Tenquille Lake, 22-25 Aug 2020

Opinion
Tenquille Lake has become one of my favourite areas to visit in recent years with an easy approach, a gorgeous lake, flower-filled meadows, and multiple options for further exploration, provided you can get to the trailhead.

Fact
Getting to the trailhead is probably the hardest part of this hike as the 5-km road requires high clearance and probably four-wheel drive. Branch 12 starts off quite easy (apart from the exit off the Hurley) and is quite wide with a couple of good pullouts for camping. However, there are over a dozen water bars, some of which are quite deep and have loose edges. The water bars are potentially a little trickier on the return as the road gains elevation. However, after about 1.7 km the road turns left uphill and gets narrower and rougher. From here you face another 32 water bars (yes, I counted!), though most of them are quite shallow. Watch out for rocks along the centreline of the road: I did scrape the underside of our CR-V at one point and was thankful for a metal bar across the front of the car that protects the oil pan when we hit another rock as we nosed into a water bar. There are a couple of very rough sections where four-wheel drive is probably a good idea (although we did make it just fine with care in our CR-V, which is mostly two-wheel drive).

The trail was mostly wonderful to hike and has seen a handful of welcome upgrades, with new boardwalk over muddy sections and over sensitive meadows. The bridge over Mowich Creek somehow seems to survive each winter. The trail got rougher and rockier after it joined the trail up from the valley bottom but became good again once it reached the meadows of Tenquille Pass. A new detour has been created at the pass (since our visit in 2017!) so the trail avoids both the most sensitive meadows and the run-out zone for avalanches off the face of Goat Peak and Tenquille Mountain. We were surprised at how well bedded-in this trail was given its youth, testament to the popularity of the area in recent years (and especially 2020).

Camping was plentiful with four designated camping areas: one in the trees by the cabin, the next in the patch of trees across the meadow/avalanche path about 100 m further, another about 200 m further and a fourth in the trees near the south-eastern end of the lake. Each has an outhouse and metal food cache. (Some of the outhouses are nice new composting toilets and were remarkably clean.) However, the camping areas were very poorly marked so many people just camped on the meadows near the cabin. Another sign of the increased popularity of this area is the sheer number of fire rings (I counted 18 in addition to the half-dozen proper, metal fire pits), quite a few of which have been placed right in the middle of excellent camping spots! Just how brain-dead thoughtless do you have to be to do that? That also means that people have been eating right next to their tents, so expect to see mice as it gets dark. Really, it’s infuriating to see such good camping ruined basically forever. Others have camped in unsuitable random spots along the shore of the lake, most of which is damp meadow (and of course had fires there too). Please stick to the main camping areas and do not create new fire rings!

The cabin was closed due to COVID-19 restrictions. Don’t even think about trying to get in as the door is covered by a sheet of plywood.

Quite a few flowers were still blooming with red paintbrush and cottongrass standing out as the most dramatic. In addition we saw lupine, white and pink heather, arnica, Sitka valerian (mostly done), false hellebore/corn lilies, purple mountain daisies, edible thistle, pink wintergreen, one-sided wintergreen, prince’s pine, thimbleberry, wood betony, fringed grass-of-Parnassus, white bog orchid, broad-leaved willowherb, cow parsnip, rattlesnake plantain, and possibly others that I’ve since forgotten. Queen’s cup had green beads and rosy twistedstalk and baneberry were decorated with their bright red berries. The first batch of berries was ripening with some delicious black huckleberries and blueberries. We were sure to make lots of noise here but saw no sign of bears.

Knowing how buggy this trail can be earlier in the season, it was a delight to not be faced with an onslaught of mosquitoes, though there were still plenty of hungry bugs around the trailhead. We also encountered lots of small birds by the lake (chickadees, juncoes, and at least one more variety I couldn’t get close enough to identify), a pair of kingfishers on our final morning, trout in the lake, and a mouse by our tent. On the drive back out we startled a black bear from the bushes on our left, whereupon it ran about 20 m down the road ahead of us before disappearing into the bushes on the right.

