Sunday, October 15, 2023

Autumn Larch Hiking at Shadow Lake Backcountry Lodge, Banff

 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.

A few weeks ago, I was given an incredible opportunity to spend two nights at the backcountry Shadow Lake Lodge in Banff with my family, and we were able to time our trip to see the golden larch trees above the lodge.

Backcountry Shadow Lake Lodge in Banff National Park

As a family we got to experience the luxury of going backpacking in the Canadian Rockies without a tent or sleeping bag, and we carried nothing other than our regular day hiking gear, lunch for the first day, and basic overnight items.

Waiting for us was our own private cabin at the lodge, gourmet home cooked meals, hot water + showers, and comfortable beds to sleep in!

Frosted larch trees on our hike in to Shadow Lake Lodge

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 culinary 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, baked goods, and hot beverages. A gourmet three course dinner is served later with a salad or soup appetizer, a main course entrée, and a decadent dessert. We were treated to a pork tenderloin main course the first night and then an absolute feast the second night with braised beef as our main entrée. 

Breakfast is served the next morning with fresh baking, granola, yogurt, fruit, and a hot entrée. 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.

Braised beef, beautiful broccoli, captivating carrots, and perfect potatoes

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. 

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.

Be mindful though that all 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.)

Homemade Pavlova for dessert 

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. The gathering cabin was a cozy place for us on our recent stay where we could curl up by the fire to read in the afternoon or play games in the evening after dinner. And don't worry about bringing games because the lodge has many to choose from.

Our cozy private cabin at Shadow Lake

The common gathering cabin was a warm welcoming place to read or play games

Overnight Stays at Shadow Lake Lodge

The lodge usually requires two night stays from their guests. This allows you a day to rest before you have to hike out again, or time to explore the area on your free day.

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 lodgevisit 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

The Fall Advantage to Backcountry Stays at Shadow Lake Lodge

Fall is a beautiful time to hike, and an even better time to get into the backcountry when you can escape the crowds by hiking further than the average person is willing to go in a day to view golden larch trees.

Leave the crowds behind on your September larch hike!

Trails are crazy at the end of September when larch trees are at their peak for color, but we found the further we hiked towards Shadow Lake, the less people we started to see on the trail, until it was just us at Gibbon Pass surrounded by hundreds of golden larch trees, all by ourselves.

The hike to Gibbon Pass isn't terribly far at approximately 11 km one way, but then you have to hike back out that same 11 kilometres - unless you're dropping down the other side of the pass to stay at Shadow Lake Lodge! Then you get to enjoy a 14 km one-way hike with warm lodging and meals waiting at the end.

Hiking through golden larch trees at Gibbon Pass, no crowds!

Gibbon Pass above Shadow Lake Lodge

Access the backcountry in September without having to sleep in a tent!

I love the "idea" of fall backpacking to escape the crowds and reach remote places in backcountry Banff, but then I think about sleeping in a tent, when the temperature goes down to zero at night, and when it often snows unexpectedly, and I'm less excited about the idea.

Tent or cabin? Not a difficult decision late September

Late September mornings and evenings can be pretty chilly in the mountains but then the temperature generally warms up for pleasant daytime hiking. We loved staying at Shadow Lake Lodge because we could enjoy our time outside while the sun was up, and then we'd retreat into the warm lodge cabins as the sun disappeared behind the mountains and the temperature dropped ten degrees in less than an hour.

On our recent trip to Shadow Lake it snowed overnight, both nights we were at the lodge, but we were cozy and warm inside our cabin. We weren't huddled around a backcountry stove trying to cook dinner or breakfast with frozen fingers, and we weren't stuck sitting inside our tent for hours all evening (huddled in sleeping bags for warmth.) 

Late September at Shadow Lake Lodge and we were happy we weren't camping!

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 Vista 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 for about 15 minutes and then the trail flattens out again for easier hiking. (Skiers usually walk the hill.)

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. 

In the winter, this is one of my favourite cross-country ski trails, and it's also great on snowshoes. 

