One Sunny Saturday…
With a fine weekend forecast, we couldn’t resist one last camping trip of the season. Maria, Andrew, and I set off on a beautiful clear Saturday morning and by 8.15 am we were under way. The air was cool, the occasional sunshine deliciously warm, and the view over Squamish and the Chief a welcome sight after the first thirty minutes. As we headed up the old logging road, the air became chillier and the ground frostier. After about an hour and a half, we reached the very frosty Red Heather meadows. The path was crunchy underfoot with ice crystals pushing up the soil everywhere and icicles dripping from the heather on the banks alongside the trail. Unfortunately the autumn colours were past their best, and many of the bushes had lost their leaves, but we could still find plenty of frozen berries to try. Of course it was like eating blueberries straight from the freezer!
We carried on up through the icy meadows, occasionally pausing to look behind us at the spectacular view of the snowy Tantalus mountains lit up in the morning light. Ahead of us lay the equally beautiful and snowy summit of Mt Garibaldi. We crunched our way through more ice, passing more icicles and berry bushes. We rejoined the logging road, and encountered the first patches of snow. Before long we were trudging through several inches of the white stuff. As we climbed out of the shadow of Paul Ridge we caught our first glimpses of the Mamquam Range and were wowed again by the sight of yet more mountains.
The snow around us was covered with animal tracks – snowshoe hare, grouse and others, even a lone bear. Someone had taken (tongue-in-cheek) offence at one of the grouse and had expressed their displeasure in single-syllable words written in the snow… Further along, someone had drawn a heart. Awww. By now we had slowed down as beautiful views greeted us in every direction, simply begging us to take more photographs. We crested the final rise and the Elfin Lakes came into view, snow bound but still ice-free. The calm air and still water made for spectacular reflections of the Mamquam mountains.
We bypassed the shelter, moving on to the campground about 1 km further away (and 100 m lower in elevation!). The campground lies in a gorgeous meadow, with about a dozen tent pads set among the heather and tiny trees. We found two spots close together and set up our tents. The temptation was to stay put, especially as it had begun to cloud over and cool off. Plus our early start had made me sleepy. But we repacked our bags and headed off to Opal Cone. We met a few hikers heading back to the shelter – they had only gone as far as the final descent to Ring Creek – but otherwise had the trail to ourselves. A while later we met three park rangers, who told us that the bridge over Ring Creek had been removed but that it was still possible to get across the creek by boulder hopping. As the trail began its descent to Ring Creek, we found ourselves a pleasant lunch spot among the boulders, with a clear view north into the valley. Pikas squeaked all around us but we saw only one, an adventurous pika came within about 6 feet of us but of course ducked back among the rocks just as we reached for our cameras.
Continuing on, we reached the spot where the other hikers had turned round. I remembered this spot from the last time we did this trail in 2006, and though the trail was narrow and steep, it was still quite well defined. But today there was no trail. Recent rain and the frosty nights had churned up the slope and destroyed the trail. To make matters worse, rocks and boulders occasionally bounced down the slope. Plenty big enough to hurt. Fortunately enough people had gone through to trample down some hint of a route across the crumbly slope and, taking care to watch above as well as below, we made our way through the bowling alley to reach the first creek. We crossed with no problems, and carried on to Ring Creek where we found a narrow spot with a couple of well-placed boulders to hop over.
Now we had lost quite a bit of elevation, and it was time to regain it all (and more!) to get to Opal Cone. As we threaded our way up the slope we met a group of four hikers, including two people we knew from previous hikes. We stopped to chat before carrying on with our grunt up the hill. By now we were back into snow, and the footing was a little slippery in places, which required some concentration and care in placing our feet. We crested the moraine and stopped long enough to admire the grand view towards the Gargoyles. Simply gorgeous. We skirted round the south flank of Opal Cone, where Andrew managed to seriously annoy the local whisky jacks – he held out his hand as though he had food, and just as the bird was about to land, he whipped it away at which the bird promptly launched into a tirade of scolding, and continued to fly from tree to tree, following us and scolding for the next few minutes.
Finally! We reached the next marker post and turned up yet another moraine for a fabulous (if short) ridge walk before the final scrambly ascent up onto Opal Cone. We met two hikers coming back down (they had passed us earlier in the day) and as we made our way up onto the rim of the crater, we found we had it to ourselves. We spent a while taking in the views, taking more photographs and generally appreciating where we were. A quick check of our watches reminded us that we probably had just enough time to get back to the campground before dark, and we set off. The journey back was just as enjoyable and we caught the very last light as we collected our food from the cache and headed up to the shelter to cook dinner.
The shelter was busy, but not as bad as when we were there back in January, and we managed to find a free burner to heat up water for cooking and after-dinner hot chocolate. We made the interesting discovery that the addition of creme de menthe turns hot chocolate a rather unsavoury colour… but it tastes damn good! By 9 pm we couldn’t keep our eyes open any longer and so headed back under moonlight to our tents. Of course we could have opted for a warm night in the shelter, but it was infinitely quieter down in the campground.
