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.

Flatiron and Needle Peak Backpacking Trip

My scheduled post for this week was supposed to be about Frosty Mountain, a popular Fall hike I did at the end of September. However, the top of the mountain is now under several feet of snow and hiker Jordan Naterer went missing on this trail on October 10, 2020. If you were hiking on the trail on Thanksgiving weekend and saw Jordan, please contact police. If you’re thinking about doing Frosty Mountain yourself, I’d recommend waiting until next year as the season for doing this hike has now passed. In light of this tragedy I’ve decided to postpone that post for another time and write instead about a backpacking trip I went on back in July.

There’s so much exploring to do in the summer, I’m always behind on writing about my adventures, but this summer I had an amazing experience stargazing at Flatiron. I’ve been getting into star photography over the past few years, but Brandon is the real night sky enthusiast of the group. He tries to catch the Perseid meteor shower every year and this year he was really stoked about the Neowise Comet. We decided to make an attempt at stargazing and spent forever trying to come up with a good place to go looking for it. You can’t be too close to the city because there’s so much ambient light, and we wanted to be sure we’d have a good view from our campsite, meaning we needed an unobstructed view looking Northwest. We floated around a few campsites we’d been to before, but nothing was really quite right. Then I remembered Flatiron, which me and Brandon had day hiked in the fall of 2018, and we thought we had a good chance of clear views from the top.

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Since we were camping overnight, we didn’t have the earliest start. Flatiron is located in the Coquihalla Summit Rec Area, so it’s a little over 2 hours from my house with no traffic. It was around 1pm when we pulled into the parking lot – we figured we were going to have a hard time parking, but because we arrived later in the day, lots of people were finishing their day hikes, so we managed to snag a spot no problem. We ate lunch in the parking lot and then started hiking sometime around 1:30pm. Our group consisted of our North Coast Trail crew since we’re all in the same bubble and have gotten pretty good at camping together.

Flatiron isn’t the longest trail, only 11km round trip, but it is definitely a steep one. We’d day hiked Mount Cheam the previous week and I’d had a really hard go of it for some reason (just a bad day I guess), but I was feeling pretty good on Flatiron. Lien was having a hard time with all the elevation gain, but we plugged along, taking short, frequent breaks. The more challenging part was the heat. The summer started off slow, but overall, it ended up being a really hot one. I find it’s usually hot in Vancouver throughout the summer, but then I always end up going to the mountains where it’s a lot cooler. This year I found the mountains felt just as hot, so we were really sweating buckets as we climbed up.

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After about an hour you come out of the woods and start hiking up over the rocks towards Needle Peak. Flatiron and Needle Peak are two separate hikes, but they share much of the same trail. Eventually you reach the junction and you can either start the steep ascent up to Needle Peak, or you can continue on to Flatiron. I would say Flatiron is slightly less impressive than Needle Peak, but a much nicer hike, so I’d recommend Flatiron, but many people do both in the same trip. We wanted to do Needle Peak as well since Brandon and I had already done Flatiron once, so we decided we’d make an attempt at it the next day on our way down. There were a lot of people on the trail and we heard that someone had actually gotten married at Needle Peak that day, so it was super crowded at the summit. There were also a lot of backpackers, most of whom were ahead of us on the trail. I usually like to make an earlier start for this reason, but there’s tons of camping space up at Flatiron, so we weren’t worried about it.

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From the junction, the trail continues down and back up to a glacial lake at the foot of Flatiron. Flatiron is so named because it’s basically a mountain with a huge flat top. The lake is located just under the Flatiron and it’s where all of the backpackers were camping. It makes sense seeing as that’s where the water source is, but because we wanted an unimpeded view, we’d decided to camp on top of the Flatiron. From the lake it’s another 20-30 min climb up to the top. It’s not too challenging, but it is steep. When we got to the top, there were lots of day hikers around, but no other campers.

Despite all the space, we did have to walk around for a while to find a good spot for the tent. A lot of the top is just rock, which we could set up on, but obviously isn’t super comfortable, and we were going out of our way to avoid trampling any sensitive areas. There’s a lot of wildflowers up there and we didn’t want to destroy anything. Eventually Brandon found a nice little flat spot that was mostly free of vegetation, so we set the tents up there. We had a perfect view looking west and knew we’d be able to catch both the comet and the sunset from that location.

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After setting up the tents and having a snack, we decided to head down to the lake again to get drinking water and have dinner. It was somewhere around 4:30-5ish and me and Emily wanted to go for a swim while the sun was still up above the mountains. We hiked back down and set up on a little peninsula in the middle of the lake. It feels somewhat like two lakes with rivers flowing between them. It’s not the biggest lake, so we were cognizant to make sure we same in the downstream section. Our effort was wasted really as we later saw people swimming upstream as well, so something to keep in mind when you’re in the wilderness. Sometimes, depending on the source, it’s best not to swim at all (if it’s a really small source or there’s no river), in this case we got our water upstream where it was flowing heavier. Overall it’s probably not the end of the world where people were swimming because there were several flowing sections to get your water, but be as considerate as possible.

As expected, the water was absolutely freezing. There was still snow all up along the slope melting into the lake, so we knew it was pretty much all snow melt. We ran into the water as fast as we could and then ran out again, but it felt really good on the muscles! After our quick dip we set into our normal routines, with Brandon and Emily getting drinking water and me and Lien making dinner. Our North Coast Trail trip had been cut short by one evening, so me and Lien both had meals already prepared, so I made a rice dish for me and Emily and Lien made ramen for him and Brandon. The rice dish was a new one for me and it wasn’t my favourite, but it was definitely filling! Then we all had tarts for dessert, which Lien has surprised us with, lugging them all the way up to the top!

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After we’d had our fill, we made our way back up to the top for one of my favourite evenings in the backcountry. Brandon and I get a bit giddy sometimes when we hike together, and we were each making good progress on our flask of fireball, so we decided to have a little dance party up on the mountain. First Emily led us in yoga stretches, and then brandon played music from his speaker while we all danced around waiting for the sun to set. Since the trip was all about stargazing, Brandon and I both lugged up our tripods and set them up for later, with Brandon doing a timelapse on his.

Eventually all the campers from the lake made their way up to the top for sunset as well, but save for one other group of 2, we were the only ones camping at the top. I’m still a bit amazed at how lucky we got with the weather. I feel like it’s easy to plan these idyllic trips, picturing cloudless skies and millions of stars, but they so rarely work out like you intended. But this trip actually did. There were absolutely no clouds and we had a perfect 360 degree from which to watch the sun go down over the mountain and the stars come out.

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The challenging part about stargazing of course is staying up late enough for it. We’d read the best time to see the comet was just after sunset, but we didn’t see any sign of it. However, as it got darker, the milky way became more and more impressive. Brandon and Emily were working on tracking down the comet, but in the meantime, I had a nice little photoshoot with the milky way and got some pictures that I’m pretty proud of. I don’t really know what I’m doing, but the conditions were good for messing around. No ambient light, so the stars were showing up really well. Eventually Emily spotted something moving that she thought might be the comet and her and Brandon spent ages debating whether it was or not. Eventually I came over and was like, ‘well why don’t you shoot it and see how it comes out in the photo…’ to which they were like, ‘oh right, that’s what we came to do lol’. We’re no astrophotographers, but it was obvious from the photo that it was indeed the comet. Photo credit to Brandon for this one:

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The comet is one of those things where skilled photographers have made it look a lot different than it does to the naked eye. We thought we’d be able to see somewhat of a trail behind it with the naked eye, but this is not the case, the trail only shows up on photos, at least from where we were watching anyways. It was still cool to see and Lien and Brandon spent a lot of time photographing the comet. It was definitely harder because it was in the Northwest and so because the sun sets west, it look a lot longer to get dark in that direction. Plus the moon was up and pretty bright, so that made it more challenging to shoot as well. I look a few photos and I’m glad I got to see it, but if I’m being honest, I was a lot more enthralled with the milky way. Saturn and Jupiter were both visible on the evening we were out and I managed to capture both in my photo with the milky way!

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Sometime before midnight we gave up and went to bed. Despite how hot it had been in the day, it was pretty cool overnight. Not surprising as we were very exposed and in the mountains. We’d hoped to sleep with the fly off, but it was too dewy, so we popped it back on for the night. Emily had a hard time sleeping and ended up being pretty cold overnight, but I think the rest of us slept okay. Fortunately the sun came up again pretty early and warmed us up. I got to take down a dry tent, which is pretty much one of the best things ever.

We took down camp and set off again, but the day was far from over. Usually we don’t linger too long on the last day, but I was determined to do Needle Peak. The first time I’d hiked Flatiron, we’d actually intended to do Needle Peak, but it was October and there was ice on Needle Peak, so we’d done Flatiron instead. I couldn’t come back twice and not do it, so we planned to drop our bags near the junction and hike up to the top.┬áLien was feeling pretty tired and decided not to join us, so we did our best to find a shady spot for him and left him with our fly dope. Fortunately it hadn’t been buggy at the top of Flatiron, but it was extremely buggy along the rest of the trail, so I didn’t really envy him hanging out with the mosquitoes.

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Needle Peak is a challenging hike. It starts off with a steep climb up to the ridgeline. Climb is definitely the best word to describe it and there’s one bottleneck rope section that is particularly challenging. While we were doing that part I was kind of wondering if it was really worth it, but it ended up being one of the most challenging parts and it did get easier after that. I believe it’s only about a kilometre, to the top, so we made pretty good time, but it is somewhat slow going. The ridge has beautiful views looking down both sides and the hike ends with one last scramble up the “needle” part of Needle Peak. We decided not to push all the way to the very top. There were a lot of people and you basically have to climb up this rock seam, so we knew it would take a while because of people bottlenecking at tricky locations. Instead we found a nice rock to sit on while we had lunch and we still had an amazing view looking out over the Coquihalla. One hiker, who we’d been passing back and forth was surprised that we weren’t going to finish the hike, “but you’re so close, you can do it!”, to which I wanted to respond that I knew I can do it, but that I am already satisfied with what I have accomplished this weekend. Sometimes I have a bit of an obsessive personality with wanting to see things through and push farther, but I think this year I’ve been getting better at setting limits. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, it kind of sounds like I’m saying it’s okay not to push myself, but that’s never really been my challenge, so I think learning to set boundaries sometimes is just as important.

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Anyways, we had a good hike and I’m glad I can finally say I did it, but I don’t think I’ll be in a rush to go back to Needle Peak. It’s a tougher hike than I think a lot of people realize and I didn’t feel that safe with so many people on the trail. So we hiked back down, getting bottlenecked again at the rope section. As tough as that section had been on the way up, it was soooo much worse on the way down. We took our time and eventually we were reunited with Lien again.

As usual, the downhill back to the car was a real B for me and Emily. We don’t have the best knees and the last section through the trees is super steep. Plus it was even hotter than the previous day, so again we were all a sweaty mess. Finally we reached the car and I gave my feet and face a nice wash in the river before we headed back into town. So overall it was a really successful trip and probably one of my favourite overnights of the whole summer. The only disclaimer I’ll leave if you’re thinking of doing this trip is that there are no facilities at the top, so come prepared for no outhouse or bear cache facilities. Otherwise, this makes for a great trek!

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Howe Sound Crest Trail: Part II

Though we went to bed pretty early on Day 1, we didn’t get the best night’s sleep. It was definitely not cold, but Emily woke up with heartburn in the middle of the night and had to go for a little midnight stroll to ward it off. Then she proceeded to read her book in the middle of the tent with the light on, so I went and made some unsuccessful attempts at star photography. All while Carolyn slept on oblivious. She doesn’t usually sleep very well, so we were all surprised by this, but she’s also generally pretty cold at night, so maybe it had something to do with actually being warm for once. Either way, when me and Emily finally drifted off to sleep in the early morning, Carolyn was awake and ready to go at 5:45am. Yay.

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It was a pretty dismal breakfast. While we weren’t running super low on water, we were definitely conserving, so we boiled the bare minimum for our oatmeal and then packed up camp for the day. On the plus side, it was another gorgeous day and it was already hot enough for shorts at 8am, so it was probably a good idea to get an earlier start. We departed the campsite at 8:30am with somewhere between 1-1.5L of water each and 3.5km to go to the first water source.

Unfortunately, it was some of the hardest 3.5km. Between the Lions and Magnesia Meadows, the trail follows peak after peak after peak. It was gorgeous and breath-taking, but a little stressful when you’re sweating buckets, thirsty, and running low on water. If it hadn’t been so hot, I think our water would have gone a lot further and we would have been a lot less tired, but there’s very little shade along the trail and it’s still very technical, so it makes for a slow go. I had sussed out the topography before we left camp and we could pretty much see our end goal when we started, but it didn’t make the morning go any faster. The hours dragged on as we lugged our packs up and down peak after peak. Carolyn was feeling strong, but me and Emily were definitely struggling, mostly I think because of our anxiety about the water situation, but the heat certainly didn’t help.

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Finally, we started the last climb up the pass to Magnesia Meadows. We could see Mount Harvey looming over the meadow and we were just hoping the water source wasn’t located very far off the trail. We’d intended to summit Mount Harvey since we only had about 10km of hiking to do that day, but after 3.5km took us 3.5 hours of hiking, water was our main priority. We could see the red roof of the emergency hut as we crested the slope and from there we all but ran to the water source, relieved to see a small, but pretty clean water hole off the side of the trail.

We all finished off the dregs of our platypuses and then set to filtering enough water for the rest of the day.┬áSince it was now noon and we were all in need of a break, we decided to have lunch in the meadow and made the pretty much unanimous decision to skip Mount Harvey. It was a little bit of a bummer to skip it, because we were so close to it, but it also looked really steep and we were all tired, so it’s important to know your limits. Plus you know, it’s always worth leaving something to come back for.

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The hiking improved a lot after lunch. It wasn’t as scenic as the morning, but the trail was a lot easier and mostly hiked around the bowl of Magnesia Meadow. We were thrilled to discover there were still some wildflowers in bloom and had a pretty nice hike up to the branch for Brunswick Mountain. Again, we had planned to summit Brunswick Mountain, but we decided that, given the heat, we’d rather spend our time swimming in Brunswick Lake than hiking up another mountain. So Brunswick Mountain will also have to wait for another day.

I don’t regret the decision though. We ended up arriving at Brunswick Lake around 3pm and we were all zonked. We hadn’t decided in advance exactly where we were going to camp, but we’d originally been thinking Deeks Lake, which was a few kilometres further along the trail, but we’d heard from many people that Brunswick Lake was nicer. We could see the beautiful blue hues of the lake poking through the trees and as we exited the woods next to the lake, I truly could believe we were in a tropical paradise. The water was so clear and blue and looking super inviting. We knew it was freezing of course, but it still looked inviting.

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So we decided to stay there. We dropped our bags in an empty clearing and made a beeline straight for the water. As expected, it was cold, but honestly we were expecting it to be worse, so we were pleasantly surprised. We didn’t want to stay in the water too long, but it wasn’t the run-in-and-out-as-fast-as-you-can kind of cold… if you know what I mean.

The rest of the afternoon was lovely and lazy. We lounged in the sun and did a whole lot of nothing. There was definitely a lot more traffic at Brunswick Lake, especially since it was a Saturday. There were probably 4 or 5 tents when we showed up and more backpackers kept showing up throughout the day, all the way until 9pm. The last people that I was aware of were 2 girls who had hiked all the way from Cypress that morning. They said they’d been hiking for 12 hours, which I admire, but definitely don’t envy.

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Carolyn made us chili for dinner and we enjoyed watching the sun go down over the mountains. Even though there were tons of people at the lake, we were some of the only ones who hung out on the beach into the evening. It was pretty buggy and most people were taking refuge from the mosquitoes in their tents. As beautiful as Brunswick Lake is, the real downside to the Howe Sound Crest Trail is that there are no outhouses anywhere on the trail. I’m fine with peeing in the woods and digging catholes, but there were a lot of people camping at Brunswick Lake and there are few private places to use the washroom. With so many people, I do think it’s time for BC Parks to invest in an outhouse at each of the campsites, if only to protect the landscape. Check out my recent post on Backcountry Bathrooms if you looking for some tips for when there are no facilities.

It was another warm night in the tent and I think we all slept better on the second night and actually slept in until almost 8am the next morning. We took our time with breakfast, so it was a bit of a later start, but it was nice and chill. It’s about an hour hike to Deeks Lake, passing by Hanover Lake and some beautiful waterfalls. We were pretty much done with the views for the trek, but it was nice to hike in the shade of the forest for a change. Deeks Lake is bigger than Brunswick Lake and also very beautiful, but there’s not very many campsites and they’re all in the trees, so I definitely don’t regret staying at Brunswick Lake – in my opinion it’s the better of the two lakes.

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We decided to finish off the trek with a swim in Deeks Lake. It was also very cold, but we thought it was slightly less cold than Brunswick and stayed in the water for a while. After that it was ~8-9km hike down to the parking lot. There’s not a lot to see along the trail and you undo a lot of elevation gain. In total we did about 1500 metres in elevation gain over the entire trail, but we also had almost 2400 metres in elevation loss, half of which was on the last day, so it was mostly a climb down on Day 3. It’s pretty steep for the first section after you leave Deeks Lake, but it eventually levels out a bit into a steady downhill. The last section of trail is outside of the park and mostly along old forestry roads. The very end of the trail now has a detour because of mining work happening on private land at the end of the trail. We were pretty fast coming down the trail, but I could see it being a bit of a slog if you were hiking the other direction. Though there were a lot of people at the Lake, I think the majority of them had hiked up from Porteau Cove. A handful of us had done the whole trail from Cypress, but I think we were the minority.

And that concludes our adventure on the Howe Sound Crest Trail! We didn’t summit any of the mountains we’d planned to summit, but we did still climb a lot of peaks and saw a lot of amazing views. I would do it differently in future (mostly with the water), but I wouldn’t be deterred from coming back. I think if I was to return, I’d maybe hike up from the Mount Harvey or Brunswick trailheads and camp either in the meadows or at the Lake. There’s lots of different ways to customize the trip and still lots left to explore on the trail!