Hiking Yellow Aster Butte

Last week I wrote about my trip to the Skyline Divide Trail in 2018, so I figured I’d continue on writing about some more of my adventures across the border in the Mount Baker Wilderness Area. The second hike I decided to explore in the North Cascades was Yellow Aster Butte. I have Stephen Hui’s book “105 Hikes in and Around Southwestern BC”, which features 3 hikes down in the cascades, so me and Lien decided to try and do them all. We were already down one with Skyline Divide and we thought that ‘Yellow Aster’ sounded promising for fall colours and decided to attempt it a year later in early October 2019.

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It was just me and Lien on the hike, so we got up early to cross the border through Sumas and then followed the forestry road up off the main road to the trailhead. I don’t think they plow this road in the winter, so access to the hike would be limited by the road conditions. The trail profile is really similar to Skyline Divide in that both hikes are 13km long, but with 750m of elevation gain, Yellow Aster Butte is a little bit steeper.

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The trail starts with lots of bright colours as you weave your way through some low shrubs and trees looking out towards Mount Baker. Honestly, the trailhead is probably the most colourful part of the entire trail because from there you head into the woods for a few kilometers to climb up to the alpine. On the East Coast, most of the fall colours come from the trees, but my experience on the west coast has been that most of the colours come from the shrubs. The low lying plants turn beautiful hues of orange, yellow, and red. The bottom of the trail was mostly oranges and yellows, but once we popped out into the alpine, there were a lot more reds along the trail.

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Once you exit the woods, you continue climbing up around a big bowl to the butte. For those who aren’t familiar, a butte is an isolated hill with steep sides and a flat top. Personally I think yellow aster butte is a bit of a misnomer because it looks a lot more like a mountain to me than anything else, but I’m no expert. As you keep climbing, the views start to open up more and more. There were a few overripe blueberries hanging on along the trail and it looked like the area had recently received its first smattering of snow. It’s a bit of a barren area, but still very scenic.

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The trail is a little flatter as you circle around the edge of the bowl, but then it starts climbing again to the end of the trail, with a steep section up to the top of the butte. This part of the trail had snow on it when we visited, but it was the kind of snow that makes you really unsure about what kind of footwear to use. I think studs would have been ideal, but we only had microspikes, so we used those. They were clumping up a bit from the dirt underneath the snow, so we probably could have just struggled up without them, but why risk it when we carried the spikes all the way up there anyways!

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From the top there are some pretty awesome views of the trail and we stopped to have lunch. Despite it being weeks earlier than when we’d hiked Skyline Divide the previous year, it was much colder and I bundled up in my winter parka, contrasting the shorts I’d been wearing the year before. It just goes to show you really have to be prepared for any weather, especially when hiking in shoulder season. While we felt like we were on top of the world, the trail actually continues another kilometer down the ridge and back up to another peak on the other side. Some people were crawling down the bank to finish the hike, but we decided it wasn’t worth the risk along slippery ground. The view from the first peak is absolutely incredible so we were already satisfied.

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We took our time coming back down, stopping to snack on some berries and taking lots of pictures of the surrounding vista. We were in a bit of a goofy mood, which is one of my favourite ways to feel on a hike, so we took lots of funny pictures of us in our surroundings and generally had a good laugh on the way down. Despite the cold weather, it was still a really nice day and we resolved to come back the following week to do the Chain Lakes Trail!

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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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Hiking Lightning Lakes

This is the third post in my Manning Park mini-series, so it’s time to talk about one of Manning’s most popular day hikes – Lightning Lakes. Manning Park has 3 campgrounds inside the park: Hampton, Cold Spring, and Lightning Lakes. I’ve camped at Hampton several times and once at Lightning Lakes. Of the 3, Lightning Lakes is definitely the most popular, so you have to be on the ball when booking, which is why I usually end up at Hampton. The nice thing about Manning Park though is that with 3 campgrounds, you don’t have to book a site right when they release, there’s usually something available.

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So in 2017, me and my friends starting making a car camping trip to Manning Park an annual thing. We drive up after work on Friday, do a short hike on Saturday, and then spend the rest of the weekend taking it easy. Usually our trips are all about physical activities, but our manning trip has always been about lazing at the beach, drinking beer, and playing games. After a big breakfast on Saturday morning, we usually relocate to the Lightning Lakes day use area for the rest of the day to hike, go swimming, and have a BBQ. It’s usually too chilly for swimming in the morning, so we’ve gotten in the habit of exploring around the lake.

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Lightning Lakes is as the name suggests, more than 1 lake. The first lake is located at the Day Use area and you can hang out at the picnic tables or rent a boat to explore for the day. There’s a bit of an offshoot from the lake on the other side of the boat launch and then if you follow the river up from the main lake, there’s a second long lake heading into the backcountry. There is a bridge across the river, so you can opt to do just the bottom lake, just the top lake, or both. The first year we’d intended to do both, but the length of the hike is actually a little bit misleading and it is longer than you think, so we ended up just exploring around the first lake. Then our second year we did the opposite and hiked around the back lake. Whatever you choose, make sure you cross the bridge! In my opinion it’s the most scenic part of the lake. There’s very little elevation gain on the hike, so it makes for a nice leisurely walk.

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As I mentioned, you can also rent boats at the lake. I’ve never done this myself because we have a little rubber dinghy that we usually bring, but some time I would like to rent a canoe and go up the river to the end of the lake. Some people find the lake pretty cold for swimming, but we’ve always enjoyed it. There’s also a large dog beach on the east side of the day use area and it’s fun to watch the ground squirrels popping out of their burrows and running around on the grass.

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I definitely prefer Lightning Lakes in the summer, but it does also make for a great snowshoeing location in the winter. Manning is one of my favourite places to snowshoe because unlike the North Shore and the Sea to Sky, it consistently gets snow all winter, so there’s always been fresh powder around when I’ve gone out there. This past winter I went out when my parents were visiting and we snowshoed up to the end of the second lake. We followed the trail on the way up and walked back across the lake. Careful doing this obviously – make sure it’s mid-winter and that’s it’s been cold for a while surrounding your visit.

So if you’re looking for a short, fun, and scenic hike; Lightning Lakes makes for a great pick any time of year!