Hut-to-hut hike rewards adventurers with epic views

The massive peak-to-peak views on the way to Healy Pass. Photo: Lisa Monforton
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The massive peak-to-peak views on the way to Healy Pass. Photo: Lisa Monforton

By Lisa Monforton
and Doug Firby

As we gaped in awe at Talc Lake, a deep blue expanse hanging above Egypt Lake in the distance, a passing hiker said to us, “It only gets better.”

Better than this? we wondered. How is that possible?

Lisa Monforton
Lisa Monforton

Doug Firby:
Doug Firby

In the vista before us, a waterfall ribbon from Talc seemed to put the cherry on top of this stunning view on our day-long trek from Sunshine Village to Shadow Lake Lodge.

We’d left Sunshine Village at 8:45 a.m. for the 24- or 27-km hike to Shadow Lake Lodge, depending on which route you take.

The two properties in Alberta’s Banff National Park are offering what they call a hut-to-hut hike this year for the first time (See package details below). Alison Brewster, proprietor of Shadow Lake Lodge, has been wanting to bring the spirit of the European hut-to-hut mountain experience to Banff.

“I have been thinking about it for a few years,” says Allison. She and her daughters hiked to Sunshine from Shadow Lake last year and set the plan in motion with the fact that Sunshine Mountain Lodge is now open all summer and the gondola runs seven days a week.

To be clear, this is a trek for fit hikers who are sure they can go the distance, says Brewster, who’s been traversing these mountains since she was 12. It’s not so much the elevation gain (the highest gain is around 600 metres along the way), it’s the length. “It’s not for everybody,” says Brewster.

We weren’t sure we’d fit the bill – the longest hike we’d ever done in a day was Bourgeau – a 17-km up-and-back trek. What’s eight or 10 more kilometres? we said.

Sunshine Meadows has several easy trails surrounded by mountain views and three pretty lakes. Photo: Lisa Monforton

Here’s what to expect when you do the hut-to-hut hike.

After being whisked up to Sunshine Mountain Lodge via gondola, we spent a restful evening soaking in the outdoor hot tub and chatting with other visitors, most of them from the U.S. We told everyone why we were here, to stay overnight at Sunshine relaxing, eating and maybe having a glass of wine or two before setting off the next day for Shadow Lake Lodge. They were intrigued.

We’d planned to do a little pre-big-day hike in Sunshine Meadows off the Standish chair, but the area was closed because of a wildflower-feasting grizzly near one of the three lakes. This is a rare occurrence, so don’t let that stop you from planning a day hike at Sunshine or a stay at the hotel. It’s easy and offers epic views of Simpson Valley and Mount Assiniboine (the “Matterhorn of the Rockies”). The three lakes in the meadows are the perfect place for a picnic.

After a hearty breakfast at the Chimney Corner restaurant, we picked up our sizable lunch (provided as part of the package) and set out on what would become a nine-hour hike (build in at least an hour for a lunch stop and photo ops). Heading up the Wawa green ski run, we walked past burbling streams, carpets of wildflowers and took in the smell of pine in the air on a warm day. The Simpson Pass trail is gentle and studded with wildflowers – yellow glacial lilies, cream-coloured buttercups and brilliant red paintbrush. The occasional deer sauntered across the trail. Constant birdsong provided our trail music.

Alpine buttercups are just one of the many wildflowers in full bloom in July. Photo: Lisa Monforton

Simpson Pass trail connects to Healy Pass, which tops out at 2,330 metres. You’re surrounded by subalpine beauty, and the school gymnasium whistle of the pikas echoes through the trees. Clear signage ensures you’ll have no trouble finding the trail to Egypt Lake, the halfway point to Shadow Lake Lodge.

The trails are well signed on your way to Egypt Lake through the Healy Pass Trail. Photo: Lisa Monforton

Four hours in, the amazing subalpine terrain descends into a dense forest of larch, pine, more wildflowers down to Egypt Lake. This is a popular backcountry camping spot for hikers, including a park-operated shelter. For us, it’s a quick lunch stop and bathroom break. We talk about coming back so we can explore this area named in the early 1900s for all things Egyptian – Scarab, Sphynx and Pharaoh lakes, to name a few.

We’re not sure which is prettier, the views or the reflections of the views at Egypt Lake. Photo: Doug Firby

It’s at this point we decide to take the shorter route to Shadow Lake Lodge, Pharaoh Creek Trail, rather than the longer and, by all accounts, more scenic Whistling Pass and past Haiduk Lake, which would add on a few extra kilometres. Even in early July, Whistling Pass can be snow-covered like it was on this day, making our decision even easier.

Nurse trees are so cool to see – fallen timbers that are sprouting new life on the forest floor. Photo: Doug Firby

One of the biggest treats of hiking so deep into Banff National Park is that you can go for hours without seeing or hearing a soul. Hiking Pharaoh Creek Trail, we see no one until we get within a couple of kilometres of Shadow Lake Lodge. We stop every so often to see if we can spot wildlife around the creek and at one point, we’re sure we see a couple of grizzlies hanging along the shore – not surprising given we’ve seen plenty of bear scat. At intervals, all we can hear is the rushing sound of the water and our occasional “Yo, bear!” shouts, which echo through the trees.

An incredible, family-style, multi-course dinner is our reward after a long but oh-so-gorgeous hike to Shadow Lake Lodge. Photo: Shadow Lake Lodge

It’s getting close to 5:30 p.m. and we see the sign – 2.4 kms to Shadow Lake Lodge. We’re exhausted but have enough energy for a high five. It takes us about 30 minutes of steady climb to reach the welcome sight of the entrance to the lodge. Though we’ve missed the 4 p.m. afternoon tea, we’ve got 30 minutes to spare before 6:30 dinner. The sound of a cowbell brings guests out of their cabins. The staff carts out platter after platter for an incredible family-style feast that includes soup, homemade bread, pork tenderloin with a berry glaze and balsamic reduction, steamed rice and broccoli and a Greek salad.

We can barely stand from our seats with full bellies and stiff legs to make it to our comfy bed, where we sleep for straight 10 hours.

At the moment, this is the “better than this” our fellow hiker earlier in the day had foretold.

A cozy cabin with a veranda and stunning views greets guests at Shadow Lake Lodge. Photo: Shadow Lake Lodge

When you go:

The Hut to Hut package includes:

  • Gondola ride up to Sunshine Mountain Lodge
  • Dinner at either Eagles Nest Bistro, Chimney Corner or Mad Trapper’s Smokehouse
  • Overnight stay
  • Packed lunch from Java Lift Coffee Bar for your hike
  • Two-night stay with meals at Shadow Lake Lodge (wine and beer is served, but you can also bring your own drinks)
  • Find details at the Shadow Lake Lodge or Sunshine Mountain Lodge.

What to bring:

Because this is a long hike, be sure to pack light with just the essentials.

  • Pack along extra snacks and water
  • Bear spray/bear noise maker
  • Bugspray
  • Layers for changing weather and rain gear.

Doug Firby and Lisa Monforton were guests of Sunshine Village and Shadow Lake Lodge. Content was not subject to approval.

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The opinions expressed by our columnists and contributors are theirs alone and do not inherently or expressly reflect the views of our publication.

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