When the question “Where’s the best ski town to live in year round?” was posed to a bunch of North American snow sport diehards, consensuses gathered around a few choice areas. These places cater to “graduated” ski bums who want to keep playing hard but might be realizing it’s time to earn their turns — by working, too. Continuing our journey from Western USA to Canada, we’ll make our way, in alphabetical order, through the best spots to stay and play for more than a ski season.
Here are the top four ski towns for Canadian living, as chosen by ski bums who are already doing it.
Perfect for: Those who want to live in a postcard setting (literally)
Skier: Sarah M.
Plunged right in the middle of the stunning (breathtaking, jaw dropping, heart-stopping) Canadian Rockies, Banff is a central location for three ski areas, all of which can be accessed in 40 minutes or (much) less.
Though you do need to be eligible to reside in Banff (as it is located within a national park), if you happen to have an interest in working in one of the qualified operations and are looking for a town that meets your career and recreation needs, this might just be the place for you.
“Hands down, Banff,” says Sarah when asked which ski town wins the year-round living award. Besides all the resort skiing (which, with three local ski areas, could occupy anyone’s attention for some time), she lights into what almost seems an endless tick list of winter fun.
“Backcountry skiing, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, ice skating [it’s Canada, eh!], hot springs, good food,” she rattles off. “Oh yeah, and ice climbing.”
World-class ice climbing, let me add.
“That’s just winter,” she continues. Summer comes with its own laundry list of adventure, which might leave you wondering what you’re still doing not living in Banff.
“Hiking, rock climbing, paddling (up to Class VI), alpine access, car camping, backcountry camping, and the town is near Lake Louise and Moraine Lake,” Sarah finishes, referencing two lakes that are amongst North America’s most photographed.
The best hike to begin your transition into local status? The Plain of Six Glaciers trail. Though still popular, many tourists never take the time to go beyond the crowds at Lake Louise. Do it and you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of, well, glaciers (in case the name didn’t tip you off). Hanging glaciers, to be exact. Go in early summer for a chance to witness them break up over the massive cliffs they teeter on.
Even if you miss an avalanche, you’ll be rewarded with a cup of flavorful tea and freshly baked scones in the trail’s historic tea house. Built in the 1920’s, a peek into the rustic kitchen reveals a massive stove, rumbling with boiling pots and bakers pulling delicious delights out of its oven doors — sans electricity and running water. Kick up your feet on the porch and refuel before continuing to the Abbot Pass viewpoint.
By the way, ever heard of a “little” thing called the Banff Mountain Film Festival? This showcase of adventure, athleticism, and artistry is the premiere collection of films within the outdoor world. Hundreds of adventurous souls spanning the globe submit filmed documentation of their journeys, hoping to gain a coveted spot in the festival’s line up. The entire production, which tours the world, is the brainchild of the town’s own “Banff Centre,” which is hailed as “the largest arts and creativity incubator on the planet.”
And in case you needed to add anything else to the list, Banff National Park, Canada’s oldest (and a worthy contender for most beautiful), has over 1,000 glaciers within its boundaries. Add more by visiting the three — yes, three — equally stunning national parks grazing its borders.
It pretty much comes down to this: If you’re into awesome, welcome to Banff.
When you get here: Get caffeinated for adventure: Sarah suggests the Wild Flour bakery for the best coffee in town. And, if you’re feeling a bit peckish, order one of their croissants or a hot stack of their waffles; both are equally delicious remedies for hungry early birds.
Home of: Whitewater Ski Resort
Perfect For: People who love Portland and skiing
Skier: Brent Malysh
Nelson is what you get when you take a bunch of people who don’t think the rest of society is normal, give them supplies to make art and till organic farms, then tuck them into the setting of some of the best snow country in North America.
If Canada could slap a “Keep ____ Weird!” sticker on any town in its borders, it’d be Nelson. Besides the scenery, the only other major difference between here and Portland is, well, Nelson’s hipsters are happy.
Welcome to one authentic, cheerful, locally-owned, super low-key, weird (er, “eccentric”) town. Nelson is the kind of place where all walks of life collide. Be liberal. Be conservative. Be confused — just make sure you brought your skis and mountain bike.
Brent Malysh, a transplant from Vancouver, loves the quirky authenticity of the place he calls home. “People actually live here to eat, sleep and breathe mountain lifestyle,” he says. And it’s not just the people that are legit. “Nelson itself,” he says, “feels more authentic because the town isn’t a manufactured ski village. It’s not a fake town scene.”