Distance: 14.0 km
Elevation gain: 620 m
Time: 2:40 (inbound), 2:15 (outbound)

IMG_20200825_063127_DxO9_2048Key moments

  • πŸ™‚ The darkness and blissful silence that descended when we parked up for the first night.
  • πŸ™‚ The simple enjoyment of walking a great trail through forest and meadow.
  • πŸ™‚ Being beside a mirror calm lake last thing at night and first thing in the morning, decorated with a drift of mist.
  • πŸ™‚ Delicious huckleberries and blueberries.
  • πŸ™‚ Catching the turning of the seasons with the meadows beginning to burnish.
  • πŸ™‚ A quiet campsite after the weekend crowds had left.
  • ☹️ The ridiculous number of fire rings.
  • ☹️ A disagreement with a fellow camper about using the fire ring in our campsite.
  • ☹️ Having to leave!

Story
After our week in the Chilcotins and before our week in the Rockies hiking the Rockwall, we fitted in another week of vacation. Rather than devote the whole time to one place, we opted to split the week into two sections: four days/three nights at Tenquille Lake, then a rest day before three days/two nights at Rampart Ponds.

We left home on the Friday night, somewhat later than originally planned but with the advantage of much lighter traffic through the city and on the highway. After a few days of rain, the weather was expected to clear up just in time for our week away, and as we drove the Sea to Sky highway, gaps in the clouds allowed the evening sunshine to light up patches of the landscape, illuminating showers on the other side of Howe Sound, and acting as a spotlight on the coast near Lions Bay. By the time we reached Squamish, we were back into light showers as the light faded. Shannon Falls was in the highest flow that we’d seen in some time, and while the Chief was free of cloud, there was no sign of Garibaldi. As we crossed the Mamquam River we noticed it too was running high, and I began to wonder about the creeks we’d have to cross in the next few days.

Gaps in the clouds allowed the evening sunshine to light up patches of the landscape, illuminating showers on the other side of Howe Sound.

The dark descended as we made our way up to Whistler, the roads now very quiet. Onwards to Pemberton, through a brief deluge, and we started thinking about where to spend the night. Nairn Falls was full, of course, which meant that we were most likely looking at a spot somewhere on the Hurley again. The rain eased off in Pemberton as we refuelled and after a quick road-side stop for dessert, we continued on up the Pemberton Meadows road through occasional showers, passing Helmers and the Beer Farm, and wondering about stopping in our way out back.

We turned onto the Lillooet River FSR at the sign to Gold Bridge, along the bumpy tarmac and over the bridge onto the gravel, the silty grey river hidden from view in the darkness. We knew there were pullouts along the FSR but weren’t sure exactly where, and how good they were. Of course, attempting to judge the quality of a campsite in the dark is never easy, and we found ourselves slowing down to check out a few but always moving on. The road was in good condition and travel was pretty easy, with just a few water-filled potholes (not all of which I spotted in time!). With nothing taking our fancy, we turned onto the Hurley FSR at the 8-km mark and began to climb, switchbacking up steeply for the first couple of kilometres before the main climb up towards Railroad Pass. The road seemed in better condition than in June/July when we drove through to the Chilcotins, and as we passed the pullout where we’d slept in 2017, we remembered that we’d seen a few good pullouts on Branch 12. They would have the advantage of being quieter, with the chance of passing traffic being much lower.

Passing the 10-km mark, we crossed Railroad Creek and soon came to the turn onto Branch 12. At night it seemed like barely a gap in a bushy hedgerow, but we trusted our knowledge and edged our way slowly through the initial rough water bar. By now the rain had stopped and the clouds began to let in some starlight. Ahead of us as we drove we could see Jupiter and Saturn dazzling in the dark sky. Our progress was slow: the water bars seemed much more challenging at night where deep shadows were cast by the slightest rise making it hard to judge distance and depth. But we were fine, and I got into the rhythm of slowing down, edging downwards and applying a little pressure on the gas to pull us slowly through each ditch. After passing one potential spot, we crossed another water bar and saw an even more promising pullout.

The silence was all-encompassing… The only light was from Maria’s Kobo, the only sound from a creek running nearby.

