Elfin Lakes Girl Guide Trip

Since I just wrote about the bike trip I took with Girl Guides, I figured I’d continue the trend by writing about a backpacking trip I did in September 2019 to Elfin Lakes. I wrote this post almost right after the trip, but I never got around to posting it, so with the changing of the seasons (foreshadowing), I thought it was finally time! This was my most recent trip to Elfin Lakes, but I’ve been 3 other times, all of which were very different experiences. Read about my Fall day hike, summer tenting trip, and winter snow camping experience for my stories about the trail.

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I’ve been wanting to take my Pathfinder group into the wilderness, but you need previous experience on backcountry trips with girls before you can lead your own, so I jumped at the opportunity to join the North Vancouver Trex group on this trip. It was only my second trip into the backcountry with Girl Guides, but for some reason I always seem to encounter the craziest weather on guide trips, and this one was no exception!

We were a group of 12 and we planned to hike up to Elfin Lakes on Friday, tent for 2 nights – day hiking to Opal Cone on Saturday – and then hiking back down on Sunday. Needless to say, things did not go quite as planned. We do our best to be prepared as girl guides. The forecast was calling for rain on Friday and temps down to -8 degrees celsius overnight, so we packed lots of rain gear and warm clothes for sleeping. However, the temperature ended up dropping a lot faster than we expected and the rain started to turn to snow just before we reached Red Heather Hut, which is almost the halfway point up to the lakes.

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The girls were thrilled about the snow, which was falling gently, and I have to admit, hiking in the snow is a lot nicer than hiking in the rain. We had hot noodle soup for lunch before continuing on to the lakes. It was still September at this point and it was obvious it was the first snowfall of the year. However, the snow started to accumulate pretty quickly and it started snowing heavier as we continued on from the hut. Fortunately, there was no wind, but visibility wasn’t great and we couldn’t see any of the views on the way up. I admit, the further we hiked, the more apprehensive I got.

I wasn’t really nervous about camping in the snow, because I have done that before and we had brought really warm gear, but we didn’t have snow boots or snow pants and it was increasingly obvious we weren’t going to be able to hike to Opal Cone the following day. Even though it was calling for sun and blue skies on Saturday and Sunday, there was too much snow to hike further without proper footwear. But we just focused on getting to the hut and the girls did really well managing the conditions. Fortunately no one got cold or wet feet on the way up!

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We hit the hut around 4pm and everyone was thrilled to go inside. I think the girls were thinking we were going to abandon the tenting idea and just sleep in the hut, but as we had only booked tent pads and there were 12 of us, that wasn’t really an option (although obviously in an emergency we would have camped out on the floor if we had to.) We made them hot drinks to warm up and everyone hung their wet gear by the fire. I have to say, the girls had a great attitude when we told them we were still planning to camp. The snow did start to slack off and was almost stopped when we went back outside an hour later to scope out the tent pads. Fortunately the clouds had started to lift and you could just start to see the surrounding mountains (which are incredibly striking from the tent pads at Elfin Lakes), so the girls started to get excited again about tenting.

We shoveled off the tent pads and set up 4 tents. This proved to be a bit more of a challenge than we anticipated because it was pretty darn windy when we were setting them up. We had to weigh them down with rocks and then shove all our gear inside them to hold them down. Then we had the added difficultly that we couldn’t peg them because of the tent pad, but we eventually managed to get them set up and soon after that the wind died down and I didn’t give it much more thought.

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By the time we finished it had really cleared off and we had fun getting some photos of the mountains and the tents. Time really got away from us with the weather though and it was 8pm before we finally had supper in the hut. We had pesto pasta and re-hydrated coleslaw for dinner, with 2 bite brownies and reese peanut butter cups for dessert. After that we pretty much hit the sack because we were all exhausted. Unfortunately we decided we couldn’t stay for a second night because it just wouldn’t be safe to hike to Opal Cone and the girls didn’t have the appropriate gear to play in the snow, so it made the most sense to just hike back out on Saturday. The girls took the news pretty well and were very understanding.

