Snowshoeing Hollyburn Mountain

We’re now firmly into the winter hiking season, which means it’s time to take out the snowshoes! I’ve done a decent amount of snowshoeing over the past few years and I’m hoping to do lots of snowshoeing this season, but I haven’t written about very much of it. So I decided to kick off the season by writing about one of my favourite local snowshoe trails: Hollyburn Mountain.

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I have snowshoed Hollyburn on 3 separate occasions, so I’m pretty familiar with it. It’s one of the most well known snowshoe hikes in the lower mainland and with good reason. It’s not the easiest snowshoe trail, but you’ll be rewarded with amazing views and a good workout. I’ve hiked it every year since 2017, but the last time I hiked it was in January 2019, which stands out as one of my favourite times making the trek to the top.

The Hollyburn trailhead is located at the base of the Nordic Ski Area at Cypress (take the right branch before you get to the ski hill). You can rent snowshoes at the base, however if you rent them you will also be forced to pay the trail fee. If you snowshoe within the nordic area, you need to pay the trail fee whether you bring your own snowshoes or not, but since Hollyburn is located outside the trail area, you can snowshoe for free if you bring your own (or rent at the North Van MEC to avoid paying the extra cost)! It’s a popular trail, so you will be accompanied by lots of other snowshoers, but they usually disperse along the trail so it doesn’t feel too crowded.

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The trail started with a steep walk uphill and then flattens out somewhat as you walk along the edge of the cross country ski run. Overall it’s an uphill trail, but the middle stretch has a nice easy grade. It’s the last third of the trail that is the most challenging as you navigate up a wide corridor cut through the trees. Since Hollyburn is so close to the city, I tend to go with larger groups, so we take our time as we head up to the top. On this occasion I was also dogsitting Jordie the Australian Shepherd, so we had a bit of a slow start.

The hardest part of doing Hollyburn is deciding what equipment to use: snowshoes or microspikes. The first half of the trail is narrow and winds through the woods; it sees a lot of traffic so unless it just snowed, it’ll almost surely be packed down, making it ideal for microspikes. But once you reach the wide part of the trail, the defined track disappears somewhat and it’s a bit of a choose-your-own adventure up to the top, so it’s fun to have snowshoes. The last time I went I brought both.

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My backpack has straps for carrying snowshoes, so I carried them up the first half and then switched over. Its definitely easier in microspikes, but maybe not worth it if the rest of your group is wearing snowshoes anyways because they won’t be able to keep up with you. If there hasn’t been any fresh snow in a while, you might be able to get away with spikes on the whole trail, but you never know what it’s going to be like until you get up there and it does give you less freedom to explore.

On this particular day it was a bit overcast, so we couldn’t see much of the view, but it still made for some fun shots as the clouds moved around us. It did eventually clear out at the top and we got a glimpse of the city through the clouds. On a clear day you also get a great view looking back at Cypress Mountain and the uninhabited North Shore mountains, which is my favourite view from the top. Jordie had a great time hiking up the mountain, but make sure to keep your dog on a leash. One time I saw a woman with a small dog who got fined by the park ranger for having her dog off leash.

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The highlight of the day for me though was that Brandon decided he wanted to have a fondue picnic at the top of the mountain. The idea sounded pretty epic to us so we each dutifully lugged a container of pre-cut fruit that Brandon doled out to us up to the top of the mountain and Brandon carried up his stove and fondue kit. I’m not going to pretend like we didn’t all poke fun of him with his full size backpack the whole way up, but we all ate our words at the top when we saw the huge spread he’d brought up for us! He melted a ton of chocolate and before we knew it we were enjoying chocolate covered strawberries, bananas, pineapple, mango, marshmallows, and some other mystery fruit, while the rest of the hikers gaped at us. Definitely one of my favourite snowshoeing experiences, so thanks Brandon!

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The hike back down is where things really get interesting. I’m not gonna lie, the last section of the trail is pretty steep and you’re exhausted by the time you reach the top. Going down is less tiring, but definitely not easier. It’s really hard to go down the trail on snowshoes and most people opt to slide down on their butt instead. My word of advice for this is that if you’re going to slide down, take your snowshoes off. Otherwise they just create a hazard and make it really easy for you to break your leg. Snow pants are a good idea on the way down to stay dry, but don’t bring a sled of any kind. There’s actually signs up now prohibiting sleds and crazy carpets, but I did it once on a crazy carpet before said signs went up and I can confirm it’s dangerous. You pick up too much speed and it’s hard to control. Your best bet is to just walk sideways as much as possible until you get past the steep section, or slide on your butt.

Coming down is fun though because on the right day you get a great view looking down the mountain to the city! So overall a great snowshoe trail that I’ll definitely continuing doing! It’s close to the city, free, and has great views. The only downside is the crowds – if you’re going on a weekend, try and get there early if you want to get a parking spot!

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Hiking Flatiron

For mine and Brandon’s third annual Thanksgiving weekend hike, we did Flatiron for the first time in 2018. Now while I think Elfin Lakes and Watersprite were a bit of a stretch to be considered “Fall hikes”, I thought that Flatiron was a great Fall hike, but not in the traditional sense.

