What my childhood dreams are made of in Banff National Park

Crunching snow. Flowing meltwater. Shallow breathing. These are the sounds of solitude, something I haven’t experienced with any regularity since becoming a mom almost 11 years ago. But here I am—hiking Johnston Canyon during my solo trip to relive my childhood in one of the most beautiful places on earth.

As an indomitable 18-year-old, I was ready to conquer the world so left Canada to attend college in the United States. I didn’t fully appreciate having a world-renowned destination like Banff National Park in my backyard…until now.

As the first national park in Canada, this 4,100-square-mile park is a gallimaufry of mountains, forests, lakes, world-class restaurants and hotels. I am here to “SkiBig3” the local catchphrase for skiing the park’s three ski areas—Mount Norquay, Sunshine Village and Lake Louise–with a tri-area lift ticket.

Kananaskis River

Kananaskis River

After flying into Calgary International Airport, I rent a car and head 75 miles west to Banff on the Trans-Canada Highway, a speedy four-lane thoroughfare that puts Colorado’s bottle-necked I-70 to shame. As the Canadian Rockies appear in the horizon, I need a quick mountain high so veer off to briefly explore Kananaskis Country, the area’s foothills and front-range peaks that are equally as staggering.

A 45-minute drive later—past Lac Des Arc and Canmore—I’m in Banff. Nature is calling so I park the car, stand agape at the 360-degree views, stroll Banff Avenue and grab my rentals from the Ski Hut. On a whim, I check-out Bow Falls near the iconic Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel as fuzzy childhood memories of playing in the Bow River become as clear as the ice that now ensconces it. I am home.

Day 1.

Tucked away on Tunnel Mountain, Buffalo Mountain Lodge’s cozy dining room is only a stone’s throw away from downtown Banff but is seemingly another world. I’ve been staying in so many large resorts that I had forgotten how charming boutique hotels like Canadian Rocky Mountain Resorts’ can be and I enjoy spending a few nights in their two Alberta properties, Buffalo Mountain Lodge (Banff) and Deer Lodge (Lake Louise).

As I sit under a high wood-beam canopy, my waitress raves about CRMR’s ranch near Calgary that raises their own high quality elk, buffalo and beef products for their hotels and four popular restaurants in Calgary. I debate ordering the Wild Game Hash for breakfast (when in Rome, right?) but opt for scrumptious Huevos Rancheros.

View from North American lift

View from North American lift

I drive 10 minutes to Mount Norquay, the smallest and most family-friendly of Banff National Park’s ski resorts and the only to offer night skiing. I spend the day touring around the easy-to-navigate resort with Ski School Director Gord Fielding, a colorful character with deep roots in the community. “We know most people aren’t going to spend their entire vacation at Norquay but it’s an excellent place to start.”

To ski Mount Norquay is a lesson in Canadian ski history. Established in 1926, the 190-acre resort was the first to install a chairlift in 1948, and was famous for ski jumping and as the training ground for Olympic and World Cup athletes. Expecting sub-par conditions due to a lack of recent snowfall, I am delighted to learn their snowmaking system does an excellent job covering 85 percent of the terrain. We pay homage to Banff native Rob Bosinger as we ski down “Rob’s Run” that was named in his honor after he tragically passed away at 38 years old.

I have my favorite meal of the trip at Lone Pine Pub:  Cheese risotto balls and fried Brussels Sprouts with Sriracha Aioli and a Bison Burger with bacon, Brie and blueberry jam.

Though I’m an advanced skier, I’m no expert and you’ll find some of North America’s steepest double-black diamond runs off the North American lift. My dad once had a wipeout near the top where he tumbled almost all the way down, ensnaring a beautiful woman along the way. It was his most painful pick-up ever.

When Gord suggests we ride up North American without out skis, I am game. Once at the top, the views of Banff, Cascade Mountain and Mount Rundle are so dazzling that, after being photographically satiated, I almost forget the chairlift ride of shame back down the mountain.

