Friday, February 10, 2012

The Secret Backcountry Ski Lodge in the Canadian Rockies

The word "Secret" can be defined with the following phrases:  Kept from the knowledge of any but the initiated or privileged; Designed or working to escape notice, knowledge, or observation; Secluded, sheltered, or withdrawn: a secret hiding place.

Those phrases certainly describe Holiday on Horseback's Sundance Lodge in beautiful Banff National Park.  Located a short 10km ski from the Healy Creek Trail-head just outside the town of Banff, it's barely remote but yet somehow manages to stay under the radar of places to visit in the Rockies.  I understand that it's very popular in the summer with groups arriving at the lodge on horseback, but the ski crowd has yet to discover this lodge.  

Sundance Lodge

We've made it a priority to leave our son with Grandma for the weekend at least a couple times per year since he turned one.  When we go away, we often choose an adventure that will rekindle the relationship we had post-children, which always means heading to the mountains for some hiking, climbing, backpacking or skiing.   

Skiing out from Sundance Lodge

My favorite overnight ski adventure always involves staying in a backcountry lodge.  Last winter we skied into another backcountry lodge, Skoki Lodge, near Lake Louise.  If it sounds familiar, it's because the Royals; William and Kate, stayed there on their 2011 Canada tour.  In the past we've also visited Brewster's Shadow Lake Lodge in Banff National Park.  Both lodges are very popular and will see full bookings most weekends in winter.  Their prices reflect this as well as does the policy that you need to stay for two nights.  To its Credit, Skoki Lodge has many specials through the year making it possible to stay at a reduced rate for one night only.  I have yet to see a special for Shadow Lake Lodge though!  (hence why I have only been there once in winter and am likely not going to be going again anytime soon.)  Those on a budget will definitely be ruling out Shadow Lake Lodge.  

We've stayed at Skoki Lodge at number of times and honestly, I'm always willing to jump on a one night special and make the trek in there, but it's not for the faint of heart.  It's a challenging ski that for most people requires light touring skis with metal edges and climbing skins for the hills.  Others just take their AT backcountry skis  that behave like downhill skis on the down sections and like xc skis on the flat and up sections.  Then a good portion of visitors to the lodge arrive by snowshoes since it is by far the easiest option.  

Enter a very different experience with Sundance Lodge!
  • It's an easy to moderate ski in to the lodge on an actual track-set and packed trail. 
  • Those seeking solitude have a good chance of finding it here.  We shared the lodge with one other couple!
  • You are allowed to stay for one night! Backcountry lodges will never be considered budget friendly and are always a splurge but it's like going for half price when you only have to pay for one night.
  • Indoor plumbing!  The only backcountry lodge I've stayed at yet to feature flush toilets in the main lodge where you sleep.
  • Electricity!  The lodge primarily uses candles and lanterns for atmosphere but if you are hunting for something in your room at night, there are lights you can turn on.  
  • Sadly, there is still no cell reception so you can't update your facebook status to tell everybody that you have found paradise.

The facilities at Sundance Lodge can best be described with the following words off the Holiday on Horseback website:   
For those seeking a remote getaway from the norm, Sundance Lodge is the perfect retreat! Powered by solar power and kept warm by wood heat, this cozy lodge adds a touch of home to the backcountry. Sitting on a gentle bend of Brewster Creek with the massive Sundance Range as a backdrop, this lodge is one you soon won’t forget.
The lodge has 10 sleeping rooms, a large country kitchen, and a cozy living room area where you can curl up by the woodstove and lose yourself in a good book. And after a day spent hiking or skiing in the fresh mountain air, you'll appreciate an added comfort - - hot showers! Mealtime is always an event - you'll delight in hearty, home-cooked meals and fresh-from-the-oven baked goods - no one ever leaves Sundance hungry!
Viewpoint a little further up the trail from the lodge

The website is very clear that the ski trail is open dependent on snow conditions and at present conditions are a little less than optimal.  The Healy Creek trail was very icy and the Brewster Creek trail, though much better, was still very crusty with many deep grooves in the trail from skis, footprints, ski poles and snowmobile tracks.  Fortunately the Healy Creek trail is flat so other than fighting with your wax if you don't have wax-less skis, it's not too hard to ski.  It's also a very short portion of the trip.  Brewster Creek was fine on uphill sections and the flats.  It was only the downhill sections that posed certain challenges.  We fought to keep our skis out of the grooves all over the trail when snowplowing down the steeper hills.  That being said, the other couple staying at the lodge with us made it there and out on 30 year old skis and their ski ability was admittedly novice.  You just have to accept that you might have to walk the odd hill or pick yourself up when you fall.  It's all part of the adventure.  In a good snow year, the trail would be fabulous and definitely easy to moderate for xc skiers of all abilities.  In the meantime, snowshoeing is an option.

Our new friends about to take the journey out from the lodge

Enjoying a small hill on the way down

The last thing I want to mention about Sundance Lodge since this blog is geared towards family adventure is how awesome the place would be with your family!  We did our first visit solo without our little Pook as a bit of a reconnaissance trip.  Now that we've been there we definitely plan to go back as a family. Most rooms in the lodge features a double bed for mom and dad along with a set of bunks for  two kids.  If you have more than two children, you could always get the kids a room of their own I'm sure if the lodge wasn't very busy.
A typical room at Sundance Lodge

The website says that the lodge can't accommodate children under the age of 6 but when I asked the staff at the lodge about that, they seemed to think it might only apply to children that want to ride in on horseback.  At present with the lodge seeing so few guests in winter, I would think you could maybe talk the company into accepting younger children if you wanted to pull them in to the lodge in a sled.  The staff were certainly amenable to seeing more families in the future when I talked to them.  (note that if you do take small children in, please set a positive path for future families.  Maybe offer to help sweep or mop the floor after dinner, clean up after your kids, and don't let them run around the lodge screaming if they are going to disturb other guests.  Sundance Lodge isn't run by a large staff.  There is one cook and one outfitter/trail setter.  If you want to bring small kids you might need to help out a bit.)

Other than the bedroom configuration and a trail that would be easily skied by most school-aged kids who have experience with xc skiing, the best reason I have for recommending this lodge to families is the food.  Many lodges focus on gourmet food that might not appeal to all children.  Sundance Lodge however is a family environment through and through.  You all eat in the kitchen at a big long table.  The staff eat with you and the atmosphere is very casual.  For dinner we had lasagna, yummy and simple.  I don't know a child alive that wouldn't eat lasagna.  
Some views of the fireside room

I want to say thank you to the amazing staff at Sundance Lodge for making us feel so at home there. Both Cindy and Greg were full of laughter, jokes and stories the whole time we were there.  It didn't matter if we wanted to hang out in the fireside room or just keep them company in the kitchen over a cup of hot tea.  And Greg entertained us for hours with his guitar.  Hard to beat hospitality like that.

Thanks also to Rebecca and Amanda in the Banff office for all their assistance with our booking.  They even offered to have a bottle of our favorite wine picked up and delivered to the lodge for us.  Now that's service!  Other ski lodges could learn a lot from Holiday on Horseback.

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