One of the most soul-satisfying golf destinations in the world is the Canadian Rockies. The golf courses are as challenging and varied as they are rich in history and natural beauty. Cool nights and clear sunny days produce perfect conditions both for the turf and the golfer, and, at every turn in the fairway, there’s another spectacular view. If by chance you need a break from golf, the Rockies also offer an endless array of other outdoor activities.
The dual gems in the crown of any Canadian Rockies golf experience are the Stanley Thompson-designed courses at Banff Springs and Jasper Park, both conveniently co-located in national parks at Fairmont Resorts near the two towns. Thompson, one of the founding members of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, was a partner for some time with Robert Trent Jones Sr., and their firm had a hand in Bonnie Briar in Larchmont and Quaker Hill in Pawling, New York. His classic courses, built in the 1920s, flow with the landscape in a way that modern tracks carved out with dynamite and bulldozers seldom do.
Thompson’s courses have well-earned places on every discerning golfer’s bucket list. They give you a perfect level of difficulty along with an opportunity for triumph, mental as well as physical challenges, and breathtaking scenic beauty. Thompson routed the courses to maximize the views while integrating the design of individual holes into the landscape in mind-boggling ways. Many of the bunkers, for example, have outlines that mirror the mountain peaks above them—a subtle echo of the course’s glorious setting.
To complete the golf menu, be sure to visit the Canmore, Alberta, area, less than an hour from Banff. There you’ll find several other fine facilities with completely different styles of play. For pure mountain golf with 600 feet of elevation change, visit Silvertip Golf Course. Another type of mountain course, Stewart Creek, offers a quirkier layout and a little less elevation change; whereas the Canmore Golf & Curling Club gives you great mountain views on a relatively flat course along the Bow River Valley. Kananaskis Country Golf boasts two Robert Trent Jones Sr. designs on property the master called, “the best natural setting I’ve been given to work with.” Kananaskis was closed in 2014 to recover from a disastrous flood, but it will reopen for play in 2015, rebuilt with $18 million from the provincial government.
Tourism represents more than half of the economy in the Canmore region, according to Jim Younker, director of recreation. Every outdoor activity you can imagine is available, including a few you possibly haven’t tried, like caving and helicopter tours. River rafting, horseback riding, mountain biking, and hiking are standard, of course, as well as one of my personal favorites—sitting on the grass staring in wonder at the mountains etched against the perfectly blue sky.
Another mind-boggling activity option is Elevation Place, a $55 million indoor playground built by the town that houses a spectacular indoor water park and aquatic center, a climbing gym (with over 11,000 square feet of routes reaching 45 feet in height), cardio, weight, and stretching rooms for indoor workouts, an art gallery, and the public library. Full-facility full-family day passes are just $29.
The three-hour drive on Alberta’s Icefield Parkway between Banff Springs and Jasper Park isn’t a chore; it’s a highlight of your trip. It’s one of the most scenic highways in the world, winding through the mountains and calling for frequent stops to snap photos of elk, antelope, mountain goats, and bears as well as the dramatic snow-capped mountains framed against the brilliant blue sky. An excellent non-golf stop on your Canadian Rockies golf tour is the Glacier Skywalk and/or the Icefield Expedition in Jasper National Park. It’s educational and thrilling all at once.
The Banff Springs Hotel opened in 1888, built by the Canadian Pacific Railway to attract more travelers to the region, an idea promulgated by Sir William Cornelius Van Horne, president of the railroad, who reportedly said, “If we cannot export the scenery, we will have to import the tourists.” The Stanley Thompson Eighteen was added in 1928 and is today part of the Fairmont Banff Springs Resort along with the Tunnel Nine, a nine-hole course built in 1989.
The Thompson Eighteen delights by design and setting. It sits between the snow-capped peaks of Sulphur Mountain and Mount Rundle, allowing the course to play off the scenery in many subtle and some not-so-subtle ways. Almost every hole frames a mountain view, some more than one from different locations on the hole, and many have equally stunning views looking back from green to tee. Early in the round, the mountains seem to loom right next to the fairways and craning your neck to look up at them can bring on some serious vertigo.
The course is generous to the golfer looking to score. Fairways are wide, and the 150-plus bunkers are judiciously placed to guide rather than punish the player. Most greens are subtly contoured and approachable with either a running or airborne shot. Four sets of tees are available, playing from 4,478 to 6,938 yards.
The signature hole on the Thompson Eighteen is the fourth, known as the Devil’s Cauldron. It’s aptly named, too, since the 192-yard par three sits on the sides of a water-filled canyon that only a demon could love. With Rundle Mountain looming over it and the eerily still water lying like a mirror below, it’s easy to imagine a smirking Satan watching you play.
