Northern Rockies/Alberta Northern Rockies Roadtrip: Part 2, Revelstoke and Banff

Jim Kenney

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[Part 1 can be found here.]

At least three times during our March 2018 trip through the Northern Rockies we made 3- to 7-hr drives after putting in a day of skiing, including a memorable drive in a remote part of western Montana traveling from Jackson, WY, toward Canada. We exited I-90 southeast of Missoula around 8:30 pm to head north in the direction of Revelstoke. There was a motel at the Interstate exit, but I was not sleepy and decided to drive a few more miles. Oops. From then on we saw very little civilization traveling on dark, two-lane roads in what turned out to be an area of National Forests and designated wilderness land. At 10:30 pm we came across an unattended gas station with self-service pumps and a small, 1950s-type motel, the Seeley Lake Motor Lodge. I was ever so glad to make stops at both! When we hit the road again in the morning, it took another 90 mi on MT Route 83 before we came to the next motels and gas stations in Kalispell. Lesson learned; don't let your gas tank get below one-third full in Big Sky country.

Revelstoke, British Columbia
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North Bowl traverse at Revelstoke, photo by Jim Kenney


It was hard to roll right past Whitefish Mountain (near Kalispell) and Kicking Horse (near Golden) ski areas without stopping. Both looked intriguing from the highway, but with the MCP governing our itinerary, we were committed to continue on to Revelstoke. I had never been there before. The ski area is about 1 mi outside the town. Kathy was able to drop us off each day and keep the car. The 5,620 ft vertical and 3,000+ skiable acres of Revy's terrain are serviced by only three aerial lifts and a small but modern base village. There are also two short carpet lifts. The volume of skiers on the mountain during our two ski days was very light, possibly no more than hundreds. Never having been there before, the thought of so much uncontested acreage gave me visions of endless glades dancing in my head.
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Outstanding tree skiing off the Stoke chair at Revelstoke, BC; photo by Jim Kenney

Reality was a little different, no pun intended: there is a nice bowl at Revy called Separate Reality. Because of its size and low traffic, parts of Revy ski like lift-served backcountry. However, the ski terrain ranges in elevation from approximately 1,700 to 7,300 ft above sea level, and this is cause for highly variable snow conditions despite the northern latitude. Revelstoke had experienced a recent melt-freeze event and the snow on the lower 3,000 ft ranged from soggy porridge at the base to mid-Atlantic-style frozen granular at mid-mountain. The snow on the upper trails and trees around the Ripper and Stoke chairs was much better, but visibility remained limited for much of our visit.
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Vince skied through the center notch in this section of North Bowl called Meet the Neighbors; photo by Jim Kenney


Six to 10 in. of spring snow fell overnight on the highest parts of Revelstoke, and by the second day we had abandoned the lower mountain and figured out it was best to stick to the Stoke and Ripper chairs, including multiple trips through the hike-to alpine terrain above the Stoke chair in the North Bowl. This huge area of off-piste skiing reaches an elevation of 7,300 ft and features a variety of bowls, chutes, and remote glades deserving of numerous days of exploration. However, it takes rides on both chairlifts (Ripper and Stoke) to lap much of the North Bowl terrain. I have heard they plan to add another upper mountain lift by 2020, and I could see going back to Revelstoke someday in clearer conditions to get to know it a little better.
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Greely Bowl in low light; photo by Jim Kenney

We had several good and economical meals in the town of Revelstoke. The best was at Zalas Steak and Pizza, which was close to our moderately priced motel, the Days Inn and Suites. Revelstoke feels more like a working-class mountain town than a ski resort. It has a great railroading history and Kathy enjoyed visiting the train museum there. Snowmobilers outnumbered the skiers at our motel. We had no problem eating out with no reservations. They tell me summers are busier than winters in Revelstoke.
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Columbia River view; photo by Jim Kenney



Lake Louise, Alberta

The Trans-Canadian Highway was closed sporadically during our visit due to fresh snowfall, but on the afternoon of our planned relocation from Revy to Banff (175 mi), it opened just after we finished skiing and started driving eastward. We were fortunate that none of our planned drives during the trip were seriously impacted by stormy weather. The Banff area had been on my must-see list forever. I love mountain scenery almost as much as skiing itself. After my first day of making tracks at Lake Louise, I was ready to rate it as one of the most beautiful spots I have ever skied in 51 seasons and 90+ ski areas. Incredible scenery continued to unfold as the clouds lifted during an unforgettable day.
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A ride on Louise's Summit t-bar was on my bucket list; photo by Jim Kenney

