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TRIP REPORT: Canadian Rockies 'SkiBig3' Resorts, Sunshine Village, Mt. Norquay, Lake Louise - March 2022

As the Alberta forecaster for OpenSnow, I’ve seen firsthand just how great their snow seasons have been over the last 3 years, so it’s been slow torture with restrictions shutting down previously planned winter trips to the Canadian Rockies. With Canada recently easing border crossing requirements, and a promising short-term forecast, I decided it was finally the time to head north.

Effective April 1, 2022, visitors to Canada only need to be vaccinated against COVID, have a valid passport, and a receipt from ArriveCAN.


Beautiful Downtown Banff (Image: SkiBig3/G.Gunderson)


DAY 1: SUNSHINE VILLAGE

Sunshine Village offers 3358 acres of skiable terrain, accessed by 12 lifts, 137 trails, and alpine runs spread over 3 interconnected mountains. The mountain stretches from a base elevation of 5440 feet (1658m) to a summit elevation of 8954 feet (2730m) for a vertical drop of 3514 feet (1074m). 

The first of many benefits about staying in downtown Banff is having free shuttle buses with pick-up locations throughout the town that bring you to any of the SkiBig3 resorts you decide to ski or ride. After a short bus ride, I met up with David Arney of Sunshine Village’s Marketing team who promised to reacquaint me with the terrain of this massive resort. I had previously skied Sunshine in 2018 but was also looking forward to getting his intel on where the snow was holding best. Geared up nice and early on a Monday morning, we headed over to the gondola.

To gain access to the ski resort proper at Sunshine Village, you first board the 6-passenger highspeed gondola at the base area (parking lots, bus depot, rental shop, coffee, etc.). There are two stops on this gondola, the mostly expert terrain of ‘Goats Eye Mountain’ is first, with the second and final stop being ‘Sunshine Village’ where you will find the majority of the lifts, several restaurants, ski shops, retail shops, and a very nice slope side hotel.

With a fresh 7cm (3”) of new snow overnight, Arney (as he prefers) and I decided to work our way counterclockwise around the resort. I like to warm up on groomers for the first hour, so I followed Arney as he ripped some creamy untracked groomers off Wawa, Standish, and Strawberry chairs that skied like powdery GS courses. The terrain on these chairs is lightly treed and the slopes are mostly gentle intermediate rollers, although they do have several short and steep black diamond drops on the ridgetop above the ‘Standish’ quad. These soft and speedy laps were perfect to stretch out the legs in advance of the bigger stuff to come.

Arney ripping a scenic groomer at Sunshine (Image: SkiBig3) 

Moving up a notch, we boarded the Angel Express quad for a fast trip up into the alpine snowfields that Sunshine is known for. After a few off-piste runs down S-Pocket and Viking Ridge to Barners, we ventured further counterclockwise over to the Teepee Town bubble quad. This covered quad with heated seats is pretty cushy, especially on a cold and windy day ascending into the alpine. Teepee Town terminates a few hundred meters below the summit of Lookout Mountain, so we worked our way over to Boundary Bowl and down to the ‘Great Divide Express’ Quad for a trip to the top of Lookout and the highest point of the resort. The terminus of the ‘Great Divide Express’ is also the location of the gate into one of the gnarliest freeride zones in North America, Delirium Dive. Avalanche transceivers, shovel, probe, a partner, and strong expert skiing/riding skills are required to enter this sheer and rocky zone.

Looking up into the cirque that is Delirium Dive (Image: Ambrose)

Gate into Delirium Dive at the top of 'Great Divide Express' (Image: Ambrose)

We passed on the Dive this time as conditions were reported to be a bit dust on crust. However, we did find some primo windblown sift on skiers right of ‘Great Divide Express’ on North Divide and later over in Bye-Bye Bowl to Peyto Pass. This is wide open alpine terrain, with views directly into the spine of the Rockies. In fact, while riding the Divide quad you momentarily pass over the Continental Divide into the province of BC for a few towers. Being on the Divide also allows Sunshine the distinction of being historically the snowiest resort in the Canadian Rockies in annual snowfall.

Wide-open alpine terrain under 'Great Divide Express' (Image: Ambrose) 

With a full morning of exploring under our belts, we headed over to the Chimney Corner inside Sunshine Mountain Lodge in the Village for a tasty and healthy lunch. There are also six other restaurants to choose from in the Village suiting every taste and budget.

The Village at Sunshine Village (Image: SkiBig3/Dhaliwal)

After lunch, we headed down the mountain to the ‘Goat’s Eye Express’ quad to ski the mostly expert terrain on Goat’s Eye Mountain. The second of Sunshine’s gated freeride zones, ‘The Wild West’ is located here. This zone offers an assortment of chutes, cliffs, and steep tree lines that will test any strong expert skier/rider but unfortunately was closed due to variable snow conditions. No problem as there’s a ton of challenging terrain on Goat’s Eye, so we headed over to ski ‘Ewe First’ on the South Side Chutes of the mountain. This steep alpine chute had some hard moguled conditions for the first third of the run before filling in nicely with wind sift on the lower section.

