Elfin Lakes Girl Guide Trip

Since I just wrote about the bike trip I took with Girl Guides, I figured I’d continue the trend by writing about a backpacking trip I did in September 2019 to Elfin Lakes. I wrote this post almost right after the trip, but I never got around to posting it, so with the changing of the seasons (foreshadowing), I thought it was finally time! This was my most recent trip to Elfin Lakes, but I’ve been 3 other times, all of which were very different experiences. Read about my Fall day hike, summer tenting trip, and winter snow camping experience for my stories about the trail.

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I’ve been wanting to take my Pathfinder group into the wilderness, but you need previous experience on backcountry trips with girls before you can lead your own, so I jumped at the opportunity to join the North Vancouver Trex group on this trip. It was only my second trip into the backcountry with Girl Guides, but for some reason I always seem to encounter the craziest weather on guide trips, and this one was no exception!

We were a group of 12 and we planned to hike up to Elfin Lakes on Friday, tent for 2 nights – day hiking to Opal Cone on Saturday – and then hiking back down on Sunday. Needless to say, things did not go quite as planned. We do our best to be prepared as girl guides. The forecast was calling for rain on Friday and temps down to -8 degrees celsius overnight, so we packed lots of rain gear and warm clothes for sleeping. However, the temperature ended up dropping a lot faster than we expected and the rain started to turn to snow just before we reached Red Heather Hut, which is almost the halfway point up to the lakes.

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The girls were thrilled about the snow, which was falling gently, and I have to admit, hiking in the snow is a lot nicer than hiking in the rain. We had hot noodle soup for lunch before continuing on to the lakes. It was still September at this point and it was obvious it was the first snowfall of the year. However, the snow started to accumulate pretty quickly and it started snowing heavier as we continued on from the hut. Fortunately, there was no wind, but visibility wasn’t great and we couldn’t see any of the views on the way up. I admit, the further we hiked, the more apprehensive I got.

I wasn’t really nervous about camping in the snow, because I have done that before and we had brought really warm gear, but we didn’t have snow boots or snow pants and it was increasingly obvious we weren’t going to be able to hike to Opal Cone the following day. Even though it was calling for sun and blue skies on Saturday and Sunday, there was too much snow to hike further without proper footwear. But we just focused on getting to the hut and the girls did really well managing the conditions. Fortunately no one got cold or wet feet on the way up!

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We hit the hut around 4pm and everyone was thrilled to go inside. I think the girls were thinking we were going to abandon the tenting idea and just sleep in the hut, but as we had only booked tent pads and there were 12 of us, that wasn’t really an option (although obviously in an emergency we would have camped out on the floor if we had to.) We made them hot drinks to warm up and everyone hung their wet gear by the fire. I have to say, the girls had a great attitude when we told them we were still planning to camp. The snow did start to slack off and was almost stopped when we went back outside an hour later to scope out the tent pads. Fortunately the clouds had started to lift and you could just start to see the surrounding mountains (which are incredibly striking from the tent pads at Elfin Lakes), so the girls started to get excited again about tenting.

We shoveled off the tent pads and set up 4 tents. This proved to be a bit more of a challenge than we anticipated because it was pretty darn windy when we were setting them up. We had to weigh them down with rocks and then shove all our gear inside them to hold them down. Then we had the added difficultly that we couldn’t peg them because of the tent pad, but we eventually managed to get them set up and soon after that the wind died down and I didn’t give it much more thought.

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By the time we finished it had really cleared off and we had fun getting some photos of the mountains and the tents. Time really got away from us with the weather though and it was 8pm before we finally had supper in the hut. We had pesto pasta and re-hydrated coleslaw for dinner, with 2 bite brownies and reese peanut butter cups for dessert. After that we pretty much hit the sack because we were all exhausted. Unfortunately we decided we couldn’t stay for a second night because it just wouldn’t be safe to hike to Opal Cone and the girls didn’t have the appropriate gear to play in the snow, so it made the most sense to just hike back out on Saturday. The girls took the news pretty well and were very understanding.

