After a 14-km ski to an alpine meadow, we came to Shadow Lake Lodge.
Shadow Lake Lodge is a place so under-the-radar many locals don’t know about it—but they should. It’s close to Sunshine Village Ski Resort and the popular Healy Creek hiking trail.
My husband Mike and I met Banff Lake Louise Tourism Media Coordinator Jonny Bierman in town and spent the morning organizing our gear. The problem was, we weren’t sure what to bring. Cross-country skis? That would be the fast way to ski in to the lodge, but if there was good downhill skiing to be had we wouldn’t be able to make turns. Light touring? It’s like cross-country but with metal edges so you can make a few turns, but still has a free heel and wouldn’t be good for steep slopes. Backcountry gear? We’d have true downhill skis with a heel that can be locked down for steep turns, but it’s heavier, so the ski in would be harder. Because the lodge is such a well-kept secret, no one seemed to know if backcountry gear was a good option. So, trusting our inner ski voices and keeping a sense of pioneering adventure, we opted for backcountry gear—and secretly hoped that the tougher hike up would reveal hidden powder stashes.
The trail starts just past Banff townsite at Red Earth Creek (well signed) and is a gentle climb up. We saw cross-country skiers and fat bikers using the track-set trail, but no other backcountry skiers.
Eventually we broke through the trees into a sublime meadow ringed with the main lodge and private log cabins—our home for the next two nights. We took off our gear, likely with more relish than the guests who’d Nordic-skied in, then cracked open the wooden door to the lodge to enjoy afternoon tea.
The lodge is owned by Alison Brewster and her husband, Bryan Niehaus. It took Brewter’s father from the 1950s to 1990s to get permission from Parks Canada to build, so when they got the go-ahead they built fast, transporting logs by helicopter and skidoo. The lodge is open for just six weeks each winter, and it opens again in summer from mid-June to the end of September.
Being this comfortable so far into the backcountry took time to adjust to—but not long. I enjoyed the hot shower, duvet on my bed and gourmet meals. They cooked up beef tenderloin and salmon, which my husband enjoyed as I am a vegetarian, cheesecake, french toast, egg bakes—guests will not go hungry even with the most increased outdoor appetite. Lunch is set out right after breakfast, so you can pack it in your daypack and head out to explore. There’s even a wood-fired sauna.
At night the sky was so clear, so unpolluted by light, Mike and I had to make a side-trip to the creek to stargaze. Then we retreated to our cabin and listened to the wind rolling over the stone and stirring the trees.
Searching for turns
So were we misguided in bringing in backcountry gear? It seemed we were indeed a rare breed, but not the only ones to ever do so. Brewster directed us to Gibbon Pass, her favourite trail. Others were cross-country skiing to Shadow Lake or snowshoeing (snowshoes are provided for guests). We donned our skis, climbing skins (which stick to the underside of the skis and provide traction for skiing uphill), avalanche gear and slid up the steep trail, which starts directly behind the cabins. We were on an adventure. About three kilometres up, the trees transformed from spruce to larch, and soon we were at the pass between Storm Mountain and Copper Mountain. From there we made tight switchback turns up the flank of Storm Mountain until we hit the tree line. We dug a snow pit to check the slope stability, which was good. When Mike’s probe hit the earth, the snow measured around
200 cm. Though the snow in the valley bottom was sticky and warm, at our elevation it was deep, soft powder. We locked in our bindings, then opened up into big mountain turns. We were the only ones to be seen. We were giddy.
We did four laps on the same slope and ventured higher each time. The weather was always changing, transforming from warm and sunny to a snow squall to huge flakes dropping from the sky. Sometimes our tracks from one lap to the next were almost completely covered by snow or wind. On our last run the sun emerged and we looked down to Red Earth Creek. For a moment I stood alone at the highest point of our climb. Sun backlit the peak above me and a subtle wind brushed snow across the surface. I was surrounded by white, blue and rock. I was so high it seemed that heaven couldn’t offer much better.
So was the hike up to Shadow Lake with our backcountry gear worth the extra effort? Truth is, sometimes it’s hard to give away a good secret.
• Drive to Banff, then hike in the following day. We stayed at The Fox, a hotel with a hot-tub fashioned after the Cave and Basin.
• Bring down booties (aka hut booties). You can wear them between the lodge, cabin and washroom, and they’re light to carry.