Zoa Peak Snow Camping

It hasn’t been the best year for winter activities. Between the pandemic restrictions and the avalanche ratings, it’s been hard to get out and enjoy the snow. We went snow camping at Lightning Lakes in late January and we’ve been trying to fit in a second trip ever since. The avalanche ratings have been pretty consistently at ‘Considerable’ and ‘High’ throughout the last month and we ended up cancelling our trip twice. But we finally got decent conditions this past weekend and decided to go for it as one last snow activity to close out the season.

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Zoa is popular among backcountry skiers because it’s a relatively easy hike up an old forestry road and thanks to the low incline, most of the hike is in simple terrain. Interestingly, the first time Carolyn and I ever snow camped was at the base of the Zoa Peak trail. We’d intended to go to Manning, but a wrong turn on the highway landed us in the Coquihalla Rec Area and we decided to snowshoe 1km in to the Zoa Peak/Falls Lake trailhead and camp on the summer parking lot (which isn’t plowed in the winter). So we felt like we’d come full circle by returning to this area and hiking up to Zoa.

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It was a busy day on the trail with both skiers and snowshoers, but we were the only ones staying overnight and the crowds quickly thinned out when we reached the top. However, it was a very challenging hike up the mountain. Because it was mid-March, it wasn’t really ideal snow conditions for any kind of activity. We debated for ages whether we should wear snowshoes or spikes and ended up with me and Brandon hiking in spikes and Carolyn and Steve in snowshoes. There was really no right answer, but in retrospect, I think snowshoes were overall the better choice.

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The first kilometre along the access road was very well packed and I had no problem in spikes, but once we started climbing up the old forestry road, snowshoes were preferable. It was really sunny, so the snow became a bit slushy and while we weren’t punching through the snow with spikes, it was a bit like walking on sand and made for a very draining hike up. Most of the elevation gain is done on the forestry road and with the sun beating down on us and reflecting off the snow, it ate up a lot of our energy. We all wore sunscreen on our faces, but I ended up getting burned on the underside of my chin from the reflection off the snow!

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After about 2.5km, you need to exit the road and hike into the woods. The summer trail exits the road earlier, but in the winter it’s better to continue further up since the grade is lower there. There is some pink flagging tape to mark the turn-off, but it’s easy to miss so I recommend being on the lookout and using a GPS. From there you hike up through the woods until you reach the ridge. It’s still steep, but the trail is more packed through the trees, so my spikes worked better here. It can be a bit confusing because the skiers take all kinds of different paths down through the trees, but as long as you keep going up, you really can’t go wrong and will eventually reach the ridge.

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Snowshoeing along the ridge up to the sub-peak is gorgeous! I did part of Zoa in the fall once, but it’s much more scenic in the winter because the snow lifts you up higher among the trees, resulting in a better view and not confining you to a single area. In the summer, the brush makes it impossible to travel along the entire ridge and the trees limit a lot of the view, so I much preferred the winter views.

In total, it’s about 5km from the highway to Zoa Peak. We decided from the beginning that we would cut off a kilometre and only hike as far as the sub-peak. This is because after the sub-peak the trail gets steeper and the avalanche terrain changes from ‘simple’ to ‘challenging’. The avalanche risk on the day we went was ‘moderate’ in the treeline and ‘considerable’ in the alpine. Zoa seems to be kind of on the cusp between treeline and alpine, so we decided to play it safe and camp at the sub-peak.

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By the time we reached the ridgeline, we were all exhausted, so we decided to camp just below the sub-peak. It was calling for a bit of wind overnight and we wanted to be sheltered, plus the views are gorgeous all along the ridge. So we found a good looking spot and got right to work on setting up camp. Unfortunately, stopping triggered a few issues for me and after a few minutes of shoveling I found myself getting really lightheaded. I think I was dehydrated, so I took a break and tried to re-hydrate with some electrolytes. We all suffered some mild dehydration throughout the hike, so it was a good reminder to drink lots of water prior to a hike as well. Fortunately we had lots of electrolytes and were all able to recover.

