Banff (AB), Canada – Sunshine Village’s base is ever so slightly off the beaten path in a narrow valley just big enough for parking. Beginning there, you board a gondola lift to take you up the mountain to where the skiing is really located. It’s not until you board the upper mountain lifts that you truly understand.
Unlike nearly every ski area that sits along a portion of the mountains or descends to a large valley with a real or purpose-built town at its base, Sunshine provides the unmistakable feeling of literally being surrounded by jagged peaks extending in all directions. Up close, at mid-distance or far away, there is nothing but a sea of mountains stretching off to every horizon. You don’t see any villages, parking lots, or anything other than the skiing in front of you and the mountains.
Lets be clear that skiing at any of the resorts in the Canadian Rockies means huge views, but these are unique and just… different. Once up and into the main area of the resort the ski area’s 3,300 acres of terrain.deliver a plethora of options.
Like children getting an ice cream cone we went straight for the Angel Express and Continental Divide Express lifts that shoot up Lookout Mountain above the tree line. Several nicely pitched open bowls and groomed sections are situated up top, and luckily for me about eight to 10 inches of fresh snow fell overnight. It’s a perfect combination, especially with those views. There are a lot of blue options here, too, where you can try out some of the “off-piste” bowl skiing but dart right back onto the groomed runs should you need to.
From the bowl where the gondola ends at its top terminal, lifts on Sunshine Village’s upper mountain radiate in all directions. The bowl itself holds a day lodge with two restaurants and the only on-slope accommodations at any of the ski resorts in Alberta’s National Parks. The lodge’s existence is all based on historical precedent and Sunshine Mountain Lodge works hard to keep itself as “green” as possible. The rooms here are nothing short of luxurious in both finish and views.
We began to rotate around the upper mountain base by trying out the Mount Standish Express and Wawa Quad. These lifts don’t have the big vertical but still offer a lot in their variety of terrain. Standish has a short but steep drop-off just to the right of the lift as you ride up, fun for short hucks in the day’s powder, but both lifts have several blue runs, too. On Wawa the trees of Star Trek and the drop into the Waterfall are both very fun runs.
After a sit-down buffet lunch upstairs in the day lodge we started moving toward the steeper terrain of Goat’s Eye. On the way we tried out the Jackrabbit and Wolverine lifts and found the heavily treed trails serviced by them to be a lot longer, with more vertical and far more interesting than the trail map would seem to indicate. These runs don’t appear to get much traffic, except on days when it’s too stormy for the upper mountain area.
When it first opened a decade ago, the 1,900 vertical feet of Goat’s Eye Mountain really put Sunshine back into the conversation of expert skiers and riders with its mix of chutes, open terrain and cut runs spread across a very broad face of the mountain. The chutes are very wide but fill in nicely with lots of snow. All of them require hiking to get the full vertical, but you can easily hit the first two via a traverse. An additional quartet of steep trails fall down the same face of the mountain before gradually becoming wide open glades, yet all of them provide the opportunity to experience one of the most fun exit trails in ski country. Eagle Creek is not for the faint of heart with its eight- to 10-foot drop halfway through, although you can cut to skier’s left at that point to leave the frozen creek if you want to. The rest of the runs off Goat’s Eye are a mix of blues and progressively steeper bump runs.
Unfortunately, the signature extreme terrain of Wild West and Delirium Dive were both closed during my visit. Not from lack of snow, mind you, but due to the converse issue: avalanche danger.
At the end of the day there you are handed two options. You either have to ski one of two long run-out trails back into the valley where you parked, or you can take the gondola lift back down. After having heard negative things about the run-out trails I was pleasantly surprised that while not by any means devoid of skiers, the trails were not obscenely crowded. With their rolls and zig-zags they actually kind of fun in that “I’m not quite sure what’s around the next corner or roll” kind of way.
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Where to Stay: With the only on-hill lodging at any of the ski resorts in Alberta’s National Parks, the Sunshine Mountain Lodge sits most of the way up the ski mountain at the top of the gondola, which is used to ferry both you and your luggage. Given its location and provenance there are a ton of green features here. There is a game room to entertain the kids, and among the many amenities are a large outdoor hot tub for soaking literally a step or two away from the slopes. Or you can try out some complementary snowshoeing, tobogganing, movies or simple stargazing. Think of it as having dinner up on the mountain like so many other resorts now offer, except you’re sleeping down the hall afterwards.
This is the fifth installment in a week-long series of feature articles on Alberta’s major ski resorts. Next up tomorrow: Mount Norquay