Ring Lake Backpacking Trip

Ring Lake was definitely one of the weirder backpacking trips I’ve been on over the years, but I look back on it now with very fond memories. It was August 2018, the smokiest summer I’ve ever experienced in the lower mainland. My Howe Sound Crest trip had been cancelled for the second year running because of the smoke, but I still wanted to go out exploring somewhere, so Brandon and I decided to head up towards Whistler in hopes that the smoke would thin.

If anything it was worse in Whistler, but we carried on towards Callaghan Lake, pulling over just before the lake at the Conflict Lake/Ring Lake trailhead. Callaghan is most well known for its cross country skiing, but you can explore there in the summer as well. It’s a gravel road that’s in pretty rough shape; I think it’s doable in a 2WD because there aren’t many water bars, but high clearance definitely make it easier.

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The Conflict Lake trail is really popular in the winter because there’s a beautiful cabin you can ski into and explore the area from, but for some reason it’s not operating in the summer and we didn’t see a single person on the trail. It’s 5km to Conflict Lake along relatively flat terrain through the woods. I had a bit of an upset tummy, so we rushed along to the Lake, thinking there would be an outhouse near the cabin. But alas, it’s too swanky a cabin for that so I was forced to make use of my trowel.

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We had lunch at the lake before carrying on to Ring Lake, which is another 5km, but this time it’s all uphill. It’s about 500 metres in elevation gain, but since it was flat to Conflict Lake, all the elevation is in the second half of the trail. However, right after Conflict Lake there are some really beautiful meadows, and just our luck they were filled with wildflowers! The contrast of the green meadows and smoke filled valley made me feel like I was somewhere else entirely. Coupled with the fact that we had yet to see another soul on the trail, it was quite blissful.

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It’s a tiring climb up from there though. The trail skirts the edge of the valley as you climb up towards the lake. It’s almost totally in the trees until you reach the top and pop out in the alpine. When I did Brew Lake it reminded me a lot of Ring Lake because both trails are almost completely forested until you reach the top, and both weirdly empty.

The challenge of Ring Lake is that about halfway between Conflict and Ring, you have to do a pretty dicey river crossing. Because of the terrain, the river cascades down over the rocks at a pretty steep angle, making it dangerous if you were to misstep and fall in. For this reason, the season during which you can hike to Ring Lake is short because you need to wait until the flows in the river goes down. I had a friend that tried to go in July once and had to turn around at the river crossing, so I’d really only recommend going in August. Fortunately for us (I guess), it was a super dry year, so we didn’t have too much trouble. I just opted to wear my full goretex boots for the trip and brought two hiking poles instead of the one I normally bring to make the crossing easier (although I ended up giving the second one to Brandon).

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After the crossing the trail is still quite technical though, there are a few ladder and rope sections, but eventually you pop out of the trees to the most gorgeous mountain vista! Sadly though, with the smoke we could barely see across the lake, but the whole area is hemmed in by mountains and it looked like there was lots to explore nearby. When we arrived we saw one tent on the far side of the lake, so we went in the other direction to set up our camp. It’s a large lake, so by the time we found a place we liked, we couldn’t even see them anymore. They left before us the following morning and we didn’t see a single other person the whole weekend.

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There’s only a handful of times when we’ve had such solitude at a campsite. I love it, but it does make you much more keenly aware of your presence in the wilderness. Ring Lake is in grizzly bear country, so caching our food was super important. Unfortunately though, it’s also an alpine environment and trees were very sparse. There are some around, but they’re the kind that go straight up with very few branches from which to hang a bear cache. After pitching the tent, we immediately got to work on our bear cache because we knew it would take some time. Looking back, I really have no idea how we managed to get the thing up – it took us about an hour, but somehow Cowboy Brandon managed to lasso to trees and we created a clothesline between them that we then hoisted our bags up. Most challenging was making sure not to tie the ropes in such a way that we wouldn’t be able to get them back, but in the end it all worked out. Definitely the most impressive bear cache I’ve ever fashioned. It was higher than it looks in the photo (because it was taken on a slope), but it did start to sag overnight.

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I’d also brought some bear bangers in case we saw a grizzly and I’d been thinking of setting one off before bed just to make sure the area was clear, but there is a small chance of fire with bangers and flares, so I opted not to with the forest so dry. Instead we just kept our bear horns nearby and we ended up sleeping with the fly off the tent, so we could easily see the surrounding area with the moonlight. I’m not really sure why we left the fly off, I think Brandon wanted to watch the stars, but with so much smoke, there wasn’t really much to see overnight. We did get a beautiful orange sunset over the lake though!

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I think what makes this trip stick out in my mind so much was the rest of the evening. After we’d set up camp, we went downwind of our tent to make dinner. Brandon had brought his speaker so that we could play music to scare off the bears and we’d accidentally brought a pretty significant amount of fireball with us. So we ended up doing quite a few shots and having our own mountain dance party as we made dinner! There’s nothing so enjoyable as a watching the sun go down with Brandon’s backcountry thai chicken curry and a pleasant buzz. But mostly we just marveled in our good fortune in having such a beautiful place all to ourselves.

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We both regret that we couldn’t explore the area further. There are lots of surrounding mountain peaks that would have made for a fun second day, but the smoke stole any hope of a view, so we decided to just head back down the following day, though we’re both keen to return again in the future.

The trek down was a lot more enjoyable than the hike up. We did a small bit of exploring at the meadows at the top before heading back to Conflict Lake for lunch again. There’s a boulder field between Ring and Conflict Lake that is an excellent place to watch for marmots. We saw a few on the way up hanging out on the rocks. Then on the way back down I counted a record 7 marmots out sunning themselves! One was a family of 4 with two little pups that were super cute!

