Each year, thousands of seasonal workers, tourists, powder hunters and drifters make their way to Banff, Alberta, Canada, to experience one of the coolest ski towns in Canada for a winter season.
Banff is not itself a ski resort but serves as the base for three resorts, including two of the biggest in Canada - Lake Louise ski resort and Sunshine Village ski resort.
Photo: Main Street, Banff
Lake Louise is a 40 minute drive from Banff along the Trans-Canada Highway, while Sunshine Village is a 20 minute drive. Mount Norquay is a local hill just a few minutes outside Banff.
Options for working a season in the Banff region therefore include working at one of the resorts, or working in Banff itself at a local business.
Banff is around a 90 minute drive from Calgary and a 40 minute drive from Canmore in the Banff National Park. It is an easy drive along the Trans-Canada Highway.
For those coming internationally, you would usually arrive at Vancouver International Airport and either take the bus to Banff, or transfer domestically to Calgary and take the bus from Calgary.
From Vancouver, you can take the Greyhound.ca bus which takes around 12 hours. From Calgary, the trip is around 90 minutes.
From Banff, there are buses daily during the winter season to both Lake Louise and Sunshine. However, having a car is very handy in Banff given the buses do not offer a lot of flexibility.
The bus to Lake Louise leaves twice a day at 8.30am and 10.30am and returns at 9.30am, 2pm, 4.30pm and 5.30pm. It is free if you have a tri-area season pass, otherwise it is $299 for the season or $15 for a return ticket. See www.skilouise.com/getting-here/banff-bus.php.
The bus to Sunshine Village leaves at 7.40am, 8.15am, 9.15am, 10.15am and 11.15am (mid-season). It returns at 12.15pm, 2.30pm, 3.45pm, 5pm and 6.30pm. It costs $15 for a return ticket, but is free with a tri-area season pass.
Sunshine Village also partners with Sunshine Coach to get you from Calgary to Sunshine Village. See www.sunshinecoach.com.
The fact that you have to take the bus up to Lake Louise and Sunshine can be a bit of a pain, as you need to be organised enough to get to the buses in time, which can be particularly difficult the day after a big night out!
If you are working in the town of Banff, as opposed to at the resorts of Lake Louise, Sunshine Village or Mt Norquay, you end up with less ride time over the season than you might expect. You can only really ride on your full days off work; it is not really possible to get in ride time during your lunch breaks, or even if you finish early in the afternoon. In addition, your days off are often spent shopping or doing other life admin.
Photo: The view over the front side at Lake Louise
If you are coming to Banff for the season, you have a number of options for work:
1) work at Lake Louise ski resort 2) work at Sunshine Village ski resort 3) work at Mount Norquay ski area or 4) work at a shop/restaurant/bar or other job in Banff itself.
If you work for one of the resorts, you get a free season pass as well as staff accommodation. This is a big bonus for many people and takes the hassle out of finding accommodation.
However, both Sunshine Village and Lake Louise are very quiet villages, and the best nightlife and fun is to be found in Banff.
Lake Louise is 40 minutes up the highway. The staff accommodation is in the town which is very small and quiet with just a couple of bars.
The major advantage of working at Lake Louise over Sunshine is that staff accommodation at Sunshine Village is only accessible by gondola, and you are therefore trapped in the village outside gondola hours. Lake Louise, on the other hand, is on the highway so you are able to go into Banff at night, either on the Greyhound bus, by car or by staff bus on shopping nights.
See Lake Louise – Seasonal Workers’ Guide for a full rundown on working at Lake Louise and how to get a job.
See Sunshine Village – Seasonal Workers’ Guide for a full rundown on working at Sunshine Village and how to get a job.
You get a free tri-area season pass to Lake Louise, Sunshine Village and Mount Norquay if you work at any of these resorts.
Mount Norquay is a small resort just 10 minutes outside Banff. An advantage of working here is that you get a tri-area season pass but you also get to live in Banff for the season. The drawback is that the resort is a small resort and the better terrain is at Lake Louise and Sunshine Village.
Many people who come to Banff for the season do not work at one of the resorts. Instead, they choose to work in the town of Banff at a restaurant/bar/shop or take on a professional job such as accounting etc.
The major advantage of working in Banff is that Banff is far and away the centre of nightlife in the region.
Lake Louise and Sunshine Village are very quiet towns and you would usually hang out with other employees in the staff residence or at the one or two bars in town. Banff, on the other hand, is tourist central, with nightlife every night of the week. There are clubs, bars and restaurants everywhere and a great buzz during winter. You will meet a ton of new, cool people and never be short for activities.
The disadvantages are that finding work can be more difficult as so many people arrive each season and hand out resumes. Businesses in Banff simply do not need to advertise online for positions, as so many walk-up applicants arrive each season. Also, many of the good bar jobs go to locals who have been there a number of seasons. Be prepared for a few weeks without work and have enough money to see yourself through those first few weeks.
It is a very good idea to arrive well before the season starts (October is best) in order to secure employment in town.
Another disadvantage of working in Banff as opposed to at the resorts is that there are only a few buses each day up to the ski resorts (see above). As a result, you will not be able to ride on your lunch breaks or after work, unless you have a car to get up. On your days off, you may find yourself shopping or simply recovering from a hangover. It means that your time on the slopes over the season may be considerably less than you would imagine.
www.banfflakelouise.com has a list of shops, hotels and restaurants in Banff to give you an idea of the places at which you could put in your resume once you arrive.
http://banff.ca has information on the town of Banff.
Lake Louise has the second largest terrain area in Canada after Whistler and has probably the best terrain out of the Banff resorts. The back bowls, in particular, are fairly epic with a good number of chutes, ridges and technical rock lines. There is enough in these bowls alone to spend a season exploring and working your way up to those cliff hucks.
