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Ski Canada’s Big 3: Why You Should Visit Banff National Park in Winter

When you think of Banff, you may think of only escaping to this picturesque Canadian town to get out of the sweltering Texas summer heat.  You should think about going in winter.  Why?  Less crowds, jaw dropping snowy scenery and some of the best skiing in North America.  You can have three unique ski days at three different world class ski resorts within 30 minutes from Banff.  You get to ski the Big 3 – three ski resorts within Alberta’s Banff National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. If you’re like me and have always wanted to see Banff, I suggest going in winter. You’ll have less crowds, save on accommodations compared to summer rates and have some incredible ski days.

Alpine Oasis at an Iconic Lake

I got to spend six days exploring the winter wonderland of Banff and Lake Louise, two very different mountain towns nestled in the soaring jagged peaks of the national park.  From Calgary International Airport, it’s about an hour and half drive to Lake Louise, where I would stay for two nights in the famous Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise.  As I walked into the grandiose mountain elegance of the lobby, my eyes fixated on the stunning chandelier.  The gal at the front desk told me the women in the chandelier represent the wives of the mountaineering pioneers who first explored the area.  I found my room to be classic of a historic hotel on the smaller size, but comfortable and tastefully done.  I quickly pulled back the drapes and just stood there staring at the majestic Victoria Glacier, considered by many to be one of the most spectacular views in the world. 

Tour of my room at Fairmont Lake Louise

As the sun was rapidly dropped behind the storied peaks of Canada’s first national park, I nibbled on dried fruit, cheese, and crackers from my welcome tray and watched some people glide around the outdoor ice-skating rink and a few others strolling out onto the iced over lake.  This alpine oasis had me wishing I never had to leave within my first few minutes of settling in.  In this place with a lengthy list of VIP guests including a wealth of royals and legends of the silver screen, I felt like I had just stepped into a fairytale.

Sunset from my room at Fairmont Lake Louise

The small group I was traveling with unanimously decided on dinner with a view in Fairview Bar and Restaurant.  As day turned into night, the view through the arched windows was stunning.  I went Canadian on my wine choice by selecting one from Mission Hill in the Okanagan Valley. 

Fairview has a “Rocky Mountain Wild” inspired menu.  I decided on the specials for the evening.  The tomato coconut soup with five cheese bread warmed me up and the poke bowl was the perfect dose of protein to fuel my first day ever skiing in Canada the next day.

Skiing Canada’s Friendly Giant

I took a sunrise yoga class to ease into a ski day at Lake Louise Ski Resort. 

After a few minutes of wrestling with boots that didn’t want to go on in the cold, I was off to experience the dry feather-light Canadian powder on a glorious day.  As we got off the Top of the World chairlift all I could say was “wow.”  It felt like we were on top of the world covered in a snow-white blanket with the most spectacular jagged mountain range I’d ever seen for my ski view. 

Lake Louise Ski Resort is known as the friendly giant of Canadian skiing with over 145 named runs across 4,200 acres of skiable terrain.  We took off down one of the resort’s four mountain faces.  Enamored with the view of unspoiled wilderness, I was giddy as we cruised a couple of wide-open rolling runs. 

Some of the expert skiers in our group took off to test their skills on the more challenging back bowls, chutes and gullies.  I opted to stay on green and blues runs above treeline and just enjoy a ski day with a view that took my breath away. 

We skied over to Whitehorn Bistro for a lunch I can only describe as decadent.  I sipped a refreshing winter whiskey sour while enjoying the charcuterie smorgasbord of the Rocky Mountain Tasting Platter.  We devoured the food coma worthy cheese fondue. 

It was a lunch with a jaw dropping view of Temple Mountain and Little Temple over to Lake Louise, Plain of the Six Glaciers, Victoria Glacier and Mount Louise.

After lunch I skied a few more runs then headed down to experience après ski Canadian style at Konanee Kabin.  By mid-afternoon it was already a flurry of fun with folks lounging in Adirondack chairs around firepits and gathered around picnic tables.  Sipping a Canadian cider, I Iaughed as I chatted with the family on a 10-day ski trip, their first family trip in twelve years.  The mother isn’t quite as advanced as the other three and told me about the “Ski with Friends” program, free guided tours of the mountain.  When she left to join that ski group, I thought to myself what a neat way for the whole family to have fun at Lake Louise Ski Resort.

I braved the cold to check out the beautiful ice castle sculptures that were created on the edge of the lake.

The competition was fierce that evening back at the Fairmont Lake Louise as our group tried Bavarian ice curling.  It’s different from the curling you see in the Olympics.  You toss what looks like a giant weighted Sorry piece down the ice in game that is a cross between bowling and bocce ball.  My buddy Tim and I were victorious, and we cheered our win over hot chocolates in the Ice Bar. 