We had a friend from Calgary (thanks, Dan!) who showed us around the mountain and greatly added to our enjoyment and discovery. We met him and showed him around Utah two weeks before. Sweet karma! Louise has it all: bowls, trees, bumps, and stunning groomers. The mountain received 18 in. of snow in the two days before our arrival, and the trail conditions were the best I had seen on the trip since the first two days in Utah.
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Friends in high places, Lake Louise, AB; photo by Jim Kenney


Besides being extremely scenic, I thought Louise offered the most satisfying variety of terrain of the four resorts we sampled in Canada on the trip. The frontside skiing is characterized by many picturesque groomed runs. The backside features some of the steepest terrain and includes open bowls, big mogul runs, fine tree skiing, and even a boulder-strewn trail called Rock Garden.
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Tree skiing with Pilot Dan, friend of @Poolskier Vinny; photo by Jim Kenney


We found a very egalitarian vibe at Canadian ski resorts. Most lodges offer loads of free cubbies for guest use and I got no hassles for brown-bagging my lunch inside dining areas. In Lake Louise's magnificent and sprawling base lodge, they even made PA announcements to remove your personal stuff and make room for the next guy when finished dining on public lunch tables.
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St. Paddy's Day at Lake Louise; photo by Jim Kenney

Banff Sunshine, Alberta


The accommodations highlight of the entire trip came when we visited Banff Sunshine ski area and stayed two nights and three days at the mid-mountain Sunshine Mountain Lodge with a nice MCP lodging discount. It was quiet mid-week and they let us check in at 11 am on our first day and check out at 1 pm on our last day. We took advantage of this and skied three straight days in great conditions.
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View of Sunshine Village and the Angel Express Quad lift line; photo by Jim Kenney


The Sunshine Mountain Lodge sits at an elevation of 7,100 ft and has a rustic but tasteful design with several dining options onsite. It is accessible only by a long gondola ride and provides an end-of-the-world feeling for a total skiing immersion. Our room had a balcony that overlooked the slopes and the lodge's large outdoor hot tub.
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The Sunshine Mountain Lodge's Chimney Corner restaurant; photo by Jim Kenney


The ski terrain at Banff Sunshine is generally geared toward intermediates with many lifts and much acreage devoted to above-treeline blue square slopes. But we also experienced some high-end expert terrain in the Goats Eye trail pod and Delirium Dive. A short hike and mandatory avalanche gear are required to access the latter. I found the long steel stairway (and icy landing at its base) constructed to ease entry into Delirium Dive to be the sketchiest part of the run.
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Entrance to Delirium Dive and view of Goats Eye from Delirium; photos by Jim Kenney


The main headwall of Delirium Dive was steep, but filled with soft, edgeable snow. Vince avoided the stairs on the second of his "dives" down the Delirium headwall by taking a very sporty route through steep, tight chutes from a high point above it. It is not for me to question how necessary the mandatory avalanche gear requirement is for this terrain, but it certainly helps to filter out inappropriate neophytes.
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The Delirium Dive headwall is in the center below the patch of blue sky; photo by Jim Kenney


Lift-served terrain at Banff Sunshine goes up to 8,960 ft. This is higher than the other resorts in the region, and ski conditions were great with intermittent snow showers during our visit, including a foot of powder on our last day. Yet when we took the Village transport gondola (~3 mi, 1,700 ft vertical) on our final afternoon to leave the resort, there was no snow on our car down at the base lot or on the roads for the 10-mi drive back to Banff.
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@Poolskier Vinny in Bye Bye Bowl off the Great Divide Express chair, photo by Jim Kenney



Après-Ski in Banff


The Banff area was filled with fun activities, and it was here that Kathy, the nonskier, had some of her best experiences. Kathy and I twice enjoyed extremely scenic snowshoeing excursions at Banff Sunshine ski area by riding the Standish Chair to explore Sunshine Meadows (elevation 7,825 ft). One day I quit skiing early at Lake Louise and she picked me up for high tea at the nearby Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. Afterward we meandered inside the magnificent hotel and then went for a 1-hr snowshoe session across frozen Lake Louise, one of the most beautiful alpine lakes in North America.
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On the way to High Tea at Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise; photo by Jim Kenney

