Cathedral Lakes, 30 Jun – 5 Jul 2021

A beautiful area for hiking and camping with gorgeous lakes, stunning vistas, and fascinating rock formations. There is a significant cost (physical or financial) to get here, but it’s worth it, and it’s a great destination for getting into backcountry camping without having to carry an overnight pack very far. The highlights are – without doubt – the Rim Trail with its unobstructed views in all directions, and, if you’re lucky, seeing the resident mountain goats, not to mention the exceptional tundra flower bloom.

We paid for the shuttle (as per our previous two visits) which cost about $130 per person (+ tax). It’s not cheap but it saves a whole day hiking in and/or out. The ride was bumpy and slow, taking about an hour to cover 14 km. In previous years the vehicles have had air conditioning but that was not the case with either vehicle on this trip which made for a very dusty ride up and a very foggy ride back down (after the rain started). But it was still worth it!

We camped at Lake of the Woods and we think it’s probably the nicest campground with views of various mountains across the lake. Each campsite was a dirt square with a numbered post, except for one wooden tent pad, large enough to fit a couple of tents. Being so dry everything was very dusty. The campground had three outhouses but no food storage options at all. We had our Ursacks which we could hang off nearby trees without worrying about anything getting into them, and a few others had roll-top dry bags but the vast majority of campers had very poor bags for food, some just plastic bags from grocery stores. (Quiniscoe campground had wire mesh lockers and a pole with cables for hanging food.) Camp fires are not permitted at Lake of the Woods thankfully, though with the fire ban, there were none anyway.

The park has many trails to choose from varying from easy to difficult, with the difficulty often changing along the course of a trail. We encountered no major navigational issues and most trail junctions were well sign-posted. However, bringing a printed map is – as always – a really good idea. One suggestion I have is that the signposts to Quiniscoe Lake also mention the Lodge as we met hikers who didn’t appreciate that connection. Creeks were running high so topping up with fresh water was always possible on the lower trails, however, up on the Rim there was no water at all (just a few snow patches) so be sure to bring everything you need for travelling above the treeline.

For us, the highlights were the Rim Trail (especially between Quiniscoe Mountain and Smokey the Bear), the Boxcar, and the route up to the Rim from the western end of Quiniscoe Lake. We avoided Red Mountain and Lakeview Mountain this trip as we know from previous experience that both are much more difficult hiking and the rewards are not as good as the highlights mentioned above.

The trails were ablaze with flowers, especially up on the tundra. Are you ready for this list? Good!

In the forest we saw arctic lupine, western columbine, clasping twistedstalk, bunchberry, Labrador tea, strawberry, alpine mitrewort, globeflower, Davidson’s penstemon (on rocky outcrops), one-sided wintergreen, white shooting star (new), white bog orchid and green rein orchid, fan-leaved cinquefoil, heart-leaved arnica, alpine buttercups, white marsh marigolds, Sitka valerian, white rhododendron, mountain bells, orange agoseris, slender hawkweed, stinking currant, wood betony (bracted lousewort), black twinberry.

In mid-level meadows around the treeline we saw sulphur buckwheat, paintbrush, small-flowered penstemon, cranberry, woolly pussytoes, speedwell, two types of arnica (mostly budding), kalmia, shrubby cinquefoil, fan-leaved cinquefoil (again), lance-leaved stonecrop, unidentified thistles, and a few subalpine daisies.

Up on the highest terrain, we saw purple mountain saxifrage (new – only on Grimface), moss campion, dryas, cut-leaf anemone, pink, white, and yellow heather, golden fleabane, arctic daisy, skunky Jacob’s ladder, silky phacelia, (Davidson’s penstemon again), spreading phlox, alpine pussytoes, two types of cinquefoil, alpine willowherb, mountain sorrel, alpine buckwheat (new), long-stalked starwort (probably), tufted saxifrage, low mountain lupine, field locoweed, alpine lewisia (possibly). At least three other flowers remain unidentified!

Wildlife: chipmunks, pikas, Douglas squirrels, hoary marmots, Columbia ground squirrels, mountain goats, mule deer, whisky jacks, Clark’s nutcrackers, raven, mountain chickadees, nuthatches, hermit thrushes, varied thrushes, Swainson’s thrushes, rufous hummingbird, bald eagle, olive-sided flycatcher, winter wren, ptarmigan, spotted sandpiper, unidentified swifts, ducks, and a Cassin’s vireo serenaded us on a couple of mornings at the lake. On the drive we spotted a black bear wading the Similkameen River near the middle of Princeton!

Distance: 55 km
Elevation gain: 2890 m
Time: 4 days of hiking

Key moments

  • 🙂 The tranquility of sitting next to a mirror-calm lake with a view of the mountains.
  • 🙂 Reaching the summit of Pyramid Mountain via its north ridge.
  • 🙂 The sheer number of flowers blooming on the tundra was an absolute joy to behold.
  • 🙂 Finding a new favourite trail through expansive meadows.
  • 🙂 Goats! So many goats! They even walked through the campground!
  • ☚ī¸ The mosquitoes and black flies were awful – not the worst we’ve encountered but really close. We were completely caught off-guard and left our bug shirts (and wipes) at home. Never again!
  • ☚ī¸ The extent of the beetle-killed trees was horrific to witness, especially when comparing photos from previous trips.
  • ☚ī¸ Campground facilities did not encourage good backcountry behaviour: no food storage, eating, or grey water disposal facilities. Also the campgrounds were overflowing as BC Parks does not limit the number of backcountry permits.

