Inspired by a blog post on The Hiking Life I found myself sifting through the list of hikes from the past decade and pondering which would make my own top ten. In that time, we have been on about 370 hikes to around 230 different destinations. It sounds like a big task to whittle 230 down to 10, but as ever there are trips that really stand head and shoulders above the rest, so we were soon able to reduce the list down to about 20, and only with some hard thinking were we able to limit it to ten.
As I was thinking about the various hikes, I realized that there is a bit of tension inherent in deciding a top 10. My first thought was that it would obviously be those ten trips that I would do again in a heartbeat, but then the angel on my other shoulder whispered in my ear that I shouldn’t discount those trips that were really enjoyable or satisfying, even if they’re not high on my repeat list. What is more certain is that our standout hikes tend to be backpacking trips; it takes a rare day-hike to make such a lasting impression. And yet, there are a few day-hikes on the list.
To help with narrowing down our choices, I decided (perhaps arbitrarily) to restrict the options to destinations that we had not visited before 2010. This excludes a small number of destinations that we revisited over the past decade, on which we – arguably – had a more fulfilling experience than our earlier visits. These will get honourable mentions at the end.
Choosing a list is one thing, but to rank them is much harder. However, inevitably I may end up speaking more enthusiastically about some than others which might betray my unconscious biases.
1. Athelney Pass (Sep 2013, 3 days)
What this trip lacks in distance and elevation gain, it makes up in difficult, challenging, and trail-less terrain. The hikes in and out were without doubt two of the hardest days hiking I’ve ever done. But what an exceptional route and destination! Multi-coloured mountain slopes, jagged peaks and glaciers, rushing creeks – every step is a feast for the eyes. And then the pass itself, a beautiful broad plain, while climbing high up the steep slopes to the west offers a jaw-dropping view of one of the most impressive glaciers I’ve seen: check out the header image for this blog. It’s a difficult place to reach, but it leaves a lasting impression. Never was the word “epic” more appropriate.
2. Lake O’Hara Alpine Circuit (Aug 2013, day hike)
Perhaps the best day-hike we’ve ever done, I almost cannot imagine a better one. From below the route traversing the sheer walls surrounding Lake O’Hara looks intimidating at best, even impossible. And yet once we were on it, I felt nothing but exhilaration and joy walking the easy path, almost never feeling any sense of serious danger or exposure. Absolutely sublime hiking, and it deserves all the superlatives directed its way.
Friends had told us how good the hiking was here, and although it took us much longer than it should have to visit this area, we immediately saw how right they were. It’s a superb hiking destination with a truly wild feel and extensive scope for many multi-day backpacking trips. The mountains are not as spectacular as, say the Rockies, or Athelney Pass mentioned above, but they come in many colours, often carpeted with stunning wildflower meadows, and offer relatively easy, non-technical access. I fully expect to have another trip from this area in our top ten for the next decade!
An almost mythical area that’s been difficult to reach since a 2003 landslide wiped out a bridge at the start of the logging road. Despite the long alder-bashing slogs on the way in and out, it was worth every step as the alpine area is expansive and dramatic with a series of lakes that gradually become more spectacular, culminating in the amazing cobalt-blue Tundra Lake (below). Five days was simply not long enough to fully experience and explore this area.
Perhaps my favourite summit in the Sea-to-Sky corridor, Brandywine can be done as a long-ish day or an easy overnight trip. The route is challenging enough and yet not too difficult. The small, rocky summit offers yet more stunning views of jagged peaks near (such as Fee, Pyroclastic, and Cayley) and far (Black Tusk, Garibaldi, Whistler) with a huge crevassed glacier at the base of a cliff scarily close to the peak. The beginning and end of the route passes through lovely, serene meadows, with a recently-upgraded trail to make it easier than it was a decade ago. A true five-star hike. (OK so this one might not perfectly satisfy my criteria for inclusion as we first visited the meadows pre-2010, and even started on an ascent of the peak but were never in any position to actually reach it on that trip. It was only a few years later, in 2014, that we finally made it all the way.)
A superb reminder of how wonderful coastal hiking can be in BC. While perhaps not our favourite coastal hike (that would be the Nootka Trail), and despite a long 15-km trudge through forest and bog fen, Cape Scott shines with at least four long sandy beaches, some impressive rainforest, tide pools and sea stacks. Each beach has a different feel and the open space invites exploration. And (at least when dry) the hiking is easy, although I did get fed up with all the boardwalk towards the end! We were lucky with the weather, having only 20 minutes of rain one morning while we were still in the tent, and a fair bit of sunshine. One added bonus for me was that the peaty, boggy areas had the same scent as parts of the New Forest in the UK where I grew up. Our positive experience pushed the North Coast Trail a bit higher up our list for the upcoming decade. Well worth the long drive, and highly recommended.
