BANFF, Alberta, Canada - I can't believe what I'm seeing.
The same fairway at the Fairmont Banff Springs Golf Course I played earlier in the day has been overrun with elk. The herd probably numbers 30 or more. Some eye my moving golf cart curiously, while munching away on grass. The young ones get skittish, scampering into the woods to hide.
These experiences are why mountain golf can be so exhilarating. You see scenery and wildlife you might not get anywhere else. Watching a ball soar against a backdrop of peaks and pines is one of my favorite things in golf. It never gets old. What I love most about mountain golf is the "mountain lifestyle" that accompanies places like Banff in the Canadian Rockies. If you aren't outside playing golf, you're just as likely to be hiking or fishing or doing some other adventure with Mother Nature. It can set your soul at ease just hanging out in the mountains.
Unfortunately, golf season in many North American mountain destinations is short. Peak season at high northern altitude isn't more than two months, three in a good year. Now's the time to get out and enjoy the fresh mountain air and the cooler temperatures away from summer's swelter.
Picking 10 of the best mountain golf destinations in North America isn't easy. Some of my choices are as small as a pair of resorts within an hour of one another to as large as an entire state.
I split the destinations evenly between east and west coasts, five apiece (plus a bonus selection), but for those keeping score, the west's mountain golf experiences are supreme.
Whistler, British Columbia, Canada
Comment: This ski destination in the Coast Mountains 75 miles north of Vancouver is equally awesome as a summer getaway. The village is loaded with bars and restaurants. Other adventures - hiking, ziplining, a peak to peak gondola ride and mountain biking - will keep you active outdoors. Golfers can stop at the scenic but quirky Furry Creek on the way in or out along the Sea-to-Sky Highway. Stay tuned for a Golf Advisor Round Trip show and Getaway in 2020.
Mont Tremblant, Quebec, Canada
Comment: The Laurentian Mountains northwest of Montreal serve up some dramatic views for golf. Each golf course has some truly magical moments and at least one awkward hole jammed into the landscape. You take the good with the bad on such extreme terrain. On my last visit, I played several rounds with golfers who spoke only French. The names above translate to English as The Giant, The Master (a private ClubLink course availabe through stay and plays with the Fairmont), The Devil, The Beauty and The Beast. Sound like fun?
Canadian Rockies, Alberta, Canada
Best mountain golf courses: Stewart Creek Golf Club, Jasper Park Lodge Golf Course, Silvertip, Mount Kidd and Mount Lorette at Kananaskis Country Golf Course, Canmore Golf & Curling Club, Fairmont Banff Springs
Comment: The Canadian Rockies is one of the 10 best golf destinations in the world, IMO. Jasper Park and Banff are legendary Stanley Thompson designs intertwined with two historic Fairmont resorts. Stewart Creek provides some contrast as a modern gem. Silvertip, for all its quirks, rates highly for vistas of the Three Sisters mountains. The return of the 36 holes at Kananaskis - reopened in 2018 after a 2013 flood derailed the property for five years - rounds out a fantastic destination that does require some driving (it's five-plus hours between Kananaskis and Jasper Park).
Blue Ridge Parkway Golf Trail
Best mountain golf courses: Virginia: Highland Course at Primland, Cascades at the Omni Homestead Resort. Devils Knob and Stoney Creek at Wintergreen Resort. North Carolina: Omni Grove Park Resort Inn & Spa, Mount Mitchell Golf Resort, Jackson course at Rock Barn
Comment: This loosely knit trail transcends the Allegheny and Blue Ridge Mountains from Virginia into North Carolina, including some of the region's finest golf resorts: Primland and Homestead in Virginia and the Grove Park Inn in North Carolina. The private Jones course at Rock Barn has hosted the PGA Tour Champions.
Comment: The Green Mountains rise up to form one of the premier ski hubs in the northeast. Golf has taken root, too, with roughly 10 courses worth playing to create a Top 10 northeast golf destination according to our Tim Gavrich. Stowe CC and Stowe Mountain are part of the Stowe Mountain Resort. Lodge guests get access to both courses. Woodstock CC, a Robert Trent Jones Sr. design, was ranked third in New England by Golf Advisor users in 2018.
