Hiking Joffre Lakes

I’ve written about a lot of hikes, many of which are super popular. I found the time to write about Garibaldi Lake twice and I’ve written about Elfin Lakes a whopping 5 times, but somehow I’ve never found the time to write about one of Southwest BC’s most quintessential hikes: Joffre Lakes.

Joffre Lakes is a gem of a provincial park located about 30 minutes out of Pemberton on Duffey Lake Road. It’s a bit of a trek for a day hike from Vancouver, but every year swarms of people flock there to discover the brilliant blue glacial lakes for themselves. The park was closed through most of 2020 due to Covid-19 and re-opened in summer 2021 with a new day pass reservation system in place to manage crowds in the park. This is a free day pass that has been introduced in several of BC’s most popular parks to curb the flow of visitors. A lot of people are opposed to the day pass system and BC Parks has been widely criticized for it, but while I have many criticisms of BC Parks (mostly to do with their poor online system and cancellation policies), I have to admit I am a fan of the day passes. It keeps the crowds down and removes the stress of having to get up super early to ensure you find parking.

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The first time I visited Joffre Lakes was in 2015 and while I was astounded at the beauty of the park, I had to admit that the swarms of people definitely took away from the experience. I visited on a beautiful Saturday in August, so I know there would likely be less people on a weekday, but the park only has one major trail and it’s only 11km round trip, so it’s not a lot of space for people to disburse along the trail, even on a less busy day. There were literal greyhound buses toting group tours of up to 50 people along the trail, so it was hard to get a moment to yourself anywhere on the hike. That said, a lot of people only hike to the second lake, or if they do hike to the third lake, they stop at the head of the lake. If you hike around the back of the third lake, where the campsite is, I did find it to be much less crowded.

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When the park re-opened this summer, I thought it might be time to finally re-visit it since Canada is still mostly closed to international tourists. Emily and my parents visited during the first week of September and we decided to make the trek out there on a week day to hopefully find a bit of solitude on the trail. There’s no question that with the day pass, parking was much easier. I think they’ve added an overflow lot since my last visit and we had no trouble finding somewhere to park. It was still quite busy for a week day in September, but much less crowded than my first experience.

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Like I mentioned, the trail is only 11km round trip if you go all the way to the campsite (which lots of people don’t), and has about 400m of elevation gain. It’s a very well maintained trail, so it is good for beginners. There are 3 beautiful lakes located in the park, making it easy to customize your trip. The first lake is only about 5 minutes in along the trail, so it makes for a good pit stop if you’re just passing through and want to stretch your legs. From there, the trail continues up through a boulder field (the trail is backfilled though, so easy walking) with beautiful views of the surrounding mountains. This is where most of the elevation gain is done along the hike and is the longest stretch between lakes.

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Eventually you pop out of the woods along the edge of the second lake, which I would say is the most popular of the three. The water is a gorgeous green hue and Matier Glacier is framed through the trees at the end of the lake. I’ve visited the park 3 times in total and always opt to eat my lunch at the second lake to bask in the views. On this occasion, I convinced my mom to take a quick dip in the water with me. I’ve swam in a lot of alpine lakes over the years and Joffre is definitely one of the coldest! It is numbing, so if you opt to swim, be prepared for a quick dip in and out.

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One of the other highlights of the second lake for me is that at the back of the lake there is a beautiful stepped waterfall cascading down from the third lake. It’s only a short hike between the second and third lakes, so I definitely recommend going up to the third lake, even if you opt not to hike around the lake to the campsite. The third lake has incredible views looking up at Matier Glacier.

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On this trip, we ended at the base of the third lake (which is a round trip distance of 8km), but on my first visit Seth and I opted to hike the entire way around to the campsite. If you continue past the campsite you can hike up onto the big rock overlooking the lake, which is my second favourite view in the park after the second lake. From there, the surrounding mountains come into view on the opposite side of the lake, making for beautiful photos.

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All in all, it took me about 5 hours return trip on both visits. It’s a beautiful park that’s 100% worth ticking off your bucket list, but I don’t think it would even rate top 10 on my list of trails overall. It’s just too crowded. If you choose to visit, please treat the area with respect – take all your garbage with you and make sure to leave no trace. Sadly the area often gets trashed due to its popularity and we want to preserve this beautiful park for generations to come!

