Zoa Peak Snow Camping

It hasn’t been the best year for winter activities. Between the pandemic restrictions and the avalanche ratings, it’s been hard to get out and enjoy the snow. We went snow camping at Lightning Lakes in late January and we’ve been trying to fit in a second trip ever since. The avalanche ratings have been pretty consistently at ‘Considerable’ and ‘High’ throughout the last month and we ended up cancelling our trip twice. But we finally got decent conditions this past weekend and decided to go for it as one last snow activity to close out the season.

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Zoa is popular among backcountry skiers because it’s a relatively easy hike up an old forestry road and thanks to the low incline, most of the hike is in simple terrain. Interestingly, the first time Carolyn and I ever snow camped was at the base of the Zoa Peak trail. We’d intended to go to Manning, but a wrong turn on the highway landed us in the Coquihalla Rec Area and we decided to snowshoe 1km in to the Zoa Peak/Falls Lake trailhead and camp on the summer parking lot (which isn’t plowed in the winter). So we felt like we’d come full circle by returning to this area and hiking up to Zoa.

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It was a busy day on the trail with both skiers and snowshoers, but we were the only ones staying overnight and the crowds quickly thinned out when we reached the top. However, it was a very challenging hike up the mountain. Because it was mid-March, it wasn’t really ideal snow conditions for any kind of activity. We debated for ages whether we should wear snowshoes or spikes and ended up with me and Brandon hiking in spikes and Carolyn and Steve in snowshoes. There was really no right answer, but in retrospect, I think snowshoes were overall the better choice.

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The first kilometre along the access road was very well packed and I had no problem in spikes, but once we started climbing up the old forestry road, snowshoes were preferable. It was really sunny, so the snow became a bit slushy and while we weren’t punching through the snow with spikes, it was a bit like walking on sand and made for a very draining hike up. Most of the elevation gain is done on the forestry road and with the sun beating down on us and reflecting off the snow, it ate up a lot of our energy. We all wore sunscreen on our faces, but I ended up getting burned on the underside of my chin from the reflection off the snow!

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After about 2.5km, you need to exit the road and hike into the woods. The summer trail exits the road earlier, but in the winter it’s better to continue further up since the grade is lower there. There is some pink flagging tape to mark the turn-off, but it’s easy to miss so I recommend being on the lookout and using a GPS. From there you hike up through the woods until you reach the ridge. It’s still steep, but the trail is more packed through the trees, so my spikes worked better here. It can be a bit confusing because the skiers take all kinds of different paths down through the trees, but as long as you keep going up, you really can’t go wrong and will eventually reach the ridge.

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Snowshoeing along the ridge up to the sub-peak is gorgeous! I did part of Zoa in the fall once, but it’s much more scenic in the winter because the snow lifts you up higher among the trees, resulting in a better view and not confining you to a single area. In the summer, the brush makes it impossible to travel along the entire ridge and the trees limit a lot of the view, so I much preferred the winter views.

In total, it’s about 5km from the highway to Zoa Peak. We decided from the beginning that we would cut off a kilometre and only hike as far as the sub-peak. This is because after the sub-peak the trail gets steeper and the avalanche terrain changes from ‘simple’ to ‘challenging’. The avalanche risk on the day we went was ‘moderate’ in the treeline and ‘considerable’ in the alpine. Zoa seems to be kind of on the cusp between treeline and alpine, so we decided to play it safe and camp at the sub-peak.

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By the time we reached the ridgeline, we were all exhausted, so we decided to camp just below the sub-peak. It was calling for a bit of wind overnight and we wanted to be sheltered, plus the views are gorgeous all along the ridge. So we found a good looking spot and got right to work on setting up camp. Unfortunately, stopping triggered a few issues for me and after a few minutes of shoveling I found myself getting really lightheaded. I think I was dehydrated, so I took a break and tried to re-hydrate with some electrolytes. We all suffered some mild dehydration throughout the hike, so it was a good reminder to drink lots of water prior to a hike as well. Fortunately we had lots of electrolytes and were all able to recover.

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So Brandon did a lot of the shoveling for our set up and eventually I got to work on a snow kitchen. The snow was really sticky so it was good for setting up a kitchen and we didn’t have to pack it down too much. There were 4 of us, so Brandon and I shared one tent and Carolyn and Steve shared another. We had a great view of what I think was Thar, Nak, and the back of Yak Peak and enjoyed hanging out watching the mountains. One of the benefits of going so late in the season was that we had a bit more daylight in which to enjoy the view.

Brandon made us miso soup to help with rehydrating and then we all got to work on melting snow for dinner. I shared Brandon’s classic thai curry chicken, which is my absolute favourite backcountry meal! My parents had sent me some chocolate from Newfoundland Chocolate Company, which we enjoyed as a treat for dessert.

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Usually when we go snow camping, we go to bed super early because it gets so cold and dark, but it was a warmer evening and the clouds had completely cleared out, leaving a beautiful view of the stars! So we stayed up much later than we usually do and I took star photos while Steve messed around with his radio to get us some tunes. Two night hikers passed us right after it got dark, but otherwise we were the only ones around and enjoyed a beautiful sunset. It ended up being 9:45pm by the time I finally crawled into the tent for bed, which is by far the latest I’ve ever stayed up snow camping!

