Brew Lake Backpacking Trip

I had one of the best backpacking trips to close out the season this year. I wanted to try and get one more overnight trip in the fall and planned a mid-September hike with Carolyn and our friend Tiiu, who is looking to get more into backpacking. We bounced around a few ideas for hikes and decided on the Rainbow Lake trail in Whistler. You can’t actually camp at Rainbow Lake because it’s the Whistler water supply, but you can camp a few kilometres further at Hanging Lake, so that was the plan.

This was one of those trips where nothing seemed to go right. It was super, don’t-go-outside-you’ll-kill-your-lungs, smoky in Vancouver the week before the hike from the fires in the States, so we decided not to go. Which we regretted a little because the smoke did end of clearing out the night before we were supposed to go, so we probably could have gone, but it was too late to change plans. So we rescheduled for the first weekend in October.

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Again, the smoke started to come back the week before the hike, but it was much lower on the air quality index than the last time, so we decided to go for it anyways. Otherwise, the forecast was great and it was a cloudless sunny day when we left Vancouver. We got to the trailhead and there was a sign saying that the trail was closed because of a bear, but then underneath the sign it said “trails above flank closed, trails below open”. As non-Whistler locals this had absolutely no meaning to us and we spent forever studying the map trying to find the Flank trail and determine what “above” meant (North? physically above on the map? what?). Eventually we decided that Rainbow Lake was below what looked like a flank trail junction and decided to hike up to the junction and see if there was more clear info.

It was a bit less than a kilometre to the junction, where we found the same sign, which was no more clear than the first. However, in this case, there were two trail branches and it was located closer to the Rainbow branch, so we thought that likely meant it applied to Rainbow as well. We couldn’t get a hold of anyone at Whistler Municipality on the phone (they manage the area), so we decided not to risk it and go back. There was a conservation officer at the car park when we returned and it turns out the trail was closed, so we made the right decision and had a good conversation with her about how the sign could maybe be more clear, so hopefully they improve it for future users. She was very nice and gave us some alternative trails to consider instead.

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It’s not mine and Carolyn’s first time having to make last minute adjustments to our plans (see our first snow camping adventure), so we decided to head south on the Sea to Sky highway while I looked up some other trails. We agreed Brew Lake sounded like a good alternative and made for the trailhead.

Brew Lake is a lower trafficked trail near Callaghan Valley, just across the highway from Brandywine Falls. Information on trail length is a bit confusing. According to AllTrails, it’s a 17km trail that’s partially on forestry road and partially on trail. According to my “105 Hikes” trailbook, it’s an 8km trail at the end of a 2WD service road. After doing a bit more research, I’ve seen it listed as several different lengths, so I think everyone just disagrees on what parts of the service road are really driveable.

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The entrance to the forestry road is right next to the Whistler RV park, it’s so narrow we legitimately didn’t see it on our first drive by, so we decided to just park there and walk it. We figured we’d had enough setbacks for one day and didn’t want to get Carolyn’s SUV stuck down there. Having now walked it, I’d say that about 3km are drivable and after that you can make a decision about how far you’re willing to take your vehicle. We passed about 5 other cars at various intervals of the trail, so that seemed to be the common approach.

After an easy 5km along the road, we reached the forest trailhead. It was a very hot day, though still a little smoky. The only people we saw on the road were a family of ATVers, so it seemed that the trail wouldn’t be too busy. Since we’d had a late start from Rainbow Lake, we decided to have lunch soon after we reached the forest. We just picked a little rocky outcropping and settled in for a break.

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Because we’d followed the AllTrails route, we had about 17km of hiking and 1000 metres of elevation gain, however, our GPS clocked it at 18km and 950m, so somewhere around there. We’d done 5km in just over an hour, but only 200m in elevation gain, so we figured we had a pretty steep hike ahead of us. The next 2 kilometres meanders through some really interesting topography in the woods. It’s quite unlike any other hikes I’ve done in the area and reminded us a bit of hiking on Vancouver Island because it was all through the woods with lots of small hills and valleys. But it still wasn’t that steep and we were wondering when we would finally hit the major elevation gain.

Turns out most of the elevation gain is in the last 2 kilometres. You hit a giant boulder field that proved to be a bit confusing. The whole trail is pretty well marked, but you definitely have to watch for the markers because the trail itself is not super obvious. We got a little off course in the boulder field – we missed the marker that indicated the trail goes up the edge of the field and instead started hiking up into it. The boulders are REALLY large, so it’s not conducive to hiking over it. Eventually we found our way back to the trail along the edge and went from there.

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Around this section we passed a few day hikers on their way down. They (mistakenly) told us once we finished the boulder field we were pretty much done, so we were very excited. It’s definitely steep though and after you finally get across it, there’s an even steeper rope section up a hill side that we had to take one at a time. After that we figured we should be almost there based on what the other hikers had said, but it really didn’t look that way on my GPS and we had to trundle along through several more uphill sections after that, much to our disappointment.