The view from the back of the third lake – only photo from my 2015 visit

Hiking Chain Lakes Trail

The final trail in my little ‘Fall hiking in Washington’ series is the Chain Lakes Trail that leaves from the ski area at Mount Baker. Me, Lien, and Emily had visited the previous year in March to snowshoe Artist Point and were totally awed by the views, so we decided to come back in the fall for a different view. It was Thanksgiving Weekend in October 2019, just one week after me and Lien had hiked Yellow Aster Butte. This time we were joined by Emily and my friend Amy, who flits in and out of my life every now any then. We never really know when she’s going to appear and disappear again, but it’s fun to hike with her!

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We had Thanksgiving dinner at my house on Sunday night and then made an early departure on Monday morning to cross the border. Traditionally, me and Brandon have always gone on a Thanksgiving Monday hike (3 years running), but this year he went on holiday and bailed on me, so I had to console myself with my other companions. I really liked both Yellow Aster Butte and Chain Lakes, but of the two, I would definitely have to give the edge to Chain Lakes. At 11.5km, it has half the elevation gain of Yellow Aster Butte, just 375m. The trail starts in the backcountry parking lot at the ski hill. Be sure to get and print out the parking pass online before you go because there’s no where to get it on the mountain. It’s only $5 and I’m told you can get it at the visitor center at the bottom before you drive up, but I’ve never once seen it open on the weekend.

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Chain Lakes is one of those rare trails that is scenic the ENTIRE trail. You’ve already driven up most of the elevation gain to get to the ski hill and from there, the trail continues up to the summer parking lot for Artist Point. In the summer, you can drive almost the whole way up to Artist Point, but at some point in September they close the road. Hiking up the road is the least scenic part of the trail, but still has really nice views looking down into the big bowl that’s popular among backcountry skiers. We decided to skip the Artist Point viewpoint since we’d already done it and instead continued down the other side of the parking lot into the backcountry. I think it’s a bit of an understated part of the trail, but it was one of my favourite parts. You hike right across the slope of Table Mountain, looking out towards Mount Baker.

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From the Skyline Divide Trail, I felt like I was so close to Mount Baker that if I continued hiking I would eventually reach it (you can reach the foothills, but then the trail ends). But from the Chain Lakes Trail, you really are on the trail that goes up to the top of Mount Baker (albeit this is only for experienced mountaineers). It looked like if we just crested a few more hills we’d pretty much be there, but of course, it’s further then it looks as the size of the mountain dwarfs everything surrounding it and can be a bit misleading. Once you get to the end of Table Mountain, the trail turns to continue around the mountain and over to the chain lakes part of the trail. You can also hike along the top of Table Mountain, which may have to be an adventure for another day.

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The first lake you come to is Mazama Lake. You can camp there, but it’s pretty small and not the most scenic, so if you’re overnighting, I’d recommend one of the other lakes instead. After Mazama, you come to Iceberg lake, which is the biggest and has staggering views looking up at the steep cliffs that surround the lake. This is where we decided to stop for lunch and enjoy the views before starting our climb back up the pass to the top of the trail.

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One of the awesome things about Chain Lakes, in addition to the fact that the entire hike is scenic, is that it’s a loop trail, so you don’t have to do any return on the trail. It starts to climb around Iceberg Lake until you reach Haynes Lake, which is where I’d recommend branching off to camp. From there it gets really steep. There’s some great views looking back down the trail at Iceberg lake and you continue climbing to the top of the pass before starting to descend back into the bowl we were looking at from the start of the trail. It seemed like most people were doing the trail in the opposite direction as us, starting with the steep climb up the bowl. I’d recommend going the same way as us though because then you get to finish the hike with what was, in my opinion, the best view.

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The view from the top of the pass is really unreal. The mountains stretch out around you in every direction and as you climb up the side of the Mazama dome, you really feel like you’re on top of the world. We’d already had lunch, but we decided to stop and have a break to make tea so that we could enjoy the view for a little bit longer! Even though we still had a few kilometers left to go, from the top we could pretty much see the trail down to the bottom almost the whole way there. We continued from the pass and started the long descent down the bowl to the parking lot. We were basically undoing all of the elevation from the rest of the hike in this stretch, which is why I recommend doing the hike from the other direction, that way the ascent is more gradual, with a few flat parts in between as you climb up. The descent down the bowl though is hard on the knees, so something to take into consideration as well.

