Elfin Lakes, 22 Apr 2013

This post should be sub-titled “How my snowshoes made me carry them for 22 km”. Despite there being lots and lots of snow, there was no need for me to bring my snowshoes, or wear my good-to-minus-18 winter boots. Ah well. This hike was on the first day of my week off and I teamed up with regular Monday hikers Gabriela and Jeremy for a gorgeous sunny day out in the snow. We were a little leisurely setting off, but with coffee in hand we set off through Monday-morning downtown rush-hour traffic emerging on the Lions Gate bridge and heading north on the Sea-to-Sky highway.

As ever, rounding that first bend and being greeted with that mountainous view up Howe Sound is a feast for the eyes. It doesn’t matter how many times I drive that road, the view always makes me think “wow!”, especially on a sunny day like today. We reached Squamish (and made a mental note that it might be nice to stop off at Shannon Falls on the way home) and turned up the road to the Diamond Head parking lot. The final gravel section was in much better shape than I expected with far fewer potholes than the last time I tried it in 2011. On seeing no snow at the chain-up section, we headed on up the final steep approach, finding only a little bit of compacted slush in the shadiest sections that posed no problems. We parked up among the other vehicles and set off up the trail.

Of course we were in snow immediately, but it was firm and I had no problems with traction. A grouse boomed away to itself in the trees to our left: I peered in but as usual saw no sign of a bird. On the sunnier sections, the snow was mushy which made the going a littler harder. Gabriela and Jeremy put on snowshoes here just to help; I had my winter boots on with decent treads and decided to tough it out. We made good time on a steady plod up the road. The Chief and Squamish looked nice in the late-morning light. The waterfall on the bend in the road was hidden almost completely by snow, but we could still hear it running underneath. An hour-and-a-quarter or so after setting off, we reached the hut at Red Heather meadows. The snow here was still really deep, and we had to step down to reach the outhouse. Hmm, I thought, so much for this being a low snow year. The whisky jacks greeted us, but left disappointed at the lack of food we offered them.

Now we were out in the full sun, with not a cloud in the sky and we began our plod up through Red Heather meadows. I love this part of the winter route: the Tantalus Range reveals itself slowly as you gain elevation, and every pause to catch your breath has a fantastic view. Garibaldi itself (or at least Atwell Peak) now rose prominently to our left. We reached the top of the slope and peered over the lip to check out the view of Garibaldi and other peaks in the distance. I thought to myself that we should take a group photo here on the way back when the light was better. We picked up the route again as it wound its way around the south flank of Round Mountain and onto Paul Ridge.

I was surprised by the rapidly changing condition of the snow along this section. In the sun, the snow was wet and slushy but in the shade of the trees, the trail was still icy. In a couple of places, the trail sloped sharply down to our right into a tree well at the base of a large hemlock. A slip would have been painful! But the icy sections were short and soon we were on Paul Ridge proper. Trekking through a small bowl and over its edge gave us the panoramic view below.

Elfin Lakes, 22 Apr 2013

Its arguable that this point gives the best view of the trip, and it would make a good turnaround point if pressed for time. Also it would avoid all of the uphill required on the return leg. However, we said we were going to the lakes, so off to the lakes we went! Besides, I really like the view of Atwell Peak from Elfin Lakes, so there was no way I was going to miss that on a day like today.

The next part of the trail is an exercise in calling your bluff: down a bit, up a bit, round a corner – is this the last bump? I think I’ve done this trail enough times (more often in snow than not) to recognize where I am so I wasn’t disappointed when the next rise wasn’t the last one. Eventually we did reach that last open rise, and I stepped off the marked trail to get what I knew would be a better view of the lakes. The lakes themselves were barely visible as flat depressions in the snow – it took a moment for my eyes to pick out the shape. Rivulets in the snow pointed at them to guide the eye.

Elfin Lakes, 22 Apr 2013 Elfin Lakes, 22 Apr 2013

We walked down the slope and onto the first lake, just to say we’d walked on it :-) Next stop was the cabin. We met a couple of guys who were staying there, and sat with them in their outdoor lounge to eat our lunch. We relaxed and chatted for about an hour. I was enjoying being outside so much that I didn’t even think to go into the cabin and look around. I’m sure I wasn’t missing anything.

After lunch I spent the requisite time taking photos of the view and surrounding peaks. I was really hoping to get nice crisp photos of Atwell and Mamquam Peaks – I think they turned out quite nicely. Columnar Peak had numerous small avalanche tracks where the warm sunshine had weakened cornices and softened the upper layers on the steep slopes. No sign of ski tracks down there today.

Elfin Lakes, 22 Apr 2013 Elfin Lakes, 22 Apr 2013

Then it was the usual time to turn around and head back to the car. Our late start and leisurely lunch had put us almost an hour behind my mental schedule, but in the end it was such a lovely day, the terrain was so mellow and the trail easy to follow that it didn’t matter. My main priority is getting back to the car before dark, but we had plenty of time for that.

We retraced our steps, slogging our way through the untold uphill sections on the re-ascent of Paul Ridge. Great views for sure, but they come at a price! After an hour or so we had got the majority of the re-ascent done. Another half-hour or so took us to the top of Paul Ridge, where we paused for one last look at the view before following its south side around to Red Heather again. I took my Sky Pilot photo on the return hoping for better light – it was marginally better I suppose – and as we reached the meadows, we regained the col to get our celebratory group photo in front of Garibaldi.

Elfin Lakes, 22 Apr 2013 Elfin Lakes, 22 Apr 2013

Now it was all downhill – back through the meadows, past the warming hut and onto the old road. We made pretty good time and were back at the car well before dark. The grouse was still booming away, and was still nowhere to be seen. Only one thing left to do with the day: head to the Shady Tree for burgers and beer!

Distance: 22 km
Elevation gain: 600 m
Photos on Flickr

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