The first thing you notice about the Canadian Rockies mountain range is that it’s big.
Big as far as the eye can see. Spanning a number of national parks and two provinces, the towering triangles of striated limestone, formed by glaciers and now guarding the forested valleys like sentries protecting this vast wilderness.
While the bustling city of Calgary lies just 60 miles to the east, the Rockies are home to a variety of quintessential mountain towns. There’s the lively town of Canmore, once a thriving mining community, now a colony of hard-core mountain enthusiasts, and refugees from urban jungles. Head a little further west and you’ll find yourself in Banff—the glittering jewel of the Canadian Rockies, with fine dining, fancy hotels, hot springs, and the not-to-be missed Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies. Forty-five minutes further along the Trans-Canada Highway is the very small community of Lake Louise—where you’ll find an excellent hostel, the famous Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, Lake Louise Ski Resort, and a couple great coffee and postcard shops.
The backcountry ski and snowboarding terrain in Banff National Park is nearly endless.
While summer is high season in these beautiful mountain communities, those that venture here during the colder winter months are treated to world-class resort skiing. But the more adventurous can take it one step further and head out backcountry skiing where you are guaranteed fresh tracks, solitude, and perhaps even a glimpse of a herd of Rocky Mountain sheep, or mule deer.
The backcountry ski and snowboarding terrain in Banff National Park is nearly endless, with options for both single- and multi-day tours. The Banff and Lake Louise areas are home to numerous backcountry lodges, where you can spend all day skiing then return to a hot meal and warm bed. Get up the next morning and do it all over again.
For those not looking to venture too far, there is easily accessible slackcountry and backcountry skiing and snowboarding from the ski resorts. There’s no groomed trails, no markers telling you where to go, and of course, no avalanche control. If you’re prepared with the proper equipment and training (avalanche safety and backcountry route-finding), the Banff and Lake Louise area offers some of the best slackcountry and backcountry skiing in the world. But if you’re new to off-piste (out-of-bounds), this part of Canada is home to some of the best-trained, most-experienced backcountry ski guides in the world as well.
If you’re new to off-piste (out-of-bounds), this part of Canada is home to some of the best-trained, most-experienced backcountry ski guides in the world as well.
Where to Start
Yamnuska Mountain Adventures is based in Canmore. This outfitter boasts some of the best guides for backcountry skiing in the Canadian Rockies (they also outfit and guide trips that include ice climbing, mountaineering, rock climbing, trekking, and avalanche safety courses). No matter what your skill level, Yamnuska can tailor a day or multiple days that provide backcountry adventure in a safe, supportive environment. They also have first-rate avalanche safety equipment and will teach you how to use it before you embark on your adventure.
Start at Wilson Mountain Sports in Lake Louise. This full-service outdoor shop has everything you need for a day in the backcountry. They carry all the top AT (alpine touring) skis (as well as resort-ready gear). You can suit up with boots, skis, and poles all designed for backcountry skiing; bring your base layers, warm socks, hat and outerwear, but if you forget anything, this is the place to find great deals on new stuff as well.
Where to Go
Consider a “side-country” trip out of the Lake Louise Ski Resort. Generally, you’ll meet up in the iconic Whiskey Jack Lodge, hewn from big fir and pine trees from the surrounding area. The resort is in the heart of Banff National Park; there are 4,200 skiable acres, but you can also access miles upon miles of untracked backcountry. It’s possible to ride the lift, then head out into the backcountry. We recommend that you bring along a guide (Yamnuska) for at least the first day of your adventure. You’ll get more out of your day by knowing where to go to find the most delicious powder stashes the Canadian Rockies have to offer.
The Banff and Lake Louise area offers some of the best slackcountry and backcountry skiing in the world.
Banff Sunshine is only 11 miles from Banff. You take a gondola up to the village (which has a hotel, a lodge, ski shop, and a few awesome restaurants). The alpine ski experience is not to be missed—but the backcountry options are even more out of this world. There are several classic tours around Banff Sunshine, all providing breathtaking views of the surrounding peaks, including the iconic Mt. Assiniboine (AKA the Matterhorn of the Rockies). You can ski the boundary between British Columbia and Alberta as well. The area has excellent snow and plenty of it, so pay close attention to the avalanche conditions. There’s also the famous Delirium Dive freeride zone, one of the top ten off-piste destinations in the world.
Pick up a copy of the Lake Louise Sunshine Banff Ski Touring Guide before you go. Also, always check the Parks Canada Avalanche Forecast for snow conditions. And book a day of guiding—you’ll get more out of your day.