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We’d intended to do the Needle Peak trail, which shares the same trailhead as Flatiron, but once we got up to the branch and saw the layer of snow sitting atop this steep climb, we decided to leave it for another day and do the Flatiron trail instead. Flatiron continues on past the Needle Peak branch and hikes down through a pass and back up again to a small glacial lake. I’ve since learned this a popular location for camping in the summer, but in October it was pretty empty.

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The lake is what I think makes this a great non-traditional Fall hike. The trail continues over a steep slope to the top, which is a giant flat plateau (hence the name Flatiron). At just the right time of year, all the shrubbery against the slope turns this beautiful shade of deep red. Pair it with a fresh coat of snow, which is how it looked when we visited, and it really gives you lots of changing season vibes. I think your timing probably does have to be just right, but even if you missed it, it’s still a great hike.

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There were very people on the trail when we visited and most of them seemed to be attempting Needle Peak. There were just two other guys going the same way as us. We passed them on the way up because they had big backpacks on. We asked if they were planning to camp and they informed us they were actually hoping to fly down!

This was my first experience with paragliding and I have to say it’s a hard pass from me. Even Brandon, who is much more adventurous than me said you’d never get him paragliding. We were pretty much the only two groups on top of the Flatiron, so we watched them setting up their flight suits as we ate our lunch. I admit we definitely lingered over our lunch because we really wanted to watch them fly off.

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From the start, it was clear one guy was more experienced than the other and they chatted a lot as they got set up. Eventually, after much checking, they finally got ready to take a run. The more experienced guy had no problem and the wind caught him and took him right off the side and up. We watched as he sailed off and circled up and up in the wind currents for about 20 minutes before finally landing back at the car park.

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Unfortunately the second guy didn’t have quite as much luck. He took off just after the first guy, but he terrified me and Brandon with a fall right at the start. It almost looked like he was going to get up, but the wind took his chute funny and he ended up crashing to the ground. It wasn’t a far fall, but it didn’t look comfy and it made us really nervous to watch him. I can see why Flatiron is a great place to practice though, there’s lot of wide open space in which to run from and relative safety from which to fall until you head out over the edge.

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We watched him make 2 more unsuccessful attempts and then Brandon decided it was time to get out of there or we were going to be watching this guy fall to his death. After that he decided to give up and ended up packing up and hiking back down to meet his friend at the car. So fortunately no one was injured, though I’m sure he was disappointed.

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As usual, it was freezing at the top of the trail for October, but this time we’d come prepared with warm jackets so that we could stay out and watch the view. Unlike our other two trips though, this year we got clear blue skies and lots of sun, so it made for an incredibly scenic trip! It’s a steep trail, with 800m of elevation gain spread over 11km round trip, but so worth it for the 360 degree views at the top!

If you’d like to hear more about Flatiron or see more photos, I have published another blog post on an overnight trip I took in July 2020.

Cape Scott and North Coast Trail: Part III

The Saga continues – here’s Part 1 and Part 2 if you’re joining in the middle.

On Day 3 we finally started the North Coast Trail. As I mentioned before, most people start with the North Coast Trail and continue on to Cape Scott, but because of some conflicts with the water taxi dates due to Covid-19, we decided to do the trail backwards. So instead of starting with a water taxi from Port Hardy to Shushartie Bay, we had already hiked 37km and we still 43km to go. We hiked from Guise Bay to Nissen Bight before lunch and then continued from Nissen to Laura Creek, our first section on the North Coast Trail.

From the end of Nissen Bight, it’s about 5km in the woods, followed by another kilometre along the beach to reach the campsite. Our feet were already aching from pounding across so many beaches, so it actually felt like a bit of a relief to start climbing up into the woods. There was a noticeable change to the conditions of the trail as soon as we entered the forest. It started with a steep climb up towards Nahwitti Cone and then it was 5km of poorly maintained trail and mud.

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The North Coast Trail is a pretty bare bones trail, besides keeping the brush at bay, it seems that the trail is left pretty wild and it makes for a very technical hike. There’s a lot of mud to navigate around as well as tons of obstacles from the trees. You’re constantly climbing up and over logs, under branches, and jumping your way around mud pits. The Juan de Fuca was a similar experience for me and Emily, so we didn’t come across anything unexpected, but we definitely forgot just how challenging and slow these kind of hikes can be.

At first the obstacles were a welcome distraction from our aching feet. When you put your brain to work navigating the obstacles, it does distract from your other pains, but the forest paths make for REALLY slow progress and eventually you just get frustrated at how long it takes to make any kind of progress. This was Lien’s first real challenge. He’d never been on a technical coastal trail before and so he really had no frame of reference for what it would be like. When we first switched our plans from Mount Assiniboine to the North Coast Trail, his first response was, “well at least it will be an easier trail!” We all laughed at him and informed him it would actually be a lot harder, but I can see where the misconception comes in and I have made the same assumption in the past. Mountain trails appear to be harder because of the large elevation gain, but coastal trails often still have a ton of elevation gain hidden among the relentless up and down along the coastline, as well as they’re usually a lot more technical.

