THE 7000 MILE SKI ROAD TRIP
By Jim Kenney
Last winter I tackled a tremendous ski road trip, but it was also one of the most grueling of my life, traveling 7,070 miles from March 1-26, 2018. I drove from Northern Virginia to Utah, Wyoming, Western Canada, and back to Virginia. In this report I'll give a recap of the eight ski areas I visited during the trip, address some of the challenges associated with extensive winter driving in the Rockies, and describe a few interesting aprÃ¨s-ski activities we enjoyed along the way.
Nicely winterized motor vehicle at Banff Sunshine Ski Resort, photo by Jim Kenney.
I have driven from Northern Virginia to ski in the US West nine times in my adult life. The first time was a solo trip in 1976 to Colorado in a VW Beetle over a college spring break. Usually these cross-country trips have been beeline blitzes to Colorado. In 2015 I drove to Lake Tahoe and back including a 30 day stay-over in Colorado during a nine-week itinerary. This March 2018 trip was too much driving in too short a time to be truthful, but I had a Mountain Collective Pass (MCP) and the crazy determination to check several far flung resorts in Western Canada off my ski area bucket list.
A ride on the super scenic Lake Louise Summit Platter lift was on my skiing bucket list, photo by Jim Kenney
My non-skiing wife Kathy, God bless her, accompanied me the whole way. Her participation encouraged me to try a few more off-slope excursions than I might otherwise attempt. But let me warn you, numerous 12-17 hour days in a car will test any relationship, even after 38 years of marriage:-) If there is a single take away from this tale of resort hopping, it is to carefully weigh the ratio of transit time vs. resort time when planning a road trip itinerary.
VIRGINIA TO UTAH
For us long time ski travelers these days of relatively inexpensive multi-resort passes seem like the best of times. The sheer number of superb resorts now in play for ski vacationers is an embarrassment of riches. However, if you live a great distance from the nearest resort on your pass (MCP in this case) it presents a bit of a dilemma for how to best capitalize on the investment. My standard joke about the MCP is that it costs only $400 for the pass, but thousands of dollars to travel to different mountains to use the pass.
Those of us living in the mid-Atlantic we are approximately 500 miles from the lone eastern MCP ski area (Sugarbush) and nearly 2000 miles from the nearest western MCP ski area (Aspen). Since my interest was westward, most folks in my situation attempting to visit a bunch of MCP resorts in one trip would fly west, rent a car in Denver or Salt Lake City and start their itinerary from there. But I had an ulterior motive to bring a load of old family furniture to Utah and help furnish my son's recently purchased house in Salt Lake City, so my wife and I drove our car (Subaru Outback) for the whole enchilada. We were super lucky with a nice combination of good skiing and good driving conditions throughout the trip.
Clear roads in the town of Banff, Alberta, photo by Jim Kenney
Road conditions and weather are not to be taken lightly on a long winter drive through the northern Rockies. The first leg of the trip from the Washington DC area to Salt Lake City was grunt work as we covered the 2000 miles in two and a half days of driving. We averaged 13 miles per gallon towing a U-Haul trailer full of household stuff. Kathy used her smart phone to track road conditions for the duration of our trip. There was a threat of snow for Wyoming and Utah and we pushed hard to arrive in Salt Lake City just before one to two feet of snow descended throughout the Wasatch Mountains.
The unloading of the U-Haul was successful and the next day I started skiing. It was the first week of March and I skied with a huge group (75-100) of PugSki.com Gatherers including numerous mid-Atlantic friends for two days each at Snowbasin, Snowbird, and Alta. The new snow made ski conditions excellent everywhere we went, but especially good for the first two days which were at Snowbasin.
Group shot at Snowbasin, UT, photo by Jim Kenney
My highlights at Snowbasin were skiing fresh powder in Easter Bowl from the Allen Peak Tram (summit elevation 9465'), skiing the advanced glades under the John Paul Express Chair, and catching-up (literally and figuratively) with ski buddies from all around the country. I had only two prior days lifetime at Snowbasin and these were the best conditions I'd experienced there.
