Spring Fresh: Chasing Late-Season Snow in the Canadian Rockies
As thoughts turn to spring hikes and bikes replace 'boards throughout North America's snowbelt, the ski resorts in Alberta's World Heritage-listed national parks are stubbornly clinging to those deep-powder days. And why shouldn't they? The snow continues to accumulate (upwards of 150 inches a year), the scenery is spectacular, the lift lines are short, and the exchange rate favors both euro- and greenback-touting tourists.
Four stellar resorts speckle the monster folds (all 6,700 combined square miles of 'em) of Alberta's Banff and Jasper national parks, dishing out winter fun across five months of the year and usually well into May. So if you're not ready for the cherry blossoms of spring, toss your skis in a bag and book a flight to Calgary or Edmonton.
Banff is the area's most accessible and well-served base town (80 miles west of Calgary; 250 southwest of Edmonton), and makes a good start point for any late-season snow adventure. The nearest slopes are at Ski Banff at Norquay (403.762.4421; www.banffnorquay.com), a hip-hopping place only 15 minutes by car or shuttle from Banff's main drag. One downside of this proximity is that you don't have much time to prepare for the gut-churning first glimpse of the slopes, a phalanx of double-black diamond chutes that is sure to intimidate all but the most skilled skiers. The mountain boasts a vertical drop of 1,650 feet, a stat that feels even more dramatic with the enclosed aspect of Mount Norquay's steep flanks. Fret not, though. Things calm down once you hit the newly refurbished lodge and tack over to the black-, blue-, and green-rich sections of the mountain (36 percent of the terrain is considered intermediate, 20 percent suitable for beginners). Given its easy access and relatively narrow tree-lined chutes, Norquay's 190 acres and 28 runs can feel congested, but you can purchase lift tickets by the day, half-day, or even the houra perfect way to play the fluctuating crowds to your favor and warm into your Rockies skiing adventure.
Sunshine Village (403.762.6500; www.skibanff.com), only five miles west of Banff, is quickly earning a reputation as one of North America's best resorts; the Canadian Rockies' driest snow, 3,358 acres in which to play, 107 named trails and a vertical drop of 3,514 feet, and a season that runs until late May all help burnish the claim. The resort has plied some $40 million into the mountain over the past decade, investment reflected in the expanded terrain and modern gondola and lifts that get you out onto the trailsfast! Locals shredheads rate the precipitous double-black terrain of Delirium Dive, while intermediates and beginners will enjoy the long runs down the back slopes of Lookout Mountain. Skiing here will easily eat up two or more days of your time, and skiers who like to stick close to the action should check out the region's only slopeside hotel, the Sunshine Inn.
Thirty-five miles northwest of Banff is the small, scenic town of Lake Louise. Best known for its grandiose alpine château set on the banks of a beautiful glacial lake, the area is also home to a big, welcoming ski resort that encompasses an action-filled 4,200 acres, the biggest in the region (403.522.3555; www.skilouise.com). Cruise long blue groomers like Meadowlark, pinball down the fearsome double-blacks of the back bowls, or tackle two former World Cup downhill runs and let the imaginary clanging of cowbells cheer you home. In all, Lake Louise rewards with a whopping 113 runs (not to mention the back bowl playfields) and a lofty 3,250-foot vertical drop carving through terrain to suit skiers of all persuasionssteeps, bumps, greens, glades, you name it. Two mid-mountain lodges mean you can refuel, refresh, and return to the busy base lodge area only when you're all skied out at the end of your day.
Most itineraries will hit the triumvirate of resorts in the Banff-Lake Louise area. Too bad. You'll not only miss the legendary drive up the Icefields Parkwaypast towering, crenellated ridges, up sweeping alpine passes, and alongside the largest icefield south of Alaskayou'll also never discover Marmot Basin (780.852.3816; www.skimarmot.com), a cracker of a resort some 12 miles south of the town of Jasper. Here, 84 trails and 1,675 acres of skiable terrain beckon beginners, families, and those after some uncluttered exploration down 3,000 feet of vertical. A busy ski day at Marmot is a couple thousand people, and they're quickly swallowed within the three sections of the mountain. While Marmot's snow isn't as consistent or billowy as its southerly cousins, the resort charms with its varied terrain and a friendly, intimate feel (including a lodge nursery, a godsend for those moms and dads who need some time on the piste away from junior). Tellingly, about 90 percent of Marmot's skiers are Canadians, since most international visitors can't find the time in their schedules to make the four-hour drive north. "Their loss, my gain," will probably be your gleeful mantra as you take another wide-open schuss downhill.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication