GCSA The Long Drive Home
Really, I should have titled this article based on the mountain/resort we visited, but it wasn’t worth it.
Lake Louise and Sunshine Village always show up in concert with a third resort, Mount Norquay. They form Alberta’s Big 3 on all marketing material, to the point that IKON passes are valid for 5 days total at any of their resorts, except for these three that count as one.
After Lake Louise and Sunshine Village, I was expecting another world class resort. True, people that had been in Alberta all told me Norquay was “not worth it,” but how bad could it be?
We piled in the car after cleaning the AirBnB and saying good-bye. We warned the hosts that we were leaving one day early, mostly because we already had a hotel booked in Great Falls MT and we had to leave the key on the lock.
The initial part of the drive is the same as to Sunshine Village. Then, you continue into Banff and turn left to the access road.
I should mention that this particular section of the highway was surprising. The rest of the drive, there is a range-and-valley theme going on. Subsequent mountain ranges that go roughly North-West to South-East are separated by low-lying valleys that carry major rivers. To get from one valley (and resort) to the next, you have to cross a range.
That’t not the case here. The Bow River is powerful enough that it drilled through three ranges in the Banff area, creating an essentially level drive. From Lake Louise, you simply follow the course of the river to the plains, where it flows through Calgary, Ultimately, the river will merge into the Saskatchewan River, which flows through the entire state and finally into Lake Winnipeg, 1000 km away.
We get up all giddy about our last day on the mountain and see it’s a total zoo. It’s early, but the parking lot is filling up. Worse, when we get to the lodge and see the layout and compare it to the visible slope, we realize the place is tiny. it does have four lifts, but they are all short. One of them serves black runs, two are intermediate, and to get to these three you have to take the beginner lift.
I assume in an attempt to make the place look bigger, the hosts tell us to zig-zag from lift to lift. But there are tons of children, and they gum up the lifts. Canadian lifties are very considerate and slow down the lift for every child. That’s awesome, except when there is a child on every chair, in which case the lift goes from bottom to top entirely at crawling speeds.
I measured the longest distance from bottom to top, and at Mount Norquay that’s apparently half a mile. Compare that to Copper’s Superbee lift that covers 1.6 miles to get an idea of just how puny this resort is.
We tried our best. I wanted to at least ride the black lift once, but it was closed. Nobody could tell me why, nobody could tell me when it would open, and there was nobody waiting for it to be open. The rest of the lifts were mobbed (another family event) and the runs were not interesting.
The clincher came when Tim and I got separated by a turn at the bottom. He ended up at the fourth lift, I was at the third. I didn’t want to wait in line for that lift, so I just walked to the lodge. It took all of 3000 feet, or 15 minutes.
We got in the car and drove off. Now we knew what “not worth it” meant. While it was called, Ski Big 3, it was like grouping together Breckenridge, Copper Mountain, and Eldora.
But we had plenty of time, so we drove into Banff. Tim had said Google Maps didn’t show anything of note, but I had heard good things, and we were hungry.
Turns out Banff was exactly the place we were looking for. It had all the infrastructure we wanted, down to a rec center with gym and hot tub where we could have gotten rid of the knots and bruises of the snowboarding day. We settled at Good Earth Coffeehouse, which turned out to be the coffee shop of an incredibly posh hotel, and I had the best americano of my life. In fact, it was so good that I’ve been dreaming of going back to Canada not because of the amazing snowboarding, but so I can have another of those dark and tasty brews.
From there on, the long drive. The first section, as mentioned, follows the Bow River into Calgary. We skirted town on the Western suburbs to highway 2. Google Maps decided to treat the frozen Canadian tundra like a walk in the park and told me to turn left onto a minor highway, 519, and then right onto Canad 3 (despite the fact that 2 and 3 meet at Fort Macleod). By then, we had passed the ritual of stopping at a roadside Tim Horton’s.
We crossed the border into America at Coutts. The border patrol agent was not particularly friendly, for no apparent reason. He finally, after a lengthy interview, released us and we were on our merry way on I-15.
The freeway continued to be icy in spots, and we were starting to realize that snow clearing was not as much of a priority here in Montana or in Wyoming as it was in Colorado, with its much higher population density. No snow had fallen in at least two days, but the freeway was still slick and icy in large sections.
Eventually, we got into Great Falls. We had picked the hotel, the Holiday Inn Express & Suites, because it had a pool and hot tub, and we just wanted to relax. When we got there, though, it turned out that the locals had rented out all rooms and were treating the place as a makeshift water park. It was lovely to see families having fun, but it was near impossible to get anywhere near the pool or hot tub.
We slept and woke up, then moved out. The final stretch was awaiting us.
Small problem: according to Montana’s Department of Transportation (and Wyoming’s), much of the drive was entirely impassable. The freeways were closed, driving the highways was discouraged, and in general people should just stay home.
We didn’t really have that option. But, also, the drive from the border to Great Falls had been acceptable, and there was no reason to believe the roads were going to be all that bad. We tried it out, driving on US 87 to Moore. If the roads were impassable, we’d drive back and stay in Great Falls again.
It wasn’t a problem US 87 was mostly fine, with a few iced over or snowy stretches, especially where snowdrift had occurred. The turn to US 191 was scary icy, but fortunately (and after a double U-turn that taught us that the alternate route, continuing on US 87, was going to add an hour and a half to the journey) the road was fine after a short scare. We hit lovely small towns like Judith Gap and Harlowtown, and finally reconnected with the freeway in Billings.
I had already driven from Lakewood to Billings, so this was a repeat with better road conditions. Eventually, we made it into Lakewood, and slept for two days.