South Side Chutes on Goat's Eye (Image: SkiBig3/Dhailwal) 

Bidding Arney goodbye and wanting to save my legs for two more days of hard-charging ahead of me, I opted to finish the day with a few steep groomers on Goat’s Eye. These black diamond winch-catted groomers (Afterburner, Rolling Thunder, and Sasquatch) were super smooth with carvable chalky snow. Back at the base of Goat’s Eye, I followed the signs for the Banff Avenue ski-out (easy) which brought me back to the gondola base where my adventure started 6-hours earlier. It was so enjoyable to return to Sunshine’s vast array of alpine snowfields, chutes, meticulous groomers, and world-class views. It remains one of my favorite places to ski in North America.

The winner buys the beers ... last run at Sunshine (Image: SkiBig3) 

Just a note to the hungry who might enjoy a little Swiss/Canadian cross-culture cuisine while visiting Banff. Located in a historic 1922 Swiss chalet, just below the Banff Springs Hotel, ‘The Waldhaus’ is known for its tasty fondue courses and Swiss/German entrees. The ambiance is amazing as you walk through the timbered front door into an informal rock-walled beer stube with several German and local beers on tap.

Upstairs in the dining room, it’s a trip back to Switzerland with décor (and views!) straight out of Zermatt. For those who enjoy a hearty meal and appreciate a true sense of place, this experience is not to be missed.

The Swiss-ness (and fondue) of The Walhaus is not to be missed (Image: Ambrose)


DAY 2: MT. NORQUAY

Mt. Norquay offers 190 acres of skiable terrain, accessed by 6 lifts, with 60 runs. The base elevation is 5350 feet (1630m) and the summit elevation is 6998 feet (2133m) for a vertical drop of 1650 feet (503m).

Being the closest ski resort to Banff, Mt. Norquay is a short 10-minute bus ride from any of the downtown bus stops. Nestled in an extremely picturesque canyon setting, Norquay’s steepest runs with towering cliffs rising above, are the first view you see when arriving. Only 190 acres in size with a vertical drop of 1650’ (503m), Norquay boasts 45% of their terrain as black diamond. This is a serious mountain and is not to be overlooked on any trip to Banff.

Mt. Norquay as seen from just above the base lodge (Image: Ambrose)

After meeting Marketing Director Simon Moffatt, we skated over to the ‘Mystic’ high-speed quad that offers 1300’ (395m) of vertical and a wide assortment of both groomed and ungroomed runs, glades, and chutes. It hadn’t snowed for a few days, so conditions were a cross between packed powder and hardpack with variable conditions off-piste.

A few fast and steep groomers were in store as Simon guided me across the awesome dips and rises that give these racy groomers a nice rolling character. The mountain op’s team at Norquay are artists when it comes to smooth, seamless grooming. 

Every run at Norquay has an awesome view (Image: SkiBig3/Price) 

After several more rippers, we ventured over to Bruno’s Gully, an avy chute that skied like a packed powder half pipe. If conditions permit, there is a bootpack trail directly above the patrol shack (at the top of the Mystic quad) that will take you to lines below the cliffs at the very top of Bruno’s.

After bounding from side to side down the gully, we finished Bruno’s with more high-speed carves on the run out back to ‘Mystic’. Simon was eager to show me some of the extensive gladed areas that Norquay has been adding to its terrain recently. The project is ongoing, and a smart move for Norquay as it adds yet another aspect to this incredibly diverse mountain. We checked out Banshee Glade, skiers right of Bruno’s, and the trees were spaced perfectly.

Nicely spaced trees of Banshee Glade (Image: Ambrose)  

Angling over from the top of the Mystic quad through a treed traverse line, we skied the top of Sun Chute into Spirit Sneak to traverse over to the rather famous North American lift. This is a local route to traverse from one side of the resort to the opposite side without the need to board another chair.  

The North American double chair, or the ‘Big Chair’ as locals call it, was once touted as the steepest lift-served skiing in North America. With 1650’ (503m) of black diamond vertical, this is the place to test your meddle at Norquay. There is no easy way down, just a menu of legendary runs such as Lone Pine, Boundary Bowl, North American, and The Chute.

This is the terrain that local freeski legends Eric Hjorleifson (‘Hoji’) and Chris Rubens were brought up on to name just a few of many talented skiers who started at Norquay. Simon led me down the soft fringes (skiers left) of Memorial Bowl swinging leg-burning fall line turns as we made our way back to the base lodge for lunch.

