High Falls Creek, 16 May 2021

Opinion:
This is a hike of two halves, in more ways than one: a super steep climb through lush forest and past sheer cliffs followed by an easy, if soul-destroying, descent on a dusty, rocky logging road. The only thing that each half has in common is some superb views of the mountain ranges across the Squamish River Valley. The waterfalls and canyon into which they drop are spectacular, perhaps some of the best in this corner of BC, although the views are gradually becoming more tree-obstructed.

Fact
The trailhead had enough space for seven or eight cars; parking on the road is not advisable given the great clouds of dust kicked up by passing traffic that obscures everything. We actually parked at the large open area at the beginning of Branch 200 to get the worst of the dusty road walk over and done with at the beginning of the hike. This was well worth doing as it meant we were back at our car as soon as the main descent was done. Drive carefully on the Squamish Main forest service road (FSR), keep your speed down, and turn on your lights to improve the chances of being seen through the dust. We saw an overturned car being righted: I have no idea how it ended up on its side, but my suspicion is excessive speed and poor visibility contributed. Thankfully no one was hurt but that was an expensive lesson.

The trail was sporadically marked with orange markers, some of which have faded over the years, but way-finding was rarely an issue. In a couple of places there were side trails that branched off, though most of these were to viewpoints that required back-tracking to the main trail. The steep clambers over rocks were easy enough (for me) without using the chains or plastic braided ropes.

We opted for the slightly shorter loop today, if nothing else to cut off some of the logging road slog. If our GPS track comes close to matching the trail, I’ll be amazed. The signal bounced around a lot in the heavy tree cover and off the canyon walls, especially down by the road, so I recommend approaching any GPS track of this hike with caution. The trail definitely showed signs of significant use since our last visit (2011 for me; 2006 for Maria!) but at no point did it have the braided highway feel of so many other trails. I hope it stays that way.

Forest flowers were beginning to show themselves though few were in bloom yet. We saw trailing yellow violets, starflower, heart-leaved twayblade, and strawberry aplenty, as well as kinnikinnick and a kind of manzanita; queen’s cup, bunchberry, a couple of wintergreens, and coralroot were putting up shoots and leaves, as was large round-leaved rein orchid. Salal was beginning to flower, while blueberry bushes were in full leaf with the first signs of berries starting to show. Out on the logging road, we encountered thimbleberry (so much along the drive too!), paintbrush, columbine, bleeding heart, Pacific dogwood, small-flowered blue-eyed Mary, streambank spring beauty, and the diminutive wingstem monkey flower.

Not much wildlife to report: the roar of the waterfalls drowned out any sounds from the forest, though we did hear wrens, robins, a grouse or two, a rufous hummingbird (on the logging road), and I saw a dipper down by High Falls Creek. On the drive we saw hawks, eagles, and turkey vultures.

Distance: 8.5 km
Elevation gain: 580 m
Time: 4:25
Route on AllTrails (don’t believe all the twists and turns!)

Key moments

  • πŸ™‚ Beautiful, bright rainbows in the spray from the waterfall.
  • πŸ™‚ The cool breeze off the roaring creek.
  • πŸ™‚ A remarkable array of flowers along Branch 200.
  • πŸ™‚ Finding so much twayblade, perhaps the most we’ve ever seen, plus finding so many other flowers on the (otherwise tedious) descent.
  • πŸ™‚ The lush moss-filled forest, and the sheer canyon walls.
  • πŸ™‚ Spectacular views from the bluffs and from the (boring) road walk.
  • ☹️ The dust on the Squamish Main FSR was just terrible, and our masks barely had any effect.
  • ☹️ Little or no shade on Branch 200, and lots of loose gravel threatened to have our feet disappear from under us.

Story
This was most definitely Plan B. Plan A was Petgill Lake but our casual start meant that the parking lot was full – and had people waiting for spots – by the time we reached it. A few moments of contemplation threw out a few hike ideas and High Falls stuck. It’s been a decade since I last hiked it, and Maria hasn’t been back since our very first visit in 2006! Of course, it was a longer drive than either of us remembered, on a day when I was wondering how to keep driving to a minimum, but the roads were quiet and the Squamish Valley road was shady and luxuriant green.

We slowed as we reached the gravel forest service road and were immediately enveloped in clouds of fine dust, reducing visibility to perhaps 30 metres. Tip for FSR driving: turn on your lights so you can be seen from behind through the dust! Five kilometres of steady driving brought us to the bridge over High Falls Creek, and we pulled over to check the parking situation. There was one spot we could easily have taken but Maria had the idea of parking at the bottom of Branch 200 and getting the mile of dusty road walk done at the beginning of the hike, and so on we drove, pulling off the road and getting our gear together.