Best mountain golf courses: California: Schaffer's Mill Club, Old Greenwood, Golf Club at Gray's Crossing, Coyote Moon. Nevada: Championship course at Incline Village.
Comment: Near the northern shores of Lake Tahoe, Truckee has become a second home destination three hours from the Bay Area that rocks with snowsports in winter and fun in the summer. The ultimate mountain experience in the High Sierras is a stay at the Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe, which is a gondola ride away from the Northstar village, 15 minutes from the sister courses of Old Greenwood and Gray's Crossing it offers as a golf package and 20 minutes from its chic and private Lake Club right on Lake Tahoe. Schaffer's Mill has gone fully private but the Ritz concierge should be able to get you on. Crossing into Nevada, the Championship course at Incline Village (there's also a Mountain par 3) feels the most like a mountain retreat.
Best courses: Red Sky Ranch Fazio and Norman courses, Vail; BeaverCreek Golf Club, Vail; East and West courses at The Broadmoor, Colorado Springs; Rollingstone Ranch at Sheraton Steamboat Resort; River and Ranch courses at Keystone Resort, Dillon; Country Club of Colorado at Cheyenne Mountain Resort, Colorado Springs; the 27-hole Pole Creek Golf Club; the 27-hole Breckenridge Golf Club; The Raven Golf Club at Three Peaks, Silverthorne; Telluride Golf Club.
Comment: The Colorado Rockies are littered with golf courses so we can't cover them all here, but there's more than a few great ski-golf resort combos. Red Sky Ranch and The Broadmoor are the premier 36-hole resorts and each require a stay to play their courses. Pole Creek has been ranked No. 1 in Colorado by Golf Advisor users every year since 2015. Most of the courses around Denver aren't true mountain courses, although there's plenty of fine public tracks. There are five Colorado courses located above 9,000 feet, according to this story, with No. 1 being Copper Creek at 9,863 feet in Copper Mountain. If you can't drive it long at the elevation of this 5,880-yard Pete/Perry Dye course, you never will!
Pocono Mountains, Pennsylvania
Comment: My kids still talk about the visit we had to Shawnee years ago. It's such a pretty spot and historic place along the Delaware River. Its A.W. Tillinghast course, one of 32 public courses to host a major, held the 1938 PGA Championship. Pocono Manor is also on the National Register of Historic Places with its Donald Ross course. Jack Frost is a modern Jack Nicklaus design.
Big Sky, Montana
Comment: Avid skiers/travelers say Big Sky - while booming - still has that small-town mountain feel like Aspen, Colo., or Jackson Hole 25 years ago. I got my first taste of Big Sky golf last fall, playing both Spanish Peaks and Moonlight Basin - two private clubs purchased by the same owner during the recession. There is limited access to both by renting a home within their high-end communities. High-end resort hotel projects (a Montage at Spanish Peaks and One&Only at Moonlight Basin) are in the works. The resort course, while relatively flat near the burgeoning town, does have a unique hook. It is Arnold Palmer's first-ever design, dating back to 1973.
Comment: Branson has been marketing itself as a golf destination for a while, but it's really the emergence and stunning growth of Big Cedar Lodge that has put the Ozark Mountains on the map for traveling golfers. The nine-hole, par-3 Top of the Rock hosts a PGA Tour Champions event. Payne's Valley by Tiger Woods will open next year, bringing another signature course to the resort.
Allegheny Mountains, West Virginia
Best mountain golf courses: TPC Old White, Greenbrier, Meadows - all at The Greenbrier. Woodhaven, Stonehaven, Cobb Course - all at The Resort at Glade Springs.
Comment: Roughly 60 miles separates Glade Springs from the legendary Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, host of the PGA Tour's A Military Tribute at The Greenbrier tournament on its Old White course this September and the 1979 Ryder Cup/1994 Solheim Cup on its Greenbrier course. Although overshadowed, the Cobb course at Glade Springs features 200 feet of elevation change.