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!

The Best ‘Long Weekend’ Backpacking Trips

With the Labour Day long weekend coming up, I want to share some of my favourite long weekend backpacking trips! There’s lot of single night hikes in Southwestern BC, but long weekends are the best for backcountry hiking because the extra day enables you to explore further and to really escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. Whether you’re a first timer or a seasoned hiker, here’s 5 of my favourite backpacking trips near Vancouver:

For the Beginner: Lindeman Lake

Trail profile: Day 1 (2km, 300m gain), Day 2 (8km, 200m gain), Day 3 (2km, 200m loss)

Lindeman Lake is the perfect backpacking trip for beginners and one of my personal favourites for long weekend trips. I’ve been to Lindeman Lake twice for the May 24th long weekend and what makes it so great for beginners is that the campsite is only 2km from the parking lot, so it’s a great way to test out carrying a heavy pack for the first time. Once you set up camp, there are all kinds of options for what to explore over the rest of the weekend.

I wrote a post summarizing the different trails, but my recommendation for newbies would be to hike up to the campsite on Day 1 and then do a day hike to Greendrop Lake on Day 2. Greendrop Lake is approximately 8km roundtrip from Lindeman Lake, so it makes for a good day hike. Then on Day 3 you can hike back down to the parking lot and drive home. Lindeman Lake is located in Chilliwack Provincial Park, so you will need a backcountry permit, but there’s no reservation system and it’s only $5 per night, per person. Please remember that no campfires are permitted in this park at any time of year.

 

For the Bucket List Hiker: Garibaldi Lake

Trail profile: Garibaldi Lake Trail (18km, 820m gain), Panorama Ridge (15km, 610m gain), Black Tusk (11km, 820m gain), Mt. Price (11km, 620m gain)

I know, this hike is insanely popular and busy, but it’s popular for a reason! Garibaldi Park is only an hour and a half drive out of Vancouver and it boasts some of the most amazing views of the backcountry. I’ve only been in BC for 5 years and I’ve already done this iconic hike 3 times! There’s a lot to love about Garibaldi Lake, from the beautiful blue hues of the lake, to the breathtaking views of the glaciers and surrounding mountains, to swimming in the ice-cold lake and watching the sunset paint the mountains pink. But my favourite part of Garibaldi Lake is using it as a base from which to explore some of the surrounding trails. While Garibaldi Lake is gorgeous, the trail to the lake itself is a snooze-fest. It’s 9km of forested switchbacks, but has a huge payoff at the end. But from there, the rest of the trails in the park are breath-taking from start to finish!

There’s a few different ways to hike Garibaldi Park as a long weekend trip. I’ve done two long weekend trips to Garibaldi Lake and both times I left work a little early on Friday afternoon and hiked the 9km up to the lake on Friday night. From there, I stayed two nights at the lake and did day hikes on Saturday and Sunday, before hiking back out on Monday. However, if you’re a beginner I would recommend hiking up on Saturday morning instead and just doing one day hike on Sunday. Both times I hiked in Friday night, I started hiking around 5:30pm and got to the lake around dusk. If you’re a new hiker or not comfortable hiking or setting up in the dark, start your hike on Saturday morning instead.

Once you get to Garibaldi Lake though, there’s lots of options for day hikes. Panorama Ridge is my personal favourite and Black Tusk is also very popular. There’s also the lesser known Mount Price, which leaves the lake in the opposite direction of the other two hikes. Panorama and Black Tusk are both very popular and well marked trails, Mount Price is a bit more of a bush wack at times and isn’t well marked. So stick to the well marked trails if you aren’t familiar with way-finding.

However, if you’re making Garibaldi your destination for the long weekend, you’ll have to plan in advance. You must book a backcountry permit in advance for $10 per person, per night. The campsites release 4 months in advance of the date you book and they do book up fast. There is overflow camping at Taylor Meadows campsite, but it’s 1.5km away from the lake and definitely not as nice as the Garibaldi campsite. And as a final reminder, Garibaldi has been having problems with littering, so If you visit Garibaldi, make sure to pack out all of your garbage and leave no trace that you were there.

 

For the Through Hiker: Heather Trail

Trail profile: Day 1 (13.5km, 300m gain), Day 2 (9km, no gain), Day 3 (17.5km, 1000m loss)

Personally, I’m a big fan of through hiking. It’s great when you only have to set up camp once and don’t have to carry your heavy pack with you every day, but there’s something really fulfilling about through hiking and ending at a different location from where you started. It requires a bit more coordination as you’ll often need 2 vehicles, but it’s fun not to have to retrace your steps at any point.

Through hikes often require more time than just a long weekend, but one hike that can be done over 2 nights that I absolutely loved was the Heather Trail in Manning Park (it can also be done as a return hike, but I think it works best as a through hike). Manning Park is my favourite provincial park in southwestern BC and has some of the most scenic hikes. The Heather Trail is particularly well known for its wildflowers as the trail is mostly comprised of alpine meadows that burst into bloom in late July. The other highlights of the trail include walking the ridge along first brother mountain and camping at Nicomen Lake.

