MOUNTAIN LODGE SPOTLIGHT:
Words and Photos by Abby Cooper
At the heart of mountain culture in the Canadian Rockies is the tradition of mountain lodging that beckons travellers to disconnect, unwind and enjoy a warm drink by the fire. Our Mountain Lodge Spotlight series features just this – a long-standing history that continues to this day. Whether in the backcountry or at the roadside, these mountain lodges feature stunning locations and good old mountain hospitality.
Mistaya Lodge from the lakeshore. Photo by Abbydell Photography.
When most people think of infinity pools, they think of resorts in tropical places. I think of alpine lakes.
As I sit, perched on a perfectly flat, tabletop boulder, I mentally record the details that my camera cannot. A light breeze brushes off of Grindl Glacier, which cascades hundreds of metres from Grindl Peak to my toes. In between that ice and me sits a small lake, murky with silt but vibrant in colour – one of nature’s infinity pools. Here, water meets sky and it appears we are on the edge of the world. This notion excites me with a thrill to explore it, and I begin to circumnavigate the lake.
I return to my rock after tiptoeing through ice, boulders and creeks that circle the lake, and open my notebook. I try to compress my experience at Mistaya Lodge into a few scattered thoughts, but it is difficult to summarize such a stay.
Each day here has revealed a secret, a new destination, a new route, new knowledge and new conversations. Covering lots of ground has provided an ever-changing perspective. I’ve been pampered with meals, a sauna and well-marked trails even here in the backcountry, giving me plenty of time to connect to nature and to my thoughts.
Flying into a catered and guided backcountry lodge, I expected to feel like a queen. What I didn’t expect was the depth of the connection I would establish with my surroundings. Although physically tired after a week of hiking, I felt refreshed with the balance of life of Mistaya Lodge, and inspired to bring that new balance home with me.
Inspired by the opportunity to pursue backcountry mountain tourism in the mid-1980s, Ron Blaue went hunting for the perfect lodge location with the help of his good friend Phil Hein. A new policy allowed for the building of an adventure tourism-focused backcountry lodge on crown land. It was love at first sight when Ron and Phil reached the Wildcat Basin. After a bushwhack of a hike, the two entrepreneurs found what they were looking for: ice-capped peaks and smooth rolling glaciers complemented by a dozen turquoise tarns. The place offered endless hiking destinations and drool-worthy ski terrain. Just shy of the Alberta border, the soon-to-be Mistaya Lodge would be nestled next to Banff National Park, meaning the area wouldn’t see further development.
It is no simple task to build in the backcountry. It requires hired helicopters, slung in supplies and “an army of friends” hiking in materials. Ron started a small sawmill at the end of the Blaeberry Valley in order to harvest his own wood for building. Most of the wood was flown up for the lodge we see today. By their side, hammering away on the build of Mistaya Lodge (which was opened in 1988), was a young gun from Golden, B.C. named Dave Birnie. Dave’s attachment to the place was evident during construction and, after a few seasons of guiding at the lodge, he was smitten. Phil left the operation in 1992, and when Ron decided to sell Mistaya Lodge in 2003, Dave and his wife Cindy were easily persuaded to purchase the growing legacy.
Since its inception, Mistaya has undergone a few renovations to make it even more magical, including a more spacious boot and drying room and a dining room expansion with floor-to-ceiling windows. Ron built the Wildcat Cabin in 1998 and though it can be booked for a private stay by guests, it is most often used for staff accommodations.
Dave’s respect for Ron’s vision and work to establish the lodge is evident in their current friendship. Much of the area had gone largely unseen until the lodge was built. Thanks to Ron, much of it is now named, mapped and all with the environment in mind. The lodge itself is essentially designed to be footprint-free. Solar panels, waste management and a hydro system are part of the equation. A small greenhouse provides most of the vegetables and herbs served in the summer, and the rest of the food is primarily sourced from Golden.
Education plays a big part in their attempts to protect and care for the land. It is important to Dave to share their conservation efforts with each and every guest. He always finds time to educate guests on how to care for the environment, whether it is at the lodge or at home. The legacy he is building at Mistaya Lodge is to inspire his guests to connect with nature in all aspects of life.
Golden, B.C. is your point of entry, right smack in the middle of town, actually, at a well-known trailhead by the name of the Golden Airport. Yes, friends, Mistaya is a helicopter-accessed lodge, but don’t let the easy access make you think you won’t be earning your luxurious stay. Easy access means you’ll be ripe for hiking upon your arrival.
The lodge is located at the far end of the Blaeberry Valley. The scenic flight will certainly spark your curiosity as you fly over the powerful Blaeberry River, spot the hanging Mummery Glacier, and catch glimpses of the Wapta Icefield.
Twenty minutes of flying over tantalizing lakes, rugged peaks and linking ridges will have you fired up and ready to explore. After touching down, you’ll quickly spy the red-roofed lodge. Pop in for lodge orientation, a packed lunch, room assignment and hit the trails!