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So Brandon did a lot of the shoveling for our set up and eventually I got to work on a snow kitchen. The snow was really sticky so it was good for setting up a kitchen and we didn’t have to pack it down too much. There were 4 of us, so Brandon and I shared one tent and Carolyn and Steve shared another. We had a great view of what I think was Thar, Nak, and the back of Yak Peak and enjoyed hanging out watching the mountains. One of the benefits of going so late in the season was that we had a bit more daylight in which to enjoy the view.

Brandon made us miso soup to help with rehydrating and then we all got to work on melting snow for dinner. I shared Brandon’s classic thai curry chicken, which is my absolute favourite backcountry meal! My parents had sent me some chocolate from Newfoundland Chocolate Company, which we enjoyed as a treat for dessert.

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Usually when we go snow camping, we go to bed super early because it gets so cold and dark, but it was a warmer evening and the clouds had completely cleared out, leaving a beautiful view of the stars! So we stayed up much later than we usually do and I took star photos while Steve messed around with his radio to get us some tunes. Two night hikers passed us right after it got dark, but otherwise we were the only ones around and enjoyed a beautiful sunset. It ended up being 9:45pm by the time I finally crawled into the tent for bed, which is by far the latest I’ve ever stayed up snow camping!

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I didn’t get the best night’s sleep as the wind picked up overnight and shook us around a bit. Nothing to be concerned about, but it did make it a little harder to sleep. I made an egg and bacon hash for breakfast and then Brandon and I hiked the last few metres up to the sub-peak to check out the view. Otherwise we just took down camp and packed up again to head home. It was a lot easier on the second day because the sun stayed behind the clouds, meaning the slush had become more solid and was easier to hike out in spikes. We didn’t see as much traffic and powered down the trail in just an hour and a half (versus the 3 hours it took us to hike up).

So overall it was definitely one of the more challenging hikes, but the weather and views from the top were amazing and we ended up having a great time!

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Lightning Lakes Snow Camp

I know I said I was done with writing about Manning Park, but in addition to doing day snowshoe trips in the park, I have also snow camped there, so I want to share about that adventure too!

It’s been a challenging year for everyone with COVID-19 and our limited ability to travel and see friends. Fortunately the outdoors is a relatively safe space to spend time with friends, so we decided to go on our annual snow camping adventure. We made some notable changes – we all drove separately, prepared our own meals, and brought multiple tents. It wasn’t ideal because Brandon is the only one who owns a winter tent, but Carolyn decided to make do with her 3-season tent and we convinced Steve to join us this year! Steve did avalanche safety training with us this year, so he was interested in expanding his horizons.

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Originally we wanted to do Zoa Peak, but the avalanche risk was particularly high the weekend we went, so we decided to do Lightning Lakes instead since there is very little avalanche terrain there. To be on the safe side, we still rented avalanche gear and practiced finding each other’s beacons to get more familiar and comfortable with the gear.

I won’t spend too much time on trail details as I just wrote a separate post about the Lightning Lakes trail. It was possible to hike on the lake, so we crossed once on the first lake and then followed the trail along the edge of the second lake to the back. I’ve never gone beyond the edge of the second lake, but it’s not too far to snowshoe to the next lake, which is Flash Lake, so we decided to check it out. We weren’t keen on camping on Lightning Lake since there’s a lot of foot traffic and we thought Flash Lake might be more secluded.

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We didn’t see anyone along the Flash Lake trail, but the creek between the two lakes was not frozen and the head of the lake looked very sketchy. If we’d continued further, it likely would have improved, but we decided to turn around and instead found a nice clearing in the woods between the two lakes to set up camp.

Surprisingly there wasn’t actually a huge base of snow at Manning this year, so we didn’t have to dig too deep. In other years we’ve shared shovels, which made digging a bit slower, but this year we each had our own shovel, so even though we had multiple tents to dig out holes for, it ended up being a bit quicker than normal (or maybe we’re just getting better at it?). We dug deeper for Carolyn’s tent since it’s not a winter tent and we made sure to pack in a lot of snow around the edges for extra insulation. Fortunately it was only about -7 degrees overnight and with two people in the tent, they didn’t have any trouble staying warm.

