After Waterton Lakes National Park, we took a quick stop into Calgary and then headed to Banff.
Although I lived only a few hours away from Banff my entire life, I had never been there. In fact, the desire to visit Banff National Park was one of the ideas that sparked our National Park Tour through North America.
As I met more and more people from around the world, I met more and more people who had visited Banff. Those, who travelled great distances to see my own country’s spectacular mountains, could not understand how I never took the time to see them. Especially since I took the time to see over 35 countries around the world. Almost out of embarrassment for neglecting my own country, I decided it was time.
We needed to go to Banff!
Better yet, we wanted to experience it. So, our plan was to head into the backcountry for two nights.
I waited this long, why only go half way?
From my research, I found that one of the best overnight adventures in Banff is the Skoki Loop in Lake Louise. Even better, I learned the loop has one of the oldest, highest, and finest backcountry lodge experiences in North America.
Once again, I waited this long, why not go all the way?
Booking in May, we were lucky to get a reservation into the Skoki Lodge in August. In fact, while two nights are recommended to explore the surrounding area, we were only able to secure one night. Booking is recommended up to a year in advance and can be made online from the Skoki Lodge website.
With one night booked, our plan was to camp the first night and stay in the lodge the second night.
We were about to get the full experience on the Skoki Loop!
There are four campsites on the Skoki Loop: Hidden Lake, Baker Lake, Red Deer Lakes, and Merlin Meadows. To stay in any of the campsites requires a backcountry permit through Parks Canada (pc.gc.ca). As there are limited sites in the backcountry, it is recommended to also book these in advance (up to 90 days prior). We chose to stay at Baker Lake as it is approximately half-way to the lodge.
The trailhead begins at the Fish Creek parking lot near the Lake Louise ski area.
While the trail begins with an unmemorable 3.9 km (2.4 mile) hike up a gravel road (closed to public vehicles), when you book a night at the Skoki Lodge they shuttle you through it. So in the morning, we checked in with Skoki at the Experience Lake Louise Shop in town and headed to the parking lot to catch the shuttle.
While excited, I have to admit, I was bit nervous for my first overnight backcountry experience. While I have done overnight, backcountry hiking in New Zealand, this was different. Other than the landscape and stupidity, there is nothing in New Zealand that can kill you. Seriously, they have no dangerous animals. Most of their birds don’t even fly because they have no natural predators!
Can you believe that?
But in Canada, well, things are a little different….
Heading to the parking lot, I focused on settling my fears. We had been exploring National Parks for over a month now and we only saw one black bear on the trails. I was starting to feel better when Kevin slowed down the car and told me to look out the window.
There, on the side of the road, about 100 metres from the parking lot was a Grizzly bear!
You have got to be f***ing kidding me.
At that moment, I couldn’t have been more thankful we were catching the shuttle from the parking lot and putting an extra 3.9 km (2.4 miles) between me and that bear.
What a way to start!
The shuttle dropped us off at the end of the access road near the Temple Day Lodge. Here, we found the trail and our first sign directing us to the Skoki Lodge.
For our first 3.2 km (2.0 miles) to the Halfway Hut, we headed into the thickly wooded forest. Still shaken up about our Grizzly sighting, I was sure to occasionally clap my hands and make noise to scare away any bears that may be near the trail.
While the trail was easy to follow to the Halfway Hut, the signage around the hut was poor. There appeared to be unofficial trails with no markings confusing many, including myself, upon arrival. Luckily, Kevin is a pro in the backcountry and quickly located the trail to continue on to Baker Lake.
In addition to carrying a hard-copy of Banff’s backcountry map, I should also note that we pre-download maps on our phone using the app “maps.me”. This app is incredible because if you lose cell service in the mountains, more times than not, the GPS on your phone continues to work. Additionally, the GPS will work if your phone is in airplane mode. While not ALL trails are on maps.me, most are, including the Skoki Loop.
I really need to write an entire post on this app. We love it and use it all over the world.
At the top of the pass, we met our first views of Ptarmigan Lake.
At this time, we were also met with the reality that the weather was about to take a terrible turn for the worst. Luckily, like I have said before, Kevin is unbelievable at predicting when rain is about to come. We threw our bags down and quickly pulled out our rain gear.