Norquay is home to “Tube Town,” a seven-lane tubing hill that claims to be the fastest tube park in Alberta. I’ve never been tubing without my kids but I brazenly ride up on the magic carpet, plop myself in the center of the tube, get a huge push, squeal like a kid, realize I’m a grown woman acting like a young’un and keep right on screaming.

Johnston Canyon

I leave Norquay and spend the afternoon on a 1.7-mile ice walk to Upper Johnston Falls. Johnston Canyon is one of Banff’s most popular hikes in the summertime but is transformed in winter into a world of frozen waterfalls, pillow-mounds of snow and blue-ice pillars on limestone cliffs. The smartest hikers wear cleats to navigate the canyon-clinging catwalks and cliff-mounting staircases while the dumbest more adventurous (like me) do it in hiking boots with a whole lot of tree hugging. Despite the ice, I do not fall even once, which should automatically absolve me from a lifetime of clumsiness.

Back at Buffalo Mountain Lodge, I indulge in a carnivorous feast that would have made the Tasmanian Devil proud. I later attempt to light the wood fireplace in my room but it burns out within minutes (where’s my husband when you need him?) I indulgently soak in the old-fashioned porcelain tub while reading my first book in ages, husband and kids temporarily forgotten.buffalo

Day 2.

As I drive 20 minutes from Banff to Sunshine Village, the outlook is bright (forgive the pun). I first fell in love with skiing at this 3,300-acre resort that stretches across three sprawling mountains along the Continental Divide. Ranging from gentle beginner runs off Strawberry Chair all the way up to extreme terrain like Delirium Dive, Sunshine is named one of the 10 top off-piste destinations in the world.
The Sunshine Village Gondola whisks me from the parking lot to the base, where I meet my guide Lindsay. A balmy breeze follows us up Continental Divide Express to Lookout Mountain where we soar above treeline while skiing in Alberta and B.C. on one run while marveling at the unobstructed views of the surrounding peaks.

I realize my memories are not just of the scenery but of freezing my butt off while enjoying them. Next year, Sunshine will be replacing the Teepee Town lift (notoriously cold and windy) with a quad that has orange bubble covers and heated seats. Popular in Europe but an anomaly in North America, my childhood self would have appreciated a toasty tush.

I approach Wawa quad chair where I: 1) Skied my first intermediate run down Tin Can Alley’s beautifully gladed terrain. 2) Learned to swear when my dad left me in his dust.

The T-bar of yesteryear has been replaced by an efficient loading conveyer. When it’s our turn to load, I nervously lean forward on the gate, it opens, spits us on the conveyer belt and I momentarily revert to my younger cursing self. We are transported forward like bottle of milk in a grocery store, the chair swoops around and we’re airborne. By our second time around, I’m a conveyer convert.

Lindsay and I take a quick tour of well-appointed Sunshine Mountain Lodge, Banff National Park’s only ski-in ski-out property.  She observes “with the Canadian dollar so low ($1 CAN=$0.80 US), American are essentially getting a 20 percent discount when they vacation in Canada.” We eat a hearty lunch at the Chimney Corner Lounge and I vow that next time I’ll be brave enough to order the Alberta Beef Dip in Yorkshire pudding.

Banff Lake Louise Tourism/Paul Zizka Photo

With an annual dump of 30 feet, Sunshine Village doesn’t make its own snow and normally capitalizes on its innovative “snow farming” techniques but like many resorts in the West, it’s been a lean snow year. (Murphy’s Law: it snowed 23 cm shortly after I left). We spend the afternoon on Goat Eye Mountain and thankfully, the sun softens the snow and the conditions completely transform beneath my skis.

At the end of the day, skiers and riders may either take the gondola back down but I opt for a stroll down memory lane down ski-out “Banff Avenue” where my tired, wobbly legs propel me all the way to my car.

Following a 50-minute drive to Lake Louise, I check in to historic Deer Lodge, an easy stroll from the legendary lake. Built in 1923 as a teahouse, 71-room Deer Lodge was completely renovated, restored and winterized in 1985. I opt to skip out on the rooftop hot tub views and eat.

