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Skiing in Canada: The Mountains

The following guide was sponsored in partnership with our friends at the Canadian Ski Council.


Introduction

We developed this guide to skiing in Canada because we heard from many skiers (and riders) that they wanted to explore the vast terrain available within the boundaries of the United States’ northern neighbor but did not know where to start in their research.

In this first part of the guide, we’ll map the location of Canada’s main mountain resorts and discuss the pros and cons of each area.

In the second part of the guide, we’ll dig into the data about snow and weather in Canada, learning more about the quality of the snow, how much of it falls each season, and how to choose the best time to visit.

Why consider skiing in Canada?

You (probably) can’t visit every ski area in the world, but your desire to explore new places and new activities should propel Canada toward the top of your list.

If you’re visiting from the United States, the exchange rate is very favorable at about $0.80 USD to $1.00 CAD (as of October 2018), so there is new terrain to be explored at a built-in 20% discount!

Here are my top reasons to plan a trip to Canada:

* Variety. You can choose from lift-serviced resort skiing, cat-skiing, heli-skiing, backcountry huts that come with guides and a chef (book these over a year in advance), backcountry touring on skis or a split board, and backcountry snowmobiling, with lodging options ranging from on-mountain resorts to accommodations in small towns. If you like snow, Canada is a playground.

* Road trip. There are plenty of resorts and towns that can be your week-long home base for a ski trip, or you opt to move from town-to-town since parts of western Canada seem like they were specially made to get in a car and chase powder. Many people spend 1-2 weeks driving from mountain-to-mountain in search of the best snow while exploring new terrain and small towns along the way.

* Views. The western mountains are truly gorgeous and, generally, offer more relief (distance between the valley and summit) than many places in the United States. Even if your goal for a ski trip is about something more defined than views, like finding deep powder or challenging yourself in steep terrain, beautiful vistas are a big plus.

* Not many people. Skiing most of Canada is generally a relaxed and uncrowded experience. Sure, there are more people on weekends and at the mountains closest to the larger cities, but in general, it’s a low-stress environment.

* Canadians really are super nice. Yes, the stereotype is true!

View of Banff, Alberta. Photo: Tamra Malczyk

Where are the mountains?

Most of Canada’s skiing is found in the eastern provinces of Quebec and Ontario and the western provinces of Alberta and British Columbia.

Wikipedia user Anchjo by CC-BY-SA-3.0 license via Wikimedia Commons

In the east, Quebec has 56 ski areas and Ontario counts 32 areas within its border. These mountains get most of their snow from storms that track along the east coast, and the exact track of each storm determines the amount and type of precipitation. The northern location of these mountains means that snow is the dominant type of precipitation, but occasionally a storm will track too far to the west and there can be a few days with warmer weather and raindrops. Overall, these mountains offer fun skiing, with reliable snow due to extensive snowmaking systems, are relatively close to major cities, and often are less crowded than mountains closer to the major US east coast cities.

Many of the most well-known mountains are in Quebec, split into three areas. The area near Québec-Charlevoix includes resorts that offer tremendous views of the Saint Lawrence River, the Laurentians region northwest of Montreal is known for a large number of slopes available for night skiing, and there are also the resorts of the Eastern Townships which border the United States. You can find an overview of this area on the excellent Quebec Ski website.

In the west, the most notable mountains are in the provinces of British Columbia and Alberta. For reference, the city of Vancouver is located in British Columbia and the city of Calgary sits in Alberta, with the border of the two provinces running northwest-to-southeast through the heart of the mountains.

I think about these western mountains in three chunks of geography – Coast, Inland, and Rockies.

* Coast. This is where Whistler is located, the largest mountain and perhaps the most well known. Whistler receives the most snow of all resorts in Canada because it is closest to the moisture source of the Pacific Ocean. While the proximity to the ocean can mean that temperatures run a little warmer and rain can fall at the lowest elevations, Whistler stretches over 5,000 feet from the base to the summit, so the snow on the upper half of the mountain is often wonderful even during warmer storms.

