The first turns of the season, no matter what the conditions, are always the sweetest. You've been itching to ride for months and when your (new) board hits the snow, it's like it was never summer at all. Except for the telling ache in your muscles the next day, of course.
Every fall, riders across Canada look to a handful of dependably snowy resorts to open early and satisfy their summer-long snowboarding withdrawal. Whether these resorts are blessed with natural snow or have made a serious investment in snowmaking equipment, theirs are the websites that riders start visiting November 1 to check out opening-day dates.
The following resorts are the annual best bets for early-season snowboarding coast-to-coast across Canada and some of the reasons why you should check them out.
British Columbia: Whistler Blackcomb
To Whistler's local population of pro snowboarders, skiers and ardent enthusiasts, early December is one of the best times of year to enjoy the biggest mountain resort in Canada. Snow is usually plentiful, crowds are much fewer and the locals get their run of the mountain for almost a month before the general public kicks into ski-season mode. Smart snowboarders (especially from the East) take advantage of this key period to get killer travel deals and great conditions, all without major lift lines.
Its two mountains, five terrain parks and backcountry accessibility, including catboarding and heliboarding, make Whistler great anytime of the year, but early season is one of the resort's secret fortés. You can get insane package rates at this time of year, with flights, rooms and lift tickets included for far (far) less than you would peak season. The good prices mean you can probably stay right in the Village and enjoying walking home from all the great restaurants, bars and shopping (can you say après?) instead of staying out in one of the nearby neighbourhoods and driving in.
Whistler and Blackcomb's usually offer a good selection of lifts in the early season, and it doesn't take long before both mountains and most lifts are fully operational. This year, the resort's earlier-than-scheduled opening on Whistler Mountain (Nov. 17) saw the Whistler Village Gondola, Creekside Gondola, Emerald Express, Franz's Chair and the Big Red Express all on line for opening day. The reason for the early opening? A series of November storms dumped over two-and-a-half feet of snow on the resort a week before opening day. ‘Nuff said.
British Columbia Interior: Big White Resort
Big White, located near Kelowna in the B.C. Interior, is known for many things: tons of on-hill accommodation, naturally undulating terrain (amazing for snowboarding) and a sick terrain park. Big White typically opens mid-November, although it takes a little bit longer for the park to be built up because it relies on natural snowfall to accumulate instead of blowing a bunch of the man-made stuff. This is actually a benefit, because it gives riders a chance to hone their skills on the small features before graduating to the big guns in January. Big White's freeriding is some of the best in the Interior and snowboarders looking for a mellow scene tend to hit up this area for its A-list parks and perfect freeriding terrain.
Sun Peaks Resort is located a couple of hours north of Big White and is often a good mid-to-late November bet as well. Traditionally known as a family-oriented ski resort, Sun Peaks has recently invested in its terrain park and is building up a legitimate snowboard scene as well. One asset to Sun Peaks, aside from its wealth of corduroy groomers to rip down, is that its back-bowl area and historic Burfield Chair. Great freeriding can be found here and, since it's a bit off the radar for snowboarders, fresh track can be yours for hours if you take the time to figure out the out-of-bounds terrain.
Alberta: Lake Louise and Sunshine Village
Lake Louise and Sunshine Village near Banff, Alberta always rank as two of the first resorts in North America to open every year. This year, Lake Louise was up and running on November 10 and Sunshine Village by November 15. Both resorts are renowned for opening with a good base of natural snow, although both resorts' National Park status means no summer terrain grooming and therefore more rocks to beware of-there's a reason Albertans keep a "rock board" in their quiver.
Though located under an hour from one another, Lake Louise and Sunshine Village are very different mountains. Louise features tons of groomed, steep terrain, incredible views and great tree zones. Unfortunately, Lake Louise discontinued the use of jumps in their terrain parks for 2007/08 and filled in their halfpipe as well, choosing instead to feature a rails-only park. But despite the loss, the resort still offers a lot for snowboarders. Not to be missed is Lake Louise's incredible Lodge of the Ten Peaks at the base of the mountain. It is simply majestic.
Sunshine Village, on the other hand, is the freeride snowboarder's dream. Its three main freeride zones, Delirium Dive, Wild West and Silver City, offer an unparalleled backcountry-style experience within the boundaries of the resort. Be sure to bring a transceiver, shovel and probe if you want to access these zones, as you have to beep in with your "peeps" at a gate to get inside. Sunshine also features an eight-acre terrain park with over 20 features, including jumps, rails and boxes.
Quebec: Mont Tremblant
The giant of the Quebec resort scene is Mont Tremblant, located about an hour away from Montreal and driving distance from Vermont and New York. Typically either the first, or one of the first, resorts in the East to open (nearby Mont Saint Sauveur opens early as well), Tremblant's opening weekend is always a good time.
This year was no exception and proved to be the resort's best opening weekend in years. As of November 23, the resort had 11 good trails open (out of its 93) and a well-stocked terrain park as well. By December 11, they had 60 trails open and an over 47-inch base. Early-season conditions are great because the snow is softer than mid-season Tremblant, and you can get a feel for the park, your edges (if they're feeling a bit unfamiliar after summer), and your ability to rip down the resort's well-groomed slopes at speed.
The Village is hub of Tremblant and it's famous for its party scene. Nightclub La Petit Caribou is always packed and après spots and shopping abound. The Village opens at its full capacity in November and the only difference between early and late season is that, unlike peak season, you won't have a problem finding a table to eat at or place to party.
Ontario: Blue Mountain
Blue Mountain is the biggest destination resort in Ontario in both size and scope. Its hills peak at about 700 feet of vertical drop, but its rideable terrain is over 250 acres and it features a full-size Village as well. Its early-season riding conditions can be a bit of a gamble, but this year snow was no problem and the resort opened to reasonable riding conditions on November 30. If temperatures are cold enough, snow isn't a problem here because the resort is literally blanketed in snowmaking guns.
What Blue Mountain lacks in height, it certainly makes up for in width. Its 34 trails are spread across the Niagara Escarpment laterally and you can spend a day zipping around from one side to the other. Its main terrain park, The Badlands, features tons of hits and two Superpipes. The terrain park isn't usually open in the early season (conditions depending, it may open by mid-December) but the core riders get a chance to polish up their skills in the mid-December Rock Star Rail Jam every year. The Blue Mountain Village is nearly always busy, thanks to local residents who come up to party and eat in its many restaurants and bars. And early season is a great time to get accommodation deals-rooms under $100 CAD were on offer this year until December 13th and included a one-day lift ticket.
Early season bragging rights
One of the best parts about travelling for your early-season turns is that you can brag about it afterwards to all the people who haven't yet strapped in for the year. There's nothing like saying, "Yeah, I just spent a week in Whistler" in November when no one else has yet to see snow. So start planning for next year now. When winter failed to appear until mid-January in the East last year, many riders started planning their early season snowboarding for 07/08 right then and there. The result? Tons of riders flocked West to Whistler this fall while the Eastern-bound headed to Tremblant, making for one heck of an opening weekend on both coasts.