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Banff (AB) or Cooke City (MT) for mid April back country ski trip?

Slim

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Thinking of where to do our family trip for our April break this ski season. A few years ago we went to Cooke City, and loved it.

This would be a week long trip, with probably a 4-6 days of ski touring and 2-3 days of other activities.

For the skiing, thinking of a mix easier (ATES1-2) trips on our own and more challenging, complex terrain/ski mountaineering with a local guide.

While thinking of going to Cooke City again, I realized Banff (or other Canadian Rockies areas accessible from Calgary) is also a prime destination that time of year.

I am not very familiar with the Banff area at all, having only visited 2 days a few years ago in summer.

This is what I know about Cooke City:
  • very, very quiet in mid April
  • Virtually no driving to trailheads once you are there
  • Yellowstone is accessible for the non-skiing days, providing great scenery (geysers), and likely some snow free, spring hiking.
  • great variety of ski objectives: everything from easy mellow slopes, to serious ski mountaineering
  • most ski objectives require a fairly long, low angle approach.
Banff or Lake Louise in my memory:
  • Bigger, wider valley, so more driving to trailheads?
  • glaciers. This could be a plus, for some guided skiing
  • better views of spectacular mountains right form the valley
Other than this, I know very little about the Canadian Rockies, so who can fill me in?
 
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jmeb

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My vote is for Banff. The Northern Rockies are truly spectacular. Lots of great guides working up there. (Prime time for the Wapta Traverse!) US dollar goes far once there. Plus fun experience for the family to get out of the States -- a stepping stone to your next year adventure to Europe :).
 
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@Mike Rogers , what do you think the Banff or Lake Louise valleys are likely to be like in mid April? Still pretty snow in the valley bottom, or melted out?
Other thoughts on the area that time of year?
 

DanoT

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I am not a back country skier so can't give any specific info on back country skiing near Banff but a friend used to ski a race, decades ago called the Prune Pickers in the spring that involved hiking up and skiing down. I don't know if it still happens or the exact location.

I can report that Lake Louise and Banff Sunshine Village offer a Spring Pass that is good for March and April. There is a mid week offering and a 7 day/week pass as well. The full on tourist season doesn't start until the summer so accommodation prices should be reasonable.

"Spring Time in the Rockies" really is a thing and European Alpinists started coming to the Canadian Rockies long before there were any ski resorts.
 

dovski

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@Slim so my family goes to Banff every April for Spring Break and it is amazing. I also grew up in the area so have been skiing there for over 45 years. A couple things about Banff worth knowing:
  • While April is the off season in Banff (super cheap to stay there) the skiing is still great. They are far enough North with mountain base areas at 6000-7000 feet so you still get amazing snow and often powder days in April
  • In the Banff area there are three mountains all on the Ikon Pass - Sunshine, Norquay and Lake Louise. Sunshine has the longest gondola ride in North America to get you to the base area and as a result they always have the best snow. Lake Louise has Epic terrain but can be a little icy in the morning if it was warm the day before. Norquay is the lowest elevation of the three mountains and the steepest as well as the smallest so we typically do not ski there
  • Banff is less than a 90 min drive from the Calgary Airport and about 30 min from Lake Louise. The drive is easy and scenic
  • The Town of Banff is awesome, with lots of great restaurants and shops - and everything is quite reasonably priced for what it is
  • Lots of nice hotels in Banff - note there is no ski in ski out accommodation but there is s free shuttle to all the hills that will pick you up from your hotel
  • For the non skiers on non-skiing days there is a ton to do in the Banff area as you are in one of the most amazing national parks - hotsprings, hiking, spas, Chateaus .... and the list goes on. You are also a short drive from Lake Louise which is definitely worth the visit
The other thing we like about Banff is that you get amazing value - this April we are staying a 4 star hotel for $93 cdn a night and deals are a plenty in that regard. If you really want to save money you can stay just outside Banff in Canmore, about a 20 minute drive, where you can find many vacation rentals for around $100 CDN a night. Oh and remember US $$ go 30% farther in Canada, plus $ for $ things seem to be cheaper, especially when it comes to food and entertainment.

If you want specific recommendations on hotels, restaurants .... etc. please let me know and I would be happy to share.

FYI last year we were skiing knee deep powder in Banff during spring break and it was Epic :)
 

BC.