Because of the trail mix-up, it was turning into a pretty long day and we were all ready to get to the campsite. It was around 4pm and we thought we’d finally reached the last peak, only to crest it and see another peak we’d have to climb before maybe reaching the end. I was starting to get a little discouraged at this point, but the moment we finally crested the last peak and the view opened up, all the other thoughts melted away and I was super pumped to be there.

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The trail is really all in the forest, so it’s a little weird when you finally pop out of the woods to this completely open alpine lake, surrounded by meadows and low mountain peaks. From the lake you can continue up to Brew Mountain, where there’s a hut, but fortunately our plan was to end at the lake.

I LOVE swimming and I’d really been hoping to go for a swim in the lake, but I didn’t dare voice the desire out loud for fear it would be too late or too cold when we arrived. But it had been a super hot day and the sun was still up over the lake when we arrived, so it took barely more than a look between me and Carolyn to agree we were going in the water (she loves swimming just as much). We could tell the sun was soon going to dip below the mountains, so we didn’t waste any time in setting up camp or anything first. When you swim so late in the season you really have to do it right away, before your body adjusts to the temperature and cools off. So we stripped down and were in the water within minutes. We had the real privilege of having the lake completely to ourselves, so we decided to enjoy it in our birthday suits, an rare opportunity in BC, where the backcountry is usually so busy.

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After that we made camp pretty fast. Daylight is so much more limited in October, so we got the tents up and then I started making dinner while Carolyn and Tiiu got to work on a bear cache. We were alone in grizzly bear country, so it was pretty important, though a real challenge with not that many trees around. They were successful, but I am starting to think it may soon be time to invest in a bear canister.

We had my dehydrated chickpea curry for dinner and Tiiu had some chocolates and rye to share, while Carolyn had brought a little dessert surprise. It was a freeze dried ice cream sandwich! I’m not sure where she got it, but it was definitely one of the more bizarre treats I’d had on a camping trip. The whole thing becomes this kind of brittle, almost spongey-chalky type texture, but once you chew it, it really does have all the flavours of an ice-cream sandwich. I don’t know how astronauts stand eating so much of that stuff, but it made for a fun experiment for us.

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We didn’t stay up too late, but since the sun sets a lot earlier now I did stay up and take a few star photos, not my best photos, but still fun to play around with the camera. It was no where near as cold as I was anticipating and I was quite comfortable hanging around outside. I had hiked Frosty Mountain the week before and it had been FREEZING, so I’d come a little over prepared for Brew Lake since we were having much nicer weather. I never bothered with my sleeping bag liner that I’d brought and Carolyn had just bought a new -18 degree bag, so we were toasty warm in her tent. However we forgot to open the vents and I’ve never seen a tent so covered in dew in the morning. Although to be fair, everything was covered in a crazy amount of dew. Must be the season.

Unfortunately, it clouded over in the night and it did drizzle on us a little when we were making breakfast, but not enough to really cause any trouble and the sun did eventually poke through the clouds. It felt mystical with the fog clinging to the tops of the surrounding mountains, but it was clear near the lake.

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We took down our tents and said goodbye to Brew Lake, which had been extremely good to us considering the circumstances. As soon as we left the lake though we descended straight into the fog and didn’t catch anymore views the rest of the trip. It was a cooler day than the previous day, but still super humid, so even though it was all downhill, we were sweating a lot. Brew Lake is definitely one of those trails that’s harder on the downhill, so we were pretty cautious as we came back down the boulder field. Always leave space between yourselves on scree as its easy to knock rocks down on your friends.

We finally popped back out of the woods and then had a long walk back along the forestry road. It drizzled on and off, but not enough to warrant digging out our rain coats. Finally we made it back to the car and as soon as we got back on the highway, the rain started for real, so we were pleased with our timing! We decided to finish off the weekend with a trip to the new cider place in Squamish, Geo Cider, where we each enjoyed a flight and some pizzas!

So overall, it was not at all the weekend we’d planned, but I wouldn’t change anything about it because we had such a great time!

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.

Hiking Elk and Thurston Mountains

Since it’s Fall, I thought it would be a good time to go back and write about some of my favourite Fall hikes over the years! I grew up on the East Coast, where Fall is easily the nicest season and all of the leaves turn beautiful, vibrant colours. The West Coast is really not the same. Yes, the golden larch trees are beautiful and there are trails where you can find some nice changing foliage, but trust me, as lovely as it is, it’s a different scale than other parts of the country. I spent my first few years here being disappointed by every Fall hike I tried; I’ve since learned to get over it and appreciate what BC does have to offer. You can still find beautiful colours all through the Fall, even if not in the same abundance.

