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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Snowshoeing Hollyburn Mountain

We’re now firmly into the winter hiking season, which means it’s time to take out the snowshoes! I’ve done a decent amount of snowshoeing over the past few years and I’m hoping to do lots of snowshoeing this season, but I haven’t written about very much of it. So I decided to kick off the season by writing about one of my favourite local snowshoe trails: Hollyburn Mountain.

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I have snowshoed Hollyburn on 3 separate occasions, so I’m pretty familiar with it. It’s one of the most well known snowshoe hikes in the lower mainland and with good reason. It’s not the easiest snowshoe trail, but you’ll be rewarded with amazing views and a good workout. I’ve hiked it every year since 2017, but the last time I hiked it was in January 2019, which stands out as one of my favourite times making the trek to the top.

The Hollyburn trailhead is located at the base of the Nordic Ski Area at Cypress (take the right branch before you get to the ski hill). You can rent snowshoes at the base, however if you rent them you will also be forced to pay the trail fee. If you snowshoe within the nordic area, you need to pay the trail fee whether you bring your own snowshoes or not, but since Hollyburn is located outside the trail area, you can snowshoe for free if you bring your own (or rent at the North Van MEC to avoid paying the extra cost)! It’s a popular trail, so you will be accompanied by lots of other snowshoers, but they usually disperse along the trail so it doesn’t feel too crowded.

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The trail started with a steep walk uphill and then flattens out somewhat as you walk along the edge of the cross country ski run. Overall it’s an uphill trail, but the middle stretch has a nice easy grade. It’s the last third of the trail that is the most challenging as you navigate up a wide corridor cut through the trees. Since Hollyburn is so close to the city, I tend to go with larger groups, so we take our time as we head up to the top. On this occasion I was also dogsitting Jordie the Australian Shepherd, so we had a bit of a slow start.

The hardest part of doing Hollyburn is deciding what equipment to use: snowshoes or microspikes. The first half of the trail is narrow and winds through the woods; it sees a lot of traffic so unless it just snowed, it’ll almost surely be packed down, making it ideal for microspikes. But once you reach the wide part of the trail, the defined track disappears somewhat and it’s a bit of a choose-your-own adventure up to the top, so it’s fun to have snowshoes. The last time I went I brought both.

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My backpack has straps for carrying snowshoes, so I carried them up the first half and then switched over. Its definitely easier in microspikes, but maybe not worth it if the rest of your group is wearing snowshoes anyways because they won’t be able to keep up with you. If there hasn’t been any fresh snow in a while, you might be able to get away with spikes on the whole trail, but you never know what it’s going to be like until you get up there and it does give you less freedom to explore.

On this particular day it was a bit overcast, so we couldn’t see much of the view, but it still made for some fun shots as the clouds moved around us. It did eventually clear out at the top and we got a glimpse of the city through the clouds. On a clear day you also get a great view looking back at Cypress Mountain and the uninhabited North Shore mountains, which is my favourite view from the top. Jordie had a great time hiking up the mountain, but make sure to keep your dog on a leash. One time I saw a woman with a small dog who got fined by the park ranger for having her dog off leash.

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The highlight of the day for me though was that Brandon decided he wanted to have a fondue picnic at the top of the mountain. The idea sounded pretty epic to us so we each dutifully lugged a container of pre-cut fruit that Brandon doled out to us up to the top of the mountain and Brandon carried up his stove and fondue kit. I’m not going to pretend like we didn’t all poke fun of him with his full size backpack the whole way up, but we all ate our words at the top when we saw the huge spread he’d brought up for us! He melted a ton of chocolate and before we knew it we were enjoying chocolate covered strawberries, bananas, pineapple, mango, marshmallows, and some other mystery fruit, while the rest of the hikers gaped at us. Definitely one of my favourite snowshoeing experiences, so thanks Brandon!

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The hike back down is where things really get interesting. I’m not gonna lie, the last section of the trail is pretty steep and you’re exhausted by the time you reach the top. Going down is less tiring, but definitely not easier. It’s really hard to go down the trail on snowshoes and most people opt to slide down on their butt instead. My word of advice for this is that if you’re going to slide down, take your snowshoes off. Otherwise they just create a hazard and make it really easy for you to break your leg. Snow pants are a good idea on the way down to stay dry, but don’t bring a sled of any kind. There’s actually signs up now prohibiting sleds and crazy carpets, but I did it once on a crazy carpet before said signs went up and I can confirm it’s dangerous. You pick up too much speed and it’s hard to control. Your best bet is to just walk sideways as much as possible until you get past the steep section, or slide on your butt.

