Situated beside Brewster Creek and flanked by the Sundance Range, Sundance Lodge is the most accessible backcountry lodge in Banff National Park.
By Jack Newton
When the call of the wild beckons these days, cozy backcountry retreats come to mind. I guess my days of grand icefield traverses and winter camping are done. Hot meals, a comfortable bed and a soft seat beside a glowing wood stove have increasing appeal.
But I don’t want it too easy. I still revel in the sense of accomplishment that comes from earning creature comforts. So when the opportunity to make the 11.4-km (7.1-mi) trek to Banff’s Sundance Lodge presented itself, I did not hesitate.
The most direct trail to Sundance Lodge begins at Healy Creek Parking Lot on Sunshine Village Road. A former road with most of its snow packed firm by the snowmobile that supplies the lodge, it is perfect for fat biking. In fact, Sundance Lodge is the only backcountry accommodation in Banff National Park fully accessible by this newly popular mode of winter transportation.
My wife Donna and I chose instead the rhythmic and meditative motion of cross-country skiing. We were pleased that the trail’s edge was groomed for classic skiing, and enjoyed the fresh air exercise. Lunch at a sunny spot en route and stops to admire mountain views that presented themselves through the trees added to the experience.
The clearly signed route consists of three sections. The first part is an easy stretch clockwise around a rocky knoll, across the new Healy Creek bridge, and along the south side of the creek. A right turn at the second junction accesses the trail that leads directly to Sundance Lodge.
Brewster Creek trail steadily rises until most of the route’s 173-m (568-ft) elevation gain is achieved. It then rolls through thinning forests that increasingly allow creek and peak views. Not long after crossing two bridges, Sundance Lodge and its backdrop of peaks present themselves in dramatic fashion through the pines.
The cross-country ski to the lodge took us 3.5 hours. We travelled at a leisurely pace; others take an hour less. The return trip that offers more views, and a long and exciting downhill stretch took us 2.5 hours. Our companions on fat bikes made much faster time than us, both into the lodge and out.
I rate the trail to Sundance Lodge easy to moderate. If you have rudimentary skills as a cross-country skier, you will have no problem. The downhill section of the trail on the return is the only place where timid skiers might experience angst, but the generous width and packed base make it easy to snowplow. Access to Sundance Lodge by fat bike is similarly manageable, although less proficient riders dismount to walk some of the uphill stretches.
Sundance Lodge co-owner Jonathan Welsh says, “If you’re looking for adventure you’ll make it in, even if backcountry skiing is normally out of your comfort zone.” Earlier this winter Jonathan made the trek with his five-year-old daughter, partially on snowshoes and partially walking.
Built in 1991, Sundance Lodge is a gorgeous log building situated beside Brewster Creek. On-site is 1923 Ten-Mile Cabin that once sheltered horse riders en route to Mount Assiniboine.
Inside and out, the lodge’s ambience is Canadian cowboy. Western art and photos adorn the walls, and spent horseshoes find afterlife as ski racks and coat hangers. This is entirely appropriate as Sundance Lodge caters to Banff Trail Riders pack trip clients in the summer.
Sundance’s rustic décor is complemented by modern amenities that are not all available at other backcountry lodges in the Canadian Rockies. Indoor bathrooms are equipped with showers and flush toilets. Propane powers the fridge and stove, while LED lights and a water pump are operated by solar panel-generated electricity.
Unlike other Banff backcountry lodges, all living areas at Sundance Lodge are contained within one building. The main sitting area has a long table, country-style couches and chairs, and a wood stove that efficiently provides the lodge heat. Ten upstairs bedrooms feature new mattresses, down duvets and Pendleton blankets.
For me, enjoying the warm comfort of Sundance Lodge common areas would come later. While Donna and other guests enjoyed homemade banana bread and tea beside the fire, I was drawn to the swinging bench on the covered balcony that runs the length of the lodge. This is where I would relax and savour one of beers I had packed in. (Sundance Lodge is also licensed to sell beer and wine to guests.) Soon I was joined by Jonathan who was similarly inclined to enjoy the remains of the day while gazing out at the creek and wilderness beyond.
The backcountry lodge experience is defined in part by the home cooked meals communally taken by previous strangers who now enjoy each other’s company.
At Sundance Lodge, live-on-site chef Stephen Roach presides over the large open-to-view kitchen with a long table where guests dine. He is perhaps Sundance’s biggest booster. “The first time I set foot in this place, I felt I had come home,” he says. Meals are served with wonderful stories of Steve’s life as an accomplished chef, vintage Harley Davidson rider and rock concert aficionado.
I read that food at Sundance Lodge was good, but the meals nonetheless exceeded my expectations. Our dinner of braised honey garlic beef brisket included accompaniments such as homemade vegetable soup, fresh baked crusty buns and Steve’s own apple pie with whipped-by-hand ice cream. The cinnamon buns at breakfast were prepared and baked by Steve at 6 am that morning.
Many guests at Sundance Lodge simply relax, read and socialize. Others stage forays further up the trail. I borrowed snowshoes offered at the lodge for this purpose, trekked up the frozen creek and returned via the packed trail. Those with an extra day often go 4 km (2.5 mi) to Turtle Tom’s Cabin.
Sundance Lodge is one of the few backcountry retreats in the Canadian Rockies that allows one-night stays. This is great if you face restrictions on your time or budget. But next time I visit Sundance, I want to immerse myself more in the ambience of the lodge and the solitude of the outdoors. I’d like to stay longer.
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