Tucked away behind the sprawling Lake Louise Ski Area, in the heart of Alberta's Canadian Rockies, lies the impressive Slate Range. This remote collection of 10,000-foot peaks harbors some of the best hiking in a part of the world renowned for great hiking. Just beyond iconic Mount Richardson and Deception Pass lies the pretty Skoki Valley, a worthy end in itself but also the gateway to greater backcountry adventure beyond.
But one of the best-kept secrets of this scenic corner of Banff National Park is actually man made: the venerable Skoki Lodge. This historic log structure was built in 1931 as a base for skiers, never mind the fact that it's almost eight miles from the nearest road. It was as popular then as it is now. Today, a half dozen years after a significant restoration, the pleasures of this historic lodge are a closely guarded secret among the cognescenti who have been there. Few visitors are eager to spill the beans on this comfortable backcountry lodge, a rare haven for lovers of wilderness, currently owned and operated by the Lake Louise Ski Area.
It's easy to understand all the secrecy. Here is a place unique in the North American West, situated in one of the most scenic areas of the Canadian Rockies, yet offering all the comforts of home. At Skoki, one lives well, sleeping in comfortable lodge rooms (or adjacent individual cabins), dining well on tasty, healthy food prepared by a dedicated staff, even enjoying a glass of wine with dinner or a cold brew after a hike. And the lodge is so well located that every visitor is well positioned for day hikes (or ski outings in winter) to some of the most stunning landscapes in Banff National Park. But all this backcountry nirvana does require some effort: the only way in to Skoki is to make the seven mile hike in (or ski in during the winter months).
My trip to Skoki Lodge last summer began at the airport in Calgary, followed by the two and a half hour drive in a rental car to the village of Lake Louise. I visited Wilson's Sporting Goods (a great place to rent skis in the winter) to pick up a can of bear spray, and spent the night at the Lake Louise Inn in the village to rest up for the hike in to Skoki Lodge. The next morning, I made the five minute drive up to the Lake Louise Ski Area for the mandated 9:30 check in for the lodge It works like this: you check in for your stay at Skoki Lodge at the ski area, where you can catch a van up to the trailhead for the start of the seven mile route to the lodge.
I was fortunate in that Charlie Locke agreed to hike in with me. Locke, owner of the Lake Louise Ski Area, is a classic Albertan: oil man, rancher, and lover of the mountains. In fact, as a young climber, Locke became the youngest certified mountain guide in the province--and one with more than 40 first ascents to his credit. Locke, who was in on the beginnings of the Lake Louise Ski Area in 1980, recently bought it back, including it's domain over Skoki Lodge. And, since Charlie loves the Slate Range, he made excuses at the office and offered to show me his favorite parts of the hike into the lodge.
Just getting to Skoki is a world-class day hike. From the end of the Temple Lodge access road, we worked up through the trees into a sprawling open meadow, and from there up to Boulder Pass (7,500 feet) and the first expansive views of the peaks beyond. From here, Mount Richardson, Pika Peak and Ptarmigan Peak form the impressive climax of the Slate Range. Pretty Ptarmigan Lake lies below, and we soon skirted that along its north side, then climbed steeply up to Deception Pass, the high point on the approach to Skoki. From the pass, the route offers spectacular views of the peaks beyond before dropping into the Skoki Valley. The last few miles come with tantalizing glimpses of the turquoise Skoki Lakes before ending at the front steps of Skoki Lodge.
After the four to five hour hike, arrival at Skoki Lodge--about 7,100 feet--is a welcome respite. Guest are greeted with cool drinks in the lodge dining room, where there's time to get acquainted with other newly arrived visitors. Everyone gets a quick overview of life at the lodge: washing facilities, the outdoor plumbing, meal times and other basics. Lodge manager Katie then showed me to Wolverine Cabin, where I would spend my three days at Skoki. Accommodations here are spartan, but comfortable, with clean sheets, warm blankets, and wash basins (you have to fetch your own warm water from the kitchen) in each room.