Coming down is fun though because on the right day you get a great view looking down the mountain to the city! So overall a great snowshoe trail that I’ll definitely continuing doing! It’s close to the city, free, and has great views. The only downside is the crowds – if you’re going on a weekend, try and get there early if you want to get a parking spot!

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Howe Sound Crest Trail: Part I

I finally hiked the Howe Sound Crest Trail!

Seriously, I’ve been trying to hike this trail since 2017. We couldn’t do it as planned in 2017 because there was too much snow on the trail, in 2018 it was too smoky, and in 2019 there was an issue with re-routing the trail. But the stars finally aligned and I hiked it in mid August with Carolyn and Emily. It was not at all what I expected – I knew it would be a tough trail, but the topography was so much more challenging than I anticipated. That said, we had amazing weather for it and still had a great time!

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The Howe Sound Crest Trail is a 29km trail that runs from Cypress Mountain to Porteau Cove. It passes by several iconic peaks and is popular among trail runners. The window for hiking the trail is short, which is why we had so much trouble with it – there’s generally still snow up there in June, which is very dangerous because of snow bridges and snow wells. But what makes the hike so challenging is water access. Once you leave Cypress, there’s no water access for 14km, so you either have to bring a lot of water with you, or hike the most challenging part of the trail in a single day. 14km doesn’t really sound like that much, but there’s a lot of elevation gain and it involves crossing many challenging peaks. It can definitely be done, but I think it would make the trail less enjoyable as there’d be less time to appreciate the views. Plus the most challenging part of the 14km is the last 4km, so it’s easy to think you’re making a good pace and then get hung up at the end.

So long story short, we opted to bring extra water. I think this was definitely the right choice for us, but it was a 30 degree weekend and we drank more than we thought and ended up having to conserve at the end, so in future I would bring even more. But let’s start at the beginning. Because we were planning to do the trail over 3 days, we took Friday off work to get a head start on the trail. Generally there is no pass needed to hike the HSCT, but BC Parks has the new day pass system, so I got up at 6am to get passes for us. I managed to snag 3 passes, but they sold out by 6:01am, so you definitely have to be on the ball.

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We arrived at Cypress around 9am and there were a ton of people hanging out in the parking lot. The first stop on the HSCT is St. Mark’s Summit, which is super popular among day hikers, so we think that’s who was taking up most of the day passes. After St. Mark’s the traffic on the trail was drastically reduced. Seth dropped us off and I believe we started hiking sometime around 9:30am. I figured this would give us lots of time, but it was still almost 6pm by the time we rolled into our campsite at the 11km mark, so definitely give yourself lots of time.

Thanks to the early start we were able to hike at a pretty leisurely pace. It didn’t take long at all to get to St. Mark’s, mostly I think because me and Carolyn hadn’t seen each other in a while and we were gabbing the whole way there. We stopped at St. Mark’s for a snack break and then got lost trying to get back on the trail. Overall the trail isn’t too hard to follow, but there were definitely several sections where we ended up off course, so I was glad me and Carolyn both had GPS as we used it more than once to find the trail.

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The second stop on the trail is Unnecessary Mountain – I found this one a little confusing because there were two unnecessary mountains showing up on my GPS, the first of which was marked South. We were getting pretty hungry for lunch, so we stopped to eat when we hit the ridge, before reaching Unnecessary Mountains. Like I said, it was a hot day. We thought it would be cooler up in the mountains, but most of the trail is exposed, so it was definitely hot the whole weekend. I had a large iced tea before starting the trail to hydrate, but Emily forgot and was pretty dehydrated starting out, so she drank her water a lot faster.

The view of Howe Sound and the Lions from Unnecessary Mountain is gorgeous, but after that the trail gets a lot harder. It’s a pretty technical trail, with lots of rope sections, climbing, and steep ascents and descents. It’s a through trail (rather than a loop), so you can hike from either direction, but almost everyone goes from Cypress to Porteau Cove because you’re basically hiking from Cypress Mountain down to the highway and people want to avoid all the elevation gain.

