My life changed when I came to Banff. But for locals, it's been this way as long as anyone can remember.
Over 130 years ago, a few workers on the Canadian Pacific Railway stumbled across a cluster of hidden hot springs. Deciding the surrounding land was too beautiful to be owned by one person, the government stepped and protected it for public use, penning the seminal Rocky Mountains Park Act and creating Banff, the nation's first national park.
Less than a year later, workers completed construction on the Banff Springs Hotel, a luxurious chateau-style landmark that would look at home in the Swiss Alps. Railway passengers flocked from the city, and whether they sought respite or adventure in the pristine oasis, they all felt electrified under the influence of Banff's rugged mountains. One hundred years ago, the region's first ski lodge opened on Mount Norquay; in the following five years, pioneering mountaineers cracked open the newest frontier in skiing, building some of North America's oldest backcountry lodges at Mount Assiniboine and in the Skoki Valley.
There's nowhere else in North America like this, a secluded place with an alpine legacy so rich and an inclusive mountain culture so strong. It's a destination vacation spot, with direct flights from Denver, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Dallas, and New York City to Calgary International Airport, a short, straightforward drive from Banff. Big Three resorts--Lake Louise, Sunshine Village, and Mount Norquay--are on the Mountain Collective Pass, meaning tickets aren't a hassle or expensive, though the exchange rate is good, so your dollar already goes far. There's skiing for folks of every ability and inclination in Banff, whether you seek a homegrown, community ski area experience or an all-time powder day to tell (and retell) your friends back home about forever. The two have never been mutually exclusive here.
I learned this last winter at Lake Louise, with 21-year-old Banff skier Kasper Miller. We explored the back bowls, which offer steep, consistent fall-line runs, so many that you could lap the lift all day and still find thrills at 3:30 p.m. We made fast GS turns down the rolling front-side, which is groomed to polished perfection. And we chatted on the lift, Kasper naming the many nearby peaks and pointing out the easily accessible backcountry, where skiers seeking untamed terrain play.
For hours, Kasper and I linked turns that echoed in my muscles long after the lifts closed. It felt how skiing should. A simple, naked thing; a clear-minded connection to something basic and alive that we can't find in our cubicles or city blocks or daily commutes.
Kasper grew up here, a child of the national park with an enlightened love for the mountains. She completed college last spring, and like any graduate, she's looking out at her vast opportunities. She thought of traveling across the world, and though she still intends to do that, she recently delayed the trip. She decided she can't leave before skiing just one more winter in the Canadian Rockies, a range that still strikes and surprises her, though she's lived in its shadows for years. When you live in a place that people visit for the best vacations of their lives, it's nearly impossible to consider leaving.
"I look for towns that give off the same Banff vibe," Kasper said. "But I haven't found another place like this."