I didn’t do much hiking in the Fall last year, but as soon as winter hit I’ve been out exploring in full force! I only did one snow camp last year and was really keen to try and fit 2 in this year. It’s always a challenge because I like to ski a lot too and the snow season is so short.
Fortunately, the weather aligned for us to make a trip out to the Coquihalla in early February. After a very snowy December, it’s been a pretty warm start to the year and all the local mountains were above zero degrees. The Coquihalla can get cold, but it reliably has snow, so it’s one of my favourite places to go in the winter. To date, we’ve been to Falls Lake and Zoa Peak.
It rained most of our drive up the Coquihalla, but it switched to snow just before we got to the Summit Rec Area, which was very lucky. I’d never even heard of Ottomite Peak, but Carolyn came across it somewhere and it’s a pretty low risk trail, so we decided to check it out. You park in the lot at the base of Yak Peak (across the road from the Needle Peak parking lot) where there is a really nice rest stop bathroom. The trail starts around the edge of the bathroom and runs slightly parallel the highway as you ascend up towards the peak.
I tracked just over 4km from the parking lot to Ottomite Peak. The trail is mostly in the trees and is all simple avalanche terrain until Ottomite. It’s also popular for ski touring and most of the skiers were continuing past Ottomite to Iago Peak. We considered it, but the trails goes into challenging terrain near Iago Peak and the avalanche risk was considerable in the alpine at the time, so we opted not to. There was a beaten track until the branch to Ottomite Peak, which has a really beautiful view and would also be great for camping.
The trail continued on towards Iago, but we had to break the trail to Ottomite Peak. It’s pretty rare to have to break trail in Southwest BC, the only other time I’ve done it was when we snow camped at Poland Lake last winter. It’s a lot more work, but fortunately it’s not too far to the peak of Ottomite Peak. Overall it took us about 2 hours from bottom to top. There’s a great view of the north mountains from Ottomite Peak, so we decided to camp at the top.
As usual, there were 4 of us on the trip, but Steve couldn’t make it, so our friend Marie accompanied Carolyn instead! Brandon and I shared his big 4 season orange tent as usual, and Carolyn experimented with her summer tent. She typically uses her 3 season MSR Elixir, but she has a non-freestanding 2p Durston tent that she wanted to try out. It took her a while to get it set up properly as it’s a bit tricky since it relies on using your hiking poles and tension to stand. But she managed to get a good pitch and said it worked fine for the night.
The weather was surprisingly nice on Saturday. We were expecting it to be overcast and snowy, but it cleared up a lot while we were hiking in and we actually got some blue sky and sun while we were setting up. Eventually the clouds moved back it, but we got some really lovely views from the peak, which we easily could have missed.
We built a nice big snow kitchen where we hung out for the better part of 4 hours while melting snow and preparing supper. Marie made hot lemon whisky and I made Kahlua hot chocolate bombs for happy hour and Brandon made our favourite thai chicken curry for supper. Then we had Marie’s apple crumble for dessert, so it was quite a spread! If you think me and Carolyn got off easy, I made lunch sandwiches and she made us homemade egg mcmuffins for breakfast!
The temperature was really hovering around zero, so it was one of our warmer snow camps and we were lucky it didn’t rain to be honest. We stayed up until around 8:30pm, which is pretty late for snow camping, before hitting the sack for a long night’s sleep. I slept pretty good early in the night, but then I was treated to the symphony of Brandon’s snores later in the night. The moon came up overnight and I enjoyed a beautiful view when I got up to pee, with the moonlight reflecting off the snow, it was super bright and I didn’t even need my headlamp.
Otherwise it was a low key morning and we packed up our gear and headed back to the parking lot. It was a lot faster hiking out and we stopped in Hope on the way back for the Blue Moose Café. Considering how little known this trail is – I really liked it! It is in avalanche terrain, but it’s pretty low risk terrain, so I think it’s good for beginners. I’d definitely like to go back some day and go all the way to Iago Peak, or maybe revisit in the summer, when you can hike several peaks back into the wilderness! Overall, another successful trip!
