Want to ski a resort in a national park? In the United States, it’s neither easy nor overly upscale. Only three small ski areas operate in U.S. national parks: Badger Pass Ski Area in California’s Yosemite National Park; Hurricane Ridge in Washington’s Olympic National Park; and Boston Mills/Brandywine Ski Resort in Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
Turn your gaze north, however, and the prospects pick up. Four resorts operate in two national parks in Canada, both in the heart of the Canadian Rockies: Marmot Basin in Jasper National Park, and, further south, Lake Louise Ski Resort, Banff Sunshine Village and Mount Norquay in Banff National Park—all four in Alberta. For skiing, it doesn't get any easier or more majestic than Banff, a UNESCO World Heritage Site which kicked off the country’s conservation movement with its founding in 1885.
While the town of Banff sees 7 million visitors annually, less than a third come in the winter to ski its three resorts’ combined 8,000 acres (bigger than Whistler Blackcomb). I visited in February to check out "SkiBig3" under the tutelage of local guides, immersing in everything from mountains and maple syrup to powder and après-fueling poutine. While each host sang his respective resort’s praises—“Ours has better snow,” “Ours has better terrain,” “Ours has better views”—the common superlative is, quite simply, spectacular.
Lake Louise Ski Resort
As the third largest ski resort in the country at 4,200 acres, Lake Louise is big…Canada big. So are its views, inspiring the brochure slogan “Pure awe!”
“It has million dollar views, but no million dollar condos,” says former freeskier and 10-year CMH employee Jasper Johnson, my guide for the day.
That’s because Lake Louise in the heart of Banff National Park, restricting development at the base (most visitors lodge in Banff, a 40-minute drive away, or the closer village of Lake Louise). This spells unencumbered views of pure wilderness, wowing visitors the moment they step off the bus.
The location doesn't mean the resort doesn't have amenities (au contraire, as the French Canadians say). At the base you’ll find two connected and well-appointed lodges, Whiskey Jack and Ten Peaks, including a cafeteria, restaurant, rental shop and employee housing. But it’s a far cry from the crowded skyline of U.S. resorts, and, coupled with Alberta’s 300 days of sunshine per year, it makes the signature views all the more impressive.
And there’s plenty of time to take them in. As long as you’re not addled by adrenaline on Lake Louise’s heralded double-blacks, the resort’s 3,250 feet of vertical means long runs and ample time to gaze around at the surrounding peaks.
I do just that during our first warm-up run down Charlie’s Choice, named for resort owner Charlie Locke, who’s owned the ski area since the ‘80s and is slowly turning control over to his daughters, Kim and Robyn. Even at 78, he's still commonly found skiing, or even wiping off lunch trays at the lodge. “He’s pretty hands-on,” says Johnson, hinting of additional resort improvements to come within the next five years.
Of course, any upgrades and expansions have to go through Parks Canada first, which is one reason you won't find much tree skiing at Louise. Because of restrictions that come with its national park jurisdiction, Lake Louise can't glade its runs out like many other resorts. Then again, with 300 days of sunshine a year, you don't really need to. “It’s kind of serendipitous,” says Johnson. “We can't glade out our tree runs, but we don't need to, either.”
After Charlie’s, we turn onto the World Cup Downhill course and let ‘em rip, channeling our inner Lindsey Vonn. The first North American stop on the World Cup circuit for the past 30 years, Lake Louise considered a classic venue among racers. At the bottom, we ski right back onto the gondola. “We never get any lines,” says Johnson. “We’ll see only a quarter of Vail’s numbers on our busiest day.”
Four days earlier, he says, they had one of the best days ever: 20 inches overnight and bluebird skies. Their storms usually aren’t that big, he says, but locals know the prevailing winds regularly turn a six-inch dump into a foot on the right aspects. Up top, strategically placed wind fences catch snow on the ridge. Of the resort’s six-month season, spring is a great time to come, he adds, with long days, soft snow and great visibility.
