Ring Lake was definitely one of the weirder backpacking trips I’ve been on over the years, but I look back on it now with very fond memories. It was August 2018, the smokiest summer I’ve ever experienced in the lower mainland. My Howe Sound Crest trip had been cancelled for the second year running because of the smoke, but I still wanted to go out exploring somewhere, so Brandon and I decided to head up towards Whistler in hopes that the smoke would thin.
If anything it was worse in Whistler, but we carried on towards Callaghan Lake, pulling over just before the lake at the Conflict Lake/Ring Lake trailhead. Callaghan is most well known for its cross country skiing, but you can explore there in the summer as well. It’s a gravel road that’s in pretty rough shape; I think it’s doable in a 2WD because there aren’t many water bars, but high clearance definitely make it easier.
The Conflict Lake trail is really popular in the winter because there’s a beautiful cabin you can ski into and explore the area from, but for some reason it’s not operating in the summer and we didn’t see a single person on the trail. It’s 5km to Conflict Lake along relatively flat terrain through the woods. I had a bit of an upset tummy, so we rushed along to the Lake, thinking there would be an outhouse near the cabin. But alas, it’s too swanky a cabin for that so I was forced to make use of my trowel.
We had lunch at the lake before carrying on to Ring Lake, which is another 5km, but this time it’s all uphill. It’s about 500 metres in elevation gain, but since it was flat to Conflict Lake, all the elevation is in the second half of the trail. However, right after Conflict Lake there are some really beautiful meadows, and just our luck they were filled with wildflowers! The contrast of the green meadows and smoke filled valley made me feel like I was somewhere else entirely. Coupled with the fact that we had yet to see another soul on the trail, it was quite blissful.
It’s a tiring climb up from there though. The trail skirts the edge of the valley as you climb up towards the lake. It’s almost totally in the trees until you reach the top and pop out in the alpine. When I did Brew Lake it reminded me a lot of Ring Lake because both trails are almost completely forested until you reach the top, and both weirdly empty.
The challenge of Ring Lake is that about halfway between Conflict and Ring, you have to do a pretty dicey river crossing. Because of the terrain, the river cascades down over the rocks at a pretty steep angle, making it dangerous if you were to misstep and fall in. For this reason, the season during which you can hike to Ring Lake is short because you need to wait until the flows in the river goes down. I had a friend that tried to go in July once and had to turn around at the river crossing, so I’d really only recommend going in August. Fortunately for us (I guess), it was a super dry year, so we didn’t have too much trouble. I just opted to wear my full goretex boots for the trip and brought two hiking poles instead of the one I normally bring to make the crossing easier (although I ended up giving the second one to Brandon).
After the crossing the trail is still quite technical though, there are a few ladder and rope sections, but eventually you pop out of the trees to the most gorgeous mountain vista! Sadly though, with the smoke we could barely see across the lake, but the whole area is hemmed in by mountains and it looked like there was lots to explore nearby. When we arrived we saw one tent on the far side of the lake, so we went in the other direction to set up our camp. It’s a large lake, so by the time we found a place we liked, we couldn’t even see them anymore. They left before us the following morning and we didn’t see a single other person the whole weekend.
There’s only a handful of times when we’ve had such solitude at a campsite. I love it, but it does make you much more keenly aware of your presence in the wilderness. Ring Lake is in grizzly bear country, so caching our food was super important. Unfortunately though, it’s also an alpine environment and trees were very sparse. There are some around, but they’re the kind that go straight up with very few branches from which to hang a bear cache. After pitching the tent, we immediately got to work on our bear cache because we knew it would take some time. Looking back, I really have no idea how we managed to get the thing up – it took us about an hour, but somehow Cowboy Brandon managed to lasso to trees and we created a clothesline between them that we then hoisted our bags up. Most challenging was making sure not to tie the ropes in such a way that we wouldn’t be able to get them back, but in the end it all worked out. Definitely the most impressive bear cache I’ve ever fashioned. It was higher than it looks in the photo (because it was taken on a slope), but it did start to sag overnight.
I’d also brought some bear bangers in case we saw a grizzly and I’d been thinking of setting one off before bed just to make sure the area was clear, but there is a small chance of fire with bangers and flares, so I opted not to with the forest so dry. Instead we just kept our bear horns nearby and we ended up sleeping with the fly off the tent, so we could easily see the surrounding area with the moonlight. I’m not really sure why we left the fly off, I think Brandon wanted to watch the stars, but with so much smoke, there wasn’t really much to see overnight. We did get a beautiful orange sunset over the lake though!
I think what makes this trip stick out in my mind so much was the rest of the evening. After we’d set up camp, we went downwind of our tent to make dinner. Brandon had brought his speaker so that we could play music to scare off the bears and we’d accidentally brought a pretty significant amount of fireball with us. So we ended up doing quite a few shots and having our own mountain dance party as we made dinner! There’s nothing so enjoyable as a watching the sun go down with Brandon’s backcountry thai chicken curry and a pleasant buzz. But mostly we just marveled in our good fortune in having such a beautiful place all to ourselves.
We both regret that we couldn’t explore the area further. There are lots of surrounding mountain peaks that would have made for a fun second day, but the smoke stole any hope of a view, so we decided to just head back down the following day, though we’re both keen to return again in the future.
The trek down was a lot more enjoyable than the hike up. We did a small bit of exploring at the meadows at the top before heading back to Conflict Lake for lunch again. There’s a boulder field between Ring and Conflict Lake that is an excellent place to watch for marmots. We saw a few on the way up hanging out on the rocks. Then on the way back down I counted a record 7 marmots out sunning themselves! One was a family of 4 with two little pups that were super cute!
It’s only 10km each way, but it feels like a long 10km with big hiking packs. The hike from Conflict back to the car felt like it went on forever and we were relieved when we finally arrived back at the car and could shed our packs and smelly clothes. Like I said, I really would like to go back and visit Ring Lake again, but I would never do it in such conditions. Looking back, the smoke was great enough that we shouldn’t have gone hiking at all and I’m impressed I didn’t feel sick from it.
We had some really bad smoke in Sept. 2020 as well and again attempted to escape it by heading out of the city. We weren’t successful in escaping it, but on this occasion it gave me such a headache I quit the hike 3km in and went back to the car. When the smoke is so bad, it’s really not worth going out in it since it’s quite dangerous to your health. At the time though, we’d been cooped up for the better part of a month and were going a little stir crazy. It’s a difficult hike, don’t underestimate it – but in different conditions, I would gladly return!