The Essential Guide to Skiing and Snowboarding at Sunshine Village, Banff, Canada
Sunshine Village is a very popular ski resort and for good reason. It has one of the longest snow seasons in the North American continent, boasting champagne powder which is renowned in the Rocky Mountains. It is located mainly in Alberta, Canada, but if you ride the Great Divide Express chair, you'll cross into British Columbia for part of the run! It is easily accessible via Calgary International airport which is less than a two hour drive away and there are many shuttle companies that run from Calgary to Banff, which is the closest town to Sunshine Village. Jen and I spent our first full snow season here from Nov 2007 through to May 2008. Sunshine Village has many, many great memories for us and this is the place where we really learnt to ride. Up until our time at Sunshine, we snowboarded on weekends and holidays that lasted for about a week, so to string 6 months together really pushed us to another level.
Located on the Eastern side of the Canadian Rockies, Sunshine Village has excellent snow quality and quantity averaging around 10 metres a year. That's some serious snow! Combine that with a season that runs from mid November thru to late May, and you've got a mountain that you can do a whole lot of riding. Elevation ranges from 1660m at the base of the gondola to 2730m at the top of Divide / Lookout Mountain. If you hike it's a little higher but we're not talking extreme altitudes here so you shouldn't have too much of an issue adapting when you arrive. As you would expect in the Canadian Rockies, temperatures are pretty low in winter so the snow that falls is well preserved. Dec and Jan are the coldest months with an average maximum of around -9 to -10 C but often you'll get days in the -20's C. From Feb onwards it gets pretty pleasant. I've read reviews that the weather is terrible but you're in the Rocky Mountains and you want snow so it can't be a bluebird everyday! Having spent six months there, I did not leave thinking the weather was bad. Rug up and deal with it - the powder is worth it!
You can either stay on the mountain or in the closest town which is Banff, about 20 minutes away. Banff has many accommodation options including hotels of all levels, backpackers and private accommodation (source through places like Airbnb, HomeStay, etc). Banff itself is a beautiful little town and a tourist attraction in its own right. It's a great place to hang on your cloudy-down days, enjoying the local hospitality, scenery and restaurants.
Canmore is also an option but it's about 40 minutes away.
As mentioned, Sunshine Village is about a 20 minute drive from Banff. Shuttles run from Banff regularly so if you don't have a car, it's not a problem. At the time of writing the bus costs $15 return or it's complimentary if you get a tri-area ski pass. The bus schedule can be found here. If you decide to drive, be aware that winter tyres or snow chains are strongly advised. Parking is free at the base of Sunshine Village but the parking lot gets busy during weekends or public holidays so arrive early if you want a good spot close to the gondola.
Please see our separate post for more detailed information on transport and accommodation options.
Depending on your length of stay there are quite a few options available for ski tickets (prices accurate for 2015/16 season):
- Daily tickets at the ticket window $105.
- Pre-purchase online $95 but must be booked 48 hours prior to using.
- More savings if you purchase multiple days.
- Purchasing the Marmot Card for $99 allows you to get the 1st, 4th and 7th day free and $25 off the regular ticket price on the days that aren't free. Excellent value if you plan to ride for 7 days or more. It also offers other discounts on food and rental equipment. See the Ski Marmot page for more info. Must be purchased before 31st December for the current season.
- Season passes are $1247. However, you can save quite a lot if you pick up an early bird season pass, usually before August/September. In 2007/08 the early bird pass was around $650. Season passes make sense if you plan to spend more than 12 days on the mountain.
- Ski Big 3 offers tickets if you plan to also ride at Lake Louise and Norquay. Prices depend on number of days purchased.
SKI AND SNOWBOARD RENTAL AND PURCHASE
Sunshine Village offers Ski and Snowboard rentals on the mountain. You can get savings with the Marmot Card. There are many operators in Banff and Canmore so take a walk around for the best deals and best equipment.
If you're interested in lining up new gear while you're at Sunshine, there are plenty of retail stores in Banff that will be able to sort you out. Keep in mind we're talking a small resort town so you might not get the best bargain but the range in town is pretty good.
If you want to get off the beaten track, you'll need avalanche gear. If you don't have your own, there are a couple of places in Banff where you can hire a beacon, shovel, probe and backpack.
Lifts and Runs
Below is a list of lifts at Sunshine Village and a brief description of each.
- Gondola - runs from the carpark up to Goat's Eye as the first stop (accessing Goat's Eye and Wolverine chairs) and then continues to the day lodge area where you can access Angel, Strawberry, Mount Standish and Wawa chairs. It is the only way up the mountain and the ride takes around 18 minutes from the bottom to the top.
- Wolverine - high speed quad servicing mainly blue runs which are relatively short.
- Goat's Eye Express - high speed quad servicing Goat's Eye Mountain.
- Jack Rabbit - short fixed quad that gets you to the top of Wolverine (after riding down from the day lodge area).
- Tee Pee Town - updated lift since our time at Sunshine. This is now a covered and heated high speed quad!
- Wawa Quad - fixed quad servicing the north eastern section of Mount Standish.
- Mount Standish Express - high speed quad servicing the main part of Mount Standish.