I stayed up to get some star photos and then nestled into my sleeping bag for the night. It was pretty calm when we went to bed, so I thought that was the end of it, but oh was I ever wrong. Around 3 or 4am a wind storm blew in that totally put our tents to the test. I grew up in Newfoundland, which is super windy, but I never really did much tenting there, and not in recent years, so sadly I’ve kind of gotten used to tenting without wind. As a result, I never guy line my tent and only ever peg it really to protect from the rain. So it never really occurred to me to guy line the tents. It had occurred to the other leader though, but she had forgotten her rope, so she never brought it up (not realizing I always bring extra rope with me).

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Anyways, I’m sure you see where this is going, but the wind was really strong. I’ve never tented in wind like that and it was totally billowing the tent in and out. It woke everyone up and the girls started freaking out a bit, but everyone’s tents looked fine, so we told them to go back to sleep. Then I was woken up again at 5:30am by one of the other Guiders when her tent collapsed on her and two girls. When we looked at the other two tents the girls were in, it really looked like they were going to collapse soon too. So we had to put the first tent back up and then I got my rope and we guylined them all to the tent pads. Somehow my tent was the only one that didn’t look close to collapsing, but we were in a slightly different area than the rest of the tents, so the wind may have been blowing slightly differently.

It was still super windy in the tent, but the guylines did the trick to prevent any more collapses and we were able to go back to sleep until 8am. The wind never really let up though and it battered us all morning when we tried to take the tents down as well. but it was a beautiful sunny day and the blue sky and fresh snow made for a really beautiful view. We had sunrise spuds for breakfast and then packed everything up again to head down.

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I was worried it was going to be super slippery on the way down and was concerned about not having spikes (my friend once broke her arm in similar conditions), but the snow was still fresh enough that it hadn’t been compacted into ice yet, so it wasn’t too bad. We had a little photo shoot on the ridge looking down on the lake and then hiked back to the Red Heather hut for lunch again.

We had one more spot of adventure on the way down. One of the girls rolled her ankle about a kilometre from the end, but fortunately it seemed to be only sprained and she was able to slowly walk the last little bit out. We divvied up some of her gear and strapped the rest of the pack to my front to carry it out and we all made it down to the parking lot in one piece!

With the exception of the first photo, all pictures were taken on Day 2!

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Day Hiking Elfin Lakes

To date, I’ve hiked the Elfin Lakes trail 4 times. I’ve written about the first time I camped on the tent pads and the first time I went snow camping, but I’ve never written about my very first visit, which was a day hike with Brandon in 2016.

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Thanksgiving is usually a bit of a hit or miss for me since I don’t have any family in BC. I’ve always celebrated it, but whether or not I’ve celebrated during the actual Thanksgiving weekend depends what my friends are up to. In 2016, most of them had other plans, so we celebrated a week later, leaving me with nothing to do over the long weekend. Brandon and I decided to do a big day hike and though this was our first one, it ended up becoming an annual thanksgiving tradition for the 2 of us. I’m not sure if Elfin Lakes is a particularly Fall hike, but I have a tendency to think about it that way because most of my visits have been in September and October.

We left really early to take advantage of the limited daylight hours. Elfin Lakes is a 22km hike, with 600m of elevation gain, so it’s by no means a short hike. However, with the elevation spread over such a long distance, it doesn’t feel too steep.

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The first 5 kilometres to the Red Heather Hut are the worst part. It’s the steepest part of the trail and it’s just a boring access road through the forest. We made really quick time on the way up and didn’t stop too long at the hut before continuing on along the rest of the trail. The next 6km are much more scenic, though it was very cloudy on the way up, so we didn’t see a whole lot along that section either. But the hike is much flatter and just meanders along the ridge.

I can’t remember the exact time we got to the shelter, but it was super early. We wasted no time on the hike up and when we crested the last ridge, we didn’t even realize because it was so foggy we couldn’t see the lakes until we were basically on top of them. It was a little disappointing, but it was October, so not totally unexpected. We spent a little bit of time in the shelter hoping the fog would clear before deciding to continue a little farther up the trail, hoping we’d eventually get some views.