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@Slim so my family goes to Banff every April for Spring Break and it is amazing. I also grew up in the area so have been skiing there for over 45 years. A couple things about Banff worth knowing:
  • While April is the off season in Banff (super cheap to stay there) the skiing is still great. They are far enough North with mountain base areas at 6000-7000 feet so you still get amazing snow and often powder days in April
  • In the Banff area there are three mountains all on the Ikon Pass - Sunshine, Norquay and Lake Louise. Sunshine has the longest gondola ride in North America to get you to the base area and as a result they always have the best snow. Lake Louise has Epic terrain but can be a little icy in the morning if it was warm the day before. Norquay is the lowest elevation of the three mountains and the steepest as well as the smallest so we typically do not ski there
  • Banff is less than a 90 min drive from the Calgary Airport and about 30 min from Lake Louise. The drive is easy and scenic
  • The Town of Banff is awesome, with lots of great restaurants and shops - and everything is quite reasonably priced for what it is
  • Lots of nice hotels in Banff - note there is no ski in ski out accommodation but there is s free shuttle to all the hills that will pick you up from your hotel
  • For the non skiers on non-skiing days there is a ton to do in the Banff area as you are in one of the most amazing national parks - hotsprings, hiking, spas, Chateaus .... and the list goes on. You are also a short drive from Lake Louise which is definitely worth the visit
The other thing we like about Banff is that you get amazing value - this April we are staying a 4 star hotel for $93 cdn a night and deals are a plenty in that regard. If you really want to save money you can stay just outside Banff in Canmore, about a 20 minute drive, where you can find many vacation rentals for around $100 CDN a night. Oh and remember US $$ go 30% farther in Canada, plus $ for $ things seem to be cheaper, especially when it comes to food and entertainment.

If you want specific recommendations on hotels, restaurants .... etc. please let me know and I would be happy to share.

FYI last year we were skiing knee deep powder in Banff during spring break and it was Epic :)
I am thinking you like Banff....
 

dovski

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I am thinking you like Banff....
I do like Banff, but especially like it in April, I mean spring skiing in fresh POW for cheap ... you just cannot go wrong. I love Snowbird too, but last time I went spring skiing there we had limited terrain available and I left with three core shots in my Stocklis.
 

Tom K.

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While thinking of going to Cooke City again, I realized Banff (or other Canadian Rockies areas accessible from Calgary) is also a prime destination that time of year.

Having been BC skiing in neither, I'll still say Banff without question, because....

Show your kids as broad a cross-section of the world as reasonably possible!!!
 
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Slim

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Yeah, the backcountry skiing in both places will be amazing, so it’s more about what’s more fun on the non-skiing days.
@Tom K. has a point, a new place is always interesting.
 

dovski

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What will the snow conditions be like in Cooke City come April? I would worry that if they do have snow it will likely not be great and the avalanche danger could be high. We skied Whitefish (which way North of Cooke) in April during covid, and the conditions were not great plus half the mountain was closed due to avalanche danger .... just saying that you likely will find better snow and safer conditions up North in April
 
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What will the snow conditions be like in Cooke City come April? I would worry that if they do have snow it will likely not be great and the avalanche danger could be high. We skied Whitefish (which way North of Cooke) in April during covid, and the conditions were not great plus half the mountain was closed due to avalanche danger .... just saying that you likely will find better snow and safer conditions up North in April
Haha, I think most of the US considers Cooke City to be “up north”.

Are you saying you‘d worry there might not be enough snow?
Nothing is for sure, but that would be unheard of.

We skied Cooke City in April during COVID too (see trip report linked in my opening post) and had perfect conditions. Bit of fresh powder first day, then perfect corn the rest, albeit with some crust mid mountain in Friday.

But of course, each year is different.

Generally speaking, I’d bet, on average, for most common ski regions in the northern hemisphere, April is the best month for backcountry skiing.
For example, BPG in Cooke City runs their ski mountaineering course in April.

If anything, I’d worry that April in the Canadian Rockies is too early for stable spring snowpack, and that the chance of more dangerous avalanche conditions is higher.

And yes, if it’s a cold spring, avalanche danger could be significant. But that is everywhere. That happened to us last year, we did a spring trip to Mammoth, and due to the cold and snowy spring, the snowpack had not fully transformed yet, so our week was really the first significant warm up the snowpack was getting, so it was harder to find slopes/times of the day where the skiing was good and avalanche danger low.
 
