The following guide was written by Tamra Malczyk, a longtime friend of OpenSnow and Banff, Alberta resident.
While the Inuit apparently have 50 words for snow, after spending the last 2.5 years living in Banff, I still cannot find one single word to describe the beauty of the Canadian Rockies.
Likewise, the resorts of SkiBig3, located on the Alberta-side of the Canadian Rockies, leave me with the same loss for words every single ski day. Comprised of Lake Louise Ski Resort, Sunshine Village, and Mt. Norquay, the SkiBig3 should top every skier’s list and have you immediately googling "how to move to Canada".
SkiBig3 offers an experience that is becoming harder to find in our modern world of skiing. The resorts are located entirely within Banff National Park (Canada’s oldest national park and a UNESCO world heritage site), so you will not find any heavily-developed base villages or million-dollar condominiums dotting the landscape.
Instead, these ski areas represent quintessential Canada and a ski experience undisturbed by extravagance and glitz.
There are no towering hotels or mountain coasters to obstruct the stunning views.
In fact, there are actual base lodges where you will find families enjoying mom’s gourmet lunch spread!
And best of all, there are the loveliest locals. Rope drops and lift queues are a chorus of Canadian politeness; “sorry ‘bout that” and “I insist after you” are phrases you can get used to hearing on a powder day. Seriously.
However, do not be fooled by the small-town vibe, it is the BIG 3 for a reason: big mountains, big terrain, and big views.
The SkiBig3 areas are possibly the most conveniently located ski areas in western Canada.
Calgary (YYC) is the gateway airport with direct flights from most major US cities. From Calgary, it is an easy 1.5hr drive on a major highway to Banff. If opting for no vehicle, take a direct shuttle from Calgary airport to Banff.
WHERE TO STAY
Due to their location within the national park, you will not find base-area lodging at the resorts. Sunshine has the only slopeside option with the Sunshine Mountain Lodge (atop the gondola).
All other lodging is in the towns of Banff, Canmore, or Lake Louise. Driving distances from Banff are roughly 5 minutes to Norquay, 15 minutes to Sunshine, and 40 minutes to Lake Louise. From Canmore, add another 20 minutes for all areas.
Banff offers the most convenience, with a huge range of accommodations, thriving nightlife, shopping, and dining.
Canmore and Lake Louise are equally as beautiful as Banff; however, you sacrifice transportation convenience and amenities.
TO DRIVE OR NOT TO DRIVE?
If you stay in Banff, a car is not necessary. Most lodging properties are walkable to downtown or serviced by the public Roam bus. Best of all, the SkiBig3 areas all run ski shuttles direct to the slopes from Banff, with stops near virtually every lodging property in town.
If you plan to visit sites outside of the town and resorts, then I do recommend renting a car. If you do rent a car, you will need to purchase a national park pass for the entire duration of your stay.
TRAVELING TO CANADA
As with any foreign country, international travel protocol applies. Yes, USA neighbors, you need a passport to visit.
Exchange rates are generally favorable. As of October 2018, $1 CAD only costs you about $0.77 USD. Most businesses will not accept US dollars, so exchange for loonies and toonies.
You can typically add short-term Canadian coverage to your phone plan, and please take care of this in advance or you risk expensive data roaming fees.
Each resort has its own unique charm defining characteristics, but all Big3 resorts share one common boast: jaw-dropping views.
Local's Tip: Save money and skip the ticket window at the mountain. Order your lift tickets in advance with SkiBig3 and your tickets will be delivered directly to your hotel.
Norquay overlooks the town of Banff and is a step back into the history of skiing in the Bow Valley. With the first ski runs dating back to 1926, Norquay was the first ski resort in the Canadian Rockies, with much of that history still visible today.
Norquay offers a quainter, laid-back charm as families and moms with crockpots fill the timber-beam base lodge. With a deep ski racing history, many local children and Canadian legends have honed their skills on these slopes. Norquay is also the only resort of the Big3 with night skiing.
Start your day with some long, fast groomer laps off the Mystic Chair. Once your edges have received a good workout, hammer your quads on the North American, or the "Big Chair".
On powder days, while most skiers rush to the larger resorts, the consistent fall line pitches off the Big Chair serve up run after run of untracked, steep lines. The Big Chair dates back to 1948 and many interesting relics are still evident, such as the old ski jump judging towers, which closely resemble George Jetson’s house.