Offpiste skiing at Snowbasin near the John Paul Express Chair, photo by Jim Kenney
I also spent time cruising the friendly terrain off the Needles Gondola and soaking up the wonderful vibe in various on-mountain lodges at Snowbasin. Needles, John Paul, and Earl's lodges are three of the nicest retreats in North American ski country. They also serve tasty food. After two overcast and snowy days it was great to finally catch a climactic 3 PM glimpse of the Great Salt Lake from the top of the Strawberry Gondola.
Clouds lift for a Great Salt Lake view, photo by Jim Kenney
My highlight at Snowbird was sharing the beauties of this bodacious mountain that I’ve gotten to know quite well in recent years with my East Coast friends in gorgeous, clear weather. The very steep terrain in The Cirque skied nicely, having recovered well from an early season snow drought. The trees under the Gad 2 chair were in good shape too.
The Cirque at Snowbird including the brilliant Great Scott run to the left, photo by Jim Kenney
Mineral Basin on the backside of Snowbird was in its sun drenched glory. Hard chargers love the Cirque and other legendarily steep frontside terrain, but older or mellower folks think they have died and gone to heaven when Mineral Basin lights up with sunshine and packed powder conditions. I saw a lady one day while at lunch in the Summit Restaurant (elevation 11000'). She was ninety if she was a day and dressed in helmet and ski boots while impressively tromping around with a lunch tray in hand.
Mineral Basin, photo by Jim Kenney
My highlights at Alta included fun advanced runs in the Catherine’s and Greeley areas, and some great cruisers off the Sugarloaf chair. There is a very agreeable aesthetic at Alta, but I'm still not a big fan of their policy prohibiting snowboarders. It seems unjust to exclude any responsible person from enjoying such a beautiful part of God's creation.
Catherine's area at Alta, UT, photo by Jim Kenney
It was a blast to ski three of Utah's finest mountains with a gang of great friends. I got to ski with two of my adult children on days at Alta and Snowbird and I went snowshoeing with my wife in Little Cottonwood Canyon. But I had an MCP burning in my pocket and soon the great white north beckoned.
Enjoying Utah with the next generation, photo by Jim Kenney
After a week in Utah, my wife, son and I drove up to Jackson, WY. The trip was uneventful on rural US 89 through a pretty, if desolate, section of western Wyoming. But we did much of the drive at twilight time and the constant meandering of mule deer beside the road made me anxious. There were caution-animals-crossing signs for many miles along this route.
My son Vince and I skied two consecutive weekdays at Jackson Hole. Weather conditions were the same beautiful sunshine we saw the week before in Utah. However, it was interesting how the snow differed from the consistent Utah powder/packed powder. A week of sunshine and slightly different terrain exposure will do that. At Jackson you had to manage the sun and ski appropriate exposures at appropriate times of the day.
Laramie Bowl at Jackson Hole, WY, photo by Jim Kenney
This time at Jackson Hole I found a nice solution for booting-up in the morning at Nick Wilson's Cowboy Cafe beneath the front of the tram building and they let us stow boot bags under benches inside the cafe. The terrain at Jackson Hole is as good as it gets for an advanced snowrider. Vince dropped Corbet’s Couloir three times while we were there. I observed and photographed him and then skied around the shoulder of the mountain each time to greet him at the bottom of that run. It’s impressive from all angles.
Tip-toeing into Corbet's Couloir, photo by Jim Kenney
We had one of our most memorable drives of the trip in a remote part of western Montana going from Jackson, WY to Canada. This was a part of North American ski country I'd never visited before. We exited I90 near Missoula around 8:30 PM to head north in the direction of Revelstoke. There was a motel at the interstate exit, but I was not sleepy and decided to drive a few more miles. From then on we saw very little civilization while traveling on dark, two-lane roads in what turned out to be a remote area of National Forests and designated wilderness land. At 10:30 PM we came across an unattended gas station, but with self-serve gas pumps and a small, 1950's type motel, the Seeley Lake Motor Lodge. I was ever-so-glad to make stops at both! When we hit the road again in the morning it took another 90 miles on MT Route 83 before we came to the next motels and gas stations in Kalispell. Lesson learned; don't let your gas tank get below one-third full in Big Sky country.
