Popular backcountry ski retreat near Stevens Pass will ramp up offerings for summer mountain biking, starting in August. New name: Alpine Lakes High Camp.

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CHELAN COUNTY — Want to own an iconic backcountry retreat? It was a message that flooded inboxes a few years ago when Scottish Lakes High Camp went up for sale.

Imagine owning a cluster of rustic A-frame cabins tucked deep in the Cascades. You could have access to miles of private backcountry trails, limitless hiking and even your own snowcat.

Justin and Austin Donohue didn’t expect their lives to veer sharply into owning an alpine getaway when they moved to Leavenworth from West Seattle two years ago.

Austin and Justin Donohue moved to Leavenworth from West Seattle two years ago with the hopes of buying a bicycle shop, but ended up acquiring an iconic high-country retreat. (Jeff Layton photo)
Austin and Justin Donohue moved to Leavenworth from West Seattle two years ago with the hopes of buying a bicycle shop, but ended up acquiring an iconic high-country retreat. (Jeff Layton photo)

Like many outdoor junkies with a zeal for biking and skiing, they were tempted, but were focused on buying a bicycle shop in Leavenworth.

When that deal fell through, their hearts drew them to the high country.

For outdoors lovers, High Camp has all the elements of a pinch-me-I’m-dreaming experience.

It’s about 15 miles east of Stevens Pass, on the sunny side of the Cascades. Frequent bluebird days and massive snow dumps over gently rolling terrain make it the ideal region for backcountry skiing. It offers a cozy lodge supplied with spring water, with a wood-fired hot tub and a sauna for evening relaxation.

There’s easy access to Alpine Lakes Wilderness, and so much open territory that you’re unlikely to see another soul all day.

New bike trails

Looking at High Camp with a fresh set of eyes, the Donohues see huge room for enhancement. For starters, the name will change to Alpine Lakes High Camp to reflect the location.

The biggest change will be the inclusion of new mountain-biking trails.

Traditionally, High Camp was used as a winter destination. The previous owners simply weren’t passionate about biking, and the camp basically shut down in the summer, says Justin.

But making High Camp profitable means expanding new revenue streams, and that means adding summer users — lots of them.

New Alpine Lakes High Camp owner Justin Donohue discusses the inclusion of new mountain-biking trails at the formerly named Scottish Lakes High Camp. (Jeff Layton & Katie G. Cotterill / The Seattle Times)

“This is something we’re actually going to be kicking into immediately instead of waiting until next spring,” says Justin.

Bikers may start using the existing trails starting Aug. 1, and new trails will be ready this fall.

“The mountain-bike category is the fastest-growing outdoor sport in the nation, and the Pacific Northwest is quickly gaining national acclaim for its terrain and trail quality,” Justin says. “High Camp could become a national mountain-bike destination over time.”

The majority of the 5,500 acres surrounding High Camp are owned by Weyerhaeuser. The hills have been heavily logged.

Logged regions are ideal for open-glade skiing and it’s fairly easy to cut new bike trails through disturbed forest. So while the land may look unappealing to some, it’s ripe for bikers.

The new owners’ long-term hope is to build hundreds of miles of new trails by partnering with foundations and mountain-bike clubs such as Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance.

They’re also going to schedule work groups and camps for elementary through high-school-age bikers.

Unique challenges

It’s one thing to dream about operating a crown jewel of Northwest backcountry recreation, and quite another to operate a business such as High Camp.

There are new marketing efforts, a fleet of finicky snowmobiles to maintain, land-use permits to negotiate, bookings to secure and the logistics of running an off-grid business.

Justin, who grew up in the Midwest, will head daily operations. His résumé makes him seem like the perfect fit for the challenge.

He has a background in brand marketing for REI, Eddie Bauer and Evo. He’s spent time doing residential remodels and has a degree in outdoor education. He’s spent years guiding outdoor trips and volunteering on trail builds.

Austin will keep her marketing job while helping with High Camp’s support services and marketing.

Just transporting goods and people deep into mountains requires tremendous planning, says Justin.

The ensemble of nine rustic cabins is frequently buried in 5 feet of snow, and can experience dumps of 3 feet in 24 hours.

“We are constantly learning of ways to work in this extreme environment. It can go up to 100 degrees during fire season, and negative 20 in the winter,” says Justin.

You have to accommodate that swing and do it in a remote, off-grid environment. “Questions like, ‘How do you fight a fire without running water?’ are things you have to figure out in this type of business,” he says.

With a list of thousands of desired fixes and improvements, the task can seem overwhelming.

But their labor quickly turns to labor of love when the couple hop on their bikes to explore the trails around Alpine Lakes High Camp for the first time.

The stresses of owning a new business quickly melt away when they bounce down the gnarly single track overlooking the camp, and understand how much fun they can have in their new backyard.

“It’s a lifestyle play,” Austin says with a smile. “It’s definitely not for the money!”


BACKGROUND: The history of High Camp

High Camp was founded in 1978 by Bill and Peg Stark, who trailblazed some of the earliest access to The Enchantments and named many peaks and lakes in the Central Cascades.

They built the first lodge on leased logging territory in a quiet valley so they could share their favorite cross-country ski trails with friends.

Don and Chris Hanson purchased the camp in 1994. They added a majority of the cabins and grew the camp into a quintessential mountain retreat.

Don Hanson died in 2013 when a tree dropped a giant load of snow on him while he was marking trails, leaving Chris and a tight-knit community to run the business.

They carried on while waiting for the right buyers, eventually selling the camp this summer to the Donohues, who have renamed it Alpine Lakes High Camp.

For bookings or more information: alpinelakeshighcamp.com.