Thursday, July 20, 2023

Backcountry Glamping at Shadow Lake Lodge, Banff National Park

Shadow Lake is one of the most beautiful destinations in backcountry Banff National Park, and it is easily reached year round via the Redearth Creek Trail. The trail can be hiked, biked, or skied as a long day trip (14 km one way,) but I recommend splurging on an overnight stay at the decadent Shadow Lake Lodge.

Gorgeous Shadow Lake in Banff National Park

A few weeks ago, I was given an incredible opportunity to spend a night at the backcountry Shadow Lake Lodge in Banff. My family wasn't able to join me (work + school) but I wasn't passing up this trip - and I found a couple of very willing girlfriends to join me.

I got to experience the luxury of going backpacking in the Canadian Rockies without a tent or sleeping bag, and I carried nothing other than my regular day hiking gear, lunch for the first day, and basic overnight items (PJs, toothbrush, etc.)

Waiting for me was my own private cabin at the lodge, gourmet home cooked meals, hot water + showers, and a comfortable bed to sleep in!

Backcountry Shadow Lake Lodge in Banff National Park

Introduction to Shadow Lake Lodge

Shadow Lake Lodge was first established as a backcountry rest house by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1930. Ownership was then transferred to the Brewster family of Banff in 1938 who ran the property as a backcountry lodge until just recently when the lodge was sold to the Alpine Club of Canada in 2019. (Read more about the history of the lodge here.)

The Alpine Club of Canada maintains a large collection of backcountry huts, cabins, and shelters across Southern Alberta and BC, but Shadow Lake is their first luxury property offering private cabins and gourmet meals prepared by a talented team on site.

The lodge is situated in a beautiful meadow half a kilometre from Shadow Lake (easily visited in the evening after dinner or the next morning after breakfast.)

Shadow Lake is a short walk from the lodge, and perfect for those sunset and sunrise photos

All Inclusive Backcountry Stays at Shadow Lake 

Each stay at Shadow Lake Lodge includes afternoon tea when you arrive with an assortment of charcuterie items and hot beverages. A gourmet three course dinner is served later with a soup or salad appetizer, a main course entrée, and dessert. We were treated to a beat salad, seared chicken breast with lobster sauce, orzo primavera and roasted broccoli on the side, and then there was lemon blueberry cake for dessert.

Breakfast is served the next morning with fresh baking, granola, yogurt, fruit, and a hot entrée (we had blueberry pancakes with raspberry maple syrup and thick slices of bacon.) Then a lunch is packed for your hike with a sandwich on homemade bread and tasty snacks or cookies. (Guests custom order their sandwich choices at dinner each evening.)

All meals are prepared on site at the lodge. Baking is all homemade, the desserts are fresh, and nothing is generic or pre-packaged from a store. This isn't backpacking so you won't find oatmeal packets or "just add water" meals here. And they definitely don't ship items in that were cooked or baked elsewhere.

Seared chicken with lobster sauce, broccoli, and orzo

Alcoholic beverages are not included with your stay, but the lodge has a large wine collection along with beer and other beverages available for purchase. You are welcome to bring your own drinks as well. If you want to enjoy a beverage by the lake in the evening, I recommend bringing your own (or bringing a container that you can use for a beverage you purchase at the lodge.)

Note, the lodge tries to accommodate all dietary restrictions and allergies, and you'll be asked if you have any special concerns before your visit. Don't be shy here! If there's something you can't eat, or even that you really don't like, make sure you say something before your visit. You are paying a lot of money to enjoy your visit, and while you can always pick around a vegetable you don't like, it's hard to pick around a salmon fillet if you don't eat seafood of any kind.

I want to stress that meals at the lodge are planned well before you arrive and that all groceries are ordered a week in advance, and delivered by helicopter. A request upon arrival to have carrots instead of broccoli probably won't "fly" unless the chef happens to have carrots on hand. Please be respectful of the kitchen team and make your requests known before your visit. 

Read more about dining at the lodge here (especially if you have allergies or a restrictive diet you are concerned about.)

I really need to get the caramel banana bread recipe!

Private Cabins, Showers, and Hot Water

Nothing says decadence in the backcountry like hot water and sleeping in a real bed off the ground! Take a hot shower when you arrive and enjoy a comfortable sleep in your own private cabin with two double or queen sized beds per cabin. 

There are no bathrooms in the cabins, but the shower cabin is a short walk away where you'll find toilets, sinks with hot running water, and then of course the showers. 

