Western Snow Sports: Alberta

Ski in Alberta’s Natural Beauty

By Peter Schroeder

Vast tracts of unspoiled wilderness in Banff and Jasper National Parks are the same sights that greeted the first explorers and adventurers who entered this region 200 years ago.

Except, these are modern times with modern amentias.

Three spectacular, century-old chateaux dominate the ski country of Alberta. Patterned after a Scottish baronial castle, the Banff Springs Hotel offers easy access to the ski slopes of Banff Mount Norquay, Sunshine Village and Nakiska, site of the 1988 Winter Games.

Situated next to a legendary lake and majestic glacier, secluded Chateau Lake Louise runs regular shuttles to nearby Lake Louise Mountain Resort, Canada’s second largest ski area.

The third grand Canadian chateau experience, Jasper Park Lodge, serves as a luxurious base for skiers at Marmot Basin, Canada’s northernmost ski area. Castle Mountain, relatively unknown to Americans, offers some of the most challenging ski terrain in Canada.

Wherever you choose to ski in Alberta, you’ll find professional ski schools, state-of-the-art rental shops, kids’ learning centers, great food and everything you need for a perfect ski get-away. And the snow…light, gentle and…well, see for yourself…unspoiled.

Banff Mount Norquay

A 15-minute drive from the town of Banff, the Norquay ski area caters to those who want to hit the slopes fast. Thanks to a selection of boutique ticketing categories, people can ski or board anytime during the morning, afternoon or evening, or for just a few hours any time of day.

The first ski area in the Canadian Rockies (2011 marks its 85th anniversary); Norquay guarantees that it will groom all 1,650 vertical feet nightly on its beginner and intermediate slopes. If you’re not satisfied with the groomed conditions, you’ll get either a snow check for another day or your money back.

Norquay offers afternoon and night snow tubing with lift access, multiple sliding lanes and a fun zone for kids. An historic teahouse, built in the 1950s, will re-open this season at the top of the North American lift.

Castle Mountain Resort

Castle Mountain doesn’t sport lots of condos, eateries, retail outlets or commercial trappings. Instead, it’s a no-frills ski area that ensures a good day of skiing. The mountain sprawls across 3,500 acres with a vertical rise of 2,800 feet. Most terrain is rated advanced to expert.

Freeriders have a choice of two terrain parks, one for jibs and rails and one for jumps. Castle offers the only cat skiing in Alberta, and one of the few resort-based cat operations in western North America.

Accommodations and evening food services are limited at the ski area. Visitors can find lodging at motels 45minutes away in Pincher Creek.

Lake Louise Mountain Resort

Located within Banff National Park—Canada’s first national park and the third created in the world—Lake Louise is a place where wilderness remains wild: no clear-cuts, no logging roads and with awesome views unchanged from hundreds of years ago.

But when it comes to ski conditions Nature isn’t completely in charge. Claiming the most extensive snowmaking in Canada, Lake Louise has added several new grooming machines this season.

Located 35 miles west of Banff on the Trans Canada Highway, this massive ski area with four full-service lodges is Canada’s second largest, with 113 trails on 4,200 acres spread across four faces of two mountains.

Top: Marmot Basin, located in Jasper National Park, claims to be Canada’s northernmost ski area. Photo courtesy Marmot Basin. Above: A skier practices his downhill plunges at Marmot Basin. Marmot Basin Photo

Marmot Basin

Granted, it’s a long four-and-half-hour drive from Calgary or Edmonton, but Marmot Basin
merits the trip because of its scenic beauty where it’s located in the heart of Jasper National Park—a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Canada’s largest Rocky Mountain national park.

The drive from Banff takes you across the spectacular Icefields Parkway. In addition to skiing or boarding, the region offers canyoneering, river ice-walking, wildlife touring— all surrounded by glacial-hung peaks and shimmering ice fields.

On the ski mountain, Marmot recently installed the Canadian Rockies Express, the longest high speed quad in the Canadian Rockies, and the Paradise high speed quad, which replaces the existing triple chair.

The Novice area is served by this refurbished triple and a new snow groomer is a welcome addition to an already impressive fleet.

Marmot has opened a new store in downtown Jasper where lift tickets can be purchased and rental equipment and ski and snowboard lessons can be reserved in advance. Unique to Marmot Basin is the Single Parent Family Season Pass.

Nakiska Ski Area

Want a taste of the Olympic Games? Nakiska was the site of the alpine events when Calgary hosted the 1988 Winter Olympics. The flame still burns in the Olympic caldron in the center of the base area. Located a one-hour drive west of Calgary in Kananaskis Provincial Park, Nakiska today remains a popular family ski area.

After 20 years of little change, Nakiska made several major upgrades last season. Additions include the new Gold Chair Express, Monster Glades (a set of new trails), expanded snowmaking and a new rail park. At nearby Canmore, home to the Olympic Nordic Center, 40 kilometers of groomed trails beckon.

Kananaskis Village, which served as the Olympic Village, is a five-minute shuttle ride from the lifts. Accommodations are available at three recently renovated lodges nestled around a picturesque courtyard.

Sunshine Village

Ever skied the Continental Divide? You can at Sunshine Village, where the top of the Continental Divide lift straddles the provinces of British Columbia and Alberta.

An eight-passenger gondola, billed as the fastest in the world, whisks guests from the parking lot to the pedestrian-only mountain village where the newly renovated Sunshine Inn is Alberta’s only on-mountain hotel.

Sunshine has two controlled-access zones in big mountain terrain that provide skiers and riders with a backcountry experience inbounds. Entrance requirements include an avalanche transceiver, shovel and a partner. If you want a guide, the Sunshine Ski School offers full- and half-day Challenge Tours.

This season, Roger’s Terrain Park gets a major facelift, and grooming will be even better with the addition of two new snow cat groomers and two winch cats. The new Strawberry Express high-speed quad has replaced the old Strawberry triple chair. The gondola base terminal has been renovated with expanded restaurant seating, larger retail space and modernized restrooms.

If you go:

Easiest access to the Alberta ski area is by flying into Calgary International Airport where winter-equipped rental cars and shuttles are available for transportation.

Banff is a scenic 90-minute drive from Calgary on the Trans-Canada Highway.

Banff and Lake Louise are joined by a scenic 40-minute drive through the Bow Valley in the Canadian Rockies.

Jasper is accessed by a four-hour shuttle ride from Edmonton or a three-hour drive north from Banff on the spectacular Icefields Parkway.

Castle Mountain a three-hour drive from Calgary in the Southern Alberta Rockies.

Alberta Resorts

Banff Lake Louise – www.banfflakelouise.com

Banff Mount Norquay – www.banffnorquay.com

Castle Mountain Resort – www.skicastle.ca

Lake Louise Mountain Resort – www.skilouise.com

Marmot Basin – www.skimarmot.com

Nakiska Resort – www.skinakiska.com

Sunshine Village – www.sunshinevillage.com

Ski Big 3 – www.skibig3.com

Travel Alberta – www.banfflakelouise.com

Check out the winter resorts in these other western states/provinces:

>> Washington Resorts

>> Oregon Resorts

>> Idaho Resorts

>> Montana Resorts

>> British Columbia Resorts

>> The Rest of the West’s Best