen, and it’s still snowing hard, a steel-gray sky showing no signs of letting up any time soon. We’ve already taken a few runs at Banff Sunshine, shredding through pristine powder on rollicking blues and gut-rolling blacks. It’s a no-friends-on-a-powder-day kind of morning, but not because I’m trying to keep it all to myself. There’s literally no one here.

Banff Sunshine (formerly Sunshine Village) in Banff National Park, 20 minutes from the lovely town of Banff, offers 3,358 acres of incredible terrain served by mostly express lifts. Its horseshoe design, with three mountains forming a U-shape around the base area, also promises the most dramatic scenery—when it’s not snowing. (Sunshine gets about 360 inches a year.) But two things make this place especially unique: 1) There’s no snowmaking, only natural snow, thanks to a base elevation of 7,000 feet—pretty high for the Canadian Rockies. 2) The base village is accessed via 17-minute gondola ride from the parking lot. Which means if you stay at the only on-mountain accommodation, Sunshine Mountain Lodge, you’re guaranteed first tracks.

There’s not a bad view to be found across Lake Louise’s 4,200 acres. This shot was taken on the mountain’s frontside, off the Summit lift.

There’s not a bad view to be found across Lake Louise’s 4,200 acres. This shot was taken on the mountain’s frontside, off the Summit lift.

Indeed, we skied that powder morning with barely a soul in sight, and by the time the snow flurried to a stop mid-afternoon, we felt as though we’d squeezed several powder days into one. From the ripping blues and blacks off the heated Teepee Town LX express quad, Canada’s first heated lift, to the wide-open bowls off the Continental Divide Express, where you can stand with one ski in Alberta and the other in British Columbia, the resort feels satisfyingly big and varied. We could easily have spent the better part of a week tooling around, revisiting favorites such as the rollercoaster-ride of the wild Eagle Creek run and the playground of boxes, jumps, and rails at the Wolverine Terrain Park.

Kendra Scurfield, Sunshine’s media and communications manager, and whose grandfather, Ralph Scurfield, bought the resort in 1981, joins us to ski, indulgently letting my three terrain-park-loving boys lap Kid’s Play, a series of boxes and kickers within the Wolverine park. Scurfield, a snowboarder who competed in rail jams, big mountain, and slopestyle competitions from the ages of 19 to 23, takes the time to teach my oldest son, 10-year-old Cole, how to slide a box. “Flat feet,” she reminds him, “or you’ll catch an edge.” It’s something he’d been trying to do all season—and he gets it on the second try. I guess a little patient coaching from a former pro goes a long way.

We’re all shellacked in a layer of snow and ice, so we head in for a warmer. Goat's Eye Garden, a couple of trailers erected at the base of the Goat’s Eye Express, isn't quite the hearth-warmed structure one would hope to see here, but it's good for a few cocoas with extra whipped cream and a chance to thaw fingers and toes. No doubt, a more permanent structure would be ideal here.

Sunshine’s location in Banff National Park means development on the mountain is a hard-fought prospect, Scurfield explains. “Building a day lodge is something we would LOVE to do,” she says emphatically. “But operating within Parks Canada imposes challenges on resort improvements, even when they are built to be sustainable and environmentally sound.”

Powder piles up in The Shoulder, off the Teepee Town LX at Banff Sunshine.

Powder piles up in The Shoulder, off the Teepee Town LX at Banff Sunshine.

“Let’s take the chairlift,” suggests Chris Moseley, my guide for the day, as we shoulder our skis outside of one of Lake Louise’s grand, wood-beam day lodges and head toward the slopes. “Then we won’t have to wait in line at the gondola.” What line? I wonder. There are maybe 10 skiers and snowboarders in the gondy queue on this cold but bluebird day. I guess this is a crowd at Banff National Park’s largest ski resort.

We head up the Glacier Express quad and connect to the Top of the World Express six-seater. The 4,200-acre resort could use a fresh dump (which would come in the next day or so), but the clear, crisp day put the scenery on full display. Dramatic, jagged peaks in every direction—there’s not a bad picture to be taken here. Our heads are on a swivel as we ride to the summit.

Lake Louise didn’t get a reputation as one of the prettiest spots on the planet for no reason. Even the drive from Calgary International Airport, an easy two hours on wide, navigable roads, gets dramatic fast as the highway wends into the craggy, heavily glaciated peaks. It’s the glaciers that carved out the expansive, U-shaped valleys that dip nearly all the way down to the base of the mountains. The drive is known to cause neck cricks due to all the craning you’ll do to take in the view out the car window.

Downtown Banff is not only good-looking, but also boasts great dining and bars.

Downtown Banff is not only good-looking, but also boasts great dining and bars.

Lake Louise’s tasteful, understated base village consists of a set of lovely National Park-style day lodges and a couple of smaller skier-service buildings. There’s no overnight lodging—it’s not allowed inside the park; Sunshine Mountain Lodge was grandfathered in—and limited dining and amenities, though the latter is looking to change over the next handful of years. In 2015, Parks Canada approved the resort’s Site Guidelines, giving Lake Louise the OK to present specific expansion plans.

