OK, here goes – the full version of the Lizzie-Stein trip! You have been warned…
The Lizzie-Stein Divide area is a place that’s been near the top of our list of places to visit for many years. Now I know it seems like I start far too many of my trip reports like this, but in this case it’s really true. I don’t remember when we first read about the Stein Valley and the end-to-end traverse, but we fell in love with the idea immediately. Alas, our research showed that getting to the western end of the valley was hard, involving a long slog up an overgrown logging road, something that had little appeal with over a week’s worth of food on our backs.
We were content to try a shorter version of the traverse back in 2008 when we started at Blowdown Pass. That was a fun trip, albeit Type 2 fun at times. Injuries and our new-found love of the Rockies meant that the full Stein traverse would be shelved for a few years. But a couple of months ago, a friend of ours had reached the point where the last hike in the 5th edition of 103 Hikes was indeed a trip to the western end of the Stein Valley. Knowing he was considering it, we expressed interest early on and between us we made the trip happen.
One of the deciding factors for us was a cute little video from 2014 made by someone who did the exact trip that we were contemplating. Given our respective vacation allowances, we decided on a 5-day trip that would take us as far as the famously-azure Tundra Lake. So a date was set, a crew of 6 was assembled and the time was booked. We were going to the Stein.
On Friday night, we drove up to Lillooet Lake with Gabriela and spent a quiet night camping at the Twin One forest recreation site, a few kilometres north of the trailhead. With the current campfire ban, it was a peaceful and smoke-free experience. We rose early on Saturday morning, had breakfast, and packed away our gear before driving to the logging road marking the start of our trek. Here we waited for the others – Steve, Laura and John – who’d set off from Vancouver at about the time we crawled out of our tents. Three cars were already parked at the junction, which had us wondering exactly how many people would be up there.
Steve’s car pulled up, and we headed off up the logging road. After a kilometre or so, the road curved sharply to the left and headed up a steep, loose hill, levelling off again as it veered to the right. Three more cars marked the trailhead. We parked up, pulled on our boots, and shouldered our backpacks. A quick group photo and we were off. The trip had begun!
Two long strings of flagging tape marked an innocuous start to the hike, and we immediately had to step over our first fallen tree. A small one, mind, but just high enough off the ground to make it a little bit of a stretch for me. We entered the dry, interior forest on a narrow track that led across a steep slope above the old road and the creek. At one point we crossed a fairly open slope, and had to pick our way around another fallen tree. A slip here would have been unpleasant, but the trail was level enough for that to not be a serious issue.
About 15-20 mins of hiking saw us descending very steeply to rejoin the old logging road. And I mean very steeply – the ground was soft and loose, which made it hard to keep a good footing. It was a relief to level out again. To our surprise, the old road was remarkably pleasant to walk along and we all set off at a comfortable pace. Here, at least, the trees had grown up over the trail creating a tunnel for us to walk through – very welcome on an increasingly warm sunny day.
And so the going was good, the weather was good, the company was good. All was good. Here and there we encountered some overgrown undergrowth but it easy to push through and the footbed was always clear. The sound of Lizzie Creek filled our ears and made a relaxing sonic backdrop. It’s hard to know when the alder started but it wasn’t too long before we found ourselves pushing through a sea of green leaves and branches. Even then, it wasn’t continuous and we’d emerge from the depths of the alder into occasional clearings where we often waited for everyone to regroup.
And yet the going was good, despite the alder. My arms grew tired from holding my hiking poles out in front of me to act as a bit of a barrier, but we made good progress, even as the alder grew thicker and our occasional clearings grew farther apart. I found it quite funny that someone had tied pieces of flagging tape to the alder – I guess it might be possible to get lost, but to my mind the route-finding was not something we had to worry about.
The road led steadily uphill and the sound of Lizzie Creek became more distant. We came to a point in the trail marked by a stone arrow on the ground and flagging tape in the trees to our right. We paused for a moment and checked the GPS – we’d reached the crossing of the east fork of Lizzie Creek. Now I had seen that others had built a makeshift log bridge over the creek, so I was expecting an easy crossing. However, my hopes were dashed when all we could see was a single log, high above the creek. That would have been OK had it been a wide, grippy log but this log was quite narrow, and had not a shred of bark. Not one of us fancied it. Even shimmying across on our bums didn’t seem like an attractive option. (I’ve seen photos and video since then of people doing exactly that though, and they looked quite comfortable doing it.)
Our saving grace was that the creek was low, and not the torrent it could have been. We searched up and down the creek and in the end found only a single place where we might cross. It would not be a dry crossing though, and John just walked straight through it, with the creek coming up to his mid-calf. Three steps in the water and he was over. Steve followed. John decided to have a quick dip in the creek while the rest of us ummed and ahhed at the crossing. We decided to put on our gaiters and wade it like the others – with mixed results. I was OK, but Maria’s gaiters didn’t fit quite so well and she got wet feet.
Happy to be across the creek, Maria changed into dry socks, John wrung himself out, and we resumed our hike, plunging back into the alder. Now the road began to climb a little steeper and we were beginning to find it tough going in the heat of the day. A short distance uphill from the creek, the alder thinned enough for us to drop our packs and have some lunch. There was even some shade to get out of the hot sun. Steve and Laura unpacked their camp chairs while the rest of us sat on the ground or our backpacks.