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It may be challenging, but the section of trail leading up and past the Lions is one of the most beautiful parts of the trail. We hiked along the ridge up towards the West Lion. It was a bit of a climb, so we continued to drink lots of water with the sun bearing down on us. You can summit the West Lion along the trail – we hadn’t decided whether we were going to attempt it or not – but once we got a look at it, me and Emily were firmly in the ‘no’ category. Carolyn is much more intrepid than us and I know she would have hiked it in a heartbeat, but it was now after 4pm and the trail started with two steep rope sections, so we all agreed it wasn’t really a wise choice.

Instead we had a break under the West Lion and then started the descent down and around it. For those not familiar with the Lions, they are two iconic mountains located just outside Vancouver. The familiar looking humps can easily be seen from the city and have become a bit of a symbol of Vancouver. I’ve seen them tons of times, from the city, from other trails, and even from helicopter, but I’ve definitely never been so close to them – it felt a little unreal. Both Lions are incredibly steep, I’m not sure if you can physically hike the East Lion or not, but either way, you’re not allowed to because it’s located in the watershed. Metro Vancouver has one of the best protected watersheds and absolutely no recreation is permitted inside it. The HSCT skirts right along the watershed and the trail unbelievably enough, goes right between the two Lions.

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Between the two lions there is another smaller peak called Thomas’ Peak. The scariest section of the trail was definitely traversing down the side of the West Lion to Thomas Peak. You go down a steep section, which isn’t too bad, but then you have to navigate a small ledge around the edge of the Lion and up to Thomas Peak. It’s not terrifying, but you definitely proceed with caution. From there though there’s an amazing view down into the watershed and Capilano Lake. Some of the best city views of the Lions are from Cap Lake, so the same can be said when you’re looking back the other way too.

As we went over Thomas Peak, we were starting to get pretty done with hiking. There’s 3 official campsites on the trail, and one unofficial, which is the one we were aiming for. I couldn’t find its location on any maps and had just seen it listed as “the ridge above Enchantment Lake”. I knew it was located around 11km, so we were planning to just look for anywhere good to camp along the trail once we passed the Lions (which are located around 10km). From Thomas Peak, you can see the trail as it winds over peak after peak, but we couldn’t really see anywhere that looked great to pitch a tent.

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As we started to come down, I noticed a ridge branching off the main trail that looked promising. Fortunately, it wasn’t too far away (less than a km, as we’ve established) and when we reached the branch, it quickly became evident this was the place. We were just confused because we assumed “the ridge” was on the trail, but it’s just off to the right of the trail as you come down Thomas Peak. There’s no easily accessible water source from the trail, but there are some flat spots to pitch a tent. If you’re desperate, you can hike down to Enchantment Lake, but it’s a bit of a trek. There’s also a small pond on the other side, but it’s located in the watershed, so this should not be part of your plan.

We had to do a bit of water assessment after we set up our tent. Emily had drained her 2 litre platypus around the West Lion, but me and Carolyn were still on our initial supply. We had each brought 4litres. It was enough, but only because we put a lot of effort into conserving towards the end. My logic had been 2L for the first day, 1L for overnight, and 1L for the 3km the next day. We had brought sandwiches for lunch to avoid needing water for cooking, but had forgotten to take into account water for our oatmeal (only 150ml a person, so not the end of the world), but we hadn’t taken enough for how hot it was. Also, the 3km the following day was SUPER challenging and ended up taking us 3 hours, so we really could have used more water for that as well. It’s not a great feeling having to conserve water, so if I did it again I would bring 5-6L. We might have had a different experience on a cool day, but always plan for the worst.

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Our campsite was amazing though! We shared it with one other group of 2 women, who we’d been passing back and forth on the trail all day. We were located right under the Lions and it was dreamy to watch the sun set over the Sound and then watch the stars come out around the Lions. I thought there would be too much ambient light for stars, but the stargazing was actually great – though there was still too much ambient light for star photography (at least for a notice like me). So overall, it was a challenging, but fun first day on the trail and we were thrilled with the location of our campsite! You definitely need nice weather to hike this trail though, I can only image how slippery and dangerous it would be in the rain – plus camping would be very exposed in any adverse conditions. But luckily for us, all we had to worry about was heat management.

I’ll end the post there for now – check back in for my next post on the second half of the trail!

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