For dinner we went family style in Alpine Social.  Themed after Canadian mountaineering during the late 1800s and early 1900s, it’s the social hub of Lake Louise.  It’s lively, fun and the food is delicious.  Two must eats are the tuna ceviche and social nachos.  Sip on a flight of beer, whisky, scotch or bourbon.  I kept it “boozy and honest” with a Twisted Revolver cocktail and capped off a great meal with a Shaft.  It’s not on the menu, but it’s a traditional mountain after-dinner drink of coffee, vodka, Kahlua and Baileys.

From Chateau to Castle

The next morning was breath stealing cold with a temperature of -4°Farenheit.  After a relaxing early morning including a leisurely room service breakfast, we ventured into the forest on a three-hour Powderfest Snowshoeing Tour. 

Our guide Paul has been leading excursions in the Lake Louise area for over 30 years. 

We frolicked through the winter wonderland and enjoyed teatime in the snow with an incredible view of Mount Fairview. 

From breakfast to tea, the views at Lake Louise are simply breathtaking with the landscaped covered in a thick blanket of white.

I couldn’t leave Lake Louise without taking a stroll on one of the most famous lakes in Canada to take in the magnificent landscape one last time before the 30-minute drive back into Banff.

We traded a chateau for a castle as we checked into Fairmont Banff Springs, known as Canada’s “Castle in the Rockies.”  The legendary mountain resort could easily pass for Hogwarts Castle in J.K. Rolling’s Harry Potter series.  The historic hotel opened its doors in 1888.  It has 757 guest rooms and suites, but as I settled into my cozy room with a sweeping view of the mountains, I felt like I had my own private retreat. 

I loved the sweet touch of moose chocolate strawberries as a welcome treat.  They were almost too cute to eat! 

My buddy Erik and I decided it was time for a soak and headed up to Banff Upper Hot Springs.  All the cares in the world melt away as you decompress in the steamy therapeutic water. At 5,200 feet, it’s the highest operating hot spring in Canada.  Folks have been soaking in the 100% natural mineral water since at least the 1880s.  Wearing a beanie to keep my head warm, I got a kick out of a group of men sporting their cowboy hats as they took a soaking break on their guys trip.  After relaxing for about an hour, Erik, another friend Dan and I went on a quick exploration of downtown Banff. 

The quaint mountain town is filled with shops and eateries including the Grizzle House, a Banff institution with a rather exotic past with telephones at each table from its days as a disco dance hall dating back to the late 1960s.  We had just enough time to belly up to the bar at the Park Distillery where I sipped The Boss cocktail made with Park’s vodka.

Back at the Fairmont Banff Springs, we got a unique experience in Grapes Cellars.  One of the chefs gave us a pickling lesson.  Forget just pickling cucumbers, we pickled carrots, shallots and even mushrooms and watermelon rinds with a bounty of herbs and spices.  Then we indulged in a decadent dinner of rich cheese fondue, pickled veggies and a smorgasbord of sweet treats. 

Giddy on a sugar high from the delectable desserts and tipsy from the wine, we walked the halls of the castle and heard a couple of its ghost stories including the ghost bride who tripped and fell to her death while descending a spiral staircase adorned with candles in the 1930s and Sam the Bellman, who retired in 1974 after working in the hotel for 45 years but loved his job so much he returns wearing plaid pants and sporting a Scottish accent and slight beard.

The Skier Racer’s Mountain

The next morning after watching a stunning sunrise, we got a special treat with breakfast in the historic home of Mary Shaffer Warren, the most influential female mountain explorer in the early 20th century of present day’s Banff and Jasper National Parks.  The home is now owned by Suzanne Gilles-Smith, whose family has owned the Plains of the Six Glaciers Teahouse since 1959. 

Caffeine fueled and tummies full, we headed off for a day of skiing at Mount Norquay.  This ski resort is known for its steeps and deeps.  Norquay has a legendary ski racing heritage that dates back to 1929.  It’s a racer’s mountain, but you can still have a blast on the slopes if you’re a beginner or intermediate skier.  I’m in the intermediate level.  At first, I was intimated by the terrain that seems to just drop off.  But after a couple of times on Mystic Run, which is rated blue but skis more like a blue-black slope, I was finding a groove I’d never found before.  This would turn into one of my all-time favorite ski days.  The reason was because my guide Jamie gave me a technique improvement session with tips to help me go from powering down the mountain to finessing it.  My favorite has to do with the Bee Gees.  Singing the song “Stayin’ Alive” gives you rhythm and calms your mind.  It’s world-class skiing and as Jamie told me, “You don’t have travel the globe to experience it because the world comes to Banff.” 

