Beyond Whistler: Lake Louise and the Best Ski-Areas in Canada
When it comes to Big North riding, one name undoubtedly pops to mind: Whistler Blackcomb. Oft-ranked the world’s best resort, Whistler has everything a skier or snowboarder desires: big mountain terrain, killer park and pipe, generous servings of fresh, and a vibrant village with plenty of nightlife and activities to hold your attention off-mountain. It also has one more defining quality: hype.
To the east, Lake Louise serves up the same big mountain experience in a quieter, less crowded, less expensive atmosphere— essentially, all the positives of Whistler minus the hype. Additionally, you get two more resorts–Sunshine Village and Ski Norquay–under an hour down the road, each with its own signature atmosphere, huge fall lines, and great snow. Situated in Banff National Park, these ski areas provide access to some of the most beautiful alpine terrain on the planet.
My experience with Lake Louise was small part ski vacation, large part honeymoon. My new wife and I love the winter and absolutely adored the counterintuitive idea of a honeymoon getaway amidst the coldest, snowiest climate available. You can keep the sun and beaches– give us the crisp chill of a January day at 8,000 feet and a few feet of new snow and we’re in our natural element. Given the backdrop of this trip, no ordinary ski resort would fit the bill.
Originally, our thoughts drifted toward Europe and the Swiss Alps, however, time and money would not allow for such a lengthy, extravagant voyage. After some research and debate, we nearly settled on Tahoe.
Given the huge shadow that Whistler has cast upon other Canadian resorts, the only reason I’d ever even heard of Lake Louise was because of my near-obsessive research of world resorts on RSN.com—I always have my eye on my next great ride.
A few minutes of background checking and it was clear that Lake Louise was the perfect place for us. The area is the antithesis of every ski resort you’ve ever been to. Built on its reputation as a beautiful summer retreat, Louise experiences the off-season in winter. As such, hotel prices are a fraction of what you’d pay in the summer and crowds are at the barest of minimums.
To make things that much sweeter, Lake Louise’s location within Banff National Park has set the scene for strict development regulations. There is no real town or village and the whole area consists of the ski resort and a few loosely construed hotels, lodges, restaurants and shops. Even the locals are put up in employee housing on hotel grounds. I can’t even recall seeing a house or condo in the area. Essentially, you have government mandated crowd control.
Lake Louise is a beautiful deep blue-green alpine lake set amidst towering mountain peaks, with the Victoria glacier on the far side. The Fairmont Chateau, set on the shore directly facing the glacier, offers incredible views of the lake and mountains right from your own bedroom window—the perfect place for a romantic adventure retreat.
Although I was only able to sneak off for a little riding, I was blown away by the conditions and terrain. The snow was damn-near perfection even without a recent storm—soft and light with no rough or icy patches anywhere. It allowed one to point and shoot and catch the perfect edge every time.
The terrain was huge and wide open with everything you dream about in the summer months: big wide bowls, huge-angled steeps, trees, and great intermediate and black runs for blazing down full-speed. Unlike many resorts that split their vertical among base areas at scattered altitudes, Louise allows you to drop the majority of its vertical, from the upper bowls down to the bottom base, in one continuous, adrenaline-inducing fall line—making for long, fast runs and some of the best riding I’ve done in Canada or anywhere else. For the number junkie—Lake Louise offers 113 trails cut across 4,200 acres, with 3250 vertical drop—pretty impressive for a resort that you may never have heard of.
Lake Louise is the ultimate winter spot to do some of the best riding of your life and head back for a quiet, romantic evening with your girl. However, if you’re looking for a bit more civilization, a place to kick back with a group of your best friends—stop down the road at Banff. Banff offers your typical ski town with shops, restaurants and plenty of places to grab some libation. Within about 15 minutes drive are two great resorts. Ski Norquay, the smallest of Banff-area resorts, is great for families and beginners, but also has a healthy number of challenging black runs. The resort offers 28 runs over 190 acres altogether and is home to some of Canada’s oldest ski runs. Sunshine Village offers some incredible big mountain riding with plenty of steeps and expert terrain. The resort totals 107 runs over 3358 acres. Among its acreage, Sunshine houses a number of gut-wrenching steeps and terrain to satisfy even the most jaded expert. All this and you can still make it to Lake Louise in about 40 minutes or so.
Getting to Banff/Lake Louise couldn’t be much easier. Calgary International Airport offers flights from all around the world. From here, it is a pain-free 2 hours or so to the Banff/Lake Louise area up Trans-Canada Highway 1, Banff being about 1 ½ hours, with Lake Louise another 40 minutes or so up the highway. I’d definitely recommend staying at the Fairmont Chateau—you can always find some sweet rates via package—for around $1000 I got 5 nights of lodging plus a ski pass. Here, you’re guaranteed to get the most memorable views of your life in a gorgeous hotel with a variety of excellent, fine restaurants. There are plenty of other lodging and dining options in Lake Louise and Banff, as well.
Check out www.skibanff.com for more info on Lake Louise, Banff, Sunshine Village and Ski Norquay.
Other places in British Columbia worth checking out:
Quite frankly, BC is like Colorado or Vermont—so many great resorts in a concise area.
Canada mimics the terrain of the US in that the biggest mountains and riding are all out west. However, if you’re looking to take a road trip from one of those big cities in the East, you’ll have plenty of solid options as well. Eastern Canadian riding is comparable to what you’d find in VT or upstate NY and, big bonus—some resorts are within an hours of Montreal—a party haven and the Canadian twist on City of Sin.
Consider these options with authentic French names: