by Lee Foster
Modern air-and-rental-car transportation now forces all the great winter sports destinations of North America to compete with each other.
Surprisingly, the Canadian Rockies winter sports area around Banff, west of Calgary, may be nearly as close in hours as the Colorado Rockies or California’s Tahoe for many travelers.
I’ve had an opportunity to view the Canadian Rockies and evaluate its potential for winter sports outings. I concluded that the strong points for Canada are the striking scenery of Banff and Jasper National Parks, complete with wildlife, the ever-improving skiing facilities (such as the Goat’s Eye runs at Sunshine), and the one-of-a-kind lodging possible at castle-like Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel.
The winter negative for this area can be its potentially cold January to early-February weather, which is why I visited around mid-February. Mid-February through March here can be as sunny as Lake Tahoe in California.
Scenery and Wildlife in the Canadian Rockies
The flight into Calgary from the West takes a visitor over the Canadian Rockies where the skiing occurs. The view from the plane on a clear day is breathtaking, with the mountains extending as far north as the eye can see.
All visitors should ride the year-around gondola up Sulphur Mountain at Banff to get a panoramic view of the adjacent terrain. From the top you look down on the Banff Springs Hotel, a fairytale lodging, then beyond to the modern small tourist town of Banff, and across to Cascade Mountain, with its serrated top. Mountain ranges and sharply cut valleys extend in all directions. Sulphur Mountain and the surrounding area is vested forever in public ownership as Banff National Park.
Another lovely view, if you have a rental car, is the Vermilion Lakes road, where you glimpse water and snowy grasslands in the foreground with steep Mount Rundle in the background. Wildlife, mainly elk, congregate at Vermilion Lakes.
The winter visitor to California and Colorado ski areas will not likely see wildlife. Around Banff, by contrast, a visitor will see elk and mountain sheep, usually in small groups. The comparable U.S. ski destination with extensive winter wildlife is Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where the great herds of elk gather on the plains north of the city to pass the winter.
Banff National Park hosts about 3,000 elk and 40-50 wolves. The wolves prowl up to the edge of Banff town, stopping there because of their timidity around humans. Realizing this, the elk often seek the relative protection of the town, especially the golf course at the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel.
To further experience scenic treats, drive north on the Icefields Highway to Jasper National Park. If a scenic roadway must be nominated as the most spectacular drive in North America, the Icefields Parkway would get many votes. Start from Banff with a drive along the Vermilion Lakes, as mentioned earlier. Pass on to the Bow Valley Parkway, between Banff and Lake Louise, noted for its aspen and spruce trees. Then proceed on the Icefields Highway between Lake Louise and Jasper after pausing for a stop at the Lake Louise Visitor Centre, the main dispenser of information on the region’s extraordinary park resources. The visitor center shows many early photos and paintings of the region as Canadians discovered their natural heritage.
The Icefields Parkway between Lake Louise and Jasper travels through 143 miles of wilderness as the road gently climbs and descends through the mountains. Avalanches are common in snowy periods, so be prepared for stops as road crews clear the highway. The avalanches sheer off the trees, creating paths that look, ironically, like man-made ski runs. Frozen blue-ice waterfalls can be seen along the parkway, sometimes with climbers inching their way up the ice pack, especially at a site called the Weeping Wall. Glaciers dot the mountains on the west side of the road.
One special stop is the Athabascan Glacier, which can be toured on foot. The Athabascan Glacier is part of the Columbia Icefields, the largest icefield in the Rockies and the hydrological apex of North America. This heady term simply means that water from these glaciers flows into rivers that eventually enter both the oceans from all directions.
The scenery of the Canadian Rockies is, in some respects, more spectacular than that of Colorado, where the mountains are actually higher. In the Canadian Rockies the mountains have a greater vertical extent, as seen from the viewer’s perspective, fully 10,000 feet at Mount Robson. On the Icefields Parkway a stop at the Tangleridge Overlook shows a 1,000-foot drop from the road, with towering mountains in the background.
Another perspective on winter scenery is available at the Maligne River canyon ice walk near Jasper. The water plunges through a steep, narrow-walled gorge of limestone bedrock. In winter the water freezes underfoot into sheets of blue ice. Walls of ice form along the steep bank where there are springs. Frost flowers are created on the exposed rock. The outfitter who guides the tours provides special waterproof boots and crampons with spikes that are strapped to the boots for added traction. The walk is known locally as a “crawl” because of the icy environment.
Some of the best wildlife viewing occurs in Jasper National Park, at the north end of this trip. Elk are numerous around the Jasper township, at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, and especially out the eastern roadway from the town along the Athabasca River. Wolves and coyotes restrain the elk population. Controlled burns of the forest keep the elk habitat healthy. Better cooperation with timber and mining interests on the park fringes helps extend the range of the ungulates and carnivores, insuring larger overall numbers and a more diverse gene pool as the animals breed. Wolves especially can traverse immense ranges, sometimes moving several hundred miles in directions that know no political boundaries. The animals flourish here because Jasper is both a wilderness park and the largest of the Canadian parks in the Rockies.
Because of its size and opportunity to protect many large mammal species, the Canadian Rockies National Parks were declared a World Biosphere Reserve in 1984 by the United Nations.
The main issue in both Banff and Jasper National Parks is what level of development is consistent with protecting and preserving the environment, including all the animals. The notion is one of a sustainable ecosystem. Environmental, social, economic, and safety issues all come into the societal decisions made here. Most people are in agreement on the overall vision, but implementing the details that might impact economically on an individual’s livelihood spurs bitter resistance.
The skier, of course, has additional opportunities to see the scenery from special vantage points.
Downhill and Cross-Country Skiing in the Canadian Rockies
Both downhill and cross-country ski opportunities attract a visitor to Banff and Jasper.
From the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, I cross-country skied through the spruce and pine trees along the Spray River. The trail was well groomed and maintained.
My main interest in this trip was downhill skiing at the Goat’s Eye area of Sunshine Village at nearly 9,000 feet. I took the 18-minute gondola ride and then a lift to near the top of Lookout Mountain, where Sunshine has a ski-in resort facility right on the mountain.
Much of the run is on wide-open terrain above the tree line. From mid-mountain, another gondola cuts left to the Goat’s Eye ski area, where the lift rises to nearly 9,200 feet, the highest skiing in Canada. At this elevation the mountain gets nearly 30 feet of natural snow a year. No snow-making mechanism is needed here.
On a magical day of bright sun and soft snow, I skied through the alpine scenery down the elaborate Sunshine Coast Trail, which zigzags across the mountain. More expert skiers find plenty of double black diamond runs here, as well as “glade” skiing, skiing through the trees.
After savoring the mountain panoramas, I skied the 3.5-mile trail to the bottom over generously wide intermediate runs.
The Canadian Rockies were the site for the 1988 Winter Olympics, so a world-class skiing environment can be expected here. Lake Louise, near Banff, and Marmot, near Jasper, are other major ski areas.
The Legendary Banff Springs Hotel
There are a few hotels in a traveler’s experience that are truly a destination unto themselves. The Ahwahnee in Yosemite would rank in that class. On an even grander scale, however, is the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, a stone fairytale castle, first built as an incentive to lure railroad passengers west in the late 1880s. The Banff Springs Hotel is a towering stone edifice that is a kind of Neuschwanstein of the Canadian Rockies.
In 1888, the general manager of the Canadian Pacific Railway, William Cornelius Van Horne, opened the first Banff Springs Hotel. Van Horne, who had responsibility for building railroad revenue, observed, “If we can’t export the scenery, we’ll import the tourists.”
I found the service and professionalism of the staff at the Banff Springs Hotel outstanding, whether one is being served a meal or assisted by the bellhop. It is likely that a traveler will meet guests from Japan, Germany, and England because Banff Springs is popular with many nationalities. Although Banff Springs is the epitome of tradition, it is also fully innovative, with a major spa facility, called Solace. Other prime lodgings for the region are the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise and the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge to the north, at Jasper National Park.
The town of Jasper is special, however, as a totally controlled environment within a national park. (Banff, by contrast, has more freedom.) The superintendent today still manages the town of Jasper in the manner of a feudal landlord, watching over the leased lands. Several heritage houses made of logs and stone get much attention, such as the Brewster-Jeffery house. House prices and rents are high because no more township land will be allowed in the national park, permitting only the in-filling of space between present structures. Elk roam the town freely, requiring the fencing in of any delicate shrubs. Stop in at the Jasper-Yellowhead Historical Society Museum to see historic photos of the region, including the Native Americans, such as the Iroquois, who were brought to the area during the fur trade era. The original Park Superintendent House, opposite the train station, has served as a trout hatchery and now functions as an information center. All the Jasper park and township development began when the rails came through here 1910-1911.
It is possible to include a train ride in this trip, as a beginning taste of the excellent Canadian rail service, which is worth considering for a vacation trip winter or summer. I took a short train ride on VIA Rail Canada from Jasper to Edmonton, a highly recommended way to see the winter scenery. The train in Canada can be considered a “land cruise” allowing a visitor to see this vast country from a comfortable vantage point.
If You Go: Winter Exploration in the Canadian Rockies
For Banff, contact Banff/Lake Louise Tourism, www.banfflakelouise.com.
For Jasper, contact Jasper Tourism & Commerce, www.jaspercanadianrockies.com.