And the skiing? It’s phenomenal. “That’s why everyone’s really into it here,” explains Brent. It’s hard to get him to not talk about why Nelson is the perfect basecamp for the sport, so I allow him to dive in. “The access to what we have for skiing is world class. The tree skiing is perfect — it doesn’t get any better than what we have! Everything is spaced perfectly with the right combo of steep, protected, and wide-open areas.” All this comes tumbling out in pretty much one breath.
Clearly, the area has some passionate residents.
Though it’s a bit off the beaten path — 35 minutes will get you to the nearest “major” highway — you won’t feel the need to get on it very often. “Nelson has the best mix of an awesome lifestyle with a more ‘complete’ feeling than most mountain towns,” Brent describes. “It’s not really missing anything. You won’t hear people say, ‘It’s awesome, but…’”
And because of its population, Nelson is the administrative center of the Kootenay region, which means it has a good mix of community and jobs. “It’s not a one-trick pony,” says Brent, so you don’t have to work in the ski industry to make it here. The historic downtown area has much more of an “urban vibe” than other towns of its size and, outside of ski season, you’ll see it bustling with festivals, concerts, farmer’s markets and tourists on any given day of the week.
Besides the cultural events and deep skiing, Nelson is home to plenty of off-season outdoor offerings. Kayakers can paddle Class II and III whitewater on Slocan River while flat-water lovers and beach bums will dig the endless expanse of water and the sandy beaches that line Kootenay Lake, of which Nelson spills into. Need summer vertical? Get up to 6,000′ of it by pedaling some of British Columbia’s world-famous mountain biking trails: Nelson claims over 105 of them. Or hit the trail with boots and hike to nearby Kokanee Glacier for views Photoshop can’t improve on.
“It’s a utopian little place, that’s for sure,” says Brent. “In fact, I’d say it’s the Goldilocks of ski towns — not too big, not too small. Just right.”
When you get here: “If you’re not skiing?” asks Brent, revealing what’s foremost on the mind here. “Then people watch. You can do this over coffee at OSO, where you’re gonna have the best coffee you’ve ever tasted, or go to Mike’s Place Pub and get a Hemp Ale or Faceplant.” Either way, you’ll get to see a lot of, uh, ”eccentric” locals.
Home of: Revelstoke Mountain Resort
Perfect for: kicking back with mountain-crushing friends
Skier: Bryan O’Sullivan
Snowboarder: Greg Fortier
The ski town that hosts the most lift-accessed vertical in North America’s winter also boasts adventure of equal scale in the summer. You can see why it’s so easy to get people to talk about the goods “Revy” claims.
Bryan, upon noticing the request for skiers to chime in on where they thought the best year-round ski town was, immediately answered, “Revelstoke! It’s got the perfect combo of remoteness, authenticity, good people, food, sick terrain. Even the rate at which Revelstoke gets skied out is amazingly low; we still find pockets of pow the next morning [after a storm].”
Greg, when deliberating between several areas in which to pursue his outdoor life, said the scales tipped in favor of Revelstoke after they officially announced the resort of the same name would be opening its doors in 2007.
Heck, it’s pretty difficult to get it to tip any other way when there’s over 5,600’ of vertical at your door.
Feeling that there was “an infinite choice of outdoor activities” — such as snowboarding, mountain biking, rock climbing and kayaking — he packed his bags and crossed the border from Alberta to British Columbia.
I know: We all love to play, but you gotta fill the fridge, too. And that’s what makes Revelstoke a great year-round ski town. “While recreation was what drew me here, it’s not the sole contributor to making it my permanent home. Employment is another part of the equation; I suppose that’s what really segregates ski bum from ‘graduated’ ski bum.”
For Greg, that meant he worked locally as a roofer while building his own dream, a snowboard/splitboard production company, which he successfully launched in the 2011-12 season. However, had it not worked out in his favor, Greg says, “I would still be living in Revelstoke pursuing whatever career necessary to continue calling it home.”
“Home” sounds about right when you know most of the faces around you, especially when those faces belong to your partners in adventure. “After living here for a while you cannot go anywhere in town without bumping into someone that you shared an incredible powder day, bike ride, or day of climbing with,” which, Greg mentions, is probably how you met those folks in the first place.
So what can a Revelstoke resident expect on a typical day? Besides the afore-mentioned activities, there’s dog sledding, paragliding, hang-gliding, mountaineering, water skiing and fishing. Check out a community gardening workshop, stop by The Last Drop for an open mic night, or just hang with your people over a classic pot luck dinner.
