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The Best Ski Trip of the Season: the Canadian Rockies

The where-to and how-to of this must-do ski destination!

By: Mitch Pittman + Save to a List

The mountains of Banff National Park are without compare. You can scroll through pictures of the Canadian Rockies online all you want, but nothing can prepare you for their presence in person.

It’s one thing to simply stand beneath them and marvel at their grandeur – but then think about skiing amongst them! And how there are hot springs, restaurants, bars, and an entire authentic town – not a manufactured ‘ski town’ – right there in the valley.

This is Banff.

I’ve been lucky enough to visit the area a couple of times before in other seasons and, for the reasons I’ve just gone over, was thrilled to be going back to experience this wonderland in a full-blown ski trip.

Getting There

It’s worth mentioning that the first thing you’ll notice about Banff is how easy it is to get there. From the airport, it’s only about an hour and a half drive to get to Banff; and while the mountain beauty starts almost immediately, the drive feels very safe on a wide highway the entire time, not on some winding little mountain road.

My ski buddy Kristi Teplitz joined me on the trip from the Bay Area and noted how the entire door-to-door trip to Banff from San Francisco can be quicker than fighting traffic most weekends on the way to the Sierras. Plus you get the benefit of not having to drive. For me coming from Seattle, it isn’t quite that far to get to my powder stashes, but when you compare it to the distance from our home base in Banff to any of the resorts, you’re practically on the mountain.

Day 1 - Sunshine Village

Our first destination in the SkiBig3 trio was Sunshine Village, a mere 20 minutes from Banff (though with all of the resorts, time is irrelevant because it passes so quickly staring off at the mountains). Sunshine is the highest of all the resorts and thus has one of the longest seasons anywhere in North America. We were there early in the season, but there was still tons of the light and fluffy snow the Canadian Rockies are known for.

Sunshine also has a mid-mountain hotel and during drinks at the end of the day in the wonderfully-divey Mad Trappers bar, a couple of old-timers regaled us with stories of powder days when, for one reason or another, the gondola to get there couldn’t run and hotel guests had the entire upper mountain to themselves!

What a day that must have been because it’s hard to imagine a resort more suited for deep powder – big, open runs in every direction on all kinds of terrain from mellow groomers to cliffs and gullies.

Day 2 - Lake Louise

The following day we headed 40 minutes north to Lake Louise, but we left a little early to watch the sunrise on the legendary Icefields Parkway. Road conditions here can be much icier than on the main highway, but if the weather allows, it’s absolutely worth cruising up the parkway to snap some photos and simply take in the beauty of this one-of-a-kind road.

After a delicious breakfast burrito at Trailhead Café, we headed up the lifts at Lake Louise to explore this wonderland of bowls and forests. On the front side of the mountain are wide, flowing groomers – and on this particular day some of them were holding a Women’s World Cup race – but our favorite runs were tucked high on the backside. 

Paradise Bowl gave us fun fall-line skiing into a forest of larch trees that held snow even days after the last big storm. We ate lunch mid-mountain at the Whitehorn Bistro, which has the hands-down best view of any restaurant I’ve been to as you stare across the valley at Mount Temple, Mount Victoria, and the frozen Lake Louise. And the food is fantastic.

Day 3 - Mt Norquay

Mighty Mt Norquay was our final of the resorts to explore. Since it was early-season when we were there, not everything was open yet, but on the chairlift rides I had old-timers telling me how there’s no place they’d rather be on a powder day. While some runs by the base are mellow, everything rises precipitously upward in a cascading series of chutes, forests, and white-knuckle steeps.

But beyond the terrain, Norquay has a certain charm about it that you don’t find at most other resorts – it feels like the kind of resort you learned to ski at growing up. Because it is that kind of resort. The lodge, lifts, the smiles on everyone’s faces – all of it had a certain charm that’s hard to come by these days. On top of that, Norquay is only about a five-minute drive from downtown Banff and couldn’t be any easier to get to.

The Apres Ski

Not only is the skiing world class around here, the aprés skiing is as well! From the Lake Louise ski resort, a trip across the valley to the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise gives the quintessential luxury experience by the frozen lake. There’s ice skating, walking out onto the lake to see the mountains, and of course sipping boozy hot chocolate in the hotel.

For a more laid back experience, there are plenty of spots around Banff you can wander to – we especially enjoyed Park Distillery, The Bison, and Magpie & Stump. But beyond dining and drinks, there’s plenty to do around town. The Banff Upper Hot Springs is a short drive up the hill out of town and is a must-do way to wind down from a day on the slopes. Vermillion Lakes is another spot on the way out of town that can’t be missed for its easy access to beautiful spots for pictures. Lastly, the Whyte Museum was a great way to spend an easy afternoon learning about the history of skiing and exploration in the area.  Access to the Banff Upper Hot Springs & Whyte Museum is complimentary to SkiBig3 Lift Ticket holders with a 3+ day ticket.  Also, anyone with an Ikon Pass can stop by the SkiBig3 Adventure Hub in town to pick a free ticket to the Banff Upper Hot Springs.

If you’re looking for another way to stretch out after a couple days of skiing, check out the brand new rock climbing gym called Elevation Place about 20 minutes south of in Canmore. It was a fun way for us to still get some activity in before flying back home. They even have 7 self-belay stations with a few climbs off of each, all ranging from 5.8s to 5.11d at the time of our visit, so you can run laps without a belay partner if you prefer ropes over bouldering.

The Details

Here are a few more bits of info that could make your trip a little easier… First, there’s a shuttle from Banff to all of the SkiBig3 resorts that runs several times each day. For those who want to save money on a rental car (or party a little harder during aprés) this is a great way to still get around easily. However if you have it in the budget, we enjoyed having a car for the freedom to visit a few more spots off the beaten path and to head out early or stay late to take pictures. 

Also know that, at least if you’re traveling from the US, the exchange rate is heavily in your favor. At least at the time this was written, one Canadian dollar is only about 75 American cents, which definitely adds up over the course of a trip and is another great reason to visit Canada now when it’s this favorable.

But then again, with mountains like these, it’s always a good time to visit. 

For more info, visit the SkiBig3 website here

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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