If you enjoy winter sports, you’ll love traveling to the Canadian Rockies between December and April. Winter travel and the focus of your vacation will be very different than a summer trip. Instead of hiking and canoeing and barbecuing, you’ll be skiing and snowshoeing in a magical mountain setting purified by snow, then retreating to relax around a roaring fire each evening.
Banff National Park holds three major ski resorts—Lake Louise, Sunshine Village, and Ski Norquay. Kananaskis Country’s Nakiska was developed for the downhill events of the 1988 Winter Olympic Games. Today, it serves mainly a regional market, offering runs for all skill levels. Meanwhile, to the north in Jasper National Park, Marmot Basin is renowned for its uncrowded slopes and sweeping views, and to the east at Calgary’s Canada Olympic Park, you can ski the slopes used during the 1988 Winter Olympic Games.
Summer hiking trails are perfect for cross-country skiing in winter; many of those around the towns of Banff and Jasper are groomed. The Canmore Nordic Centre is laced with cross-country trails—and hosts world-class competitions through the winter months.
Snowshoeing is a traditional form of northern transportation but is still a popular recreation. Many sports stores have rentals and will lead you in the right direction. If you would like to try dogsledding, head to Canmore or Lake Louise, where commercial operators offer trips.
One of the most unusual winter activities in the Canadian Rockies are ice walks to frozen waterfalls. Guided tours operate in Johnston Canyon (Banff) and Maligne Canyon (Jasper).
Finally, after a long day of winter sports, there’s no better way to soothe sore muscles than soaking in one of the region’s many hot springs.
An Abridged History of Skiing in Banff National Park
Banff National Park is busiest during summer, but for many visitors from outside North America—especially Europeans and Australians—it is the winter season that they know Banff for. Regardless of its repute, and although winter (Dec.-Apr.) is considered low season, the park remains busy as ski enthusiasts from around the world gather for world-class skiing and boarding. It hasn’t always been this way. As recently as the 1960s, many lodgings—including the famous Fairmont Banff Springs—were open only for the summer season.
With winter tourism nonexistent, the first skiers were Banff locals, who would climb local peaks under their own steam. Due mostly to its handy location close to town, a popular spot was Mount Norquay, which was skied as early as the 1920s. In 1948, Canada’s first chairlift was installed on the mountain’s eastern slopes. In the ensuing years, newer and faster lifts have created a convenient getaway that fulfills the needs of locals and visitors alike, who can buzz up for an afternoon of skiing or boarding on slopes that suit all levels of proficiency.
The first people to ski the Sunshine Meadows were two local men, Cliff White and Cyril Paris, who became lost in the spring of 1929 and returned to Banff with stories of deep snow and ideal slopes for skiing. In the following years, a primitive cabin was used as a base for overnight ski trips in the area. In 1938 the Canadian National Ski Championships were held here, and in 1942 a portable lift was constructed. The White family was synonymous with the Sunshine area for many years, running the lodge and ski area while Brewster buses negotiated the steep, narrow road that led to the meadows. In 1980, a gondola was installed to whisk skiers and snowboarders six kilometers (3.7 miles) from the valley floor to the alpine village.
The best known of Banff’s three resorts is Lake Louise, an hour’s drive north of town but still within park boundaries. This part of the park also attracted early interest from local skiers, beginning in 1930 when Cliff White and Cyril Paris built a small ski chalet in the Skoki Valley (now operating as Skoki Lodge). The remoteness of this hut turned out to be impractical, so another was built, closer to the road. In 1954, a crude lift was constructed up Larch Mountain from the chalet. The lift had only just begun operation when a young Englishman, Norman Watson (known as the “Barmy Baronet”), who had inherited a fortune, saw the potential for a world-class alpine resort and made the completion of his dream a lifelong obsession. Over the years more lifts were constructed, and two Olympic runs—Men’s Downhill and Ladies’ Downhill—were cut as well.
Excerpted from the Seventh Edition of Moon Canadian Rockies.