I got out and sized it up and it looked perfect, so I reversed the car into the clearing as far as I dared (the land drops very steeply so I didn’t want to get that wrong!). I turned off the engine and we were plunged into a deep darkness, the embankment in front cutting out any light from sky. The silence was all-encompassing, broken only by creaks from the car as it cooled off. That moment of arriving where you’re going to sleep is one of my favourites, and we pushed back the seats to relax, locating our evening wine and beer to savour in the quiet. The only light was from Maria’s Kobo, the only sound from a creek running nearby.

As we sat back in our seats, I thought to myself, is the silence too much, too oppressive? I think it would be for some, but we were revelling in it. With our drinks done, it was time to arrange the car for sleep.

The night was as peaceful as we expected, with only a little bit of rain to break the quiet – I’m used to the sound of rain on a tent flysheet, less so on the roof of the car – but it didn’t really disturb me, and I stirred around 7 feeling quite refreshed. I began to pack up my gear while Maria snoozed. The morning was dry, and the pullout was well drained gravel so I was able to sort out my backpack outside the car while Maria began packing up. Tea and coffee was the first order of business and I got to see our sleeping spot in daylight. I have to say it was a good spot, and with care would probably have fitted two cars. I would definitely sleep here again.

The night was as peaceful as we expected… The morning was dry… Tea and coffee was the first order of business.

With our gear packed, we sat with our tea and coffee and ate our enormous Purebread scones. There was still a lot of heavy cloud around, low enough to drift through the nearby treetops, but we could see a promise of blue sky and caught a hint of the glacier-carved mountains across the Lillooet River valley to the south. A group of four hikers walked past, whom we guessed were from the cars we’d heard labouring up the Hurley a short time earlier. We waved greetings, and I’m sure I caught a slightly envious glance in our vehicle’s direction.

We were ready to leave at about 9:15 am and began a slow drive downhill through easier water bars, soon passing the four hikers, and on to the end of this easy stretch of road. I noted that this would be another good spot to park for the night, albeit with more tree cover. Now for the challenging bit. We turned onto the much rougher upper section of Branch 12 and made our way steadily upwards. By and large we had no issues driving up the road, taking a careful line through the water bars, most of which were much shallower than those on the lower road, though I did spin our wheels as we exited one water bar (I was a little too eager on the accelerator…). We encountered a few even rougher spots with deep pits where previous drivers had spun their wheels, which took some judicious driving to work around safely. It’s always a relief to reach the trailhead, and it didn’t feel that it took long to drive that 4.5 km; turns out it was about half an hour as we arrived at 9:45 am, joining a pair of Toyota 4 Runners in the parking lot. (We’re almost always the smallest car at some of these trailheads.)

IMG_2837_DxO9_2048We finalized our packs, laced up our boots, and after spending a few moments admiring the improving view of the Lillooet River valley, we set off from the car at about 10:10. Two minutes up the trail I realized I couldn’t remember locking the car so I hiked back to within remote range to be sure. Okay, back underway again, we climbed steeply up through the regrowing cut block, zig-zagging past late summer flowers and berry bushes flush with their crop. A few mosquitoes buzzed our ears but they were largely ignorable, and certainly not enough to induce the maddening slap-fest of previous visits.

The trail levelled off as we entered the cool and damp old-growth forest. It was a wonderful way to start the day’s hiking: the trail was a delight to hike with very few rocks and roots to deal with. We noticed some new diversions and were pleased to see plenty of new bridges and boardwalk over wet areas. We made good time and were soon descending to Mowich Creek, calling out to alert any furry locals of our presence. A small bridge over the creek led us across (honestly, how does this bridge survive?) and we climbed up away from the creek, pushing through encroaching foliage wet from the overnight rain.

A few minutes beyond the creek we found ourselves in silent forest, with barely even a peep from any birds, and we settled in to a steady rhythm, enjoying the quiet and the easy trail. We passed through rocky meadows filled with fading flowers and with occasional glimpses of distant mountains. Dips in the trail where long collapsed log bridges spanned small creeks slowed us down from time to time but mostly the hiking was quite easy, even with our overnight packs. We crossed a couple of rockier gullies with views upslope to minaret-like spires on the flanks of Goat Peak before traversing avalanche paths filled with alder, aromatic in the warm sun, and re-entered the cool, quiet forest once more.

