Banff is One of North America's Best Skiing Destinations. Here's How to Find the Perfect Resort For You.
If Dr. Seuss were to draw a landscape of wild forests and jagged mountains, it would look like the area of Canadian Rockies surrounding Banff. Tucked into Alberta’s wilderness about two hours west of Calgary, Banff is a slice of paradise for winter outdoor enthusiasts of all sorts, not to mention food lovers, wine and whiskey drinkers, hot-springs seekers, history and culture buffs, and anyone who appreciates a spooky, upscale castle. Oh yeah, there’s also the wildlife. It’s not unusual to catch elk, moose, or bear wandering through the flocked pine, across a frozen lake, or even plodding across roads in the middle of town. It's a ski resort town that would be worth a visit if there wasn't a single slope in eyeshot.
About that castle … Banff is home to one of the most impressive-looking hotels in North America: The Fairmont Banff Springs. A stay or visit instills the immediate sensation that you are Harry Potter arriving at Hogwarts, but also offers a long list of every possible amenity found in a mountain resort -- upscale dining, culinary and wine workshops, snowshoe trails, yoga and fitness classes, and yes, elegant and allegedly haunted towers and staircases.
The Banff Upper Hot Springs is another (literal) hot spot, housing multiple thermal pools naturally heated through deep rock layers from the Sulphur Mountain Thrust Fault. Perched on a peaceful oasis at 5,200 feet, they are the highest operating hot springs in Canada.
The town of Banff is abuzz with coffee shops, gear stores, a performing arts venue, and impressive variety of restaurants and bars, including Park Distillery -- Canada’s only distillery located in a national forest -- and also Banff Ave Brewing, ranked among the best brewpubs in Alberta. The Whyte Museum is another not-to-miss cultural hub, displaying global mountaineering artifacts, death-defying adventure tales, and art exhibits rivaling those found in major city museums.
But let’s get to the skiing. With Banff as a home base, nearby slopes range from sprawling resorts featuring so many trails, you’d be hard-pressed to ski them all in a week to smaller areas which, in spite of their size, offer some of the scariest pitches you’ll ever look down upon, plus unexpected culinary delights. Here are the best ski resorts for every type of skier.
Ranking among the largest ski areas in all of North America, Lake Louise (part of SkiBig3 along with Norquay and Sunshine Village) is comprised of more than 4,200 skiable acres, including gentle, meandering beginner trails; wide-open intermediate cruisers; and, of course, some pretty burly steeps, some accessed by one of the world’s steepest Poma rides (they call it “platter lift”), from which you can hike across knife-like ridgelines in pursuit of untouched powder between the cliffs while taking in sweeping panoramas of snowy peaks that reach toward every corner of the horizon. It’s worth noting that for those who want to venture outside of the resort, Lake Louise itself is rife for exploration: frozen solid in the winter and begging to be traveled by snowshoe or cross-country skis. More palace-like than its castle counterpart in Banff, The Fairmont in Lake Louise sits directly on the lake and is an ideal spot for gear rentals (cross-country skis, snowshoes, ice skates, etc.) and/or guided tours, as well as a boozy mug of hot chocolate or taste of real Canada in the form of maple snow treats or a round of curling.
A local favorite and the closest ski area to Banff, Norquay is frequented by families and ski clubs, offering an old-school ski experience with slower chairlifts and smaller lodges, but also some seriously impressive surprises, like steep glades, unbeatable Caesars (the Canadian version of a Bloody Mary), and the Cliffhouse Bistro, a mid-mountain restaurant that hosts a handful of intimate, extravagant five-course meals every season for about 40 eaters brave enough to make the trip up Canada’s second oldest chairlift. The night sky is magical and the wool blanket offered as you board the chair much-needed.
Accessed by a long gondola ride, Sunshine Village has terrain for every level of skier, but is famously teeming with slopes of the extreme variety. There is one area of cliffs and chutes -- Delirium Dive -- that can only be accessed through a gate where you must first scan your avalanche beacon (so if you don’t have one or don’t know how to use one, don’t even think about going). On a clear day, you’ll understand why the place is called Sunshine Village and will have to pack and reapply an appropriate amount of SPF. The area is home to just a handful of restaurants and bars, but The Chimney Corner offers exquisite seasonal soups, cocktails, and a fine-dining ambiance mitigated by nearly all guests sitting down in ski boots.
Although it is located nearly an hour and a half from Banff, Kicking Horse is worth the trip for skiers who like to venture off of the beaten path and cherish serious vertical and entire trails to themselves. Also, it gives you the chance to brag about skiing British Columbia and Alberta in the same trip. With famously dry, cloud-like powder, Kicking Horse is home to more than 120 trails, more than half of which are rated advanced to expert and offering more than 4,000 vertical feet of skiing, including one trail that stretches for 10 kilometers (aptly named “It’s a 10”).
Better for families, beginners, or skiers who don’t take their slopes too seriously, Nakiska is situated within an hour’s drive of Banff and just 45 minutes from the Calgary airport, meaning it’s also good for anyone wanting to make some turns right before or after a flight. As a ski experience, Nakiska isn’t as rugged or impressive as the above mentioned areas, but let’s be clear that it is no bunny hill. The place was built to host ski races at the 1988 Calgary Olympics. It has four chairlifts and more than 60 runs, the majority of which are smooth butter for intermediate level skiers.