Walsh: Canadian resorts make for super trip

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JASPER, Alberta

Marmot Basin, an often overlooked snow sports site because of its distance from three of its better known southern Canadian neighbors -- Lake Louise, Sunshine Village and Mt. Norquay -- was an ideal place to begin a weeklong visit to all four resorts.

The basin, in Jasper National Park, is 12 miles from this town in the province of Alberta. It has 86 slopes and trails on 1,675 acres served by seven lifts, including the longest (1,955 feet) high-speed quad in the Canadian Rockies. The longest run is 3.5 miles.

The terrain is roughly divided into thirds for beginners/novices, intermediates and advanced skiers and snowboarders. The vertical drop is 3,000 feet. There are three day lodges -- one at the base and two at mid-mountain. We were blessed with fresh snow and no lift lines during our two-day visit.

We stopped at the Columbia Icefield on our way south via the Icefields Parkway to Lake Louise. It is one of the largest accumulations of ice and snow -- 125 square miles -- south of the Arctic Circle.

Lake Louise is huge -- 4,200 acres on four mountains, 139 named slopes and trails, 10 lifts including a gondola, a beginner/novice run down from each of its five chairlifts and "more terrain than can be skied or snowboarded in a week," said proprietor Charlie Locke.

To be properly introduced to all that terrain, one can take a free mountain tour with Ski Friends, the men and women who wear yellow jackets. The tours are offered at 10 a.m. and 1:15 p.m. daily and are designed for all ability levels.

The terrain breakdown is 25 percent beginner/novice, 45 percent intermediate and 30 percent advanced. The longest run is five miles and the vertical drop is 3,250 feet.

Improvements for the current season include a completely revamped beginners' area with user-friendly conveyor lifts, new snow grooming machines and upgrades to its snowmaking system.

It was snowing when we arrived at Sunshine Village, a sprawling three-mountain resort in Banff National Park that is perched on the Continental Divide with 3,358 acres of terrain.

It is possible to ski or snowboard in two provinces -- Alberta and British Columbia -- in one run on Lookout Mountain.

Access to 107 named slopes and trails is provided by 12 lifts, including a high-speed eight-passenger gondola and six high-speed quads. Twenty percent of the terrain is designed for beginners/novices, 55 percent intermediate and 25 percent advanced. The vertical drop is 3,514 feet.

Snowboarders and freestyle skiers of all ability levels will enjoy Rogers Terrain Park, a 15-acre site with more than 50 features.

A typical Sunshine Village season extends from early November to late May, a bonus for residents of nearby Banff.

We only had time for snowtubing at Mt. Norquay, the first ski resort in the Canadian Rockies when it opened in 1926. It is small -- 28 runs on 190 acres -- but mighty with some of the most challenging advanced terrain in the province.

It has one high-speed quad chairlift, two standard quads, one double chair and one surface lift. Snowmaking covers 85 percent of its terrain. The vertical drop is 2,540 feet. The resort, which has night skiing and snowtubing, is four miles from downtown Banff.

Although Jasper is a five-hour (255 miles) drive from Calgary, a rental SUV provides the flexibility for visiting all or some of the four resorts. The roads, which pass through some of the most spectacular mountain scenery anywhere, are well maintained.

Each resort has all-inclusive spring package deals, including several with Fairmont Hotels and the Sunshine Mountain Lodge.

Information: www.skimarmot.com; www.skilouise.com; www.skibanff.com/sunshine-village/; www.skibig3.com; www.banfftours.com.

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Larry Walsh writes about recreational snowsports for the Post-Gazette.


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