Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Epic Family Ski Weekend at Castle Mountain Resort

I'm always hesitant to use the word "epic" because it's such a subjective word (and honestly sounds boastful and competitive,) but when your 9-year old is shredding double black chutes at his new favourite ski resort, what else do you call it but "epic?!"

My 9 year old skiing the Lone Star Chute at Castle Mountain Resort 

Our weekend was "epic" for my husband as well because he has now reached that stage where he gets to ski the runs he wants to ski - with his son! He doesn't have to take off into the extreme terrain on his own, leaving us on the groomers way down below (just me left behind, and it suits this ski mom just fine!)

Finally, our Castle Trip was even "epic" for me, because I had been left terrified after a previous visit to Castle 15+ years ago, and swore I'd never go back. The terrain was too challenging for me at that time, and I don't think grooming even existed back then at Castle. Fast forward to our recent trip and I had a BLAST! I absolutely loved everything about this hill and can't wait to go back. (and I found plenty of easy groomed terrain I could chill out on.)

Happy family on top of the world at Castle Mountain Resort

Introduction to Castle Mountain Resort

Castle Mountain Resort is located in Southwestern Alberta, approximately an hour SW of the Town of Pincher Creek. Google maps says you can reach the resort in just over two hours from Calgary, but it would depend on where you live, because it's definitely closer to three hours from my house in the north.

We were easily able to reach the resort Friday after work (in time to get our son to bed at a nice early hour) and even after skiing until 3pm on Sunday, we still got back to Calgary at a decent time (though did have to stop in High River for dinner because we were all starving by that point.)

And of special note about this resort, it is located just east of the Continental Divide on the Alberta/BC border, and thus gets a LOT of snow each winter (up to 9 metres per year on average.) We were surprised by the lack of snow on the drive out until we reached the sign for the resort, where we suddenly transitioned from dry dirt to giant snow banks everywhere. (and it was real snow!)

Castle Mountain Ski Resort on the Continental Divide

Where to Stay at Castle 

We stayed at the Castle Ski Lodge, a simple facility with hotel rooms upstairs, and hostel dorm rooms (three bunks per room to sleep six people) on the main floor. We had a hotel room with a queen bed and a set of bunks. While nothing fancy, our room fit a family of four (three in our case) and it beats driving all the way down and back in a day.

And best of all, the lodge is located across the parking lot from the main resort so it's a very short walk to the lifts in the morning.

Our hotel room at the Castle Ski Lodge

We had a bathroom in our hotel room, but the hostel rooms have shared bathrooms in the hallway (gender specific.) We ate out the entire time we were at Castle (making use of the cafeteria in the day lodge and the T-Bar Pub for dinner) but there was a small kitchen and common room in the basement of the hostel that we'd definitely use on future trips. There was also a microwave, a coffee maker, and a kettle in the hallway of the hotel so you could make a simple breakfast for the family (and each room had its own mini-fridge for storing lunch supplies.)

Basic amenities in the hotel hallway for guests

Tips for Staying at the Castle Ski Lodge

  • Bring small bags you can carry up a flight of stairs! Big Bob, our giant hockey bag on wheels, was a bit heavy and thankfully my husband dragged him up!

  • Bring inside shoes/slippers if you want because all footwear must be left at the front door

  • Bring cool clothes for the hostel (the temperature was very warm inside)

  • Bring a baby monitor if you want to leave young kids in your hotel room. There is a small lounge area on the upper floor or you can retreat to the common room in the basement after the kids go to bed

  • You can use the hostel facilities even if staying in one of the hotel rooms since you share a building. This means you can cook your own meals in the kitchen in the basement

  • Plan to only use the bottom bunk in the hotel rooms if you have young kids. There wasn't much of a railing on the top bunk

  • There is free WiFi which is good because there is no service anywhere at the resort

Otherwise, for families wanting to take it up a notch in their accommodations, there are other options available on the hill from a bed & breakfast to a ski in, ski out rental house, or a chalet on the hill with suites available for rent. Visit the Castle Mountain website to view all options.

For pricing, follow this link and select either a hotel room or a hostel room. You can also view availability dates.

Our accommodations for the weekend at Castle Mountain 

Castle Mountain for Beginner Skiers and Snowboarders

The North Run at Castle
There is not a "lot" of beginner terrain at Castle Mountain so this wouldn't be my first pick for a hill if you have young children just learning to ski or snowboard. That being said, if you have mixed levels in your family, each person will be able to find something that works for their abilities at this resort.

True beginners can start off on the magic carpet until they are ready to advance to the "green chairlift." The Green Chair then accesses three short gentle runs at the bottom of the hill. This area was always full of families with young children and was very well used.

