We smelled the tiki torches before we saw them. The faint smell of burning oil beaconed us the last few hundred yards, ending what had been a three-hour hike under an inky black sky and a billion stars.
The uphill walk was supposed to take 90 minutes, but the crunch of snow and the eerie blue light from our headlamps made the world feel completely foreign, and we were in no rush to hurry past the ghostly high-elevation scenes.
It would have been much easier to reach Scottish Lakes High Camp if we’d hitched a ride on one of snowmobiles, but the decision to arrive on foot seemed appropriate, given where we were headed: a remote, stripped-down alpine retreat 17 miles east of Stevens Pass, created for people who love nothing more than to play in the snow.
Soon the smell of the torches gave way to the ethereal glow illuminating a collection of quaint cottages under heavy blankets of powder. Tucked into the cleft of a squatty valley, half buried A-frames protruded like mushrooms, with only a hint of chimney smoke disclosing life within.
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It was near midnight, and we’d found our home for the weekend. The silence, and the glow of torches created a dreamlike world — perfect for those like us who believe that heaven can be found in the backcountry of the Cascade Mountains.
Not your average retreat
Scottish Lakes High Camp isn’t your typical winter retreat. It’s not the kind of place you go to to find ski valets, chairlifts, massage therapists or even electricity. If using an outhouse is a deal breaker, you should probably stop reading now.
But if you can get past the lack of pampering, and embrace the rustic mountain living, you’ll discover a unique Northwest retreat, with alpine charm in spades.
Cabins are mostly bunk-style, single-room A-frames, surrounding a main lodge. Guests cook for themselves using propane stoves (weekend potlucks are frequently organized) and sleep under thick sleeping bags.
The result is a feeling of genuine mountain living, far from civilization, where guests break from their urban malaise with days of choose-your-own-adventure skiing, and nights huddled around a woodstove.
Explore at will
We awoke the morning after our arrival to bright sunny skies, with gently rolling hills surrounding us. Where trees once stood, timber companies had cleared large swaths of forest. But given that we were at 5,000 feet, more than 100 inches of snow made the scarred clear-cut look like smooth, enchanted meadows.
The founders of Scottish Lakes High Camp took forestry lemons and made lemonade, building a base from which backcountry skiers and snowshoers could roam among the peaks, then relax at night in the camp’s wood-fired hot tub and sauna.
My companions discovered a pile of sleds near the central lodge, and we decided our first order of business was to follow one of the 26 marked trails to the promising sounding “Wild Bill Hill.”
With skis strapped to my backpack and backcountry sleds in tow, we snaked up the hill, pausing every few minutes to gape at the panorama of jagged mountains that ranged as far we could see.
Soon though, the untouched powder beckoned. Sliders could be heard for miles shrieking with glee as they plummeted down obstacle-free faces. My “earn-your-turns” run was short, but very, very sweet.
Huge annual snowfalls mean that boulders and small trees are largely covered, leaving occasional pockets of mature trees to ski around. And surprisingly, for a high-altitude camp, we found a wide variety of avalanche-free terrain to explore: flat trails for when we were feeling lazy, steep and deep runs when we were seeking an adrenaline rush.
We spent the remainder of our weekend exploring a sampling of the trails that spread out like spokes on a wheel. Typically we would snowshoe for an hour or two until we were high enough to slide back to camp. Minutes later we would cozy up to a roaring fire in the main lodge with hot drinks and books in hand.
With a little more planning, we could have trekked the all-day route to the challenging slopes of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area, or a half-day loop through the open glades of McCue Ridge.
End with a bang
With most retreats, leaving is the saddest part, but at Scottish Lakes, your exit is nothing but a long glorious backcountry ski run. If you wish, you can ride one of the snowmobiles, but many guests choose to strap on skis and swoosh back to the parking lot.
Three different routes cut across wide, steep, untouched fields, bouncing through clearings and down little chutes. Advanced skiers can search out big, gnarly slopes, highlighted by drops into waist-deep powder.
It may not be a place for pampering, but with wide backcountry opportunities like these, who needs a ski valet?
For more photos of Scottish Lakes High Camp visit Jeff Layton’s blog, www.MarriedToAdventure.com.