Ski Resort Series: Sunshine Village

I’m excited to finally have some more ski resorts to write about! Last week I posted a Banff Winter Guide about my trip in early March; I had a lot of fun exploring different restaurants and shops, but of course the skiing was one of the real highlights of the trip and the main reason I went.

I’ve done a lot of skiing in BC’s interior, but this was my first time skiing in the Rockies. There are lots of different resorts to visit, but the resorts near Banff are definitely some of the most accessible. We flew into Calgary and decided to ski the “Big 3”. It was tempting to explore further and check out Kicking Horse, but the highway from Calgary to Lake Louise is really well maintained and we didn’t have the proper winter tires to go all the way to Golden.

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But no problem because the ski resorts accessible from Banff are all top notch! The locals seem to all have their favourite mountain and I’ve heard arguments for why each resort is the best. The main arguments I heard for Sunshine Village is that it’s the highest, so it gets the most powder; it’s closer if you’re doing a day trip from Calgary; and on a sunny day it has some of the most epic views, including a vista all the way to Mount Assiniboine!

Unfortunately it wasn’t sunny on the day we visited, but there was about 10cm of fresh powder from the previous night, so all in all, we couldn’t complain. I had the opportunity to visit Sunshine Village in the summer in 2021 when I hiked from Mount Assiniboine, so I had already been treated to the amazing views. We couldn’t see all the way to Assiniboine on this trip, but what we could see was still phenomenal. The snow completely transforms the landscape and even though I’d been there before, it was unrecognizable to me in the winter.

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It’s about a 20 minute drive from Banff and there’s a huge parking lot. If you don’t feel like driving or don’t have access to a car, there is a free shuttle that runs from Banff. Having passed this shuttle on our way to the mountain, I would recommend getting up early for it and trying to board earlier in the route from one of the hotels rather than from the main bus stop. There was a massive line for the shuttle at the main bus stop, even on week days.

How Sunshine Village differs from the other resorts is that you take a gondola up to the base from the parking lot. For this reason, the ski resort is at a higher elevation, which is why some people claim it gets the best snow of the 3 resorts. I’m not sure if it’s actually the biggest resort, but it felt the largest to me. There are a ton of lifts going up to all the surrounding mountain peaks and we tried to explore as many areas as possible. There were some clouds hanging around the tops of the peaks in the morning, so we moved around based on where the best visibility was.

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We started on the Angel Express chair, which we had mixed feelings about. The skiing was great, especially in the morning when there was still fresh powder to sail through, but there were also a lot of beginners on this chair and it made us feel a little weary because a lot of them didn’t really seem to know what they’re doing. My general impression of Banff was that it attracts both beginners and experienced skiers. Skiing the Rockies was quite unlike skiing in BC for me because there is a lot more alpine in the Rockies with wide open areas and some pretty advanced skiing in some places. I’m also not exaggerating when I say we saw about 20-25 people hobbling around Banff on crutches throughout the week, so I do think some people get into trouble.

We quickly switched over to the Continental Divide chair, which was great later in the day when the clouds moved off, but it’s also one of the highest points on the mountain, so the visibility wasn’t great in the morning and it was pretty icy at the very top. Eventually we landed on the Teepee Town chair, which is Canada’s only heated chair lift – we skied a few nice runs in that area before heading off to explore another part of the mountain.

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We finished off the morning on the Wawa Chair, which is a shorter chair in pretty easy terrain, but we ended up really liking this area. Emily was still getting her ski legs and preferred the shorter runs to have breaks in between. In general, I had a great time in all areas. I like skiing around the trees and I liked that Sunshine had a lot of trees without having to go down dense glade runs. I spent a lot of the morning messing around in the powder and trying to find small jumps in and around the trees.

The lodge at Sunshine Village is a bit annoying though. They don’t let you bring your backpacks inside the lodge, which I think is ridiculous, and you instead have to leave them outside on shelves. We had brought a lunch with us, so we had so stumble upstairs with our hands full of snacks. Sunshine also had the most crowded lodge, although we ate right at 12:30pm, so it might have been our timing (we are earlier or later at the other resorts).

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In the afternoon we adventured over to the Mount Standish chair, which is similar to Wawa in that it’s a bit shorter. The difference is that Standish kicks you out into more alpine-like terrain, with wide open skiing and some pretty awesome views! We did a few runs there before heading back over to the Divide chair for a few more runs. We’d been playing it pretty safe in the morning, doing mostly blue runs and a few blacks, but we got a bit more adventurous in the afternoon and tried out some more blacks. In general, I found most of the black runs to be within my skill level, we would just be cautious about whether they had big moguls on them or not. The mogul-free runs were no problem, but some of them have pretty well defined moguls, so we generally tried to avoid those on longer runs, but did do a few short mogul runs.

At this point Emily was getting pretty tired and we still wanted to check out Goat’s Eye Mountain, so we decided to make our way in that direction. Like I said, Sunshine is really big and Goat’s Eye is a bit separated from most of the other lifts. However there are a lot of green runs nestled at the base of Goat, so if you’re a beginner, I recommend checking out the Jack Rabbit, Wolverine, and Strawberry Chairs, which sadly we didn’t have enough time to explore.