If it doesn’t sound like too much of a contradiction, I had a chilly yet comfortable night. Maria had a cosy and comfortable night thanks to her new sleeping bag. I stirred around 7.30 am to catch sunrise and after checking with Andrew (“No thanks!”) I wandered up the trail to the meadows between the shelter and the campground to watch the first light catch the top of Mt Garibaldi. I spent the better part of the next hour watching the light change on the snow, turning various shades of pink, orange and yellow to white. I heard a few people up at the shelter and decided that it was time to think about breakfast. I wandered back to the tents where I was struck once more by how peaceful it was, and instead of breakfast, I slipped off my boots and crawled back into my sleeping bag.
The next time I glanced at my watch it was well after 10 am, and all was still quiet, though I could faintly hear a few people moving about near other tents. A little more dozing and by 10.30 the tent had warmed up enough in the sunshine to make it too hot to stay in our sleeping bags, and so Maria and I crawled out into the daylight. We were soon joined by Andrew and we set about making breakfast. I went to get water and we took our food up to a vacant tent pad in the open area at the top of the campground where we sat in the sun and enjoyed our oatmeal surprise (well, no surprise really, it was oatmeal). We cleaned up and talked about what to do with the day. Andrew and I felt lazy (plus my knee was giving me some trouble again), while Maria wanted to head up to the Gargoyles seeing as it was such a beautiful clear day. (The last time we were at the Gargoyles we were in thick fog and could barely seeing 20-30 m.)
Off she went, and I laid down on the tent pad to soak up some sunshine. After a while I packed away the tent and repacked my backpack and then proceeded to head up the trail to meet Maria on her way down. After about 20 minutes we met up, and I suddenly wished I had gone up there too – it was glorious. Maria showed me some of the photos she’d taken and for a moment I was annoyed at myself for being lazy, but it soon passed and I was content to know that Maria had enjoyed her time up there. We scooted on back to the campground and got ourselves ready to leave. We reached the shelter and stopped to look at the Elfin Lakes again, this time wandering round to the far side to get a better view of the Mamquam Range. As we did so we were halted in our tracks by the perfect reflections of the shelter and Mount Garibaldi in the lake. Much photography ensued :-) and we must have spent the better part of another half an hour enjoying the fantastic views.
Alas, time was ticking and by 4 pm we figured we really should get going! One last look, and we began re-tracing our steps back to the car. Two days of sunshine and dozens more feet had turned the snow into slippery slush which made the walk back more difficult than our journey up. At one point we met a trio of somewhat under-equipped hikers asking how much further to the lake. We replied, “10 minutes and it’s really worth it”. (They passed us on the way down and thanked us for convincing them to continue on to get a view of the lakes.) And on we went. Soon we were hiking in the shadows beneath Paul Ridge again. Moments after identifying fresh grouse tracks in the snow, we encountered the bird responsible for them. We walked closer to get a photo, and it wandered off away from us. So we approached again and it wandered away, and so on. Once we had our photos we carried on walking, only for the daft bird to panic and just keep walking away from us! We must have chased it for 50 m or so before it eventually go off the side of the trail and disappeared into some blueberry bushes.
At this point we had a noisy group of teenage boys catch up with us (some of whom were running along the trail with their packs – ah, the energy of the young…). At first they passed us, but then we caught up and passed them. We reached the junction where the hikers go right and the cyclists stay left on the old road, so we took the hikers’ trail of course. Some of the kids followed us (running past us again), the others continued running down the road. At last – we had some peace and quiet again. This section of trail had been frozen solid yesterday morning, but now it was slippery dark-chocolate-coloured mud which made for some fancy footwork and balance-recovery moves. As we approached Red Heather meadows we enjoyed a few now-defrosted berries, while I bemoaned the fact that despite this area having the highest concentration of black bears in the park, I’d not seen one here.
And then we heard the teenagers again, this time asking us loudly (and sounding more than a little worried) if we had bear spray. We said No, and asked why. “There’s a bear, man! What do we do?” Well, given the racket they were making the bear easily knew of their existence, and would clearly want nothing to do with them. We said to them that we were a big enough group for the bear not to think of approaching us, and so a little impatiently the three of us went ahead of them. We turned the corner, looked to our right and there it was – a beautiful healthy adult bear, picking its way through the last of the berries. It looked up, sized us up and went back to its berries, all the while moving away from us. We took some photos and some video, which has a priceless comment from one of the teenagers – “looks like we could just go and pet it”. Yup. We exchanged glances and carried on, leaving the bear to its meadow. We caught another couple of glimpses before it disappeared into the trees.
We stopped long enough to use the facilities, while marvelling at our luck at seeing the bear. What a fabulous way to end the hike. The last 5 km down the car just passed by and within an hour we were back at the car. A celebratory pint was had at the Shady Tree in Squamish. What a great weekend.
Distance: 36 + 5 km (inc Gargoyles)
Elevation gain: 1100 + 350 m (inc Gargoyles)
Photos on Flickr