Snowbound Bliss

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Winter Travel Guide 1996

Snowbound Bliss

Aerobic days, fireside nights at seven remote backcountry lodges

Rock Creek Lodge | Mount Assiniboine Lodge | Lake O'Hara Lodge | The Lodge at Potosi Hot Springs | Kaibab Lodge | Stokely Creek Lodge | Little Lyford Pond Camps

In our car-reliant culture, road access (or lack thereof) is the Great Divide. To some, riding a chopper or a snowcat or skiing under your own power to reach a wilderness lodge without HBO or room service smacks of masochism. To others, venturing into the back of beyond is the whole point.

If you're attuned to the simplicity of the backcountry, consider going where the roads don't. You'll spend your time cross-country skiing, ski touring, snowshoeing, and dogsledding-all amid the stunning scenery of the Canadian Rockies, the Grand Canyon, and other A-list surroundings.

Rock Creek Lodge, Mammoth Lakes, California
Situated on the edge of the John Muir Wilderness and surrounded by Inyo National Forest, Rock Creek Lodge enjoys a pristine setting at the end of an unplowed, unpaved two-mile road a few miles from U.S. 395. To reach the lodge, set in a beautiful canyon surrounded by 13,000-foot peaks, you can ski the two miles or ride in on a snowmobile.

The original building, a 1920s log-and-stone structure, stands on the east bank of Rock Creek and contains a small general store, a ski shop for rentals and repairs, and a family room. Other log buildings house a tiny sauna and a dining room.

Much to the chagrin of a few traditionalists, seven of 15 board-and-batten cabins are now fitted with showers and flush toilets. The lodge provides bed covers and pillows; guests supply sleeping bags. From the eight rustic creekside units you can still sprint to outdoor privies.

Manicured trails include a mile-long beginners' loop in a nearby meadow, and a five-mile route between East Fork and Mosquito Flat, three miles up-canyon. Intermediate and advanced backcountry skiers head out on their own routes to telemark terrain in the Treasure Lakes Basin and in Patricia Bowl, a cirque ringed by granite spires. You can overnight at the Mosquito Flat hut and, to the east, the Tamarack hut, both outfitted with stoves.

Cabins at Rock Creek (619-935-4170) are $70-$105 per person, including breakfast and dinner. The huts cost $25 a night per person. Ski rentals are $10 a day; snowshoes, $12. The lodge is three hours southeast of Reno and five hours north of Los Angeles.

Mount Assiniboine Lodge, Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, British Columbia
A spectacular eight-minute helicopter ride from the Mount Shark Helipad 25 miles south of Canmore, Alberta, is one way to get to this lodge in a roadless provincial park abutting Banff National Park. The other way: a 16-mile uphill ski. Let's go with the chopper: After threading forested valleys, skimming ridges, and cresting the Continental Divide, it zooms down toward the north face of the lodge's 11,870-foot namesake, the "Matterhorn of the Canadian Rockies," to deposit guests beside a cluster of red-roofed log buildings near frozen Lake Magog.

Built by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1928 as Canada's first Rocky Mountain ski lodge, Mount Assiniboine remains back-to-basics rustic, with 12-volt electricity and wood- and coal-stove heating. The kitchen and dining room are in the original steeply pitched one-story log building. An adjoining building contains a first-floor living room and six second-floor rooms. On a bluff above the lake, six single-room log cabins sleep two to six. Dinners are served family style.

Assiniboine offers cross-country skiing, ski touring, and snowshoeing. Beginning Nordics stride along ungroomed trails through open larch forests, then across to Cerulean and Sunburst lakes a couple of miles from the lodge. Intermediate skiers head for Nublet, below Nub Peak. Touring skiers outfitted with avalanche transceivers skin to the top of 9,300-foot Elly's Dome.

Mount Assiniboine Lodge (604-344-2639) is open mid-February to mid-April. Rooms are $90-$110 per person, double occupancy, including meals, instruction, and guides. Round-trip helicopter flights are $135.

Lake O'Hara Lodge, Yoho National Park, British Columbia
Afternoon tea at a backcountry lodge may seem a tad precious, but what do you expect, old sock? You're in British Columbia, where genteel traditions are maintained in the wildest of landscapes. From the parking lot just inside the Yoho boundary, you can ski in seven uphill miles or ride in via dogsled.

Like Assiniboine, O'Hara was built in the 1920s by the Canadian Pacific Railway for passengers who wanted to linger in the mountains. O'Hara pampers guests with indoor plumbing, electricity, and food and wine that transcend typical lodge fare.

The lodge is a classic two-story cedar-and-fir chalet with a monumental lobby fireplace and eight small, simply furnished rooms that open onto a balcony. The washrooms are communal.

Guides on staff help guests arrange telemarking on the Opabin Glacier or Odaray Plateau, or skiing across Biddle Glacier to the southeast. After a day's skiing, guests can duck inside a sauna shack heated by an old woodstove.

Rooms are $124 per person, double occupancy, including meals and guides. Lake O'Hara (604-343-6418; off-season, 403-678-4110) is open February through mid-April.

The Lodge at Potosi Hot Springs, Pony, Montana
Surrounded by Beaverhead National Forest in the Tobacco Root Mountains of southwestern Montana, Potosi sits at the end of a skiable seven-mile gravel road, although most guests park their vehicles in the lodge's lot and come up on Potosi's four-wheel-drive truck.

