On a trip to the US in December 2009/January 2010 we decided to include a visit to Canada. First stop was one day in Vancouver and then four days in the Banff and Lake Louise area.
Some of our party were keen to ski so Banff was a good place to make our base. After a couple of weeks on the road, we were looking forward to five nights in the one place, the chance to rent self-catering accommodation and enjoy some home-cooked meals.
Flying into Calgary from Vancouver was a shock to the system – it was minus 23 degrees Celsius outside!
Some of our party needed warm jackets and snow boots so we stopped at a large rather run-down shopping mall (it looked more like a big warehouse) where Sears was having a sale. We were able to buy snow boots for US$5 and US$10 and warm jackets for US$45.
The drive from Calgary Airport to Banff takes about one hour 45 minutes (141 kms) on the Trans Canada Highway. It is a scenic drive on a very good road.
Banff is a beautiful place. It is a small town with lots of accommodation, restaurants and ski gear shops. The buildings were lit with fairy lights and small Christmas trees stood on top of street lamps. The view of snow covered mountains can be seen from every street.
Banff National Park
Banff is located within Banff National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Rocky Mountains. As such, on arrival all vehicles entering Banff must pay a fee.
Reception area of Hidden Ridge Resort
Hidden Ridge Resort
Arriving in Banff, we checked into our accommodation, Hidden Ridge Resort – a very pretty place.
There were seven of us travelling together so we booked a Premier Two Bedroom with Loft Condo. This featured two queen bedrooms plus bathroom on the ground level. One floor up was the living/dining room, kitchen and bathroom/laundry, while upstairs again, the open loft had two queen beds. While fairly compact, it was very comfortable accommodation.
The kitchen was well equipped and it was great to have a washing machine and dryer.
Our group loved the communal hot pools and sauna.
Hidden Ridge Resort is located off Tunnel Mountain Road and is an uphill drive from the centre of town so it would be ideal to have a car if you are staying there – it’s not an easy walk in winter.
Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel
Be sure to visit the famous Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. We had stayed in the hotel in the late 1980s and saw a huge change on this visit as the hotel had undergone major renovations in the late 1990s. It is truly a beautiful place – grand, luxurious and elegant.
Skiing in Banff
There are three places to ski in the area – Mt Norquay, Sunshine Village and Lake Louise Mountain Resort.
Norquay is the smallest and closest ski resort to Banff – just a 5 to10 minute drive away – so we decided to ski there on the first day.
We hired ski gear in Banff and by the time we got onto the mountain half the day was gone so we bought half-day lift tickets for around $US40.
For those not skiing, Cascade Lodge was a good place to be – by the fire. Large windows make viewing easy. Cascade has a cafeteria on the ground floor while upstairs, Lone Pine Pub and Restaurant has table service. While comfortable, it’s all quite basic, especially downstairs.
Parking was a little difficult at the bottom of the mountain as the carpark was full and cars were parked back along the road. Shuttle buses take you from your car to the carpark.
From the carpark, the eight-person gondolas take about 20 minutes to climb the 500 metres to reach Sunshine Village, with a stop on the way up at the base of Goat’s Eye Mountain. The views are wonderful. For us Australians it was a novelty to see pine forests covered in snow.
There are good facilities at Sunshine including eight restaurants, ski and board hire, ski and snowboard school, lockers, children’s day care and the Sunshine Mountain Lodge accommodation – the only place in Banff where you can ski-in ski-out.
We based ourselves in the Day Lodge at one of the cafeteria tables next to the window.
If it’s your first visit to Sunshine, you might consider a free Snow Host Tour to help you find your way around the network of 12 lifts. Sunshine has 3,300 acres of skiable terrain and what’s so wonderful about skiing there is the length of the runs – the longest is 8kms.
A wonderful way to end the day is to ski out, down the mountain on a run called Banff Avenue which basically follows the gondola and takes you back to the carpark.
Lake Louise Mountain Resort
The final day of skiing was at the Lake Louise Mountain Resort. The ski resort is about a 45 minute drive from Banff. The teenager’s in our group loved this ski resort – the views of the surrounding mountains are spectacular. They particularly liked the fact that once on top of the mountain they found a staff member who showed them the runs appropriate for their level. For first timers at the resort this was invaluable as it helped them maximise the time they had to ski.
Chateau Lake Louise
Lake Louise is about 50 kms from Banff or about a 45 minute drive. On our visit, the closer we got to Lake Louise, the more snow there was. The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise has a beautiful location overlooking the lake and is surrounded by snow covered mountains. The lake was frozen and people were ice skating around a pretty ice carving of a castle wall. There are also horse drawn sleigh rides available around the lake.
After we had dropped the teenagers at Lake Louise ski fields, we headed out on the Icefields Parkway (Highway 93). The aim was to get as far as the Columbia Icefield Centre to see the glacier (about 120 kms from Lake Louise).
We had checked at the tourist office before leaving Banff to make sure the road was accessible. The advice was that as long as we had snow tyres we should be fine.
The Icefields Parkway is noted as one of the most beautiful drives in Canada. In winter we found it quite spectacular. The road was covered in snow and dwarfed by giant mountains. More often than was comfortable, we would pass signs advising that we were entering an avalanche area.
After passing the Weeping Wall there was no sign of life. Not one other car on the road. The wind swept and swirled the snow around us. It was a beautiful yet bleak landscape. Thank goodness we had snow tyres.
Finally we reached the Columbia Icefield Centre but found everything ‘boarded up’ and deserted. We couldn’t see the glacier for the swirling snow. We turned around and headed back to Lake Louise.
On the return trip we stopped at the pull-over below the Weeping Wall where we could see climbers high up on the ice. Such brave people.
It was with some relief we arrived back at Lake Louise Resort to meet our friends who had spent a cosy day at Chateau Lake Louise over a leisurely lunch. We told our story of the Icefields Parkway and said how fortunate we were to have snow tyres. Our friends, who had also hired a car with us, laughed – “Snow tyres? You haven’t got snow tyres!”
To get the most out of this spectacular route, it is advisable to drive the Icefields Parkway between April and September when the weather is more hospitable and the sights are open.