Other than the private cabins, there are two shared cabins, one for meals, and one with a fireplace for common gathering in the evenings. During the summer you'll likely spend a fair amount of time outside on your cabin porch. Come winter however, that shared fireplace cabin is a very cozy place.

Relaxing on our cabin porch in the afternoon was one of my fav. highlights of our stay

Overnight Stays at Shadow Lake Lodge

The lodge usually requires two night stays from their guests. My visit was last minute, and I couldn't find two nights in my schedule for the trip. - Trust me though, you'll appreciate having a day at the lodge to rest before your hike out rather than a quick in and out trip.

All stays are based on double occupancy (so bring your partner or a friend) but each cabin sleeps up to four people with a small add-on amount per extra person.

For information on rates at the lodge, visit the Shadow Lake website. And I encourage you to sign up for their newsletter where they promote their specials.

Each cabin has two queen or double beds

Shadow Lake Lodge is fabulous for a girls' trip away

Access to Shadow Lake via Redearth Creek (hiking, biking or skiing)

The easiest access for the lodge is via the Redearth Creek Trail which is basically an old gravel/dirt road. The trail is used by mountain bikers, cross country skiers, and hikers looking to access Shadow Lake and the Bow Valley Highline Trail which runs all the way from Sunshine Village in Banff to Arnica Lake on the Banff border with Kootenay National Park.

Redearth Creek isn't the most interesting trail in the Rockies but it provides the shortest and easiest way to get to Shadow Lake. You hike the old road for 11km to the junction with Pharaoh Creek and then continue for a final 3km on a narrower trail to the lodge.

The Redearth Creek Trail is the easiest way to access Shadow Lake Lodge

The first 11 kilometres can be biked, but you must lock your bike up at the junction before the final climb to the lodge. (There are bike racks at the junction.) The next 3 kilometres starts with a steep hill that most skiers will walk, carrying their skis to the top. It takes about 15 minutes to get up the hill, and then the trail flattens out again for easier hiking or skiing.

Overall, the trail gains less than 500 metres of height, spread out over the 14 km. It's an easy mountain bike ride and an intermediate trail for cross-country skiing. As a hike, it's very easy compared to the other trails that access Shadow Lake, and the elevation gain is always very gradual (other than the one hill at the junction.)

Allow for 4 to 5 hours to reach the lodge if hiking. 

We were like a traveling circus on our first family visit to the lodge (sled, snowshoes, and skis)

In the winter, this is one of my favourite cross-country ski trails, and it's also great on snowshoes. On our first family visit to the lodge we looked a bit like a traveling circus! We had to hike the lower trail due to lack of snow that year, and then we switched to snowshoes higher up. Then we had also brought skis for the way out.  Add a stupid sled (that I wouldn't recommend,) and it was an interesting trip!

Now that my son is 14, I hope to visit the lodge again as a family, and we'll all be skiing the entire time. There will be no snowshoes and definitely no sled.

I highly recommend skiing this trail in winter

And if you're visiting with young children, this trail is amazing with a balance bike. My son used his when he was a preschooler on a previous visit to the lodge. We had to carry it a bit on the way in, but man could he fly riding out! (My husband had to jog to keep up!) - And we took the balance bike all the way to the lodge.

The trail would also be chariot-friendly or doable with a big wheel jogging stroller. The steep hill would be your only challenge, but I believe you could push the empty chariot or stroller up the hill with a child walking or carried. - just know that once you arrive at the lodge you will have to park the stroller for any additional hikes, so bring a child carrier if you need one.

The Redearth Creek Trail is exceptionally easy on a bike!

Access to Shadow Lake via Arnica and Twin Lakes (Summer hiking)

I've been to Shadow Lake a few times in summer/autumn (either to stay at the lodge or on tent backpacking trips) and I've always hiked in via Vista, Arnica and Twin Lakes, which is a more scenic approach than the Redearth Creek Trail.

On my recent trip we took this scenic way in and then we hiked out via the Redearth Creek Trail. This is my preferred way of visiting Shadow Lake but requires two vehicles.

Looking down on Vista Lake from Highway 93

The first lake on the trail: Vista Lake

You can see from the map below where we started at the parking lot on the border with Kootenay National Park on Highway 93. This is a very scenic trail which descends from the highway to Vista Lake before climbing to Arnica Lake, the Twin Lakes, and then Gibbon Pass. You descend from Gibbon Pass to arrive at the lodge.