“It’s really the whole package that sells Revelstoke,” says Greg. “It’s the social networks that you build that are the mortar between the bricks.”
When you get here: Bryan says to head to La Baguette for one of their amazing croissants, or if you’re hungier, a panini sandwich. Greg’s tip? “Get a six-pack of Mt. Begbie Brewery beer — Tall Timber is a fine choice — put it on ice” until you can return to it after a day outdoors with your friends.
Home of: Mont Sainte Anne
Perfect For: French immersion and nature’s diversions
Skier: Simon Pouliot-Cavanagh
Forty minutes outside of the old-world quarters of Quebec City is a town of 3,000 residents that’s situated at the heart of nature. This place, originally settled in 1728 under the name of St. Ironwood, celebrates winter as much as you do. Just in case you need confirmation on that, it’s in town’s name: if you don’t read French, “les neiges” means snow. St-Ferreol-les-Nieges, to be precise, and when it comes to winter, this town lives for it.
This cold-loving, Quebcois-speaking beauty of a place sits at the foot of Mont-Sainte-Anne, one eastern Canada’s most popular ski resorts. With 59% of the mountain deemed “difficult” and a vertical that drops you and your skis over 2,000 feet, you will find lots of snow enthusiasts flocking to St-Ferreol-les-Nieges every winter.
Canadian Freestyle Ski Team member, Simon Pouliot-Cavanah, a native of Quebec who has visited ski towns all over the world for training and competitions, is one who can’t get enough of this town. “I think this is a great place to live,” says Simon, who chalks up some of its greatness to the area’s winter activities. Downhill and cross country skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling and dog sledding all make his list of winter delights. And if one ski area isn’t enough, there are three others within an hour’s drive of town: Le Massif, Le Relais (“A small spot that’s great for families,” notes Simon), and Stoneham.
If you’re a cross-country skier, you’ll want to take special notice since you’ll be hard pressed to find a better spot in Canada. Second in North America only to California’s Royal Gorge Cross Country Ski Resort, St-Ferreol-les-Neiges has over 124 miles of trails deep in the Laurentian woods by which the town is surrounded. It’s also home to the Pierre-Harvey National Training Centre, which provides xc-ski athletes with year-round training grounds. The training center includes a 3-mile summer roller course that has more vertical than any other Canadian trail suited for the purpose and was designed to feel as true as possible to what enthusiasts would find while skiing on a difficult trail in winter.
And though winter provides enough reason for most of the residents to live here, what happens after Mont-Sainte-Anne’s 168-day winter season comes to a close is what makes this a spectacular place to settle down year-round.
All you have to do is check out the town’s incredibly scenic location. The Laurentian Mountains, which Mont-Sainte-Anne utilizes for skiing, is part of the Charlevoix region, one of UNESCO’s World Biosphere Reserves. Three provincial parks — called National Parks in Quebec — (Grands-Jardins National Park, Hautes-Gorges-de-la-Rivière-Malbaie National Park, and Jacques-Cartier National Park), as well as a wildlife reserve (Laurentides Wildlife Reserve), fit within this region.
All of the above border St-Ferreol-les-Neiges to the north and west and feature fjords to photograph, peaks to summit, and over 2,000 lakes to paddle. Yet, to the east you’ll find reason enough for bragging rights: the mighty St. Lawrence River. This massive waterway connects the Great Lakes with the Atlantic Ocean and gives stunning views from atop the surrounding mountains.
And, right in town, the ski resort itself provides access to mountain biking, a four-star golf course (and disc golf, too, of course), and rappelling under waterfalls for those who want to practice canyoneering. Rock climbing and via ferrata can be found right outside of town in St. Anne Canyon.
With this town as your basecamp, it would take more than a lifetime to exhaust your outdoor options.
But, if you ever feel a need to take a break from the endless expanse of stunning wilderness and get into the urban scene, Quebec City (the province’s capital) is an easy getaway. Also a UNESCO site named for its unique heritage, this aged city got its start in 1605 and is the last remaining city north of Mexico still fortified with walls. Enter and you will feel as though you’ve been transported straight into a medieval European town — but without the massive blow to your wallet.
When you get here: Come in the fall. “Autumn is beautiful here,” Simon remarks. “The colors are amazing. Get to the summit of Mont-Ste-Anne by hiking (or skiing, if you miss your fall opportunity). The view looking over the St. Lawrence River is awesome from there.”
Got a ski town to add to the list? Tell us about it! And if you missed part one of this series, check out the top 3 Western ski towns to live in year round.