Located in and around Banff National Park, the Sunshine, Lake Louise and Nakiska Ski Resorts have some of the best downhill skiing and snowboarding in Alberta. We decided to spend a few days touring these amazing ski and snowboard resorts while we're still young enough and able-bodied enough to endure the physical challenge.
Lake Louise is the annual home to the World-cup slalom and giant-slalom race. People from all over the world travel here to witness the best skiers in the world fly down the winter slopes in Banff National Park.
Sunshine Village ski resort is my personal favourite. It offers excellent snow, scenic views of the Rocky Mountains and wide, open runs on 3 different mountains.
Nakiska ski resort, located in Kananaskis Provincial Park, is located in the front ranges and played host to the alpine events for the 1988 Winter Olympics.
Unlike the snow in BC, the white-stuff in Alberta is dry and powdery and known as 'Champagne Powder'. Ski season usually starts in November but I wouldn't recommend using your best equipment at this time of the year (too many rocks). The great skiing starts in December when the temperatures are cold and the snow base is thick.
These resorts have lots of terrain and use the latest high-speed, high capacity chairlifts. Lift lines longer than 5 minutes are rare (except during the Christmas holidays and Spring Break in March). There's plenty of groomed runs, fresh-powder & long stretches of moguls for skiers of every level.
We based our Alberta ski-trip out of Canmore, Alberta, so that we'd be within an hour drive of all three resorts. Some people make the daily commute from Calgary, but that adds an extra hour of driving each way (after a day of skiing, all I want to do is eat is laze around). Banff is another option but we chose Canmore this time around since it was more economical.
For convenience, we rented a car and got dropped off at the different ski-resort each day while the non-skiers in our party went on their daily adventures in town.
Canmore is a fun, funky mountain town (with expensive real estate!) that has lots of tourist accommodations, restaurants and other fun things to do.
While we were on the hill all day, our non-skiing friends enjoyed trail-riding, cross-country skiing and even cave-exploring. We missed out on an afternoon at the spa... but didn't mind since we were on the slippery slopes of heaven!
Incidentally, this Rocky Mountain town at the base of the Three Sisters Mountain was so picturesque, we extended our trip by a day and spent a relaxing romantic getaway in town.
We arrived late into Calgary International Airport (or very early for the next ski day). We drove 1.5 hours from the city to the town of Canmore. The Trans-Canada Highway was in great condition but we were warned by the rental-car clerk to check the road conditions frequently since the weather could change quickly in the mountains. We arrived at the hotel, ate a late dinner & hit the sack.
Sunshine is the oldest and largest ski resort in the region. With over 9 meters of snow & powder each year (and tons of sunshine, as you might have guessed) it has lots of varying terrain for all level of skiers.
The runs vary from groomed & easy to steep with moguls. The best part is that all the runs are long! In 1995, the Goat's Eye ski area was opened which almost doubled the amount of ski-able terrain at Sunshine. In this new section, the runs are steeper but never crowded.
I love Sunshine Village, right from the first gondola ride that whisks people up to the skier's village to the end of the 3.8 kilometer ski-out Trail (a real leg-burner so taking the gondola is an alternative). The snow is always good in the winter and the mountain views from the Continental Divide Express chair are spectacular.
Skiing and snowboarding in Canada can be cold. The snow is great below -7 C (the skiis carve and chatter when coming to a stop) but skiing in colder temperatures requires extra layers & determination! The worst part is going up the chairlifts heading into the wind.
Nakiska is located off the beaten path in Kananaskis Provincial Park, about 30 minutes from Canmore. It hosted the downhill alpine events for the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics and hasn't changed much since.
Personally, I've found Nakiska to have icy conditions throughout the year. It faces east and is exposed to the sun until mid-afternoon so I think this causes soft snow to form an icy crust. The tiny snow crystals from the extensive snow-making capability may also contribute to the icy conditions.
The views are pretty in the Front Ranges but not as dramatic as the rocky peaks near the other resorts. Also, Albertans mandated that Kananaskis Provincial Park not be developed and the amenities are limited. The one hotel is nice (the G8 summit was held here) but the choice of restaurants is small. The closest night-life can be found 30 minutes away in Canmore.
There's something about the Canadian Rocky Mountains that gets to your heart. The scenic and uncrowded beauty always creates lasting memories... and that's before you hit the slopes!
Lake Louise Ski Resort offers big runs and lots of ski-able terrain. You have the choice of skiing on 3 faces which have different views, snow and grade. The front side is the biggest and has awesome views of the valley. On the other side is the frozen, majestic Lake Louise. The snow is great on this side except in the spring when the lower portion becomes slushy from the warm sun. In winter, it can get a bit windy but you can always escape to the back side.
The Ptarmigan/Paradise Back Bowls is a quiet, snowy area that has long runs blue and black runs. If leg-busting moguls are your thing, you'll love the extended run Paradise Chair. Needless to say, this run is never crowded.
The Larch area is my favourite ski area. Located in the shadow of the Lipalian Mountain, the snow is always deep and soft and rarely icy. The views are unbelievable and the silence is tremendous. You have to experience it to believe it!
Surviving the slopes means resting and relaxing at the end of the ski-day. Our favourite activity was to soak in the Sulphur Hot Springs just south of the town of Banff, near the base of the gondola. The heat from the hot mineral water soaked into the sore muscles and tired bones.