“You’re off to great places, today is your day. Your mountain is waiting, so get on your way.”
Deep in the heart of world renowned Banff National Park, nestled among the majestic peaks of the Rocky Mountains, lies a quaint row of cabins dotting a lush green meadow. At a pristine emerald lake nearby, a fly-rod dances in the air and a family stops for a picnic amidst an explosion of wildflowers. In a kitchen, a chef expertly crafts a white wine dill sauce to accompany a beautifully plated gourmet dinner and a glass of wine sits perched on a porch railing, the notes of a guitar lingering in the air above.
Shadow Lake Lodge is the most spectacular elements of nature neatly woven with the historic tales of time. It is a place that boasts rare luxuries such as complete serenity and seclusion, embracing those amenities it lacks as its greatest asset. Located 14 km from the nearest road, guests indulge in authentic connection by removing themselves from every day distractions such as television and internet, choosing instead to immerse themselves in a world filled with birdsong, vast expanses of nature and millions of stars dotting the night sky.
The only access to Shadow Lake Lodge is on foot. There are 3 available routes, ranging in difficulty and lengths of 14 kilometres (eight miles) to 26 kilometres (16 miles).
**Note that you can have the lodge make arrangements for transportation between trailheads. A recommended option is to hike in Red Earth Creek and out via Arnica/Vista.
1. RED EARTH CREEK (Moderate, 14 km, elevation gain 440 meters, 4-5 hours one way): This is the easiest and shortest, and therefore most popular of the routes. The well marked trail-head is located off the Trans-Canada Highway, 19.6 km from Banff, and offers ample parking. The first 10 km of the trail is an old fire road and is accessible to bicycles, with a stand for locking up at the Egypt/Shadow Lake junction. The elevation gain is well spread, and the trek is pleasant, though mostly thru trees with little mountain scenery. We chose to take this trail on the way in and it took us 4 hours.
2. ARNICA/TWIN LAKES (Moderate to Strenuous, 14 km, elevation gain 960 meters, 6-7 hours one way): As recommended, we chose to take this trail out as it checks off several of the day hike boxes in one trip. The scenery is as monumental as the climb, and while it was a grueling 6.5 hours that tested our family’s capabilities, it was worth every single step. Whether taking this trail in or out, you face steep ascents and descents, but it is slightly easier as a return. Heading out from the lodge, you immediately begin the staggering climb of 460 meters over the 3.1 km to Gibbon Pass (a staff favorite), rewarded with vibrant wildflowers and the iconic Gibbon Pass Cairn, marking your 7500 foot elevation beneath stunning peak views, including Mt. Assiniboine to the south-east.
From there you continue on another 2.9 km to the crystal clear Twin Lakes, known for excellent bird watching and Cutthroat Trout fishing (license required) as well as larch viewing in the fall. From Gibbon Pass you first encounter Lower Twin Lake, the larger of the two, offering stunning mountain views and a waterfall. It is well worth stepping off the trail following the path along the lake shore to rest and enjoy lunch, before heading to Upper Twin Lake.
Another 2.2 km will bring you to Arnica Lake, also known for fishing and fall larch viewing, where you will begin a 3.6 km, relentless descent down the east slope of Storm Mountain towards Vista Lake. The views open up along the way and offer a stunning, wide angle panorama of the Rocky Mountains.
Reaching Vista Lake, you have a 1.4 km, 150 meter elevation gain trek back upwards towards the Vista trail-head parking lot (located roughly left-center of the above photo). This is where you can meet any arranged transportation.
** For the pre-arranged taxi, we had allotted ourselves 6.5 hours, and wish we had gone for 7 or even 7.5 with kids and to allow for more scenic stops. At the time of travel, the taxi was $85 to the Red Earth Creek Parking Lot.
3. SUNSHINE VILLAGE, HUT to HUT: The third option is a 26 km trek beginning at Sunshine Village. Please contact Shadow Lake Lodge directly for more information.
SHADOW LAKE LODGE
The story begins in 1885. The push for western exploration and tourism was at an all time high as there was much excitement surrounding the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway line. The iconic Banff Springs Hotel was completed just a few years later, enticing wealthy travelers to venture forth into the series of untamed peaks and valleys of the nation’s first National Park. Over the next few decades, the CPR began establishing lodges and rest houses, places for the more adventurous backcountry travelers to rest their weary heads and horses. One such stop, a simple two-window, saddle notched cabin, was built in 1929, just one kilometer from Shadow Lake. Following the Great Depression, CPR began selling off some of the rest houses, including the cabin at Shadow Lake, and it has been in the Brewster Family ever since.