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dovski

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Haha, I think most of the US considers Cooke City to be “up north”.

Are you saying you‘d worry there might not be enough snow?
Nothing is for sure, but that would be unheard of.

We skied Cooke City in April during COVID too (see trip report linked in my opening post) and had perfect conditions. Bit of fresh powder first day, then perfect corn the rest, albeit with some crust mid mountain in Friday.

But of course, each year is different.

Generally speaking, I’d bet, on average, for most common ski regions in the northern hemisphere, April is the best month for backcountry skiing.
For example, BPG in Cooke City runs their ski mountaineering course in April.

If anything, I’d worry that April in the Canadian Rockies is too early for stable spring snowpack, and that the chance of more dangerous avalanche conditions is higher.

And yes, if it’s a cold spring, avalanche danger could be significant. But that is everywhere. That happened to us last year, we did a spring trip to Mammoth, and due to the cold and snowy spring, the snowpack had not fully transformed yet, so our week was really the first significant warm up the snowpack was getting, so it was harder to find slopes/times of the day where the skiing was good and avalanche danger low.
Potato Potaato ;-) I was thinking of wet slides caused by warm weather. When I was at Whitefish in April that was the big concern as a large crevasse had formed due to warm weather and they were worried about an entire face sliding due to warmth. It was not a matter of if it would slide but when, so half the mountain was closed for safety reasons. That said sounds like you have a couple great options .... just remember Canadian avalanches are much nicer than American ones, as the Canadian ones always say sorry ;-)
 

Mike Rogers

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Sorry for the late reply! I'm traveling right now and i missed the early opening at lake Louise this last weekend


I'll add details soon, but April is an excellent time to ski the banff area. The ice fields parkway, North of Lake Louise is particularly good.

Last April was extremely hot, and things fell apart by the third week, but this is not typical


We're generally skiing to valley bottom until may and on glaciers later.

The April snowpack is usually safer than mid winter. I like to ski rogers pass in the winter and switch to the rockies for April and may.

Lots of open crevasses on fairly "safe" glaciers this summer. It was hot and the bridges / plugs are totally gone. I like to see a 300 cm snowpack on the glacier before I'm super comfortable so we will want a good snow year.

I'm biased, but I think the region's scenery is tough to beat
 

sparty

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Did you rent sleds while you were in Cooke or just earn turns the hard way? If you're not philosophically opposed, there's a lot there that gets much more accessible with a mechanical approach, plus some stuff that can be shuttled. It obviously adds a bit of cost, but as a former sled owner, renting them seems dirt cheap compared to owning them.

Another consideration would be to do some skiing in the park itself. There's something special about being on a peak in the Park and looking around at a whole lot of other snow-covered peaks and not much else.

@dovski I would be confident in finding skiable snow around Cooke in early May and would expect mid May to be likely fine with some aspects and approaches more affected than others. The Beartooth Pass doesn't open until Memorial Day at the earliest, and usually the plug (unplowed section of 212 between Cooke and Wyoming 296/Chief Joseph) isn't a long time before that. Sled Fest is usually held late May, and I'll sure you could find videos.

All that said, I don't think you'd go wrong in Banff either. My ex and I spent a week between Kicking Horse and Banff at the tail end of their seasons (I think we hit closing day at KH as well as Norquay), with one day of BC on the Icefields parkway, and it was also an incredibly cool trip. If you like actual restaurant options, Banff blows Cooke out of the water and nukes the remnants from orbit.

If you can, I'd be tempted to wait until mid-season and see how snowpack is trending in both areas, maybe exchange rate as well.

Edit to add: if you have a way to get there (plug is open or you have access to a vehicle on the other side), Red Lodge is a very cool little town that would be relatively quiet in mid April; Cody is a boy particularly large city with cool history. I honestly can't remember what's "normal" for being able to drive from Cooke to Cody.
 
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When we were there in April 2019, it was not open yet. To the apparent dismay of the guy who drove to the end of the pavement, where I was stepping out of my skis, and asked me how to get to (insert any destination):
I asked how he got there (Answer: “from Yellowstone”) and told him the same way. He was not happy :huh:
 

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