Experience Banff at Its Best Before the Crowds
As winter fades into spring, a rare opportunity emerges to enjoy of one Canada’s best natural locales without the masses.
Two Jack Lake was where it happened.
A casual morning drive along the Lake Minnewanka loop in Banff National Park turned into one of those trademark, ethereal moments you see in car commercials where the outdoors leave you breathless.
The morning shimmer had just begun to illuminate the still-frozen expanse across Two Jack’s own lake near Minnewanka and for a moment, it was just me, the mountains and the mountain goats licking the salt off the road.
Much like the States, Canada’s national parks are most popular when just about everything is accessible in summer or in winter when snow sports tend to be at their best. However, the small slice on the calendar, late April through early June — “Shoulder Season” — is special in its very own way. You’re immersed in a wintry landscape that has begun to thaw and even a couple bluebird days, which are nothing short of brilliant.
Banff is among Canada’s busiest national parks for good reason. It’s a 90-minute drive from Calgary, there’s something for everyone and it’s just downright beautiful. This means summer is jam-packed with RVs and tourists that really detracts from the whole “serenity and nature” thing when you’re competing with the hordes for a reset.
It’s the eastern gateway to the Canadian Rockies with three other national parks as neighbors: Kootenay, Yoho and Jasper. Canada’s “Powder Highway” ski refuge lies just a little further west.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed with the sheer number of options within Banff. 2,564 square miles of rocky glory can lead to sensory overload if you’re not careful. Perhaps the best way to tackle the Banff and Lake Louise area is to pick a chunk and sink your teeth in. You’ll find that the region is best discovered within its details.
The park’s namesake village is the most logical place to start. The small town center has all of the usual suspects: great breweries, a range of food options and a scaled, but vibrant nightlife along Banff Avenue. Alberta’s craft beer and spirits scene really took off after a 2013 mandate was removed on production minimums, paving the way for small batch companies to produce and sell products.
Park Distillery is the area’s shining example with a top-notch lineup of rye-based spirits in a warm, inviting setting rounded out with a rotisserie-based menu. Have the charred meat of your choice, then take home a bottle of gin.
After spending the evening exploring the town, you’ll want to hit the ground running the next morning. There’s no better way to do that than taking advantage of one of North America’s longest ski seasons at Sunshine Village, just a quick drive from the village. This particular year, Alberta saw snow well into April, priming Sunshine’s mountain for some spectacular spring skiing and snowboarding.
Sunshine’s backcountry is equally captivating on a bright, sunny day (just don’t forget solid sunglasses and sunscreen). My afternoon guide from White Mountain Adventures explained how “corn snow” develops as it melts irregularly on top and packs solid underneath for a challenging, yet rewarding snowshoe. (In spring, backcountry runs are pristine and wide open too.)
During these moments of exploration and discovery, the Continental Divide unfolds before your eyes. It’s a stunning vista not quickly soaked in. On this crystal clear day, the peaks rose like a greeting to the expansive wilderness that taunts and invites from a distance.
The local tourism board’s motto is currently one word: alive. Perhaps they meant the physical environment itself, but really it’s the transcendence you’ll feel once you’ve become desensitized to all of the beauty around you. You’ll find that one little glimpse of nature that’ll truly bring you to life. Any of the lakes, peaks or ridges can do it and you’ll certainly know when it does.
Make the effort to get out there in that sweet spot before the summer crowds hit. Because once you feel that moment of clarity, you’ll wonder why it took you so long to get here.
Vail’s season typically extends well into April and offers a nice respite within driving distance of Denver. As the final chilly days hit, you’ll also get to be the first on some hiking trails that have thawed for spring. The Sonnenalp Hotel has plenty of professionally guided tours available based on your skill level. The property is also nicely situated between the two main mountains in this area: Vail and Lionshead.
Solitude Mountain Resort (Solitude, Utah)
This swath of real estate in the Wasatch Range is only 40 minutes from Salt Lake City, but is nestled among the serenity of late-season beauty. Solitude will stay open as late as April 15 and is certainly one of the best options for a mid-week day trip. Two of the best home bases for your visit are within the resort itself: Powderhorn Lodge and The Inn at Solitude.
Jackson Hole, Wyoming
Jackson’s elevation and proximity to the Tetons offers some excellent late-season runs with Snow King in town and the main resort just minutes away. Should you tire of traditional winter sports, you could head out to Turpin Meadow Ranch for fat biking, snowshoeing and more. Back in town, you could do worse than retreating to one of the Rustic Inn’s hot tubs to rest those weary bones and recharge.
Killington Ski Resort (Killington, Vermont)
This resort in the middle of Vermont offers a nice range of ski trails split among ability levels. While skiing extends well into spring (they closed June 1 last season), Killington also has plenty of do off the mountain, including an 18-hole championship golf course (with the dog-friendly Chalet Killington set right off the links). It’s a great spot for culture too: The resort hosts a variety of concerts, festivals and other events alongside the excellent trails.
Mission Ridge Ski & Board Resort (Wenatchee, Washington)
Tucked away in the eastern foot of the Washington Cascades, Mission Ridge is one of those under-the-radar destinations that people seem to pass by (and the locals would prefer to keep it that way). Spread out across a 2,000-acre basin, the resort rarely has lines and trails are often full of light, dry powder. It also is one of the more family-friendly resorts in the area with dedicated child activities and lessons. Several properties offer "Stay & Play" packages, including the Springhill Suites Wenatchee by Marriott.
Whistler Blackcomb (Whistler, British Columbia)
With two mountains and the Canadian wilderness at your doorstep, Whistler Blackcomb is one of North America’s largest ski resorts for good reason. Skiing and snowboarding run well into April, plus the transition "shoulder season" offers a number of other activities from ziplining to backcountry trails. Not to be missed is the main village with tributes to the 2010 Olympics, plenty of solid restaurants and vibrant nightlife. Delta Hotels by Marriott Whistler Village Suites is just off the center of the village and even has in-house ski and snowboard rentals should you not want to bring your own.
Mont Sainte-Anne (Beaupre, Quebec)
Each weekend in April this resort northeast of Quebec City puts on a show for those that take advantage of its late-season runs. Their "Spring Madness" program includes live bands, free hot tubs at the base of the mountain, inflatable games and more. It’s Apres culture taken up a notch. Retreat from the hustle and bustle at the Chateau Mont-Sainte Anne, which offers a variety of studios and condos suited to your group’s specific needs.
Tordrillo Mountain Lodge (Skwentna, Alaska)
A 40-minute flight from Anchorage gets you to this remote destination/accommodation where skiing (specifically heli-skiing) runs into July. Because of the daily freezing cycles, a specific kind of powder known as "corn snow" forms where the snow crystals are prime for soft, carvable runs as they thaw in the morning and refreeze towards the end of the day. And if you tire of skiing, the King Salmon fishing is worth the trek too.
Silver Mountain (Kellogg, Idaho)
If you’re one to push your luck towards squeezing out one last run, Silver Mountain might be your spot. Twice in the last 10 years, the resort has had ski runs open through Memorial Day weekend. While you’re there, you can take advantage of some of the region’s best mountain biking too — the terrain below should be clear. The main village’s Morning Star Lodge offers a nice respite from the slopes.
Big Sky, Montana
To the northwest of Yellowstone lies this gem, which really captures the essence of the American West with access to a top-tier mountain to boot. With an expansive set of runs and trails, there’s a late-season route available for every ability level. Summit at Big Sky is a luxurious accommodation choice and in the middle of all the village action.