Leaving the forest behind, our views opened up and we found ourselves staring at a broad avalanche path on the west-facing slopes of Copper Mound. We watched for signs of wildlife, convinced that we’d seen a bear there on our previous visit, but no movement caught our eyes. A few minutes later we reached the junction where the trail from the valley joined and the trail bed immediately became rougher, clearly eroded by running water and harder to hike with many small rocks underfoot. The trees began to thin out around us the gaps filled by pocket meadows rich in flowers; mostly arnica, lupine, and wood betony. After a short, gentle climb, we emerged from the trees into vast meadows sweeping down from Goat Peak to our left and Copper Mound to our right. This part of the trail always reminds us of mountain passes in the Rockies, which tend to be gentler and more expansive than passes usually are in the Coast Mountains, and it’s one of my favourite sections of the trail.

IMG_20200822_123635_DxO9_2048Moments later the trail took a sharp turn to the right, signalling a new diversion put in place since our last visit, the old trail now blocked with avalanche debris to dissuade hikers and mountain bikers. To our surprise, the trail was already well bedded-in – a clear indicator of how popular this area has become in only a couple of years. The route was well-planned and we crossed a small creek and turned east again winding through heathery meadows at the base of Copper Mound and Mount McLeod. Arnica and purple mountain daisies abounded, and the midday sunshine lit up a huge meadow filled with tufts of cottongrass. What glorious scenes!

IMG_20200822_121742_DxO9_2048We rejoined the original trail on the other side of the pass and descended towards the lake, passing the site of the old cabin and soon reaching the new one. We walked up onto the porch and could see that the door was boarded over with a sheet of plywood and a notice informing people of the hut’s closure due to COIVD-19 restrictions. That didn’t bother us as we came here to camp anyway. The only thing at the back of my mind was using the cabin for food storage as I couldn’t remember what facilities were available (I had vague memories of hanging our Ursacks in nearby trees).

We explored the camping area on our left, currently occupied by a lone tent. A new composting outhouse had been built and a metal cache was chained to some trees for food storage (yay!). Another new addition was a fire ring right on the spot where we once pitched our tent. Sigh. Since we’ve camped here twice before, we decided to venture to the next camping area to see what that was like. We crossed the gorgeous open meadow (ie avalanche path!) and entered the trees on its eastern side, about 150 m from the cabin. Likewise, there was a metal cache and a composting outhouse. No one was camping there and we wandered around at our leisure checking out the camping options. While there were a few flat spots between the trees, we were drawn to one of two sites with a (large!) picnic table and a metal fire ring. Satisfied with our choice, we dropped our packs and began unpacking.

IMG_20200822_135950_DxO9_2048It was the first outing for our new tent, an MSR Hubba Hubba, a popular choice among backpackers (and owned by several of our friends!). We scratched our heads at the vague instructions and took our time setting it up as best we could. It was hard to push the pegs into the ground so we had to find a small rock to use as a hammer. With the tent pitched as well as we could, we threw in our sleeping gear and we were immediately struck by how spacious it was inside. We’ve been very fond of our Big Agnes tent over the past eight years so it felt a bit strange to be occupying a different space.

Time for lunch! The picnic table was a nice place to sit, although we don’t normally like to eat so close to our tent, especially in grizzly country. We filtered some water for cooking and enjoyed lazy, post-lunch cups of tea and coffee down by the lake. More people began to arrive and search for places to camp. A large group of mountain bikers pedalled through the camping area but eventually opted to head back towards the cabin (much to our relief). A group of four occupied the other site with a picnic table.

With time on our hands we wondered what to do with the afternoon. We pored over our map and photocopied route descriptions from the scrambles book and decided that Copper Mound looked like a fine objective. And indeed it was! We’ll write about that one separately.

Copper Mound, Mount Barbour, and Tenquille Mountain: all fine scrambling objectives

We arrived back at camp to find a couple of hikers sawing up a small (yet still green) fallen tree. I thought nothing of it (people and their campfires… :-/) until one of them walked over to our campsite and dropped the wood next to the metal fire pit. I looked up and asked what they were doing, and he replied that he was getting wood ready for a fire. I said that this was our spot and he countered with a sweeping gesture around the campsite and said, “all of this?”. I replied, yeah of course, and suggested he try a different fire ring. He (rightly) mumbled that it would be better to use the established pit, but there was no way I was letting someone else build a fire so close to our (brand new) tent. Nope. And I don’t believe anyone else would have accepted that either.