From the green chair, beginners have options off both the Huckleberry Chair or off the Sundance Triple Chair (the Blue Chair) where the North Run lazily winds its way down the mountain.

I actually loved the North Run off Sundance and spent a lot of time cruising my way down here. It reminded me of the ski out at Sunshine Village (minus the flats where you have to skate ski) and was essentially a winding road down the mountain.

Unfortunately, beginners can't access the top of the mountain until they're able to handle steeper terrain so Sundance will be as high as it gets for many families.

Starting off on the North Run from the top of the Sundance Chair
The best run for beginners at Castle: The North Run

Castle Mountain for Intermediate Skiers and Snowboarders

I'm a competent skier and comfortable on all groomed terrain, but I still consider myself an intermediate skier. Fortunately I had several choices off every lift and was able to reach the top of the mountain for the best views!

A true "intermediate" skier will want to start off on the Huckleberry Chair, a fabulous learning environment where nearly every run is groomed, and you won't accidentally find yourself on a black run. My boys did find some fun glades off Sidewinder, where there's also a terrain park when snow conditions allow, but other than that, the runs are relatively short and non-threatening.

From the Huckleberry, progress to the North Run (mentioned above) or "Easy Street" both off the Sundance (blue) chair. Easy Street is basically a cat track that accesses other runs such as "Sundown" and "Twilight," a solid intermediate combination. Or, if you follow my husband, he'll take you down "Mouse Trap," the first groomed run you come across after crossing the "Centre Run" - but this is a black run and I can assure you it felt very steep for my first run of the day!

Intermediate groomed skiing off the Huckleberry Chair

Once you're comfortable on the Huckleberry and Sundance Chairs, make your way up the Tamarack Chair (the red chair) to the top of the mountain where the views (and hopefully not the winds) will blow you away on a clear day. If it's a windy day, stick to the terrain lower down.

Views from the top of the Tamarack Chair (and the Skyline Traverse down below)

From the top of the Tamarack Chair, you'll find yourself on the Skyline Traverse as you make your way towards "Harkers Highway," the easiest way down. And honestly, this is pretty much a green run aside from the steep pitch at the top. Make it down that pitch, and the rest is a winding road.

Note, look at a map first and make sure you take the Traverse towards Harkers Highway and not towards the double black chutes!!

The gorgeous Skyline Traverse off the Red Chair

For more of a challenge, take the Skyline Traverse to "Bandito" or "High Noon." Each one has a short steep pitch but spits you back out on Harkers Highway lower down.

Finally, if you take High Noon (it was groomed my second day at Castle,) you'll come to a junction where you can go right to re-join Harkers Highway, or you can veer left and continue down the steeper run until you come to a cat track leading you back to the North Run below the Sundance Chair. (just make sure you go right on that final cat track and don't head for the North Bowl.)

Steeper terrain on Bandito off Harkers Highway
Easy skiing on Harkers Highway

Gorgeous views on Harkers Highway

Castle Mountain for Advanced Skiers and Snowboarders

Ready for more of a challenge and you've successfully tackled the intermediate terrain at Castle? Check out these tips below for progressions:

  1. Try the Ambush Glades off Sidewinder (Huckleberry Chair)

  2. Take Easy Street to Mouse Trap and Jelly Roll, a groomed black run (Sundance Chair)

  3. Try the Centre Run under the Sundance Chair. While it's only rated "intermediate," it was crazy steep and I was mildly terrified as I flew down this one at alarming speeds. Fortunately it's often groomed. (Sundance Chair)

  4. Try some of the black runs off the North Run. They are all quite short and spit you back out on the road lower down. (Sundance Chair)

  5. Drop down off the Skyline Traverse into the bowl under the Tamarack Chair (Deputy, Sherif, or Outlaw) are all good choices here) - and you'll end up back at the bottom of the Tamarack Chair. (Tamarack Chair)

  6. Try skiing in the Huckleberry Bowl (the opposite direction along the Skyline Traverse) - my boys really loved this bowl with its gentle angle. Alternately, try the Tamarack Bowl located right beside the Huckleberry Bowl.

  7. On a powder day, try Drifter, the first chute you'll come to just before you go through the gates into the double blacks. My boys found it to be ridiculously hard though and said you definitely need soft snow for it. 
Steep skiing in the Huckleberry Bowl 
Skiing a black run at Castle is serious steep business

Castle Mountain for "Extreme" Skiing and Snowboarding 

Once you're comfortable skiing black terrain at Castle, it's time to go play in the double black chutes off the top of the Tamarack Chair. (and I can't believe I get to actually post photos for this section!)

Heading into the Chutes 

My husband and son joined a morning tour at Castle with one of the mountain snow hosts, and were taken into the chutes to experience Lone Star - with a 600 meter fall line, a consistent 37 degree angle, and the longest continuous fall line descent in Canada.

