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At a Wilderness Resort in Canada, Getting There is the Only Hard Part

From our lunch spot atop Ball Pass, a windswept notch in the Rocky Mountains that straddles the border between the Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia, we could see our destination in the distance. A sinuous, densely forested valley unfurled below us, flanked by glacier-clad peaks, leading to the tiny turquoise dot of Shadow Lake.

To get there, we first had to descend along a trail that switchbacked down a sheer slope of unstable scree. Each errant step sent a mini-avalanche of rocks sliding downward. After a few slips, my 5-year-old daughter, Natalie, her legs already jellied by the five uphill miles we’d hiked to reach the pass, began to balk like a nervous horse. As we gently coaxed her down, my wife, Lauren, and I couldn’t help exchanging nervous glances as the gravity of the situation became clear. We were in serious danger, we realized, of missing afternoon tea.

We were in our third full day of a four-night stay at Shadow Lake Lodge, a luxurious backcountry retreat accessible only by foot. We’d come in search of a seemingly impossible combination: an intrepid, immersive, uncrowded and physically challenging wilderness experience that would nonetheless be feasible and fun for Natalie and her 7-year-old sister, Ella.

The uphill, eight-mile hike to reach the lodge, from a trailhead 15 minutes west of Banff, took us beyond the reach of the summer day-hiking crowds. Once we were there, private cabins with solar power, heated showers and three-course meals — plus a decadent teatime spread if you made it back from your day’s adventure in time — made the trip more family-friendly than the spartan and grueling backpacking trips Lauren and I had bonded over in our pre-kid days.

A short trail through the forest leads from the lodge to Shadow Lake itself, where swimming is possible but chilly.Credit…Alex Hutchinson

We first visited Shadow Lake in 2014, five months after Ella was born, when she was small enough to ride the trails in an infant carrier on my or Lauren’s back. But there had been a major change since that trip. In late 2019, the Brewsters, a prominent local family who had purchased the original lodge in 1938 and run it ever since, sold the entire operation to the Alpine Club of Canada, which is best known for its network of bare-bones communal mountain huts.

The decision to sell wasn’t an easy one, according to the fifth-generation owner, Alison Brewster, whose daughters, Morgan and Joleen, worked as the chef and the manager of the lodge. But the operation’s future was uncertain because of its location within Banff National Park, where it operated on a 10-year renewable lease.

“Parks Canada made it very clear to us that we would not be permitted to pass it down to my daughters,” she said. Instead, the family decided to approach the A.C.C. about taking it over, since the nonprofit already worked closely with Parks Canada and shared their commitment to the Brewsters’ vision: that, as Alison’s sister Cori put it, “people should be able to access the backcountry without having to put on a 50-pound pack and carry their freeze-dried food.”

On the surface, the new arrangement seems like an odd fit: The A.C.C.’s usual spartan accommodations can seem like the antithesis of a luxury lodge. “It’s a little outside our normal experience,” said Keith Sanford, the group’s interim executive director. But Shadow Lake, along with one other hike-in retreat in Banff National Park called Skoki Lodge, occupies an underpopulated middle ground between those two extremes.

The glassy waters of Shadow Lake offer a scenic backdrop for the author and his daughters along the trail toward Ball Pass. Credit…Lauren King

With cabin rates starting at 730 Canadian dollars a night (about $570), including meals for two adults, it’s cheaper than helicopter-access options like Selkirk Lodge and Purcell Mountain Lodge. On the other hand, it requires far less physical labor and backcountry know-how than an uncatered hut.

That fits with the A.C.C.’s mission of making mountain adventures accessible to a broader range of people at a reasonable price. So, with the help of a significant bequest, the A.C.C. took over the lodge in 2020, and soon introduced innovations such as an expanded operating season, opening it up to ski- or snowshoe-in access during the winter for the first time.

Still, we couldn’t help wondering whether our stay with the nonprofit would be as cushy as our previous trip.

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Our biggest worry, though, was the hike in. Once we were there, we could choose to spend our days as vigorously or as languidly as we liked. But the first day’s eight miles were nonnegotiable, so we started early. Fortunately the trail, a former fire road, was smooth and gentle. The main hindrance to our progress was the berry bushes that lined the route: wild strawberries, raspberries, currants, bitterly soap-flavored buffaloberries, and a bewildering variety of blueberry-like plants with local names like whortleberry, huckleberry and bilberry. Dashing back and forth between patches, the kids covered far more than eight miles, but arrived at the lodge with stained fingers and full bellies before 3 p.m.

The author’s wife, Lauren King, and daughters Ella, left, and Natalie, relaxing and awaiting the dinner bell after a long day of hiking and a hot shower.Credit…Alex Hutchinson

Once there, the daily rhythm is as follows. Breakfast in the dining cabin starts at 8 a.m. Along with a buffet of fruit, yogurt and granola, you order from an ever-changing menu of hot cereals, cooked entrees and baked goods the night before — and “all of the above” is a perfectly acceptable choice. Then you pick up the bag lunch that you also pre-ordered, and hit the trails. Get back by teatime, between 3:30 and 5 p.m., or, failing that, for the dinner bell at 6 p.m. Try to stay awake long enough to see the stars. Sleep, then repeat.