It was hard to roll right past Whitefish Mountain (near Kalispell) and Kicking Horse (near Golden) ski areas. Both looked intriguing from the highway, but with the MCP governing our itinerary we were committed to drive straight to our next destination - Revelstoke. Our two ski days at Revelstoke were really interesting. Never having been there before, the idea of 5620' vertical and 3000 skiable acres gave me visions of endless glades dancing in my head.
An area of steep chutes in North Bowl called Meet the Neighbors, Vince had just skied through the narrow notch in upper-center, photo by Jim Kenney
Reality was a little different (no pun intended, but there is a great bowl at Revy called Separate Reality). The ski terrain ranges in elevation from approximately 1700’ to 7300’ above sea level and this is a cause for variable snow conditions despite the northern latitude. Revelstoke had experienced a recent melt-freeze event and the snow on the lower 3000' ranged from soggy porridge to mid-Atlantic style frozen granular as you ascended the mountain. The snow on the upper trails and trees around the Ripper and Stoke chairs was much better, but visibility remained limited for much of our visit.
The Stoke chair at Revelstoke, BC, photo by Jim Kenney
Six to ten inches of spring snow fell overnight on the highest parts of Revelstoke and by the second day we had figured out the place to be was around the Stoke and Ripper chairs, and especially the hike-to alpine terrain above the Stoke chair in what the resort calls the North Bowl. This huge area of offpiste terrain reaching elevation 7300' and featuring a variety of bowls, chutes, and remote glades deserves numerous days of exploration. However, it takes two chairlift rides (Ripper and Stoke) to lap the North Bowl terrain. I have heard they plan to add another upper mountain lift by 2020 and I could see going back to Revelstoke someday in clearer conditions to get to know it a little better:-)
The traverse into North Bowl, photo by Jim Kenney
We had several good and economical meals in the town of Revelstoke, the best being Zalas Steak and Pizza, and we didn't even make it to the renowned Village Idiot Bar and Grill. Revelstoke feels much more like a working class mountain town (with a great railroad history) than a ski resort. There were more snowmobilers than skiers staying at our motel. The ski area is just a mile or two away and felt deserted compared to the high volume of skier traffic we'd seen a couple days before at Jackson Hole.
LAKE LOUISE, AB
The Trans-Canadian Highway was closed sporadically during our visit due to moderate snowfall, but on the afternoon we drove from Revy to Banff (175 miles) it opened just after we finished skiing and started our planned drive eastward. The Banff area had been on my must-see list forever. I love mountain scenery almost as much as skiing itself. After my first ever day making tracks at Lake Louise I now have to rank it as one of the most beautiful spots I have skied in 51 seasons and 90+ ski areas. Incredible scenery unfolded as the clouds lifted during an unforgettable day.
In my happy place at Lake Louise, photo by Jim Kenney
We had a friend from Calgary who showed us around the mountain and that greatly added to our enjoyment and discovery. We met him and showed him around Utah two weeks before. Sweet karma! Louise has it all, bowls, trees, bumps, stunning groomers. The mountain received 18” of snow in the two days before our arrival and the trail conditions were the best I had seen on the trip since the first two days in Utah.
Friends in high places, Lake Louise, AB, photo by Jim Kenney
We found a very egalitarian vibe at Canadian ski resorts. Several provided free cubbies for your gear and I got no hassles for brown bagging my lunch. In Lake Louise's magnificent base lodge they even made PA announcements advising folks to use the cubbies and not leave personal stuff on public lunch tables. Egalitarian unpretentiousness seemed to pervade all the towns we visited too; Revelstoke, Golden, Banff, and Canmore. We visited the luxurious Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise hotel one afternoon for tea and snowshoeing and even there the day-guests like ourselves were friendly and down-to-earth.