Four new log cabins with kitchens and fireplaces are set back in the woods along South Willow Creek. Communal meals are served at a large ranch table in the main lodge.

Potosi grooms about seven miles of lanes, but guests can break their own trails for backcountry tours through Beaverhead's piney valleys. Telemarkers head for Rock Creek Canyon; guides lead snowshoers to Potosi, Granite, and Hollowtop mountains; dogsleds take guests up to Bell and Albro lakes. An outdoor pool built in 1892 steams with 90-degree water flowing from a granite cliff; there's also an indoor soaking tub.

The season runs from mid-October to mid-May. Doubles are $175-$200 with breakfast (800-770-0088 or 406-685-3594). Lunch and dinner are extra and require 48 hours' notice. Half-day dogsled rides are $160 per person.

Kaibab Lodge, Jacob Lake, Arizona
From Christmas through late March, a convoy of vans outfitted with snow tracks and steering skis leaves the tiny town of Jacob Lake and lurches 26 miles south across the forested Kaibab Plateau. Its destination is Kaibab Lodge, just outside Grand Canyon National Park and 18 miles north of the gorge's North Rim, where the lodge's handful of guests have the winter solitude of 1,500 square miles of wilderness virtually to themselves.

Kaibab's 70-year-old main building is suitably rustic, with oak floors and a high, open-beam ceiling. Lodgings consist of 24 rooms housed in seven log buildings, all with private baths.

Instructors provide lessons before sending guests out on a 55-mile system of double tracks flanking a ten-foot-wide skating median. Kaibab offers weekly tours to the canyon rim: You can ride seven miles east in a SnowVan, then snowshoe about three miles to Saxophone Point on the East Rim for panoramas of Marble Canyon, Vermillion Cliffs, Echo Cliffs, and Navajo Mountain. Or take the SnowVan 14 miles south to the Saddle Mountain Wilderness, then ski two miles into the National Park to Point Imperial.

Two-night, three-day stays cost $370 per person, double occupancy, including meals, group ski lessons, trail passes, and transportation. Kaibab Lodge (800-525-0924) is three and a half hours north of Flagstaff.

Stokely Creek Lodge, Goulais River, Ontario
As Canadian winter sports traditions go, there's nothing quite like the Wabos Wilderness Loppet. During the last weekend of March, the Algoma Central Railway's Snow Train chugs 35 miles north from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, into the wintry hills east of Lake Superior, and stops at the tiny settlement of Wabos. As many as 500 skiers pile out and, like a herd of crayon-colored caribou, ski 17 miles west (loppet means "long trip" in Norwegian) through forests of spruce, fir, birch, and pine to Stokely Creek Lodge.

The lodge sits 600 yards away from a secondary road off the Trans-Canada Highway-far enough to prevent the late 20th century from intruding on the surrounding 12,000 acres of protected land; guests must ski in.

The shingled two-story main lodge contains seven rooms. Four chalets (one streamside, three hillside) have two to five units. Three additional units are in the Stokely Creek Ski Touring Centre clubhouse near the main lodge. Four duplex units suitable for families sleep up to six.

Stokely is blessed with reliable snow and varied terrain, unusual at mid-continent, and there are more than 75 miles of well-marked trails. For great views, ski to Hang-glider's Lookout on the flank of King Mountain, at 1,880 feet the highest elevation hereabouts. Then there's the six-mile ski northeast to the bush camp of 80-year-old Norm Bourgeois, raconteur extraordinaire. (Ask him to tell you the one about the exploding porcupine.)

Rooms range from $62 to $240 per person, double occupancy, including meals and a trail pass. The lodge (705-649-3421) is located six hours north of Detroit and seven and a half hours northwest of Toronto.

Little Lyford Pond Camps, Greenville, Maine
This may be the only off-road lodge in the Northeast catering exclusively to cross-country skiers and snowshoers. Snowmobilers seldom shatter the stillness of one of Maine's oldest "sporting camps," surrounded by several hundred thousand acres of spruce, fir, lakes, and rivers in the Katahdin massif of north-central Maine. Ski-equipped planes bring in guests from Greenville, 15 miles west. Most winters you can ski in to the lodge by various routes, but it's a tough slog of from five to 15 miles.

Eight cabins, built in the 1870s, are equipped with woodstoves, lanterns, wicker rockers, and pine-log beds. Each has its own private outhouse. Breakfast and dinner are served family-style in the lodge; homemade beer and maple syrup are specialties.

A 50-mile network of well-marked but not necessarily groomed trails winds through hardwood and evergreen forests, offering constantly shifting perspectives on surrounding 3,000-foot summits-Elephant, Indian, Baker, and White Cap. Telemarkers favor the steep, open slopes of Indian Mountain. The most popular destination for skiers and snowshoers is Gulf Hagas, a four-mile excursion along the Pleasant River to a ravine lined with slate cliffs. In a rare lapse of New England understatement, the chasm is nicknamed the Grand Canyon of the East.

Rates at Little Lyford (207-280-0016) are $85 per person, including meals. Round-trip airfare is $66 per person, two-person minimum. Cabins sleep two to six
By David Dunbar

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