With today’s flat light, we schuss over to the Larch chair, passing the original Temple Lodge en route. It’s the site of the first lift-less resort, where a bus would shuttle skiers. Today’s more modern resort was built in the ‘60s, putting the Banff area on the map. Farther up the valley is Skoki Lodge, which you can reach with an 11-kilometer ski tour or snowshoe, spend the night and enjoy scrumptious meals. For the properly equipped, tons of other backcountry and slackcountry options exist as well, Johnson adds, including an area off the back of Top of the World. I already know I need to come back.
Heading frontside on the Ptarmigan lift, we brave the winds and head up the Summit platter poma to the 8,652-foot-high top of Mount Whitehorn. It’s here where Louise’s true black diamond colors shine in a series of chutes, couloirs and bowls dropping to the Paradise lift on the backside. It’s enough that the Freeride World Tour Qualifier is held here every February, for 15 years running. The event is held on Eagle Ridge 3 or 7, two of 65 double black diamonds in Louise’s famed back bowls.
After a few more rippers and a delicious, warm-your-belly lunch at Kuma Yama Sushi in the main lodge, Johnson heads in so he can shuttle back to Banff and pick his son up from day care. Left to my own devices, I lap the gondy twice more, each time awestruck by the views across the valley. Above the heralded Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, the infamous Aemmer Couloir knives down off of Mount Temple, one of the most noteworthy lines in the region. The region is a heli-skiing paradise save for one thing: you can't heli-ski here because the terrain resides in a national park.
I cap the day with a Kokanee Amber in the Ten Peaks Lodge. Next to the bar, at one of the lodge’s several wildlife interpretive stations, is a mount of one of the region’s largest-ever grizzlies, a 650-pounder accidentally killed by a train in 2009. It was heralded as the area’s most dominant boar in the park’s 1,500 square kilometers. Lake Louise’s views and ski lines, it appears, aren’t the only big things around here.
Banff Sunshine Village
Heading up the gondola to Sunshine Village, one look out the right window is all it takes to realize you’re a world apart from most resorts. Oozing over a cliff band from a dizzying height above is the frozen Bourgeau Falls, a massive, Canadian Rockies-sized icicle you just don't normally see from a ski area. Then again, here you’re in the heart of Banff National Park.
Another unique feature: the gondola takes you up to the resort’s base and Sunshine Mountain Lodge, at 7,200 feet the only ski-in/ski-out accommodations in the entire national park. Throw in its proximity to Banff (only 15 minutes), a seven-month season—the longest in Canada—and the region’s most snowfall due to its location on the Continental Divide (average snowfall: 30 feet), and it’s easy to see why it’s so popular. The Canadian National Team trains here every spring.
I disembark the gondy with the marketing department’s Kyle Mulder, a freestyle-oriented snowboarder fresh from two years shredding New Zealand, and 14-year ski instructor James Ordway, who came and stayed after working for his brother’s ski school in Verbier, France. Nestled in a basin surrounded by towering peaks is Sunshine Mountain Lodge; stay in its well-appointed rooms and your bags have to ride the gondola also.
It’s a signature amenity of the 3,510-vertical-foot resort, which is owned by Ralph Scurfield, who runs a family construction business in Calgary. Scurfield—who, like Locke at Louise, is slowly passing the management torch over to his daughter, Kendra—still skis the resort regularly.
I follow Ordway and Mulder up the Standish Express quad to the top of 7,875-foot Mount Standish. Off the ridge, we can see some of the 24 kilometers of fencing placed for the resort’s unique art of “snow farming.” Rather than make snow, they transport snow trapped by the fences to other areas of the mountain that need it. With this year’s season, however, it’s overkill; they’re already close to their 360-inch average. Ordway then points out the endless slackcountry and touring options available from the summit (as long as you have the proper skills and gear), including the epic Wizard Chutes dropping off the backside of Mount Standish; while tricky to get into, they drop all the way to the base parking lot 3,510 feet below.
We rip a couple of groomers on immaculate snow—soft, fast and infinitely carvable—the last of which is on South Divide, so named because you’re skiing in both Alberta and British Columbia. Snowmelt on one side of the ridge goes west to the Pacific and on the other, east into the Bow River and the Atlantic.
