SNOWSHOE MAGAZINE FEATURED ARTICLE:

In Search of the Ultimate Backcountry Ski Lodge (on Snowshoes)

I’m fortunate to live a short hour outside the park gates of Banff National Park in Alberta where opportunities for both skiing and snowshoeing are abundant. Backcountry lodges are also plentiful for multi-day trips but tend to cater to skiers who will either ski in to the lodge (and maybe explore the area further on snowshoes once settled in) or else will fly in via helicopter and spend their days seeking out turns in the high alpine. Meanwhile, options are slim for those of us wanting to access backcountry cabins and lodges on snowshoes via an easy to moderate winter hiking trail.

Most of the lodges I’ve looked at in the Canadian Rockies encourage visitors to either ski or snowshoe in. Further research however would reveal that nobody really chooses to snowshoe unless there’s a limiting factor. For example, friends have told me of trips taken on snowshoes because a party member didn’t know how to ski in the backcountry, and I once took my mother into a lodge on snowshoes because I knew there was no way she’d be skiing up and over a mountain pass without breaking a leg.

You don't have to ski to reach a backcountry ski lodge

Skiing is just one option when it comes to accessing backcountry lodges

I am a good candidate to answer the question: “Why not snowshoe into a backcountry ski lodge?” because I am both a skier and a winter hiker. However, I would never snowshoe into 90 percent of the backcountry lodges, cabins, or huts located in the Canadian Rockies. I would choose to ski over snowshoe into most of them and you might even have to pay me to hike into one or two of them if I couldn’t ski.

Skiing and snowshoeing into Skoki Lodge, Banff National Park

Skiing and snowshoeing into Skoki Lodge, Banff National Park (both are valid ways to reach the lodge)

Why not snowshoe into “most” backcountry lodges?

Most backcountry ski lodges in the Canadian Rockies are accessed by either helicopter or by road (that you will ski up). In the case of several lodges, you will follow old fire and service roads, pack trails, and power lines. For at least a few cabins and lodges, you will be skiing on a summer road (normally driven,) that is closed to traffic in winter. Now, tell me how exciting you think it would be to snowshoe up a road? (Not very!) And it’s even worse on the way down when you can ski out in an hour or two (double the time on snowshoes).

This is where I want to be snowshoeing

This is where I want to be snowshoeing

Many lodges are also serviced in winter by snowmobile. This means you’ll be following a hard packed, very well maintained trail all the way to your lodge. Read: not exciting on snowshoes but exceptionally easy on skis.

Finally, it’s not that hard to strap snowshoes to your back so if you think the terrain will be too challenging for day tours at the lodge, you can always ski in, explore the area around the cabin on snowshoes for a day or two, and then ski out.

Choosing to snowshoe on a snowmobile packed trail

Choosing to snowshoe on a snowmobile packed trail (photo: Alannah Jensen)

Finding a backcountry lodge that is actually “fun” to reach on snowshoes.

Devout skiers will still disagree with me, but I have found a backcountry lodge in the Canadian Rockies that I actually find pleasant to reach on snowshoes. Sure, it’s not as fast without skis (that’s a given), but the scenery en route to the lodge is drop-dead beautiful and you’ll be hiking on an honest to goodness trail (the same trail that summer visitors hike in fact.) You will climb over two mountain passes and across the middle of a large alpine lake as you travel to this lodge, and you will work for that afternoon tea waiting for you upon your arrival. The trip to Lake Louise’s Skoki Lodge is a solid “intermediate” trail for accomplished fit outdoor enthusiasts and it doesn’t matter if you ski or snowshoe. You’re in for an adventure of bucket list proportions however you choose to travel!

Snowshoeing across Ptarmigan Lake from Skoki Lodge

Snowshoeing across Ptarmigan Lake from Skoki Lodge

Lake Louise and the historic Skoki Lodge.