Mt. Norquay is also the locals’ mountain, affectionally known as the mom and pop of the three resorts in Banff National Park.  It’s the southern lady of Ski Big 3 with grace and ease on the gentler slopes and zinging charm that’s addictive on the more challenging runs.  Like the other two resorts, it’s ultra-family friendly.  I was experiencing a unique program Ski Big 3 offers.  Their guided adventures are offered at each resort in a 3-day program.  You get some coaching, but it’s not a lesson.  It’s experiencing the mountains like a local and getting the VIP treatment with lift-line priority and quicker access to the stellar terrain.  For lunch we headed over to Lone Pine Lodge.  I warmed up with a peppermint iced tea as I noshed on a wonderful salmon burger.  If you’re in a beer mood, sip their specially created “Norquay 92 beer” created by Banff Avenue Brewing Company.  We hit the slopes hard after lunch.  I tried to channel my inner racer thinking of the legendary list of elite skiers who have raced here.  As it started to snow, I felt like I had stepped into a real-life snow globe.  That was the cue to head back to Lone Pine for s’mores and adult beverages around the fire pit.

World’s Only Distillery in a National Park

For dinner that night we headed over to the first food and craft distillery in Canada.  It’s also the only distillery in a national park in the world.  Whether you fancy vodka, glacier rye or gin, Park Distillery specializes in “glacier to glass.”  As we toured the distillery before dinner, we found out it’s the water that makes the difference.  The calcium from Bow River’s limestone rich riverbed makes the water sweeter. 

My favorite two must eats from dinner were the beetroot hummus and tinfoil trout.  It was a fun evening of sipping and eating with a shot of learning on the pre-dinner distillery tour.

A Powder Day at Sunshine

It’s named Sunshine Ski Resort, but we got a mega powder day.  The uniqueness of the resort starts with the gondola ride.  It takes about 25 minutes to go from parking lot to Sunshine Village, originally established in 1928-29 as a summer lodge by the CP Rail.  It was still snowing as we took our first run.  With the low clouds and fog, I couldn’t see a thing in this powder paradise on the Continental Divide. I stayed on green and blue runs on Mt. Standish falling in love with the pristine wide-open meadows where my ski buddy Bryn and I lost the crowds.  It was like skiing on a fluffy comforter of powder. 

I giggled and squealed with delight gliding over each roller and taking turns on steeper slopes. 

Before lunch, I went big and skied the black run Showboat, and laughed when I heard my more advance skiing and riding friends singing “Stayin’ Alive” when the spotted me from the chairlift.  I loved every second of cutting turns on a big run into lunch at Chimney Corner Lounge.     

After filling up on a veggie quesadilla, I wanted to experience Canada’s first and only heated chairlift. 

On the TeePee Town Luxury, your bum stays warm on the heated seat while an orange bubble protects you from the wind as you go up Lookout Mountain.  It’s the most luxurious lift I’ve ever been on. 

We blazed down a couple of runs and headed over to experience the trees and fun of Wawa Bowl before skiing the long and scenic catwalk back to the parking lot area instead of riding the gondola down.

Starlight Dinner Farewell

Our last night was truly an over the top dining experience.  Bundled up in blankets, we rode the chairlift over the extreme terrain at Mt. Norquay for a Starlight Dinner at the Cliffhouse Bistro, originally a tea house in the 1950s. 

The 5-course dinner was outstanding.  We were greeted with goat cheese and butternut cups and bacon wrapped figs paired with your choice of bubbles, Bear Face Whiskey old fashions, and apple cider mules.  Next was a winters forage of mushrooms, pine tips and swiss chard then on the sable fish and oyster served with crab, nori, matcha rice and green onion.  For the next course, I had fish curry with hemp seed rice, coconut milk, green onion and crisp noodles.  Meat eaters noshed on elk tenderloin, foie gras and wild boar bell with micro vegetables topped with pear and star anise chutney.  Somehow saving a little room for dessert, we ended this wonderful culinary adventure with blood orange brûlée tart paired with Mission Hill Reserve Vidal ice wine, a specialty in Canada. 

Lounging in Luxury

Before leaving the winter wonderland of Banff, I took a relaxing morning with a wonderful breakfast followed by time in the Willow Stream Spa at Fairmont Banff Springs.  The sanctuary of the pool area is reminiscent of the natural hot springs that have drawn in travelers and explorers since the late 1800s.  The pulsating waterfalls and mineral pool were a perfect way to draw the energy from the mountains for the journey home. 

As we drove away from the “Castle of the Rockies” we all need one last look and made a stop at Surprise Corner.  The iconic view of the Fairmont Banff Springs nestled into the side of Sulphur Mountain, the water cascading over Bow Falls in the Bow River, and the beauty of the picturesque mountain town of Banff was a postcard ending to a luxurious ski vacation in Canada.

Skiing in Banff was author Jennifer Broome‘s first time skiing outside of the United States. She looks forward to skiing other international destinations and exploring Canada more. Since this trip she has returned to ski in Banff. Check out posts: Ice Walk in Johnston Canyon and How To Spend 3 Days in Banff for more ideas for this Canadian ski destination.