There are several day hiking options while staying at the lodge, and then I recommend hiking out via Redearth Creek to the TransCanada Highway.

It took us just under 6 hours to complete the hike in via the lake route. Then it took us 4.5 hours to hike out via Redearth Creek. Both trails have approximately the same distance, but the lake route has much more height gain.

It takes approximately 15 minutes to drive between the two parking lots (a 16 km drive.)  It's not a long shuttle, but longer than I'd want to do on a bike or on foot!

Map courtesy of Shadow Lake Lodge

What to expect on the Arnica / Twin Lakes Trail

The trail begins by losing 137 metres of height as you descend to Vista Lake in 1.4 kilometres.

You then climb 579 metres to reach Arnica Lake over 3.6 km and this is where you'll earn the decadent meals at Shadow Lake. I always find this section to be a grind, and it's usually hot and humid in the forest. We all had sweat running down our faces on our recent trip and we had to stop for numerous breaks.
Looking WAY down on Vista Lake from the trail to Arnica Lake

Beautiful Arnica Lake with it's different hues of green

Upon reaching Arnica Lake, you have another 138 metres to gain in less than a kilometre before you reach the high point above the Twin Lakes. The bad news however - you have to descend to reach the lakes. (Losing 229 metres over 2.4 km.)

Crossing boggy sections on the way to the Upper Twin Lake

The trail gets a bit boggy and wet around the Twin Lakes so expect a bit of mud. Fortunately there are simple wooden bridges over the worst sections and large boulders assist with one creek crossing.

I recommend poles to help with any rough sections.

Approaching the Upper Twin Lake

This was where we took our first real break of the day, eating our lunch to summon fresh strength for the final climb to the top of Gibbon Pass.

The Twin Lakes make for a gorgeous destination even for a day hike

The Twin Lakes make for a beautiful destination and I'd recommend visiting them for a day hike from the lodge if you hike in/out via Redearth Creek.

There is honestly no bad scenery on this hike

After reaching the two Twin Lakes, you begin to climb again to reach the top of Gibbon Pass. Fortunately, this is a very gradual section of trail and it's a breeze compared to the climb to Arnica Lake. And it's only 224 metres of very gradual climbing here spread out over 2.7 km.

This larch forest is magical late September when everything is golden!

From the pass it's another 3 km to reach the lodge, all downhill, losing 450 metres of height.

It takes about an hour to reach the lodge from pass.

It's a great feeling to finally reach this large monument!

And somewhere along the descent, it began to occur to us that we'd have to repeat this all over again the next morning (since we were only staying one night) because we hadn't set up a car shuttle.

We were going to have to climb that 450 metres the next morning (a steep climb at that) and then we'd have to climb back up the ~200 metres to the high point above Arnica Lake. Then, before reaching the car, we'd have the final climb from Vista Lake back up to the highway.

Thankfully one of the lodge staff members assisted us with a shuttle so we could hike out Redearth Creek.

I have since done the return hike out via Gibbon Pass on a follow up trip to the lodge, and it's an easy climb back up to the pass if you have a rest day in between. The trail actually didn't feel very steep at all this past September when I was at the lodge.

We easily hiked both in and out over Gibbon Pass and enjoyed not having to set up a vehicle shuttle.
I love Gibbon Pass (but it's especially beautiful late autumn with the golden larch trees)

And below is what to expect if you visit this area late September! The photos were taken on a backpacking trip I took to Shadow Lake many years ago. As a trip, most of it was miserable, with rain the entire hike in, and we could smell the amazing lodge food from our campground. I swore I'd never camp there again. We huddled under a tarp in the rain, eating our dehydrated backpacking food, while I dreamed of the warm fire at the lodge.

Twin Lakes and Gibbon Pass are magical late autumn with golden larch trees

Total trip distance

According to the Shadow Lake website, the distance via Arnica and Twin Lakes is 14 km (the same as for Redearth Creek.) However, the height gain is listed as 960 metres (compared to the 440 metres for Redearth Creek.)

It's suggested you allow up to 7 hours to hike in via Arnica Lake - and make sure you plan to arrive at the lodge by 4:00pm so you have time for afternoon tea before dinner. That would mean you should be on the trail by 9am.

We started later than that, and did make it to the lodge in time for tea, but we certainly didn't have much time to take breaks.

It took us just under 6 hours to complete the hike in. 