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Goat’s Eye Mountain is definitely an experience on it’s own and felt quite different than the rest of the resort. It definitely has some more advanced skiing, but I found it did have more runs than I thought that I was pretty comfortable doing. We were only planning to do one run to say we did it, but since there was more intermediate terrain than expected, I ended up going back for a couple extra runs by myself (Emily was tired and just did one). My take-away would be to play it safe at the top of the mountain, which is alpine and very exposed (but excellent views) and get a little more adventurous further down where most of the runs are a bit easier.

We thought we were going to have to take the gondola back down to the parking lot, but discovered there is one run that goes all the way to the bottom called Banff Avenue. I got some serious deja vu on this run though because I had hiked the whole 7kms with Brandon last summer. Usually in the summer you can still take the gondola up to the top and Banff Avenue functions as a service road, but last summer the gondola was closed and we had to hike the entire thing. I can confirm, it’s a lot more fun to ski down!

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So overall we had a great time at Sunshine Village! We skied on a Monday, so it wasn’t too busy and we never had to wait longer than a minute or two to get on the lift. Overall, I think Sunshine Village was my favourite of the three resorts we visited, but it could be related to the conditions (namely the powder). That said, I think it would be even more fun on a sunny day, so I think it might be the terrain that I liked. Plus it’s very large and there’s a lot to explore – I would have loved to go back for a second day. The only thing I will caution is that I can’t see Sunshine being a favourite for snowboarders. There are several flatter sections through the resort and I could see it being a bit frustrating as a boarder. But as a skier I had a lot of fun!

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Hiking the Plain of 6 Glaciers

Our second hike in Banff National Park in August was The Plain of 6 Glaciers (our first hike was Sentinel Pass). Both hikes are located in the Lake Louise area and I feel like maybe I should have branched out a little more, but they were both so incredibly scenic it’s hard to regret.

As I explained in my last post, with Lake Louise being so popular, it’s best to get there early if you want to be assured parking. I’ve heard the lot generally fills up by 8am, but I think that’s only on weekends because there was still lots of space when we got there at 8am on a Thursday. The Plain of 6 Glaciers starts right at the lake and hikes the length of the lake and up into the backcountry. I’d been to Lake Louise once before as a teenager with my parents and the lake was just as scenic as I remembered, but there were so many people so we didn’t want to linger.

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There are tons of trails from the lake; you can hike up immediately to the Big Agnes Teahouse and a ton of hiking options, or you can hike up the near side of the lake to some viewpoints, but of course, we opted to hike towards the back of the lake. Despite the early hour, there were still a lot of people on the lake trail, though the traffic thinned out considerably once we reached the back of the lake. I think a lot of tourists just hike to the back of the lake and then return to the chateau – also on the day we went, there were a lot of climbers, and they all quit at the back of the lake to climb the sheer cliff wall. So we felt much more at home once we left the lake, as beautiful as it was.

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The weather was really nice. It was chilly, but the sun was out, so we slowly started ditching layers after leaving the lake. From there the trail is mostly uphill and continues through the woods and then into what I like to call the barren alpine. The entire valley was once covered in glaciers, so there’s not a whole lot growing there and it’s mostly rock left behind from the glaciers. There are beautiful views looking back at the lake as you ascend, as well as equally beautiful views looking ahead at the glaciers. It’s hard to count them to confirm if there actually are 6 glaciers, but they’re each slowly revealed to you as you hike up the valley.

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My favourite part of the hike is that there’s a cute little tea house located about a kilometre before the viewpoint. There’s a flatish area and they’ve constructed the teahouse and put some picnic tables along the river. We hadn’t really planned ahead properly for the teahouse because I thought I’d read somewhere that it was closed because of Covid, but it was open and fortunately Seth had $20 cash on hand. So we each had a cup of tea and shared a delicious jammy scone. We were thrilled to discover all the teas are from Banff Tea Co, which we had visited the day before, so me and Emily both had the “Plain of 6 Glaciers” tea in honour of the occasion. It’s an herbal tea with a little bit of mint and it was very yummy!

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The weather started to change a bit while we were enjoying our teas. It had clouded in and while it wasn’t raining, the sky was starting to look a little foreboding, so we decided to continue on. It’s just 1 more kilometre, the last part of which goes along the ridgeline and reveals the final glacier right at the back of the valley. It’s not really obvious where the trail ends, eventually it comes to a scree slope and I think you can continue on a little further, but we opted to stop there for our lunch. It did start to drizzle a little as we were eating, but nothing too bad. It just made us glad we had left early again because the weather did get worse and the crowds got larger, but for the most part we had enjoyed a scenic and empty hike up to the top.

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The rain picked up on the way down, making it colder, and the clouds quickly moved in to obscure some of the glaciers. I always find it amazing how quickly the weather can change in the backcountry and its a good reminder to always be prepared. Fortunately we had our rain jackets and merino wool sweaters, but we saw a lot of hikers coming up looking pretty wet and ill-prepared.

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We beelined down the trail pretty fast because of the rain and made pretty good time coming down. It rained on and off for the rest of the hike, stopping for periods of time, but often starting up again. You can go back to Lake Louise via a different route that would take you to Agnes Lake and the other hiking trails, but similar to Sentinel Pass, Sadie was tired and we weren’t really interested in exploring too much more in the rain, so we opted to skip it. It was even more busy at the bottom of the lake as it was now mid afternoon, so we hightailed it out of there and back to our campsite to relax for the rest of the day. So overall, I didn’t like the hike as much as Sentinel Pass, but still very beautiful and I’d definitely go back and explore some of the many other hiking options in the area!

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