A group passing us questioned whether the rain was actually going to come. “I think we’ll be fine for a bit,” they assured themselves as they continued along without rain gear.
Less than five minutes later it started to rain. Like I’ve said before, my boy has skills.
We moved swiftly around Ptarmigan Lake keeping our eyes on the black clouds. While we had only encountered light rain at this point, we had a feeling the worst was yet to come… and we definitely didn’t want to arrive at our campsite in the pouring rain before setting up our tent.
Eventually, we reached a sign directing us either straight (east) to Baker Lake campground or left (north) to Skoki Lodge via Deception Pass.
As we were spending our first night at Baker Lake, we continued straight for our final 2.5 km (1.6 miles).
The campground is located at the far end of Baker Lake. In the short time it took us to reach the campground, the clouds parted, blue sky opened up, and the sun began to shine.
Well, this is more like it! I hate setting up tents in the rain…
The campground is unique in that it is positioned on a hill surrounded by trees. It is completely out of sight from the trail.
As we were one of the first to arrive to the campground, we picked what appeared to be the best tent pad for rain. Even though the sun had peaked out, there were still some unsettling dark clouds lingering in the distance.
At this point, I started to get a little uneasy. Frankly, the reality of camping in the middle of the mountains was freaking me out. I mean, a bear could jump out at ANY moment. And let’s be honest, there is nothing reassuring about the plan to “play dead.” Also, what do I do if a bear starts sniffing at my head outside the tent in the middle of the night?
It was Africa all over again.
While Kevin went to hang our food, I continued to organize our tent. Keeping an eye on my bear spray at all times and talking to myself to make noise, my heart started to beat faster. Suddenly, the sleeve of my jacket rubbed up against the body of my jacket making a sound similar to the snout of a bear.
I almost passed out in fear.
Panic swept through me as my heart started to race uncontrollably. I had to take a break to recompose myself. What have I gotten myself into? Luckily, Kevin reappeared at this moment settling some of my nerves.
He was never to leave me alone again.
Once we finished setting up the tent, we retrieved our food and headed to the picnic area for lunch.
We were just about finished eating when thunder rocked the valley. Before we knew it, we were caught in a torrential downpour. We shoved our food and cooking supplies into our food bag, ran to hang it up, and sprinted into the tent. For the next four hours, rain pelted down. We were so thankful we arrived when we did.
Welcome to life in the mountains!
Just as we started to get hungry for dinner, the rain subsided, and we emerged from our tent to find a fuller campsite.
As we headed back down to the food storage, we took in the beauty of our surroundings. Clouds of mist still hung low in the valley and the lake reflected the mountains surrounding us.
This is what being in the backcountry is all about!
Note: Kevin walked in while I finished adding the above pictures to my post. Turning to the computer he said, “These are INCREDIBLE photos, babe. Wow. Just exceptional!” Turning back to him, I informed him they were photos that HE took…
The next morning, we packed up and set off towards Skoki Lodge. Now, the original plan was to head to the Lodge via Cotton Grass Pass and Jones’ Pass to officially complete the Skoki “Loop.” But when we arrived to the campsite the night before, we were warned by another hiker that this direction was, currently, a total mess! Unmarked trails and flooded fields, he did not speak of an enjoyable experience…
Luckily, we had another option. We decided to head back toward Ptarmigan Lake and take Deception Pass. While this is the steepest part of the Skoki Loop, it was only a 2 km (1.2 mile) climb. Even I can handle that.
It was a quick 2.5 km (1.6 mile) walk back to Ptarmigan Lake and before we knew it, we were heading up Deception Pass!
Now, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t any kind of struggle. It was steep, rocky and super windy. But being the determined woman I am, it was no problem! Keeping my head down, I pierced my poles into the ground, one after another. In no time, we were at the top of the pass soaking in the beautiful view of the valley and Ptarmigan Lake.
And the views only got better!
Continuing north to the Skoki Lodge, we eventually passed the Skoki Lakes west of the trail.
It was a quick 5.4 km (3.4miles), and before we knew it, we arrived at Skoki Lodge.
Originally built in 1930, with additions completed in 1936, the lodge has kept its simplicity and character over the years. While the rooms are basic, the beds are comfy and the lodge is heated at night by the wood-burning fireplace. To freshen up, jugs for hot water with hand towels are provided in your room. Finally, a kerosene lamp is provided for light at night.