There are three main routes you can take from the lodge, each leading you farther from the nearest road and thus making them essentially unreachable by day hikers. With three full days at our disposal, we tackled each of them, and over the course of six- to nine-hour days crossed paths with two or three sets of tired-looking backpackers each day. Other than that, we were alone with the pikas, small rabbit-like animals that chattered at us from boulder fields overlooking the trails.

Lunching on sandwiches, fruit, and baked good at the top of Little Copper Mountain, a three-hour climb from the lodge.Credit…Alex Hutchinson

On the first day, we followed a path that wound through technicolor meadows up to a broad and grassy saddle called Gibbon Pass. From there, a short scramble took us to the rocky summit of Little Copper Mountain at 8,200 feet, the very first peak the girls had ever bagged. We ate our sandwiches at the top, marveling at the 360-degree view of layer after layer of mountain ridges stretching to the horizon.

We dined that night on half a zucchini each, roasted and topped with a scoop of quinoa and grated cheese. It was interesting, unexpected and tasty; it was not, however, particularly hearty after a full day of hiking in the brisk mountain air. There was grumbling in the ranks, and not just at our table.

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Looking ahead. As governments across the world loosen coronavirus restrictions, the travel industry hopes this will be the year that travel comes roaring back. Here is what to expect:

Air travel. Many more passengers are expected to fly compared to last year, but you’ll still need to check the latest entry requirements if you’re traveling abroad.

Lodging. During the pandemic, many travelers discovered the privacy offered by rental residences. Hotels hope to compete again by offering stylish extended-stay properties, sustainable options, rooftop bars and co-working spaces.

Rental cars. Travelers can expect higher prices, and older cars with high mileage, since companies still haven’t been able to expand their fleets. Seeking an alternative? Car-sharing platforms might be a more affordable option.

Cruises. Despite a bumpy start to the year, thanks to Omicron’s surge, demand for cruises remains high. Luxury expedition voyages are particularly appealing right now, because they typically sail on smaller ships and steer away from crowded destinations.

Destinations. Cities are officially back: Travelers are eager to dive into the sights, bites and sounds of a metropolis like Paris or New York. For a more relaxing time, some resorts in the U.S. are pioneering an almost all-inclusive model that takes the guesswork out of planning a vacation.

Experiences. Travel options centered around sexual wellness (think couples retreats and beachfront sessions with intimacy coaches) are growing popular. Trips with an educational bent, meanwhile, are increasingly sought after by families with children.

The next morning, as we finished breakfast, a staff member asked us all to stay put in the dining hall for a few minutes. There was a whirring sound and suddenly a helicopter was landing in the grass right outside the window. More staff converged from all directions to unload crates of provisions for the next two weeks, while Ella and Natalie were allowed to wander outside and climb into the cockpit.

A helicopter delivers food and fresh linens to the lodge and takes away waste every two weeks.Credit…Alex Hutchinson

We headed out for our day of hiking feeling optimistic about the restocked larder. Our route led us up into a towering alpine valley called the Amphitheater, where we peeked into an ice cave, splashed in a tarn and lunched on a glacier, all to a soundtrack of tinkling waterfalls plunging down from the sheer cliffs around us. And sure enough, dinner that night, served al fresco on picnic tables in the meadow, included generous slabs of roast beef with braised cabbage, chocolate cake for dessert and chocolate-covered strawberries for all to mark someone’s wedding anniversary. The freshly baked bread at dinner now came with butter.

Each night, we shared a dinner table with other guests. For one couple in their 50s, it was their first ever backcountry trip. Another couple looked to be in their 70s or perhaps (the rest of us speculated wildly), even their early 80s. They were true backcountry veterans, brimming with anecdotes and advice: which berries to eat, which side trails to explore, where in the sky to watch for the Perseid meteor shower when I tiptoed out of my cabin to lie in the meadow at 2 a.m.

That all of us — neophytes, retirees, parents — could be here, reveling in this remote and beautiful place, during a summer in which road-accessible mountain trailheads were regularly packed beyond capacity by 8 a.m., struck me as a pretty good vindication of the Alpine Club’s decision to take over the lodge.

We’d gambled that Ella and Natalie, too, would see the payoff as worth the effort it took to get there — and they did. Even on our longest day, returning from Ball Peak, there was always something to keep them going: more berries around the next corner, the sight and sound of an avalanche tumbling down a mountain face, or even a dip in the icy glacial waters of Shadow Lake. It was the swim, in the end, that made us miss afternoon tea, but we all agreed it was worth the sacrifice.

If You Go

The easiest of several trails to Shadow Lake Lodge begins at the Redearth Creek parking lot in Banff National Park, a 90-minute drive west from Calgary International Airport. The eight-mile, steadily uphill hike takes four to five hours one-way. Rates begin at 730 Canadian dollars (about $570) a night for two people, including all food and linens, with a minimum stay of two nights. This summer’s season runs from June 20 to Sept. 25.

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