I stayed up to get some star photos and then nestled into my sleeping bag for the night. It was pretty calm when we went to bed, so I thought that was the end of it, but oh was I ever wrong. Around 3 or 4am a wind storm blew in that totally put our tents to the test. I grew up in Newfoundland, which is super windy, but I never really did much tenting there, and not in recent years, so sadly I’ve kind of gotten used to tenting without wind. As a result, I never guy line my tent and only ever peg it really to protect from the rain. So it never really occurred to me to guy line the tents. It had occurred to the other leader though, but she had forgotten her rope, so she never brought it up (not realizing I always bring extra rope with me).

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Anyways, I’m sure you see where this is going, but the wind was really strong. I’ve never tented in wind like that and it was totally billowing the tent in and out. It woke everyone up and the girls started freaking out a bit, but everyone’s tents looked fine, so we told them to go back to sleep. Then I was woken up again at 5:30am by one of the other Guiders when her tent collapsed on her and two girls. When we looked at the other two tents the girls were in, it really looked like they were going to collapse soon too. So we had to put the first tent back up and then I got my rope and we guylined them all to the tent pads. Somehow my tent was the only one that didn’t look close to collapsing, but we were in a slightly different area than the rest of the tents, so the wind may have been blowing slightly differently.

It was still super windy in the tent, but the guylines did the trick to prevent any more collapses and we were able to go back to sleep until 8am. The wind never really let up though and it battered us all morning when we tried to take the tents down as well. but it was a beautiful sunny day and the blue sky and fresh snow made for a really beautiful view. We had sunrise spuds for breakfast and then packed everything up again to head down.

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I was worried it was going to be super slippery on the way down and was concerned about not having spikes (my friend once broke her arm in similar conditions), but the snow was still fresh enough that it hadn’t been compacted into ice yet, so it wasn’t too bad. We had a little photo shoot on the ridge looking down on the lake and then hiked back to the Red Heather hut for lunch again.

We had one more spot of adventure on the way down. One of the girls rolled her ankle about a kilometre from the end, but fortunately it seemed to be only sprained and she was able to slowly walk the last little bit out. We divvied up some of her gear and strapped the rest of the pack to my front to carry it out and we all made it down to the parking lot in one piece!

With the exception of the first photo, all pictures were taken on Day 2!

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Artist Point Snow Camping

Well it’s that time of year again! Time for my annual snow camping trip with Carolyn and Brandon! It’s a new hobby for us, so we’ve been trying to get out at least once a year to work on our snow camp skills. Carolyn broke her ankle back in July last year and it’s been a really long time healing, so this was our first time out together since last Spring. We have a few snow camps on our bucket list, but we wanted a shorter one for her first snowshoe since breaking her ankle, so we decided to try Artist Point in Washington. It has a fair bit of elevation gain, but it’s not very long – only 6km round trip.

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Our first discovery though was that camping across the border sucks. I made a few trips down to Washington this year with Lien for day hikes, but when you’re trying to pack for an overnight trip, it’s a big hassle. We had to leave snacks like jerky, dried mango, cheese, and trail mix behind, and modify our normal camp dinner. Brandon makes a mouth watering backcountry thai curry chicken that we eat on almost every adventure, but we couldn’t bring the chicken or veggies across, so we opted for my dehydrated vegetarian chili and macaroni instead. The chili is fine, it’s just not quite as rewarding as thai curry chicken (okay A LOT less rewarding).

So crossing the border was definitely a pain, but I have to admit, we’ll probably keep on doing it because there are some really great hikes in the Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. The actual border crossing was quick because we crossed in Abby at the Sumas Crossing and drove to Mount Baker from there. I snowshoed to Artist Point last year, which was what inspired me to try snow camping there this year. In the summer you can drive most of the way up to Artist Point, but the road and parking lots aren’t plowed in the winter. There’s a ton of open space at the top for the parking lots, which is why I thought it would be a great place to snow camp!

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We started hiking up sometime around noon. The last time I’d hiked up there it was a bluebird day and there was a million other people on the trail, but it was a bit overcast when we went, so there was definitely less people around, which was nice. The area had also received a massive dump of snow the night before (60 cms!), so the entire area was covered with a fresh blanket of shimmering powder. It was definitely a snowshoe day (as opposed to spikes). We had nice views hiking up, though the occasional clouds moved through, sometimes obscuring our view of the mountains, but not our visibility.