Historic Deer Lodge

Unlike Banff, which is bursting with lodging and restaurants, options are more limited in purposefully remote Lake Louise. I’m elated with my classic Canadian dining experience at the historic Lake Louise Railway Station and Restaurant, a carefully restored piece of history overlooking an opulent ‘Roaring Twenties’ dining car.

Day 3

I wake up in mourning with the realization I will be skiing my final SkiBig3 Resort. I’m incrementally working my way up in size—starting with the baby bear (Norquay), Mama Sunshine and ending with Papa Bear: Lake Louise’s 4,200-acre expanse across four mountains that is consistently voted the most scenic resort in North America. Hear me roar.

My memories of Lake Louise Ski Area are ambiguous so I’m grateful to have my guide Pat Lynch to navigate. We quickly determine we graduated rival Calgary high schools the same year and have common friends. He has spent 17 years parlaying between working as one of Lake Louise’s most trusted ski instructors/trainers, with Parks Canada in the summer. My envy is tainted powder-white.

Banff Lake Louise Tourism/Paul Zizka Photo

We ease into our adventure with some groomers off Glacier and Top of the World Express. Unlike my previous two bluebird days, the sky is overcast with flurries and the light is flat. Pat is truly leading the blind until I bust out my glasses and am blown away by the views of the commanding Valley of Ten Peaks while the distant Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise bordering the shoreline looks like a LEGO replica.

From Saddleback Ridge at 8,300 feet, we cruise into the bowl, catching the peek-a-boo sunlight that casts dramatic shadows and the visual planes dazzle our eyes in this world of white.

The Larch area has the best conditions of the day. Located on the backside of the mountain, this intermediate-level playground is not as sun-affected and boasts more permanent snow without the crowds. Pat expounds upon the larch tree. “Although it’s a conifer, the larch is a deciduous tree and loses its leaves in the fall after turning yellow-gold.”
“So, the trees were named after the Larch lift?”
“Actually, I think it’s the other way around.” Pat joked. That devil is all detail.

For lunch at mid-mountain Whitehorn Lodge we, of course, order the Rocky Mountain Game Platter’s assorted Valbella artisanal meats, farmstead cheeses, crisps and Chinook honey. I’m on venison overload and almost vow to become a vegetarian until I take another bite of the mouth-watering buffalo and figure why would I want to be?

Lake Louise is the only World Cup venue outside of Europe to join the ranks of the famous Club 5 Ski Classics. Quite appropriately, I love channeling Lindsey Vonn as I blast down the Woman’s Downhill, until Pat tells me the resort has claimed her as its own.
“You know she’s from Vail, COLORADO, right?”
“She’s had more World Cup wins in Lake Louise than anywhere. She came off her two-year-long injury to win her 60th World Cup race here in December.”

I almost get into a toddler -esque brawl but ultimately decide we can just share her.

A Final Farewell

lakelouisechatBefore saying good-bye to Banff, I have one last bucket list item. I adore skating for miles on Canada’s frozen rivers and lakes and was devastated that the temperate weather forced most to close. Someone tips me off that Lake Louise (about 10 minutes from the ski area) is still open so I stop to rent skates at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise and sadly discovered they, too have succumbed.

I pout, gaze out upon the still-frozen-yet-not-frozen-enough-to-skate-on-it ice and see legions of people hiking and skating across. With the backdrop of Victoria Glacier beckoning, I mindlessly follow the legions of people making their pilgrimage to Mecca, a glacial landscape of remarkable beauty. It isn’t until I am almost across the lake that I realize their final destination is a crystal-blue waterfall that marks the trailhead of the Plain of Six Glaciers leading to the Lake Agnes Tea House in the summer.

Some ridiculous fools are sliding down the snowfield in front of waterfall so I ridiculously start hiking the glassy trail to join them, fall after my third step and determine this wasn’t the kind of ice adventure I am looking for.

After all, there’s always next year.

When you go:

For more information on purchasing a tri-area lift ticket go to SkiBig3, the official website for ski vacations and passes in Banff, Canada.

For additional lodging information and rates, go to Canadian Rocky Mountain Resorts.

Thanks to Travel Alberta for hosting. All photographs, opinions and childhood memories are my own.

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