On the way to High Tea at Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, photo by Jim Kenney
Banff Sunshine, AB
A highlight of our visit to Banff Sunshine ski area was the outstanding accommodations we enjoyed at the mid-mountain Sunshine Mountain Lodge with a nice MCP lodging discount. It was a quiet mid-week and they let us check-in at 11 AM on our first day and check out at 1 PM on our last day. We stayed two nights there and skied three days. The Sunshine Mountain Lodge sits at an elevation of 7100' and has a rustic, but classy design with several dining options onsite. It is accessible only by a long gondola and provides an end of the world feeling for total immersion in skiing. Our room had a balcony that overlooked the slopes and the lodge's excellent outdoor hot tub.
View of the Sunshine Village and the Angel Express Quad liftline, photo by Jim Kenney
The ski terrain at Banff Sunshine is generally geared towards intermediates with many lifts and acreage devoted to above tree line blue square slopes. But we also experienced some high-end expert terrain in the Goats Eye trail pod and in Delirium Dive. A short hike and mandatory avi gear is required to access the latter. I found the long steel stairway (and icy landing at its base) constructed to ease entry into Delirium Dive to be the sketchiest part of the run.
Entrance to Delirium Dive, photo by Jim Kenney
The main headwall of Delirium Dive was steep, but filled with soft, edgeable snow. Vince avoided the stairs on the second of his "dives" down the Delirium headwall by taking a very sporty route through steep, tight chutes from a high point above it. It is not for me to question how necessary the mandatory avi gear requirement is for this terrain, but it certainly helps to filter out inappropriate neophytes.
The Delirium Dive headwall is in the center of this photo just below the bit of blue sky, photo by Jim Kenney
Lift served terrain at Banff Sunshine goes up to 8960'. This is higher than the other resorts in the region and ski conditions were great with intermittent snow showers during our visit including one foot of powder on our last day. Yet when we took the Village transport gondola (~3 miles, 1700' vertical) in the afternoon to leave the resort there was no snow on our car down at the base lot or on the roads for the ten mile drive back to Banff.
The view from Bye Bye Bowl, skier's left of the Great Divide Express chair, photo by Jim Kenney
The best town during our trip for off slope activities had to be the Banff/Canmore area. We did some fun things there besides skiing, including a soak in the scenic Banff Hot Springs pool, dinner at The Grizzly House, high tea at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, and snowshoeing on frozen Lake Louise and in Sunshine Meadows.
Snowshoeing at 8000' in Sunshine Meadows, photo by Jim Kenney
Kathy enjoyed visiting a train museum in Revelstoke. The vibe walking around Banff and Revelstoke was down to earth and not pretentious at all. The English-speaking tourists looked very middle class, with little of the ostentatiousness of places like Vail and Aspen. Banff especially seemed to draw many international visitors including numerous Asians. One of our more ambitious rest-day activities was an exciting hike through nearby Johnston Canyon to see large cliffs and frozen waterfalls.
Hiking Johnston Canyon near Banff, photo by Jim Kenney
The standard deal with MCP is two "free" days at all participating resorts and then unlimited half price lift tickets thereafter. I wasn't sure if Mt. Norquay ski area was included, but in Banff I asked and was told that if I showed my MCP I could get one free lift ticket there too. I decided to go to Mt. Norquay for my last morning of skiing before Kathy and I started our 2400 mile drive back to Virginia. What a great decision! Mt. Norquay was an awesomely beautiful and historic little ski area (1650' vertical, 5 lifts).
