You can easily find adventure in Banff National Park — and luxury. (Photo: Banff Lake Louise Tourism / Paul Zizka Photography)
Do you consider yourself an adventurer in an office drone’s body? Do your friends post photos of themselves skiing, hiking, or horseback riding while you sit at your computer feeling like a wimp?
Break free from the cubicle and get a taste of the rugged life in the Canadian Rockies. You’ll come back with serious bragging rights — canoeing, hiking, spotting grizzly bears and moose, horse-back riding through rushing streams — and best of all, you can still bed down in front of a blazing fire in a luxurious log cabin every night.
Here are five of my favorite places to combine the thrill of the wild with the comfort of kicking back.
1. Canoeing on a Mountain Lake
Colorful canoes line the dock tempting you to get out on the water. (Photo: Moraine Lake Lodge)
For romance, luxury, and canoeing, it’s hard to beat Moraine Lake Lodge. It is perched among trees above the deep glacial blue of a lake rimmed with mountains. The jaw-dropping beauty is comparable to that of world-famous Lake Louise, but the lodge here is one of the few remote properties you can drive to.
Peak through the trees at the azure blue waters of Moraine Lake from your cabin window. (Photo: Moraine Lake Lodge).
Room service, flat-screen TVs, and phones aren’t part of the experience at the Moraine Lake Lodge. Instead, you can cuddle up next to the wood-burning fireplace while you dine on room service from the hotel’s acclaimed restaurant (try the Alberta elk rack crusted with pecans and cherries with a port wine glaze, or the steelhead trout filet) and sip the complimentary bottle of wine that’ll be in your room on arrival. During the day, take out one of the free canoes to explore the lake or hike to the stunning Larch Valley. There’s complimentary Wi-Fi in the hotel lounge so you can share your adventures with your friends at the end of the day.
2. Hiking in the Backcountry
You’ll have to hike or ski nearly seven miles to get to Skoki Lodge, but it’s worth it. At night,candles and kerosene lamps illuminate the rooms and set the ambience. (Photo: Skoki Lodge)
Skoki Lodge is a hike-in only lodge located in Banff National Park. Life at Skoki is simple: Once you arrive, it’s just you and your companions and the snow-capped mountains. Hike, eat, drink, chat, laugh, sleep, and repeat.
The Ski Club of the Canadian Rockies opened the lodge in 1931 for winter skiers, and today it is equally popular with summer hikers. It’s easy to see why: Skoki is accessible only by hiking or cross-country skiing. Located 6.8 miles from the Lake Louise ski lifts, you’ll traverse forests and tundra fields and climb Deception Pass at an elevation of 8,120 feet.
When you arrive thirsty and hungry, you’ll discover a massive spread of cheeses, fruit, homemade cookies, bread, and chili set out beside the toasty wood-burning stove. Big soft couches and chairs surround an open wood fire in the living room where guests congregate to play Scrabble or cards, or read.
The lodge and three cabins have no electricity or running water. That means no flush toilets; just two outhouses behind the lodge. You wash the old-fashioned way: filling the pitcher in your room with warm water, provided by the staff.
And just in case you think that all sounds a bit too bare bones for your finer tastes, know that William and Kate, Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, stayed in one of the riverside cabins in summer of 2012.
3. Horseback Riding
No roads lead to the Sundance Lodge. This hidden gem is off the grid and accessible only by horseback in the spring, summer and fall, or by ski or snowshoe in the winter.
Look Mom, no hands! In the summer, horses are the only way to get to the Sundance Lodge. (Photo: Marybeth Bond, Gutsy Traveler).
Stays are arranged by Banff Trail Riders, who will saddle you up and lead you ten miles to the lodge along the glacier-fed waters of the turquoise Bow River, through marshes and grassy meadows. For lunch, your wrangler will prepare an authentic cowboy feast over an open fire.
The Sundance Lodge was built in 1991 and is impressively self-sufficient. Stoves and heaters are powered by solar energy and propane. Everything is packed in and out by mules, including the sewage at the beginning and end of each season. Nevertheless, the lodge is surprisingly comfortable for being so off-grid: There’s running water, indoor bathrooms with flush toilets, and warm showers.
Cozy dinners and evenings by candlelight. (Photo credit: Banff Lake Louise Tourism / Paul Zizka Photography)
As darkness falls you’ll feast at a long pine table with the wranglers and swap tales about your day before snuggling under warm duvets.
4. Skiing with Olympic Stars
The suites at The Paintbox Lodge feel like rustic cabins, but have all the luxury amenities you could want after a day of hiking or skiing. (Photo: The Paintbox Lodge/Noel Rogers)
Canmore is a beautiful mountain town located right outside Banff National Park, and is home to many Olympic athletes who train for ski events and other winter sports. It makes an ideal base for exploring the park in any season — full of cute shops and good restaurants and not nearly as crowded and touristy as Banff itself. There’s even a lovely path along the town river if you feel like a leisurely nature walk (be sure to bring bear spray; black bears have been spotted in town).
In between your days of skiing, hiking, or exploring, bed down at the Paintbox Lodge, owned by Olympic medalist skier Sara Renner and her husband, World Cup Champion skier Thomas Grandi.
Make your stay as private or as social as you want in one of the five comfortable suites (there’s free Wi-Fi). Relax by a fireplace, soak in a deep tub, borrow one of the complimentary bikes, sign up for a cooking class, or walk next door for a fabulous meal of Spanish small dishes at the Tapas Restaurant. Though you might not need it: Accommodations include a complimentary mountain breakfast of homemade breads, muffins, egg dishes, fruit, fresh-squeezed orange juice and lattes — enough to fuel an Olympic athlete (or an on-vacation desk jockey) for any outdoor adventure.
5. Wildlife Spotting
If you want the feel of a luxurious backcountry lodge but would rather get there by car than by horse, try Mt. Engadine Lodge, which is located only 40 minutes from Canmore and about two hours from Calgary. The paved road ends shortly after you leave town, changing into a gravel path that will plunge you into thick forests and lead you by serene mountain lakes. Keep your eyes open for coyotes, beaver, deer, and elk— guests often see moose grazing in the meadows below the lodge.
Mt. Engadine Lodge sits perched over a meadow. Watch closely, and you might spot a moose. (Photo: Marybeth Bond, Gutsy Traveler).
After a day of hiking, you’ll return to the lodge to a fabulous afternoon tea including a platter of charcuterie with thin slices of smoked bison, prosciutto, venison pâte, and cheeses. The gourmet dinner is just as extravagant. Large windows in the dinning and living rooms showcase spectacular views of meadows and mountains. The lodge accommodates up to 19 people and room rates include a home-cooked breakfast, picnic lunch, tea, and dinner.