The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel makes a fabulous base for your Canadian Rockies trip (although a night or two at its sister property in Jasper Park is a good idea, too). Known as the “Castle in the Rockies,” the hotel offers 11 excellent restaurants, an award-winning European-style spa, and legendary hospitality.
The Jasper Park golf course epitomizes classic design that has stood the test of time. Stanley Thompson’s genius was such that only one hole has been altered since the course opened in 1925, yet it remains challenging and thoroughly enjoyable by the modern golfer. With a brilliant mix of long and short, left and right, up and down holes and four sets of tees ranging from 5,397 to 6,663 yards—not to mention a spectacular setting—Jasper Park will please and test every golfer.
The par threes are treacherously delightful. There are five of them, each unique. The first you encounter is the fourth hole, where drivers are frequently seen on the tee since it measures 220 yards and plays to a slightly elevated green and often into the wind. The 214-yard ninth plays steeply downhill to a green shaped like the hole’s namesake, “Cleopatra.” The last one-shotter is the 15th hole, aptly called “The Bad Baby.” The little bugger earns its name with 130 yards to a small, heavily defended green where even the slightest misdirection off the tee will send you into a deep bunker to the left or a nasty collection area on the right.
The Jasper Park Lodge couldn’t be more different from its sister Fairmont Hotel in Banff Springs. No imposing castle here. Instead, the rooms are located in cabins spread throughout the property around picture-perfect Lac Beauvert. The cabins vary in size and layout, but all exude a wilderness aura made perfect by a small herd of elk that frequently meander through the grounds during the morning hours. For a real treat, consider booking “the Royal Retreat,” a 6,000-square-foot log cabin recreated from the plans of the original that hosted King George VI in 1939.
If Grizzly Adams played golf, you’d find him on the tee at Silvertip Resort in Canmore, Alberta. Silvertip is true mountain golf, beginning with several holes in a valley but climbing steadily with a switchback layout until it climaxes with a finishing hole that descends so fast it will make your ears pop. The course rises—and falls—600 feet in total. It also features panoramic views, crows the size of eagles, gophers, elk, and frequent visits from bears, coyotes, and wolves that take advantage of the property’s two wildlife corridors and certification as an “Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary.”
Silvertip is also an eminently enjoyable golf course, with six sets of tees stretching as long as 7,140 yards and as short as 4,822. Many of the holes are visually intimidating but much easier to play than they look—or vice versa depending on how you’re swinging the clubs that day. The 510-yard eighth looks short but plays long, for example, and brings water into the equation off the tee. The typical hole on the back nine (if there is such a thing) features a soaring shot from an elevated tee then squeezes your scoring attempt with an elevated green.
Both fairways and greens are heavily contoured, so you’ll never have a level lie or a straight putt; yet it never calls for an impossible shot.
In the land of the side-hill lie, Stewart Creek is king. It’s a mountain course in Canmore where the history of the town as a mining center is highlighted on several holes, including the first by a mine shaft entrance spotted just off the fairway.
Stewart Creek’s 7,195 yards (from the tips) present a succession of challenging and occasionally quirky holes. Five sets of tees make it accessible for players of all levels, although the 6,360-yard whites are tough enough for most of us, especially those playing the course for the first time. You need to choose your lines carefully on holes like the 527-yard sixth, which has a split fairway forcing a difficult choice for your second shot.
Stewart Creek also has a fine range, short game facility, and practice green. It pays to spend time on the latter since the greens are delightfully slick and true.
Constant improvement is the dream not only of every golfer but the mantra of the Canmore Golf & Curling Club. The member-owned course opened in 1926 and has continually tweaked its golfer-friendly layout to keep itself relevant to the modern game. It’s a pleasure to walk, the scenery is excellent, and the amenities belie the price.
Canmore Golf & Curling Club’s course lies in a flat valley near the Bow River with great views of the Rundle Range. It’s surrounded by the mountains but doesn’t play up and down them, so lies are level and there aren’t any drastic elevation changes to deal with. The difficulty on the course comes from tree-lined fairways and careful shaping of the green and bunker complexes. Water is in play on several holes, so a little thought should go into nearly every shot. Four sets of tees measure 5,172 to 6,470 yards.
All of the par fives are reachable in two in the crisp, thin mountain air, and none of the par threes plays with the same club, measuring 150, 173, 182, 190, and 217 yards. The course also features five par fours where the driver is best left in the bag. They all require super accuracy and shape off the tee, distance control, and a deft hand with the wedge.
The SandTraps Restaurant goes far beyond the usual burgers and wraps to offer seasonal and regional treats like tourtieres, French Canadian meat pies made with venison and wild boar, and fresh greens picked daily from local community gardens. It all adds up to a relaxed, first-class golf experience.