A ski resort with terrain for all levels and closeby lodging, lots of apres ski activities and a good ski school make for great vacations on snow.
There’s a good reason the best skiers in the world head to Alberta, Canada to open the World Cup racing season. The terrain of the ski resorts in Alberta is vast, the verticals are prodigious, several of the hotels in Banff are world-class magnificent. And did we mention the scenery?
To be sure, Alberta’s center point for skiing and riding is Banff where the “Big 3” of Lake Louise, Sunshine Village and Mt. Norquay beckon visitors from all over the world and most certainly from all parts of Canada and the United States.
But, there’s more with mountains above Calgary where the 1998 Winter Olympics held sway and more good sliding (not to mention scerery) in Jasper National Park. Where will your next ski and ride trip take you? Maybe it should start with an “A” as in Alberta.
Normal patterns allow for opening of most resorts in mid-November and continuing later into the spring. However, the best conditions will generally be found here from mid-December through March.
The World Cup men and women downhill racers almost always bring their excitement to Lake Louise the end of November and into early December. What does that tell you?
Few will argue the best skiing and riding experience in the province is centered on the “Big 3” surrounding Banff, one of the world’s “cool ski towns.” The three areas surrounding the town are all close by with Norquay and Sunshine a long snowball’s throw away (15-20 minutes). Lake Louise is under an hour.
Banff Sunshine Village has it all and will fill the needs and much more of skiers and snowboarders of all abilities. The resort is located in a high upper valley about a 15-minute gondola ride up from its base. There are two ways back down to the base and are both “road runs.”
The central village area at the top of the gondola is a logical staging area with the vast ski terrain to the west. Sunshine Village itself includes a large day lodge complex with restaurants, bars, equipment rental (known as “hire” outside the U.S.) and childcare facilities. The Sunshine Inn offers ski in-ski out lodging. The peaks and ridges high above are actually the border between Alberta and British Columbia, and some of the ski runs hop scotch it.
Mount Standish, Lookout Mountain, and Goat's Eye Mountain are the three peaks of Sunshine. Standish has the most beginner-friendly slopes, with long easy runs back to Sunshine Village, along with a mix of scenic intermediate runs. Lookout and Goat's Eye both offer a range of excellent intermediate and advanced slopes, and both have at least one easier route from top to bottom.
The best news for experts only: Delirium Dive and Wild West sectors on Lookout and Goat's Eye (only open to “transceiver/shovel/probe-equipped advanced-level visitors,” are actually in-bound freeride terrain that is “bucket list” stuff for the best skiers among you.
What makes the Sunshine Village so unique is it is well above the treeline, meaning the unobstructed views are some of the most awe-inspiring in the entire world. The average snowfall of 30 feet is light and dry as is its altitude of 8,956 feet.
Total skiable acres number 3,360. There are 120 runs, broken out with 15 percent beginner, 37 percent intermediate, 40 percent advanced and 7 percent expert. There is a gondola and 9 chairs. Since Sunshine is the closest of the Banff resorts to Calgary, time your vacation for mostly mid-week skiing.
This is somewhat of a conundrum of a ski resort, also about an hour from Banff. Some are convinced it’s the most difficult of the "Big 3", but the truth is there’s plenty of terrain for all levels of skiers and riders.
You’ll enjoy more than 4,200 acres of diverse terrain over four mountain faces with 165 runs plus back bowls and the West Bowl. The longest run is five miles. The unique part of Lake Louise is the layout with beginner, intermediate and expert routes from almost every chair.
Perhaps the “difficult” image comes from TV coverage of the World Cup openers. It’s certainly true advanced and experts have plenty of terrain here for serious challenges. Just head to the backside alpine bowls for as many double black diamond runs -- steeps and chutes -- as you will probably ever want. The off-piste options will make your days, as well.
Once beginners feel fairly good about their progress, it’s time to hop on the Glacier Express Quad to Wiwaxy run, a real winner of a green run.
The Showtime Terrain Park is generally available by the holidays or early January. It is located on Easy Street, just above the base, and is considered a terrific park by tricksters.
The Sunny Learning Area and the Minute Maid Wideness Adventure Park are the best places for pure beginners and kids. It’s located right next to the Day Care Center and there are three beginner carpet lifts. Green signs say “Easiest Way. "
Don’t miss staying, drinking, eating and gawking at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise Hotel. Here’s how it’s best described: “Surrounded by soaring mountain peaks, the majestic Victoria Glacier and a glistening emerald lake, the iconic Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise hotel is located in Alberta's Banff National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is recognized globally for progressive environmental stewardship and responsible tourism.” We can’t say it better.
Norquay is the smallest of the “Big 3.” But – at six miles away – it’s the closest ski area to the town of Banff. It’s really hopping Friday and Saturday nights when the lights shine from 5-9 p.m. The terrain park also is fully lit.