I highly recommend skiing this trail in winter

Access to Shadow Lake via Arnica Lake and Gibbon Pass (Summer / Fall Hiking)

I've been to Shadow Lake a few times in summer/autumn and I've always hiked in via Vista, Arnica and Twin Lakes, which is a more scenic approach than the Redearth Creek Trail. I call it the "Grand Lake Traverse" because you'll pass four gorgeous lakes as you hike in to the lodge.

Day hikers love the trail to Arnica Lake (which is extremely busy late September for larch hiking) but you'll lose most of the hikers the further you go towards Gibbon Pass, above the final Twin Lake.

On my family's recent trip we hiked in and out over Gibbon Pass using the Vista Lake trailhead. For an easier trip, park a second vehicle at Redearth Creek for the return hike out. The distance is the same for both trails, but there's much more height gain on the trail over Gibbon Pass.

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.

It took us just under 6 hours to complete the 14 km hike in via Arnica Lake and Gibbon Pass.

Note: If you're doing this hike in late September, you'll want to arrive at the parking lot by 9am at the latest or you won't get a spot. The parking lot is small, and the trail is very popular! - On weekends you might need to arrive even earlier.

Map courtesy of Shadow Lake Lodge

Hiking to Shadow Lake via Arnica Lake 

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

looking down on Vista Lake from the trailhead off Highway 93

Vista Lake is a stunning emerald green color

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, but the reward of reaching Arnica Lake is worth it.

Looking WAY down on Vista Lake from the trail to Arnica Lake

Arnica Lake was gorgeous on our visit with frosted larch trees and snowy mountains

Arnica Lake is a popular day hike for golden larch viewing. On our visit, it had recently snowed and the views of the frosty trees reflected in the still water was stunning.

Hiking from Arnica Lake to the Twin Lakes 

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.

Upon reaching the high point, I recommend following a faint trail to your right which will take you to a viewpoint over Arnica Lake. It's the only place where you can look down on the lake. It's a popular viewpoint in fall when you can see many golden larch trees above the lake.

Looking down on Arnica Lake from the high point en route to the Twin Lakes

Most day hikers turn around here, meaning you'll have a quieter hike as you descend to the Twin Lakes.

From the high point, you descend 229 metres over 2.4 km to reach the first Twin Lake and a small backcountry campground. You can wave at the campground and happily proclaim that you have a cabin waiting for you.

Arnica "Summit" at the high point before dropping down to the Twin Lakes

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.

The Upper Twin Lake is a beautiful spot for a lunch break

Hiking from the Twin Lakes to Gibbon Pass 

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.

You'll know you're getting close to the pass when larch trees begin to surround you on all sides and the trail becomes simply golden late September.

Hiking through golden larch trees on the climb to Gibbon Pass

Gibbon Pass with the summit of "Little Copper" above, a popular day hike from the lodge

Hiking from Gibbon Pass down to Shadow Lake Lodge

From the top of the pass you still have 3 km to go, losing 450 metres of height, before you arrive at the lodge. Fortunately, it's all downhill, the trail isn't too steep, and we were able to run pretty quickly down most of it.

We were down and at the lodge in 45 minutes from the top of the pass. 15 minutes later we were inside the main dining cabin enjoying afternoon tea.

Gibbon Pass is one of my fav. places to visit in late September

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.

It took us just under 6 hours to complete the hike in, but we were moving pretty quickly and didn't stop a lot.

The Twin Lakes were a snowy winter wonderland on our hike

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.

Gibbon Pass with hundreds of golden larch trees

Exploring Shadow Lake from the Lodge

When you arrive at the lodge, staff will give you suggestions for day hikes from the lodge while staying there. The easiest choice, and the one we enjoyed on our middle day, is simply heading to the nearby lake and then walking further to the back of the lake as far as you want to go.