But what to bring to a luxurious, helicopter-accessed lodge? Pack your day bag ready for a hike, and bring one small duffle with toiletries, lodge shoes, a change of clothing and a good book. The talented chef at the lodge will have all you need to eat and then some! Clean bedding and towels await you; just don’t forget your swimsuit for the sauna. A formal packing list for summer and winter can be found here.
→ Find out more about the Blaeberry area in Finding Bliss in the Blaeberry.
You’ll feel a pull to explore in every direction and luckily you’ll have a few days to do just that. With ample time, the variety of destinations provides a well-rounded experience, but don’t be surprised if you leave with a hankering for more. Consult the website while you plan your trip to ensure you’ve got everything you need to match your outdoor objectives.
6km, 443 meters elevation
Crossing the Wildcat Creek, this hike will bring you up-close-and-personal with three glaciers and a handful of pristine alpine lakes. We hiked an inflatable stand up paddleboard rented from Higher Ground Sports in Golden to experience the lakes in a not-so-traditional way. Paddling on Wildcat Lake was something I’ll never forget.
6km, 486 meters elevation
The first point of interest is the subalpine lake surrounded by wildflowers. From here you’ll climb up a very pronounced moraine and gain the ridgeline. While it looks intimating, it is well marked and, before you know it, you’ll have views across the Blaeberry.
10.6km, 891 meters elevation
Peek over into Banff National Park after summiting this big one! You’ll be rewarded with amazing views: a sea of mountains and a great lay of the land to see where all of the other hiking destinations lead.
Mista Vista / Three Lakes
7km, 508 meters elevation
Sub-destinations galore. This loop connects three aqua lakes, each with its own personality, and is filled with ever-changing scenery in between. Complete the circuit by climbing Mista Vista and take in one final big valley view before descending.
Moon Dark Meadows
7.5km, 559 meters elevation
Best hiked with a guide as this hike offers one of the best opportunities to learn about the ecosystem and foliage in the valley.
6.3km, 747 meters elevation
This distance is for the direct Barbette trail only; you’ll need to account for the climb to reach to trailhead junction (check out the interactive map). Get your summit stoke on for this one! From this vantage point, you’ll have 360-degree views of Banff National Park and the entire Wildcat basin.
2km, 200 meters elevation
You may or may not have spied a glimpse of the pummelling falls on your helicopter flight in. Regardless, this is a great evening or doubled-up hiking day destination. We skirted down here one morning after breakfast.
Stand Up Paddleboarding: Not so traditional, we know, but there are so many lakes just begging to be paddled on here. The quest for obscure SUP destinations never gets old. If you’re a SUP junkie like me, you’ll want to see if there’s room on your flight to take yours up (inflatable only).
Mountaineering: One Google Earth shop and any mountaineer will have a long to-do list of peaks to bag. Pre-arrange mountaineering activities with the Mistaya crew before you come in and they’ll be sure to prep you with a proper guide and focused gear list.
Winter: It doesn’t take much to imagine this place coated in snow. Pillow lines stack up within viewing range from the dinner table. Big alpine objectives are in abundance and smooth ramped heliskiing-style runs funnel you back into the basin and home to the lodge. I certainly left with an itch for winter exploration here!
WHAT WE LOVE
The owners! Cindy’s cheerful welcome at the Alpine Helicopters hanger will surely kill any pre-trip hesitations or jitters. Dave’s calm demeanour is contagious; you can’t help but relax, connect and recalibrate with his levelheadedness leading your stay at the lodge.
Checking out the Karst Hole was neat – such a unique hiking destination.
Sunset from the helipad.
A little hydrotherapy after each hike is a must. A dip in the lake outside the lodge followed by a sauna session is the perfect après-hike activity.
Indoor toilets. The simple things make this place feel just like home.
The wall of windows across the living room and dining area bring the outdoors in. There’s no escaping the connection to the mountains here – just the way we like it!
Every meal is crafted with flavour and health in mind. Good fuel to keep you going.
Wine at dinner. One complimentary glass per dinner guest is a lovely treat!
Each guest is gifted a reusable lunch bag to reduce trash.
Motion-detected lights mean you can move with ease in the lodge sans headlamp at night.
THINGS TO CONSIDER
As per any mountain adventure, bring a rain jacket, even if you only wear it to embrace the mist of the falls.
It’s important to dress for hiking and mountain elements when boarding the helicopter in case of an emergency landing or for varying weather conditions at the lodge.
It is not recommended to travel the day before or after your flight into and out of the lodge because weather can greatly affect the timeline of the helicopter exchanges. Embrace a stay in Golden on both sides of your trip. The nearby attractions and town amenities will make for a great reintroduction to civilization.
Don’t forget a reusable water bottle, a puffy (it always gets chilly at night in the alpine) and hiking poles.
Sharps (ice axes, poles) and flammables (bear spray) need to be packed outside your bags on the helicopter.
Editor’s Note: This trip was made possible by Mistaya Lodge and Tourism Golden. They in no way influenced the content or reviewed the post before it was published.
A lover of all things outdoors, Abby Cooper is a splitboarder, climber, hiker, adventurer, photographer and writer. She’s living life one adventure to the next with her dog by her side.
The views and opinions expressed in the articles on CrowfootMedia.com are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the editor, the editorial team or the publishers.