Imagine staying at a backcountry lodge so steeped in history that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (affectionately referred to as Will and Kate) chose to stay overnight on their most recent tour of Canada. A place often referred to as the birthplace of the commercial ski industry in Canada. A place that dates back to 1931 when ski tourists would join guided trips into the same lodge that you’ll sleep in today. Unaltered in physical appearance, the lodge continues to operate without electricity or running water (quite a feat when you taste the gourmet food at each meal) and was designated a National Historic Site in 1992.

Historic Skoki Lodge (ski lodge and National Historic Site)

Historic Skoki Lodge (Backcountry Ski lodge and National Historic Site)

The Great Adventure into Skoki.

We began our trip by uploading the Lake Louise Resort gondola and downloading a chair lift on the backside of the ski hill, arriving at Temple Lodge and the nearby trailhead to Skoki.

A short hike up the Larch ski run takes you to the official trailhead and from there it’s actually a very straightforward seven-mile ski or hike. The lodge is serviced by snowmobile all winter long so you’ll usually be following a well packed trail that takes you right to the lodge door. There are also big marker poles spread out every 600 feet or so along the trail so it’s unlikely you could get lost (even in a blizzard.)

You’ll follow a gentle forest trail for the first couple miles, passing the small Ptarmigan Hut where guests would spend their first night when traveling from the Village of Lake Louise.

The climb up Boulder Pass

The climb up Boulder Pass

It is past the small hut that the trip gets truly exciting and scenic. You’ll cross Boulder Pass (with a gradual climb), cross Ptarmigan Lake (which is often so windy, you will feel as if you are on an arctic expedition,) and then climb up and over Deception Pass.

On the way out from Skoki you will see where this pass gets its name because the top of the pass always seems like it is right over the next hill. It is usually this pass that lets you know how well you trained (or didn’t) for the trip and skiers will often be found walking to the top on the way in, crossing the shorter but much steeper side of the pass.

Crossing Ptarmigan Lake

Crossing Ptarmigan Lake

Fortunately, once you cross Deception Pass, it’s a short hike to the lodge, all downhill. Strong skiers can make it to the lodge in less than 20 minutes I hear. You’ll know you’re almost there when you smell the smoke from the wood stove and your tummy starts rumbling for a bowl of hot soup.

Views from the top of Deception Pass

Views from the top of Deception Pass

Life at Skoki Lodge.

Life at Skoki can be summed up in one word – FOOD. You’ll dine on home style gourmet cooking throughout your whole stay from the second you arrive at the lodge. I hadn’t even changed out of my long underwear before I was devouring a bowl (or three) of Katie’s amazing homemade soup. Afternoon tea is served daily and includes a table full of fresh goodies, baking, cheese and crackers along with chips and salsa (and the soup which could inspire a story in and of itself.)

Taking a nap before dinner at Skoki Lodge

Taking a nap before dinner at Skoki Lodge

Breakfast and dinner are served buffet style and it’s pretty much a guarantee that no guest at Skoki Lodge goes hungry or wants for better food. A typical dinner at Skoki Lodge could include pork loin or stuffed chicken breasts as a main course along with grains, salads, and vegetable dishes so scrumptious I could have had seconds and thirds of them alone. There is always homemade bread at each meal and alcohol can be purchased if you’d like a glass of wine with dinner.

A look at the main floor of Skoki Lodge

A look at the main floor of Skoki Lodge

Breakfast is another amazing meal where you’ll feast on gourmet egg dishes from baked omelets to bacon-wrapped poached eggs, along with fresh scones, fruit salad, yogurt, oatmeal, and all the coffee or tea you can drink. By the time you get up from the breakfast table it is actually tempting to go back to bed for a few hours to sleep off all the food you’ve just eaten and get up again for afternoon tea. Alas, the day’s adventures are calling, so you pack a lunch out of sandwich ingredients laid out on the buffet table, bag up a few cookies, and go upstairs to change into your woolies and thermals again.

Sunset at Skoki Lodge

Sunset at Skoki Lodge

Day touring from the lodge.

For guests on skis, possibilities are endless when considering a day tour. On snowshoes there are more limited options but that’s not to say you can’t get outside and burn some calories trying to climb Skoki Mountain behind the lodge (unless perhaps I’m one of the only crazy people who thinks a 2300 foot snowshoe ascent is a good way to spend a rest day at the lodge.)