This snow camp post is going to be a bit different than my usual posts. Most notably because it was a snow camp that I did with Girl Guides, but more interestingly because it’s a snow camp experience that doesn’t require backpacking!
I’ve done two snow camps with Girl Guides now. The first was at the Mount Seymour Group Site, and the second at the Lone Duck II Group Site in Manning. Both are located ~100 metres from the car and have warming huts, so it makes for a great experience for beginners because you can try snow camping with the safety of a warming hut and without needing lightweight backpacking gear.
The challenge for the average person is that these are both group sites, so it’s hard to utilize them if you only have a small group. The good news is that, as the name suggests, Manning has a second site called Lone Duck I, which is a first come, first serve campground through the winter. So if you’d like to try snow camping for the first time, this site is a really great option because you can carry in whatever gear you need and there is a warming hut for this site too. It’s basically an open-campground, so you might even meet some cool new people!
The site is located past the Lightning Lakes day use area, but before the summer campground and strawberry flats area. You pull off the main road and there’s a parking lot for both sites. Both are located next to the lake and the cross country ski track, so depending on your interests, you can go for a long ski or take your snowshoes out on the lake, which is generally frozen through the winter.
We lugged our gear in along with a lot of firewood. We had lunch in the hut first and then got to work setting up our tents. Unfortunately there wasn’t a lot a snow, even in early January (and none of it was fresh), so we didn’t have to dig down very far, but it was also very crunchy conditions. Trex did really well setting up their tents, especially considering it was the first time snow camping for most of them.
Once settled, we took our snowshoes out on the lake for an adventure. We stuck close to the shoreline as a precaution at first, but the lake was extremely frozen, so we eventually wandered a little bit further out. We snowshoed to the bridge that separates the two lakes (making sure to get back on the actual trail to avoid the river, which doesn’t usually freeze). We crossed the bridge before snowshoeing back across the lake to the campsite again. It was only ~3-4km, but it was good to do a bit of exploring. It had been pretty sunny when we arrived, but the clouds were doing really weird things, so we ended up with some interesting cloud formations on the lake.
After returning, we decided to get the woodstove going for the rest of the night. The conditions were really mild and it was only just below zero, so quite warm for first timers. But we still planned to keep the hut warm all night as a precaution in case anyone was really cold in the tent. I have to say… I love backpacking, but I was definitely a fan of the woodstove! It made the hut so cozy and it’s so large we were also able to use it as a 4 burner stove. It had a hard time actually boiling water, but it was great for melting snow and we even used it to cook our chili for the evening.
Our evening was pretty chill and we sang some campfire songs and played a lot of cards. Eventually we all crawled into our tents and one of the guiders kept the fire going overnight. Overnight reviews were a bit mixed. One tent stayed very warm, but another struggled. No one gave up and crawled into the hut, but there were definitely some improvements to be made.
Overall it was a great first trip and no one was freezing, but I’m not super enthusiastic about trying snow camping backpacking with Girl Guides. Finding warm enough gear that can be carried is a real challenge. I hope Elfin Lakes re-opens the hut again soon because I think that would be a good option for Guides. Though we are lucky that Girl Guides owns their own hut on Hollyburn Mountain as well, so we hope to explore there next year.
In conclusion, Manning Park is a great place for beginners and I’d recommend the Lone Duck I site if it’s your first time. Me and Carolyn actually tried to do Lone Duck for our very first snow camp, but we missed the turn-off to the highway and were 40 minutes down the Coquihalla before we realized, so we ended up doing Falls Lakes instead!