Be sure you don’t underestimate Norquay and toss it off as just a locals’ area. Half of its slopes are rated expert. It was the first ski area built in Western Canada in 1926 by engineers from Europe working in the general area. By the way: hourly passes are available that are great for workers in the area.
Marmot Basin Ski Resort in Jasper National Park is about as scenic as it gets in our winter world. The views from the Eagle Ridge and the Knob chairs are particularly gasp inspiring. Also surrounding the ski resort, the vast Jasper National Park offers many wowser landscapes. The Icefields Parkway drive between Lake Louise and Jasper provides such stunning scenery that it’s a reason in itself to go to Jasper. Try to keep your eyes on the road.
Marmot Basin is particularly popular with skiers and snowboarders from Edmonton. Jasper skiing is a good choice for a multi-day trip as an alternative to the much busier "Big 3" in Banff.
If you’re looking for uncrowded slopes, this is your best choice. The prices are better, too. But, understand Marmot is quite a bit smaller than Sunshine Village or Lake Louise, (but bigger than Norquay) so the expert stuff may not be as satisfying. Finally, well, it’s just plain cold here.
Marmot skiing and riding is both above and below the treeline, meaning you’ll get open spaces and the protection of the trees. There is good variety with groomed runs, moguls, glades, tight trees, alpine bowls, chutes and cliffs.Trails are about evenly divided by ability with 30 percent beginners, 30 percent for intermediate skiers, 20 percent advanced and 20 percent double black diamond. There are 7 lifts including 2 high-speed quad chairs.
The ski area is about a 30-minute drive south of the town of Jasper. There are shuttle services between lodging and the resort.
Nakiska Ski Resort was purpose-built to host the Alpine Events of the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. The groomed runs are wide (Olympic-sized), and layout is welcoming for all skill levels.
The location of the Nakiska Ski Area was chosen thanks to its proximity to Calgary (a 45-minute drive) and the closest ski resort. Nakiska is the first “real mountain” ski resort to visit after leaving the city (besides WinSport), making it the ideal location for the Calgary Olympic Games. Nakiska Ski Resort is a family favorite for locals and visiting families.
The Olympic legacy is everywhere starting with the chairlift names (Bronze, Silver, Gold, and Olympic), the day lodges, and some of the runs. Most of the runs are named after Indigenous tribes, ceremonies, and traditions.
Nakiska is good starting point for beginners to learn to ski on a smaller hill that keeps the atmosphere of some of the larger resorts.
The Bronze, Silver, and Olympic chairs are for beginners as they offer primarily Green runs. The Gold chair is best for intermediate to advanced riders, with its Blue and Black runs. The “easiest way down” is always clearly marked.
Calgary Olympic Development Association (CODA) operates as WinSport, a non-profit organization based in Calgary, whose mandate is to provide training and development to Canada's Olympic athletes, and to maintain the facilities built for the Olympic Games. The organization was founded in 1956 to bring the Olympics to Calgary, succeeding in its fourth attempt.
WinSport prides itself on its groomed corduroy snow. There are 35 acres of skiable terrain in addition to a five-zone terrain park. There is also a 12-foot mini pipe and a 22-foot halfpipe, the largest of its kind in Western Canada. There’s a big tubing park as well.
Castle Mountain Resort “is what it is.” No spas or fur jackets. This is a throwback ski area where the glitz doesn’t exist. Castle is just fine for those who enjoy skiing and snowboarding without all the distraction.
Castle is mostly visited by locals who come for the weekend, but many people add on a few days when heading to and from the Banff resorts to get their ski legs ready. It is located about 40 minutes southwest of the town of Pincher Creek in the southwest corner of Alberta.
The main appeal here is to advanced and expert riders. There are plenty of steeps, glades, moguls, chutes, and more. Castle has plenty of challenging terrain for advanced and expert riders.
The terrain has long runs and some variety. Beginners, however, only have 15 percent of the trails on which to learn.
Lift pricing is relatively inexpensive. Facilities and services and on-mountain accommodations also are affordable. There are only three lifts and you can certainly take a snooze with their speed level. Castle Mountain is home to powder stagecoach cat skiing as well.
Don’t confuse Castle Mountain Resort with Castle Mountain in the Banff National Park. Castle Lodge is the primary on-mountain accommodation; simple lodge rooms and hostel-like bunk beds. There are hotels and motels in Pincher Creek.
Well, maybe. Fortress Mountain closed due to falling revenue moons ago. A new company, Banff Rail Co., bought it and reopened for a short time in 2006, but the province revoked the company's lease in 2007.
Various news reports have the mountain opening sometime in 2023 as Fortress Mountain Holdings. President Chris Chevalier said in one of those reports: "We have our approvals in place for phase one which is essentially five lifts, a new day lodge and sewer, water, utilities, all the infrastructure we need." The ski area is on one of the highest mountains in the country in Kanaskis County. Right now the ghosts are enjoying the skiing. Maybe you can join them down the line.