IMG_20200822_191832_DxO9_2048Even though I felt in the right, the altercation put me in a disagreeable mood for the next hour or so, but I shook it off as best I could over dinner, chocolate, and tea. We stowed our food in nearby trees this time; I didn’t want to put our food bags in the cache where they could be tampered with. I’m sure they wouldn’t have done anything but I don’t trust people not to be mean-spirited, especially over things like campfires where so many people cannot fathom camping and not having a fire.

We crawled into the tent as it got dark and cold and settled down for the night. The group of four at the other site with a picnic table were getting progressively louder as they stoked their own fire, and no doubt consumed a few drinks. I was worried that they’d keep us awake, but it got to about 10:30 and it abruptly went quiet, much to our relief. In addition to a new tent, I had a new sleeping mat to try out. Alas, I didn’t put quite enough air in it and I spent one of my colder nights in a tent, tossing and turning for what felt like much of the night. It rained on and off overnight but I was really pleased to see that we could easily keep the fly away from the inner, something that was always an issue with our Big Agnes tent.

The following day we summited Mount Barbour, a peak we’d attempted on our last visit but had to turn back to due limited time. Highly recommended! On our third day we climbed Tenquille Mountain, a peak that looked beyond my comfort zone but turned out to be an amazing experience. We’ll eventually get round to writing about those trips too.

And so we came to our final morning. The night had not been as cold as expected and I stirred at sunrise, picking up the cameras to head down to the lake. The water was a flat calm decorated with a thin layer of mist. The only sounds were birds, including a pair of kingfishers that seemed to be making their way around the lake. What a beautiful morning! I watched the slopes across the lake turn gold in the sunlight, the shadows creeping down the slope, the mist drifting over the water finally catching the morning sun. The sun reached the tent around 7:30 am, which seemed like a good time to make breakfast. The morning was too good to sit at the picnic table, and instead we went down to the lake.

IMG_20200825_063127_DxO9_2048I usually write some notes at the end of each day when backpacking so I don’t have to try and remember everything we saw, heard, or smelled during the trip, but sometimes I get behind and catch up a little over breakfast. As I pulled out my notepad and pencil I found myself wanting to be in this moment, right now, not those moments past. I decided to go with what felt right and sat awhile absorbing our surroundings. These are the moments I want to capture, the “being” part of being outdoors. And so I looked around, listening, my senses open to anything and everything.

I sat awhile absorbing our surroundings. These are the moments I want to capture, the “being” part of being outdoors. The desire to stay and absorb was strong.

The lake was perfectly still, disturbed only by the occasional splash from an insect-eating fish. I could hear a distant creek running down a slope into the lake; I’m not even sure which creek it was, and it didn’t really matter. Birds cheeped and chirped to one another: chickadees in the trees, juncoes nearer the ground. A fleeting glimpse of another bird, unknown and (so far) unidentifiable, a passing bumblebee waking from its cool alpine torpor. Above, wisps of cloud drifted across a blue sky, so very blue; ice crystals formed in the overnight frost began to melt. A trout paddling with its pectoral fins to stay still, its body swaying to a hydrodynamic rhythm.

But mostly stillness.

The desire to stay there and absorb was strong.

With the greatest reluctance we packed up our gear and began our hike back to the car a little after 10 am. We climbed up from the cabin to Tenquille Pass through lovely subalpine forest and heathery meadows, retracing our steps through the pass to begin our descent. The unseen creek off to our left faded into silence as we returned to the forest, the reassuring sound of Maria’s footsteps behind me as we walked in the dappled light. We recrossed the slide paths and creeks, and admired the views up towards Goat Peak again, this time with an eye to thinking we’ll attain its summit on our next visit.

More silent forest followed, which was so peaceful that we felt we could have hiked this all day. We paused to sample the huckleberries and blueberries at an open stretch of the trail where we caught glimpses of distant glaciated peaks and even down to the green valley below. We crossed Mowich Creek once more and climbed up the hillside, sampling a few more berries as we went before a gentle descent towards the trailhead. A cool breeze greeted us in the shady forest, which was most welcome after the hot sunshine of our climb away from the creek. I took the time to take in the flowers by my feet, mostly wintergreens and rattlesnake plantain, the green beads of queen’s cup, thimbleberry still flowering, and plump red berries on rosy twistedstalk.