The afternoon of arrival makes a good time to explore the nearby gorge and other points of interest around the lodge before dinner. All meals--breakfast and dinner-- are served family style in the dining room, while trail lunches are available after breakfast to take along on day hikes. The food is a highlight to any visit to Skoki Lodge, and in fact a lodge cook book is in the works, the result of all the guests asking for recipes.
But for me it's the mind-blowing location of Skoki that defines it, so I went to sleep that night anticipating a full day of exploring the Slate Range. With the lodge serving as a comfortable base camp, it's not hard to understand why it's a favorite place for serious hikers and backcountry travelers.
Over the course of our luxurious breakfast the next morning, I began to discuss with some of the other guests just what might make the most interesting day hike. Some were thinking about an ascent of Skoki Mountain, a half day trip from the lodge, but I was hoping to venture a little farther afield. The lodge keeps a reference binder of suggested day-long excursions, so it's only a matter of deciding how far or how high you want to go.
Luckily, Charlie Locke offered to show us one of his favorite places--the high country beyond Merlin Lake. Few people know the backcountry here as well as Charlie Locke, so we couldn't resist. The six of us, hailing from New York, Seattle and Edmonton, set off following in Charlie's footsteps from the footbridge in front of the lodge.
Merlin Lake turns out to be one of the hidden gems of this part of Banff National Park. We trekked along a trail that side-hills under the impressive rampart known as the Wall of Jericho until the way became more complicated. We eventually followed the line of least resistance and worked our way up on to a series of alpine benches--one of which required some fourth class rock-climbing moves--and finally up in to the high valley holding Merlin Lake itself. Tucked between the rugged rock formation known as Merlin's Castle and the Wall of Jericho, the big alpine lake sits in a wild, classic Canadian Rockies cirque.
Nice, agreed Charlie, but, he said, there's even more to come. From the shores of Merlin Lake we worked up to a smaller, higher tarn, or small lake, called Dragon's Drink, where we stopped for our over-the-top lunches from the lodge. From there we could see the rocky outline of Merlin's Ridge tumbling down from Mt. Richardson. That was our ultimate goal. We followed Charlie as he picked his way up the rocky slope, eventually reaching the ridge crest and its 360-degree view of the peaks of Banff National Park.
The day was getting on, by now after three, so we retreated back down to Merlin Lake, but passing this time on its northern shore to follow the "low route" back to the lodge. This option required following a little used way trail that drops steeply down into Merlin Valley beyond the lake, and then works uphill back to the lodge across a series of broad, marshy meadows. This all day, 14-kilometer route is probably one of the best day hikes in Banff, and it's made possible only because we had the advantage of starting from Skoki Lodge.
And that's really what the lodge is all about: it puts you in the heart of the Slate Range, where you can explore for days, and do so with wild abandon, knowing you'll be back soon in the outrageous comfort of the lodge. It's no surprise to me that once people come to Skoki Lodge, they keep coming back for more. The seven of us who had been on the hike recounted our adventure over a cold beer in the lodge as we settled in for another comfortable evening--and anticipated another delicious meal from the lodge staff. I couldn't help but think: I could get used to this.
When our time was up at Skoki several days later, we all hated to leave, but we had the consolation of yet another day hiking in the Slate Range. On our way down, we made the trip back to the ski area by a different route, which is steeper but more interesting, and so more suited to the descent than the hike in. From the lodge we followed the trails over Packer's Pass. This route is perhaps a half mile longer, but it has the advantage of skirting the Skoki Lakes, some of the most scenic mountain lakes in the area, and not something to miss. We were back at the Lake Louise Ski Area by early afternoon, where I decided to spend another night in the village of Lake Louise itself before the drive back to the airport in Calgary tomorrow. But I was already contemplating my next trip to Skoki Lodge.
The gateway to Skoki Lodge and Lake Louise Ski Area is through Calgary's busy international airport. It's two and half hours by car to the village of Lake Louise. Skoki Lodge is part of the Lake Louise Ski Area, and is open June through September for summer hikes, and late December through April for ski in visitors. See the Skoki Lodge website for rates and details, or the Lake Louise Ski Area website for further information.. Travel Alberta's website makes any trip to the Rockies easy to organize.