.: Ski XCOttawa.ca :: Skiing in Ottawa and Gatineau Park

Ottawa vs. Calgary
By:  Gavin Hamilton   (2010/06/28)


In this article I will compare the training pros/cons of two very ski suave communities, Calgary and Ottawa. This article will be largely based off of the xcottawa alumni Tom McCarthy’s 2007 article.


Like him, I feel I am qualified to write this as I spent 4 years (undergrad) in Ottawa, and 2 years (masters) out in Calgary*. I am now back in Ottawa (or Onterrible as my Foothills teammates liked to call it) if that gives you any foreshadowing of a possible result!

*NOTE: In both cities, I was skiing at the university level, and trying my best on the National scene. These results may not be generalizable to other populations of skiers. I thought that I’d use similar headings to Tom, but have reorganised them in order of importance for ski performance and training quality/enjoyment (as I see it). I will give each city a score (between 1-5) for each category. Each cities score will then be calculated at the end by summing each of my rankings to determine the winning city.

1. Ski Trails

Calgary has COP (a 2.5km “hamster loop” as we called it) within the city limits, but if you are prepared to venture further afield, you will find a plethora of options (i.e., Canmore Nordic Centre, Kananaskis, Lake Louise etc). Unfortunately, this comes at a cost (both time and money) which gets old quite quickly. Due to this, I ended up only making it out to amazing trails about 2-3 times a week.

In Ottawa, within the city limits there is an option to ski at Mooney’s Bay when there is enough snow, and when they have groomed. But.. if you decide to drive 20mins north of the city, you will venture upon 200km of groomed trails. It is tough to beat these trails and proximity.

Grade: Calgary : 3/5 Ottawa : 5/5

2. Club Support

I believe that Ottawa is slightly better in this realm; at least I found that it was for me. During my first year in Calgary, the Foothills High Performance club that I joined was ideal for a university level skier living in Calgary who wanted a high level training group to train with. Unfortunately, because of restructuring and the formation of the World Cup Academy (WCA), some of the older Foothills members went to the WCA or to the Banff Ski Runners. This made it difficult to continue to have a strong group of skiers around my level/age within Calgary during my second year of my masters. If I were to move to Canmore, there would have been many great options for clubs at my level/age, but I was unable to make that move. In addition, the University of Calgary team was non-existent and there were no university races except when we entered a student-run team to compete at the CCUNC (nationals).

Ottawa, on the other hand, has many options for a university skier who wants to train with an elite group. First, there is the Carleton varsity ski team which has a great program, and with their new head coach (Chris Mamen) they will continue to be a force to reckon with on the national stage. Nakkertok is a great option for youth programs, and are also showing that they are also very strong at the junior/senior program level. And of course, the best club in town is XC Ottawa (my unbiased opinion!) with great high level training and coaching for senior skiers.

Grade: Calgary: 3/5 Ottawa: 5/5

3. Early/late snow

Calgary has great early skiing about 2hrs away. Usually by the middle of October Lake Louise has mid-winter skiing conditions up on Morraine Lake road. In addition, late season crust skiing at Sunshine can be spectacular. Skiing in mid-May 2008 was probably one of the coolest skiing experiences of my life (aside from racing in China). Again, all of this is found at minimum 1.3hrs away.

I’d say that Ottawa has fairly decent early/late skiing. It helps that the parkways only need a few cms of snow for there to be enough snow to get out on the boards. As long as you are willing to do some “run-skiing” (a new term that I have made up for the purpose of this article), skiing can be available. In addition, if you are willing to drive up to Montmerancy (past Quebec) you can ski as early as October depending on conditions.

Grade: Calgary: 4/5 Ottawa: 4/5

4. Rollerskiing

a. Urban

Calgary definitely takes the cake with this one. There were multiple locations to ski (Church Ranches, Western Bluffs) which is due to the suburbanized layout of the city. Although Ottawa has many bike paths, you are theoretically not allowed to use these for rollerskiing.

b. Destinations

Calgary has multiple choices, but again, these come with at minimum a 50 minute drive (Bow Valley Campground), and more if you venture further (Canmore Nordic Centre, Three Sisters Parkway and associated subdivisions, Lake Louise, the 1A etc). In Ottawa, the Gatineau park closes the parkways on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and Sunday mornings and this skiing is close and tough to beat! Roller skiing twice a week is plenty for me (I’m sure Ed McCarthy will agree with me on this one..).

