Snow-capped mountains rise around you, like frosted props in a beer commercial, while in the valleys winter white gives way to river blues and greens. Welcome to golf season in Alberta, Canada, a short but stirring time set in a landscape of such beauty that much of it is set aside as a national park. Here, in the shadow of the Canadian Rockies, leading names in golf have left a gentle imprint, some born in the golden age of architecture, others the bright offspring of modern design.
What the layouts have in common is the arresting grandeur of their surroundings, an unspoiled setting where the birdies are bald eagles and the galleries consist of elk and bear.
Kananaskis Country Golf Courses
Kananaskis Village, Alberta, Canada
Mt. Lorette Course: 7,102 yards, par 72
Mt. Kidd Course: 7,072 yards, par 72
877-591-2525, kananaskisgolf.com; $90
Robert Trent Jones Sr., a Stanley Thompson protege, called this stunning terrain the "best natural setting I've been given to work with." What he did with it is impressive, too.
Though Jones allowed the landscape to receive top billing, using glacier-fed creeks and ponds as guideposts, he also had the good sense to show his own deft hand. His influence appears in more than 140 silica sand bunkers, which track across his broad fairways like alabaster paw prints, and in sharply conceived doglegs that cut through thick pine forests and rub along the elbow of the Kananaskis River.
Most memorable is the par-3 4th on the Mt. Kidd course, which drops to a near-island green. No matter where you are on either layout, the nearby namesake peaks look on in stony silence, offering a lesson in perspective. They've been around for eons, and there will never be a day when they care about your score.
In 1928, Stanley Thompson put the final touches on what today is his best-known masterwork. Set in Banff National Park, the course stretches its green fingers from the banks of the Bow River to the towering crest of Mount Rundle, whose looming presence adds an element of optical illusion that makes eyeballing yardages a tricky task.
There's no doubt about the distance of the par-3 4th. One of the world's most photogenic holes, it plays a daunting 199 yards over a glacial lake to a green backed by mountains. In 1989, a Tunnel Mountain nine was added to Banff's postcard 18 and it's worth a go-round. But it's Thompson's course that belongs on your bucket list.
Another Thompson gem, etched into the heart of Jasper National Park, this delightful layout was described in quiet reverence by Alister MacKenzie, who admired the way that Thompson used the mountains as his muse.
Their distant craggy outlines, which ring the course in all directions, are mirrored in the mounding and the greenside bunkers. Though short by today's standards, the course can mete out punishment.
As you push toward the finale, the vistas are astounding and the short-iron approaches, buffeted by breezes off the water, are as consistently confounding as any around.
Stewart Creek Golf Course
Canmore, Alberta, Canada
7,195 yards, par 72; $135-$195
An abandoned mine shaft, its entrance overgrown with native grasses, casts its darkened eye over the first fairway, a relic from an era when coal was king in Canmore, a sylvan mountain town just east of Banff.
Now that mining's days are done here, nature has reclaimed the landscape. You see it in Gary Browning's design, which has all the rustic features that you look for in the Rockies, from creeks to craggy outcrops.
Though it plays at altitude, Stewart Creek spares you the goofy ups and downs that so often come at elevation. What you get instead are the high shot values of a course shaped beautifully into the mountainside.