Ski Resort Series: Mount Norquay

Mount Norquay was the last ski resort we visited while in the Rockies. It’s the smallest of the three and I’d heard it is quite steep, so we decided to leave it until last in case we wanted to re-do one of the others instead. Although, really I knew we’d end up going because I wanted to be able to say I’d skied all of the Big 3.

Norquay may be the smallest, but it’s the closest to Banff town. You don’t even need to get on the highway, it’s just a 15 minute drive along switchbacks up to the base of the mountain. Because it’s smaller, it seems like Norquay has tried to diversify itself and it also has night skiing and snow tubing. I ended up liking it a lot more than I thought I would! Dare I say I maybe even preferred it over the infamous Lake Louise? It may have been because we got really good conditions at Norquay – about 10-15cm of fresh powder the night before – so I felt a little more adventurous with the soft powder base.

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There’s only 2 big lifts at Norquay and 2 smaller lifts. The North American lift is located on the front of the mountain and is almost entirely black runs. Like I said, Norquay is a pretty steep mountain and there were a lot of moguls on it when we visited, so we opted not to ski that lift at all. Instead we made our way over towards the far lift, which is called Mystic, and had a great day skiing over there!

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If you don’t like steep runs, then I definitely wouldn’t recommend this mountain. Even the blue runs were quite steep, but the fresh powder helped. We did pretty much every run on the Mystic side of the mountain and had a great time working on our mogul skiing skills. There are a few black runs down the centre of the lift with a lot of moguls, but since there was so much powder, which makes for gentle falls, we decided to give them a try. I don’t mind moguls at all, but I definitely like having good conditions for them.

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Later in the day we did a few runs on the Spirit Chair as well, which I really liked even though it has shorter runs. It was the best visibility day we had all week, so there were beautiful views of the surrounding mountains throughout the day (though still limited blue sky).

We decided not to stick around for night skiing because it’s really only the small cascade chair that is lit. I definitely wouldn’t recommend going and paying for night skiing because it’s so limited, but if you already have a day pass it would be fun to stick around for it!

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Instead we decided to go snow tubing because it was included in our pass. Tubing was fun, but I think they sell too many tickets, so it’s a really long wait to take the magic carpet up to the top. The first run wasn’t too bad, but more and more people kept showing up and since the tickets hadn’t cost anything, we decided to move on after 3 runs.

So even though Norquay is the smallest of the three, I still think it’s worth visiting, and thanks to the excellent conditions, we ended up having a great time!

Ski Resort Series: Lake Louise

Lake Louise was undoubtedly the most popular of the Banff resorts when we visited. I suspect it draws the most tourists because of its association with the famous lake, as well as it also attracts a lot of locals to its open alpine skiing and back bowls. Plus, the awesome views of the surrounding mountains don’t hurt!

Lake Louise is about a 45 minute drive from Banff, so it is the furthest, though I regularly drive 2 hours to Whistler each way in a single day, so I didn’t find the drive too bad. There are some accommodations in Lake Louise if you’re just there to ski and want to stay nearby, but then I think your restaurant choices would be a lot more limited than if you stayed in Banff.

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Of the three resorts, I found Lake Louise had the most confusing parking. Norquay and Sunshine have straightforward massive lots, but Lake Louise has several smaller lots and several sections of the lot are allocated specifically for VIPs or pay parking. Clearly we weren’t VIPs and we didn’t want to pay, so we ended up parking in the road parking – it wasn’t a long walk to the resort, but the longest of the 3 resorts and we were annoyed to walk past the huge empty VIP lot right next to the lodge.

Lake Louise had a pretty different set-up than Sunshine. At Sunshine, I found a lot of the lifts went to the same locations but had different bases from which to board at the bottom. Whereas at Lake Louise, a lot of the lifts left from the same central area at the bottom and went to different parts of the mountain, which I think is a bit preferable. The main difference is that the Lake Louise base is at the same elevation as the highway, whereas at Sunshine you take a gondola up to the base and at Norquay you drive several switchbacks up the mountain. As a result, I found the ski conditions at Lake Louise were unfortunately, the worst of the 3 mountains.

