Backcountry-curious? Alpine Lakes High Camp is a gateway to winter overnights
15 MILES EAST OF STEVENS PASS — With a ceremonial flourish, I banged a pot with a wooden spoon and yelled out the word everyone wanted to hear: “Dinner!” Inside a cozy lodge warmed by a roaring wood stove, eight hungry friends in various states of relaxation — foam rolling sore muscles, sipping mulled wine, working on a jigsaw puzzle, basking in the afterglow of a sauna session — filed over to a pair of sturdy wooden tables to dig into heaping portions of mapo tofu and bok choy over rice that my wife and I whipped up.
Over the communal meal, the ten of us swapped stories about the day’s skiing and snowshoeing exploits during a long weekend at Alpine Lakes High Camp, a cluster of backcountry huts some 15 miles east of Stevens Pass and accessible only by seven miles of snow-covered forest roads that wind their way from U.S. Highway 2 up to 5,000’ above sea level.
Founded in 1978 as Scottish Lakes High Camp, the privately owned and operated destination is now on its third generation of owners after former West Seattle residents Justin and Austin Donohue bought the beloved retreat in 2017. Since they took over the 20-acre property and renamed it to acknowledge their privileged perch adjacent to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, I’ve made two winter visits to this one-of-a-kind Cascades destination. In a region starved for overnight backcountry huts — which can be found throughout the high country of the European Alps, South American Andes, North American Rockies, New England, and New Zealand’s Southern Alps — this labor of love is a wintertime gem.
Alpine Lakes High Camp strikes a balance between backcountry rustic and frontcountry convenience that makes it an ideal place for a first-time winter overnight without having to rough it too much, while seasoned backcountry travelers can relish creature comforts like running water and not having to shoulder your gear on your back.
The setup is thus: From a rendez-vous point across from the Nason Creek Rest Area, Land Rovers with tracks instead of wheels or a burly snowcat will haul you and your gear, sleeping bags, and food up the snow-covered road and deposit you at camp, where you will stay in one of nine cabins that you have reserved ahead of time. (Cabins are open Thursday to Monday with a two-night minimum and the winter season runs through April.) There is also a central lodge, a wood-fired sauna with cold plunge, a rustic shower room (you heat water in the sauna), and four outhouses.
Each cabin comes with propane lanterns, gas cooktop, a woodstove, beds, mattresses, and a deck. Staff give guests an orientation, but there is no on-site caretaker. Reliable cell service throughout camp means someone can be reached 24/7 in case of emergency and detailed instructions cover essentials like how to start a fire, light a propane lantern, and wash camp dishes. The camp is fed by a natural spring and there is running water in the central lodge, which is handy for filling up the five-gallon water jugs that you’ll refill and lug back to your cabin. Even with creature comforts, life at high camp still requires guests to be fairly able-bodied.
“We operate on every end of the spectrum,” said Justin. “Whether you’ve never spent time in the wilderness or you are the most versed backcountry individual that’s completely independent and autonomous, we can accommodate you.”
The same goes for the terrain, which makes Alpine Lakes High Camp uniquely suited for families and groups of mixed outdoors ability. At the beginner level, you can snowshoe or cross-country ski on the High Country Trail, which runs about four miles round-trip straight out of camp. The fairly flat and easy-to-follow groomed trail is punctuated by a panoramic view of Glacier Peak and the mountains beyond. As long as you don’t stray from the trail and return the way you came, you’ll be hard pressed to get lost.
For intermediate snow travelers, the previous owners blazed many miles of trails throughout the adjacent public lands as well as 3,200 acres of logging land that the Donohues lease from Chinook Lumber. On gentle, forested slopes without avalanche hazard, the trails require basic navigation skills but make for snowshoeing with more vertical relief, more challenging cross-country skiing than the road, and introductory terrain for backcountry skiers and snowboarders. Detailed topographical trail maps are available at camp.
For the advanced, an hourlong traverse along McCue Ridge above camp will put you at the precipice of the Chiwaukums, an under-the-radar range filled with alpine and below treeline features that can stand toe-to-toe with the most extreme terrain at our local ski resorts. Starting this winter, Seattle-based Mountain Madness will offer guided backcountry skiing and avalanche education courses to overnight guests, as well as snowcat-assisted day skiing for the general public.
Given the relative remoteness of the Chiwaukums midwinter, you are almost guaranteed to have this vast alpine playground to yourself. Such was the case over the MLK holiday weekend last winter, when our group of five couples podded up, negative COVID tests in hand, and took a welcome break from the weary pandemic winter.
During the 2020-2021 season, High Camp was available for private rentals only, but this season the operation is back on the road to normal. All nine cabins are available, which range from snug honeymooners like tiny Bluebell, where my wife and I stayed over Christmas 2018, to spacious Foxfire, a veritable chalet that can sleep up to 10. (Prices from $235 to $600 per night, plus an $85 round-trip transportation fee per person.) However, masks are still required in indoor common spaces like the sauna and lodge when not eating or drinking. Guests must cook in their cabin, but can eat their meals in the roomier lodge.
When you book a backcountry hut months in advance, you have no control over the weather and snow conditions. In our case, recent rain followed by a hard freeze made for less than ideal skiing, but the bluebird skies offered a chance to explore the high peaks of the Chiwaukums under stable avalanche conditions. Others in our group spent more time lounging around camp, about as pure a form of winter R&R as there is, especially once the sauna has cranked up to full furnace level.
Certainly our party’s two dogs, including a Samoyed frolicking in a landscape resembling his native Siberian habitat, didn’t care about the snow conditions. On the last day, we amused ourselves by digging a kicker (a ramp) for a DIY low-stakes terrain park. And with the right company, a nearly off-the-grid weekend getaway is as much about food, conversation, card and board games, and perhaps a bit of late-night revelry — the lodge does have a shotski (a ski with a series of shot glasses) mounted on the wall, after all.
Ultimately, the simple rhythms of backcountry hut life are the most cherished aspects of places like Alpine Lakes High Camp. Gathering around the woodstove and listening to the crack and sizzle of burning wood. Waiting until the I-can’t-take-it-anymore threshold inside a baking sauna and then shocking the system with an icy cold plunge. Cooking hearty family-style meals with a limited stock of ingredients. And when the rumble of a Land Rover or snowcat’s engine makes itself audible on departure day, the pang of not wanting to leave is the surest sign of a destination worth many returns.
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