Included in those guidelines is a massive proposal to develop several backcountry areas through a leasehold swap, build a summit day lodge, add dining and aprés at the base, and increase parking to accommodate the growth. (Lake Louise’s ample terrain is rated for 11,000 skiers per day, though lifts and parking can currently only accommodate 6,300 and 5,200, respectively.)

“The motivation to expand is dependent on the market itself,” says Dan Markham, the resort’s Brand and Communications Manager. “We want to make sure when the market grows we’re able to make the adjustments necessary.”

The resort submitted its proposal and expects to hear from Parks Canada in early 2018. If and when the plan is approved, says Markham, the first enhancements would be to open up West Bowl, a popular out-of-bounds area that’s just outside the leasehold, as well as build a water reservoir.

“Everything we’d like to do is in keeping with the ecological priorities of Parks Canada,” Markham says. “Being inside Banff National Park is a gift and a responsibility. We can’t erect 10,000 condos at the base—but then again, we don’t have to look at 10,000 condos at the base.”

Lake Louise’s modest base village could see growth over the next several years if the resort’s expansion plan is approved by Parks Canada.

Lake Louise’s modest base village could see growth over the next several years if the resort’s expansion plan is approved by Parks Canada.

From the 8,086-foot summit of the Top of the World Express, we head down into the back bowls, a sun-soaked, above-treeline fantasyland filled with choose-your-own-adventure terrain. Under the proposal, the resort would give 2,533 acres back to the park in exchange for the ability to develop 1,152 acres of backcountry bowls into inbounds terrain. It’s a tangled web of black and double-black terrain that filters down to one slow triple. Moseley lifts his pole and points to one of the backcountry pods that would be developed. Plenty of people already ski it, he explains.

Plan opponents, including the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society and the Alberta Wilderness Association, argue that the backcountry areas are home to goats and grizzlies, among others, and would also jeopardize natural resources, such as water quality. It’s an ongoing battle that illustrates the difficulty of growing winter tourism in a national park setting.

“Everybody is concerned about expanding, and that’s why Parks Canada is so diligent,” says Markham. “In the long run we all benefit by ensuring we have a destination that’s hugely sensitive to the environment.”

After an exhausting day on the slopes we drive 15 minutes to the iconic Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, at the foot of dramatic Victoria Glacier and a stunning alpine lake. It’s impossibly blue in the summer, but right now it’s frozen solid and adorned with a glistening ice castle on one end and a couple of hockey goals at the other. Ski legs be damned: The boys want to play hockey. At night. In temps of -15 degrees.

The stars are blazing pinpricks in a pitch-black sky as our mini hockey team takes to the ice, rental sticks from the skate shop in mittened hands. Frost billows from their mouths as they skid the puck along the ice, oblivious to the frigid cold. The ultimate Canadian family ski trip? It certainly is now.

The groomers are as good as the views.

The groomers are as good as the views.

Trip Planning

Getting There: The Banff resorts of Lake Louise, Sunshine Village, and Mt. Norquay are a two-hour drive from Calgary International Airport, an uncrowded and easily navigable airport with plenty of direct flights from major U.S. cities. Bonus: Summer tourism is the focus here, so winter is actually off season, i.e., light crowds and lower prices across the board.

Stay: The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, of postcard fame, is 15 miles from Lake Louise, and should not be missed. Its cozy Alpine Social restaurant has excellent flatbreads, plus an elevated menu of pub-style eats, such as nachos (made with smoked gouda and pickled jalapeños) and wings, that defy the old standards.

Sunshine Mountain Lodge is the only lodging at Banff Sunshine, located at the top of the gondola in the base village. First tracks guaranteed. For a quiet dinner, settle in by a bay window at The Chimney Corner for a tender steak accompanied by a great wine list. Plan on a late-night soak under the stars in the pool-sized outdoor hot tub.

In the town of Banff, the Moose Hotel & Suites opened in 2016 with roomy hotel rooms and suites (the suites have kitchenettes) a few minutes’ walk from downtown. It’s a fun and funky property with two rooftop hot tubs and an indoor pool. The Bread Bar—a selection of fruit jams, butters, and fresh breads self-grilled on the huge, table-sized griddle—at the hotel’s Pacini Italian restaurant is an added bonus in the morning. At the other end of the town, the Fairmont Banff Springs rises above it all, a Scottish Baronial castle replica that’s worth a visit, even if you don’t stay there.

To Do: Aside from skiing, of course, there’s much on tap here in the winter. Our picks: the Johnston Canyon IceWalk, a ride to the summit of Sulphur Mountain on the Banff Sightseeing Gondola, tubing at Mt. Norquay, an evening of laneside dining and bowling at High Rollers. and, of course, a skate under stars at the Chateau Lake Louise. Hockey sticks optional. 

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