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Brandon always brings out the best adventurer in me. Looking back I’m pretty impressed with myself that at the midpoint of a 22km hike I agreed to hike further, but I did and we continued up along the trail to the Saddle, which goes up towards the Gargoyles. The Elfin Lakes trail actually continues another 11km to Mamquam Lake, passing Opal Cone along the way, but there’s a short offshoot near the hut that is popular among backcountry skiers. You leave the main trail and hike up this bowl to the saddle between the two peaks. There was some snow on this part of the trail, but not enough to deter us from going.

It did get deeper as we got closer to the top. My legs were starting to hurt and I was really nervous about aggravating my knees which such a long hike still ahead of me, so I eventually bailed out for a snack and Brandon continued on to the top of the saddle. The clouds had started to clear out so we finally got a view of the lakes and the surrounding mountains. It was still marred by wisps of clouds hanging around all the peaks and low to the ground, but it made for some dramatic views!

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Eventually we turned around and made our way back to the lake for lunch. This was only my second season hiking with Brandon and up to this point he’d been super keen on looking out for me whenever we were adventuring. The very first hike we did together was a day trip up to Garibaldi Lake and Brandon hiked it with a full backpack because he wanted to bring lunch for everyone, packing up fancy sandwich meats, cheeses, avocado, and containers of fresh berries as snacks! Then when we did our first backpacking trip to Tenquille Lake he hiked in an axe so that we could have a proper campfire and made us scrambled eggs for breakfast!

I’ve since learned that this is how Brandon sucks in new hiking friends. He’s always looking for new people to hike with and he really wants for you to have a good time, so he lures you in with all these fancy luxuries. Then, once he’s got you hooked, he drops all the pretenses and suddenly becomes a super lightweight hiker who lives off salmon jerky.

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By this point, I guess I’d become savvy enough on my own and this was the first trip where Brandon showed up with just his water vest – big enough for a few snacks and a jacket. I was a few years into being a girl guide leader at this point, so I’d gotten pretty big on safety (though not as intense as I am these days), so I thought he was a little batty to go into the wilderness with so little, but I had my own gear, so I didn’t make a big deal about it.

Now those who know me will tell you I’m a big eater and snacker. I always bring a sandwich and you’ll never catch me heading out with just jerky. So as we were sitting down in the hut for lunch, I was making fun of Brandon that he was going to be so jealous of my sandwich, when he realized he’d forgotten his salmon jerky in the car! So Mr. lightweight had no treats and just a grumbling tummy. Obviously I shared with him because I always bring more than enough food, but as a result I gained the right to make fun of him for it the rest of the trek!

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We spent some time exploring around the lake before heading back down to the car. The trek back was a lot more scenic now that we could see some of the surrounding mountains and as with any day hike, it inspired me to come back the following year for a proper backpacking trip! Even 4 trips in, I still love Elfin Lakes and it remains on my bucket list because I want to hike all the way to Mamquam Lake one day.

Elfin Lakes Backpacking Trip

Now that I’ve finished my Manning Park mini-series, I decided to write about my first backpacking trip to Elfin Lakes. I’ve hiked to Elfin Lakes 4 times and camped there 3 times, but my first trip stands out as my favourite trip up to the lakes.

It was the Labour Day long weekend in 2017. I really wanted to do a fun backpacking trip for the whole weekend, but everyone seemed to have other weekend plans and no one would commit to hike up there with me for 3 days. To this day, I’m not really sure how I managed it, but somehow I convinced Brandon, Karen, and Grant to rotate up there with me. Karen is my oldest friend – she likes coming on day hikes with me and has done some backpacking in the past, but is a little more nervous about venturing into the backcountry. But Grant was enthusiastic about it, so I convinced the two of the them to hike up with me and stay for Saturday night. I have tons of extra gear, so Karen agreed to borrow some and give it a try. I still can’t quite believe I got them to come up with me, but they did and we had a great time!

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Before we left, I desperately wanted them to have a good time so they’d come out again with me in the future, so I loaded my pack up pretty heavy, gave Grant the pot and stove, and pretty much left Karen to just carry her personal gear. It’s an 11km hike up to Elfin Lakes, which is definitely a bit on the longer side for some hikes. The elevation gain is pretty reasonable spread over the 11km, but it is still a steady climb for most of the trail and it was a really hot day. The first part of the trail is 5km along an old service road. It’s not the most scenic, so it can be a bit of a slog to hike over. But everyone survived and we stopped for lunch at the Heather Hut.