Note RE distances and height gain: All distances and heights gained/lost are approximate! The numbers above are taken from my Classic Hikes in the Canadian Rockies book. Added up, they might not total the 14km (listed on the lodge website.)

I find every book, website, app to be different. When we tracked the hike, we actually tracked 15 km with 1000 metres of height gain.

Another photo of backcountry Arnica Lake (one of the prettiest lakes in Banff)

Day Trips from Shadow Lake Lodge

When you arrive at the lodge, staff will give you suggestions for day hikes from the lodge while staying there. Top choices will include:

  • Shadow Lake and the Cirque above the lake (stopping to visit the iconic Parks Canada red chairs at the end of the lake.) This hike would be 8-10 km return depending on how far past the lake into the cirque you go. - Link goes to the All Trails site.

  • Gibbon Pass - If you didn't hike in via Gibbon Pass, this makes for an excellent day trip from the lodge. It is only 6 km return with 450 metres of height gain, and if you're at the lodge late September, this should definitely be your first choice for the golden larch trees. 

    From Gibbon Pass you can continue on to the Twin Lakes, again if you didn't hike in this way. 

    See the full route on All Trails covering the Vista Lake - Arnica Lake - Twin Lakes - Gibbon Pass hike. Hike as far as you want from the lodge and return the same way.

  • Little Copper Mountain via Gibbon Pass - This is the easiest mountain you can climb from the lodge and in late fall the larch trees are spectacular from the top of Little Copper Mountain. You also get great views of Shadow Lake far below.

    It's only 7 km return with 700 metres of height gain (400 of which takes you to the pass itself.) And it's a fairly easy summit given that my son first did it when he was 5 years old. The link above goes to the All Trails website 

  • Haiduk Lake and Whistling Pass - From the lake, take the trail heading towards Egypt Lake to the junction with Ball Pass. Continue on to reach Haiduk Lake, and then climb to the top of Whistling Pass if you choose. It is approximately 14 km return to reach Haiduk Lake from the lodge. Add another 3 km round trip if you want to visit the pass.

    You can see the full route on All Trails which starts at Sunshine Village and goes over both Healy Pass and Whistling Pass to reach Shadow Lake. This route then continues on over Gibbon Pass to Highway 93 making for one epic traverse for strong hikers. 

    Should you choose this trip, you'd hike to the lodge from the Sunshine Village Ski Resort in Banff, and then you'd need a second vehicle at the Vista Lake trailhead. You can either hike up the Healy Pass Trail from the bottom of the ski resort or you can take the gondola up, and then hike to Healy Pass via Simpson Pass for less climbing. Both make for stunning but long days. 

    Follow this link for more information on a spectacular Sunshine Village / Shadow Lake Hut to Hut traverse where you stay at both the Sunshine Village Mountain Lodge and Shadow Lake Lodge. I admit, this trip is on my dream life list.
Little Copper Mountain with Gibbon Pass and Shadow Lake far below

Shadow Lake is definitely the first outing you need to make from the lodge

Big Reasons for Families to Love Shadow Lake Lodge

We visited shadow Lake Lodge twice when our son was younger, once in winter, and once in autumn. Both trips were extremely successful.

The easiest backpacking trip ever!

We've done proper backcountry trips as a family and let me tell you, there's a LOT of stuff to bring!  Fortunately we're done with diapers and bottles, but backpacking with kids is still a fine art that takes years to master (if you ever do) and the more children you have, the more gear you're going to have to carry. 

We visited Shadow Lake Lodge a couple of times when our son was younger and it was gloriously easy for a backcountry trip. Our son carried some snacks, a water bottle, and... - that's about it.  Our packs as adults were moderately heavier but only because we chose to bring luxury items for our son such as books, an electronic tablet, and a few toys for down time.

We never could have hiked here as a young family in winter without staying at Shadow Lake Lodge

Private cabins

Families will especially appreciate having their own cabin. No other backcountry lodge in the Rockies offers individual cabins for each family/group unless you pay extra at a couple of them (a lot extra.)  Most backcountry lodges provide small rooms in the shared building (that are seldom very soundproof.)

And if you've every stayed at a backcountry hut, you'll appreciate not having to sleep in a large shared room, all together with the other guests (some getting up at crazy early hours for alpine climbs, and others going to bed very late.)

