A royal retreat at Skoki Lodge

Skoki Lodge is a true winter escape. A rustic but cosy collection of cabins, nestled in the backcountry of the Canadian Rockies in Banff National Park. The lodge is only accessible via an 11km trail from the nearest road and so all the effort exerted in getting there is quickly rewarded by unspoiled views of the mountains, glaciers and valleys, as well as the spread of delicious soups, indulgent cakes and warm tea on arrival.

Within minutes of beginning the journey, it’s like you have escaped to the North Pole or some other snow-covered paradise. Other than the footsteps of snowshoes it was silent. In winter you can either ski or snowshoe in and in summer it’s a hike. If you’re an inexperienced skier, I would say snowshoe. It’s doesn’t take long to get used to them, it’s cool to try something new and they are only $10 a day to hire from the village outdoor store, Wilsons. Our trip also coincided with continuous snowfall that accumulated quickly, and apart from the downhill sections, we were generally speedier than the skiers.

My main worry was getting lost, never arriving and taking shelter under a rock for the night. Thankfully that wasn’t the case and the trail is excellently marked. Despite all the waivers and warning signs about going into the backcountry and the risk of avalanches, if you follow the trail you should be fine. We also took the shuttle bus from the ski resort to the start of the trail and so we could confirm with our fellow Skokiers that were on the right path.

The need to pack for all types of weather was confirmed as soon as we were began. We debated whether to bring salopettes and started the day in gym leggings and t-shirts. Luckily we did pack our salopettes, which turned out to be an absolute essential. They’ll keep you dry and warm whether it’s snowing, raining, windy, or the trail is covered in snow.

The first third of the walk is relatively easy with minimal elevation gain, hence we didn’t need a break and were not on the look out for any shelter. But let me clarify now that Halfway Hut is not half way. From the map, we agreed it was about a third of the way. In reality, it felt about a quarter of the way and is the only structure you will see between Temple and Skoki. So if you need to escape the elements and see a large wooden cabin on your left, that is Halfway hut.

Then there is a short, steep-ish section at about 6km in. After this, we decided to have our packed lunch. It was nowhere fancy - just behind a big rock to try and get out of the wind and snow. This was followed by an easy section across the frozen Ptarmigan lake (unless chilling winds blow through the valley and make it hard to even look up). My friend was worried about traversing across a frozen lake in mid-April when temperatures had been consecutively above freezing, so it was amusing when she asked two outbound skiers where the lake was, to which they replied “You’re on it!”. In hindsight, real obvious as it was completely flat, but we'll blame the bad visibility for not realizing that! And to put your mind at rest about plunging into the lake, an 800lb snowmobile goes in and out everyday, so unless you’re travelling with a huge rucksack, chances are, you’ll also make it safely across!

A few hundred meters after the lake the infamous Deception Pass began. We were warned it was a challenge and can now confirm it’s certainly the toughest part. But not impossible. With nearly 1 foot (30cm) of fresh powder and almost whiteout conditions, we took it 100 steps at a time and got to the top in about 45 minutes. I’m sure if you’re fitter and more motivated, you can go faster. Equally, you can take it slower. People of all ages and abilities visit Skoki and you’ll get up there in the end. Us too, step-by-step, made it to the top.

Snowshoeing to the top of Deception Pass

Snowshoeing to the top of Deception Pass

Now for the best top-tip – the bottle of prosecco I’d carried the whole journey and sacrificed extra clothes for could now be popped open. I was in my element sipping that along with snacking on a packet of chocolate buttons on the top of mountain. From Deception Pass, it’s all down hill. We kept thinking (and hoping) we would see the lodge in the distance, but it appeared out of nowhere and suddenly you have arrived.

We ended up being the last guests of the day to arrive after being overtaking by all the skiers on the descent into Skoki. But we arrived in high-spirits and if you’re down and grumpy, then the beautiful spread of cakes, freshly baked bread and cheese and biscuits will cheer you up. We sat on a comfy sofa right next to the food table for the next hour. After all the indulgence, we had enough energy to move again so checked out our cabin. At this point, it’s worth saying Skoki is simple. Rather than some of the other luxury lodges in the area, the accommodation (and outhouses) are basic, but the place is steeped in history. You go for the adventure, not for flushing toilets.

And that’s why we dropped of our rucksacks and headed straight back outside into winter wonderland to build a snowman and make snow angels. As the sun dipped below the treeline we retreated to the main lodge. During this time you can admire the old photographs hanging around the lodge, go through the guestbooks whilst curled up by the fire, or flick through the Skoki cookbook and wonder what dish will be served shortly.

