From the top of a ski run in Canada's Banff National Park, facing miles of craggy, snow-covered peaks of the Canadian Rockies, it is astounding how little there is to see. There are no condominium developments or mini-mansions dotting the mountainsides. No superstores line the main road. There are only the peaks, snow and, below the alpine, a blanket of evergreen.
The small towns of Banff and Lake Louise and three nearby ski resorts are situated within the confines of the national park, a 2,500-square-mile swath of Canada's Rocky Mountains in Alberta. There are strict limits on development, which leave the wilderness almost untouched.
This area is not on many skiers' radar. To anyone in the know, this suits them fine. The three resorts lie along a 40-minute stretch of road connecting the two towns, which are only two hours from Calgary's airport.
Lake Louise, Sunshine Village and Ski Norquay offer very different ski experiences, but what they have in common makes them top of their class. Lines were nonexistent at all three places. I skied in Banff midweek in January, certainly not peak season, but everyone said that with the exception of a few days per year there were never lift lines here. And when there are, the wait is only a few minutes. As a skier used to thirty-minute-long, East Coast lift lines, I felt like I had the mountain to myself.
This area might not get the attention of an Aspen or a Vail, but Lake Louise alone is the fourth-largest ski resort in North America, boasting 4,200 skiable acres. For a family or group of friends this means enough greens, blues and blacks (beginner, intermediate and advanced slopes) to suit every skier in the pack.
The size and lack of crowds made for doing entire runs without seeing another skier or snowboarder. It also meant short lines during lunch and, at both Sunshine and Norquay, being able to park two rows back from the base.
The snow here is a champagne powder -- think snow that is so dry and powdery you can't form a snowball. That fact made an intermediate skier like me much braver than I normally would be. Falling down a steep, icy trail is much scarier and more painful than falling into champagne powder.
It is worth getting a pass with unlimited use of all three resorts. A three-out-of-four-days pass costs $231 (you can prepurchase lift tickets online at www.skibig3.com). One reason is because despite their proximity, conditions can vary at each place. Due to the cold, one day both Sunshine and Lake Louise were closed but Norquay was open.
Norquay often gets short shrift here, mostly because at 190 acres the resort is dwarfed in size by Lake Louise and Sunshine.
But when I travel, I try to eat where the locals eat. Should skiing be any different? Norquay is where the locals go. One reason is that from the center of Banff you can be on a lift at Norquay in 15 minutes. Locals buy season passes and actually take lunch breaks here. Norquay is also cheaper than the other two. A day at Norquay costs $49, compared with $78 for the day at Sunshine and $72 at Lake Louise. A great feature Norquay offers is hourly skiing, perfect for spending a half day on the slopes and then hitting the shops and restaurants in Banff. And it is the only resort of the three that offers night skiing.
Sunshine Village is 10 miles from Banff and offers the only ski-in, ski-out hotel in the national park. It takes a gondola ride to get to where the unpretentious Sunshine Inn is perched at the bottom of five lifts. The inn was recently given a $4 million face-lift, and the rooms are tastefully furnished and cozy, with large windows facing the slopes through snow-draped pines. Next door is the mountain's Mad Trapper's Saloon, a restaurant and bar in a 1920s-built lodge that retains its rustic setting.
The size of Sunshine and Lake Louise could intimidate a skier like me, but both resorts offer free, guided mountain tours with seasoned locals that will take small groups on their favorite runs and hidden trails a visitor might not find on their own.
With Sunshine's 107 official runs on three different mountains, I was relieved to have a so-called snow host, Bob, who knew where to go. Bob was a local firefighter who had been skiing Sunshine since he was a kid, and whose father had skied it before him. Bob knew those trails like most people know the layout of their house.
He and other snow hosts here and at Lake Louise are volunteers. In return for a free pass they spend one day a week being guides and ambassadors for the area.
Lake Louise offers the same type of program. With 139 runs, the snow host program is a great feature. Lake Louise is huge. It offers long, tree-lined runs and backside bowls, and it is often considered the most scenic resort in North America. On a clear day you can see 50 miles in any direction, including the site of a glacier running into the banks of the resort's namesake lake, across from the Fairmont Chateau hotel.
And unlike most ski resorts, there are green, blue and black runs from every lift at Lake Louise, allowing skiers of every level to experience the resort's great diversity.
If you don't own skis, rent them at Ski Hub in Banff. As someone who has rented more chewed up ski boots than I care to recall, I can't say enough about the high quality of skis and boots we got there.
Alex, a snowboarder originally from Vancouver, not only fit us right (according to height, skiing ability and gender), but gave us tricks to avoid foggy ski goggles and showed us where the most powder was at each of the three resorts.
Ski Hub is owned by the three resorts, and one perk is that you can drop your gear off at any of the resorts when it's time to go.
To contact reporter Johanna Jainchill, send e-mail to [email protected].