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We all upgraded some of our gear this year, so Steve inherited some of Carolyn’s old snow camping gear and I got to test out my new -30 degree rated sleeping bag. It took me a bit longer than I anticipated to warm up in the bag (you’re only as warm as the heat you bring in with you), but after about an hour I finally got toasty and after that, quite warm. I ended up having to unzip a little bit and slept most of the night with one arm out of the bag, so I’m optimistic it will hold up in colder temperatures. There are very limited options for winter camping sleeping bags and even fewer are available in Canada. I still think some of the features of my bag could be improved, but I do think it was the best option available to me as a side sleeper.

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Like any snow camping trip, by the time you get to your destination, dig out your tents and make your snow kitchen, it’s more or less time to start getting ready for dinner before you lose daylight. We spent some time boiling water and enjoyed hanging out while we cooked our meals. I made the snow kitchen this year and I have to say I thought it turned out quite well! I made the counter/couch out of the pile of snow Carolyn shoveled out for her tent and then shoveled out a pit for one of the stoves. It snowed gently for most of the day and evening, but the clouds did clear a little bit and we got a glimpse of the stars before bed.

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It was around 7pm when we crawled into our tents. I read until around 8pm when I finally got properly warm and then hit the sack. I woke up around midnight to pee and then slept the rest of the night until 8am – definitely one of the better nights sleep I’ve gotten snow camping!

After breakfast we took down camp and then spent some time playing around with our avalanche gear before heading back out to the cars. It doesn’t take too long to hike back along the edge of the lake and we did a few photoshoots along the way. We all have a bit of an obsession with Gregory packs, so we take turns making attempts to get ourselves Gregory sponsorships – so far, no luck, but we still have fun!

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So overall it was a great first snow camping trip in Manning Park. Manning is a bit intimidating because it can get really cold there overnight, but fortunately for us it was pretty comfortable when we visited. Definitely have plans to go back and try camping at some of the other winter trails!

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Snowshoeing Similkameen River

This will be the final post in my Manning Park snowshoe series (for now). To date I’ve only explored the beginner trails, but now that I have avalanche safety training I’m hoping to venture further out in upcoming years. I go out to Manning Park a lot, sometimes camping and sometimes just for the day, but on this occasion Seth and I decided to rent a little airbnb log cabin in the Sunshine Valley for a weekend. The cabin was really quaint – it had a woodstove, which made it feel really cozy, and no cell service or wifi, so it was truly a proper forest getaway.

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We drove out on Friday night and then continued in to Manning Park on Saturday morning to go snowshoeing. We’d planned to do the Skagit River trail, but as it’s located right at the start of the park, and at a lower elevation, so it often won’t have fresh snow. On this occasion it didn’t, so we decided to save it for another day and continued on towards the resort to hike the Similkameen River Trail.

This trailhead starts just past the resort and is the same as the Windy Joe trail. You can park along the road just after the bridge and hike in along the river. Unfortunately we didn’t get the best conditions for it, the weather was good, but it was right after a wind storm, so there were a lot of fallen trees that we had to climb over and a lot of debris cluttering up the trail. Otherwise it was really nice though and I would love to go back and do it again.

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We followed the trail along the river past the turn-off for Windy Joe. After that, there’s another trail branch and it looks like you can cross the river and loop back on the other side of the river. This is what we decided to do, but I’d advise you to just turn around and go back the same way because the trail on the other side of the river is the nordic ski trail and snowshoers aren’t permitted on this trail.

Before doing that though, we continued further along the river trail to extend the time (it’s pretty short if you just go to the branch and turn around). If you’re keen, you can hike it all the way to the Monument 78/83 trailhead, but this is a bit of a roundabout route that would leave you having to hike back the highway, so I recommend just turning around whenever you feel you’ve gone far enough. We probably continued on for about a kilometre before stopping for lunch by the river. The Windy Joe lookout would likely also make for a fun day, but I think you may need avalanche gear for this trail, so proceed with caution.

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The Similkameen River also continues in the other direction from the trailhead and can be hiked in the resort snowshoe area as well, you just need to buy a trail pass for $10 at the resort to use that trail. There’s almost no elevation along the trail, so it’s great for beginners, and even with all the windfall, we still had a lot of fun exploring the trail! Definitely recommend!