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The trail switchbacks for a while until you finally reach the bottom. It weaves through the valley and you pass by a few more lakes and the most quaint little rock bridge. Seriously, there’s no part of this trail that is not scenic, and even a few minutes before the parking lot, we were still stopping to take pictures of things. Except for Emily, who was badly in need of a washroom and sprinted the last 15 minutes of the trail to get to the outhouse.

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Sadly that was our last adventure in the North Cascades. I returned the following winter with Carolyn and Brandon to snow camp on Artist Point, but unfortunately with Covid, we haven’t been able to return. I was hoping to do a few hikes in the summer and fall again, but sadly I’ll just have to wait until next year (hopefully). Either way, if you’re from Washington, I’d definitely recommend hitting up the North Cascades, and if you’re Canadian, put in on your bucket list!

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Hiking Yellow Aster Butte

Last week I wrote about my trip to the Skyline Divide Trail in 2018, so I figured I’d continue on writing about some more of my adventures across the border in the Mount Baker Wilderness Area. The second hike I decided to explore in the North Cascades was Yellow Aster Butte. I have Stephen Hui’s book “105 Hikes in and Around Southwestern BC”, which features 3 hikes down in the cascades, so me and Lien decided to try and do them all. We were already down one with Skyline Divide and we thought that ‘Yellow Aster’ sounded promising for fall colours and decided to attempt it a year later in early October 2019.

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It was just me and Lien on the hike, so we got up early to cross the border through Sumas and then followed the forestry road up off the main road to the trailhead. I don’t think they plow this road in the winter, so access to the hike would be limited by the road conditions. The trail profile is really similar to Skyline Divide in that both hikes are 13km long, but with 750m of elevation gain, Yellow Aster Butte is a little bit steeper.

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The trail starts with lots of bright colours as you weave your way through some low shrubs and trees looking out towards Mount Baker. Honestly, the trailhead is probably the most colourful part of the entire trail because from there you head into the woods for a few kilometers to climb up to the alpine. On the East Coast, most of the fall colours come from the trees, but my experience on the west coast has been that most of the colours come from the shrubs. The low lying plants turn beautiful hues of orange, yellow, and red. The bottom of the trail was mostly oranges and yellows, but once we popped out into the alpine, there were a lot more reds along the trail.

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Once you exit the woods, you continue climbing up around a big bowl to the butte. For those who aren’t familiar, a butte is an isolated hill with steep sides and a flat top. Personally I think yellow aster butte is a bit of a misnomer because it looks a lot more like a mountain to me than anything else, but I’m no expert. As you keep climbing, the views start to open up more and more. There were a few overripe blueberries hanging on along the trail and it looked like the area had recently received its first smattering of snow. It’s a bit of a barren area, but still very scenic.

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The trail is a little flatter as you circle around the edge of the bowl, but then it starts climbing again to the end of the trail, with a steep section up to the top of the butte. This part of the trail had snow on it when we visited, but it was the kind of snow that makes you really unsure about what kind of footwear to use. I think studs would have been ideal, but we only had microspikes, so we used those. They were clumping up a bit from the dirt underneath the snow, so we probably could have just struggled up without them, but why risk it when we carried the spikes all the way up there anyways!

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From the top there are some pretty awesome views of the trail and we stopped to have lunch. Despite it being weeks earlier than when we’d hiked Skyline Divide the previous year, it was much colder and I bundled up in my winter parka, contrasting the shorts I’d been wearing the year before. It just goes to show you really have to be prepared for any weather, especially when hiking in shoulder season. While we felt like we were on top of the world, the trail actually continues another kilometer down the ridge and back up to another peak on the other side. Some people were crawling down the bank to finish the hike, but we decided it wasn’t worth the risk along slippery ground. The view from the first peak is absolutely incredible so we were already satisfied.

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We took our time coming back down, stopping to snack on some berries and taking lots of pictures of the surrounding vista. We were in a bit of a goofy mood, which is one of my favourite ways to feel on a hike, so we took lots of funny pictures of us in our surroundings and generally had a good laugh on the way down. Despite the cold weather, it was still a really nice day and we resolved to come back the following week to do the Chain Lakes Trail!

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