Banff National Park in Winter
From November till May, Banff National Park transforms itself into a winter playground covered in a blanket of snow. Of Alberta’s six world-class winter resorts, three are in Banff National Park. Ski Norquay is a small but steep hill overlooking the town of Banff; Sunshine Village perches high in the mountains on the Continental Divide, catching more than its share of fluffy white powder; and Lake Louise, Canada’s second-largest winter resort, spreads over four distinct mountain faces (see Lake Louise in Winter). Apart from an abundance of snow, the resorts have something else in common—spectacular views, which alone are worth the price of a lift ticket. Although the resorts operate independently, the Ski Hub (119 Banff Ave., 403/762-4754, www.skibig3.com; 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily) represents all three and is the place to get information on multiday ticketing and transportation. Other winter activities in the park include cross-country skiing, ice-skating, snowshoeing, dogsledding, and just relaxing. Crowds are nonexistent, and hotels reduce rates by up to 70 percent (except Christmas holidays)–reason enough to venture into the mountains. Lift and lodging packages begin at $120 per person.
Norquay (403/762-4421, www.banffnorquay.com) has two distinct faces–literally and figuratively. There are some great cruising runs and a well-respected ski school, but also the experts-only North American Chair (the one you can see from town), which opens up the famous double-black-diamond Lone Pine run. A magnificent post-and-beam day lodge nestled below the main runs is surrounded on one side by a wide deck that catches the afternoon sun, while holding a cafeteria, restaurant, and bar inside. Lift tickets are adult $75, youth and senior $55, child $30; lift, lesson, and rental packages cost about the same and it costs an extra $5 to $10 per person for the tube park. Hourly passes provide some flexibility (two hours $43, three hours $52, etc). A few runs are lit for night skiing and boarding on Friday and Saturday evenings; adult $32, senior $25, child $18. A shuttle bus makes pickups from Banff hotels for the short, six-kilometer (3.7-mile) ride up to the resort; $10. The season at Norquay usually runs early December to early April.
Sunshine Village (403/762-6500 or 877/542-2633, www.skibanff.com) has lots going for it–more than six meters (20 feet) of snow annually (no need for snowmaking up here), wide-open bowls, a season stretching for nearly 200 days (late Nov. to late May), skiing and boarding in two provinces, and the only slopeside accommodations in the park. The resort has grown up a lot in the last decade as high-speed quads have replaced old chairlifts and opened up new terrain such as Goat’s Eye Mountain, and the original gondola was replaced by what is reputed to be the world’s fastest gondola. One of Canada’s most infamous runs, Delirium Dive, drops off the northeast-facing slope of Lookout Mountain; to ski or board this up-to-50-degree run, you must be equipped with a transceiver, shovel, probe, and partner, but you’ll have bragging rights that night at the bar (especially if you’ve descended the Bre-X line). Aside from Delirium Dive, the area is best known for its excellent beginner and intermediate terrain, which covers 60 percent of the mountain. The total vertical rise is 1,070 meters (3,510 feet), and the longest run (down to the lower parking lot) is eight kilometers (five miles). Day passes are adult $90, senior $74, youth $68, child $40, and those younger than six ride free. Two days of lift access and one night’s lodging at slopeside Sunshine Inn cost $325 per person in high season–an excellent deal. The inn has a restaurant, lounge, game room, and large outdoor hot tub. Transportation from Banff, Canmore, or Lake Louise to the resort is $18 round-trip; check the website or inquire at major hotels for the timetable.
Ski and Snowboard Rentals and Sales
Each Banff resort has ski and snowboard rental and sales facilities, but getting your gear down in town is often easier. Abominable Ski & Sportswear (229 Banff Ave., 403/762-2905) and Monod Sports (129 Banff Ave., 403/762-4571) have been synonymous with Banff and the ski industry for decades, and while the Rude Boys Snowboard Shop (downstairs in the Sundance Mall, 215 Banff Ave., 403/762-8480) has only been around since the 1980s, it is the snowboarder hangout. Other shops with sales and rentals include Chateau Mountain Sports (Fairmont Banff Springs, 405 Spray Ave., 403/762-2500, Nov. to April), Ski Hub (119 Banff Ave., 403/762-4754), Soul Ski and Bike (203 Bear St., 403/760-1650), and Snow Tips (225 Bear St., 403/762-8177). Basic packages—skis, poles, and boots—are $40 to 50 per day, while high-performance packages range $55 to 70. Snowboards and boots rent for $40 to 60 per day.
No better way of experiencing the park’s winter delights exists than gliding through the landscape on cross-country skis. Many summer hiking trails are groomed for winter travel. The most popular areas near town are Johnson Lake, Golf Course Road, Spray River, Sundance Canyon, and upstream from the canoe docks. The booklet Cross-country Skiing—Nordic Trails in Banff National Park is available from the Banff Visitor Centre. Weather forecasts (403/762-2088) are also posted here. Rental packages are available from Snow Tips (225 Bear St., 403/762-8177); Expect to pay $15 to 25 per day. White Mountain Adventures (403/678-4099 or 800/408-0005) offers lessons for $65 per person.
Skating rinks are located along Banff Avenue on the Banff High School grounds across from Cascade Shops and beside the Spray River below the Fairmont Banff Springs. The latter rink is lit after dark, and a raging fire is built beside it–the perfect place to enjoy a hot chocolate. Early in the season (check conditions first), skating is often possible on Vermilion Lakes and Johnson Lake. Rent skates from Chateau Mountain Sports (Fairmont Banff Springs, 405 Spray Ave., 403/762-2500, November to April 8 am to 8 pm) for $8 per hour.
Banff Trail Riders offers sleigh rides ($40 per person) on the frozen Bow River throughout winter. For reservations, call 403/762-4551 or stop by the Trail Rider Store (132 Banff Ave.).
Between December and late March, Johnston Canyon, a 20-minute drive from Banff along the Bow Valley Parkway, is a wonderland of frozen waterfalls. Two local companies, Discover Banff Tours (403/760-5007 or 877/565-9372) and White Mountain Adventures (403/678-4099 or 800/408-0005), offer ice walks through the canyon. Both tours reach as far as the Upper Falls and provide guests with ice cleats for their shoes and hot drinks to take the chill off this outdoor activity. Transportation in Banff is included in the rates of $70 to 75 per person.
Other Winter Activities
Beyond the skating rink below the Fairmont Banff Springs is an unofficial toboggan run; ask at your hotel for sleds or rent them from Chateau Mountain Sports (Fairmont Banff Springs, 405 Spray Ave., 403/762-2500, November to April 8 am to 8 pm); $6 per hour. Anyone interested in ice climbing must register at the national park desk in the Banff Visitor Centre or call 403/762-1550. The world-famous (if you’re an ice climber) Terminator is just outside the park boundary. If none of these activities appeal to you, head to Upper Hot Springs (403/762-1515, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, $7.50) for a relaxing soak. Camping might not be everyone’s idea of a winter holiday, but one section of Tunnel Mountain Campground remains open year-round.