Terrain off the 'Big Chair' (North American lift) with the bumps of Lone Pine front and center (Image: Ambrose)

The Lone Pine Pub inside the base lodge serves up a nice selection of lunch entrees from burgers, poutine plates, and a great selection of hearty salads. After lunch, Simon headed back to the office, and I was anxious to wander the mountain on my own. I elected for more smooth groomers on the Mystic quad to warm the legs back up. Once that was attained, I ventured over to the ‘Big Chair’ (North American) once again for my last run, this time on the infamous Lone Pine, a direct fall line run from the top of Norquay to the lodge. One turn at a time I made my way down the steep and challenging mogul field trying my darndest to channel my ‘Inner Hoji’. It took a while, and not much ‘Hoji’ showed up, but I eventually made it back to the Lone Pine Pub to toast everything Lone Pine, and this exhilarating mountain.

Norquay’s the real deal and has the history to prove it. It’s a treasure trove of undulating terrain, gnarly ridgetops, gullies, and some of the best tree skiing in the Canadian Rockies. It also has a plethora of meticulously groomed runs, in fact, 55% of the mountain is covered with blue and green runs. I would highly advise it for families looking to escape the crowds of the bigger resorts as well as shredders looking for an uncrowded and uncommon challenge.


DAY 3: LAKE LOUISE SKI RESORT

Lake Louise Ski Resort offers 4200 acres of skiable terrain, accessed by 10 lifts, with 145 runs spread over two distinct mountains. The base elevation is 5400 feet (1646m) with the summit elevation (Whitehorn Mtn) of 8650 feet (2637m). The total vertical drop is 3250 feet (990m).

It’s an easy 40-minute drive north on the four-lane Trans-Canada Highway 1 from Banff to Lake Louise. I elected to split my lodging between the two towns to best utilize my limited time. Lake Louise is nothing like Banff, it’s a small highway town with several hotels, motels, and restaurants, with an iconic historic hotel just outside a town called the Chateau Lake Louise.

It’s much slower-paced, with more of a wilderness outpost vibe to it. I loved the contrast between the two locations. It also has the same free SkiBig3 shuttle busses that efficiently bring you from your lodging location to Lake Louise Ski Resort (5-10 mins), or Sunshine and Norquay near Banff (35-40 mins).

Chateau Lake Louise with Lake Louise Ski Resort in the background (Image: Ambrose)

Lake Louise (Image: Ambrose)

The largest of the SkiBig3 resorts at 4200 acres, Lake Louise Ski Resort is also the most visited resort in the Canadian Rockies. An efficient mix of 10 high-speed lifts across the massive mountain does an excellent job of absorbing the morning flow of skiers and riders at the base area. Personally, I never waited longer than 5 minutes and that was at the peak period at 9 am on a pow day.

This was my second visit to Lake Louise, my first being in 2018 before the new West Bowl terrain was added. Upon arrival, I met with PR Manager Tyler Provost who patiently rolled out a map of the new West Bowl zone giving me an informative recon as well as local 411 to navigate the various entry gates properly.

Lake Louise had received 6” (15cm) of fresh snow overnight and along with cold temps with light ridgetop winds, made for premium snow conditions mountain-wide. I headed from the top of the gondola to the Ptarmigan chair for some steep groomers and I was pleasantly surprised that they had some creamy fresh snow on top, as they obviously been groomed before the overnight snowfall. A couple of warm-ups and then into the trees of Ptarmigan Glades for a few quick untracked pow laps. There were no lines on Ptarmigan chair, even on a pow day.

The glades I skied were a bit wider and the snow deeper (Image: SkiBig3/Segeleski)

Wanting to explore above the tree line, I made my way down the front side to the ‘Top of the World Express’. Once at the ‘Top of the World’, I peered into the Back Bowls spread out before me. The Back Bowls is a humongous alpine expanse of snowfields, chutes, rock cliffs, and even a few groomed trails chiseled into the terrain. I chose Drop Out into Wounded Knee, a 1600' (500m) vertical steep chute with a direct fall line into the runout at the bottom of the Bowl. It also had no tracks which made my decision for me. Coverage was excellent, as was the snow.

One more lap, this time up the Paradise Chair which serves as home base for various Freeride competitions. The runs off Paradise are the steepest and most esthetic lines of the Back Bowls. My contact Avery at SkiBig3 recommended that I ski ‘Cowboy’, lookers left of the chair. After negotiating the entrance to the rock-strewn chute, it opened into a steep powdery snowfield, eventually finishing through sub-alpine glades. This run had it all with 1300’ (400m) of sustained vert ranging from 45 to 35 degrees steepness, it was now time to take a little midday break.

