Expert guide to Banff
These are unusual times, and the state of affairs can change quickly. Please check the latest travel guidance before making your journey. Note that our writer visited pre-pandemic.
Home to Canada’s longest-established ski area
What can be slightly confusing to first-time visitors to Banff, which is located in the province of Alberta in Canada, is that there are no slopes in Banff itself.
The name refers to both the lively small town where most people stay, and to Banff National Park, in which there are three separate ski areas – Banff Sunshine, Lake Louise Ski Resort and Mount Norquay – offering nearly 8,000 acres of piste between them. Hence Banff’s marketing cry of “SkiBig3”, as all are covered by the SkiBig3 lift pass.
Mount Norquay is 8km from Banff town, and the nearest ski area. Banff Sunshine is just over 16km away and Lake Louise, the biggest ski area is just under 65km from town. Each has varied terrain to suit all levels from beginner to expert.
Inside the resort . . .
The town of Banff has a year-round population of around 8,000 people, expanded during summer and winter by visitors coming for the spectacular scenery of the Canadian Rockies and the National Park, the hot springs and, of course, the slopes.
Banff is a jolly place with plenty of bars, restaurants and souvenir shops. Although prices on the ground are not super cheap, a holiday here needn’t cost the earth because tour operators offer great-value packages. That’s because there are a lot of lodgings to meet peak summer demand – the town sits at one end of a scenic drive through mountainous national parks.
Most people stay in Banff itself, for a cultural side that includes galleries and museums, but there is also accommodation at Lake Louise and Sunshine – though après ski and nightlife won’t be as lively.
As for the ski areas, it may be tempting to bypass Mount Norquay, and even the much larger – and higher – Banff Sunshine in the desire to get as quickly as possible to the greater acreage of Lake Louise, but it’s a shame to miss them out.
Each has its own special qualities, and visiting all three, even if spending the majority of time in Lake Louise, is definitely a bonus. All three different ski areas are easily accessible by shuttle bus, which is included in the SkiBig3 lift ticket.
On the slopes . . .
Navigate Banff’s ski area with our insider’s knowledge of the local slopes and beyond, on and off piste, ski schools and terrain parks.
Of Banff’s three ski areas, the nearest is Mount Norquay, just under 8km/10 minutes from Banff town, with the next nearest being Banff Sunshine, just over 16km away. Some people ignore these in favour of heading to the biggest of the three, Lake Louise, just under 65km from town, but it’s well worth visiting all of them during a stay here and all are covered by the SkiBig3 lift pass and free shuttle buses.
Mount Norquay, Banff’s local resort, is arguably Canada’s oldest ski area, dating back to 1926. With 190 acres, it doesn’t have the extensive terrain of Lake Louise or Banff Sunshine, but it has a seriously good mix of runs, from beginner slopes through a large proportion of intermediate and advanced terrain to some memorable expert level mogul fields, most famously an unforgiving brute called Lone Pine. Norquay’s most challenging trails, like Memorial Bowl, are accessed from the North American chair and via the Mystic Express. Norquay also has Banff’s only night slopes, and a tubing park which is also included in the SkiBig3 lift pass.
Although Banff Sunshine is only 20 minutes by road from Banff, it takes another 14 minutes to get to the village by gondola. While most runs are intermediate and advanced, this somewhat remote resort, with some of the highest trails in Canada, has an excellent snow record, and a good reputation for powder. Some of its 3,358 acres cross from the province of Alberta into British Columbia.
Sunshine had its beginnings in 1927/28 when Canadian Pacific Railways built a cabin on the site of the present day Old Sunshine Lodge. From 1929 onwards, Banff locals were exploring Sunshine Meadows, but it wasn’t until 1934, when the cabin was leased to the Brewster Transport Company, that Sunshine hosted its first paying winter guests. Within 10 years the first permanent rope tow had been added and constant improvements followed.
In the mid 1990s the mainly tree-clad Goat’s Eye mountain at Sunshine was made lift accessible, and runs like Billy Goat’s Gruff, Scapegoat and Goat’s Head Soup added sheltered runs and increased Sunshine’s popularity. The area is a mix of tree runs and cruising runs, and the goat theme continues with trails including Goatchicken Glade and Goatsucker Glade. In 2015, the teepee Town Chair was replaced with what is still Canada’s only heated chairlift.
And finally, the icing on Banff’s cake is Lake Louise, the largest and best known ski area in the Banff SkiBig3 set-up. With 145 varied trails spread over 4,200 acres of terrain, and terrific expert runs in the back bowls, Lake Louise is the only major Canadian ski area to give Whistler a genuine run for its money.
Lake Louise’s Showtime terrain park is also one of Western Canada’s largest. The Top of the World Express chair gives outstanding views across the Bow Valley, where there’s a massive line-up of towering peaks like Mounts Allen, Fay, Bowlen and Babel, plus several hanging glaciers, all of which used to feature on the back of Canada’s $20 bank note. No one need miss out on the scenery, be they expert or novice – there’s virtually no major lift at Lake Louise that a beginner can’t ride, and each chair has the option of an easy route down.
For the 2020/21 season, a total of 480 acres of skiable terrain in the West Bowl, as well as the existing front and back side runs, were made accessible in four minutes from Whitehorn Mountain by the Summit Chair. This replaced the older Summit Platter, departing from the Top of the World chairlift. West Bowl offers challenging wilderness-esque terrain zones (rather than designated runs) and a ski patrol service but no grooming.
For a fast track to the ski areas’ best bits, SkiBig3 runs Private – Guided Adventures for intermediate level and above, guiding visitors to the best runs and snow conditions in each of the three resorts over three days. There’s also a First Tracks programme at Lake Louise, offering exclusive lift access half an hour before the resort opens to the public – professional instruction included. Ambitious skiers and snowboarders are encouraged to take up the SkiBig3 Trifecta Challenge to cover all resorts in one day.
Who should go?
The terrain across all three ski areas is best suited to intermediates and experts, but beginners don’t go uncatered for. There are more than 100 bars in the town making it a popular choice with anyone who enjoys burning the candle at both ends. Banff also hosts an annual family-friendly New Year’s Eve street party with entertainment, activities, games, campfires, food booths, storytelling and music as well as fireworks at midnight.
Know before you go . . .
British Consulate-General in Calgary : 001 403 538 2181
Ambulance, fire and police: 911
Tourist office: See banfflakelouise.com, the website for the Banff Lake Louise Tourist Board, for weather reports, lift status, webcams, traffic details and local event listings. Pick up maps, leaflets and other information from numerous pop-up service centre kiosks in the streets of Banff and Lake Louise. Keep an eye out for a purple tent or ask local experts in who wear purple shirts.
Currency: Canadian dollars
Telephone code: from abroad, dial 00 1, then leave off the zero at the start of the 10-figure number.
Time difference: -7 hours