You can see a map and read about the hike on the All Trails site here: Shadow Lake and the Cirque above the lake 

Shadow Lake is beautiful year round and a short hike from the lodge

If you download the hike on your phone using the All Trails app, you'll find the unmarked side trail leading to a set of Parks Canada red chairs located on a peninsula half way along the lake. If you somehow miss finding the trail, as we did, watch for it on your way back from the end of the lake. You'll see the chairs as you hike back towards the lodge and then you'll know to watch for the next side trail. - This worked for us because we missed the trail on our way out.

Next time I visit this lake, it'll be frozen and snow covered

This hike would be 8-10 km return depending on how far past the lake into the cirque you climb. We were heading towards the cirque where I understand there are waterfalls, but it was cold, wet, and overcast on our middle day, and the warm fireplace was calling my name.

It took me three separate visits to finally find these red chairs this year!

Day Hiking to Gibbon Pass (with Little Copper summit extension)

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. 

Photos earlier in this story show what you can usually expect to see at Gibbon Pass in autumn. Meanwhile, the photos below show what we experienced on our hike out from the lodge Sunday after we had snow two nights in a row.

Gibbon Pass was very snowy for our hike out from the lodge

From Gibbon Pass you can also continue on to the Twin Lakes, again if you didn't hike in this way, or even further to the high point above Arnica Lake.

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.

A snowy hike through Gibbon Pass

Gibbon Pass late September

We hiked in over Gibbon Pass with lovely fall weather (as seen from my previous photos in this story.) Our hike out though was a snowy adventure and it felt like we'd stayed at the lodge for a month, advancing a full season.

From the pass, it's only another 300-400 metres of height gain to reach the summit of Little Copper where you'll find incredible views over the entire Bow Valley as well as views down to Shadow Lake.

Looking up at the summit of Little Copper from Gibbon Pass 

It was a snowy climb for us to reach the summit of Little Copper!

I honestly recommend every visitor to the lodge try to make their way to this beautiful summit where you'll get the best views from any of the day trips nearby.

We hiked to the summit on our way out, so it made for a longer but very worthwhile day.  And I'm pretty sure there's "usually" a trail to the top of Little Copper. We had too much snow when we were there, and had to create our own route (mostly hiking straight up through the larch trees, and then straight up the snow covered rock near the top.)

Looking down on Shadow Lake from the slopes of Little Copper

From the lodge, Gibbon Pass and Little Copper would be a nice 3-4 hour day hike and you'd be back in plenty of time for afternoon tea.

See the map and read about the hike on the All Trails website here:  Little Copper Mountain via Gibbon Pass .

Summit of Little Copper looking over Castle Mountain and the Bow Valley

Little Copper summit ridge with shadow Lake below

Plan Your Trip to Shadow Lake Lodge 

Visit the Shadow Lake website to view availability and rates for a potential upcoming visit. 

The lodge opens late June for the summer hiking season, and you can read about my summer trip earlier this year below:

If planning an autumn trip, 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.

Book your larch hiking getaway for 2024 now! 

  • Save up to 30% off when you stay three nights or more! Limited spots available. 

  • Receive a discount of 25% off on your second night, and 50% off on your third night.

  • Promotion is exclusive to standard nightly rates for any new booking with an arrival between Sept 1 - Sept 30 2024, made online at Shadow Lake Lodge. 

  • Use code: LARCHLOVE24
  • This offer applies to new bookings only. Offer ends October 31, 2023. All regular cancellation/booking policies apply. 

  • Promo is based on double occupancy and discounts are not applied to additional cabin member costs. 

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

After the larch hiking period in September, the lodge closes from October until the end of December when you can ski or snowshoe in over the holiday season for Christmas or New Years. 

Christmas and New Years Holiday specials can be seen here for the upcoming 2023 season.

The lodge then opens for the true winter season late January and bookings can be made online now. The lodge is magical in winter, and it's an easy snowshoe or winter hike up the Redearth Creek Trail. Intermediate cross-country skiers will also love the trip up the wide groomed trail.

The lodge is open weekends through the winter season 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.

Note the hiking trail over Gibbon Pass is not recommended in the winter due to significant avalanche hazard and difficulty of terrain.

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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