That changed a bit when we reached the top. You come up a pretty steep slope before getting to a large flatish base area where the parking lot(s) are located in the summer. The area attracts a lot of backcountry skiers and from there some hike up to Artist Point (another ~15-20mins), while others continue on to table mountain or down into the bowl going back towards the (base) parking lot. We didn’t want to camp right on Artist Point because it’s pretty exposed, but planned to find a somewhat sheltered spot around the parking area. Once we crested the last slope though, the fog moved in and it became harder to see where we were going. Plus in the winter it’s really hard to tell what is actually the parking lot. We wanted somewhere sheltered, but also with a good view. We ended up picking a spot looking out towards Table Mountain and Mount Baker that had a few banks sheltering it on either side.

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Fortunately the fog moved out again and our visibility improved a lot while we were setting up camp. We always dig out tent hole too small, so Carolyn outlined a truly massive site for us to shovel out this time. It was clearly too big, but for some reason none of us argued with her and just got to work shoveling! It took quite a while because there had been so much snow the night before and we had to dig down about a metre before we could finally start stomping it down and compacting the snow. Eventually we got enough space for the tent and realized we’d kind of over-shoveled a bit if we still wanted a snow wall to provide some shelter for the tent, so we built up a snow counter on the last side and made a pretty slapdash kitchen that actually ended up being pretty good.

The later it got, the fewer people around, but one giant group showed up in the middle of the afternoon – it must have had 40 people! We think it was an avalanche safety course because there seemed to be one guide and they started digging some shelters themselves. It was obvious from their packs they weren’t staying overnight, so we kept joking they should come dig out our hole for us since they weren’t going to use theirs anyways!

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The temperature was around -5 degrees, which in my opinion is perfect for snow camping because you don’t want the snow to be wet at all. It continued to snow on and off as we were setting up our shelter, but the wind kept down and we didn’t have any problems. I love snow camping, but it is definitely a lot more work. It was pretty late in the afternoon by the time we finished the shelter and we decided we wanted to start melting snow for water right away since it takes forever and it gets dark early. It did take a long time, but fortunately the snow was all very clean and it tasted a lot better to drink than the snow on some of our previous trips. We started dinner before dark, but it was definitely dark by the time we finished and started cleaning up.

We puttered around camp for a bit with our headlamps, cleaning up and sharing Carolyn’s flask. Eventually we climbed into the tent because we always look forward to getting into our sleeping bags on a cold winter night. By the time we were all geared up and ready for bed, Carolyn asked me to check the time and I turned on my phone to see 7:30pm staring back at me! I couldn’t believe it! We all knew the sun sets early, but we had a good laugh at ourselves all set up and ready for bed that early! At Elfin Lakes I’d set up and done some star photography, which kept us up a bit later, but the clouds were moving around a lot and it wasn’t really a great night for star photos, though we did catch a great view of Orion at one point.

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We read for a little bit, but it’s cold with your hands and arms out of your sleeping back, so it was probably still only 8:30pm when we turned off the lights and went to bed. Carolyn was thrilled about it because she loves to go to bed early without anyone making fun of her for it! As usual, it was a fair bit of work to keep warm overnight, but we all managed it and it was 7:30am before we finally got up.

It was a big change from the previous night when we crawled out of the tent. It was a gorgeous bluebird day with the sun shining down on us! We wanted to make first tracks up to Artist Point, so we grabbed some snacks and postponed breakfast to hike up to the point. It was definitely a good way to warm up! We were all sweating by the time we reached the top and we stayed up there for a while taking photos and goofing around in the snow. The landscape looked much the same as the last time I’d snowshoed up there, which was also a bluebird day, but the big difference was that we were the only people on the mountain.

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The point gives a great view of Mount Shuksan, but the Baker side stole my attention on this trip because there were a ton of clouds sitting in the valley around it and it felt really cool to be up above the clouds. While we were up there we noticed the fog was starting to creep up the valley on both sides and we decided to trek back to the campsite for breakfast. By the time we got back the fog had totally moved in and within 30 minutes you couldn’t see any of the view any more! I felt bad for all the day hikers and skiers coming up later, but lucky that we got to enjoy the nice weather before the clouds moved it. It wasn’t snowing, but visibility was pretty bad and I can see how it would be easy to get lost in those conditions. So it was a good reminder of how fast things can change in the backcountry.