* Inland. Mountains here include Revelstoke, Big White, Silver Star, Sun Peaks, Red Mountain, Whitewater, Kicking Horse, Kimberley, Panorama, and Fernie. This area is a fantastic mix of being close enough to the coast to receive a lot of snow but far enough away so that the air can be colder, producing fluffier snow with fewer rain events.

* Rockies. Resorts in this range include Lake Louise, Banff Sunshine, Mt. Norquay, Marmot Basin, and Nakiska. This region is the furthest from the moisture source of the Pacific Ocean, so snowfall is generally lower, but there are still plenty of flakes for powder days. And since this region is at a relatively high elevation and further east, precipitation is usually all snow from base to summit.

What is the terrain like?

In eastern Canada, the terrain at each resort is mostly groomed trails with trail-counts averaging in the 30-50 range and ski area size near or under 500 acres. 

In western Canada, there is a mix of everything, including groomed runs, above treeline bowls, steep chutes, and tree skiing. The size of the mountains ranges from 1,000-2,000 acres all the way to Whistler's massive 8,171 acres spread across two mountains (Whistler and Blackcomb).

Getting more specific, the mountains in British Columbia (the ‘Coast’ and ‘Inland’ zones) are most well known for the fantastic tree skiing (best in the world according to many long-time skiers) and also offer alpine bowls and chutes above treeline.

A powder morning at Revelstoke, British Columbia. Photo: Brad Gilbert

In Alberta (the ‘Rockies’ zone), the terrain is big and the views are even bigger. If you want to get up high and challenge yourself, the above treeline terrain is incredible, and of course, there are plenty of groomed runs that make for excellent cruisers while giving your legs a rest.

The steeps at Lake Louise, Alberta. Photo: Joel Gratz

How do you get there?

In the east, most people will drive to their favorite area, and another option is to fly into Quebec City, Montreal, Ottawa, or Toronto and then rent a car to make the relatively short trek to the ski areas.

In the west, the major airports are Vancouver and Calgary.

Flying to Vancouver makes sense if you are heading to the ‘Coast’ zone around Whistler. For Whistler, there are frequent shuttles, and car rentals are also available. The drive time is about two hours.

Flying to Calgary makes sense if you are heading to the ‘Rockies’ zone around the town of Banff (including nearby Lake Louise, Banff Sunshine, and Mt. Norquay). The drive is about 90 minutes from Calgary to Banff along a four-lane highway. Kicking Horse is an additional 90 minutes to the west, and Marmot Basin is five hours from Calgary.

For the ‘Inland’ zone, there are multiple options. Most people fly to the Kamloops, Kelowna, or Cranbrook airports connecting through Vancouver, Seattle, or Calgary, and then will either rent a car or take shuttles. Also, flying to Spokane in Washington State is an option, with car rentals available and a 3-4 hour drive to the resorts of southern British Columbia.

Parting Shot

I hope that this first part of the series helped you to understand more about the mountains in Canada and the strengths and weaknesses of each zone. Canada is truly a winter playground that I have visited many times and I plan to return for many years to come.

In the second part of the series (coming in November 2018), we'll take a look at snow and weather data for western Canada and discuss the best times to plan your trip.

JOEL GRATZ


Local Tips & Guides

Whistler: Insider's Guide by Meteorologist Larry Schick & Local Travel Tips

Sun Peaks: Official Website

Big White: Official Website

Revelstoke: Official Website

Lake Louise, Banff Sunshine, Mt. Norquay: Local Travel Tips

Fernie, Kicking Horse, Kimberly, Nakiska, Mont Sainte Anne, Stoneham: Local Travel Tips

Québec Ski: Official Website


Snow Forecasts

Download: OpenSnow Mobile App

Snow Forecast & Report: Alberta

Snow Forecast & Report: British Columbia

Snow Forecast & Report: Ontario

Snow Forecast & Report: Quebec


This guide was sponsored in partnership with our friends at the Canadian Ski Council.

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