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Skiing in Canada vs. the USA

posted January 6, 2017


Skier in Canada

There are many areas of competition between Canada and the U.S., from political ethos to boundaries, to how to cook bacon. However, perhaps one of the most highly contended battles is between the skiing in each country. Both Canada and the U.S. are home to impressive mountains and world-class powder, but debate rages on about exactly which location provides the better runs. The U.S. is undeniably a larger market, with almost double the number of ski areas than Canada, but, for many, its packed resorts are missing more than a little of the charm to be found further north. As Outside Online says, in Canada “The mountains are bigger, the snow is deeper, and the crowds are non-existent—the promised land of skiing is north of the border.” In fact, incredible scenes of Canada skiing have been captured on film for decades. Fortress Mountain in Alberta, for example, was a film location for both Inception and The Bourne Legacy.

Henrik Lampert from FreeSkier, however, explains that the calibre of both Canadian and U.S. ski resorts is higher than ever before. He argues: “It’s difficult to say one is purely better than another when it comes to skiing in Canada versus the United States. At the end of the day, each country is home to many world-class ski resorts that offer incredible services and skiing opportunities for every type of skier, from novice to expert. If I were to produce a top 10 list, for example, of my favourite ski resorts in North America, it’d contain nearly an even split of U.S. and Canadian resorts.”

However, many skiers do still struggle to choose between the two countries for their ski trips, and competition for the North American ski crown is fierce on either border. So, if it really came down to it, where would you ski?

Whistler vs. Alta

No comparison of skiing in the U.S. and Canada is complete without a comparison of the two giants – Whistler in British Columbia and Alta in Utah, so this is the perfect place to start.

Whistler

Whistler
Image: Adam Melnyk (Shutterstock)

Over the past few years, Whistler ski resort in British Columbia, Canada has become somewhat legendary. Located in the Southern Pacific Ranges of the Coast Mountains around 80 miles north of Vancouver, this ski area boasts an immense 8,171 acres of spectacular skiing. With a vertical drop of 5,354 feet, Whistler has some of the highest runs in North America. Forbes explains that the resort has become “something of an obsession with casual skiers”, but as Christopher Steiner notes, “When you get to the top of Whistler, there’s certifiable expert terrain to be plied. Skiers can go as big they wish, hurtling over those puffy pillows of BC powder that convert rocks and stumps into harmless obstacles to be exploded by your rockered skis.”

In fact, authority source, Ski Magazine, rates Whistler in British Columbia as the #1 ski resort in the whole of Northern America. They claim that only Vail in Colorado comes close in terms of U.S. offerings, but argue that the crown remains Canada’s, with more trails (200 vs. 193), longer runs (a total of 36,960 feet vs. 15,840 feet) and more snow (469 inches vs. 348 inches).

Alta

Alta
Image: Fabio Becchelli (Wikimedia Commons)

On the other side of the border reigns Alta, in Utah, United States. This resort has been frequented by skiers since 1939 and is popular for its heavy snowfall, which averages at 510 inches per year. Gary Marococcia from Utah ski blog, Ski Bum Poet, says that Alta is his favourite ski resort in the U.S. He says, “Alta is much more than a ski resort to me. Independently owned lodges and the small mountain town that surrounds the ski hill gives it a true community feel. When I get in line at Collins I usually see more people I know than don’t. Alta Ski Area just happens to be the largest employer in town, where everyone is on vacation every day.”

Steve Rosset from The Last Frontier blog agrees that Alta is among the U.S.’s best ski areas, saying, “The main ones that come to mind are Jackson Hole, Vail, Snowmass, Alta, Telluride, Alyeska, Aspen and Park City. Colorado, California, Washington State, Oregon and Alaska offer a wide variety of varying terrain and climates.”

But how do these resorts compare to Whistler, Banff, Tremblant, Kicking Horse, Lake Louise, Jasper, Big White, Revelstoke and Sun Peaks?