My son has always been an "early to bed" kid and it was challenging in the early years putting him to sleep in backcountry huts or lodges where the adult guests would stay up for hours past his bedtime, playing games and chatting loudly. Shadow Lake provides privacy for families who want quiet time on their own schedule. 

Our son biked most of the way in and out from the lodge thanks to this little bike

Easy hiking

The Redearth Creek Trail is well maintained and easy to follow.  You'd be seriously hard pressed to get lost going into Shadow Lake Lodge.  

There's also a lot of easy exploring to do from the lodge. On one winter trip, we spent half a day playing at the lake and felt safe at all times.  When we finished snowshoeing on the lake we came back to the lodge, played in the meadow and enjoyed afternoon tea. On an autumn visit, we hiked up Gibbon Pass and summited Little Copper as a family. That was a great day trip, and a very easy summit.

Little Copper was a fantastic day hike from the lodge when we visited one autumn

Special items to consider bringing

In case your child decides they don't like what's on the dinner menu, you may want to bring some supplemental snacks.  We brought peanut butter and cheerios which were both well appreciated by our son over the course of the weekend. I'd also suggest notifying the lodge if there are food choices that would be more enjoyable for your family (safe vegetable or meat choices your child likes.)

Also bring "quiet time" activities for your child/children so that if you choose to hang out in the fireside cabin together as a family, your kid(s) won't be running around like crazy disturbing everybody.  

Finally, I recommend baby monitors with small children so you can put them to bed earlier while you retreat to the fireside cabin.

Shadow Lake Lodge is a fantastic destination for young families

An Enjoyable Backcountry Trip for All Experience Levels

Shadow Lake was the first backcountry lodge I ever visited with my husband, skiing in one winter after I'd just moved to Calgary some 20+ years ago. It was the perfect backcountry getaway for this princess at the time, very new to mountain sports and eager to try a winter backpacking trip (without having to sleep in a tent!)

I still remember how proud I felt that I'd actually skied into a backcountry lodge. It seemed like a huge accomplishment and it was one of those first big adventures that fueled many more to come.

5 years later, I hiked into the lodge with my mother, who would have given a hard nope to any kind of camping (even in summer!) We hiked in via Arnica Lake, which was a bit much for the two of us in hindsight, but we made it, and had a lovely stay at the lodge. Since then I've taken my mother to a couple of other backcountry lodges (both summer and winter,) and these will be core memories I have together with her as mother and daughter.

Shadow Lake is gorgeous summer or winter! (and easily visited for all abilities)

For my third solo trip (without a child in tow,) I just recently visited Shadow Lake with two girlfriends and realized how amazing it is for a girls' getaway! (and you only have to pay for one person when you do it this way!)

It was a refreshing experience visiting the lodge without my family, and not having to worry about whether my son would like the food, whether dinner would be too late for him, whether he'd enjoy the hike in... - I only had to focus on myself!! (And I'm easy to please.)

Last winter I skied into the lodge as a day trip (a long day with ~30 km round trip distance) but I can't wait to return and actually stay overnight again. Add snowshoes instead of skis, and most people could easily reach the lodge summer or winter.

Shadow Lake is a great girls' trip destination for a glamping weekend!

Plan Your Trip to Shadow Lake Lodge 

Visit the Shadow Lake website to view availability and rates for a potential upcoming visit. If planning a trip this year, I highly recommend planning around the third or fourth week of September when the larch trees will be at their peak for golden splendor around Gibbon Pass above the lodge.

Leave Moraine Lake to the tourists, and enjoy crowd-free hiking around Gibbon Pass on quiet peaceful trails. (Day hikers usually turn around by the Twin Lakes.)

Gibbon Pass is magical late September!

Now is also a great time to plan ahead for a winter visit to the lodge. It's an easy snowshoe or winter hike up the Redearth Creek Trail, and intermediate cross-country skiers will love the trip. The lodge is open weekends in winter with the trail groomed and trackset every Thursday for guests to arrive Friday, and then ski out Sunday. On your free day, there are several choices for easy outings from the lodge that won't take you into avalanche terrain.

Holiday specials can also be seen here for the Christmas period.

And I recommend signing up for the lodge newsletter so you receive emails for any new specials that they offer.

Grab a friend and book a couple of nights for this coming winter

This was my fav. ski trip last winter! I can't wait to repeat it this coming season

Disclaimer: My recent stay was hosted in partnership with the Alpine Club of Canada and Shadow Lake Lodge. All words, opinions, and photos are my own.

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