One of my favourite activities every winter is to go snow camping! Carolyn and I have been going for 5 years running and the trip has expanded to include Brandon and Steve. Every year we plan where we want to go and then always end up having to change plans at the last minute. You have to be flexible when going into avalanche terrain and every year it seems that the avalanche bulletin likes to mess up our trip plan at the last minute. We have a very low tolerance for risk in the winter, so we’re always changing location to ensure the safest trip possible.
This year we’d been planning to go to Pump Peak (on Seymour), but Vancouver had a particularly warm spell of weather the week before the trip, so we decided to switch to Manning Park instead in hopes of finding fresh powder. It was also calling for beautiful sunny weather on the weekend we went, so we decided on Fat Dog trail in Manning Park, which is supposed to have nice views of the park above the treeline. Then Avalanche Canada issued a special warning a few days before the trip about how the backcountry was experiencing spring-like conditions due to thaw, which meant higher risk, so we decided to change our plans once more.
I don’t think Fat Dog is a particularly high risk trail, but you do pass through a valley that is in the run-out zone of avalanche terrain at the start of the hike, so we decided to do Poland Lake instead, which we read didn’t have avalanche terrain and is shown as simple terrain on Avalanche Canada. Poland Lake has been on our radar for years, but for some reason we thought it wasn’t a very nice trail and always considered in a back-up trail.
We’re so glad we went to Poland Lake, because we ended up loving this location! To access Poland Lake, you have to drive almost to the end of the resort road and park at Strawberry Flats. You can save about 2kms if you hike directly from the ski resort, but there’s no overnight parking at the resort, so if you’re camping, you need to leave from Strawberry Flats. The trailhead is on the north side of the road near the end of the lot where the cross country ski trail starts back towards the lodge. There’s an off-shoot trail that heads up towards the ski resort, running parallel the road. This is the route we took, but we regretted it because it is all uphill and adds 2km’s of hiking. If we did it again, we would plan to leave our bags at the resort and just walk up the road.
If you do the trail right, you’ll eventually reach a small fork in the trail where the left branch heads back down towards the road and the right branch heads up to the mid-point of the ski hill. In the summer, you can reach Poland Lake via the middle of the hill, but this route is not practical in the winter. You’re supposed to go back down to the bottom of the ski hill and hike up along the western edge of the large green run called Horseshoe. But there was no signage on the left fork and nothing shown on our GPS apps, so we continued along the summer route unknowingly. This was definitely our error, we should have read more about the trail description instead of relying just on GPS, so I caution you here to go back and start from the resort base. In our defense, the resort route is not marked at all and does not look like a proper trail, so we gave resort staff some feedback.
In any case, we continued up to the midpoint of the ski resort and ended up having to snowshoe ski runs across the entire mountain. This is definitely dangerous as the runs are not wide or intended for snowshoers. Our only saving grace was that the slopes were extremely empty and we didn’t encounter many skiers. Eventually we got off the ski runs and ended up in some of the glades. We didn’t encounter any more skiers, but it was very steep terrain and had we not been in the middle of a resort (where avalanche risk is managed), we would have turned around. There’s no signage because it’s not a winter route, so we relied entirely on our GPS and way-finding to get back on the trail. Eventually we tracked down the official entrance to the Poland Lake trail (which is at the top back of the ski hill) and saw tracks leading in from the other side of the resort, which is clearly where we were supposed to come up.
By this point we were really tired from so much uphill travel and worry about where the trail was, but happy to finally be on a proper snowshoe trail. We’d already hiked about 4kms and it’s another 4kms to the lake, but fortunately the trail is a lot flatter along this section. There’s lots of ups and downs, but they are very gradual. It still took us a long time though because we were very tired and by the time we reached the lake, it had taken us just under 5 hours to go 8km. One of the other contributing factors to our pace was that we ended up having to break the trail for the better part of 3 kilometres! We were sharing the trail up until shortly after the 1km mark, but then the tracks abruptly stopped and we had to create the trail to the lake. This is such a rare occurrence in BC, where the trails are always busy, so we were excited to snowshoe in fresh powder and the prospect of having the lake all to ourselves. It is a lot more work to break trail though, so it did slow us down.
