Since it’s Fall, I thought it would be a good time to go back and write about some of my favourite Fall hikes over the years! I grew up on the East Coast, where Fall is easily the nicest season and all of the leaves turn beautiful, vibrant colours. The West Coast is really not the same. Yes, the golden larch trees are beautiful and there are trails where you can find some nice changing foliage, but trust me, as lovely as it is, it’s a different scale than other parts of the country. I spent my first few years here being disappointed by every Fall hike I tried; I’ve since learned to get over it and appreciate what BC does have to offer. You can still find beautiful colours all through the Fall, even if not in the same abundance.
One of my favourite Fall hikes is Elk/Thurston Mountain in Chilliwack. It’s a popular one for Fall, so aim for an earlier departure, but it’s easy to get to and doesn’t require driving down Chilliwack Lake Road or any off-roading. It’s a 9km round trip hike up to Elk Mountain, but in that distance you climb over 800 metres in elevation gain, so it’s definitely a work out. It’s a steady climb the entire hike, but the first section is definitely the easier part. The trail winds through the woods and it’s a great time to keep your eyes open for changing leaves. There’s one viewpoint looking out through the trees about half way up to the top and after that the trail gets steeper and a little more challenging. It continues switchbacking through the woods until you pop out on a steep ridge. It’s pretty narrow, so take your time, but when you get up to the ridge you are rewarded with an amazing view of Mount Baker! It’s a great place to catch your breath and have a little snack before finishing the last section.
From there, it’s about another half hour to the top. The trail gets a little confusing and you can either climb up a pretty sketchy rock section, or you can follow the trail up through the woods (I usually take the woods). Shortly after, the wooded trail will reunite with the rock trail and you keep climbing up to the top. Once you hit the top, there’s a few campsites in the woods and lots of room to spread out. I find people tend to congregate at the first grassy section when you crest the mountain, but if you continue on a bit, there are lots more grassy slopes to relax on, all with amazing views of the Fraser Valley.
On my first visit to Elk Mountain in 2018, I went with Lien, Brandon, and Kerrina. We spent a lot of time hanging out at the top and taking fun pictures of ourselves with the beautiful view. I loved the view from the ridgeline and we could see the trail continuing on along the ridge to Mount Thurston. I really wanted to continue on along the trail, but we hadn’t really left early enough or come prepared for a longer hike, so we decided not to push on farther. So the next year, I was keen to go back and push all the way to Thurston. That time I went with Lien and Seth and we made good time pushing up to Elk. We decided to have lunch at Elk before continuing on and I had one of my most random lunches ever in the backcountry. Lien’s family are crab fishermen and he’d just gotten back from a trip out to Tofino, bringing with him about 20lbs of crab for me and Seth! We’d cooked it all up the previous evening and I had made crab cakes, but there was still a lot of crab left over, so we just took crab legs with us to eat for lunch! It was Fall, so they stayed pretty cold in my pack, but it made a huge mess sucking the meat out of the legs and we had a good laugh.
Hiking all the way to Thurston was an interesting experience. I liked the first part of the trail – you hike the ridge for a little while and then head back into the woods. Eventually you pop out again to crest another small peak, before continuing on to Thurston Peak. To be honest, I found Thurston Peak a little confusing. It’s a forested peak and when you reach the top, you can’t really tell you finished the hike except that there’s a trail branch heading into two narrow wooded trails. So we ended up backtracking a bit until we found a view and then took another break for some more crab legs. As far as summits go, it was a little anticlimactic and I think I’d just recommended ending your journey at the previous peak. There’s a nice view from there and I don’t think we saw anything else particularly notable after that.
It was a really nice hike back though. We took our time coming down and saw some great wildlife on the way back, most notable of which was a little owl! Seth’s a biologist, so he was thrilled and we hung out watching it for a bit. Elk Mountain gets pretty busy in the Fall, but we barely saw anyone on the Thurston Trail, so it is a good way to escape the crowds. All in all, Thurston is 16km long with about 1050 metres in elevation gain – not too bad an extension considering over 800 of those metres are on the Elk Mountain Trail.
When we got back to Elk Mountain the sun wasn’t quite setting yet, but it was getting pretty low in the sky and casting a gorgeous orange glow over everything. We decided to hang out for a bit and enjoy it, heading back down to the first viewpoint when you pop out of the woods. We stayed until the sun sunk below the mountains before taking off again, but I wish we’d stayed a little later because it ended up being a really gorgeous night, with the setting sun filling the sky with pinks and oranges.
We’d brought headlamps with us in the event we had to hike out in the dark, but it was a good lesson for me in double checking your preparedness. I had brought 2 headlamps for me and Seth, but mine was running super low and even though I thought I’d packed extra batteries, it turns out I hadn’t. Seth’s was a new headlamp and we thought it seemed fine when we checked it, it was nice and bright, but apparently it has a weird quirk where it only has one level of brightness, but when the batteries are low it will shut off after 10 seconds. So even though I’d checked it, it died soon after Seth started using it. So between the 3 of us, Lien was really the only one with a proper working headlamp. So he went in the front and we followed with our phone flashlights. Fortunately we still had that option, but it certainly would have been safer with a headlamp. So it was a good reminder for me that even when you think you’re being prepared, you still need to double check.
But I love this hike and I would definitely recommend it to anyone looking for fall leaves, a nice view of Mount Baker, and gorgeous views of the Fraser Valley. It’s also a great location for sunset, just be prepared!