As I said in my original write-up, this is without doubt one of the top hikes in the Whistler area, no mean feat in itself given the competition. Only developed in 2014, the route takes in some lush mid-level forest and an abundance of fine subalpine meandering, decorated with a plethora of wildflowers. The highlight is a superb view of the Rainbow Glacier and a small glacial lake (Iceberg Lake) at the base of the cliff below the turquoise ice. I also like the fact that it’s quite a long trail (over 20 km) so there’s plenty of scope for spending an entire day hiking and exploring to maximize the full experience.
One of our friends called this the best hike he’s ever done, and it certainly has a huge reward-to-effort ratio. It’s above the treeline for its entirety, following a ridge out to one of the glaciers grinding their way down the slopes of Mount Baker before climbing up to an eyrie-like vantage point with simply incredible views of more of Mount Baker’s glaciers. And then Mount Shuksan and a sea of other mountains provide the eye-candy for most of the return journey. A truly spectacular hike, and deservedly popular. Must be saved for a clear day, though, as there is nothing to see if it’s cloudy!
9. Downton Creek (Sep 2012/Jun 2016, overnight)
Far enough from Vancouver to discourage most people, but not so far that it can’t be reached in a weekend, we’ve made two overnight trips to the Downton Creek area (plus day-hiked to a different nearby lake), both times with remarkably good weather. It’s mostly undeveloped (save for an established trail into the first lake), and is a wonderfully peaceful place. On our first visit we experienced one of our quietest ever nights in the backcountry, disturbed only by a pika as we roused the following morning, while on our second (close to the longest day) we savoured a spot in the meadows, serenaded all night by birds, and entertained by whistling marmots during the day. The highest peak in the area is also the easiest to reach, which makes for a very satisfying and relaxing trip. However, I worry about the condition of the access road as erosion is taking its toll in a few places. Hopefully it’ll remain open.
=10. Bedwell and Cream Lakes (Aug 2016, 3 days)
It’s a tie for trip number 10, which I feel I can justify on the basis that both are in the same provincial park on Vancouver Island. Bedwell Lake is extremely popular and the approach is unforgiving, but the hike beyond towards Cream Lake is a delight of varied terrain and constant surprises. The hike offers superb views of many well-known Vancouver Island summits, as well as a distant glimpse of Della Falls, but the highlight is the turquoise Cream Lake (so utterly misnamed!) with Mount Septimus as a dramatic backdrop. The hiking is not easy, but it is rewarding.
=10. Castlecrag Circuit (Aug 2014, day hike from 5 day backpack to Circlet Lake)
Circlet Lake is at least as popular as Bedwell (it’s nicknamed Circus Lake for a good reason) but it’s easy to leave the crowds behind for this strenuous but wonderfully rewarding loop hike. Best done clockwise as there are a couple of very steep sections that would not be fun to descend. Variety is perhaps the best descriptor of this hike as it takes in two summits, with lakes and tarns, a mix of subalpine meadows and shattered alpine rock, offering superb views and scenery the whole way. Expect solitude, perhaps some wildlife (we saw several ptarmigan), and sore feet by the end of the day.
A trio of superb hikes that we first attempted in the years before 2010.
- Mount Assiniboine (2009): I waxed lyrical about this area after our recent (re)visit only a few short months ago. Spectacular scenery and relatively easy hiking make Mount Assiniboine a delight to visit, albeit with a long approach (unless you pay for the helicopter).
- Mount Rohr (2009): Another summit with a straightforward, non-technical ascent that has exceptional views, our first attempt was thwarted by snow and time, but with a more leisurely approach, we made it easily in 2015. And it was well worth it.
- Panorama Ridge (2006): perhaps the best destination in the Lower Mainland of BC, Panorama Ridge combines a straightforward hike (albeit very long if done in a day) with stunning all-round views of some of the most dramatic peaks in the area. This hike is testament to the fact that it’s not necessary for a peak to be especially challenging or intrinsically aesthetically appealing for it to offer a superlative experience.
So there you have it, ten amazing destinations from the past decade of hiking and backpacking. I would repeat any of these trips without hesitation, and a couple are already on our to-do-again list for upcoming years. However, many more destinations await so I won’t be at all surprised if we don’t actually make it to all of them!
A word of caution
A word of caution, should any of the above inspire you to explore yourself. None of these trips are suitable for novice hikers, and many are best undertaken with a few years of experience and the ability to find your own way across a landscape with no trail. Some involve very steep terrain where a slip could result in a serious fall, and there are often loose rocks and boulders that are apt to move when you least expect it. I strongly advise doing your homework and plan your trips accordingly. Be safe!