Family Travel: Three Perfect Days in Banff National Park
posted by: Amber Johnson
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.
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 Banff Ski Hub. 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.