On a day in Banff when I didn't ski, we took an exciting hike through nearby Johnston Canyon to walk among tall cliffs and frozen waterfalls. It was romantic with few others on the trail. Then we took a soak in the world-famous Banff Hot Springs pool overlooking town. Later we went to the Grizzly House restaurant in Banff and enjoyed a fun dinner cooking a variety of meats on a hot stone right at our table. Not a bad day considering no skiing was involved:)
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Hiking Johnston Canyon near Banff and the Banff Hot Springs pool, photos by Jim Kenney


A lack of pretension seemed to pervade all the Canadian towns we visited including Revelstoke, Golden, Banff, and Canmore. We found the Myrtle, an oversized turtle-type confection, in a candy store in Banff called Mountain Chocolates. The Myrtle consisted of a particularly delicious caramel with extra-crunchy peanuts and wrapped in a thick coating of chocolate. It was the size and weight of a hockey puck. The favorable currency exchange for Americans was like dining, shopping, and lodging at a 25 to 30% discount the whole time we were in Canada. At the Wood restaurant in Canmore I had a steak, potato, large side salad, and bottle of Kokanee beer for $12.40 US.
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Banff was not too busy in mid-March; photo by Jim Kenney



Mt Norquay


The standard deal with MCP is two "free" days at all 15 to 20 participating resorts and then unlimited half-price lift tickets thereafter. After getting my days at Lake Louise and Banff Sunshine I wasn't sure if Mt Norquay ski area was included. A tourist office in Banff told me that if I showed my MCP at Mt Norquay's ticket window, I could get one free lift ticket there too. I decided to go to there for my last morning of skiing on the trip. What a great decision! Mt Norquay was an awesomely beautiful and historic little ski area (1,650 ft vertical, five lifts).
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Patrolling Mt Norquay; photo by Jim Kenney


I skied Mt Norquay on March 23 and it turned out to be my last ski day not only of the trip, but of my season. I got some great Rocky M
ountain images in my head to last all summer. There are terrific black diamond runs off the ancient North American pulse double chair. A friendly ski patroller from Calgary and I were among the few riding it that morning. Norquay drips with history. A ski lodge was first built there in 1927. The North American or "Big Chair" has been offering up expert terrain and spectacular views of Banff and the Bow Valley since 1948, making it one of the oldest chairs in North America.
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North American chair at Mt Norquay; photo by Jim Kenney

There is an exceptional little summit restaurant/structure at the top of the North American chair called Cliff House. It also goes back many years (built in 1952) and has a fabulous Flintstones-meets-Jetsons architectural style. I was curious to get inside, but it was closed until high season in summer.
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Cliff House at Mt. Norquay; photo by Jim Kenney

Conclusion


What I haven't mentioned so far is that this trip didn't really begin in Salt Lake City and end in Calgary. My wife and I actually started and finished the road trip in the Washington, DC, area for a journey that was 7,000 mi in total. We initially towed a U-Haul trailer full of home furnishings to our son's house in Utah on the first leg of the trip, rushing to beat the impending snowstorm in the Wasatch. A couple of days after dropping our son off at the Calgary airport for his flight back to Salt Lake, Kathy and I made the return drive from Alberta in 3.5 days.
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My wife and I enjoyed some play time together, but also several long road days; photo by Jim Kenney

My concluding thoughts about this trip are a bit mixed due to the grueling first and last legs of the drive. The Utah-to-Banff segment was great and aided by cooperative weather. I enjoyed the outstanding skiing and saw many beautiful winter sights. My wife is a saint to endure all the long driving days with us. We could have used more time in Jackson and Revelstoke to break things up. Sadly, we couldn't fit in Sun Valley, which was on the MCP and not too far off our route, but I was really glad to have squeezed in a bonus day at Mt Norquay. Gasoline was roughly 30% more expensive in Canada than the US during our travels: be sure to fill up before crossing the border. My number of ski days on this trip: Snowbasin 2, Snowbird 2, Alta 2, Jackson Hole 2, Revelstoke 2, Lake Louise 2, Banff Sunshine 3, Mt Norquay 1.
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Closing out the season at beautiful Mt Norquay; photo by Jim Kenney

The skiing highlights of the trip included a week of good times and good conditions with friends in Utah, watching my son drop Corbet's Couloir at Jackson Hole, dropping myself into Delirium Dive, and experiencing some of the finest resorts in Western Canada. Our best après-ski experiences were in Banff. It was a great area to hike, snowshoe, swim, dine, and stroll with my wife. I tend to fall into the vacationer's trap of trying to visit too many great places in too little time. My final lesson: in the midst of frenetic ski travel, the experience is enhanced by occasionally stopping to smell the roses.
 