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It’s partially because of the weather and timing of when we visited that we didn’t get any powder, but overall, I found Louise to be icier because it’s a lower elevation mountain. I also found the runs to be more confusing because it’s a lot of alpine, so there’s not really any discernible runs in a lot of locations. In some ways I really liked that because you could really ski wherever you wanted, but it also made it hard to figure out where you were and we ended up going down a few more advanced runs because we got lost. Not that big a deal, but since it was an icy day, it wasn’t the best conditions for challenging yourself.

So it was a bit of a rough start as we figured out the mountain, but we did still have a good time. We started off on Glacier chair and did a few runs on the Top of the World chair before going up Summit chair once to see the view from the highest point. I liked this area, but it’s where we kept making mistakes and ended up down a gully a few times. One of the biggest attractions at Lake Louise is the back bowls, which is pretty much just all free black run skiing. My biggest regret is that we didn’t ski the back bowl in the morning when we had fresh legs and decent visibility. We were a little bit intimidated by it and there’s so much to explore, so we decided to save it for later.

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After a few runs up at the top we switched over to the Grizzly gondola and explored around some of the bottom part of the mountain. Lake Louise is deceivingly large. Sunshine Village felt large because the lifts are spread out and there’s so many different areas, whereas Lake Louise is more concentrated, but still has a lot of runs, many of which I think are longer than at Sunshine. We didn’t do as many runs in the morning, mostly because it was just taking us longer to do each run.

We had decided to buy lunch at Lake Louise, which was a good decision because packed lunches aren’t allowed in the Lodge of Ten Peaks (though you can eat them at Whiskeyjack Lodge). The nice thing about Louise was that there were several lodges, I don’t know how busy it was over at Temple Lodge, but we found Lodge of Ten Peaks to be a lot less crowded than at Sunshine.

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In the afternoon we made our way over towards the backside of the mountain to get the areas we hadn’t yet explored. We did a few runs on Ptarmigan chair and a few on Larch chair. I ended up really liking the Larch area, likely because it had some easier runs, or maybe because they are more well defined. I think I would really like Lake Louise if I got to ski it more often, but because I only had one day, I wanted to get a lot a variety and in the alpine, I guess I felt like I was just skiing the same thing run after run. It’s why it’s nice to have more than one day at a ski resort, because you get to try everything on the first day, and then return to areas you liked or try things you missed on the second day.

Emily wasn’t really keen to do the back bowls at all, but like Goat Mountain at Sunshine, I still really wanted to tackle every part of the mountain, so I convinced her to do one run with me. We got to scope it out a bit more on the Paradise chair, which runs up the back of the mountain, and I think on a good powder day I would be pretty comfortable skiing in the back bowl (at least in the area under Paradise chair, which is black diamonds as opposed to double blacks). Unfortunately, our mistake was waiting too late in the day. We took the one easy run down the back bowl, but it had really bad flat light when we did it and we felt like we were skiing blind, so we weren’t inclined to try a second run, hence why I say I wish we’d done it in the morning.

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Anyways, sometimes you live and learn. We still ended up having a great time at Lake Louise and surprisingly Emily liked it more than me. I can’t really pinpoint why, but of the three, Lake Louise was probably my least favourite. I may get slammed for that because not a lot of people seem to like Norquay, so I’m inclined to blame the weather on this occasion (we got some great powder at Norquay). In any case, I won’t be too quick to judge it and I would definitely return to try it again and properly ski the back bowl. Overall I think it might just be the vibe that I got from Lake Louise. It was more crowded and seemed a bit more elitist than the others, so I’d be just as happy to ski at Sunshine or Norquay as well. Either way, it’s definitely an iconic resort.

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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!

sunshine village map