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Banff National Park draws skiers, snowboarders and winter sports enthusiats from all over the world. A long season, ample light and dry snow, great facilities, and three of the world's finest ski resorts to choose from make this a great destination for your ski or snowboarding holiday. There are far fewer people on the slopes than in the European resorts, so your chances of getting in some fresh tracks are much higher.
There are three ski areas in Banff National Park: Mt. Norquay, Lake Louise Ski Area and Sunshine Village. All operate within the stringent regulations of Parks Canada. All three have ski & snowboarding schools for teaching all skill levels, from getting novices started to coaching those looking to improve their skills. Canadian ski & snowboard instructors are certified by their professional associations, so students can expect a high standard of training. All three also have snowboard terrain parks.
The ski/snowboarding season usually begins around mid November. Lake Louise and Sunshine vie to see who will open first, and have opened as early as Nov. 8. Sunshine Village is always the last to close, on the Victoria Day long weekend (late-May) with their Slush Cup event. Lake Louise usually closes at the end of April or very beginning of May, while Mt. Norquay usually closes in mid-April. The resorts receive over 30 feet of snow each season.
Mt. Norquay (pronounced NOR-kway) is the smallest of the three ski areas, and the closest to the town of Banff, at just 5 minutes of driving. Known as the locals' mountain, it is steeped in history and played an important part in the development of skiing in Canada. Watch out for local kids training on the race course there, it's a great sight. Mt. Norquay is the only ski resort in Banff National Park offering night skiing and skiing paid for by the hour (rather than the day or afternoon), which can make it perfect for a "down" day when you want to do just a little skiing. A ski shuttle connects hotels in the town of Banff to Mt. Norquay; Norquay's website has the complete schedule and fare details.
Ski season: mid-November to mid-April, weather permitting.
See notes under Lake Louise (below) for information on the Lake Louise Card, which provides discounts on Mt. Norquay lift tickets. Available only to residents of Canada and the states of Washington, Idaho and Montana .
The Lake Louise Ski Area is a 45-minute drive from the town of Banff, or a 10-minute drive from the hamlet of Lake Louise. Lake Louise Ski Area is the first stop on the World Cup downhill skiing circuit, in late November, because its elevation and extensive snow-making program means that it has the most reliable early-season snow. It is Canada's largest single ski area with a good variety of terrain to challenge all skill levels, from beginners' areas to steep chutes and wide back bowls. Lake Louise Ski Area is consistently rated as having the best scenery of any resort in North America. A ski shuttle connects hotels in the town of Banff to the Lake Louise ski area; Lake Louise's website has the complete schedule and fare details. There is also a ski shuttle from the village of Lake Louise to the Lake Louise ski area; details are on the ski area's website.
Ski season: Early November - late April/start of May, weather permitting
Before December 31, residents of Canada and the states of Washington, Idaho and Montana may purchase the Lake Louise Card for $79.95 (just $8 more than the cost of one lift ticket), which offers significant discounts at Lake Louise, and smaller discounts at several other ski areas in Alberta and British Columbia (Fernie, Kimberley, Nakiska). At Lake Louise, the first, fourth, and seventh day's skiing is free, while there is a $13 (high season) or $26 (low season) discount on lift tickets for the other days that you ski. The card is not transferable. You may also purchase a Louise Card Plus for $79.95 (or upgrade an existing Louise Card). In addition to the Louise Card discount program, the Louise Card Plus also has direct-to-lift access (the Plus card is linked to your credit card, so you don't need to stand in line to pay for your lift ticket), and a 20% discount on food orders at the ski hill's Powder Keg restaurant between 3 pm and 5:30 pm, as well as discounts at certain food outlets at Nakiska and Kimberley. Plus Card holders also get First Tracks privileges at Lake Louise on the last Sunday of each month.
Sunshine Village is just a 20-minute drive from the town of Banff. It's a large ski area with a huge variety of terrain, for all levels of skiers, from toddlers in the Tiny Tigers day care/ski school, to extreme skiers. Test your skills in Delirium Dive, an expert area that requires you to carry an avalanche beacon, probe and shovel to enter. Or enjoy the more mellow slopes off Strawberry chair and Wolverine. Sunshine has the only on-hill accommodation in Banff National Park, at the Sunshine Mountain Lodge. It is unusual amongst ski resorts in the Canadian Rockies for its all-natural snow (no snowmaking machines are used). A gondola shuttles skiers from the parking lot at the base of the mountain to the heart of the ski area above, and back again, which means that visitors staying at the Sunshine Mountain Lodge will find the area to be fairly quiet after the sun goes down. Although it is possible to ski down to the parking lot at the end of the day, this run (#1, Lower Banff Avenue, aka the "ski out") is very long, and can be quite tiring at the end of a long day. It can also be rather intimidating to new skiers, who may prefer to wait until they can do the easier intermediate runs before attempting it; it's not unusual to see novice skiers walking down this long run, skis in hand, even though it's officially rated as easy. A ski shuttle connects hotels in the town of Banff to the Sunshine Village area; Sunshine's website has the complete schedule and fare details. There is also a ski shuttle from the village of Lake Louise to Sunshine.
Ski season: Early November - Victoria Day (May 24 in 2010). Opening date is weather permitting; Sunshine has never had to close before Victoria Day.
Before December 26, residents of Western Canada may purchase the Sunshine Marmot Card online for $79.95 (just $6 over the cost of one lift ticket), which offers significant discounts at those two ski areas; the first, fourth, and seventh day's skiing is free, while there is a $13 (high season) or $26 (low season) discount on lift tickets for the other days that you ski. The card is not transferable; photo ID is required, and on your first visit, they will add your photo to the Sunshine Marmot Card, so try to arrive a little early to allow time for this procedure. Calgary and Edmonton Safeway grocery stores and some ski shops sell the card starting around October, and ending on December 31. It is also sold at the ski hill during the availability period.
Other winter activties include ice skating, cross country skiing, tobogganing, dog sledding, snowshoeing, and icewalks. Equipment such as skates, cross-country skis, toboggans, and snowshoes may be rented at several outlets in the town of Banff, such as Snowtips. Banff Springs Ski & Mountain Sports, and Mountain Magic. Shops in Banff that rent and sell snowboarding and downhill skiing gear are far too numerous to list here.
Most ski/snowboard areas require skiers to comply with the Alpine Responsibility Code; those found violating the code may have their lift tickets revoked. In addition, many ski areas require all skiers and snowboarders under 18 to wear a helmet; helmet rentals are often available for a low price. See www.lidsonkids.org for more information on ski helmets for children.
"Banff, Canada's Quiet Star" -- New York Times, 4 Jan 2009