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One of my favourite Fall hikes is Elk/Thurston Mountain in Chilliwack. It’s a popular one for Fall, so aim for an earlier departure, but it’s easy to get to and doesn’t require driving down Chilliwack Lake Road or any off-roading. It’s a 9km round trip hike up to Elk Mountain, but in that distance you climb over 800 metres in elevation gain, so it’s definitely a work out. It’s a steady climb the entire hike, but the first section is definitely the easier part. The trail winds through the woods and it’s a great time to keep your eyes open for changing leaves. There’s one viewpoint looking out through the trees about half way up to the top and after that the trail gets steeper and a little more challenging. It continues switchbacking through the woods until you pop out on a steep ridge. It’s pretty narrow, so take your time, but when you get up to the ridge you are rewarded with an amazing view of Mount Baker! It’s a great place to catch your breath and have a little snack before finishing the last section.

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From there, it’s about another half hour to the top. The trail gets a little confusing and you can either climb up a pretty sketchy rock section, or you can follow the trail up through the woods (I usually take the woods). Shortly after, the wooded trail will reunite with the rock trail and you keep climbing up to the top. Once you hit the top, there’s a few campsites in the woods and lots of room to spread out. I find people tend to congregate at the first grassy section when you crest the mountain, but if you continue on a bit, there are lots more grassy slopes to relax on, all with amazing views of the Fraser Valley.

On my first visit to Elk Mountain in 2018, I went with Lien, Brandon, and Kerrina. We spent a lot of time hanging out at the top and taking fun pictures of ourselves with the beautiful view. I loved the view from the ridgeline and we could see the trail continuing on along the ridge to Mount Thurston. I really wanted to continue on along the trail, but we hadn’t really left early enough or come prepared for a longer hike, so we decided not to push on farther. So the next year, I was keen to go back and push all the way to Thurston. That time I went with Lien and Seth and we made good time pushing up to Elk. We decided to have lunch at Elk before continuing on and I had one of my most random lunches ever in the backcountry. Lien’s family are crab fishermen and he’d just gotten back from a trip out to Tofino, bringing with him about 20lbs of crab for me and Seth! We’d cooked it all up the previous evening and I had made crab cakes, but there was still a lot of crab left over, so we just took crab legs with us to eat for lunch! It was Fall, so they stayed pretty cold in my pack, but it made a huge mess sucking the meat out of the legs and we had a good laugh.

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Hiking all the way to Thurston was an interesting experience. I liked the first part of the trail – you hike the ridge for a little while and then head back into the woods. Eventually you pop out again to crest another small peak, before continuing on to Thurston Peak. To be honest, I found Thurston Peak a little confusing. It’s a forested peak and when you reach the top, you can’t really tell you finished the hike except that there’s a trail branch heading into two narrow wooded trails. So we ended up backtracking a bit until we found a view and then took another break for some more crab legs. As far as summits go, it was a little anticlimactic and I think I’d just recommended ending your journey at the previous peak. There’s a nice view from there and I don’t think we saw anything else particularly notable after that.

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It was a really nice hike back though. We took our time coming down and saw some great wildlife on the way back, most notable of which was a little owl! Seth’s a biologist, so he was thrilled and we hung out watching it for a bit. Elk Mountain gets pretty busy in the Fall, but we barely saw anyone on the Thurston Trail, so it is a good way to escape the crowds. All in all, Thurston is 16km long with about 1050 metres in elevation gain – not too bad an extension considering over 800 of those metres are on the Elk Mountain Trail.

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When we got back to Elk Mountain the sun wasn’t quite setting yet, but it was getting pretty low in the sky and casting a gorgeous orange glow over everything. We decided to hang out for a bit and enjoy it, heading back down to the first viewpoint when you pop out of the woods. We stayed until the sun sunk below the mountains before taking off again, but I wish we’d stayed a little later because it ended up being a really gorgeous night, with the setting sun filling the sky with pinks and oranges.

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We’d brought headlamps with us in the event we had to hike out in the dark, but it was a good lesson for me in double checking your preparedness. I had brought 2 headlamps for me and Seth, but mine was running super low and even though I thought I’d packed extra batteries, it turns out I hadn’t. Seth’s was a new headlamp and we thought it seemed fine when we checked it, it was nice and bright, but apparently it has a weird quirk where it only has one level of brightness, but when the batteries are low it will shut off after 10 seconds. So even though I’d checked it, it died soon after Seth started using it. So between the 3 of us, Lien was really the only one with a proper working headlamp. So he went in the front and we followed with our phone flashlights. Fortunately we still had that option, but it certainly would have been safer with a headlamp. So it was a good reminder for me that even when you think you’re being prepared, you still need to double check.

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But I love this hike and I would definitely recommend it to anyone looking for fall leaves, a nice view of Mount Baker, and gorgeous views of the Fraser Valley. It’s also a great location for sunset, just be prepared!

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