Suitably fed and watered, we reluctantly picked up our backpacks and plodded on. Starting off uphill after lunch is always difficult for me – it takes a while for the food to kick in, plus I’m usually a bit sleepy and stiff from sitting around for half an hour. For the first time today, it began to feel like a slog. Pushing through the alder was getting old, and we were beginning to wonder what we’d let ourselves in for. Still we hiked on, following the logging road as it curved one way, then the other, and back again in a series of switchbacks up the hill.
High cirrus cloud had moved in to take some of the intensity out of the hot sunshine. But there was always more alder, more uphill. A short stretch below a boulder field gave us a brief respite with a view back down to Lillooet Lake, now looking a long way off. It was our first visible sign of progress, and it felt good. Now if only we could get to Lizzie Lake…
By now I was beginning to feel that the lake should be around the corner. We could see treeless alpine slopes and unlogged forest up ahead, a sure sign we were getting close. Just a bit more alder to go and then it would done. Eventually that eureka moment arrived: a trail led off to the right past a sign welcoming us to the Stein Valley Nlak’apamux Heritage Park, and into the trees at the old Lizzie Lake forest recreation site. Ten kilometres from the car, 1000 m of elevation gain and who knows how many thousand alder branches. Despite our achievement, we still grumbled about how we could no longer drive to this point.
Walking through the open forest was pure bliss after swishing our way through alder for the last 5-1/2 hours. We dropped our backpacks at a decaying picnic table and took a well-earned rest. There was even a not-too-disgusting outhouse (albeit one without a roof). A short trail led to the muddy shore of Lizzie Lake, such a welcome sight! It’s a pretty lake, if not spectacular, bounded by a high ridge at its southern end and Haven Peak to the west. The eastern shore looked dauntingly steep and heavily forested, and that was exactly where we were going next.
During our original planning we thought that we’d be happy to camp here at Lizzie Lake, and make our way through to Caltha Lake the following day. But another possibility was to continue for another 3 km to Lizzie Cabin and camp there. Either way we’d be faced with a steep climb and a boulder field – the question was whether we felt like doing that now, or first thing tomorrow morning. We weighed up the two options, and since everyone’s energy levels were good, we made our new plan: we’d push on to Lizzie Cabin.
It was the right decision, though in the midst of picking our way through a maze of fallen trees it didn’t always feel like it. It took a wrong turn to find our way to the trail, helpfully marked by a large sign with the word “Trail” nailed to a tree. Wending our way through the forest, the trail began to climb, slowly at first then more steeply. On these steep slopes we encountered our first fallen trees, almost all of which had managed to fall across the trail in the most hindering manner possible. Some had to be climbed over, others crawled under – both of which rapidly sapped our energy.
Progress felt slow. Not only were we tiring towards the end of the day but we now had to expend the greatest energy. After a long, slow hour-and-a-half we finally clambered over our last fallen tree. For a short while the going was suddenly easy and we met another pair hikers on their way back to their tent at Lizzie Lake. It was only after we parted company that we realized we had stopped next to a wasp’s nest. Not keen to repeat my experience from Keyhole hot springs back in 2013, I dragged us onwards.
Alas, all good things must come to an end, and so it was with the easy forest hiking as we reached the Gates of Shangri-La. I was excited to be here, having seen other photos – to me it marked the start of the good stuff! The Gates are a narrow opening in the surrounding mountains barred by steep cliffs on either side of a creek draining towards Lizzie Lake. At the foot of each cliff lie extensive, steep boulder fields, and it was these boulders that we were now faced with. Most were solid; more than a few were not. We rested briefly before tackling our next obstacle, taking it very easy over the rocks.
Our route now came down to meet the creek, and after one more small but intimidating set of boulders, we were in the forest on the final stretch to the cabin. Wildflowers dotted the sides of the trail, and after passing through a fireweed-filled meadow we came to our destination for the evening, Lizzie Cabin.
A bit of scouting around led us to pitch our tents among the trees beyond the outhouses. The ground was soft and bare, but not necessarily level. Not that we really cared – we could drop our packs for good and tuck into the first batch of food. It was getting dark and we finished our meals by headlamp, at which point a mouse or two appeared, darting from cover-to-cover with the hope of scoring a free handout.
A family group occupied the cabin (which was spacious and clean, if musty), the father of which knew the family of the original cabin builder, Dave Nickerson. The cabin was built in the 1960s, and apart from a few dodgy boards on the porch, was in remarkable shape. The outhouses were less remarkable, there being two and neither of which had a door. A discrete courtesy cough or knock on the side of the A-frame was necessary to avoid an embarrassing meeting.
As we finished up for the night, and hung up our food bags, we had one last cabin resident to meet: Cecil, the cabin packrat. Some movement caught Maria’s eye and we turned to see a pair of eyes looking back at us from the eaves of the cabin. A large grey packrat, bigger than the typical squirrel (or at least, furrier) stared us down for a few moments before disappearing into a crack in the rafters. Another good reason to spend the night in our tent, methinks.
The only thing left for the evening was a couple of starry night photos, where I experimented with a bit of light-painting using my headlamp. Over the course of the 30-second exposure I turned my light to each tree-top in turn. I think the result was quite effective.
And with that it was time to crawl into our sleeping bags.