While it might sound like a basic night stay, its experience is anything but basic.
When we arrived, we were greeted by the amazing staff and shown to our room for a quick freshen up. We then headed straight to the dining room to enjoy an amazing spread of breads, coffee cakes, cheeses, fruit, chips and salsa!
While I do love my freeze dried meals while hiking, this was pure heaven!
As we were enjoying our plate of food, we overheard guests ordering beers from the kitchen. Wait, they serve beer here?! A cold one would be so enjoyable right now with this food. Especially, now that the sun was starting to peak out.
Who doesn’t love a cold beer in the warm sun?
“Did you bring any money or a credit card?” I asked yearningly to Kevin. “No,” he replied.
Even though I knew I left my wallet behind, I became determined. I must have something in my backpack. I ran upstairs and opened every pocket in my pack.
Then, like a gift from heaven, I remembered something. I ran back downstairs to where my jacket was hanging. I opened the small inside pocket of my jacket to find a $100 U.S. bill. YES!
I knew I was saving that for emergencies.
The rest of the afternoon, we lounged in the sun on the porch of Skoki and soaked in the mountains around us.
After a couple of beers in the sun, before we knew it, it was time for dinner.
Like a big family, over 20 guests gathered around the table together to enjoy an outstanding meal, delicious wine, and excellent conversation. It was such an amazing experience bringing guests together from all over the world, some on their second visit to Skoki.
Speaking with other guests and staff during dinner, we learned that a popular route out from Skoki was “Packers Pass.” This was an unofficial Parks Canada trail that was primarily maintained by Skoki Staff. As an alternative to passing back over Deception Pass, this trail led you through the Skoki Lakes back to Ptarmigan Lake. It also promised some adventure including passing through a rock tunnel alongside a waterfall.
A chance to get closer to the lakes and have some adventure?
The next morning, we woke up to the smell of freshly baked goods and an outstanding breakfast. Not to mention, a full spread of lunch meats, freshly baked buns, cookies and fruit to make a packed lunch to take with us.
I could definitely get used to hiking like this!
Leaving Skoki behind, we followed the signs to Merlin Lake until we came across a literal fork in the road. Keeping left, we continued on following the sign to Packers Pass.
While our first two days of hiking included overcast and scattered showers, our last day of hiking was exceptional! Fluffy white clouds with blue sky was the perfect backdrop for our final hike out.
Following the trail, we eventually found ourselves at the base of the waterfall. Listening attentively the night before, I knew that along the waterfall was a small opening through the rocks where the trail continued.
I quickly noted, however, that not everyone had listened attentively…
There were multiple people waiting at the waterfall for some guidance on where to go. In the distance, I saw another group scrambling up the side of the mountain to find the continuation of the trail.
After walking around, I located cairns directing hikers toward the waterfall. Just as I was about to take charge and lead the group, a hiker that walked it the previous day, showed up to lead the way.
While I was disappointed he stole my thunder, he took our camera and got some fantastic action shots of us climbing through the rock pile.
Although it was only a short time into Day 3, I had to admit Packers Pass was turning out to be my favorite part on the Skoki Loop.
At the top of the waterfall, we continued on toward the Skoki Lakes.
When we arrived, the sun shone down on the mountain cliffs causing the lower Skoki lake, Myosotis Lake, to reflect back the most spectacular colours.
After soaking in the beauty of Myosotis Lake, we continued up the trail toward the upper Skoki Lake, Zigadenus Lake.
Zigadenus Lake is slightly elevated above Myosotis Lake. Not surprising, the view of Zigadenus was as equally stunning as Myosotis Lake.
After a final climb, we made it to the top of Packers Pass overlooking Ptarmigan Lake.
After two days of overcast, we final got some clear views of the lake and the valley.
Climbing down from Packers Pass, we eventually met back up with the Skoki Loop trail and headed toward the trailhead.
The Skoki Loop hike is spectacular and is an excellent way to experience Lake Louise and the Banff area. While camping at Baker Lake provided beautiful views, our experience at Skoki Lodge was the perfect balance of history and luxury.
It is truly a backcountry experience not to be missed!