January 2019

Banff - Recap, Tips & Reviews

If you haven’t heard of Banff in Alberta Canada, I’ve bet you’ve at least seen a picture of Lake Louise in the travel mags. Sandwiched between two mountains, Lake Louise, is the most picturesque body of water in the area.

The entire area is a National Park covering almost 8,000 square miles. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With over 1,000 miles of hiking trails, there is a constant supply of places to explore.

With temperatures that hover around 70 degrees in the summer, it’s no wonder this place is a magnet for outdoor adventure seekers from August to July. Because of the summer attraction, it appears that people forget about it in the winter.

We recently got back from a week-long trip that included four days of skiing, a day to explore the Lake Louise area and a final day that included snow tubing. Before I get to those details, let me start with a few reasons why this is a killer destination.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles (or at least 2 of these)

The thing to know about this area is that travel to and from is pretty easy. It’s less than an hour drive from the Calgary airport to the main Banff area. The road itself was great. There were no winding mountain climbs. It was a pretty straight shot.

The airport is terrific as well. It’s not too large making it easy to navigate with all your gear. The best part is that the rental car facility is right across from the terminal, so you don’t have to deal with those painful shuttles.

I also found that flying into Calgary over the holidays was pretty cheap. Every year I look for destinations, and it seems like everything is expensive (coming out of Austin) except for New York, Mexico City, and Calgary. Go figure.

Also, the Marriot is right inside the terminal and it’s one of the best I’ve been to in a long time. The service and food were some of the best we had all trip. We stayed there so we could have a full last day in Banff and then flew out at 6am the next morning.

One last thing to know about the airport. You’ll go through US Customs in Calgary vs. when you arrive in the states. I had no idea, but luckily it wasn’t crowded at 4:30 in the morning and we flew right through.

Getting Around, Where to Stay and Where to Rent Your Gear

Banff and all the ski resorts are inside a national park so you need a pass. If you don’t pick up one in advance, you can stop at the main gates before you enter the park. Depending on the traffic this can be a huge time suck.

Instead, pick up a pass at the Huskey Gas station in Deadman Flats. It’s right outside of Canmore on your way from Calgary, and you’ll be in and out in a few minutes. Once you have your pass you can avoid stopping at the gates and just fly right through – it’s like having a toll tag.

Everyone naturally wants to stay in the town of Banff. It’s quaint, picturesque and they have loads of great restaurants. However, from my research, your choices in Banff are smaller and more expensive than those just out of town.

I discovered another problem with Banff once we arrived. The town itself is packed! Everyone wants to be there, and you can tell. Traffic was horrible, parking was impossible, and every place was crowded. It’s OK for a visit or two, but I wouldn’t want to deal with it every single day of a trip.

We decided on a 2-bedroom condo in Canmore. It’s only 15 minutes from Canmore to Banff, and the drive is all highway. The unit itself was perfect. They had a heated garage, kitchen, washer, and dryer in the unit, a few outdoor hot tubs and a ton of space to spread out.

If you need to rent gear, don’t wait to pick it up on the mountains. Go a day early and grab it in town. Go mid-afternoon, and you won’t get charged for that day.

I researched a bunch of different shops and decided on Ultimate Sports Banff. The prices were the best, and the service was top notch. They are located right in town so you can get your gear and then grab dinner before the restaurants get too crowded.

Skiing at Sunshine Village

There are three mountains to choose from – Mt. Norquay, Sunshine Village, and Lake Louise. Our original plan was to start at Mt. Norquay because it’s the smallest of the three and is the closest to town. But after talking to some locals, we decided to pass. They told us that the slopes can get very icy and since it’s so close, and the smallest mountain, it gets super crowded.

Instead, we started at Sunshine Village. This one is also close to town, about 15 minutes outside of Banff. It’s also the only resort that offers ski-in / ski-out in the area. There are 120 runs and some great high-speed lifts, including a heated and covered lift.

We didn’t venture to the blacks, but the greens and blues all had plenty to offer the family. If you go on a windy day, you won’t have much protection. There are very few trees to break up the wind so it tends to feel colder.

It did get crowded as the day went on, but overall it wasn’t too bad. One thing to know is that you have to get there early. Traffic starts to pile up as people try to park. Showing up before the crowds will ensure you get a parking spot up close and you’ll be one of the first on the mountain.

