Castle Mountain is an Undiscovered Gem

Alberta's Castle Mountain is an emerging ski destination worth watching By: Claire Walter
Castle Mountain ski resort is a local favorite with the potential to be the next big thing. // © 2011 Travel Alberta
Castle Mountain ski resort is a local favorite with the potential to be the next big thing. // © 2011 Travel Alberta

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The Details

Castle Mountain
Castle Mountain is defined as much by what it doesnít have as by what it does. There is no base village, no nightlife, no swanky shops, no fitness center and no skating rink. But this extremely modest resort under the brow of the Continental Divide offers everything that dedicated snow sliders care about. It boasts the highest average annual snowfall in Alberta (360 inches), the longest continuous vertical in the province (2,800 feet) and the only snowcat skiing operation in Alberta. With minimal infrastructure and no towns of any size nearby, new snow lingers and lingers each winter.

When the Canadian Rockies are blanketed in fresh snow, many skiers and riders have discovered Castle Mountain on day trips from Fernie, which is located across the provincial border in British Columbia, roughly a 1.5-hour drive away. Once guests visit this family-friendly "anti-resort," with its phenomenal snow, they often return to Castle Mountain and stay a few days longer.

While beginner and intermediate trails are groomed, more challenging terrain is maintained by controlled avalanches but remains ungroomed. There are few other places where it is possible to lay down fresh tracks several days after a storm. Bottom line: Castle Mountain is ideal for people who like to ski their legs into stumps and recuperate at night so they can do it again the next day.

"The mountain can excite people," said Castle Mountain marketing manager, Andrew Rusyny, admitting, "the amenities, maybe not so much."

A Local Favorite
Castle Mountain is not a new ski area, but it is just emerging as a ski resort. It opened in the 1965-1966 winter after an Austrian named Paul Klaus strung together four T-bars and built an Alpine-style lodge as a winter recreational diversion for folks from the small town of Pincher Creek and the surrounding agricultural countryside of western Alberta, plus a few visitors who stayed in a 14-room lodge. The surface lifts rose 2,500 feet to the top of Gravenstafel Mountain. Epic snows lured savvy skiers from elsewhere in southern Alberta. In 1975, the original lodge burned and, two years later, the Pincher Creek Municipal District took it over, keeping it low-key and local.

Some local investors took the resort over from the town in 1994, installing the first of what are now four chairlifts in 1996 and, more importantly, tripling the terrain in the process. Added to that were a bit more lodging options and a growing reputation for excellent ski conditions, moderate prices and a laid-back ambiance that is rare in this increasingly frenzied world.

Gravenstafel Mountain is directly served by ski lift from the base area and North Peak is reached by a long traverse from there. The upper trails start above the treeline and funnel into glades and tree-lined runs. Some are wide boulevards, while others are narrower shots through the forest. Small children and beginners are accommodated on a separate gentle slope. The resort offers ski and snowboard lessons for adults and children, as well as a daycare.

Castle Mountain's great leap forward came last year when it tested out the concept of lift-accessed snowcat skiing on Haig Mountain. The Huckleberry triple chairlift angles off from the base to a spot at the treeline to meet a snowcat for a ride up this beefy behemoth, with steep and challenging terrain. The cat accommodates groups of 12 for guided skiing and riding. The experience is not unlike heli-skiing but at a far lower cost and with less chance of being weathered in.

Anyone who can handle "the chutes," a series of tight, snow-packed gullies, is entitled to bragging rights, indeed.
The Rawhide Terrain Park lures young snowboarders and twin-tip skiers, and a groomed cross-country ski trail is accessible directly from the base area. This part of the West Kootenays is fabulous snowmobiling territory but, at present, no outfitter offers tours or rentals. Without a doubt, this will most likely arrive as Castle Mountain gains more traction as a travel destination.

Nearby Services
The Castle Mountain Ski Lodge & Hostel, located at the base of the mountain, has comfortable, no-frills hotel rooms and hostel accommodations for families and economy-minded groups. Amenities include a common room and a sauna. Nearby Castle Chalet is a two-level home with two- and three-bedroom levels that can be rented separately or together for a larger group needing five bedrooms. Each level features queen-size beds, a fully equipped kitchen, a living room with a pull-out sofabed, a full bath, a private deck with barbecue grill, a hot tub, DVD and VCR players and Wi-Fi access. Nearby are several fourplex buildings and also some luxurious homes.

Castle Mountain provides travelers with three dining options. The cafeteria in the day lodge is open for breakfast, a light lunch or an afternoon snack. The T-Bar Pub serves casual pub fare from apres-ski through late evening. It's decor includes memorabilia from Castle Mountain's early days. Barnaby Steakhouse & Fireside Lounge is open for dinner Thursday through Sunday evenings. It's the place to go for succulent Alberta beef in a laid-back Western setting.

Some visitors prefer to stay in Pincher Creek. This town of fewer than 4,000 inhabitants provides all of the necessities but no true luxury, either. It has a trio of motels and motor inns -- the Ramada Inn, Super 8 and Heritage Inn -- which offer lift/lodging packages, often referred to as ski/sleep packages in Canada. The Swiss Alpine and Luigi's are the best places in town to dine. While it's unlikely that many Americans would go to western Alberta to shop at a big-box store, the Outdoor Outlet is worth exploring for great values on all sorts of outdoor apparel and gear.

Today, Castle Peak is in the same position that Kicking Horse, B.C., was just a few years ago -- a rugged mountain blessed with fantastic snow, gorgeous scenery and just enough remoteness to keep it pristine. It currently hosts between 70,000 and 80,000 skier visits annually and hopes to grow, in a measured way, to about 100,000 to 125,000, but not more. Being just 2.5 to 3 hours from Calgary, and with such a major upside, that kind of growth would not be a surprise at all.
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