My usual routine is to switch on my GPS and InReach (and send a “Trailhead” message) and give them as much time as possible to acquire a signal. I suspected it’d take some time, given that we were next to a sheer cliff but I assumed it wouldn’t be too long and left them while I laced up my boots and pulled on my pack. We pulled on our face masks and began walking the road, not without some trepidation given the poor visibility. Within seconds a truck passed us, leaving a great cloud of dirt and dust in its wake and I learned very quickly that my mask wouldn’t be enough to keep the fine grit out of my mouth. Any time we saw an oncoming vehicle, we stepped off to the side to minimize the chances of being hit – most drivers slowed down when they saw us which was nice. The one benefit to the swirling dust was the gorgeous light beams cast by the sun shining down through the tree canopy. It was simultaneously a photographer’s dream and nightmare!

Twenty minutes after leaving the car, my GPS finally acquired enough satellites to be convinced it knew where we were and began tracking us, albeit way off where we actually were. (It took another half an hour before the InReach had a good enough view of the sky to send its message!) A few minutes later we reached the trailhead, noticing that two more cars had since parked up. With more than a little relief, we turned off the road and onto the trail, immediately surrounded by intense spring green, the rushing creek a short distance to our right. A couple of hundred metres later we came to the base of a cliff where we would begin our climb, but needed a private moment first, and in so doing found a culturally modified tree, a red cedar with a strip of bark removed. It also provided us an opportunity to check out the stunning jaws of the canyon, where a delicious cool breeze flowed out from between the cliffs and a startled dipper flew off upstream voicing its annoyance at our sudden appearance.

Now the hard work began, with no messing about. We climbed steeply up a narrow cleft in the rock, emerging onto a small bluff with the first hint of the views to come. No sooner had we conquered that first climb than we were faced with the next one, a short vertical section of rock with a chain for help. Since the rock was dry, I opted to climb it, and found numerous good hand- and footholds. We were both soon up that stretch and followed an obvious diagonal line to our left that led us uphill and into the drier pine and fir forest of the rocky bluffs. We peered over the edge of the cliff and could just make out the creek already some 50 m below us.

The landscape was beautiful: lodgepole pine and Douglas fir standing tall while verdant moss and glossy salal covered the ground between the trees. Spring flowers were starting to show up too, with fresh saxifrage, twayblade, and starflower in abundance. We continued a mix of clambering and hiking upwards, placing our feet with care on those sections where a slip would not end well, and trying not to trip over our hiking poles. I was surprised at how airy some parts of this section were and had to make sure I didn’t lose concentration as I looked all around trying to absorb as much of my surroundings as possible.

A large fallen Douglas fir forced us to crawl under, then it was up and over the next steep climb, a braided plastic rope on hand to offer a bit of help if needed. Again, there were plenty of holds to safely practice my limited scrambling skills. A few minutes later we reached a side trail that led off to the main view of the waterfall, and it provided some welcome shade and coolness from the stifling heat of the rock. We dropped our packs and simply gazed in awestruck wonder at the sight before us. A huge column of rushing water appeared from the cliff, dropping – I don’t know how far – perhaps nearly 100 m to the canyon floor below, great clouds of spray billowing upwards where it bounced off the rocks creating the most intense rainbows I have ever seen. I really can’t describe it better than that: it was absolutely stunning.

It was the perfect lunch spot. The roar of the water and cool air were treats to our senses. It didn’t take me long to eat my sandwiches and then just spend the next half hour watching the waterfall, watching the rainbows come and go in the spray, watching the tree branches wave in the breeze. It was mesmerizing, and a remarkably grounding moment as the sound of the water really washed away all other thoughts, directing my attention to my immediate surroundings. Of course, there was the small matter of not getting too close to the edge of the cliff: that, too, tends to focus your mind!

I took photo after photo (over a third of the photos from the day were from this spot!), and even a few video clips, all in an effort to try and capture the glory and grandeur of this spot. Splashes of colour across the canyon caught my eye, red paintbrush blooming on a small ledge on the mossy rock wall, accompanied by some small white flowers.

Feeling suitably refreshed in every sense, we forced ourselves to continue the upward climb, returning to the trail and ascending steeply once more. But the trail levelled off again very soon after with partial views looking straight at the top of the waterfall, the water pouring through a narrow chasm in the rock. I really had forgotten just how magnificent this place was, and it was a treat to return on such a sunny day. Maria found the perfect rock to sit on and enjoy the view once again. A few metres further and we had a different angle on the creek, with a huge chockstone now visible wedged in the canyon with the creek flowing beneath it.