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DanoT

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I found the long steel stairway (and icy landing at its base) constructed to ease entry into Delirium Dive to be the sketchiest part of the run.
^^^Made me LOL because I spent most of 1974 ski bumming at Lake Louise and visited Sunshine Village a few times. Back then there was no Patrol opening/closing of the run, no avy gear needed, and instead of a sketchy staircase there was a rope. That's right: skis occupying one shoulder and hand, other hand holding onto the rope while you side stepped down the rocky ridge in your ski boots. Then put your skis on (not all bindings were step-in in those days) while standing on a 3-4' wide ledge with Delirium Dive on one side of the ledge and a No Fall zone on the other....Needless to say, I passed.

At Revelstoke the huge vertical is a bit misleading because unless you are there on a cold day in mid winter the base elevation is way too low to be skiing top to bottom. Most of the time after you go about 1000' vertical below the top Stoke chair (2000' vert) the snow gets heavy enough to persuade one to get on the meandering cat track for the next 2000' vertical. They should have built a chair 1500'vert below the Stoke chair that feeds the Stoke, instead of needing to go all the way to the bottom of the upper gondola (3000'vert) as its base is only around 2400' asl.
 

Ski&ride

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I felt the same about Kicking Horse too.

A lot of “just to the bottom of the lift” kind of skiing, at least on some of the less optimal snow days. Seemd to be a Canadian Rockie thing?
 

DanoT

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I felt the same about Kicking Horse too.

A lot of “just to the bottom of the lift” kind of skiing, at least on some of the less optimal snow days. Seemd to be a Canadian Rockie thing?


No! Both RMR and KH were founded by people with zero ski industry experience and flawed lift systems and trying to develop resorts with almost zero intermediate terrain was the result. And then this leads to reduced appeal to families who are the main buyers of ski resort real estate and then this leads to a much slower resort base village development.

My guess is that both resorts make enough $ to pay for operating costs but with little left over for investment in expansion.
 

DanoT

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Same people? Or different groups of people with no ski industry experience?
Kicking Horse was founded and designed by Alberto Oberti an architect from Vancouver who got his financing from a Dutch bridge construction company who as part of a contract to build a bridge from Nova Scotia to Prince Edward Island, were required to make an investment somewhere in Canada.

Oberti is also the guy behind the failed attempt to build Jumbo Glacier Ski Resort near Panorama Ski Resort. He is also the guy behind Valemont Glacier Destination, another development with a nice flawed master plan and they are on the verge of failure due to a lack of financing.http://valemountglaciers.com/ Their most recent news update is April 2017. Nice website though.

Revelstoke Mountain Resort was founded 11 years ago by real estate developers from Toronto and Colorado. At the time I predicted 5 years of loosing money and then they would sell. I was wrong as they sold out after one year.

The current owner of RMR Tom Gaglardi, is a billionaire who was born into the family hotel chain business. He also owns the NHL Dallas Stars hockey team. Gaglardi is on record as saying that if he had it to do over again he would not buy the resort. However the last few summers cabins have been added to the gondola and a new chair this past summer that will allow access to the Ripper chair without having to go to the top of the mountain (I think that is its purpose). AFAIK the new chair won't add much in the way of new terrain but is more about connecting lifts.

One more thing about RMR, a couple of summers ago they built a 900'vert Mountain Coaster and since summer is the big tourist season in Revelstoke, it is a big hit with long waiting lines. The joke among RMR locals is that the summertime Mountain Coaster subsidizes the RMR winter operation. It might not be a joke.:huh:
 
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Decreed_It

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Jim thanks for the excellent review - commentary, photos, thoughts - of Banff area - headed there St. Patty's Day weekend with a buddy for the 1st time. Very helpful to get the place pre-wired!
 

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