Failing to get photos the first time, my boys chose to go back on Sunday to ski Lone Star again to get me the proof!

Note that falling on some of the steep black pitches (Drifter or Lone Star for example) isn’t an option when conditions are firm. A fall could land you in the ER. You must be able to arrest any fall to control your slide or you’ll go a long ways!!! And there are canyons to fall into on both Lone Star and Drifter. (If you're at all nervous about heading here solo, ask a Snow Host to take you on a guided mountain tour - just look for the bright yellow jackets at the bottom of the hill)

Skiing Lone Star at Castle Mountain Resort

Other things to do in the Castle Area

Castle Mountain Resort is located adjacent to the new Castle Provincial Park where you'll find no shortage of activities to enjoy. Bring your XC skis, snowshoes, fat bikes, or ice skates and you'll have plenty of options. Beauvais Lake Provincial Park is also nearby with groomed trails to enjoy.

Find more activities to enjoy here on the Castle Mountain Resort website.

Scenic Snow Cat Experience at Castle Mountain Resort (family-friendly!)

Finally, check out the options available for fun at the Castle Mountain Resort. Signature experiences include:

Powder Stagecoach Cat Skiing (most groups get to enjoy 6-8 laps in the resort's cat skiing terrain per tour)

Last Tracks Snowshoe Tours

Full Moon Snowshoeing and Fine Dining Evenings

Scenic Snow Cat Tours

We got to try a preview of the Scenic Snow Cat Experience, and thoroughly enjoyed riding in one of the big snow cats! I highly encourage families to check this tour out - especially if you're not at the level to enjoy actual cat skiing. You'll enjoy the same views for a fraction of the cost as well and you'll enjoy snacks and hot beverages on the top of the ridge.

I had a lot of fun on the Scenic Snow Cat Tour 

Castle Resort Planning Tips 

Below are some miscellaneous notes I kept through the weekend that I hope are helpful for your planning:

  • Fill up with gas in Pincher Creek. The small gas station in Beaver Mines is not always open.

  • The resort offers half day skiing if you leave Calgary in the morning but still want to get a few hours of skiing in that day

  • The resort offers individual pricing for the beginner/intermediate chairlifts! You can pay a discounted price for just the Green Chair or for just the Huckleberry Chair (something I wish more resorts offered for beginners!)

  • Kids 5 and under are free (as they are at most resorts)

  • The resort offers multi day discounts

  • There is a multi-use trail on site for fat biking, snowshoeing, and XC skiing - with rentals available

  • Get free or discounted skiing if you have a Lake Louise Plus Card. If you have one of these cards, you can claim one of your free days at Castle. Otherwise, make sure you show your card for a discount if it's not one of your free days.

Looking up at the Centre Run underneath the Sundance Chair at Castle 

Final thoughts on what we thought of our Castle weekend 

- Castle Mountain really is "closer to heaven and down to earth" as the resort claims. 

There was an eclectic mix of people at the resort from the cowboy in his leather jacket, skiing in an authentic cowboy hat to the men we saw skiing in their work overalls, families who'd driven in from nearby farming communities, to groups of friends gathering for a fun weekend to ski or ride. I even saw a group of skiers in 80s retro ski wear You’d never see this mix of people at a resort in Banff.

This is an authentic "locals' hill" operated by "skiers who are driven by adrenaline, not profit," and while you'll have to do without the high speed chairlifts you'd get at a bigger resort, in exchange, you get homemade monster size cookies baked fresh that morning, lifties that send you off with a huge smile and a shout to have fun every time you ride up, and some of the friendliest staff you'll find at a resort.

A resort that believes in challenging terrain 

Add, no crowds, no lineups, no parking problems, and a day lodge where you'll always find a table - and you've got Castle.

And the 'Closer to Heaven" part  will be experienced as soon as you ride the Tamarack Chair to the top of the resort and look around. These were some of the best views I’ve ever seen from the top of a ski hill on a bluebird day.

Our weekend at Castle actually got us dreaming about looking for a house in South Calgary so this could become our local hill and about buying a vacation property in the area.

Final views from the top of the Skyline Traverse off the Tamarack Chair

Disclaimer: We participated in a hosted weekend to experience a family ski weekend at Castle Mountain Resort. As always, all opinions are my own and I wasn't compensated beyond costs for the weekend. 


  1. All you can do is have a great package and make the most of your trip. You need to choose the right set of people. Company plays an important role in the tour. If you have great friends your tour will be memorable for sure.

  2. We love Castle. We have only been there once but it was EPIC!

  3. We had a fab time as a family skiing here two years ago. Need to get back! Many people don't realize it's part of the Powder Highway.

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