My last trip to Banff, in 2019, coincided with a polar vortex. I wore two sets of thermal underwear, loaded my pockets with chemical hand warmers and wore a balaclava to stay warm when temperatures dove to minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit.
Despite that cold snap, the trip went down as one of the best ski trips of my life. I skied three resorts, learned about Canadian culture and laid eyes on Mount Rundle –– a huge frozen slab of a mountain overlooking Banff that looks like it’s been smacked with a giant frying pan.
I had to get back. And in February I did.
This time, temperatures hovered closer to 30 degrees, and besides skiing, I hiked to a frozen waterfall at night, snowshoed along the Continental Divide and rode a fat bike.
It’s a good time to visit Canada. Americans need proof of vaccination and a negative Covid test to travel there, but the hassle pays off. Exchange rates are favorable –– about 76 U.S. cents per Canadian dollar. And Banff’s elevation is about 5,000 feet, which means you’re less likely to suffer from altitude sickness than at higher resorts like those in Colorado.
I flew to Calgary, then picked up a rental car for the 90-minute drive to Banff. Here’s how my trip unfolded…
Day 1: Mt. Norquay near Banff lures with old school charm
I checked into the Moose Hotel in downtown Banff and woke up the next day ready to start exploring.
First on the list? Mt. Norquay, a vintage ski resort perched on a mountain a quick seven minutes away. On a clear day, you can see into town from some of its slopes.
At less than 200 acres, it’s the tiniest of what locals call “the Big 3,” but it packs that acreage with a lot of old-school charm.
“It’s Banff’s backyard,” says Simon Moffatt, my tour guide for the day. Locals cut their mountain teeth here, and a robust ski race program trains up-and-coming athletes.
I love the vibe. At the Cliff House atop the North American lift, photographs of Marilyn Monroe, who stopped by while filming “River of No Return,” hang from the wall. The mountain hosted ski jumping competitions from the 1940s through the ‘60s. You can still see the remains of the judging booth, but the jump was dismantled in 1972. The resort is also home to the longest snow tubing track in Alberta.
We ski until mid-afternoon, then return to Banff. We’ve got big plans for the night: fondue at the Waldhaus, a Bavarian-themed cottage operated by the Fairmont Banff Springs. There, in front of the fireplace, we spend a few blissful hours sipping wine and dipping slices of green apple, tiny onions, chunks of baguette, and gherkins into a simmering pot of boozy melted cheese. If you go, bring a fat wallet. The fondue experience, which includes an entrée and dessert in addition to the fondue, will set you back about $75 U.S. per person.
Day 2: The incredible scenery of Lake Louise
The next day, we gear up and toddle to the bus stop outside our hotel for the 45-minute shuttle ride to Lake Louise Ski Resort. The 4,200-acre resort was my favorite in 2019, but today the winds are blasting, and the sky is murky.
Still, we tag along on a free Lake Louise Ski Friends tour to get a grasp of the resort’s 4,200 acres. The free program, which allows anyone to join a guided, two-hour tour, has been duplicated at ski resorts around the globe. Our guide takes us to a run called Rock Garden, which looks like the set of an old Star Trek episode with its snow-capped, hippo-sized boulders. We weave our way through, whooping with glee.
High winds and poor visibility keep us from exploring the 420 acres of new terrain that opened last season in the resort’s West Bowl. But in the afternoon, we dip into tree runs and admire the views, which stretch across the valley to the castle-like Chateau Lake Louise.
This place is drop-dead gorgeous.
We’ve got evening plans: a moonlight hike to a frozen waterfall at Johnston Canyon with Discover Banff Tours.
“Darkness is not a bad thing,” our tour guide tells us a few hours later, as we strap metal cleats to our hiking boots and flip on headlamps for a stroll up a glittering canyon decorated with icicles and weird snowy formations. He’s right. It sparkles and shimmers. We pause in front of a waterfall so cold it can’t move to sip hot chocolate and nibble maple cookies before hiking out by moonlight.
Day 3: Fat biking and snow shoeing in Banff
On day three we take a break from skiing to see what else Banff has to offer.
In the morning, we hop aboard beefy fat bikes equipped with studded snow tires and electric motors for a spin along some forest trails.
Coach Clare McCann started Bikescape two years ago and leads cycling and cross-country ski tours around Banff for folks, like us, who want to give their quads a break. We zoom alongside a river, over bridges, and up to Bow Falls, where she points out the starting point of a daunting 2,745-mile ultra-endurance bike ride called the Tour Divide.
That afternoon, we drive to Vermillion Pass, 30 minutes away, for a snowshoeing tour with Great Divide Nature Interpretation.
We don’t follow any trails –– we break our own in the pristine fields of white. Guide Josh Hagen leads us through poufs of powder and across a series of frozen lakes along the Continental Divide.
“It’s all Dairy Queened up,” Hagen says, as we admire the landscape. Hagen infuses the tour with history, geology and biology, pointing out where wildfires occurred a century ago and ferreting out a set of lynx tracks. A highlight? Packing out a spot for a mid-afternoon picnic of hot spiced tea and homemade energy bars.
Day 4: Bring on the Sunshine
On the fourth day, we pack our bags and drive to the parking lot of nearby Banff Sunshine Village, where we hand our luggage to a porter who will whisk it up to the lodge where we’re staying. It’s a 20-minute ride on the longest gondola in Canada, past a waterfall popular with ice climbers, to reach Sunshine Village, the center of all the action.
We know immediately we’ve found our place. An old log cabin serves as a bar and day lodge. The Sunshine Mountain Lodge, the only ski-in, ski-out lodge in Banff, caters to lucky guests (like us) who plan to stay the night. It’s secluded, cozy and beautiful.
The slopes fan out like an octopus in front of us. The longest stretches for five flowy miles. The terrain swoops and rolls through wide open expanses. I’ve landed in ski heaven.
“It’s like skiing in the backcountry, not only for conditions and terrain, but the view,” says David Arney, who’s showing us around.
We ski until we can’t, stopping mid-day for Canada’s version of a doughnut at the BeaverTails trailer, then convene at Mad Trapper’s for a celebratory bourbon. Our legs are shot, but we revive them in the hot tub before cleaning up for one final fancy dinner at the lodge’s fine dining restaurant, the Eagle’s Nest.
Saying goodbye to Banff
And then we walk outside, trying to stretch out our last night. Snow sifts from the sky; the moon pops in and out of view. It’s silent up here, with the crowds gone.
We wish we could take the serenity with us when we pop on our skis the next morning for the 20-minute run back to the parking lot, but that gives us a chance to say goodbye to our favorite stop of the week.
Banff, you did not disappoint.
If You Go
American Airlines, Delta, United Airlines and Air Canada all service Calgary. Direct flights are available from Houston or Dallas, but from Austin you’ll have to connect. I flew through Denver. Once in Calgary, rent a car or take a van shuttle to Banff, 90 minutes away –– with ￼no sketchy mountain passes to navigate. Americans must show a negative PCR Covid test to enter. They also need a rapid Covid test to return to the U.S.
The Moose Hotel, 345 Banff Avenue, offers comfortable rooms and the best roof-top hot tub I’ve ever experienced. In Sunshine, stay at Sunshine Mountain Lodge.
Eat & Drink:
Sit at the bar at Park Distillery, the only distillery in a national park in Canada. Eat fondue at the Waldhaus. Besides good booze, it serves hearty, campfire-style cooking like stews and burgers. At Sunshine, don’t miss BeaverTails, which serves fried strips of dough shaped like the tail of a beaver.
Wake up early and hit the hot tub on top of the Moose as the sun rises. It opens at 6:30 a.m.