Sizing up the Back Bowls (Image: SkiBig3/Tester) 

Shredding the Back Bowls (Image: SkiBig3/Tester)

Gnarly terrain off the Paradise Chair (Image: SkiBig3/Tester)

There is no lack of choices when it comes to lunch at Lake Louise with seven food service locations just in the main lodge. Tyler broke free from his job to meet me at Powder Keg, upstairs in the main lodge with a sweeping view of the front side. I had the most amazing brisket sandwich which I was told was the hands-down favorite of the regulars. Prices were very reasonable and the service friendly and efficient. I tried to convince Tyler to skip work for some afternoon runs but sadly he had an afternoon meeting to attend.

Stairway into West Bowl (Image: SkiBig3/Bartlett)

Hard to believe on a powder day that the highlight of my day would come after lunch when I finally headed into the new West Bowl terrain. Whitehorn Mountain, elevation 8650’ (2637m) is the high point at Lake Louise and the terminus of the new ‘Summit Express’ which replaced the old platter lift. From here there are two options to access West Bowl, a “frontside” gate skiers right that led to a long traverse, and a backside gate skiers left that required walking down 3 flights of metal stairs suspended over some gnarly rocky terrain. Tyler had advised the stairway entrance, as the traverse was running a bit boney.

Very carefully I descended the stairway shouldering skis, luckily it was not too windy. At the bottom, I clicked in and noticed hardly anyone had skied the lines directly below me in West Bowl proper. I knew the overnight storm had favored west-facing slopes and as I pushed off into the alpine bowl, I could feel it getting deeper by the turn, about 8 – 10” (20 -25cm) deep on average. I paused with a smile at the bottom of the bowl to take in the stupendous view and to figure out the rest of my route down through the lower 2/3rds of West Bowl. 

The Bowl of West Bowl (Image: SkiBig3/Bartlett)

Tyler advised that ‘Enchanted Forest’ was the place to find untracked lines through steep wooded gullies with the occasional rocky outcrop to spice things up. I navigated through this amazing terrain like a kid in a candy store finding stashes of fresh pow interspersed among the surreal stands of western larch. Legs were in full burn as I finally made my way down to the run-out traverse, aptly named ‘Egress’, and back to the base area. All told, this is a 500-acre expert playground with 3000’ vertical in a single run.

Lake Louise’s alpine terrain has always been impressive, but the addition of West Bowl has elevated it into the upper echelon of challenging North American resorts. I loved it so much I kept lapping it all afternoon. As I boarded ‘Glacier Express’ for my final lap of the day, I realized that the last time I had so much fun with boundless sustained steeps was skiing the famous Hobacks at Jackson Hole. West Bowl is somewhat similar but offers even more options and acreage. I’m already planning my next trip to Louise. Two thumbs up.  

Hopefully, this trip report will help anyone who is considering a visit to the Banff/Lake Louise region of the Canadian Rockies. World-class big mountain skiing, jaw-dropping alpine views, and wonderful mountain towns with all the amenities and ambiance one could ever need. It’s almost like a trip to the Swiss Alps, but much more convenient and friendly.


FINAL THOUGHTS

All three resorts have their own unique personalities, and with the convenience of the SkiBig3 interchangeable lift ticket and free bus shuttles, decisions on what resort to ski that day can be made over breakfast. You can fly into Calgary, shuttle to your Banff or Lake Louise lodging, and use the bus system for all your transportation, no rental car is needed. Or like me, drive up from the States, park the car, and bus it to the hills. It saves energy and parking headaches. And don’t sweat the Canada border requirements, as the little bit of extra time it takes will be returned in leaps and bounds with an unforgettable trip. 

I also wanted to mention some amazing, and quite affordable lodging recommendations in Banff and Lake Louise. In Banff, I stayed at the Peaks Hotel and Suites which is a brand-new hotel located in the heart of downtown. Rooms are ultra modern with lots of amenities and the value is way better than the competition. In Lake Louise, I was based at the historic Deer Lodge, just steps away from Lake Louise (the actual Lake). This place has cozy and clean rooms, a fantastic restaurant, and the best outdoor hot tub views in the Canadian Rockies.

Most skiers (and riders) I know love sushi as do I, so it was a bit of a surprise to discover one of the best sushi restaurants I have ever experienced right there in downtown Banff. With fresh fish flown in daily, a menu of fusion sushi rolls, sashimi, hand rolls, and a really cool vibe, Hello Sunshine is honestly really good. Also, hit the Park Distillery an hour or so before dinner for a fantastic tasting tour of their unique spirits, distilled right there on premises.  Yep, the only distillery located within a National Park (Banff NP) in North America and within walking distance to your hotel. Lots to do, lots to ski, great ingredients for a memorable trip. 

Thanks for reading - hope this info helps in planning your trip! 


Visit SkiBig3.com for all lodging, event, and other ski-related information. 


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