It seems the sort of people who are attracted to travelling to Skoki Lodge are not the sort of people to sit in a corner in a room full of people and browse their phone. But we are all guilty of being in an environment where you have the comfort of looking at a screen, rather than looking up and striking up conversation with the person next to you. It was refreshing to have no excuse that meant you could listen to the other guests tales and travels and rather than going our separate ways at dinner, continuing the conversation over at the big, old timber table that seats 22.

Dinner didn’t disappoint. An abundance of colourful roasted vegetables, fresh and zesty orzo and perfectly cooked pork was just a selection of what was on offer that evening. The meal is even more impressive when you consider the effort that goes into ensuring fresh ingredients are delivered each day, which are then prepared in a kitchen has no mod-cons.

With no electricity, the candles and gas lamps illuminate the place with a warm glow and the lounge fire, mini stoves and thick blankets keep you warm. Another quirk of being totally off the grid that you take for granted back home was that there was no running water, let alone hot water, in any of the rooms. This meant filling up a jug of hot water, carrying it back to the cabin and being thrifty with our water use to make sure we didn't need another trip out in the night to stock up. Although it wasn’t pitch black out due to it being a clear night, it was cold with the bears beginning to emerge from their dens, so once we got back to the cabin, I refused to leave until daylight! If you do need a trip out in the dark to visit the outhouse, rest assured every cabin has lanterns dotted around to guide you through the night and if the skies remain clear, you may even catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights.

We slept great (despite the cabin temperature being in single digits, but we were so tired from the day’s hiking it knocked us right out). After last night's dinner, we had no hesitation that breakfast would also be fabulous, which it was. We had chosen to only stay one night. Of course, this helps keep costs down (prices vary between $150 to $250 per person per night), however it does mean you don’t get to explore the surrounding area and have to trek back out the next day.

And so, whilst the other guests were planning their adventures for the day, we lazed around by the lounge fire, having an acoustic guitar sing-along to some campfire classic songs, before packing up, snowshoes on and beginning the trip out.

Yesterday’s cloud had cleared and it was a beautiful, sunny day with spectacular views of the surrounding lakes and mountains. Apart from another windy section across the frozen lake, the hike out was smooth-snowshoeing. We had to make sure we were back at the ski resort by 3:30pm to catch the last lift up and out (unless you want to add another 4km to your walk, which we absolutely didn't). A leisurely ride down in the Grizzly Gondola delivered us back at base where the 3 of us ran over to our friends working at the ski resort to say we survived!

Skoki Lodge has been, without a doubt, the highlight of my Canada trip so far. Even if you are travelling on a budget, I would 100% recommend saving a bit extra or scrimping on a few other things to make sure you get yourself there. The outstanding scenery is totally worth the hard-at-times hike and the food alone is worth the price you pay. Thanks to my friends, old and new, as well as the Skoki staff for an experience I’ll never forget.

 

Useful tips for your trip to Skoki Lodge:

  • Salopettes – essential for keeping your legs warm and dry. If you think you’ll overheat, just don’t wear thermals. But do wear salopettes (this only applies to winter trips)
  • Light windproof jacket – my ski jacket is pretty bulky, so it would’ve been too heavy to wear the whole time and not easy to carry if I didn’t need a jacket on, so my light Patagonia jacket was ideal
  • Headtorch – there’s no electricity and even though the lodge provide lanterns, having two hands can be handy!
  • Only carry one rucksack with everything in - my friend Ella thought it was a good idea to bring 1kg of jelly beans and ended up hiking with a carrier bag on her arm to accommodate her extra “must-have” luxury items
  • Blister plasters – if you get bad blisters just before/during this hike or have shoes that you’re not sure are comfy, get yourself covered by buying ?. This saved my friends feet and saved us hearing her moan about them!
  • Battery packs – batteries in electrical items fade much more quickly out in the cold. They tend to come back on once warmed up but sometimes they need a boost, so if you’re relying on your iphone camera, carry a booster pack as there’s no electricity at the lodge
  • Bear spray – From mid-March, the bears begin to emerge from hibernation and carrying bear spray is highly recommended. Skoki sent us an email memo a few days before with details of the latest wildlife activity in the area and how best to prepare.
  • Sweet & savoury snacks – cookies are great but they only provide so much energy. Taking a proper lunch along with energy bars and salty snacks, such as nuts, along with an energy drink is a better use of space. Skoki has all the food you could want, plus more, so you only need enough for snacks and drinks for the journey in.
  • Prosecco – once you’ve packed the absolute essentials and have enough gear to stay safe, if you can squeeze a bottle in, this is absolutely worth it after the 800m ascent up Deception Pass (or take a mini bottle each to even out the load). Carry your rubbish with you and recycle it at Skoki.