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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
One of the great things about this trip was that after our strenuous 2 day hike to arrive at the campsite (Part I and Part II), we had 3 nights there it which to enjoy it. After the incident on Day 2, it was a relief to know we didn’t have to get up early and carry our big packs anywhere.
We had big plans to sleep in, but it was still the middle of a heat wave and the sun had big plans to cook us. The previous 2 days had been around 32 degrees, but on Days 3 and 4 it went up to a whopping 36 degrees! I can only imagine how hot it must have been in town when it was so hot up in the mountains. I’ve rarely experienced 36 degree temperatures anywhere, and definitely never at elevation.
So the sun woke us up at 7:30am and there was really no avoiding it. As soon as it hits your tent it totally bakes you. Brandon tried to block it out by putting his sleeping bag over the tent, but we eventually had to admit defeat and got up. We had a lazy breakfast at the cooking shelter and made friends with the other campers. Because of grizzly bears you’re not allowed to do any cooking by your tent at Magog Lake. There’s a large cooking area with lots of picnic tables and a covered shelter, so we did all our cooking in the shade of the shelter and stored our smellies at the bear cache.
The result of this setup is that it forces all the campers into proximity with one another. Not really the best scenario for COVID, but it made for a really great vibe at the campsite. Everyone was super friendly and I loved swapping stories with the other campers and getting advice on the trails everyone had already done. Everyone was suffering from the heat, though people were still doing some pretty big hikes during the day. Brandon and I took it easy all morning and I mostly wrote in my journal and ate snacks. Shortly before noon we finally packed ourselves a day pack and went to do a bit of exploring.
While other campers were suffering through the heat hiking up to Wonder Pass and the Nub, we decided to have a lake day. There are 4 lakes close to the campsite and I made it my mission to swim in all of them. We started with Sunburst Lake, which we heard was the best swimming lake. Since everyone else was out exploring, we had it to ourselves for a full 2 hours. It has a gorgeous view looking back at Mount Assiniboine and Sunburst Mountain and we went for a swim and then took our thermarests out into the lake to relax. I was a little bit nervous to take my expensive thermarest in the water, but I figured YOLO and it ended up being totally fine!
We wanted to take a nap, but unfortunately it was a bit too buggy for sleeping, so eventually we packed up and continued on. Cerulean Lake was next on the list. It’s bigger than Sunburst and a bit more scenic, but also colder, so we just did a quick dip in and out of that one. Brandon convinced me to go 1km further to Elizabeth Lake – I wasn’t really digging it because it was uphill, but we did it anyways. Elizabeth Lake was also very scenic and sits right at the base of the Nub (the peak everyone hikes up to get the killer view of Assiniboine and Sunburst Mountains). The water at Elizabeth wasn’t the nicest (it looked a little stagnant), but I was on a mission to swim in all the lakes at this point, so I swam in it anyways. It was the warmest of all the lakes, but had a lot of algae, so it was a quick dip. (although it looks awesome in the photo below!)
After that we went back to the campground to have an early dinner. Brandon was feeling really tired and wanted a power nap, so he went back to the tent for a little while, which got a bit more shady in late afternoon. I did some journaling and chatted with the other campers. I spoke to a group of women that had done a sunset hike up to the Nublet the evening before and decided that would be a good option for us. We really didn’t want to hike up the Nub in the hot weather, so a sunset hike when it was cooler was a good alternative. The Nub has 3 lookouts. The first is called the Niblet, 2nd is the Nublet, and final is the Nub. The women told me the Nub was a lot of work for the same view and that they were just as happy with the scene from the Nublet, so it was an easy decision for us to just skip the Nub given the conditions.
We had dinner and then started our hike around 7pm. It was such a good decision! It was still a bit hot hiking up to the Niblet, but after that it cooled off a lot and there was a really nice breeze going up to the Nublet. It is still a pretty big hike up to the Nublet, there is some scree and scrambling, but it was the first time on the trip I’d felt truly energized! The wind gave me life and it got rid of the mosquitoes, it was the best feeling! Plus a few clouds had moved in and they really set the scene and provided us with hope of cooler weather, or at least some sun shade.
We got to the Nublet about a half hour before sunset and only had to share the peak with one other group. In general, the lack of people was one of my favourite parts about Assiniboine. The campground was half empty because of the heat and because it’s so hard to get into the park, we had most attractions completely to ourselves. We ran around the Nublet taking photos from every angle before settling in to watch Assiniboine and Sunburst light up red. The sun actually sets on the opposite horizon from these mountains, but the orange glow from the sunset completely illuminates the Sunburst and Assiniboine, it’s magical!
It was close to solstice, so we had long sunsets and long daylight hours. We stuck around almost until 10pm before deciding to head back down. We had lots of light in which to do the scramble and even the forested section was still pretty illuminated. I don’t love hiking at this time of day though because it makes me nervous of bears, so I sang most of the way down. Fortunately we only needed to use our headlamps for the last 10 minutes of the hike and got back to our tent just before 11pm.
The next day the clouds had entirely disappeared and we had another slow, hot day. We got started a bit earlier in the morning and went for a walk up to the lodge. This proved very hot, so we took a break at a little waterfall that had a small breeze coming off it. Unfortunately, the hotter it got, the worse the mosquitoes got. I’m decent at just ignoring them, but they were driving Brandon absolutely nuts. We continued down to Magog Lake hoping there would be a good breeze since it’s the largest lake and has all the glaciers feeding it.
There was a really nice breeze down there, so blessedly no bugs, but also absolutely no shade. Fortunately I still had the tarp, so we set it up along the shore and enjoyed a few hours resting away from the bugs and sun. I thought Magog Lake would be really cold, but it actually wasn’t that bad and even Brandon went for a swim in the lake. One of the other campers had told us there was a small sandy part of beach at the opposite end of the lake, so eventually we packed up and headed that way.
A lot of the campers that had been at Magog when we arrived were starting to move out and new campers were arriving, so we got some word of the outside world. Apparently the lodge had noted our heat stroke incident in its trail report, so hopefully other people learned from our mistakes. We found the sandy part of the beach. It’s not a fine sand, more a coarse rocky grain, but definitely more comfortable than the large jagged rocks in other areas. The only downside was there wasn’t as much of a breeze. We set the tarp up again, but the bugs had returned, so we made several forays in and out of the water to try and avoid them.
We planned for an early night since we had to start backpacking again the next day, but it was too early for bed when we finished our dinner, so we scoured the GPS for a good after-dinner walk. We found one that hikes out around the far edge of Magog Lake. It’s the start of the wilderness route to Hinde Hut and has a ton of signs warning about the difficulty of the route, but if you just follow the first kilometre, it’s really nice. It takes you right to the back of Assiniboine Lake and gives you a close-up view of the mountain and glaciers. We couldn’t figure out how anyone could possibly continue up to the hut from that angle though and we figured it must be a rock climbing route because it looked very intense!
We went to bed before the sun had even set because we planned to get up at 5am the next day to avoid the heat. Reports from the outside were that it was supposed to start cooling down, but it would still be low 30’s the following day. We crossed our fingers for some rain or clouds and went to sleep. Here’s a few other photo highlights! Click for Part IV.