Otherwise it was a pretty uneventful climb down. Snowshoes definitely aren’t as fun going downhill, so we had a few stumbles on the way down, but no more injured ankles! I think we can definitely call this trip another success!

Keyhole Hot Springs Snow Camping Trip

I went on two snow camping trips this year. My first trip was to Elfin Lakes in February in temperatures of -20 below, the second trip was to Keyhole hot springs, in much more manageable temperatures! I’ve been trying to visit Keyhole hot springs since 2016 and had two failed trips before finally making it there this year. In summer 2016, me, Brandon, and Carolyn planned to visit over the Canada Day long weekend, but were dismayed to hear that the trail was being closed due to an aggressive grizzly bear (more on this later). Then me and Brandon tried to visit again in winter of 2017, but only made it halfway there because a semi-truck had jack-knifed across the forestry road and was blocking traffic in both directions.

So this was our third attempt, and I’m pleased to say we were finally successful! We wanted to go on a second snow camping trip before the end of the season and Carolyn’s been working on visiting all the hot springs in the area, so we decided to visit and stay overnight to try and avoid some of the crowds. Like I said, our first trip was to Elfin Lakes and the temperature dropped to -20 degrees celsius overnight, so we were thrilled to see that the forecast for Keyhole was calling for 7 degrees during the day and -6 degrees overnight. I ditched my double sleeping bag system for this trip and packed in my bag liner and new backcountry blanket instead.

Keyhole hot springs has become insanely popular in the last ~5 years. It used to only be accessible with 4WD, but the road was upgraded in 2014 because of a new hydro construction project in the area and the hot spring blew up on social media, making it a really popular destination for backcountry lovers and drunk partiers alike. I have really mixed feelings about the hot spring because I do believe everyone should have the right to appreciate natural wonders like this, but it’s also been severely disrespected by some of its visitors and it’s very upsetting to many of the locals.

It’s only a 2km hike to the hot spring and due to the excessive number of visitors, and the fact that it’s not a park (so it’s not managed by any rangers), a lot of garbage started collecting around the area, which of course, started attracting bears to the area. Keyhole is located on a forestry road out past Pemberton, so there are grizzly bears in the area and they started becoming aggressive towards visitors, so the province closed the trail in 2016 between April and November to stop the bears from becoming habituated to food and people. Since then, the trail is only open in the winter, hence why we decided to visit in March.

We drove out on Saturday morning, with the intention of staying for one night. We knew it would be really busy on a Saturday, so we were happy to stay overnight in hopes of avoiding some of the crowds later in the evening. We were right about how busy it would be during the day, but we wrongly assumed we’d be the only one’s camping. Since the road has been upgraded and is kept plowed for the construction project, 4WD is no longer required to get to the trailhead, although winter tires are definitely a must. We arrived around 1pm and I counted over 20 vehicles in the parking lot at that time.

We chatted with some of the day hikers on their way out and a lot of them expressed an admiration for the beauty of the trail, but told us they didn’t end up going in the hot spring at all because there were just too many people around. I would echo the sentiment about the trail. Granted, we had gorgeous blue sky and sunny weather when we visited, but the trail itself is worth visiting and ended up being the highlight of the trip for me. In winter, the trail ends up being about 3km because you can’t make it all the way to the trailhead and you do have to walk an extra km along the road, but the rest of the trail follows the river, which looks gorgeous in the winter with huge pillows of snow on every rock.

It’s easy to find the parking lot, you just follow the Lillooet Forest Service Road for about 40km until you reach a parking lot. The road becomes a “private road” at the end of the parking lot, so you’ll know you’ve found the right place. There is a branch in the road at the parking lot and a separate road continues up the hill. The road is plowed, so it’s possible you could drive up it, but the snow was very soft by this time of year, so everyone was parking at the bottom and walking up the road. The only tricky part is it’s not clear when you have to exit the road into the woods. You walk for a couple hundred metres and you’ll eventually see another side road, if you follow it into the trees, you’ll find the path heading directly down to the river.