Largest new North American resort in 30 years

revelstoke ski

If there’s one thing you can say for Canadian skiing is that it’s growing in strides each year. As Forbes report, Revelstoke in British Columbia is the largest new North American ski resort to be built in 30 years. They say, “The place’s remoteness means there’s little competition on the slopes. We ripped fresh corduroy for thousands of vertical feet, crossing only our same tracks on some of the side runs. There is no resort in North America whose groomers can bring as much burn to a skier’s thighs as those at Revelstoke.” This year, Revelstoke has seen some 5.7 metres of sow, and won the ‘Canada’s Best Ski Resort’ award at the World Ski Awards. Revelstoke Mountain Resort is the only resort world-wide to offer lift, cat, heli and backcountry skiing from one village base, proving its pioneering status on the world ski scene.

The best lift system in the world

Whistler lift system

Whilst snow and runs are important, one of the most important elements of a ski trip is the ability to actually get to the slopes. Whilst Alta may have the edge on Whistler in terms of snow cover, it is a relatively small resort, and there are only four main lifts if you’re looking for the best runs – as Steiner notes, “finding the goods can be tricky.” Whistler, as Forbes note instead embodies the best of Canadian stereotypes – efficiency. They say: “While traversing the full acreage of Whistler can take some time, it does possess a lift system whose thoroughness is unmatched. Its lifts include the Peak 2 Peak Gondola, which travels 2.73 miles from Whistler mountain to Blackcomb mountain. The Peak 2 Peak gondola holds the world record for longest span between tower supports at 1.8 miles and the whole trip only takes 11 minutes while transporting skiers between mountains that are so big that they have snow profiles distinct from one another.” Less time sitting and more time skiing sounds good to us!

The most international skiing

Forbes also note that Whistler is the most international ski destination in North America. They say, “Not only is it full of Canadians and their loonies, but it’s also an incredibly popular spot with those from the UK, Australia and New Zealand.” This means you have all the more opportunity to meet interesting new people from around the world, perhaps even sharing unusual ski tips!

Unrivalled cruising

Ski cruising
Image: Ditty About Summer (Shutterstock)

Forbes: In addition to the distinct peaks, the 5,000-foot vertical drops—about a mile—give each mountain distinct microclimates of their own. There may be no better place, in fact, in all of North America for cruising terrain. Long, meandering blue runs etch the faces of both mountains, giving intermediates sustained runs of length that, in North America, can only be found here and at Revelstoke. That by itself sells many people on this place.

Popularity

U.S.

Busy skiing
Image: Timo W2s (Visualhunt)

If huge crowds of fellow skiers is what you’re looking for, there’s no debating that the U.S. is the ski location for you. As Lauren Vanat reports in the 2016 International Report on Snow & Mountain Tourism, although the number of ski areas in the States has decreased over the decades, from around 700 in 1980 to only 470 today, there remains a huge 25 million national skiers and 55 million ski visitors each year. Snowsports.org, however, report declining numbers of skiing participants in 2016 across all disciplines except snowboarding, and in all areas except the Rockies.

Canada

Skiing in Canada

With only a fraction of the national population of the U.S. and 79 million hectares of protected wilderness, Canada is much less busy than its neighbouring country all-round. There are only 288 ski areas in Canada, which host 4 million national skiers and 18 million visiting skiers. This means that there are only 0.1 skier visits per foreign visitor, making Canadian ski areas much less crowded than their U.S. counterparts. Clearly, though, skiers visiting America are missing a trick, because many of the ski resorts in Canada are among the most affordable. As Boots ’n All point out, Boler Mountain, Ontario one of the cheapest in North America: “The daily lift ticket costs $39 CAD for an adult and $36 CAD for junior.” So is Lake Louise, which not only has plenty of gentle slopes for beginners, making the perfect location for first-time visitors, but also offers “five-star facilities at three-star prices”. Forbes explain that even in Canada’s most popular resort, Whistler, “the quantity of Whistler’s terrain does guarantee that quiet, sparsely travelled spots can often be found.” If you’re looking for all of the adrenaline rush without the crowds, Canada is certainly a superior choice.

Snow and runs

Skier in Canada

Canada is famed for its pristine, powder, which stays dry due to the country’s Northern latitude, making the conditions perfect for skiing. Marmot Basin in Jasper provides one of North America’s longest ski seasons, according to Huffington Post Canada, allowing you to ski from November to May, whereas Revelstoke has the most snow in the country, with over 5.7 metres. With the cold temperatures for much of the year, Canada provides much more flexibility and reliability in snowfall, so you can hit the slopes almost year-round. To experience all that Canada has to offer, James from PlanetSki suggests that the best option is to get a campervan hire in Canada and go on a once-in-a-lifetime road trip across three resorts in locations such as Alberta and British Columbia for the full ski experience.

