Skiing in AlbertaCanada’s landlocked province of Alberta shares a border and Canada’s principle mountain range – the Canadian Rockies – with British Columbia. Alberta, named after Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s fourth daughter, is home to Banff National Park and to some of Canada’s best ski resorts.
Alberta province’s most iconic “Ski Big 3” region is based around Banff Lake Louise, in one of North America’s most breathtakingly beautiful national parks, which includes the resorts of Lake Louise, Sunshine Village and Banff’s local “ski hill”, Mount Norquay. Alberta’s other big gun is Jasper – also situated in a major national park – and its local resort of Marmot Basin. Although Alberta has its fair share of snow, its neighbour British Columbia claims just about all the heliskiing and cat skiing: the snow to the west of the Rockies is said to be more stable, but that’s splitting hairs and Alberta’s magnificent national parks scenery is second to none.
Banff is a pleasantly boisterous and scenic community with a frontier-town atmosphere. Historically, it owes its existence to the pioneering Canadian Pacific Railway as it forged its way east. When Cornelius van Horne remarked “since we can’t export the scenery to the tourists, we’ll have to import the tourists to the scenery” it was Banff that he had in mind: two of the magnificent Canadian Pacific tourist hotels were built here. The Chateau Lake Louise, built between a pine forest and the mesmerising lake which is fed by five glaciers flowing from Mount Victoria, has one of the most beautiful settings in the world. Banff’s Big 3 ski areas – Mount Norquay, Sunshine Village and Lake Louise – are 10, 25 and 45 minutes from Banff by car or ski bus.
Lake Louise is the most important of Banff’s Big 3 ski areas. Set in the stunning Bow Valley, in Banff’s beautiful National Park, with skiing on three mountain faces, the Lake Louise ski area overlooks some of Canada’s most dramatic peaks. The view from the Top of the World Express 6-seater chair is one of almost unsurpassed grandeur – mile after mile of craggy peaks standing shoulder-to-shoulder, hanging blue glaciers and green valley floors of thick spruce. From West Bowl there are breathtaking views down to the lake, where the celebrated Chateau Lake Louise Hotel, looking like a matchbox-sized fairytale castle sits on the lake waterfront surrounded by forest. With well over 100 designated trails and extensive off-piste, Lake Louise has more than 2,500 skiable back-country acres. There is virtually no major lift at Louise that a novice cannot ride: every chair has an easy way down.
Mount Norquay was the area’s first ski hill to be developed – as early as 1926. The first rope-tows didn’t arrive until 1942, but Norquay installed Canada’s first chairlift in 1948. Although Norquay, where Banff locals ski and board, is the smallest of the three it’s easily the nearest to Banff and it has a remarkable mix of runs for a small ski area: some will test even advanced skiers and boarders, particularly off its North American double-chair, which accesses only black diamond terrain like Memorial Bowl, Gun Run and Temptation. The bumps on Lone Pine can also be seriously challenging.
Sunshine Village, eleven miles from Banff, is one of Canada’s highest ski areas. Sunshine Village got its first rope tow in 1948, taking local skiers to areas which until then had only been reached by antiquated snowcats. Today the slopes at Sunshine’s three mountains – Lookout, Goat’s Eye and Mount Standish – have to be be accessed by an 8-person gondola from the Trans Canada Highway. Skiers and snowboarders can get off at Goat’s Eye, or continue up to the “village” – rather a misnomer as there’s only one hotel. From the village 10 chairlifts access 107 trails spread across the three peaks. The slopes on Lookout Mountain spill over across the Great Divide into British Columbia, with stirring views of Mount Assiniboine (11,870 ft) – an impressive and genuine-looking Matterhorn look-alike.
Jasper Marmot Basin
Jasper Marmot Basin has all the charm but limitations of a one-horse town. The most interesting place in which to stay is out of town at the Jasper Park Lodge, where the British Queen Mother (then Queen) and George VI stayed during their Canadian tour of 1939 and where their daughter, the present Queen Elizabeth II, stayed with Prince Philip in 2005. The local slopes at Marmot Basin are extensive and not over-populated. With 84 trails, there’s a wide variety of slopes, including some double-black diamond chutes along Eagle East and in Charlie’s Bowl. In December 2009, the resort opened the longest quad chair in Alberta: the $8 million Canadian Rockies Express. A mile and a half long, it enables skiers and snowboarders, for the first time, to ski Marmot Basin from the upper slopes right to the bottom using just one lift.
Nakiska, less than an hour from Calgary, was built for the 1988 Winter Olympics. It hosted the 10 alpine events, including the men’s downhill. In 2008 it was named the official training centre of Alpine Canada (ACA), and each year welcomes alpine teams from around the world for early season training. In 2009 the Gold Chair Express high-speed quad chair was installed, taking skiers and snowboarders to the summit in under five minutes, and in 2009 the so-called Monster Glades were opened for tree-skiing.
Castle Mountain is in the West Castle Valley in the south west corner of Alberta, some 168 miles from Calgary. With six lifts serving 67 trails, it’s something of a diamond in the rough – long, steep runs, short lift-lines, plenty of snow, good off-piste, but nothing fancy about the accommodation. In December 2006, Mount Haig, a completely new ski mountain, added some classic intermediate and novice terrain to broaden the resort’s appeal and encourage families to join the more hardcore element
Fortress Mountain (closed)
Fortress Mountain has not operated properly since 2005-6, but there are on-going talks which may or may not bring about a renaissance. It’s a quirky set-up. You could quite easily dismiss it as a handful of lifts serving low-intermediate slopes, but there are lifts on the backside too, which access a third mountainside where the skiing becomes more challenging.
Getting to Alberta
When travelling to Alberta the two most sensible airports to fly to are Calgary and Edmonton. Calgary, the nearest international airport, is 80 miles from Banff and 211 miles from Jasper whereas Edmonton is 250 miles from Banff and 224 miles from Jasper. Flying to Vancouver – 530 miles from Banff and 500 miles from Jasper – doesn’t make a lot of sense as it’s so much further.
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