Majestic scenery, challenging terrain, strategic design, quality snow and friendly, knowledgeable staff make Lake Louise and Sunshine world-class resorts. With nearly five million visitors per year to Banff National Park and only one million during the winter months, the region offers many excellent hotel deals and fewer crowds to make it a great destination for your next ski vacation.
Banff National Park is located within a short drive of Calgary Airport in Alberta, Canada. This region is world-renowned for its spectacular beauty. The jagged snow-covered peaks of the Canadian Rockies inlaid with numerous evergreens, dazzling displays of frozen water falls and glaciers provide breathtaking views even the locals cannot get enough of. One natural wonder that immediately catches your attention on the drive between Sunshine and Lake Louise is Castle Rock as it reflects the golden colors of the sun. The national park is also home to an abundance of wildlife; it is not uncommon to catch a glimpse of elk or moose along the side of the road.
Lake Louise is an extremely diverse mountain with great expert terrain (30%) and a wealth of intermediate (45%) and beginner trails (25%). With a vertical rise of 3250 feet and 4200 skiable acres, there are 113 named runs and a large off piste area. Lake Louise is accessible by seven well-positioned lifts including a six passenger gondola (opening Feb 05), one high speed six passenger lift and two high speed quads that make lift lines almost nonexistent.
The most efficient way to access both the front face and back bowls are by the Glacier Express quad / Top of the World six passenger lift combination or the six passenger gondola. Once you reach Eagle Ridge, there are several beginner, intermediate and expert runs to ski and ride. If you are interested in the steeps, the ER 7 gullies are located directly off the Top of the World chair. At a peak elevation of 8650 ft, you can also find some of the gnarliest chutes and the best snow on the White Horn 2 Gullies off the Summit Platter lift. Another less traveled area is “The Diamond Mind” off Paradise Chair. However, although these runs are superb, they are extremely steep and you will need to navigate around cliffs and protruding rocks. If moguls are your thing, definitely check out Paradise Bowl off the Paradise chair and Exhibition, Ptarmigan, Raven and Lower Old Ptarmigan off the Ptarmigan Quad. You can also hit Tickety Chutes on your way to the Summit Platter lift. If you are looking for the serenity of the trees, your choices are plentiful. There are excellent glades off either side of the Ptarmigan lift, to the right off Larch Express quad and under the Eagle chair (soon to be replaced by the Gondola). You can also find decent glades under the Top of the World and Olympic chairs. There is also plenty of terrain for beginners and intermediates with access via almost any lift from the front face to the back bowls. One interesting intermediate trail off the beaten path is Meadowlark on the far right of the mountain.
Lake Louise also has an incredible Showtime terrain park built by world-renowned architect Jeff Patterson. Showtime has beginner, intermediate and advanced lines from small tables, hops and rollers to the most progressive tables (up to 70 ft) and super technical rails with new features being installed weekly. It also features a super half-pipe and 20 ft quarter pipe all easily accessible off Glacier Express quad. It is also important to note that the landings were well maintained.
On the mountain, there are four modern and nicely positioned lodges to meet the needs of the guests. The most beautiful lodge is the Lodge of Ten Peaks. This log structure was actually created from trees taken from the Fall Line Glades when the area was thinned for skiing and riding. To comply with local logging regulations, groups of logs were air lifted by helicopter to the site of construction. One of the most convenient lodges at Lake Louise is Temple lodge located near the base of the Ptarmigan lift. This is a great place to rest and renew yourself after conquering some of the challenging runs on the back bowls. The mid-mountain Whitehorn lodge is home of the Torchlight Dinner. This buffet feast is accompanied by live entertainment from a favorite local band that provides an excellent atmosphere to dance and celebrate with friends and family. After the festivities come to a close at the lodge, skiers and riders are equipped with head lamps for a safely guided tour down the mountain. It is also important to note that the food and service at the lodges I visited were excellent and offered at a reasonable price.
Sunshine is another excellent mountain in Banff National Park with the longest vertical drop in the Canadian Rockies: 3514 ft from the top of Lookout mountain to the base of the gondola. Sunshine also receives over 30 feet of natural snow annually, and with a peak elevation of 8954 feet, snow conditions are typically light and powdery. You can also count on virtually no lift lines as skiers and riders can access 12 different lifts including 5 high-speed quads. Sunshine also has an excellent balance of terrain for all levels with beginner (22%), intermediate (31%), expert (42%) and double black expert trails (5% of the trails are considered some of the most challenging in all of North America). Photo of skier at Sunshine by Mike Moynihan.
