Travel

Assiniboine Lodge: North America’s first backcountry ski lodge

After a long day of hiking or skiing, sit back and relax during happy hour at 2,180 metres elevation

  • Sep 21, 2022
  • 796 words
  • 4 minutes
A stay at Assiniboine Lodge includes accommodation, meals and guide services. (Photo: Carol Patterson)
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Some call Mount Assiniboine the Matterhorn of British Columbia’s Rocky Mountains, while others half-jokingly call the Matterhorn the Mount Assiniboine of Switzerland. But regardless of the label, this 3,618-metre-high spire on the Continental Divide is worth the trip. 

Without road access, the only way to this part of the Canadian Rocky Mountain UNESCO World Heritage Site is a 26-kilometre hike or an eight-minute helicopter ride. Although it may sound like a nuisance, you might never want to leave once you get there. With options to stay in the self-catered Naiset Huts or a room in Assiniboine Lodge, backcountry travel can be for anyone and everyone – depending on your comfort level.

The lodge was built in 1928 by Erling Strom, a Norwegian ski instructor determined to spend his life in Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park. As North America’s original backcountry ski lodge, the two-story wooden structure has had enhancements over the years, including recent additions like a proper staircase, fire exits and better lighting. It may not be luxurious (more like a living museum or testament to the enthusiasm and stamina of early mountaineers), but it’s the most comfortable way to see the area.

Hiking to this viewpoint on the Niblet is a very popular summer activity. (Photo: Carol Patterson)
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Some lodge guests opt to stay in comfortable cabins with propane heat. (Photo: Carol Patterson)
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Andre Renner grew up recreating and working at Assiniboine Lodge when his parents, Sepp and Barb Renner, who took over the crown lease in 1983. Now he’s co-manager along with Claude Duchesne and his wife, Annick. Together, the group manages the lodge, five Naiset huts and 85 provincial park campsites on a 20-year permit from B.C. Parks. 

Guest rooms have warm duvets and night-time access to an indoor flush toilet and there are plugs for charging electronics in the lodge’s hallways. During the day, there’s a shared outhouse. And although cabins do have propane heat, there is no indoor toilet. The only running water comes from lodge staff, who deliver hot water each morning for washing. There’s a shared bath house for hot showers and a sauna which offers a refreshing finish to a day outdoors.

In recent years, summer adventures have been more popular than winter stays, but the interest in snowy recreation is growing again. “We had a lot of competition from Mexican beaches,” says Andre dryly. “Over the last two years, people are more interested in winter.”

Guests can explore several hiking trails including this one to Og Lake. (Photo: Carol Patterson)
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Meals are served in the lodge’s dining room with Andre or Claude answering questions and describing two-guided hike options daily. For more experienced visitors, there is also an option to hike solo. Popular choices include the Niblet and Nublet (6.6 km round trip), Og Lake (10.8km round trip), and Windy Ridge (14.8 km round trip). The latter is popular with bears so an alternative route can be helpful.

The lodge and surrounding area lack internet connectivity, turning the focus to human connections – a rarity in our connected world. “We don’t have Wi-Fi for our guests, so it truly is you being in the place,” says Andre. “It’s all about the mountains and the people and the hikes.” With a reputation for setting a steady hiking pace and a fondness for cheesy pop songs, Andre says that you do need a certain base level of fitness. But still, plenty of people just hang out and enjoy the scenery. “You’re not being forced to run along ridgetop after ridgetop,” he says. Andre’s greatest pleasure is “seeing people’s enjoyment of the place.”

A highlight of the day is afternoon tea which includes tea, coffee, a tasty snack and beer and wine available for purchase. All of this can be enjoyed in the lodge’s common areas. On some days, afternoon tea is open to anyone from 4 to 5 p.m., when it may be the happiest hour at 2,180 metres elevation.

There is no road access to Assiniboine Lodge and surrounding cabins. (Photo: Carol Patterson)
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Afternoon tea (or wine and beer) offer visitors a chance to relax and socialize. (Photo: Carol Patterson)
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Andre’s parents started the tradition of afternoon tea in the late 1980s. “Lake Agnes and Plain of Six Glaciers teahouses had had that kind of tradition (of tea and cakes) for ages,” Andre recalls about the decision to open their doors to visitors in the area. “It allowed other park visitors to come to see inside the lodge too. The (provincial) park custodian that we hire could also talk to a lot of people.”

Due to pandemic restrictions in 2021, afternoon teas were offered outside the lodge’s front door. With a large wilderness area, you can hike all day and see only a few people, but for sixty minutes at afternoon tea, people hailing from many countries come together to share stories and plan the next adventure. 

As a popular destination, you must apply in the fall for a room for the following year (keep your fingers crossed). Unfortunately, more people apply for spots than Andre, and his team can accommodate. But with some luck, you too can enjoy Assiniboine’s happiest hours. 

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