More climbing led us to a stunning view across the Squamish River valley, the snowy peaks of the Tantalus Range gleaming against the blue sky. Far across the valley we could see the long drop of Madden Falls as well as sunshine glinting off Sigurd Creek below Crooked Falls. We continued on upwards, following a clear meandering path worn through the moss down to the bedrock, soon coming to a sign pointing to another viewpoint (and warning of no exit). We followed the side trail to its end, only about 100 m away, where we were treated to close-up view of the creek cascading into a deep circular pool, churning with white water from the rushing creek. A narrow canyon led our eyes upstream to a view of more falls. The sound was tremendous, a great rushing roar of white noise, while the cool air was most welcome after the hot sun.

We rejoined the main trail and continued our ascent through lovely open Douglas fir forest, salal covering everything except the narrow path hacked out of this tough shrub. While the trail was showing clear signs of extensive use, I was pleased to note that the path still felt like it did a decade ago and it hadn’t turned into the motorway like so many trails. I hope it stays that way. Indeed, at times the salal was doing a good job of reclaiming the space, partially covering the footbed. At the back of my mind was the hope that there were no ticks on the salal leaves as we frequently had to brush through them. (Thankfully we saw none.)

More stunning viewpoints from mossy bluffs greeted us further along the trail, each better than the last, and we just had to stop each time to admire the views down to the river and up to the Tantalus summits. It really was the perfect day to be doing this hike. Then we left the views behind as we plunged into the forest again.

My eyes scanned the forest floor, now with more moss covering the ground, looking for flowers. I felt that we were in good terrain for fairyslipper orchids but – alas – we didn’t see any. However, we did come across other orchids. The leaves of the large round-leaved rein orchid were the first to catch my eye, green stems top with buds emerging from the centre of the each leaf pair. Next up was heart-leaved twayblade which was growing in abundance, probably the most we’ve ever seen, and I was pleased to find we’d caught them more or less at peak bloom. They are exceptionally difficult to photograph and I took my time to try and get a decent photo for once. (I think I succeeded, too.) The third orchid of the day was rattlesnake plantain, its evergreen leaf rosettes dotting the mossy ground. The fourth and final orchid was coralroot, a few pink stems just poking up through the soil. Not bad, and I felt I could’ve spent the rest of the day in this part of the forest, wandering back and forth to capture the perfect flower photo. Or ten.

Other forest flowers included the joyously yellow violets, with the first bunchberry and queen’s cup leaves starting to emerge. If I wasn’t so intent on varying our hiking schedule, I could easily see myself coming here again over the next few weeks to take in these flowers as they bloomed. I have to trust that I will see them on other hikes!

We stopped to check our progress and noticed that we were close to the shortcut trail that would buy us some time and avoid another kilometre of logging road. We considered our energy levels, as well as the time of day, and decided that we’d be fine to hike the slightly shorter loop today, turning left at the junction and ascending through more open mossy forest. More twayblade, more rattlesnake plantain, more bunchberry, and more queen’s cup: this was a lovely section of woodland with an easy soft trail underfoot. Ahead of us we could see daylight where the road had been cut through the trees, and I found myself wanting this forest to continue on for longer as it was so enjoyable.

But all things come to an end and we popped out of the trees onto the logging road where we stopped for a water and snack break. Within seconds a rufous hummingbird buzzed past our ears, too fast for us to see. Feeling refreshed we began the long walk down the logging road. Initially it didn’t feel too bad, but as we left the shade behind we began to wonder why we didn’t just retrace our steps back down, even through all the steep sections. We settled into a steady rhythm while trying to avoid turning an ankle on the loose rocks. Make no mistake, this was tedious walking: logging roads are rarely fun to hike. But after a while we turned a corner and got our first views down to the river valley, still far below.

Despite the baking hot sun and dusty road, we were blown away by these views and stopped for a few minutes to take in what we were seeing. The meandering Squamish River with its mix of current and former channels lay at the base of a chain of mountains rising steeply from the turquoise water up to the snow capped summits over 2000 m high. A truly beautiful sight that lifted our spirits and inspired us onwards on the steady trudge down the steep road. Thankfully there was little vehicle traffic, with only a pair of beefed-up ATVs passing us as they headed up the road.

To our right lay a sheer wall of granite rising high up above us, draped in moss and dotted with sturdy trees, their roots extending across the rock surface for stability. Down at road level we noticed the first flowers beginning to appear, mostly bright red paintbrush. Pacific dogwood trees were nearing the end of their bloom but many were still decorated with their white leafy bracts. We passed a spur road leading up to the right and then rounded the sharp hairpin bend where we sought some shade, as well as a few more paintbrush photos!