One last item. There is a 15-minute gondola ride that takes you from the base up to the main mountain area. Again, if you delay, you’ll be waiting quite a while at the base.

Skiing at Lake Louise

We hit Lake Louise on our second day of skiing and quickly figured out that this was our favorite spot. The resort ranks as one of the best in North America and the scenery is unmatched.

The resort is about a 50-minute drive from Canmore, and again, I recommend getting there early. The parking setup is better than Sunshine Village, but if you wait, you’ll have a long walk.

There are 145 different runs with a nice mix for all levels – 25% beginner, 45% intermediate, and 30% advanced. We spent most of our time on the greens, which felt like blues from the places we’re used to skiing. We did hit some of the blues, and the kids loved them. There was some ice, but overall the snow was world-class.

If you show up early, I’d recommend getting to the back of the mountain first. You can ski back there all morning and then grab lunch at Sawyer’s Nook in the Temple Lodge. It’s a perfect sit down spot, and the food is terrific.

After lunch, you can either stay on the back, which we preferred, or head back to the front of the mountain. While you’re on the back be sure to take the Paradise Lift to the top of the mountain. The views are breathtaking. If it’s a windy day, you may want to pass, as you can get some pretty lousy whiteout conditions. Regardless of your level, you can get down the mountain. There is a nice green that takes you all the way to the bottom, or you can take a killer black down the face of the mountain.

If you decide to eat on the front-side, I’d recommend Whitehorn Lodge. This is another sit-down spot. It’s smaller than Sawyer’s, so be sure to get there early. I’d plan on sitting down around 11:15-11:30 to avoid the rush at both places.

Another bonus of all these mountains is that they don’t have a very high elevation. All of them are under 9,000 feet, so you shouldn’t have any altitude issues. We slept perfectly compared to trips to Colorado and Utah.

Ice Skating on Lake Louise

Lake Louise is understandably one of the most visited and photographed lakes in the world. It is also home of the world-renowned Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise.

You won’t want to miss this spot. We decided to spend an afternoon visiting and started with lunch. The restaurant on the bottom floor was terrific. Your choices are pretty limited since they reserve most of the restaurants for hotel guest

Ice Skating on Lake Louise
Ice Skating on Lake Louise

When we got there, the entire place was packed between visitors and hotel guests. The area has a lot to do and see. You can go snowshoeing, grab a horse-drawn carriage or skate around the lake.

You can rent your gear on the first floor and be on the ice in no time. The hotel also has an ice bar in the winter which is a nice place to warm up (note that they only take cash). After a few hours, we called it a day and headed back to town.

Tubing at Mt. Norquay

We debated what to do on our last day. It was between snowmobiling or tubing. Buzzing around on a snowmobile looked awesome, but unfortunately, they don’t allow it in the National Park so you have a 2-hour drive before you can even get started.

Ice Skating, Ice Sculptures and an Ice Bar at Lake Louise
Tubing at Mt Norquay
Tubing at Mt Norquay
Tubing Runs at Mt. Norquay

Instead, we opted for snow tubing at Mt. Norquay. It’s close to town and ended up being a blast. We spent about two hours riding the magic carpet up the hill and zipping down in pairs or as a family. Everyone loved it.

Great Food

One thing everyone mentions is how great the food is, and they are spot on. There is no shortage of original restaurants to try out. Unfortunately, everyone knows it so try to make reservations if you can. If not, plan on being the first to arrive, and you’ll be able to get a table.

There are some great lists out there of places to try. Here are just a few.

  1. 7 Scenic Restaurants in Banff and Lake Louise

  2. 10 Best Restaurants In Banff, Canada

  3. The 10 Best Restaurants In Canmore, Alberta

  4. The BEST Places to Eat in Canmore!!!

My one recommendation is brunch at Maple Leaf in Banff. They have a banana bread french toast that is crazy good! You might want to order two for the table because everyone will love it.

I can’t say enough great things about this vacation. The entire family loved it. I’d rank it as one of our top three trips so far. The views, the food, the activities are all world-class. Do yourself a favor and add Banff to your bucket list. You won’t be disappointed.

Banff - Recap, Tips & Reviews

Recap, Tips and Reviews

6/30/20218 min read