The trail was easy to follow when we visited because there were so many people ahead of us and it hadn’t snowed in a while. But if you were the first one to visit after a fresh snowfall, it might be a challenge because the trail is not marked. Be careful visiting in March because the sun was softening up the snow and it would be easy to punch through the trail in some locations. Given the hot weather we’re getting this week, the trail will start deteriorating pretty fast as the snow melts, and remember, it closes for the season on April 1. But we really enjoyed the hike along the river and there were some really gorgeous views of the surrounding mountains.

We were wrong about being the only snow campers. There were at least 4 other groups camping that we saw and I think another large group arrived after us. I’m not sure if they were really prepared for the sub-zero temperatures though because they were all packed up and gone by the time we finally crawled out of our tent in the morning. We found a nice little private place to camp and it didn’t feel that crowded at the campsite. Overall though, the hot spring was a bit of a letdown for us. I think it would be a lot nicer on a weekday with smaller crowds and I personally wouldn’t return on a weekend again. There were just too many people and there was one group that hogged the pools for at least 3 hours and were still there after we’d come and gone.

The set-up of the pools is really something. The hot water flows down from a stream above the Lillooet River and trickles into a man made, but natural-looking rock pool. From there the water cascades into two other pools. Unfortunately the first pool is too hot to get in and the second pool is bearable, but still quite hot. The third pool is a perfect temperature and as such, the most popular of the 3. This is where the one group were hanging out. We went down to the pools around 4pm, but it was still busy, so we came back again a little later. We were able to get into the second pool and hung out in there for a little while as the sun set. But the one group insisted on blocking up the bottom pool and stayed into the night drinking, so we did get to visit, but overall it was a little frustrating. We debated getting up early to visit again, but decided to let it be in favour of a lie in, which I definitely don’t regret!

So overall, it was nice, but I would personally recommend going on a weekday if at all possible. Also, don’t be the group that gets drunk in the bottom pool all night. I was impressed that I actually didn’t see any garbage around the hot springs, so hopefully people are learning. But if you decide to visit Keyhole, as either a day hiker or an overnighter, make sure you practice leave no trace camping! Don’t leave anything behind – take everything out with you, including your toilet paper! There’s no facilities at all, so make sure you dig a hole if you’re going #2. The hot springs really are a natural wonder and they are beautiful, so lets do our best to take care of them!

So that’s my rant on the hot springs. I didn’t want to glamourize it because social media does enough of that already. I do think everyone has a right to the hot springs, we just need to protect them. I know keyhole isn’t the only place suffering from overuse, Garibaldi Lake, Joffre Lakes, and other popular destinations also suffer from a huge amount of overuse, with people leaving a ton of garbage behind and destroying the natural landscape in search of firewood. The overuse just seems a little more pronounced at Keyhole because of its small size.

But we still had a great time camping! It was crazy warm during the day when we were hiking in because the sun was shining on us the whole time, but it still got quite cold overnight. On a warmer day, like the day we visited, I think it would be easy to underestimate how cold it can get overnight. I debated how much gear I should actually bring. In addition to my winter jacket and snow pants, I brought my -15 sleeping bag, my sleeping bag liner, a camp blanket, a winter pad, and a lightweight down jacket to sleep in. I thought the blanket and extra jacket might be overkill, but I ended up using both, so I don’t regret it. I probably would have been fine with less gear, but I was so cozy overnight, it was worth it!

We had some more lessons learned when it comes to water though. The last two places we’ve stayed have both had pretty clean snow to melt for water, but because it was later in the season, there wasn’t as much fresh snow and most of it had pine needles in it because the campsite was located in the woods and the needles fall from the canopy. I had to walk a distance to find good snow to melt for water and even then, it still had some dirt in it. We’ve discovered that melted snow tastes extremely gross, so if you’re only going for one night, it might be worth taking a bit of extra water with you for drinking to see you through the trip. But if that’s not possible, which often its not because you don’t want to carry the extra weight and even if you did, the water could easily freeze overnight anyways, so we decided next time we will probably take Brandon’s gravity filter with us. That way we can melt the snow and then put it through the filter to remove any dirt and hopefully improve the taste a little.

Overall, it was still a fun trip, but it is a long drive (~4 hours) and because of the crowds it doesn’t stick out in my mind as much as the other snow camping trips we’ve done. But we tried something new and now we can finally cross it off the bucket list after all our other failed attempts!