- Strawberry High Speed Quad - servicing the beginners area.
- Angel Express - high speed quad servicing the lower half of Lookout Mountain and gets you to the base of The Great Divide Express.
- The Great Divide Express - high speed quad that gets you to the top of Lookout Mountain. You will need to use this chair to access Delirium Dive.
If you're willing to search a little, Sunshine Village has a number of runs that the average person doesn't get to ride, albeit the 'main' runs are pretty awesome too. Apart from the groomers, don't be scared to venture into one of the many glades as the trees are mostly spaced pretty nicely to make for fun riding with many powder stashes to be found long after a storm has passed. Standouts in the main areas for us were:
- Sunshine Coast off Goat's Eye - nice wide open run where you can really carve.
- Bye Bye Bowl off the Great Divide Express.
- World Cup Downhill / North Divide off Great Divide Express.
- Ski-out to the base at the end of the day is always good fun. It can get rather busy at the end of the day, so be extra careful as everyone is usually a little tired by then!
More Difficult (suggested only on a recent snow day / powder day)
- The Shoulder off Tee Pee Town.
- Hells Kitchen, Goat Glades (if you like trees) and the Glades (skiers left off Goat's Eye Express, which include Farside, Wildside, Renegade, etc.).
- Eagle Creek is pretty good fun too - nice gully with plenty of features but just watch out for the drop off that is a waterfall during summer!
- Paris Basin to the Waterfall off Wawa.
Off the beaten track - avalanche gear required or strongly recommended for these areas. And please always ride with a buddy if you want to do any of the following runs.
- Delirium Dive - voted 15th out of the top 100 ski runs in the world and that says it all! Avalanche gear compulsory (ski patrol won't let you enter the gates without it).
- Back Door - out the back of Wawa, thru the lower gates. Will pop you out at the bottom of Wolverine Express. Fun little run consisting of gullies and glades. Not too steep but some challenging sections.
- Bowls at the back of Wawa. Avalanches have occurred here and this is not controlled by ski patrol. A little hike gives some very rewarding terrain but please adhere to the avalanche warnings. Check Avalanche Canada before any backcountry or side-country outing.
- The Wild West - great fun and very challenging but takes quite a lot of snow before it opens. Ski patrol do avi control but you'll still need your beacon, probe and shovel before exiting the gates as it's compulsory.
- Healy Creek - a little known route down to the base (carpark). You'll need to exit the gates at Wawa, hike the ridge and drop the backside (North) of Sunshine Village. Very rewarding but the ski out is a little flat so snowboarders are advised to take a collapsable ski pole to help with the traverse. Un-patrolled and no avi control so it's imperative you ride this with a buddy. I'd strongly recommend going with someone who knows the way the first time you head out. Talk to the lifties or ski patrol and I'm sure you'll find a willing riding buddy.
In 2008 the Terrain Park at Sunshine was very progressive, allowing you to build confidence on smaller features before tackling the more challenging ones. The boxes and rails offered lots of variety and the small, medium and large jumps offered nice ramps and landings. As with all parks over the years, the features and jumps have become bigger and more challenging.
There are a few options eating on the mountain. Keep in mind you're away from town so unlike many other North American or European resorts, you're not going to get a plethora of choices. Having said that there are still enough options to find a decent meal on the mountain.
- Base - Creekside and First Tracks Cafe.
- Goat's Eye - Goat's Eye Grill.
- Day Lodge - Java Express, The Alpine Grill, The Lookout Kitchen and Bar and The Sunshine Burger Company.
- Base of Strawberry Lift - Mad Trappers Grill and BBQ.
- Sunshine Mountain Lodge - Java Lift, The Chimney Corner and Eagle's Nest.
Generally speaking the most affordable food was in the Day Lodge and Goat's Eye Grill and in my opinion The Chimney Corner offered the nicest / best value food (a full sit down restaurant).
Luckily Sunshine Village also accommodates people who want to bring their own food. We did 90% of the time as we had to make the pennies stretch to do the entire season! The Day Lodge has lockers or if you're feeling trustworthy, areas to place your backpack. We had a little cooler bag that I'd place in the day lodge and never had any issues. Sunshine also supplies hot water and microwaves so you can still have a hot lunch on a budget!
One Mountain Offers So Much
If you have the luxury, the best times to ride Sunshine are Mon-Fri (weekends attract more crowds, mainly from Calgary) and try to avoid the Christmas/NY week. Otherwise Sunshine Village is pretty quiet when you compare it to resorts in Europe. Conditions really start to come into their own from around January. Prior to that the mountain opens in stages - Goat's Eye and the top of Lookout Mountain generally open about a month later than the rest of the mountain. Delirium Dive and the Wild West can take a further month or two but of course it all depends on the particular season. And if you're lucky enough to hang around until the end of the season, make sure you check out (or participate in!) the annual Slush Cup.
Our time at Sunshine Village provides some of our fondest memories. Awesome snow conditions, excellent terrain, friendly people and a season-long riding experience made it very difficult not to have the best time. If you find yourself in Canada in winter, make sure Sunshine Village is on your itinerary.
Please leave a comment below if you'd like to know more or have an experience at Sunshine you'd like to share. Happy riding!
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