5 Overnight Hikes for Beginners

Backpacking can be very intimidating when you first get started. Hiking with an overnight pack is a lot different than day hiking, so you don’t want to start with too challenging of a hike. Figuring out what gear and food to bring is enough work without also having to stress about a difficult trail or having access to facilities at the campsite. So keeping in mind that you want to focus on shorter distance, less elevation, and easy access to facilities, here are some of my hiking recommendations for beginners.

Cheakamus Lake

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In my opinion, this is the ultimate trail for beginners! It’s located in Garibaldi Park and is a short distance hike with very minimal elevation gain. It has outhouses and bear cache facilities, and you can book your site online in advance so that you don’t have to worry about fighting other hikers for a camping spot.

There are two campsites to choose from – the first one (Cheakamus Lake) is located right at the head of the lake and requires the least amount of hiking, approximately 4km. The campsites are located next to the water and have a decent amount of privacy. The second site (Singing Creek) is another 3.5km and is located at the midpoint of the lake. This site lends itself better to group camping as it’s a series of campsites right next to each other in the woods. That said, there is a really nice beach to hang out and cook from. If you’d like to visit both, you could always camp at the first campsite and then do a day hike out to visit the second! Both sites have an outhouse and bear cache. Reserve here for $10 per person, per night (listed under Garibaldi Park).

Buckhorn Campsite on the Heather Trail

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The Heather Trail is a 21km one-way trail in Manning Park. While I definitely don’t recommend doing the whole trail for beginners, the first campsite (Buckhorn) is only 4km in, which makes it the perfect spot for beginners! The Heather Trail is most popular in late July/early August for the colourful wildflowers that pop up all along the trail. What makes it so great for beginners is that you do most of the elevation gain on the drive up. You park at the top of Blackwall Road and from there is a steady incline down to Buckhorn Campsite. The views are beautiful right from the start of the trail.

Buckhorn has an outhouse, bear cache, tent pads, and even picnic tables! You do need a backcountry permit to stay overnight, but sites are first come, first serve, so you don’t need to pre-reserve. You can purchase here for a Manning Park backcountry permit for $5 per person, per night (you will need to create an account to see the system – entry and exit points are Blackwall Peak) . If you have the time, stay for two nights and make a day trip out to 3 Brothers Mountain for unreal views of the alpine meadows and surrounding mountains. Even if you can’t make it all the way to 3 Brothers, explore a little further beyond buckhorn to experience the alpine meadows. Be aware, in the early season this hike will still have snow until end of June.

Viewpoint Beach

Viewpoint Beach is very similar in difficulty to Cheakamus Lake. It’s a 4.5km hike in Golden Ears Park with minimal elevation gain. Similar to Buckhorn, the campsites are first come, first serve, and you can get a permit online for Golden Ears before you go for $5 per person, per night (entry and exit points are West Canyon). There aren’t any really obvious places to camp, but most people pitch their tents along the tree line on either side of the river since the beach itself is pretty rocky. Plan in advance which side you want to camp on – if you want to camp on the far side, make sure to cross the river at the bridge before you reach the campsite. Both are nice but there tend to be less people on the far side of the trail.

There is an outhouse at this site, but when I visited last year, there wasn’t a bear cache, so we did have to make our own, which you may prefer not to do as a beginner. BC Parks has been spending a lot of time re-vitalizing this trail, so I suspect they will probably install a bear cache soon, but either way, check before you go. If you’re not comfortable hanging your food, you can purchase a bear proof container at most outdoor stores. These don’t need to be hung, but can be a little pricey.

Lindeman Lake

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Lindeman Lake is located in Chilliwack Provincial Park. At 3.5km round trip, it’s the shortest hike on the list, but it has 300m in elevation gain in under 200m, so be prepared for a climb. If it’s your very first time carrying a pack, I’d recommend a flatter trail, but if you’re trying to increase your stamina, this is a great practice trail for beginners because it’s steep but short. Same as the previous sites, there’s no reservations for this campsite, but purchase a Chilliwack Lake permit online before you visit for $5 per person, per night.

There are a limited number of tent pads, but there’s lot of ground space to set up your tent. There’s a bear cache right next to the water and a pit toilet up in the woods. As a heads up, the toilet doesn’t have walls, but the trees provide natural privacy and it’s personally never been a problem for me. After setting up camp, I recommend hiking the 1km to the back of the lake for even more amazing views, or if you have time to stay 2 nights, make a day trip up to Greendrop Lake on the second day.

Elfin Lakes

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Elfin Lakes is a popular campsite located in Garibaldi Provincial Park. It is the longest trail on the list and definitely the most strenuous. However, I include it because even though it’s a bit longer, 11km one way to the campsite, it is a very forgiving trail and has lots of facilities along the way. The most challenging part of the trail is the first 5km, which is a steady incline up an old forestry road. The road ends at Red Heather hut, which is only meant for emergency overnight use, but has an outhouse and is a great place to stop for lunch.

From there, the trail meanders up and down through some truly beautiful scenery as you wind your way along the ridge to the Elfin Lakes hut. There are two options for camping – both require reservations – but you can either camp on the tent pads, or sleep on one of the bunks in the hut. The hut is the main reason I include it as a beginner trail because if you’re just starting out and want to try with a bit of a lighter pack, you can leave your tent at home and sleep in the hut instead. But if you’re willing to carry your tent up, the panoramic views from the tent pads are truly unreal! Elfin has a big outhouse facility with 3-4 toilets and there is a ranger living in the ranger’s hut. Campsites sell out fast, so book early. Purchase here for Garibaldi Park for $10 per person, per night. Don’t even think about coming up without a permit because the ranger will send you packing. Be aware, this trail usually has snow on it until end of June or even early July.

