The lake called Lake Louise is one of North America's beauty spots, and the nearby ski area of the same name (tel. 877/956-8473 or 403/522-3555; www.skilouise.com) has an unsurpassed beauty for skiers and snowboarders. It is by far the largest in the Canadian Rockies and one of North America's giants -- in fact, the continent's fourth-biggest by most measures. Its ski terrain drapes from mountain to mountain in an almost-European fashion: start here, ski for miles and end up way over there. But unlike Europe, where villages nestle in many valleys, the Lake Louise ski area is in the middle of Banff National Park, and that guarantees raw nature just beyond its boundaries.
The port of entry to this vast ski area is a tight cluster of day-use buildings. Despite its size, Lake Louise is a ski area and not a ski resort. There is no "village" or even any lodging. From the base, which has all the food service, equipment rental, ski/ride school, child care and other essential services two major lifts, a gondola and a high-speed quad, whisk riders to the white world above. The terrain visible from the small base doesn't look imposing. Tree-rimmed trails have been cut into the densely wooded lower mountain. Most of these are groomed cruising runs, though there are pitches and turns that make this part of Lake Louise one of the best venues for World Cup downhill and Super G ski races.
Take the Glacier Express quad if you want to stick to the lower mountain (smart strategy when visibility is low or the wind kicks up). The great choice of fabulous terrain fans out above quad's top station. From there you transfer to the Summit platter or the Top of the World Six-Pack. The former is a surface lift that unloads at the highest lift-served point, serving up above-the-treeline terrain with great snow and phenomenal views. The high-capacity, six-place chairlift unloads on Saddleback, from which you can ski either side of the mountain.
The other option from the base is to ride the Grizzly Express gondola to yet another point on the ridge. From either of these two chairlifts, you can take high-intermediate cruising runs or gut-gripping steeps down the frontside until you arrive back at treeline -- or if you have legs of steel and nerves to match, you can drop off the back.
Lake Louise's stunning Back Bowls comprise a series of black and double-black cirques, chutes and couloirs. The most vertiginous parcel of them all is a group of nine runs collectively known as "The Ultimate Steeps" with such appropriately intimidating names as Ghastly, Extreme, Chimney, and Freefall. Still, there's an intermediate route or two off each lift and occasionally even a gentle novice trail -- but essentially, this is where the big boys (and ladies) ski and snowboard.
Off to one side is the Larch Area, served by its own express quad and offering some of the best tree skiing anywhere. To the skier's right from the unloading area are sinuous intermediate trails and beautiful open glades. To the skier's left are some awesome drops through the trees. And directly above the Larch Express' unloading is the Alpine access route for a hike to the 8,900-foot summit of Lipalian Mountain and phenomenal high-mountain, out-of-bounds skiing and riding.
Lake Louise is but one of three very different areas around Banff, where the lion's share of lodging is located. Along with high-elevation Sunshine and mighty midget Mt. Norquay, it is part of the Ski Big 3 (www.skibig3.com) group that offers a cooperative tri-area lift ticket and skier shuttle buses to all mountains. You might want to explore them all, but you don't have to, because Lake Louise alone can keep you happy for a week.
Lake Louise Stats
Lifts: 1 gondola, 1 high-speed six-passenger chairlift, high-speed quads, 1 fixed-grip quad, 1 triple, 2 T-bars, 1 platterpull, 1 moving carpet; uphill capacity, 13,716 per hour
Vertical: 3,250 feet
Base elevation: 5,400 feet
Top elevation: 8,650 feet
Average Annual Snowfall: 180 inches
Skiable Terrain: 4,200 acres
Trails: 139 trails and marked runs (25% beginner and novice; 45% intermediate; 30% advanced and expert), plus off-piste bowls
Terrain park: Yes, large new park for 2009-10 season