A day at Sunshine begins with a ride on one of the world’s fastest 8 passenger gondolas. From the parking lot to the base of Goat’s Eye, it takes approximately six minutes and the village can be reached within a short thirteen-minute ride. The Goat’s Eye Express quad provides access to both intermediate, advanced and expert terrain. A quick traverse to the right of the lift brings you to some premier and extremely steep expert terrain. This area is well above tree line so be cautious if you ski it under flat light conditions. The snow in this area is protected from some wind patterns and can be softer than the area directly beneath the lift if you don’t hit the mountain on one of their many powder days. Also accessible from Goat’s Eye Quad are glades (Goat’s Glades and Hell’s Kitchen) and mogul runs (Super Model, Free Fall, Glade Runner and After Burner). Angel Express quad also services beginner, intermediate and advanced terrain. Boundry Bowl, South and North Pocket, School Marm and Tee Pee Chutes (better protected by the wind) are excellent mogul runs. This is also a good place for beginners to get a bowl experience. Continental-Divide Express quad brings you to the top of Lookout Mountain. This area is above tree line and skiers and riders (intermediate and advanced) can choose their own path off piste.
For expert skiers looking for extreme double black terrain, Sunshine’s Delirium Dive and The Wildwest freeride zones will put your skill and nerve to the ultimate test. Be forewarned: this area is not for the weak of heart as this is extremely steep terrain riddled with unmarked rocks, cliffs and other obstacles.
In order to ski/ride in Delirium Dive or The Wildwest, skiers and boarders must be equipped with a personal avalanche beacon and shovel and travel with a partner who is equally equipped. Keep in mind that the mountain does not rent this equipment, so you will need to purchase them at a local ski shop. One can access Delirium Dive by a short uphill hike from the top of the Continental-Divide chair. The Wildwest can be accessed via the Sunshine Coast run on Goat’s Eye mountain.
Mt. Standish is a third peak at Sunshine with interesting terrain and sensational views. The snow in this area is often better than average because it is mostly protected from the wind. In addition, you can find challenging chutes and mogul runs here. Meadow park is also a very scenic and fun beginner trail. Check out the great view (right) of Lookout Mountain from the top of Mt Standish.
Sunshine has several lodges spread throughout the mountain to meet the needs of the guest. The Main Daylodge located in Sunshine Village has a deli and cafeteria in addition to a Lookout Bistro where you can sit by a warm fire and take in incredible views while serviced by the wait staff. The Old Sunshine Lodge features the Mad Trapper’s Saloon and is the place to be après ski at Sunshine Village. If you are in the vicinity of Goat’s Eye mountain, you can also enjoy breakfast or hot meals and drinks throughout the day at Goat’s Eye Gardens. Creekside Bar and Grill at the base of the Gondola is also an excellent place to have a beer after the day is done and share stories about the day’s challenging runs or reminisce about times past. The food and service at the lodge I visited were excellent and offered at a reasonable price.
Snow Quality at Sunshine and Lake Louise:
Despite unseasonably warm weather and rain followed by freezing temperatures (worst conditions seen in 40 years claimed one older gentleman I met), both mountains had surprisingly good snow in many places. The extreme chutes in the higher elevations had the best snow and the base of the mountain had loose granular conditions. However, in all cases, the snow was grippable unlike the solid ice found sometimes in the east. Fortunately, these conditions only lasted a couple of weeks as the mountains received a dumping of light powder the last two days of my trip (15-20 inches deep). Amazingly, due to the limited crowds, I was able to ski over seven runs in untouched powder. Quite frankly, this was one of the best powder days I have ever experienced. The snow was incredibly light and heavenly to ski through. Due to consistently colder temperatures, snow also tends to stay drier and last longer in the Canadian Rockies in comparison to other North American resorts. This prolongs the ski season from mid November through May. In comparing the two resorts, I found that Sunshine is less protected and more prone to being wind-blown. However, it also receives more snow on average per year than Lake Louise. In talking to the locals, I discovered that the weather patterns are different on each mountain, resulting in conditions that are sometimes better at one mountain than the other. Bottom line is both mountains have quality snow and great terrain and it is recommended that you ski both during your trip.
Both Sunshine and Lake Louise have informative and friendly staff. I was pleasantly greeted by lift operators continually throughout the day and the ski patrol provided good advice on trail conditions. One opportunity you should take advantage of is the tours provided by the mountains. Both Sunshine and Lake Louise offer beginner and intermediate tours. This is a great way to see different parts of the mountain you may not experience on your own. In addition, the ski schools also offer classes on extreme terrain if you would like to check them out first with a local pro. The staff that lead my tour was extremely friendly and provided great terrain tips for the mountain.
Overall my experience at both mountains was wonderful and you should strongly consider Banff National Park for your next ski vacation