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There was a marked difference on Day 3 though in that we barely saw any people. We’d started hiking Cape Scott on the weekend, so it had been crawling with people, but it was now Tuesday and so even on our hike to Nissen Bight we didn’t see many people. After Nissen the trail really emptied out. We saw one hiker just as we were starting the climb to Laura Creek – he was returning from an overnight at Irony Creek (that’s a 19km hike!). After that the only other people we saw was one group of guys who were camping at Nissen and had day hiked out to Laura Creek and back. In mine and Emily’s opinion, it’s a waste of time trying to avoid the mud on a trail like the NCT, so we were both pretty muddy and had wet feet by the end of the day. We had wet feet the entire 4 days we hiked the Juan de Fuca, so in our opinion keeping our feet dry until Day 3 had been a pretty big success. But when we passed the guys coming back from Laura Creek and saw their completely mudless legs and boots, we had to conclude that they were clearly witches to stay so dry.

Lien struggled along this section, mostly from the repetitive uphill sections. I started stronger along the wooded stretch, but eventually it really got to me too. I was tracking the hike along my GPS and every 30-60 minutes I’d check in to see how much progress we were making and it was always a mistake. Your location barely moves and it really only serves to de-motivate you. What was more depressing was that I’d read in the trail book that this was one of the easier wooded sections of the trail, so it made me really apprehensive about what was to come later. So much of making it through these long hikes is mental and often you just have to focus on making it through one part at a time.

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Unlike the rest of us though, Day 3 was where Emily peaked. She had a rough Day 2, but she was in her element on this section. Despite her blistered feet, she was our cheerleader for the day and led us through the worst of it. One of the real saving graces of having 4 people in your group is that we didn’t all fall apart at the same time. There was always someone who was struggling, but when that happened, someone else would always step up to help motivate the group. The constant uphill was Lien’s mental block for the day, so we all cheered when we finally started heading downhill in earnest and could see the beach peaking out through the trees. We still had 1 more kilometre to go across the beach, which is it’s own kind of hell at the end of a long day, but at least you make a faster pace.

There was some confusion about where the water source was, so we spent a bit of time poking around for it at the end of the beach, before a closer read revealed that it was actually located right at the campsite. I’d read Laura Creek only had 4 tent pads, so despite seeing no one else on the trail, I was still a little concerned about availability. Me and Emily were anxious to get off our weary feet, so we took off towards the campsite. Fortunately there was only 1 other group of 5 guys at the campsite and they were only using 2 of the tent pads, so there were 2 more left for us.

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I have to admit, as relieved as I was to sit down, the tent pads were a little gloomy after the beautiful campsite the previous night. The trees were extremely thick and didn’t let a lot of light in, plus everything felt damp. Fortunately Brandon is much more determined than me or Emily and when he showed up, he dropped off his backpack and declared there was no way we were camping in the woods and he would find us a spot on the beach.

There’s no where to camp on the beach near the tent pads because it’s a steep cobble beach, but if you continue another 200m to the water source, Laura Creek, there’s a small sandy beach with enough room for 3 tents. There was one couple set up there already and they kindly moved their tent to the side so that we could set up our two tents next to them. It was extremely windy, but a definite improvement over the wooded tent pads! So much thanks to Brandon for that!

We put up the tents as fast as we could and chucked all our gear inside to keep them from blowing away. We changed right away because it was cool with the wind in our sweaty clothes. Once I bundled up with a few layers though, I forgot about the wind and was thrilled when the sun finally came out for the first time since we’d started the trail!

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The weather on these trails really is wild – it’d been overcast most of the day, but within a half hour the wind completely blew the clouds away and we found ourselves with a gorgeous sunny beach view – so that helped with the chill as well. It was somewhere around 7pm at this point. It ended up taking us about 4 hours to go the 6km from Nissen to Laura, so we knew we were in for some longer days.

By Day 3 we’d started to get into a bit of a routine. Lien got water from the creek to start filtering, Brandon started working on getting a fire going, and me and Emily started boiling water for hot drinks/soup and started making dinner. Emily was the chef for day 3 and served us a cheesy pasta that we’d made from a backpacking website. It was vegan so it used coconut milk powder and nutritional yeast to get the creamy cheesy flavour – it was my first time using either ingredient and it was actually pretty good.

The only downside to our beach campsite was that it was a 200m walk back to the outhouse and bear cache, but definitely still worth it and we ended up having a great night relaxing on the beach by our fire. Laura Creek definitely had the best sunset of the trip; when the clouds cleared out we had an excellent view of the sun as it dipped below the horizon and filled the sky with its orange-yellow glow. We were zonked from the long hike, but relieved that our biggest day was now behind us. Over the next 3 days we’d be averaging about 12km a day, so we were optimistic that though the hiking wouldn’t get easier, the days would at least get shorter. It was an incorrect assumption, but more on that in the next entry, Part IV!

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