From there things got fun. We continued on along the rest of the trail, which is incredibly scenic as it travels further into Garibaldi Park. Karen was pretty beat out towards the end, but she still did the whole hike no problem! So Karen, please remember, you are your own worst critic when it comes to outdoor activities and you are awesome. Pretty please come backpacking with me again some day!

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Elfin Lakes has one of my favourite campgrounds, which is probably why I keep going back. I’ve camped there 3 times, but I’ve still yet to sleep in the hut. There’s 50 tent pads running along the hillside meadow and they provide a truly epic view out towards the rest of the park and the surrounding mountains. We set up my 3 person tent, which was definitely cozy for 3 people, and dipped into Karen’s massive snack stash. She had every kind of snack you can imagine, so long as it had chocolate. Her trail mix was basically just a chocolate smorgasbord with the occasional nut thrown in – not a bad decision in my opinion!

We wasted away the afternoon lounging on the tent pad and went for a swim in the lake. Elfin Lakes is completely fed by snowmelt and rainwater, but it’s pretty shallow, so by the end of August, it was actually really warm. I made fettucine alfredo for dinner because it is Karen’s favourite meal – I had to use powdered milk, but it actually turned out surprisingly well! It’s the only time I’ve gotten to make it in the backcountry because Emily and Carolyn don’t like dairy and Brandon always makes thai curry chicken. We enjoyed watching the sun set over the mountains and looking at all the stars that came out on what was an awesome cloudless night. I tried to convince Karen that we should sleep with the fly off to look at the stars, but she was worried about getting cold, so we left it on and did our best to get some sleep with 3 people crammed in the tent.

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The downside of leaving the fly on is that it creates a bit of a greenhouse effect when the sun does finally peak over the mountains in the morning. So it got pretty hot in the tent pretty fast, which was successful in getting us out of bed in the morning. The plan for Sunday was for Karen and Grant to pack up and head back down to the car and for Brandon to drive out early that morning and meet me at the lake for noon. Karen and Grant had an even easier hike out because Karen got to leave some of her borrowed sleeping gear behind for Brandon so that he could hike up faster and Grant got to leave the cookware behind. So with his sleeping pad, tent, and all the cooking supplies already at the campsite, Brandon had a pretty empty pack on the way up. I had just told him he had to bring up our supper.

Karen and Grant expected to see Brandon on the way down, but they must have missed him when they took a break in the Heather Hut, because they never did see each other. Brandon had a late start leaving Vancouver, but he somehow hiked up the entire trail in just 2 hours and still met me right at noon at the lake! I had a very lazy morning, went for another swim and did some reading while I waited for Brandon. I made lunch in time for his arrival and we quickly ate our wraps and hit the trail again for a day hike.

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Brandon is truly a machine. He hiked 11km that morning just so he could meet me to continue hiking. We both really wanted to go to Mamquam Lake – admittedly, noon was a bit late to be leaving for Mamquam, which is another 22km round trip from Elfin lakes, but we decided to try it anyways and set off with a good spring in our step.

Unsurprisingly, we never made it to Mamquam. It’s usually cooler in the mountains and it was the first weekend in September, so we weren’t expecting such hot weather. It ended up being somewhere between 30-35 degrees during the afternoon. That’s too hot for hiking on any day, but it felt even worse on the trail to Mamquam, which is extremely dry and dusty and is completely open. There’s no shade to be found anywhere on the trail and as we started to climb up the switchbacks on our way up Opal Cone, it was pretty exhausting. It’s still a beautiful hike, but we felt pretty small as we crawled our way up and around the cone.

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After Opal Cone, you descend down into a bit of a crater. There’s a small lake from melting snow, but it feels a bit other worldly as you walk across all that barreness. We continued walking across the sweltering alpine desert, but when we reached a sign that said it was still 4km to Mamquam Lake, we finally decided to admit defeat. I’m sure Brandon would have continued on – lots of times he encourages me to push myself further on the hikes we do – but sometimes he also needs for me to be the voice of reason. 4km didn’t sound like that much more, but with the round trip it would be another 8km. If we turned around now, it would still be a 27km hiking day for Brandon and 16km for me. At the time I was breaking in a new pair of backpacking boots and I feared we’d just be getting ourselves into trouble to push forward in the blinding heat. Plus I really wanted to swim in the lakes once more and if we kept going it would be too late by the time we got back – though in retrospect, I could also have swam in Mamquam.

