I’m starting to lose count of the number of times I’ve been up the Elfin Lakes trail, but every time has been a very different experience so I keep going back! I’ve day hiked it to the Gargoyles, backpacked up to Opal Cone, snow camped, and taken a group of girl guides up there in very marginal conditions. On the occasion I hiked up to Opal Cone, we’d actually been aiming for Mamquam Lake, but abandoned our pursuit because it was too hot, so I was really keen to make another attempt to get to Mamquam on this trip.
Karen and Grant planned this trip for mid August and invited me to accompany them. An overnight camping pass is required for one of the 35 tent pads, so I quickly booked up one for myself and easily convinced Brandon to join me. He’d been with me on the first failed trip, so it was only fitting. Me, Karen, and Grant took Friday off to hike up and Brandon joined us later in the evening after he got off work. Not something I’d recommend, but he’s very familiar with the trail and he’s a fast hiker.
I met Karen and Grant downtown and we drove together to the trailhead outside of Squamish. You only need 2WD to get up the road in the summer, but I was a bit surprised at the condition for such a popular hike – it’s seems to have deteriorated quite a bit in the last few years. Parks staff met us on the road on the way up to check our passes and warned us there were a lot of black bear sightings and even one grizzly sighting. There’s a lot of berries on the trail, so make sure to bring spray and a horn if you visit (not bangers though as they present a fire risk).
It was a really dicey forecast for the weekend, so we weren’t really sure what to expect. It had rained on and off on the drive up and it was looking pretty grey when we arrived. We made good time on the old road up to Red Heather hut, but it did start raining pretty early into the hike. It rained solid for about 15 minutes, but then fortunately it slowed down and mostly just drizzled on and off after that.
We stopped briefly at the hut for a snack and I picked a handful of blueberries before continuing on. The rain had mostly stopped, but the clouds were super low and we knew we weren’t going to get any view, so we took the bike path up. I thought the bike path was in better condition than the hiking path, which often gets muddy, but I learned on the way down it’s been completely redone with crushed rock, so I definitely recommend the hiking path!
We dried off pretty fast after that and made a good pace to the campsite, but unfortunately we didn’t see any views at all. We were clearly right in the cloud and it was super foggy, so there wasn’t much to take photos of on the way in. We didn’t mind though because we were just so happy to be able to put our tents up in dry weather! I had taken my new Gossamer Gear tent for the trip and thanks to Carolyn, executed what is quite possibly her best idea ever and most brilliant tent pad hack! Since my tent is only set up with hiking poles and relies on tension to keep it upright, it’s hard to set up on wooden pads because it relies on being staked. The solution was a pack of 8 tiny wood screws that you could hand screw right into the tent pad! It worked so great and I was thrilled with how easy it was to set up!
Side note: for those of you who care, I’m still testing out my Gossamer Gear tent and assessing whether the single-walled design and subsequent condensation build-up on the inside are something I can deal with. On the first morning the tent was absolutely drenched, but so was Karen and Grant’s normal tent, whereas the second night it held up very well in the wind and rain and had minimal condensation in the morning. So I guess it is super dependent on weather conditions and I’m slowly learning how to deal with it.
Overall it took us just over 3 hours to do the 11km hike up to the hut. It was after 5pm when we arrived so we went to the cookhut to make dinner after setting up our bedrolls. Because of the extreme high risk of wildfires, BC Parks is requiring all cooking to be done in the shelter. While I agree this is prudent, I’m a little annoyed that they closed the sleeping hut for the season because of covid. I get you don’t want people sleeping there, but eliminating access to it and then forcing everyone to cook inside one tiny cook hut while it is still a pandemic seems counterproductive. Anyways, how busy the hut was varied and fortunately it wasn’t busy on Friday night. Despite all the tent pads being sold out, only about half were actually in use, so I think BC Parks booking system and cancellation policy could use a little updating too.
Anyways, that’s my rant for this post. We had a real treat during dinner when the clouds finally started to break up and give us a view! At first we’d just get the odd glimpse of a mountain through a hole in the clouds, but eventually they broke up completely and we got the most beautiful cloud inversion down into the valley! We hung out and watched the sun set over the mountains before returning to Karen and Grant’s tent for a few rounds of cards while waiting for Brandon to show up. Fortunately he arrived shortly before 10pm and we quickly hit the sack in preparation for an early rise the next morning.
Day 2 was pretty unreal. Karen and Grant woke up at 6am and the sky was completely void of clouds and they were all sitting down in the valley. But when I got up at 7am the entire campsite was shrouded in fog. It cleared out again during our breakfast, but by the time we departed the campsite, it had rolled it once more. So we figured it was just going to be one of those days where you never know what you’re going to get and just have to hope for the best. At least we didn’t have to battle the heat!
Like I said, this was my second time on the trail to Opal Cone. Overall the entire trail from the parking lot to Mamquam isn’t particularly difficult. It’s not technical at all, but the trail has a lot of cobble sized rocks, so it does get tiring on the ankles and feet after a while. The trail meanders up and down for the first couple kilometres and then it drops down to the river at the base of Mount Garibaldi before climbing slowly back up the side of Opal Cone. There’s a lot of ascent, but it’s very gradual, so it’s not a bad trail for newer hikers. We couldn’t see Mount Garibaldi or Opal Cone on this hike, but we worked our way up the side of the mountain until we eventually reached the trail branch for the Opal Cone summit.