The wood burning fireplace of the original cabin is an invitation of warmth and comfort as guests curl up on the couches to get lost in a book or engage in a friendly game of cards. Renovations may have changed the appearance over the years, but the walls retain their stories, the feeling of welcome and kinship an extension from the past.
Extending the property to allow for overnight guests was no easy feat, and took a decade of legal discussion and perseverance. In 1991, Shadow Lake Lodge boasted several new private cabins, and welcomed it’s first patrons. This unique, boutique property continued it’s growth over the next several years, but has expertly maintained it’s small scale, exclusive feel. At a maximum capacity of 33, you are not just a guest, you are a member of an extended family.
A CABIN, A PORCH and A BIT OF PERSPECTIVE
It is amazing how we often underestimate the power of the simple things in life. A hot shower, a comfortable bed, a warm meal, a cold beer and even a simple covered porch with a few chairs. Hiking heightens the senses, exhausting us physically and pushing us mentally. Suddenly, we appreciate things on a much deeper level, as we round the corner on those final steps, the full weight of our packs digging in, our muscles feeling the extent of our exertion. That simple porch becomes an entire world, a haven of spectacular views, a reward for the efforts we made to get here. It is a place to reflect on our accomplishment, and the fact that we are so fortunate to share in this experience as a family. It is a coveted space for toasting over drinks, bare feet, playing cards, looking through binoculars and wrapping up in a wool blanket to watch the stars. That simple porch is like no other place on earth, and it harbors our utmost gratitude.
The private cabins range from Double (two double beds), Queen (two queen beds), to King (one king bed), all exuding a mountain feel with warm duvet covers, wool blankets, wood furniture and a wash basin. The layout of the property has been done in a way that allows each cabin to face the meadow and mountains. There is ample storage for those looking to live beyond the backpack, with a dresser and drying rack. The cabins are heated by propane, the lights run on solar power, and the interiors are as cozy and comfortable as they are quaint and charming.
The cabins do not have individual washrooms, but there is a facility on the property with hot showers, toilets and running water/sinks. A hot/cold outdoor water tap allows for filling a jug and using your washbasin, as well as filling water bottles.
FAMILY STYLE DINING
In the distance a dinner bell rings out, drawing guests together after a day on the trails. Placards on the four long tables lit by candlelight indicate settings for each cabin, encouraging a mingling of personalities and opening the gates to genuine interaction. This is perhaps my favorite part of travel, strangers coming together in friendship, sharing conversations rooted in a common bond. It is a return to a time of healthy, in person discussion, a chance to connect with people from all walks of life and all corners of the globe. It is authentic connection.
BREAKFAST: The day begins with a 7:30 am knock on the door, followed by a cheerful “good morning!”. At 8 am, guests convene in the dining cabin for a buffet of items such as yogurt, oatmeal and fruit. This is followed by a table service of hot dishes such as eggs, bacon, frittatas and fresh cinnamon buns.
LUNCH: After breakfast, the buffet table is re-set with self-pack items perfect for a day on the trails. Guests choose from sandwich ingredients such as cold cuts, bread and wraps, and can add fruit, vegetables, granola bars, trail mix and fresh baked cookies. Reusable containers are available for use.
AFTERNOON TEA: Each day from 2-5 pm, a wide variety of snacks are available for those guests checking in, and returning from a day of hiking. From fresh fruit and cheeses to desserts such as chocolate pots and blueberry pie, afternoon tea is an absolute sweet and savory delight.
DINNER: Served at 6:30 pm, dinner is done family style. Morgan, a 6th generation Brewster, and graduate of the Professional Cooking Program at SAIT, heads up the culinary experience as Chef. The gourmet meals served at Shadow Lake Lodge are divine. Each evening we enjoyed fresh baked bread followed by a hearty homemade soup. The main course is based on fresh, seasonal ingredients and is followed by a delectable dessert.
DRINKS: Lemonade and Iced Tea, Tea and Coffee are included. As a fully licensed property, wine and beer options are available at an additional cost.
