Nestled amid the Banff National Park, the ski areas of Lake Louise, Sunshine Village and Mount Norquay benefit from some of the most spectacular winter scenery in the world. Aside from sleepy town of Banff and the small settlements near Lake Louise, this is untouched wilderness, and the drive along the Trans-Canadian highway on a crisp, pristine morning is nothing short of spectacular. So does the skiing live up to the natural beauty of the place?
The ski areas
The nearest ski area to Banff is Mount Norquay, a short drive from the town. This has the feel of a local ski hill, with folk heading up after work to get a few turns in. While not at all extensive (there are only 4 chairlifts, strung out along one face of the mountain) the area does provide a consistently steep pitch – ideal for perfecting your pole plant technique on! There is also night skiing here twice a week. However, if you’re visiting Banff, you’re probably going to want to spend more of your time at the other two areas.
Sunshine Village is about a 20 minute drive north of Banff. From the parking lot, an almost horizontal gondola takes you up to the main lift stations, though you can ski back to your car at the end of the day. The skiing here is much more varied and extensive, with something for all standards – from novices up to experts tackling “Delirium Dive”, where the ski patrol check that you have avalanche equipment and a buddy before you’re allowed on the lift! (Apparently, this isn’t because there is much risk of avalanches since the area is patrolled, but rather to stop people with too little experience getting into trouble – the theory being if you have a shovel, probe and transceiver you probably know what you’re doing!) Much of the skiing here is above the treeline. Unusually for North America, there is a hotel up on the mountain but most people stay in nearby Banff.
Lake Louise is the largest of the ski areas, and is about a 45 minute drive north of Banff. For this reason, it can be worth arranging to be based in the small settlement at Lake Louise for part of the time to avoid the long (albeit extremely beautiful!) commute to the slopes. The skiing here is the most varied, with lifts covering the front and backside of the x range, and a mixture of tree skiing and open bowls. The vista from the mountains is also breathtaking, with views across to Lake Louise itself.
Most people fly to Calgary airport – from there it is about a 2 hour drive up to Banff. As usual in North America, hiring a four wheel drive vehicle is the best way to experience the area, though there are also ski buses that link the ski areas and Banff. Accommodation is plentiful in Banff and available at a range of prices; there is somewhat less choice in Lake Louise and prices tend to be higher. Note that it can get extremely cold here – when snowgenius.com last visited we woke up to a minus 30 degrees celsius morning – chilly!