Some other ski resorts to consider are Canyon Ski Resort with 80 acres of skiable terrain, 23 runs, and 6 lifts in Red Deer Canyon, Central Alberta. There are 2 chairs and a T-Bar, plus snowmaking. It’s not a mountain, but more of a prairie hill. Then there’s Silver Summit Ski Area, but don’t count on it. It’s in Edson, but didn’t open last year. Owners are trying hard to meet the requirements to crank up for 2022-23. Stay tuned.
Hidden Valley Ski Resort is basically a membership area limiting capacity at 750 a day. It’s small, but fun in the Cypress Hills Provincial Park near Elkwater. Snow Valley is a small nonprofit ski hill with gentle slopes in the heart of Edmonton.
Look at it two ways. Yes, Alberta is home to 30 ski areas, but only five of those ski resorts have over 1,000 skiable acres and only two would be considered world-class. The vast majority of Alberta ski resorts are family-friendly, local hills. The Ski Big 3 (Banff Sunshine, Lake Louise, Mt. Norquay) are all close to Banff and top the list.
Lake Louise is the biggest ski resort in Alberta. And we mean big. The total slope length is 456,037 feet (139km). The views are spectacular, it’s home to both the Men’s and Women’s World Cup downhills and you also have access to Norquay and Sunshine Village on the Ski Big Three lift pass. It’s located in Banff National Park, about 40 minutes from Banff.
Most certainly. Alpine skiing in Alberta is some of the best in the world and people from just about everywhere come to visit. There are big mountain cruisers, plenty of powder and many resorts with cozy atmospheres. And the scenery is magnificent.
Most of the skiing takes place in the western sections of the province in the Rocky Mountains. These towering peaks catch the storms that frequently come across from British Columbia and up from Washington State. That spells POW.
In a word: COLD. Winter in Alberta lasts from November to March and is characterized by a wide range of temperatures and conditions. Daytime temperatures typically range from 23F (-5 C) to 5F (-15°C), but can drop as low as 22F (-5.56C) for short periods of time. The coldest months are usually January and February. Winters are dry, sunny, and cold.
Annual precipitation in Alberta averages 12-24 inches (30-60 cm). The ski resorts can see up to 30 feet of snow between November and April. Calgary endures very cold winters, although not as cold as Alberta’s capital city, Edmonton, which sits farther north.
Bottom line: Bundle up.
The closest airport to Banff is Calgary (YYC) . Frequent direct flights connect Calgary International Airport to many cities across Canada, the U.S,. U.K., and the rest of the world. Airlines serving Calgary Airport include WestJet, Delta and Air Canada.
You can book a ticket on the Banff Airporter, The Brewster Bus, or Banff Transportation for private service to Banff.
One of the best ways to see the Canadian Rocky Mountains is by train. There are two rail companies with several itineraries to choose from traveling in Western Canada including the luxurious Rocky Mountaineer and VIA Rail. Stops are scheduled in Edmonton and Jasper. The Rocky Mountaineer offers service between Vancouver, British Columbia and Jasper, Banff-Lake Louise and Calgary.
It’s about a 90-minute car drive from the Calgary Airport to Banff; 2 hours to Lake Louise. U.S. drivers’ licenses are valid in Canada.
Banff is a picture perfect, small quaint village within Banff National Park, with wooden buildings, and the Bow River flowing through town. Relax at the Upper Sulphur Hot Springs open year-round, walk along the river, ride the gondola up Sulphur Mountain, stay or dine at the incredible Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, a castle built in 1888, now a National Historic Site. The town is a 15-minute drive from Sunshine and Norquay Ski Resorts. Banff is a great place to begin exploring the best the Canadian Rockies has to offer.
Canmore’s downtown village is picturesque, with a backdrop of snowy mountains. It is located 1.5 hours from Calgary and minutes from 5 ski resorts. Canmore was a coal-mining town until the 1970s, when the mines shut down. Canmore retains its small town, wilderness flavor, integrating this with some high quality dining and shopping. This is where the Nordic center was built for the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics to host the cross-country ski events and the cross country skiing is delightful.
Nanton is located about an hour south of Calgary and is known for its historic buildings, boutique antique shopping, and museums. The local restaurant scene includes The Auditorium Hotel, Sweet Queen Family Restaurant, or Wild Thyme Cafe.
There are really several skiing and riding experiences in Alberta with the cozier and smaller ski hills scattered about the province catering mostly to locals and the big sprawling world-class destinations bringing in visitors from across the globe.
Regardless, visiting the "Big 3" in Banff is a must for any skier or snowboarder’s bucket list. Lake Louise and Sunshine Village will fill memory books for a lifetime. Others, such as Marmot Basin in Jasper National Park, will delay your skiing all over the mountain because you can’t put your camera away.