Being located in the heart of nature comes with huge responsibility, a mission Shadow Lake Lodge takes seriously. Their passion and dedication to a small environmental footprint while not compromising on comfort is evident in every detail of the property. Expanding the cabins beyond the original was a monumental effort, and there is no development beyond the immediate property. As a fire in the back country can be catastrophic, there is no smoking allowed in the cabins. All cooking and heating is done by propane, ambient lighting is provided by solar power, and water for washing is heated on demand. Drinking water comes from an underground spring, and is treated and filtered. Grey water is oxygenated, passes through a settling system and is dispensed into the ground soil. Black water is removed by helicopter throughout the season. Shadow Lake Lodge not only draws guests for its unique beauty and location, it actively participates in keeping it that way.
The common bond drawing guests from all over the world is not just a desire to embark upon a bucket list worthy adventure, it is a love for the trails. Whether it is a seasoned couple from Germany, an adventurous family from France or a lovely couple from Toronto looking to add to their list of worldly tackled treks, hiking is not only the way to arrive, it is the way to spend your time. Like the roots of a tree, opportunity branches from the lodge, offering up winding pathways lined with waterfalls, glaciers, meadows, lakes, panoramic views and adrenaline inducing challenges. For more detail on day hikes from the lodge, visit HERE.
STAFF FAVORITES: 1. Gibbon Pass 2. Waterfalls/Amphitheater 3. Haiduk Lake
SHADOW LAKE, WATERFALLS and AMPHITHEATER
Easy to Moderate, 5.5 km one way, elevation gain 230 meters, 3-4 hours return
It is the namesake body of water, and it is spectacular. A leisurely 1 km trek from our cabin was the entrance to one of the most striking, and unencumbered mountain settings one can possibly imagine. With only a few puffy clouds floating in the sky, Mount Ball boasted a glorious scene, its mirror image reflected in the glassy waters below. The cool, emerald depths of Shadow Lake are also an anglers dream, offering up several types of trout (proper license required)
Following along the lakeshore, a small, unmarked path beckons hikers in the direction of a narrow piece of land jutting into the water. Here, you will find the telltale National Park icons, two brilliant red chairs overlooking Mount Ball and Isabelle Peak where the water develops into deep shades of blue as glacial silt spills out of the mouth nearby. Continuing beyond the lakeshore, the trail follows the swift flowing creek, leading to a beautiful double set of waterfalls as well as a larger, single waterfall and switchback further up.
The final stage of the hike is into a vast expanse of rocky scenery, a natural half-bowl of massive jagged peaks. Rumbles like distant thunder come from above as glaciers groan beneath the August sun, cascades of water leaking from the mountain’s pores. The amphitheater is a space in nature that both radiates and completely lacks signs of life. It is the birth of a cycle, as ice melts and gathers, the lifeblood of the creek and lake below. To experience this place as a family, as the only humans standing in such a mammoth expanse of the earth, is both humbling and surreal.
WHAT TO REMEMBER:
BACKPACK: Ensure you have the proper equipment for this hike, including a properly fitting pack. While food is included once you arrive, you will be required to carry in all clothing, toiletries (they provide soap and shampoo) and additional items such as lunch/snacks and water for your trip there. All bedding and towels are provided by the lodge. This is a long haul for children, so be realistic in what they can carry. Pack minimal, pack light.
CLOTHING: Lightweight layers are key. Weather in the mountains, even in summer, can change on a dime and be drastically different from one day, or moment, to the next, so be prepared for varying temperatures and elements. Ensure you have proper, previously tested hiking footwear and a pair of cabin shoes such as flip flops.
ADDITIONAL ITEMS: Bug spray and sunscreen. Lip protection. Bandaids. Camera. Bear Spray. Binoculars. The lodge provides a complete list of recommendations on their site.
AND LASTLY, NEVER FORGET: You are heading off the grid and into the wilds of nature. There are no scripts, no safety nets and absolutely no service. Safety is of the utmost importance. Stay hydrated. Leave only footprints. Be aware of your surroundings, and stay on the paths. And if you are embarking upon this journey with your little people, please ensure you respect their limitations and capabilities as well as the fact that they need downtime to recover.
3 days. 4 backpacks. 43 km of mountain trails.
Done as a family. One step at a time.
While our time at Shadow Lake Lodge was graciously hosted by the Brewster-Niehaus Family, the words and opinions above are, as always, my own. Our most heartfelt gratitude goes out to the Shadow Lake Lodge staff who live what they love. What you have is so incredibly unique and special, a place that you must continue to fiercely protect with your inspirational values. We are humbled by your hospitality, but we know that we are not alone in such care as this is something provided to each and every guest. We are honored to have been a part of the extended family you have created. Thank you.