Steve from The Last Frontier explains that one of the reasons he recommends Canada for skiing is because of the varied opportunities available for visiting skiers. He points out, “there are many different options for all skill levels. People also come to British Columbia for back-country ski touring as there is a great network of guides and alpine huts that facilitate those types of trips.” So, whether it’s your first time on the slopes or you’re embarking on an epic ski tour, Canada will accommodate you on a life-changing trip.

Heli-skiing heaven

The Last Frontier heli-skiing Canada map
Image: The Last Frontier

Steve from The Last Frontier explains that British Columbia is regarded internationally as a leading destination for skiing, particularly as the world-leading location for heli-skiing. He says: “Our company, Last Frontier Heliskiing, is situated in Northern BC on the border of the Alaskan Panhandle. We have the largest single heli-ski area in the world and getting access to such a large area was only possible for us in a remote part of BC. Given the low population of the province, abundance of mountain ranges and consistent snowfall, BC is the mecca for heli-skiing in the world. Over 90% of the world’s heli-skiing is done here. So you can see where our preferences lie for skiing…”

Wildlife and scenery

Grizzly bear in Banff, Alberta
Image: Protasov AN (Shutterstock)

This is one of the stand-out points that almost incontrovertibly puts Canada above the U.S. in the skiing showdown. For example, the Rockies mountain range spans both the U.S. and Canada, and whilst both countries’ Rockies ranges are beautiful, the Canadian Rockies are far different to those found in areas like Colorado. Although higher, the Colorado Rockies appear more rounded and less craggy than the Canadian ones, and the treeline is also a lot higher, so you don’t get the huge expanses of bare rock that you can witness in Canada. Much of the Rockies mountain range in the U.S. are privately owned or in national forests, meaning access to some areas can be restricted. In Canada, however, the land is free to be explored to your heart’s desire.

Banff

As many people who have visited both areas will also tell you, because the rivers are less frequently glacier-fed in Colorado than they are in Canada, so in Colorado you don’t get the turquoise rivers and lakes that will take your breath away.

Put simply, as one TripAdvisor commenter says: “The Colorado Rockies are nice but did not make me feel like breaking into Julie Andrews mode, but the Canadian Rockies are just something else”.

James Cove from Planet Ski says that it is the vast expanses of empty space in Canada that make the country so much more beautiful to behold, particularly from the vantage point of one of its majestic mountains. He explains that the wildlife, too, is more diverse and easier to spot – he and his friends even once witnessed bears emerging from hibernation in Kicking Horse! These are experiences that are uniquely Canadian.

The experience

Kananaskis Country, Alberta
Image: BG Smith (Shutterstock)

Of course, there is far more to a ski experience than the snow, the runs and the scenery. For many people who hold a particular ski area close to their heart, it is a sense of atmosphere in a certain location that makes their experience stand out. As Gary explains, for him, Alta is much more than a ski resort – it has a sense of community that appeals to him. This can also be found in Canada. For example, James from PlanetSki claims that Canada simply provides a “more authentic ski experience”. For him, this is because there are more skiing opportunities, the scenery is spectacular and you get to meet more Canadian people, who are famous world-round for their kindness and good humour.

It is the unique charm of a ski resort that makes it special. In the words of Henrik, this is “something that I don’t think is characterized or defined so much by nationality or even geography as it is by the culture of the people who frequent the resort and inhabit its surroundings.” Different people are looking for different things when skiing, and although we believe that Canada provides a more unique and pure ski experience, the U.S. and Canada are clearly in close competition. For us, Canada comes out on top. As James from PlanetSki says, “If you consider yourself a skier, and you ski throughout your life, you must visit Canada”.

Ultimately, in the wise words of Henrik from FreeSkier: “No matter where you are in the world—Canada, USA, Europe, wherever—skiers are united by a common bond: a bond of loving the outdoors, loving the winter and the snow and the feeling of zooming down mountains by the grace of gravity.”

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