Semaphore Lakes Backpacking Trip

I already wrote about my one night backpacking trip to Tenquille Lake, but I also did one night at Semaphore Lakes in the same trip. I decided to split up the trip into 2 blogs though because the two trails are not actually related and writing about them together would make for one really long post. We visited Tenquille Lake and Semaphore Lakes on the Canada Day long weekend in 2016. In hindsight, we easily could have spent 2 days exploring around Tenquille Lake, but instead we hiked out from Tenquille on the second day and did Semaphore for the second night.

The reason we picked Semaphore Lakes for the second night is that it’s super close to the Tenquille Lake trailhead. Instead of having to drive on the 4WD Branch 12 road though, it’s located just off the Hurley Forest Service Road, shortly past where the Branch 12 side road is (see my Tenquille Lake blog for more detailed directions). So you can get to this trailhead with 2WD.

Semaphore Lakes is a much shorter trail, it’s about 5km round trip to the lakes and back, but don’t be deceived because there is still 300 metres in elevation gain in the short 2.5km, so it does make for a pretty steep hike up to the top. With our packs, it probably took us about an hour and a half to reach. We had a bit of a late start hiking in to Semaphore because we had a personal issue come up that required us to drive back to Pemberton between the two trails. Then when we finally got back to the Semaphore Lakes trailhead in the late afternoon (and had all our packs on ready to go), Brandon realized he left his REALLY NICE Nikon DSLR camera on the side of the road at the Tenquille Lake trailhead when we were packing up the car. So we had to drive back up and down the 4WD access road, but fortunately his camera was still sitting there patiently waiting for us!

So I think it was after 5pm by the time we finally started hiking in to Semaphore and it started to rain on us in the last half hour. In my early backpacking days I had a bit of a “rain” phobia because I was terrified of my clothes and sleeping bag getting wet and being stuck freezing cold in the mountains. Actually, this is totally a valid fear and one I go to great lengths to protect myself from. I actually carried an umbrella with me on the entire 50km Juan de Fuca trail because I was afraid of the rain getting my clothes wet on the first day of our 4 day hike. I’ve since chilled out because I’ve acquired some better gear to protect me against these scenarios, but I remember when it started raining on the way to Semaphore I pretty much ran the last 20 mins to the lakes because I was terrified that our tent would get wet because Seth had failed to purchase himself a backpack cover. He thought a garbage bag on top of his pack would work fine – spoiler alert: it didn’t.

Anyways, in retrospect, the rain was a bit of a joke. It was really just sun showers and not a proper downpour, but when we got to the lakes we pretty much threw the tent up as fast as possible and chucked all our gear inside. Me and Seth were still using my parents ancient tent at this point, which is a tee-pee style tent and not very spacious, and I have this really funny memory of the two of us just sitting in the tent staring at each other waiting for the rain to stop because there wasn’t enough room to do anything else.

Brandon travels in style ALL the time, so he and Carolyn were next door happily setting up their mansion while we just stared at each other in angst – me because I was annoyed about the rain and Seth because he never really wanted any part of the trip to begin with. Eventually Carolyn and Brandon got their house all set up and invited us over for dinner, as if we had anything better to do LOL, and we climbed into their nice space and cooked supper poking out through the vestibule. This is like textbook ‘what-not-to-do’ because you don’t want your tent to smell like your dinner and attract bears. I want to say, “but we were rookies and didn’t know any better”, but we did know better, so I really have no excuse. I’ve since purchased a lightweight tarp for future trips, so problem solved next time.

Anyways, the rain did let loose after that. Fortunately we were all set up by that point, so none of our gear got wet, but it did result in a pretty early night. We failed to bring cards, so I ended up reading a bedtime story to everyone instead. I basically yelled at Carolyn and Brandon for 30 mins between the tents so that they could hear me over the sound of the rain, and those kweens just fell asleep on me in like the first 5 minutes, rude.

So our evening at Semaphore left a little to be desired after our awesome night and campfire at Tenquille, but I have no regrets because the rain moved on overnight and the clouds cleared out in the morning. So I woke to the sun shining on me and the most beautiful view of the lake through my tent door. I was afraid of the clouds rolling back in again, so I got up pretty early and me, Carolyn, and Brandon went for a little exploratory morning walk around the area. You could absolutely spend 2 nights at Semaphore Lakes as well because there’s so many other mountains nearby to explore during the day. Since it was only the first weekend in July and we were at a pretty high elevation, there was still a lot of snow around, so we just explored the immediate area, but it had some truly lovely views of the lakes and surrounding mountains.

One of the benefits to Semaphore Lakes was that it has a lot less people. Don’t get me wrong, there were still other campers, but there was a lot less than Tenquille and they were a lot more spread out, so it didn’t feel crowded at all. It also had significantly less mosquitoes than Tenquille Lake, so that was a blessed relief. The clouds did roll in again pretty quickly though, so we didn’t stay too long and packed up our gear after a quick breakfast.

Overall, it was a great foray into backcountry camping and though we had some challenges, they were not enough to deter me from wanting to try it again and I ended up doing 2 other backcountry trips that summer! I would definitely love to go back to both of these trails as a more experienced hiker and check out some of the other surrounding trails in the area.