Legs warmed up, and more importantly, the ski patrol’s avalanche bombing completed, we next head up the Great Divide chair to the top of 8,954-foot Lookout Mountain and the resort’s double-black crown jewel freeride area: Delirium Dive. First opened to skiers in 1998, the alpine cirque’s hike-to terrain contains some of the steepest, hardest lines of any North American ski resort. Opened for the season just a week earlier (it requires serious avalanche control work after every storm, due to wind-loading from the prevailing southwest winds), the couloir-lined bowl is so steep, topping 55 degrees in some places, that access is guarded by a chain-link gate that remains locked until it senses your avalanche transceiver; proper avalanche safety gear and a partner are required for entry.
After a 10-minute boot hike, we crest the ridge and see the Dive yaw before us. To the right, a metal staircase leads down to the easiest entrance. Other options exist, but no one is taking them today; the snow is too firm and fast to risk a slide for life down the rocky terrain.
Ordway points out some of the offerings, including a hairball couloir called Pocket Rocket, massive slopes called Cream and the Milky Way, and a lower traverse to a region called Fat Boy, yet another bowl an entire basin away. All this has spawned one of best and fastest-growing freeride programs in the country.
Eyeing our line—and dropping one-by-one into a series of speed-checking jump turns followed by endless, creamy carves—we lap Delirium twice, spilling out onto leftover avalanche debris, before heading up the Goat’s Eye lift to complete our tour. It’s named for a natural arch on 9,200-foot Goat’s Eye Mountain that looks like an eye (you can see it on the road leading to the resort’s the base). “There’s actually a chute you can ski straight from the eye in the spring,” says Ordway, rattling off yet another backcountry classic in the area.
Here, we cruise down to the entrance to Wild West, Sunshine’s other signature, double-black-diamond region. It hasn't opened for the season yet, but Ordway says it’s every bit as steep and chute-riddled as the Dive. One chute has a rope anchored to help the squeamish negotiate the bottleneck. Combine Wild West with Delirium and Fat Boy, Ordway adds, and you can do a “Super Lap” straight down to the Creekside Bar. “I don't know of any other area with anything like it as far as freeskiing,” he says.
Since it’s closed (phew!), we carve still-fresh corduroy down past the gondola and onto our long cruiser home to the base. En route, I glance right and see the chutes spilling down Wild West, which I’ll have to save for later. Then I look left and there it is: the tentacle-like fang of the Bourgeau Falls somehow miraculously clinging to the jagged face of its namesake mountain.
Two words sum up Mount Norquay: “No frenzy.”
That’s the vibe riding up the 1,300-vert North American chair—Canada’s first-ever, installed in 1948—with local photographer Dan Evans. Untracked from last night’s six-inch storm, a blanket of white sprawls everywhere below us, with nary a skier. Back home, this would’ve been shredded to smithereens in seconds. Not at Norquay, Canada’s second oldest resort, founded in 1926. The lines are as fresh as the crisp Canadian Rockies air.
At the top of the lift, we head ‘townside’ and shred a face overlooking the town of Banff against the towering backdrop of Mount Rundle. The lift’s steepest average gradient in North America billing soon imparts itself on my burning quads. Near the bottom, Evans points out a gully where bighorn sheep are your only Instagram followers. “In spring, we’ll get bears up here, too,” he says. Below that, the ravine leads to the site of a First Nations trading camp from 11,000 years ago.
Traversing back—no need to hurry, since there’s no one here tracking it up—we stop at the top of an old gelande jump, from an era when jumping was bigger than actual skiing. We lap three more runs of frenzy-less powder, each one at our pace. On our last one, we notice patrol launching bombs onto the steep, chute-lined headwall above Gun Run. It’ll be open in an hour or so, they say, for only the second time all year.