Just like the other SkiBig3 areas, Mt Norquay also features spectacular views from every angle. The top of the North American offers the most picturesque view of Banff with Mt Rundle as a backdrop.
Local's Tip: The Cliffhouse, at the top of the North American lift, serves up great food and views. They also offer full-moon dinners for a unique dinner experience.
You know those photos flooding Instagram with views of turquoise lakes flanked by glaciers and towering peaks? There is a 99% chance that those photos are from Lake Louise.
Although the lake itself sits across the valley from the ski resort, the peaks that form the lake’s backdrop dominate the stunning panorama you see from atop the resort.
The views will fill up your iPhone’s memory before lunchtime, so be sure to delete those 576 dog photos before visiting.
At 4,200 acres, Lake Louise is the largest of the SkiBig3 areas and an expert skier’s paradise. Louise’s backside (yes, the puns are endless) is a massive expanse that will keep advanced skiers entertained for days.
From the mellower, untracked bowls of Boomerang and North Cornice, to rock-chocked gullies of Whitehorn 2 & 3, to the chutes and hucks of Eagle Ridge (the ER’s), to tight trees and pillowy goodness off Ptarmigan chair…the backside has it all.
Local's Tip: The backside benefits from wind-direction; when the snow report only shows a few centimeters, chances are the back has accumulated much more.
For those wanting something mellower, both the Larch chair and front-side gondola service lovely intermediate and beginner terrain, with fall-line groomers and twisty beginner tracks.
Before ending your day, make it a point to see the lake. The Chateau Lake Louise Hotel sits just a few steps away from the water's (ice's) edge and offers one of the finest bar seat views in the world. After sipping your toddy, you should have enough liquid courage to don a pair of skates and hit the pond for some shinny.
Local's Tip: If the voice of James Earl Jones were made into a soup, it would be the lobster bisque at The Post Hotel, located in the town of Lake Louise, just a few minutes from the ski resort and the lake.
On a clear day, the views from Sunshine stretch all the way to Mt. Assiniboine (the Matterhorn of the Canadian Rockies) and the variety of terrain offers something for any ability level.
Sunshine has a unique layout, with the main "base" village located at the mountain’s mid-point, atop the gondola. The Wawa, Standish, Strawberry, and Angel lifts all kick off from the village, so it is easy for groups of varying abilities to choose their own adventure, yet all end up back in the same meeting place.
In terms of terrain, Sunshine has a little something for everyone. Intermediates and beginners will love the short, playful terrain surrounding the Wawa, Standish, and Strawberry lifts, while experts will flock to Goat’s Eye and Delirium Dive,
Delirium Dive is the most well-known expert zone at Sunshine. Access to this area requires four backcountry necessities (beacon, shovel, probe, and partner), and your reward will be 2,500 vertical feet of consistent steeps. If the entry staircase does not induce vertigo, the steep chutes and faces most definitely will.
Those with the aforementioned gear can also access the chutes of "Wild West" off the Goat’s Eye lift, while experts without the required gear can still ride Goat’s Eye lift and can then wiggle through steep trees and arc GS turns in the long open south-side chutes.
Local's Tip: Forget A-Basin in May; look north to Banff! Banff is possibly the best spring skiing destination in North America. April can deliver mid-winter conditions with the added benefit of longer days, and Sunshine’s season typically runs into late May with fun spring events including the annual Slush Cup.
Banff is one of the most beautiful places on earth, so leave time to explore away from the ski resorts.
If you have not grown tired of mind-blowing glaciers, lakes, and peaks, drive the iconic Icefields Parkway (93N).
For something closer to Banff, Johnston Canyon is a short hike amongst frozen turquoise waterfalls.
And if you’re visiting in the early season when the lakes first freeze, skating these lakes is a truly remarkable experience you won’t soon forget.
Visit SkiBig3.com for all lodging, event, and other ski-related information.
Snow Forecast & Report: Mt. Norquay
Snow Forecast & Report: Lake Louise
Snow Forecast & Report: Banff Sunshine
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Hailing from the big mountain mecca of Mt. Southington, CT (300 vertical feet), Tamra Malczyk was employed in Steamboat Springs, CO for 14 years (and also served as Joel Gratz's local guide) before maple syrup and the metric system lured her north. Living in Banff, AB for the past two and a half years, she now conducts powder audits as the Director of Finance for CMH Heli-Skiing.
This guide was sponsored in partnership with our friends at SkiBig3.