IMG_20200825_121628_DxO9_2048A little over two hours after leaving the lake we reached the edge of the cut block and descended steeply through more berry bushes, down the last few switchbacks and we were soon back at the car. We dropped our packs and freshened up with a quick wash of our hands and faces using a tiny waterfall by the trailhead, so small it was like a garden feature, followed by some wipes from the car, and a change into fresher clothing. It felt so good to take off our boots and socks and put on dry clothes!

Feeling somewhat refreshed, we drove back down the logging road, which somehow felt rougher than on the way up. I think the effect of gravity pulling the car downhill tends to make it bumpier and I had to be careful not to let the car “bounce” through any dips or water bars, in case we hit the underside of the car. I misjudged the height of one rock and it hit the car with a loud thud. Fortunately, the impact was taken by a protective bar in front of the oil pan; I’ve read tales of people damaging the sump or some other vital part of a car on logging roads and it’s not something I wish to have happen! I counted the water bars on the descent and reached 32 by the time we returned to the easier section. Now we began to climb again towards the Hurley, driving through another fourteen water bars along the way, many of which were much deeper than the ones higher up, with steeper sides and loose dirt at the edges. Thankfully we didn’t lose traction at any point; I’d hate to get stuck in a water bar!

A black bear, its jet-black coat glossy in the sunshine as it ran down the road… the soles of its paws so clearly visible as it lolloped away…

Between two water bars, a dark shape suddenly appeared in front us and I instinctively hit the brakes: a black bear, its jet-black coat glossy in the sunshine as it ran down the road ahead of us for about 10 metres, the soles of its paws so clearly visible as it lolloped away, before vanishing into the dense undergrowth on the right. It was not a big bear, perhaps a yearling? But what a beautiful sighting! Literally only a few seconds, but so close!

Soon we were back on the Hurley FSR, taking a steady descent down to the Lillooet FSR, which felt so smooth by comparison. Then once we were on the tarmac it felt like we were floating. An easy, quiet drive took us back to Pemberton and out to North Arm Farm for lunch followed by ice cream sat next to a hop-decorated barn. A quick stop at Pemberton Brewing for some ice-cold beer, and then on to Nairn Falls to camp for the night. We set up the tent in an almost comically-large camp site, laid out our gear to dry in the warm air, and enjoyed a truly decadent holiday-like afternoon. Beer, washing up, and relaxing. The campground smelled good, that lovely scent of dry interior forest, although we’d lost the silence of the backcountry. We tuned it out as best we could, not always easy after a few days tuning in to every sound around, and wiled away the rest of the day before filling up on another great burger from Mile One.

What a fantastic few days! We’d had good weather, and managed to summit three new peaks, all spectacular, and all different. Tenquille, you treated us well and we can’t wait to return.

2 thoughts on “Tenquille Lake, 22-25 Aug 2020

  1. This is a beautiful post Andy! You really described well the “being” part of “Being.Outdoors”. You are brave driving those roads at night. Thanks for the details…32 water bars, wow! I had a giggle about you not remembering whether you locked the car doors…this sadly happens to me far too often. Your photos and descriptions of this hike are awesome. Lucky you for sandwiching this between two other mega hikes. It was interesting to read that you spent several days doing hikes from your camping spot. Are these actual trails, or does it require significant route-finding? What books/resources did you use for these? We had planned Tenquille for last September but between weather and smoke issues it didn’t happen. 2021 for sure!

    1. Thank you Caroline – you’re too kind :-) Yup – 32, and that’s not including the 14 on the easier section of road.

      Yeah we’ve wanted to spend more time here as a weekend doesn’t really do it justice. I highly recommend it – and go in the week if possible to avoid the weekend crowds. It made all the difference for our second and third nights.

      We were guided by the descriptions in Matt Gunn’s Scrambles book. There were trails for at least some of the way for all 3 of the peaks and cairns when they ran out – I’m still writing up those summaries but my tracks are on AllTrails. Tenquille was the trickiest, Barbour had one slightly tricky section, and Copper Mound was quite easy.

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