There is some good hiking along the ridge, as well as a nice intermediate cruising area at the Larch area.
The front side is long (in fact they hold a world cup downhill race there at the start of each season). But it can get quite icy, particularly when it hasn’t snowed for a while. Generally, better riders spend all their time on the back bowls.
Photo: Eagle Ridge on the back side at Lake Louise
The major downside to Lake Louise is the weather and snow. It can get utterly freezing, especially in December, at times down to -30c (-22f). At such temperatures, riding is much less fun, and in fact the lifts shut down as they are unable to function at such low temperatures. Shutdowns
Additionally, with an average of 3.6 metres, it snows less at Lake Louise than at Sunshine Village and resorts in the province of British Columbia. As such, it can get quite icy. On days off work you may often prefer not to ride.
Sunshine Village has some great terrain when it is fully open. There are some nice cruisers off the Great Divide Express Quad on Lookout Mountain and a good beginner area near the Strawberry Express Quad on Mount Standish.
The Delirium Dive and the Wild West are restricted areas that only open once avalanche controls have been fully confirmed, which can be unfortunately rare. You will need avalanche gear to go in there. Delirium Dive has a number of awesome rock lines and chutes and is as technical as you can find in Canada.
Photo: Sunshine Village
On the other hand, Sunshine Village is quite flat as a resort with long tail ends to the end of runs which can be a trap for snowboarders. The vertical is not as high as Lake Louise either as much of the claimed vertical is part of the home trail back to the car park at the end of the day.
The major advantage to Sunshine Village is the snow. Its terrain area is a catchment for snow and it dumps down much more at Sunshine than at Lake Louise. Sunshine claims up to 9 meters of snow each season, although it is usually more like 6-7 meters. This means more powder days to hit that Rockies terrain.
Mount Norquay is more of a family resort with a good beginner area. There are some good gladed areas and a few steeper pitches. However, on powder days, you will want to be in Lake Louise or Sunshine.
Banff has some of the biggest nightlife of any ski region in Canada; perhaps only Whistler is bigger. There are lounges, pubs, bars, clubs and restaurants all throughout town.
The biggest club is Aurora, which packs beats every night of the week and has 4 bars including a pool area and martini lounge. The Dancing Sasquatch is another club playing pop and RnB. Hoo Doo is a lounge which also turns into a club later into the night and brings in some of the best DJs around the country. The most popular happy hour in town has to be at Drake (4pm – 7pm Monday to Friday), and it also gets in live entertainment each weekend.
The Elk and Oarsmen has a stunning rooftop terrace with panoramic views of the mountains and serves pub food. Wild Bill’s is a rustic pub with a wagon hanging overhead. The Pump and Tap Tavern is a favorite local hangout for a few beers or to shoot some pool. St James’ Gate Olde Irish Pub has classic pub food, memorabilia and 32 draft beers to go with 55 scotches and 10 Irish whiskies.
Lake Louise is a tiny village with one row of shops, one bar, and one small club in one of the hotels in the village. There is no real après-ski at the hill because the buses from the resort to Lake Louise village finish around 6pm. The nightlife for seasonal workers is mostly limited to staff residence parties, heading out to the bar occasionally, or getting someone to drive into Banff.
Sunshine Village is much more isolated as the village is only accessible by gondola. As such, there is no real après-ski as everyone heads back into Banff. As soon as the gondola shuts down, you are alone with the 200 odd people that remain – staff and guests at the village hotel. Sunshine runs a late gondola on Friday to allow staff to get into Banff, otherwise many seasonal workers will head out to Banff and stay overnight at a friend’s house.
As with most ski resorts, expect to find more guys than girls. However, perhaps because of its accessibility, the Banff region has a much broader spread of people than some of the more remote ski regions which only attract hardcore ski bums (which tend to be guys). The spread of girls to guys in the Banff region is therefore much more even.
Banff is fairly tight for accommodation each season given the numbers of seasonal workers coming in. You are much better off arriving early (October) if you want to secure accommodation easily. You will likely need to be in town to sign a lease. You will also need a bank account.
You can try the Snow Season Central forum for accommodation.
You could also try:
Rent will set you back around $600+ for a shared room in Banff. Places in Canmore (20 minutes drive) are a little cheaper.
Staff accommodation for Sunshine and Lake Louise is in the resort villages. See Lake Louise – Seasonal Workers’ Guide and Sunshine – Seasonal Workers’ Guide for how the staff accommodation is at these resorts.
If you arrive without accommodation in Banff, the following are hostels in Banff for around $30 a night:
A season in Banff is not just limited to skiing and snowboarding. There are plenty of other winter activities to try out during the winter season.
The Banff Hot Springs are what brought fame to Banff in the first place. Travellers have been lured by the medicinal qualities of the hot springs for over 125 years. The water temperature is kept between 37c and 40c which allows for a relaxing dip even in the coldest weather. They are located at the end of Mountain Avenue, just outside the town center.
Try Curling, the quintessential Canadian sport. Like lawn bowls on ice with giant buttons you need to place on a target.
Head to Calgary at least once during the season to see the Calgary Flames in action in the National Hockey League.
Johnston Canyon freezes over in winter and produces beautiful sparkling walls of ice. It was formed by ancient glaciers and is well worth a visit during the season. This is a day trip out of town.
The Icefields Parkway is an incredible drive up towards Jasper, along Highway 93 north. It stretches 232km (144 miles) through the heart of the Rocky Mountain World Heritage Site where you can see untouched mountain lakes, glaciers as old as the hills, and sweeping, panoramic valleys.