The mountainous terrain at Lake Louise (photo: Paul Zizka Photography/Banff Lake Louise Tourism)

Alberta’s Rockies Resorts: Head for the Hills

By Iain MacMillan

Though they don’t know each other, Brian Callow, Leslie Woit and Charlie Finley know their home hills. Each of the three season’s-pass holders wax poetic about their choice of Alberta’s Rockies resorts—and what keeps them coming back.

Callow, founder of a software consulting firm in Calgary, skis around the world, but remains a proud Lake Louise weekend warrior. He’s been coming here since 1976 (the same year he became an AMA member) and logs an average of 30 days annually.

“Louise’s backside stands out,” he says, grinning. “The bowls and gullies…all the advanced terrain off the Eagle Ridge makes it precious.” It’s different than other big ski areas too: “There’s no designated route down the back bowls. It’s this freedom that makes it unique.”

The fact that Lake Louise has no slope-side accommodation is a non- issue for Callow. “Adding condos would ruin the area,” he says. “It’s so pristine, and besides, there’s such a good choice of off-hill accommodations—from the hostel to The Post and Chateau, we have the best in the country right here.”

When it comes to non-downhill activities, there’s much more to do outdoors, including cross-country skiing and skating. Lake Louise is probably Canada’s most impressive open-air ice rink, and attracts countless non-skiers every day.

Nearby are two of the best dining rooms in ski country—the Post Hotel and Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. The Post’s worldly wine cellar boasts more than 2,300 labels. “It’s all big at Lake Louise,” Callow says. “And that’s why I like it.”

While a teenaged Callow was beginning his love affair with Lake Louise, ski-bum Charlie Finley was settling up the road in Jasper. He arrived by train; in fact, he drove it into town. For years, the CN locomotive engineer lumbered between Jasper and Valemount, B.C., clocking a lot of ski time at Marmot Basin on his days off. He’s now something of a town legend, easily spotted on-hill sporting his envied collection of retro skiwear.

“Marmot has enormous terrain,” Finley says, raising his arms like a preacher. “And yet it still maintains a small-hill feel.” Though Jasper’s population swells substantially at the height of the summer tourist season, it returns to a cozy 5,000 the rest of the year. “Locals actually talk to you here. They’ll happily share their experiences and secrets on hill.”

In town, Finley recommends exploring beyond the main street. “How many mountain towns are flat?” he asks rhetorically. “You can explore everywhere on a rental bike most of the year.”

Finley notes another Jasper quirk that only seems obvious once he’s pointed it out: sunlight. Unlike many mountain towns, whose nearby peaks cast shadows, Jasper lies in a valley that extends significantly to the west, giving residents and visitors more time to absorb the low winter sun. The result is a smiling populace, a friendlier town.

Don’t believe it? Just stop in for a pay-what-you-can Sunday dinner at the community centre. On any given Sunday from January through March, you can enjoy mealtime banter with the town minister, visitors from Germany—and maybe even Charlie Finley.

Alberta Rockies Resorts Marmot Basin
Baby boarders at Marmot Basin (photo: Ski Marmot Basin)

How is it possible that Leslie Woit has skied hundreds of resorts around the globe? Because she is quite possibly the world’s most prolific ski writer. Woit settled in Banff a couple of years ago and now calls Sunshine Village her home hill.

“It maintains a unique remote mountain feel,” Woit says. “A day here can sometimes make you feel like you’ve been away for a week.”

The self-contained mid-mountain village (with a renovated slope-side hotel) is rare among North American ski destinations. Sunshine’s skiing itself covers all the bases, Woit says: “From its gentle, plateau-like slopes to the tough stuff of Goat’s Eye and slackcountry of Delirium Dive.”

“Detractors talk about flat light on grey days” she says, “but in the same breath, they’ll admit how much they appreciate Sunshine’s 100-percent natural snow.” Any regular will tell you that old tracks fill in quicker here than at most other resorts in the Rockies.

A final insider’s tip: “On a busy day when the day-lodge is in full frenzy, treat yourself and take a little extra time to enjoy lunch at the hotel.” It’s an experience, Woit smiles, that’s worth writing about.

AMA members can get great deals on lift tickets, lessons, attractions and more—including these discounts at top Rockies destinations. Click here for further details.

Sunshine Village: Save 15% on full-day ski or rental packages, plus 15% on adult Ski and Ride workshops and Kids Kampus programs

Marmot Basin: Save 10% on ski and snowboard rentals and lessons

Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel: Save 20% or more on standard room rates

Banff Upper Hot Springs: Save 15% on admission

Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies: Save 20% on admission and 10% on regular-price merchandise