Patrolling Mt. Norquay, photo by Jim Kenney
I skied Mt. Norquay on Mar 23 and it was my last ski day of the winter. I got some great images in my head to last until next season. There are terrific black diamond runs off the ancient North American pulse double chair. Me and a ski patroller from Calgary were among the few riding it that morning. Norquay drips with history. A ski "cabin" was first built there in 1927. The North American or “Big Chair” has been offering up expert terrain and spectacular views of Banff and the Bow Valley since 1948, making it one of the oldest chairs in North America.
North American chair at Mt. Norquay, photo by Jim Kenney
CANADA TO VIRGINIA CONCLUSION
A couple of days after dropping our son off at the Calgary airport for a flight back to Utah, Kathy and I made the drive from Alberta back to the East in a comparatively leisurely 3.5 days. It was a tedious, but trouble-free leg of the trip. We continued to be blessed with fine driving conditions. Good thing too, because I can tell you there was about 500 miles of wind swept, two lane highway between Moose Jaw, SK and Fargo, ND.
My wife and I enjoyed some precious winter play together, photo by Jim Kenney
My concluding thoughts about this trip are a bit mixed. I enjoyed some great skiing and saw many beautiful winter sights. My wife was a saint to endure all the long driving days with us. We really could have used more time in Jackson and Revelstoke to break things up. We skipped Sun Valley, which is on the MCP and not too far off our route. I was really glad I did not skip Mt. Norquay. Gasoline was roughly 30% more expensive in Canada during my trip. Fill-up before crossing the border. Number of ski days on this trip: Snowbasin 2, Snowbird 2, Alta 2, Jackson Hole 2, Revelstoke 2, Lake Louise 2, Banff Sunshine 3, Mt. Norquay 1.
Closing out the season at beautiful Mt. Norquay, photo by Jim Kenney
The skiing highlights of the trip included a week of good times and good conditions with friends in Utah, watching my son drop Corbet's Couloir at Jackson Hole, dropping myself into Delirium Dive, and experiencing some of the finest resorts in Western Canada. Our best aprÃ¨s ski experiences were in Banff. It was great to hike, snowshoe, swim, dine, and stroll with my wife. I tend to fall into the trap of trying to visit too many great places in too little time. Invariably, in the midst of frenetic ski travel, the experience is enhanced if you stop and smell the roses from time to time. Best wishes to all of you for a fun and rewarding 2018-19 ski season!
Loved your report. Thanks for sharing. It brought back many fond memories I had when I visited Banff 2 years ago.
Another SPECIAL ski trip reportJim. You are right, Kathy was a saint staying with you and Vince the entire trip!
Wow, what a great report. Thanks for the info about Revelstoke and especially Norquay. We hit Sunshine and Lake Louise last year at Christmas but not Norquay as I didn't realize that it was included on the Mountain Collective. We'll definitely do that this year.
I was wondering how crowded Louise and Sunshine were while you were there. Like I said, we were there at Xmas and both resorts were empty. We kept saying "Wow, there really are no people in Canada.". We didn't find out until we got back from our trip and read an article saying that the Canadian resorts had really low visitor counts during the holidays due to the extreme cold. It turns out that sometimes it's even too cold for Canadians to ski. Driving to Louise one morning from Canmore our car thermometer hit -36 degrees farenheit! At least it warmed up to -10 by the time we hit the empty parking lot at the ski resort.
Another great trip report and excellent photos a usual. Thanks for taking the time to chronicle your adventures and sharing them with us.
Enjoyed every minute of the report. Thanks Jim.
Thanks Jim, I really enjoyed that. Glad you did it. I too have done this. You never know what the future holds, so just do it.
I am midway between 2 total knee replacements. The second is scheduled for Nov. 28. I am determined to continue enjoying skiing but it is likely that my adventure skiing, pushing the envelope, days are over. But having pursued this passion for many years, and having a treasure trove of memories, there will be no regrets, however it turns out.
Outstanding report!! Have great memories of Lake Louise and Banff and you brought them back
Jim I loved that piece. What I find esp. useful is the detail about zones and even specific lifts and runs, that's information I will look at when I visit some of those mountains (perhaps this season)
Good work, thanks