We’d planned to go up to the cone, but it was still very foggy and we could tell based on the elevation of the clouds that it would be cloudy at the top, so we decided to continue on and hope for the best on the way back. Karen and Grant had initially been thinking they might only go as far as Opal Cone (which is 6.5km one way), but everyone was feeling good, so we continued down into the glacial flat as a group. I don’t know if glacial flat is the correct term, but that’s what it looks like to me. There’s a big glacier behind Opal Cone that melts into a lake surrounded by rocky moraines from the historical glaciers. The whole area is really one big volcanic desert, with lots of dust and little vegetation, it can be brutal on a hot day.
The other side of the glacial lake was as far as Brandon and I made it on our last trip, so we were now moving into new territory. It was almost as if the weather knew it and as soon as we started making our way into the next valley, the clouds lifted and a few streaks of sun shone through. It never lifted off completely, but we were rewarded with some beautiful dusty views looking down the valley. There were several wash outs along the trail, 2 were before Opal Cone, but the most difficult one is on the way to Rampart Ponds (pictured below), which is the next campsite on the trail, located between Opal and Mamquam Lake.
My favourite part of this valley was the river that runs through the center. When you cross over it, the bridge is actually located at the merging of two rivers. The main river is incredibly chalky and silty, while the other is beautiful clear freshwater. So we stopped here to replenish our water bladders before climbing the last pass up to the campsite. You arrive at the campsite pretty much as soon as you crest the pass and there are several tent pads and ponds. I figured this would be my last trip to Elfin if I made it to Mamquam, but now me and Brandon are determined to return once more and stay at Rampart Ponds! Although I’d caution against it on a particularly hot day since there’s absolutely zero shade to be found.
From Rampart Ponds, you continue up another few minutes to the top of the pass, where you have the most incredible 360 degree view of Opal Cone and Mount Garibaldi on one side (on a clear day) and a view down to Mamquam Lake on the other. Rampart Ponds is 3.5km from Opal Cone and it’s a final 1.5km to Mamquam. The only problem is it’s a pretty big descent to get down to Mamquam, so even though it sounds short, it’s a big climb on the return trip.
Either way, we were so close we were determined to get there for lunch. We trundled on and I really enjoyed this section of the trail. It was still cloudy, but they had lifted up a bit and me and Karen both loved the terrain. Everything we’d hiked that morning had been desert, but the hike down to Mamquam is proper alpine greenery and meadows, so it made for a nice change of pace. We arrived shortly after 1pm to grumbling tummies.
As much as I wanted to eat my lunch, I’d been struck by the urge to swim and knew if I didn’t do it right away, I wouldn’t do it at all. It was not a warm day. I hiked in pants all day and while I only wore a t-shirt, it was chilly when you weren’t moving. So I stripped down to my swimsuit and went in. It’s a beautiful large lake with sloping mountain walls, but it’s very shallow at the foot of the lake. Fortunately, it’s also pretty sandy, so even though I had to walk out a fair way without shoes, it wasn’t painful. At first it felt cold, but I warmed up really quick because the water was actually warmer than the air. I convinced Grant and Brandon to join me and I ended up swimming for the better part of 15-20 minutes, which is substantially longer than I can usually stand to swim in alpine lakes. After I got out I got cold fast though. So I quickly bundled up in my puffy. Surprisingly the guys never got cold and it made for a funny contrast with me in my puffy while they ate their lunches shirtless.
We really enjoyed the lake, especially because we were the only people there. In general, we didn’t see a lot of people while hiking and Rampart Ponds had actually been completely empty when we hiked through. The slog back up out of the valley wasn’t as bad as I anticipated. The forest was filled will blueberries, so we all did some picking and snacking on the way up.
After that though it was a pretty long slog back. I didn’t mind the hike back to Opal Cone too much, me and Brandon mostly fantasized about where we would explore on our next trip, but the section from Opal back to Elfin was brutal. Opal was clouded in again on our return, so we skipped it, which I don’t regret. My feet were pounding by the time we got there, so we just did our best to get to Elfin. In total it was 22km of hiking, which is a lot to do in one day and the most I’ve done this season. We were all starving when we got back and happily settled in to have our supper.
We crammed ourselves into Karen and Grant’s tent for a few games of cards before bed, but we were all exhausted, so we called it shortly before 10pm. Unfortunately, it started pouring just as we finished. We didn’t know how long it would last, so we all ran around like banshees trying to do our nightly routines and get in our tents… only for the rain to stop about 10 minutes after we were done. If only we’d played one more round of cards we would have missed it.
Everything was wet in the morning, but the tents actually dried out pretty good before we packed them and nothing was too wet when we took down camp. It was a brisk morning and we all kept our rain jackets on for the return hike. In general the clouds were higher on the way back than the way in and we did catch a glimpse of some views. There’s more uphill on the way back than I remember, but nothing too bad. Once we reached the Red Heather Hut we totally powered down the last 5km and back to the car. We finished with pizza and beer at Backcountry Brewing, which is quickly becoming our new tradition!