Nakiska in Kananaskis, Norquay and Sunshine outside of the town of Banff
, and Lake Louise near the Alberta/BC border, offer every level of skier or snowboarder the premier Alberta Rocky Mountain riding experience.
These four ski resorts are found within an eighty km (50 mile) region just an hour’s drive west of Calgary
, Alberta, off Trans Canada Hwy 1 as it snakes west through the Rocky Mountains. Depending on the mountain, skiing starts in mid-November and can run until late May.
Here’s our rundown on these must-see ski-resorts and their world class credentials…
On a good snow day, count on a line of suddenly ‘sick’ Calgarians commuting to the hills; however, the first stop west is often overlooked. Turn south on Kananaskis Trail, off Highway 1 about fifty kilometers west of Calgary, to access Nakiska Ski Area. Making turns down long winding piste is the main reason to ride here. With 70% of the hill’s 64 trails intermediate level riding, Nakiska is great for groomers. That being said, a run down ‘Memorial Bowl’ leaves your legs feeling like smouldering cannons. Moreover, because most local and international snow sliders head to Sunshine or Lake Louise, lift lines are virtually non-existent, allowing skiers to mount up substantial vertical. Due to the lower elevation the 249cm average snowfall only begins to build up beginning of January however, so the best riding days at Nakiska are typically post-Christmas.
Mt. Norquay is a ten-minute drive across the highway from the town of Banff. Aside from the occasional deer or elk, the twisting road up feels desolate. Like Nakiska, Norquay is often passed over. It’s easy to feel that in buying a lift ticket you’ve rented out the entire 190 acres of terrain. Norquay is also the only hill with heated chair seats, turning bitter moments of windy waiting into cozy tours of Rocky mountain vistas, including the best view of Banff. Unlike Nakiska, Norquay has a higher percentage of black and double black runs, with a little over a third of the mountain being expert terrain. Both the ‘Sun’ and the ‘Sheep Chutes’ are highly technical areas that rival any extreme regions in the Rockies. Even the best skier feels Norquay’s 506 meter vertical during these sections. Being so close to Banff, there are no on hill accommodations – only Sunshine Village has ski-in ski-out accommodations – however, at the end of the day, Norquay offers a ski-out all the way back to the edge of town and as of 2011/2012, a new shuttle service. Mt. Norquay is the least expensive hill of the four, and on weekends when it’s busy everywhere else, it can also be the best.
Withover one thousand meters of vertical, three thousand plus acres of skiable terrain, one hundred and seven runs, twelve lifts, eight places to eat, and one legendary extreme skiing area, Sunshine Village is a ski Mecca, with every age and ability well accommodated. Sunshine Village is the best family resort for a number of reasons, including the on-hill accommodation, which allows families to make the most of the mountain. Added to this are on-hill rider programs such as the Tiny Tigers Day care, the Telus Terrain park lessons, and for adults, Delirium Dive Sundays (a challenging off-piste lesson for experts only). Most of the hill is intermediate riding, but unlike other resorts, Sunshine Village is sectional, meaning one chairlift accesses only green runs, while a few others access only blues, while others still takes riders to the Delirium gate where only riders wearing avalanche transceivers are able to pass. Only at Sunshine is progression of difficulty so clearly defined by particular regions. The resort relies on natural snow only, but excels at ‘farming’ drifts to build up a thick base using the region’s ten meter annual snowfall. Because of all the snow, Sunshine enjoys one of the latest ski seasons in Canada, making spring skiing a must. Be prepared for a busy day in the village, but know it’ll be well worth it.
Lake Louise, or ‘The Lake’ as it’s known locally, has the well-deserved status of being both the most beautiful and the biggest resort in the Canadian Rockies. The Lake is steep. Only 25% of the 4200 skiable acres are beginner runs. True, there is a green run down from the top of every lift – meaning as a family, the kids can ride down the greens while one of the parents test their edges down some technical lines – but expert regions like the (black) ‘Diamond Mines’, ‘White Tooth’, and the ‘Rock Gardens’ are why Lake Louise is internationally recognized. Even the FIS World Cup circuit makes a yearly stop at Lake Louise in early December. In addition to these amazing steeps is a terrain park second in Canada only to Whistler Blackcomb. Jumps, rails, spines, boxes, step-ups, gaps, tables and all manner of jib features make up a terrain park worth the price of admission alone – indeed many locals ride The Lake for the terrain park only. Finally, for industry insiders, previous owner/management has retaken the helm at Lake Louise. By instituting the ‘if you can see it, you can ski it’ mentality, a new skier/border cross area, and restoring the aforementioned terrain park to what locals view as its former glory, it seems management is intent on bringing the fun back to the Rocky’s shining gem. In the town of Lake Louise, one of the country’s best hostels houses even the poorest ski bum, while the Château Lake Louise has catered to celebrities and royalty. The good news is, all are equal on the slopes of Lake Louise, and both princes and paupers feel lucky to be alive after a day at The Lake.