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Anyways, we decided to call it there, took a break to have some snacks, and then turned back. My only regret is that we went straight back and never finished Opal Cone by going up the short side trail to the summit. So I definitely still need to go back some day and go the whole way to Mamquam.

We had a bit of a debacle on the way back though. We were hiking around the edge of the cone heading back towards the switchbacks when Brandon decided it was time for a pee break. I continued on along the trail to give him some privacy, but when I reached the end of the first switchback, I decided to wait for him. It was still a pretty busy day on the trail, so I waited at the end of the switchback while people passed me. After a while I started to wonder what was taking so long and where Brandon was. I’d been waiting around for the better part of 15-20 minutes and he hadn’t shown up. Brandon always hikes in a cowboy hat and bandana, so he’s pretty easy to recognize on the trail. So I started asking everyone coming down if they’d passed an Asian cowboy at any point in the last 10 minutes and consistently got the answer no. I’m a bit high strung on a good day, so this was when I started to panic a little bit.

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It’s a pretty steep trail, so I was worried that with so many people on the trail, Brandon had tried to go too far into the trees and had fallen. I headed back the direction I’d just come, calling for him and trying to listen for his whistle. I walked all the way back to where he’d stopped to pee and there was no sign of him, which was when I really started to panic. At this point we were like 18km into the wilderness and I had no way to call for help. I started heading back towards the switchbacks again and as I passed people coming up, I finally got some answers.

Turns out when he was trying to catch up with me, Brandon found a little shortcut past the first switchback and while I’d been waiting for him at the first switchback, he’d been further down waiting for me at the second switchback. When the people I’d talked to saw him as they continued down, they immediately recognized his cowboy hat and told him I was further back looking for him. He started climbing back up to me at the same time I turned back to go look for him and when I finally switched directions again, I had someone stop me and reassure me that my “cowboy” was fine and he was coming back up for me. We were soon reunited, but it ended up being about a half hour that we were separated and it really struck home how easy it is to get in trouble in the backcountry. One little misunderstanding resulted in a lot of confusion for both of us. So we agreed no more shortcuts in the future unless we attempt them together.

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We made it back to the campsite shortly before 5pm and had just enough time to go for a dip in the lake before it started to cool off again. It felt great to wash all the dust and sweat off after a long day of hiking in the dry sun. Brandon made his infamous thai chicken curry and we ate while watching the sun set over the mountain. We were a bit giddy after our long day of hiking, so we decided to stay up and take star photos. I’ve mentioned before that I prefer taking photos on my camera to my cell phone and since 2012 I’ve been using a Sony compact system camera. When I bought it in 2012, there weren’t very few mirrorless cameras on the market, but I picked it because it was kind of like owning a lightweight DSLR camera. Now Brandon actually has a DSLR and I would never debate that his takes better photos than my mirrorless, but I’ve generally been satisfied with my Sony.

At the time though, I’d broken my camera just a few weeks earlier when I was hiking in Newfoundland (banged it off one too many rocks), so I didn’t have any camera (hence the dicey quality of the first few pictures in this post – the rest are credited to Brandon). But I was anxious to learn about star photos, so we messed around for a few hours with Brandon’s camera. It was another cloudless night of course, so it wasn’t hard to convince Brandon to sleep with the fly off. That was my first time sleeping with the fly off – I’ve done it several times since then, but Elfin Lakes is still my favourite. So we fell asleep gazing at the stars and ended up sleeping quite late in the morning without the ‘fly sauna’ to wake us up when the sun came up.

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By the time we did crawl out of our tent, half of the tent pads had emptied and people had already packed up and left. We took our time over breakfast and packing up our gear before finally leaving to hike back down. We split the gear evenly on the way back, so it was a much easier hike than on the way up. We hiked down pretty fast and were relieved when we could finally jump in Brandon’s 4Runner and blast the AC for the rest of the car ride home!