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It’s only 10km each way, but it feels like a long 10km with big hiking packs. The hike from Conflict back to the car felt like it went on forever and we were relieved when we finally arrived back at the car and could shed our packs and smelly clothes. Like I said, I really would like to go back and visit Ring Lake again, but I would never do it in such conditions. Looking back, the smoke was great enough that we shouldn’t have gone hiking at all and I’m impressed I didn’t feel sick from it.

We had some really bad smoke in Sept. 2020 as well and again attempted to escape it by heading out of the city. We weren’t successful in escaping it, but on this occasion it gave me such a headache I quit the hike 3km in and went back to the car. When the smoke is so bad, it’s really not worth going out in it since it’s quite dangerous to your health. At the time though, we’d been cooped up for the better part of a month and were going a little stir crazy. It’s a difficult hike, don’t underestimate it – but in different conditions, I would gladly return!

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Ski Resort Series: Whistler

What to say about Whistler. It’s a world renown ski-resort for a reason.

Skiing Whistler was definitely one of the things I was most excited about when I first moved to Vancouver. Since moving here I’ve probably skied Whistler-Blackcomb somewhere between 15-20 times and it’s been a different experience every time.

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The mountain and the views are incredible, but Vancouver’s milder winters definitely results in inconsistent skiing experiences. My first season skiing Whistler was in 2015, which was extremely disappointing because the whole region barely got any snow the entire season, so it was pretty wet on the mountain and not all the chairs were able to open. However the years that followed were a huge contrast and I had some really excellent powder days on the mountain, especially in 2017.

The biggest downside to skiing Whistler is by far the cost. It seems like tourists just accept the high price tag that comes with staying at a resort like Whistler, but for locals, it’s expensive. We always drive up and back from Vancouver on the same day to avoid paying for an overpriced hotel room. Plus is seems that the lift passes get more and more expensive every year; after Veil bought out the resort in 2018, it really felt like they were trying to the locals out. These days it’s somewhere around $180 to buy a single day lift pass at the bottom of the mountain, which is absolutely ridiculous for a mountain with limited skiing hours (8:30am-3pm at it’s shortest).

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The price tag has been a deterrent for a lot of my friends in recent years, but personally I love this mountain, so I keep coming back every year. The trick is to buy an Edge Card in advance of the season to save on lift tickets. The cards vary every year and you can usually choose anywhere from 2 to 10 days, meaning you can ski any day of the season for that number of days. This year I got a 2 day card for $220, so significant savings over buying it the day of. Other years I’ve gotten 3 day cards and once I even got a 6 day card. The more days you buy, the better the value.

But let’s talk about the actual mountain. Whistler Blackcomb is made up of two mountains that have been merged into 1 big resort. I’ve decided to write about them separately, so I’ll just talk about Whistler in this post. There is a peak to peak gondola going between the two, but we usually just pick one mountain and ski there for the day.

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Whistler is the larger of the two mountains and is favoured more by skiers then snowborders. You can upload onto the mountain either from the main lift in the village, or from Creekside, which is a few kilometers before the main village along the highway. I’ve heard it’s nice to upload from Creekside, but there’s a lot more parking at the main village, so we always start from there. It can be a long wait for the first gondola up, so we usually do the singles line to beat the crowd.

When I first started skiing Whistler, I spent a lot of time near the Harmony Express lift. It’s a good area for intermediate skiers and there are amazing views from the top of the lift, plus a good variety of runs. If you’re just visiting though, your top priority should be making sure you head up to the Peak Lookout. As far as the skiing goes, it’s not my favourite area, but it’s by far the best view on the mountain, so make sure to do at least one run up there to catch the view! It’s also the place to go if you want to do the longest possible run on the mountain. We rarely ski down past mid station as the snow is just not that good and you don’t want to have to wait to upload again, but if the conditions are good, it can be fun to ski some of the lower runs later in the day when there are no waits at the bottom.

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In more recent years though, Symphony Express has by far become my favourite part of the mountain. It’s a bit of a trek to get over there at the start of the day because you have to upload on a few different lifts to make it to that side of the mountain, but once you get over there, there’s great skiing in Symphony Bowl. Plus there’s usually less line ups and still a great view from the top of Symphony Chair. So these days we usually make a beeline over to that area.

Since Whistler is such a big mountain, there are lots of easy runs criss-crossing the mountain as well. It’s why snowboarders tend not to like Whistler as much as Blackcomb, so we usually have to convince Brandon to come over there with us (he’s our only boarder). But no matter what part of the mountain you ski, there’s tons of great runs and amazing views. Although sometimes they won’t open Peak or Symphony Chair on snowy or windy days.

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A few more tips if you’re visiting Whistler. The lines for food at Roundhouse can get really crazy during peak lunch hours, so we usually try and eat a little later to avoid the crowds (usually around 1:30ish). Sometimes we bring sandwiches to eat on the mountain and sometimes we just snack all day and quit around 3pm. Depends how cold it is and who’s with us. In earlier years, we used to hit up Creekside for lunch, but it seems to have gotten busier lately, so I usually prefer Roundhouse.

As for parking, I recommend going in lots 4 and 5 at Whistler Village. They are further from the village, but it’s a lot easier to get a spot and there’s a shuttle bus that goes right to the village. It used to the be free to park there, but Whistler Municipality has recently started charging $5 for the day. Lots 1, 2, 3 have always been pay parking at a steeper rate.

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