Now we were facing south, downstream, a different but equally spectacular view down the valley. My eye started picking up more flowers too: notably small-flowered blue-eyed Mary (which was extremely difficult to photograph) and some tiny yellow monkey flower (that I believe is wingstem monkey flower, a variety I hadn’t identified before). These small things helped the walk along the logging road pass more quickly, or at least less tediously. We marched on, wanting to lose as much elevation as possible but not so quickly as to overtax our tiring leg muscles. A bit over an hour after emerging from the forest at the top, we finally spotted the car ahead of us, enveloped in a huge billowing cloud of dust as a pickup sped past. Thankfully that dust settled as we reached the car, but wow was it ever covered!

We changed out of our boots as quickly as we could to get out of the dust, collapsing into the car just as another vehicle drove by. The walk down the road had been a challenge, but we were so very glad we’d parked here and weren’t faced with yet another mile of even dustier road. Of course the car was an oven so we got the A/C running as cold as possible to cool off and began the drive home. Pulling out onto the road was tricky as visibility was so poor and my attempt to clear the dust off the windscreen was only partly successful, leaving great muddy smears across the windscreen.

As we drove along the road, I noticed a stopped truck ahead and some people on the road in front of it. Then my eyes noticed the underside of a car at the roadside, and a few people rocking it back and forth to get it back onto its wheels. I slowed down to ask if everyone was okay and was told yes so we kept on driving. I don’t know how it happened but that was an expensive mistake, and at least no one seemed to be hurt. It could easily have been so much worse given all the trees lining the road.

The rest of the drive was uneventful and we noticed a tow truck heading up the valley, hopefully to help out the folks with the crashed car. Once back on tarmac I could wash the windscreen again and this time the mud cleared and I could see! We called in briefly at a petrol station to grab an ice cream and a cold drink before an easy drive home in surprisingly light traffic, noting that the parking lot for Petgill Lake (and Murrin Provincial Park) was still mostly full. When we parked up at home, I was surprised to see that the car didn’t look as dusty as I expected, the only real evidence being the mud-smeared windscreen. Time for dinner and cold beer!

Despite the (very!) dusty logging road, the long descent, and the hot sweaty climb, today was a great reminder of just how spectacular this hike can be. Highly recommended.

9 thoughts on “High Falls Creek, 16 May 2021

  1. Goodness this looks so, so different in the sunshine! I had no idea those roads get so dusty once they dry out and wooooow I love seeing the falls with the rainbow!

    This is pretty fantastic for a plan B!

    1. Now you have a good reason to go back and hike it again! We’re on a bit of a roll when it comes to Plan Bs, Garibaldi Lake was also a Plan B which makes 3 in a row :-)

      1. I have a feeling this might be a summer with plenty of Plan Bs as things are so busy.

        Having said that, my recent Peak Bagging has been really quiet! I had the top of Grouse, Devils Peak, Suicide Bluffs and de Pencier Bluffs to myself (I guess because they are not popular trails, apart from Grouse)

      2. Yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised. Are you working your way through the Vancouver North Shore mountains book? I haven’t really considered peak bagging like that.

      3. I’m mostly going from the list in the Peak Bagging facebook group (then using the book for tips)

        I didn’t think I would like Peak Bagging (as I’m happy with the whole walk even if there is no peak involved) BUT it has been great for showing me less obvious corners of the North Shore. :D

  2. Good to read about this hike in its entirety. Funny, last year Mike and I had the same experience with full parking lot at Petgill trailhead and decided to give this hike a try. He’s not keen on clambering and steep chain sections so we turned around. The views down the valley from the bluffs and logging road are beautiful. I’ll have to give this another go.

    1. It’s worth it – I’d forgotten just how nice it was, especially in the spring with the waterfalls in full freshet. I think it’s a unique hike in the Lower Mainland, there’s really nothing else quite like it. And better than Petgill any day :-)

      1. I will give High Falls Creek another try. I wasn’t blown away by Petgill. After excursions like Berg Lake and Chilcotins my standards are getting absurdly high. Yesterday I hiked to Wedgemount Lake and while the finale was beautiful, I found the majority of the hike underwhelming, and sadly we found a lot of garbage/toilet paper along the trail.

      2. Yeah Petgill isn’t much to write home about. That’s a shame about Wedgemount – I’m kinda in agreement in that I think the trail is pretty bad but the payoff is stunning. That’s awful about the garbage and TP – it was really quite clean when we hiked it only a month ago :-(

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