For those not inclined to climb a mountain or if avalanche danger is high (in which case I wouldn’t recommend going above treeline) there are plenty of easy snowshoe loops that can be done from the lodge. At the very least, head over to Merlin Meadows and make a few snow angels between meals so that you can say you got outside. Then you can return to the buffet table once again.

Attempting to climb Skoki Mountain from the lodge

Attempting to climb Skoki Mountain from the lodge

The staff at the lodge are very experienced and knowledgeable on the terrain surrounding the lodge. Staff member, Walter, pulled out trail and topo maps each morning as he sat down with guests and discussed options for tours that would suit their abilities and experience levels. While there is no official guiding offered from the lodge, most popular trails are well tracked and packed down so it’s pretty hard to get lost if you stick to the main loops.

Exploring the beautiful terrain from Skoki Lodge (photo:  Alannah Jensen)

Exploring the beautiful terrain from Skoki Lodge (photo: Alannah Jensen)

Top Reasons to choose snowshoeing as a way of accessing Skoki Lodge.

  1. A slower pace will allow you to take more photos, stop more often to enjoy the scenery, and maybe even make a snow angel in the middle of Ptarmigan Lake if you happen to be crossing on a calm weather day.
A rare calm day on Ptarmigan Lake

A rare calm day on Ptarmigan Lake

  1. Skiing into Skoki Lodge is not for novice skiers or those used to skiing on groomed track-set trails. This is ski touring at its finest and you’ll need climbing skins and metal edges as a bare minimum to make the trek in. Many skiers even use backcountry or telemark skis. Not up for that? No worries. You can enjoy the same scenery, food, experience at the lodge, and adventure on snowshoes without worrying about breaking a leg descending Deception Pass.
Some trips are just easier on snowshoes

Some trips are just easier on snowshoes

  1. Out of all the backcountry lodges and cabins I’ve stayed at in the Rockies, Skoki Lodge is my first choice for that trip when I feel like hiking over skiing. For those who genuinely love snowshoeing and winter hiking, you’ll get a classic experience at Skoki Lodge and there’s plenty of powder to be found around the lodge if you want to get off the packed trail.
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Seeking out untracked snow and powder

For more information on Skoki Lodge visit the Skoki Lodge website where you can find out about the rooms or cabins available at the lodge along with the cost to stay at the lodge. You can also find more information about the area on the Lake Louise Ski Resort website or the Banff Lake Louise Tourism website.  Finally, if planning an extended visit to Alberta, please visit the Travel Alberta website for ideas on where to explore and stay.

Accommodation is available in the village of Lake Louise at all price ranges for those wanting to visit for a week or longer period of time. Many visitors find that a visit to Skoki Lodge compliments time spent at the Lake Louise Ski Resort. There are also plenty of other activities to do at Lake Louise from dogsledding to skating on the lake in front of the Chateau.

Parting shot of Skoki Lodge

Parting shot of Skoki Lodge

Big Thanks to the Lake Louise Ski Resort and Travel Alberta for partnering with me on this story and for helping me promote the fabulous destination that is Skoki Lodge.

The required Skoki photo in front of the historic lodge

The required Skoki photo in front of the historic lodge

This entry was posted in Destinations, Features, Homepage Featured by Tanya Koob. Bookmark the permalink.

About Tanya Koob

I am the mom of a spunky 7 year old boy and I live in Calgary, Canada at the doorstep to the fabulous Rocky Mountains. Our family makes it a priority to get out to the mountains most weekends for big adventures from hiking, camping, biking, and paddling in summer to skiing and snowshoeing in winter. I am the author of the blog, Family Adventures in the Canadian Rockies, www.rockiesfamilyadventures.com.

One thought on “In Search of the Ultimate Backcountry Ski Lodge (on Snowshoes)

  1. Love the review. I had never heard of Skoki Lodge until the Scouts were auctioning off a 2-night package as part of a fundraiser. Now I am dying to go.

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