On Day 1, drive out to Manning Park and hike 13km to Kicking Horse Campsite. There is another camp called Buckthorn Campsite located at 5km, but it’s an easy walk to Buckthorn and not a scenic camp, so I’d recommend pushing all the way to Kicking Horse on the first day. Along the way, do the 1km summit up First Brother Mountain. On Day 2, it’s a more relaxing 9km hike to Nicomen Lake through meadow after meadow. Nicomen Lake is great for fishing if you’re so inclined, but bring your bug net because there’s a lot of flies. Nicomen Lake technically marks the end of the Heather Trail, but instead of turning around and hiking back 21km, I’d recommend hiking the Nicomen Lake Trail 17km back to the highway. 17km sounds like a lot, but the entire trail is downhill and we did it in just 5 hours. The benefit of hiking the trail this way is that there’s limited elevation gain. The hike starts at Blackwell Road, which is located 1000 metres up from the highway, so you do most of the elevation on the drive up. There’s no reservation system for this hike, but you do need a backcountry permit, which costs $5 per person, per night.

 

For the Long Distance Hiker: Elfin Lakes

Trail profile: Day 1 (11km, 600m gain), Day 2 (13-22km, 350-600m gain), Day 3 (11km, 600m loss)

I’m sensing a theme with this list because Elfin Lakes is another trail I’ve done 3 times! But my favourite was a 3 day trip that I did over the Labour Day long weekend in early September. Elfin Lakes is also located in Garibaldi Park and while it also gets a lot of visitors, it feels a lot less overwhelming than Garibaldi Lake. There’s a hut and tent pads at Elfin Lakes and you will have a similar problem as Garibaldi Lake in that you will need to book your reservation early if you want to be assured a site. The hut books up really fast in the winter and the tent pads book up really fast in the summer.

I say Elfin Lakes feels less overwhelming though because the campsite is much more wide open than Garibaldi and there’s a lot more area for people to disburse during the day, so it doesn’t feel quite as busy. You can swim in both lakes, but the Elfin Lakes are WAY smaller than Garibaldi Lake and therefore, much warmer and enjoyable for swimming. If it’s clear, you can also get an amazing view of the stars at night. My suggestion for Elfin Lakes would be to hike the 11km to the Lake on Day 1, then do a day hike to either Opal Cone or Mamquam Lake on Day 2, and hike out again on Day 3.

I call it the long distance hike because the options for your Day 2 hike are definitely nothing to scoff at. Opal Cone is a 13km round trip from the lakes, with about 350m in elevation gain and Mamquam Lake is a 22km round trip with 600m in elevation gain. I did the trip with my friend Brandon and we tried to get to Mamquam Lake on Day 2, but it was insanely hot and there’s a lot of elevation variation, so we never made it the whole way to Mamquam. We ended up turning back around 8km in, making for 16km in total. But the good news is, Opal Cone and Mamquam are the same trail, so even though we didn’t make it to Mamquam, we still got to do Opal Cone. There’s a lot of ground to cover on this hike, but with the exception of the first 5km from the parking lot, the entire hike is incredibly scenic!

 

For the Photographer: Skyline II Trail

Trail profile: Day 1 (12.5km, 610m gain), Day 2 (14km, minimal gain), Day 3 (12.5km, 610m loss)

Finally, the last hike on the list is not only my favourite hike on the list, but my favourite hike of all time! Like I said, I love Manning Park and for me, the Skyline Trail is the highlight of the park. It’s the most scenic hike I’ve ever done and it’s not even that crowded. Granted I didn’t do it on a long weekend, I took a Friday off to make it my own long weekend, so it might be busier on an actual long weekend. But that said, I did the same thing for the Heather Trail and it was definitely a lot busier.

I also hiked Skyline in peak wildflower season, which may have contributed to my love of the trail, but either way, I think I would have loved this trail because it has so many incredible views. The entire Skyline II Trail is 25km long and can be hiked with as a through hike or a return hike. The trail runs from Manning Park to Skagit Park, with Mowich camp smack-dab in the middle at 12.5km. I did the trail as a return hike from the Manning Side because the 2 trailheads are a 2 hour drive apart, so it’s logistically challenging (but not impossible) to coordinate. My recommendation is to start on the Manning side and hike to Mowich Camp on Day 1. From there, you can day hike along the Hozameen Ridge trail on Day 2, which branches off the main trail and continues towards Hozameen Mountain and the border.

Hozameen mountain is a very distinctive mountain and you’ll be staring at it all of Day 1, so it felt great to hike to the base of it. The trail continues on for a long time and actually ends on the American side of Skagit Valley. A good target for your day hike is to hike 7km to the Border monument. There’s a distinctive peak at the end of the ridge where you could end (because it is a steep downhill to the border monument), but I really wanted to see the monument, so we pushed through the last 500m to reach the monument – but the peak at the end of the ridge is a great place for lunch! We returned to Mowich Camp to sleep and then hiked back out the way we came on Day 3. But since the distance is the same on both sides of the Skyline Trail, you could hike out to the Skagit side instead if you wanted to make it a through hike. I’ve heard the Skagit side isn’t as scenic though and is mostly in the trees, so I didn’t mind hiking back along the same trail. The backcountry permit for this trail is the same as Heather Trail – no advance booking required, but the permit is $5 per day, per person.