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I didn’t get the best night’s sleep as the wind picked up overnight and shook us around a bit. Nothing to be concerned about, but it did make it a little harder to sleep. I made an egg and bacon hash for breakfast and then Brandon and I hiked the last few metres up to the sub-peak to check out the view. Otherwise we just took down camp and packed up again to head home. It was a lot easier on the second day because the sun stayed behind the clouds, meaning the slush had become more solid and was easier to hike out in spikes. We didn’t see as much traffic and powered down the trail in just an hour and a half (versus the 3 hours it took us to hike up).

So overall it was definitely one of the more challenging hikes, but the weather and views from the top were amazing and we ended up having a great time!

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Snowshoeing Lightning Lakes

After Shadow Lake, Lightning Lakes is one of my favourite places to snowshoe in Manning Park. Unlike Shadow Lake, this trail is outside of the resort managed trails and is free to snowshoe, so subsequently is attracts more traffic. The Lightning Lakes Trail is part of a 24km trail network that goes around both of the Lightning Lakes and then continues on to 3 other lakes. However, in the winter I recommend you just stick to the first two lakes as there’s low avalanche risk on this trail.

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Usually you can park right at the lake day-use area, but pending whether it’s recently snowed and how far into the season it is, they don’t always plow the road to the parking lot, in which case you can park along the main road and snowshoe in. The trail goes around first and second Lightning Lake, which are connected by a small river that runs between the two. There’s a beautiful bridge constructed over the two lakes and you can customize your trip to do either lake (or both). The second lake is my favourite (with the view from the bridge being the highlight), so I usually head clockwise around the first lake, which is the shorter route, to get to the second lake much faster.

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In the winter, the lake usually completely freezes over and most people will snowshoe right across the lake. Be careful if you opt for this route – check the weather the week before visiting to ensure it’s below freezing all week and make sure it’s not too early in the season to cross. I prefer only to cross in January or February. If in doubt, make sure to check the depth of the ice before crossing or just plan to stick to the trail in the trees. Also note that the river between the two lakes rarely ever freezes, even in the middle of the season, so always plan to go back to the summer trail in the trees before getting to the river.

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If you decide to go the long way around both lakes on the summer trail, the distance will be about 8.5km. If you just do the second lake using the summer trail, it’s about 7km. And if you cut across the lake and head to the back of the second lake, it’s about 6km, so there’s lots of room to customize your trail. My preference is usually to walk the summer trail to the back of the second lake and then come back along the edge of the lake (I’m too chicken to go across the middle of the lake, so I’ll walk on it, but stick close to the treeline). I’ve never done the entire first lake in the winter, only in the summer.

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To date, I’ve now snowshoed the lake twice. The first time was a real treat because my parents had come to visit and it was the first year I got to spend Family Day doing an activity with my actual family. We snowshoed to the back of the second lake, had lunch and made some hot chocolate, and then snowshoed back. More recently, I returned and went snow camping in the woods at the back of the second lake, but more on that later because I can definitely write a whole post on that adventure!

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Snowshoeing Bowen Island Lookout

The last snowshoe trail I’ve done on the North Shore to date is the Bowen Island lookout trail at Cypress Mountain. We got a ton of snow in the city in 2019, right at the moment my friend Sean was visiting from Newfoundland. I’m not sure he was entirely thrilled about it given that he had just left a lot of snow behind, but either way we had the perfect conditions to go snowshoeing up to the lookout.

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We’d had a late night out the evening before, so we didn’t have the earliest start to the day and as a result had to battle the traffic to get up to Cypress. I don’t think I’ve ever parked so far away from the base (seriously, we had to park on the side of the road just past the turn-off for the nordic area), but despite the 2km walk to the trailhead, I had the best time! I’m inclined to thank the company since Sean is one of the most appreciative and enthusiastic guests.

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I’ve been up to the lookout several times in the summer, but this was my first time going up in the winter. Like I said, we had excellent conditions – it was a beautiful day and there was lots of fresh powder on the ground. The winter trail takes a different route up than the summer trail, which involves winding through the meadows at the base and then switchbacking up towards the branch to the lookout.

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There was obviously a lot of people on the mountain, but the trail never felt too busy, so I assume a lot of the cars were skiers. I brought both snowshoes and spikes for the trip – I used my snowshoes at the bottom to frolic around in the meadows and climb up the switchbacks, but I switched to my spikes for the switchbacks on the way down because I found it easier to navigate. Overall though it was definitely a snowshoe day!

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We had our lunch at the lookout and took our time enjoying the view. Looking back at the pictures apparently Sean had the experience of feeding a stellar’s jay, which is rare indeed! Whiskey Jacks will take anything you offer them, but rarely will a stellar’s jay (we only fed them nuts that are good for birds to eat (jays love peanuts), never feed them human food like bread or crackers!). It had been a bit of a mixed week for weather and this was our last activity before Sean went home, so we both thought ourselves super lucky to have such a gorgeous day! Now I just have to work on getting Sean back for summer adventures! He had planned to visit April 2020, but of course, Covid messed up those plans. One day though!

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