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Alberta's winter ski scene: 3 hot spots

Downtown Banff with the Canadian Rockies as the

Downtown Banff with the Canadian Rockies as the town's backdrop. Photo Credit: Los Angeles Times / Christopher Reynolds

In Alberta's high country, where the Trans-Canada Highway unfurls between Banff and Lake Louise, the Rockies march shoulder to shoulder flanking the road, peaks bristling, glaciers sparkling. The place looks so good in summer, it's practically a traffic hazard.

There are three ski resorts in the neighborhood -- Sunshine Village, Lake Louise and Norquay -- so you'd think a winter vacation here would be an easy sell.

But it wasn't until the 1970s that Banff National Park's two grand old railroad hotels -- the Banff Springs Hotel and Chateau Lake Louise -- began staying open through the winter months. Even now, those three ski resorts, overshadowed by bigger Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia, get only a smattering of skiers and boarders from outside the province.

Now, as snow falls and lifts lurch into action, let me speak up for Banff, Sunshine Village and Lake Louise. (I can't speak for Norquay because it was still closed when I visited in mid-November.) The simplest approach is a flight to Calgary, then a 75-mile drive west on the straight and oft-plowed Trans-Canada Highway. That gets you to downtown Banff. From there, it's 10 more miles to Sunshine Village, 37 to Lake Louise.

RESTAURANTS AND GALLERIES

As any summer visitor can attest, Banff (altitude, 4,537 feet; population, about 8,300) has more than its share of good restaurants and galleries, along with hot springs and staggering views of Cascade Mountain (9,836 feet), just north.

The winter crowds on Banff Avenue are more manageable than the throngs in summer, and the apres-ski scene is fueled partly by legions of Australian 20-somethings who come to work as "lifties" and play in the snow.

"I'm tired of Australians," 24-year-old Sath Smith said with a sigh as we rode the gondola up to the slopes of Sunshine Village. He was kidding. He had arrived only recently from Brisbane and had already decided that Banff is "amazing." "I'll just keep renewing my visa until I can't anymore," Smith said.

All around us, the horizon was crowded with jutting peaks, the lower slopes dense with flocked evergreens. Because the town and resorts fall within Banff National Park -- Canada's first, declared in 1885 -- you don't see timeshare condos and vacation homes creeping along the river sides and ridgelines.

As for Sunshine Village, it isn't a village as much as a slopeside hotel and a handful of restaurants and shops. But it's gorgeous, and its dozen lifts feed 111 named runs on 3,358 skiable acres (20 percent beginner, 55 percent intermediate and 25 percent expert).

It feels doubly remote because the skiing doesn't begin until you've made a long gondola ride up from the parking lot. The resort gets 3,000 to 5,000 skiers and boarders on its busiest days.

SAVOR BIG VIEWS

I rode the only open chairlift (it was the second day of the season) and savored panoramic views from several green (beginner) and blue (intermediate) runs. I also had a look at the Banff area's only ski-in hotel, the eco-boutique Sunshine Mountain Lodge.

The 88-room lodge sits atop a gondola route that closes most days around sunset, so it's no place for a nightlife lover. But for a seeker of peace, quiet and easy chairlift access, it's worth a look.

My next mountain stop was the larger Lake Louise Ski Resort. It has more than 145 runs on 4,200 skiable acres. From the top of the Glacier Express chairlift, you can look a few miles across the valley and see a lake under a huge glacier.

That's Lake Louise, beloved for its turquoise tones in summer. In winter, it's a frosty mirror, crisscrossed by skaters. Along the shore is the luxury Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise Hotel.

After a good squint at the lake, glacier and chateau, I took my turn careering down the slopes. Though the resort's mix is 25 percent beginner slopes, 45 percent intermediate and 30 percent expert, there's a blue or green option from each of the five chairlifts. On its busiest days, the resort gets perhaps 7,000 skiers and boarders.

SOAK IN THE SPRINGS

Another option for nonskiers, right in Banff, is the Banff Gondola, which climbs to a viewpoint high on Sulphur Mountain. Its base is just a few hundred yards from Banff Upper Springs, an outdoor pool with 102-degree water that send endless clouds of steam into the winter sky. If you have time, check out the Bow Falls viewpoint near the Fairmont Banff Springs (the grander of the two old railroad hotels). Or drop by the Cave and Basin National Historic Site and learn how the spot became the birthplace of the town and the Canadian park system after a railway employee found hot springs in the early 1880s. But be sure to leave time for proper appreciation of Mount Rundle, my favorite Canadian Rocky. From Vermilion Lakes on the outskirts of Banff, you get a clear view of it, with a line of dark trees in the foreground.

If you reach the lakes just before dawn, as I did, it'll probably be subfreezing. But as you walk the edge of these mostly frozen lakes and the darkness lifts, you'll catch Mount Rundle in the middle of an epic skyline view. You'll catch it again upside-down, reflected in the unfrozen shallows, colored by the pink and orange sunrise.

By this time, if you're taking pictures, you may be losing sensation in your fingers. But I can't think of a nicer way to start a winter day.

IF YOU GO

LIFT PASSES

For a Sunshine Village lift pass, adults pay about $77 a day; skibanff.com/sunshine-village

For a Lake Louise Ski Resort lift pass, adults pay about $77; skilouise.com

For a Norquay Ski Resort day pass, adults pay about $56 a day; winter.banffnorquay.com

For a pass that covers all three ski areas, the online, in-advance price is $84 a day, or about $265 for three days; skibig3.com. The three resorts also have joined the Mountain Collective, which offers a 14-day lift pass good at seven North American ski destinations for about $352; mountaincollective.com

WHERE TO STAY

Sunshine Mountain Lodge Rates typically run about $180-$267 (lift pass included) in winter, more for suites; 877-542-2633, sunshinemountainlodge.com

Fairmont Banff Springs Rooms for two typically go for about $275-$460 in winter, more for suites; 866-540-4406, fairmont.com/banff-springs

YWCA Banff Hotel 866-332-3560 Two nights for $120 through Feb. 28; 800-813-4138, ymountainlodge.com

TO LEARN MORE

Banff & Lake Louise Tourism, banfflakelouise.com; Alberta Tourism, travelalberta.com

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