We’re still new to avalanche terrain, but we were surprised while hiking along the Poland Lake trail that it was said not to have avalanche terrain. It is marked on Avalanche Canada as simple terrain, but it is below some challenging terrain and we thought the trail could easily be in the run-out zone of an avalanche along some sections. Fortunately we all had avalanche gear, so we crossed some of the more sketchy looking sections solo to minimize our risk, mostly around the mid section of the trail, south of Grassy Mountain.
The sun was starting to set when we finally reached Poland Lake and we quickly got to work setting up camp. The official campsite is on the far side of the lake and there is a small emergency shelter over there. Due to imminent sunset, we opted not to go around the lake and found a nice spot to set up camp with a view of the sun setting over the lake. I’m not sure if we’re just getting more experienced, or if it was just that the snow was super light and fluffy and easy to shovel, but we were particularly quick in digging holes for our tents on this trip and it didn’t take us too long to get shelter up. We broke our headlamps out just as we were finishing setting up the tent, so fortunately we had daylight for most of it.
It had been a bit hit and miss with the sun all day, with it flitting in and out between the clouds, but in the evening all the clouds moved off and we had a completely clear night for stargazing! I bought a little star chart and had a good time trying to identify some of the constellations. I wasn’t planning to do any night photography, but the conditions were so good I ended up taking photos in the snow for the better part of an hour. I always get great star photos at Manning because it’s so far away from any ambient light!
Carolyn and Steve slept like the dead all night while me and Brandon listened to the cacophony of their snores. We had a bit of a lie in (for us) and got up around 8:30am. Meals are always a bit slow on snow camping trips because it takes so long to melt snow and boil water. Brandon decided to use his alcohol stove on this trip, which works well once it get’s going, but takes a long time to properly heat up. We concluded it’s good for cooking, but the traditional white gas stove is better for melting snow because the condensation on the pot was dripping into the alcohol stove and suppressing its burn.
After a leisurely breakfast we packed up everything to head back down the mountain. As always, when you’re done, make sure to fill in your holes so as not to leave hazards for future skiers. It was about noon when we left the campsite, but we made a much quicker descent than our 5 hour trek in. The actual Poland Lake trail is about 4km and it felt a lot easier after a day of rest. We went the correct way down the ski hill on the way back and hiked along the edge of the green run. We did see some signs pointing into the woods the for “Poland Lake trail”, but it was clearly a brand new trail that the resort was promoting and it didn’t look marked or established, so we opted not to use it. We did run into a resort employee in the parking lot and he confirmed it was new and said they were hoping to improve it, so hopefully next time we visit we’ll be able to use that trail!
We did encounter one odd thing on the trail that I wanted to bring up. When we were hiking along, we saw that someone had written “help” in the snow. It was right at the point where the previous tracks had stopped (where we started breaking our own trail), so we assume the individual turned around and went back. We did search around the area for anything suspicious and blew our whistle and did some voice calls, but didn’t find anything. We reported it at the resort before we left and they hadn’t received any missing person reports, so we think it was probably someone just messing around. Maybe it wasn’t, but something to think about when you are in the backcountry and what kind of message you are leaving for others.
Anyways, it only took us 2.5 hours to get to the bottom of the resort and then Steve and Brandon kindly offered to walk back the road to strawberry flats to get the cars. Me and Carolyn hung out and ate lunch while they were gone. I’ve been really into cold soaking my lunches lately and tried a cold soak taco salad that turned out amazing and was so delicious to eat! I’m working on lots of recipes for the upcoming summer season and hope to share them on the blog before then!
Otherwise it was a pretty uneventful trip back to Vancouver, although we did get a gorgeous sunset over the mountains driving back through Chilliwack! Definitely recommend Poland Lake after this experience, just make sure you take the winter route!