All three ski areas have good beginner areas (those at Lake Louise are described in the separate entry for the resort). All three ski areas also offer excellent ski schools to get you moving and confident on the slopes as quickly as possible. Choosing where to learn is therefore something of a challenge and the decision may depend on who you’re skiing with. If you’re in a group of beginners then the easiest and least intimidating place to learn is probably Mount Norquay, the closest; if you’re in a mixed ability group then it may be better to opt for Lake Louise or Sunshine so that your more experienced skier friends have more choice of runs during your stay but you can still all ski together at the same area.
Choosing where to ski is the first challenge you face each morning when you wake up in Banff. Sunshine and Lake Louise are both big areas with a huge choice of terrain and lots of it, but don’t overlook Mount Norquay which has plenty to keep even the most demanding intermediates entertained for a day at least, and it comes in to its own on snowy or foggy days as the trees provide better visibility. At Sunshine you’ll ride up to the base of the main ski area by gondola and from there a network of high-speed quads access three different mountain faces – each bringing a big choice of all kinds of slope – long fast risers, powder bowls, tree skiing and bump runs. Lake Louise (see separate entry) has as much again. All three centres are located in magnificent scenery with spectacular views offered all day long.
All three ski areas have some great steep terrain and spectacular off piste powder. The advanced skiing at Lake Louise is described in its separate entry. At Norquay the challenging terrain has been the home of The Banff Alpine Racers for many years, most notably at present Thomas Grandi, the Canadian Alpine Ski Team Member who started skiing at Mt Norquay at the age of two and was the first Canadian male ski racer to win back-to-back World Cup GS races.
Sunshine is big on steep skiing and some of the area’s best terrain is on Goat's Eye Mountain where areas like Wildside and Farside, accessed by the Goat's Eye Express chair, provide plenty of challenge, as do Hell's Kitchen and Freefall on the lower part of Goat's Eye. There are four more double black diamond runs opening in the Eagle Saddle area named Think Again, Renegade, Stampede and Saddledome.
But Sunshine’s steepest terrain is to be found on Delirium Dive which the ski area claims is Canada’s ”most extreme off-piste ski experience.” The Dive has been joined by more steep terrain including Wild West, opened for the first time in 2003. Silver City, previously unused, is extreme and for experts only. Anyone skiing these areas needs to have an avalanche beacon and a shovel, and travel with a similarly equipped guide.
To get to The Dive you take the Continental Divide High Speed Quad then follow the signs to the check-in gate where you’ll need to show you are properly equipped to be allowed to enter, following a short hike. The entry to the dive is sheer with a line of rock below the summit. The brave ‘drop in’ over that or find ways through, first timers are advised to take the access stairs down to a slightly easier entry point. You can get up to date information on The Dive by calling +1 (403) 762 6511.
Although no heli-skiing is allowed in the national park, several companies operate Banff shuttle pick-ups to take you over in to neighbouring BC. Amongst them is RK Heliski (+1 (250) 342 3889 http://www.rkheliski.com ) based in Invermere, who operate in to the Purcell mountains.
Snowboard / Freestyle Skiing
Snowboarders will find plenty of entertainment on the piste, freeriding the powder or in one of the terrain parks at all three ski areas. At Sunshine the Rogers Terrain Park has a great choice of boxes, jumps and rails, over 12 acres, These are spread across the Lower Divide Terrain Park and the Grizzly Park. Both feature 40 foot down rails among dozens of rails and boxes, while Lower Divide has the larger of the jumps.
At Mt Norquay the terrain park, built by legendary designer Jeff Patterson who works all over the world building great parks, is a focal point for the youth of Banff and the wider area, and a major attraction for the ski area, located right opposite the base lodge. The park features multiple back-to-back lines with numerous jib features and several link lines you can create yourself.
Lake Louise (see separate entry) has yet another great park with the competition between the three areas helping to drive up standards across the board.
There are superb cross country skiing opportunities around Banff, but these are primarily for those who are confident skiing off in to the near wilderness of Banff National Park on trails of variable condition – some of the trails are not the manicured variety provided by some ski resorts and Nordic centres although there are 10 or so routes that are either groomed or have had tracks set. Parks Canada has an excellent section in its website describing in great detail the trails available (including whether they are groomed, ungroomed or track set) and providing advice on issues such as avalanche danger (bear attack is highly unlikely although at the very end of the ski season the bears do start emerging from hibernation). Most trails are of easy to moderate standard and range from short loops around what is in summer the golf course, to 19km long one-way routes.
Average Snow And Weather Conditions
Banff benefits from its northerly latitude and is one of the world’s most reliable ski destinations for snow cover. All three ski areas have a reputation for their long ski seasons, with Mount Norquay opening as early as Halloween and Sunshine always open to mid-May, sometimes closing later than any other ski area in Canada.
Banff can be prone to snaps of extreme cold in the mid-winter, with temperatures plummeting to as low as -30 degrees Celsius. While these snaps are by no means uncommon, they are not a regular occurrence and tend only to last for a few days at a time. With the temperatures being consistently low though you are as good as guaranteed to have good conditions. So much so that the ski area doesn’t bother with snowmaking as it receives an average of 30 feet (nearly 10 metres) of natural powder snow each season.