Biding our time, we head to the Mystic lift and ski a run named hEaD Hunter, named for 92-year-old local Eddie Hunter. He’s a ski film pioneer born the same year the resort was founded. He still gets after it, even starring in Sherpa Production’s The Wise Man. A number of runs here are named for early skiing pioneers, including Rob’s Run for late alpine ski racer Rob Bosinger; and Rudy’s Alley for Rudy Gerstch, a Swiss mountain guide and one of the area’s early hotdoggers. His family runs Purcells Heli Skiing.
Long owned by a consortium of families, Norquay was bought out earlier this year by partner Adam Waterous, a banker out of Calgary. He has ambitious upgrade plans, including possibly putting in a gondola from the town of Banff.
But Banffites also love it as it is. It’s a quaint, old school locals’ mountain, with night skiing, racing programs for kids, special school skiing days, and events like “Lifts of Love,” a speed-dating affair encouraging singles to ride the chairlift with one another. With immaculate groomers and an early season, the Canadian National Team trains here every year.
While Norquay is the smallest resort of the Big 3, it’s the closest to Banff—just a five-minute drive. And it’s just as big on views, bookended by the nearly 5,000-vertical-foot faces of Mount Rundle and Mount Cascade. With 1,650 feet of vertical, it doesn't match scope of Louise or Sunshine, but is equally spectacular in scenery.
“It’s for locals and families,” says Evans. “Without it, there’d be a big hole here. It’s what gets the future generation of skiers started. It’s a place to celebrate the local ski culture and is a coming-of-age place for everyone in the valley.”
After lunch at the Lone Pine, where we catch Team Canada whooping up on Switzerland in Olympic hockey, we head back up North American, where Evans launches a 15-footer off the roof of the patrol shack just below the handbuilt-in-1952 Cliff House Bistro. Then it’s onto the freshly opened Gun Run, schralping thigh-deep powder through a tree-lined gully for three runs straight, even in the late afternoon.
I end the day soaking in the Banff Hot Springs, watching shadows slowly envelop the towering monoliths of Cascade and Rundle, just like the night’s storm will our tracks at Norquay. Taking it all in, I chat with woman next to me, whose grandmother is buried at the base of nearby Tunnel Mountain. She’s been skiing Norquay her whole life, she says; it’s where her mother took her, and where she took her kids. “It’s a true locals’ mountain,” she says. “It’s the heart and soul of skiing here.”
Nightlife: If you’re a fan of Red Bull and vodka, try the Dancing Sasquatch. Other hotspots include the Banff Brewing Co., Grizzly Steakhouse (a former “Swingers” hotspot, still with phones connecting each booth), and High Rollers for pizza, beer and bowling.
Lodging: Because of Banff National Park’s ‘need-to-reside’ clause (you need to work there to live there), the town of Banff is an Air B&B-free zone. Banff Lodging Co. offers several lodging options (many with an animal-themed name) to suit all styles and budgets.
Transportation: With a SkiBig3 lift ticket, you can take free shuttles from Banff to any of the three resorts.
Locals tip: Visit Taxi Mike for a day-by-day rundown on deals on food and drinks (like the special Pond Hockey Pale Ale). My choices: $12 buttermilk-fried chicken, with fries and slaw, at Elk and Oarsmen; half-price pizza at High Rollers; $11 calzones at Bear Street Grill; and nightly specials on poutine, a regional après food originating from Quebec consisting of French fries and cheese curds topped with gravy.
When in Canada: Rent skates and a stick at Ultimate on Banff Ave. to play a little pick up hockey on the outdoor rink in the middle of town (just be prepared to be the underdog). Also, make sure to visit the Banff Upper Hot Springs, the birthplace of the town and park’s founding. Bonus: you can even rent a retro bathing suit from the 1920s.
Skoki Lodge is situated 11 kilometers from Lake Louise Ski Resort in the wilderness of Banff National Park, and is accessible only by touring ski, splitboard or snowshoe. Built in 1930, the lodge and three smaller cabins sleep 22 guests under down comforters and flannel sheets, lit by candles and kerosene lamps. Each stay includes breakfast and dinner served buffet-style, with bread baked fresh daily on-site. The chef also provides a buffet, grab-and-go lunch allowing for extended exploring during the day.