Grade: Calgary: 4/5 Ottawa: 4/5

5. Elite Racing Proximity

Many of the early qualifying races are held out west at either Silverstar or Canmore. Living in Calgary you are close to these big races it is much easier to get to them. The bow corridor race series also has a number of races close to Calgary (COP, Canmore, Mt Shark), and there are a quite few loppets held within driving distance (Nippika, Lake Louise etc). As well, there are a number of Alberta cups that are held throughout the province for which the travel isn’t all that bad.

In and around Ottawa the Eastern Championships (usually), NCD races and the Gatineau Loppet are held in the Ottawa area. For races that are held in Quebec or Montmerancy, this travel distance is also quite easy to manage. In addition, the OUA races and Ontairo Cups will venture up near here once and a while. With Nakkertok becoming a premiere race site location, and other race sites (Relais Plein Air etc) continuing to host big races, we are beginning to see more big races being held in close proximity to Ottawa.

Grade: Calgary: 4/5 Ottawa: 3/5

6. Trail running

Within Calgary there are a number of options for running. Along the north side of the bow river, west from the university, there are some really nice single track trails. Edworthy Park and the adjoining Douglas Fir Trail also have great trails for city running which are very interesting winding trails with stairs/boardwalks in a number of sections. Lastly, Nose Hill is another great location to find some quiet running trails, and the view up there of the city can be spectacular. I used these trails in many runs, and it was possible to do some quite interesting 3hr runs on trails within the city limits directly from my house. Again, if you drive out of the city, there are a ton of mountain runs to choose from.

In Ottawa, within the city there are not very many trails to run on although if you don’t mind bike path running, there are some great routes for pounding the pavement. In the Gatineau (20mins), there are endless trails to explore and I have only brushed the surface of possible runs up there.

Grade: Calgary: 4/5 Ottawa: 3/5

7. Interval Hills

Within the city, Calgary has decent interval hills at Edworthy Park and Nose Hill that are about 1.5-2.5 minutes long. To get a longer interval hill, you will need to head out to the mountains but out there you are able to find one or two decent climbs…

In Ottawa, Mooney’s Bay offers a one minute climb. In the Gatineau park (20mins), there are a number of good ones to choose from, most notably, the infamous Penguin. This is the favourite interval hill (~4-6 minutes) for xcottawa in the fall.

Grade: Calgary: 3/5 Ottawa: 4/5

8. Road Biking

I did not own a road bike out in Calgary (just purchased one this year), so I do not think that it would be fair to grade this. What I will say is that from what I have experienced so far on my bike, Ottawa is an amazing place for road biking. From my house near the experimental farm, it takes about 20mins to reach the most southerly part of the park, and I can do the parkway loop up in the park (~75km) right from my door. Tough to beat this ride, as it has great pavement, good climbs and is fairly quiet. There are also many other loops that I can incorporate which keeps it interesting.

9. Climate

Calgary is the sunniest city in Canada, need I say more? But, counteracting that might be the fact that it is also competing for the “driest”, least humid, city as well. Training with a water bottle is necessary, even for a 30 minute run!

Grade: Calgary: 4/5 Ottawa: 3/5

Category                   Calgary                Ottawa

Ski Trails                    3                         5

Club Support              3                         5

Early/Late Snow          4                         4

Rollerskiing                 4                         4

Elite Racing Proximity 4                         3

Trail Running              4                         3

Interval Hills                3                         4

Road Biking                N/A                     N/A

Climate                        4                         3

Total                            29                       31

As you can probably tell from my rankings, I am the type of individual who likes to maximize his time and minimize time getting to and from training. Due to this fact, I am not a fan of spending a ratio even close to 1:1 for my “driving time”:“training time”. Although Calgary has much to offer within a 200km radius, I found that as a resident of Calgary I was unable to take advantage of the mountains as much as I would have liked. My results may have been slightly different if I were to compare Canmore to Ottawa, even though the writer of that article may have included much of the same training options that I included in this article. In addition, the two categories that are at the top of my list (ski trails and club support) were won by Ottawa quite handily. Although I have picked Ottawa as a favourite “ski city” over Calgary, I may be writing again in a couple of years to compare Ottawa to the new city I am moving to. This could pose a much harder decision with Toronto… or not(!), only time will tell.


Spring skiing near Calgary


Spring skiing in Gatineau Park


Trail running near Calgary

Interesting Reading. . .
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