Located in the majestic Banff National Park, a seven-hour drive from Spokane, Lake Louise is huge, with 4,200 skiable acres and terrain accommodating every ability, including some super-challenging steeps for the hardcore. Lake Louise’s seven chairlifts (including a six-person gondola and a magic carpet, for those just learning) make the 3,200-vert descent easily accessible. And many of the other chairs are high-speed quads.
If the skiing doesn’t wow you, the scenery definitely will, as Lake Louise’s has been voted “Best Scenery” by Ski magazine and Ski Canada numerous times. There’s something about a massive log ski lodge nestled into the Canadian Rockies. To me, this place emanates true Canadian ski culture — the only thing missing is Dudley Do-Right. And if Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate, Lake Louise simply turns on one of Canada’s biggest snowmaking systems. Don’t miss the annual Ice Magic Festival, with 24 of the world’s best ice sculptors creating epic edifices of frozen water. It runs between Jan. 20-29.
And the lake itself is a major draw for hiking and birdwatching, with glaciers along the lake’s edges framed like a perfect postcard. If you want to stay close to Lake Louise, there’s the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, right on the shores of the lake. The chateau is only minutes from the ski resort, and the views from your room are incredible. If you’re lakeside, you look directly at the Victoria glacier as it feeds the turquoise-colored water of Lake Louise. On the front side, you have breathtaking views of the Canadian Rockies and the Lake Louise ski hill.
But the skiing isn’t the only thing around Lake Louise to rave about — just a short drive away on the Trans-Canada Highway is the mountain town of Banff (pronounced “Bamff” by locals), with lots of nightlife and shopping.
While Native Americans in the area knew of the Bow Valley’s natural hot springs going way back, a pair of American mining prospectors who wintered near the springs in 1874 were the first tourists. And the visitors haven’t stopped coming. Within 14 years of that first winter, Banff was on the main trans-Canada railway, the area was preserved as the Rocky Mountains Park (just the world’s third national park) and the first Banff Springs Hotel was open for business, with 5,000 visitors that first summer.
Out at the end of Spray Avenue, you can visit the majestic Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. The first incarnation of the hotel was competed in 1888, and between 1911-28 the hotel was completely redone with rock from nearby quarries. Don’t be bashful about walking around inside — everybody does. And if you’ve got the cash, it’s the way to stay in Banff.
But Banff’s most famous natural feature remains the hot springs. At the end of a short drive up Sulphur Mountain, you’ll find the Upper Hot Springs, where you can test that age-old belief that hot springs possess special healing powers. The water is deep blue and supercharged with a variety of minerals, and the views from the springs’ hillside perch are spectacular. After a long day of skiing, you’ll be a believer.
There are two other ski resorts near Banff: Mount Norquay and Sunshine Village. Downhill skiing started at Mount Norquay in 1918 when a local bunch was given the go-ahead by a park ranger to clear some runs as long as they didn’t clear every tree. You can still see the one tree they left — the Lone Pine. (It’s also the name of the on-hill pub.) In 1931, the backcountry Skoki Lodge, a few miles up the road from Banff, was the first lodge to cater to skiers. In 1945, the area got is first chairlift at what is now Sunshine Village, which is a favorite among snowboarders for its many rolling runs.
Welcome to Snowlander, Vol. IV
Here we are, well into the second month of skiing and I feel like we’ve seen it all — big powder, a little rain, and lots of sun. Over the holidays, I ran into many first-time visitors to this area, and my question to them is why the Northwest Rockies for their holiday break? The overwhelming response was, “This is the only region that has snow.”
What’s so beautiful about hearing that as a response was that our region has now made an impression on ski tourism that will undoubtedly be favorable over the next several years. Who knows? Instead of booking future trips to their favorite Montana, Utah or Colorado resorts, these snow travelers will remember the fond family vacation of 2011 to our local resorts and make a new tradition out of it.
It is hard to ski day after day, week after week, with no large snow accumulation. As a good friend posted as on Facebook this past Sunday, it’s crazy “when you’re stoked because a centimeter is making all the difference in the world.” Everyone I’ve spoken with remains positive that the snow will come again, and they’re stoked that our corner of the world is still looking a heck of a lot better than most places in regards to snow coverage and conditions.
Now with a successful holiday season in the books, area resorts are not skipping a beat. They’re smoothly transitioning into the most exciting time of the year — event season. All of the local resorts have jam-packed events calendars through the remainder of the season — wife carrying, oyster feeds, torchlight and firework displays, big air shows and competitions, rail jams and a 24-hour ski race. Check out Snowlander.com or keep this Snowlander supplement for quick reference. Both of these are the best resource for a comprehensive event schedule. And all of the events are great reasons to get up to the slopes.
The positive is we still have three months of ski season, with the days getting longer all the time.
See you on the mountain!