The G.O.A.T. goat experience! We spent five nights at Lake of the Woods, taking a late afternoon shuttle up, and a lunchtime shuttle back down leaving four clear days for hiking. The distance from the lodge to Lake of the Woods was about 1.3 km each way with an elevation change of about +20 m / -40 m (from Lodge to Lake of the Woods).

  • Day 1: The Boxcar via Goat Lake (15.5 km, 815 m)
  • Day 2: The Rim Trail to Grimface via Ladyslipper Lake (out and back) (16 km, 1085 m)
  • Day 3: Pyramid, Glacier, and Quiniscoe Lakes (6.5 km, 235 m)
  • Day 4: Quiniscoe and Pyramid Mountains via Quiniscoe and Glacier Lakes (14.5 km, 695 m)

It’s hard to say which of the longer three was our favourite; day 3 was a much-needed day of lower effort – I hesitate to call it a rest day, though we did take it easy in the morning and enjoyed a cold beer sitting under a larch tree on the deck at the lodge during a thunderstorm later in the day!

The Boxcar tends to see fewer people and has excellent views of the core area of the park as well as a tantalizing glimpse of a lesser-visited area that keeps piquing my interest. Goat Lake has – arguably – the best setting of any of the lakes, emerald green in colour with the imposing headwall of Denture Ridge flanked by the Boxcar and Matriarch and Grimface Mountains.

The Rim Trail is the Cathedral Classic and rightly so with its nerve-wracking drops and impressive rock formations. It’s easy enough to be accessible while also being tough enough to feel like a serious workout, especially if you venture out towards Grimface with the extra ups and downs and route-finding. Ladyslipper Lake is gorgeous, especially first thing in the morning to catch the reflections of the mountains behind.

The views from the summits of Quiniscoe and Pyramid mountains were stunning, both attained with relative ease (though Pyramid required a bit of route-finding and care negotiating steep rocks). The big surprise this trip was our first time hiking the trail up to the Rim from Quiniscoe Lake, which was absolutely incredible, leading us through flower-filled meadows and into a huge bowl of a size that reminded us more of the Rockies than the Coast Mountains or North Cascades. It might just be my favourite trail in the park!

I plan to write up each day separately, but we all know how that goes, so wish me luck!

Prologue: Getting there (30 Jun 2021)
Lake of the Woods? More like Lake of the Bugs! And to think that we actively decided against bringing our bug shirts.

Not a great start to the trip, especially with the baking heat. Apparently the park set a record of 32 C on this day and it felt like it was still near to that as we sweated and swatted our way over to the campground. It was a long twenty-minute walk from the lodge wearing two backpacks – overnight pack on our backs, daypack in front – and the bugs were a timely reminder of why I stopped wearing shorts for hiking.

As I wrote these notes, it was a little after 9 pm, the sun had just set behind Quiniscoe Mountain and the varied thrushes were whistling away in some nearby trees. Across the lake I could also make out a distant hermit thrush. We were in the tent looking up through the mesh at the still-blue sky, the trees, and the surrounding peaks. It was still too warm to consider enclosing us with the fly sheet.

Today had been brutally hot – Environment Canada reported 42 C in Princeton as we drove through! – with a breeze that made it feel like we were standing in front of an open oven. Thankfully the drive was peaceful, especially once we were on Highway 3, one of my favourite roads to drive. The Similkameen River was quite high but nowhere near as close to bursting its banks as the Lillooet and Birkenhead Rivers of last weekend. The Ashnola was a lovely rushing, tumbling mountain creek, especially through the delightfully windy Horseshoe Canyon section. We pulled up at the gate to the lodge parking area, where two cars were already waiting, and parked in what little shade we could find. Not that it made any difference; we opened the car doors and were hit by a wall of heat. We sat and sweated in the hot breeze, just thankful to be out of the direct sun.

Four-thirty came and went and there was no sign of our ride. A fourth car had pulled up and sat by the bridge. Although the shuttle wasn’t too late, I was desperate to get out of this heat and every minute spent waiting felt like an age. I’m definitely not a hot climate person! With the gate open, we drove over the bridge into the parking area, and loaded our gear into one of the trucks. Maria and I got to ride with one of the drivers, the other five hikers content to squeeze into the other vehicle. It was a long, bumpy, and very dusty hour to get up the road. We chatted with the driver and enjoyed his choice of music (mostly 70s and 80s rock – an unusual choice for someone so young!) to pass the time.

We pulled in near the lodge just before 6 pm, collected our gear, and set off towards the ranger cabin to check for any trail updates. I took a picture so I didn’t have to remember what it said, and then it was onwards to Lake of the Woods. It was a longer walk than I remembered – I should’ve looked at the map first just so we were aware of how far we had to go. In my mind it was not very far, but that was based on a visit of nearly a decade ago! It was a long twenty minutes in the heat, the bugs were plentiful and hungry, and we were glad to emerge from the forest at the shore of the lake, whereupon we turned left and followed the trail through the campground.

The first few sites were already taken (which was no surprise), but we found a couple of likely sites about half way along. We dropped our packs with relief and scouted out the remaining sites, following a mule deer as we went. Maria found a good one with a nice view of Pyramid and Quiniscoe Mountains and we set up the tent on that dusty square. It took a moment to remind ourselves how to set up the tent, but muscle memory kicked in and within a couple of minutes we were throwing our sleeping mats and bags inside for later.

Having established home for the next five nights, we went down to the lake shore to filter water and enjoy a much-needed dinner. We relaxed on a rock and marvelled at the beautiful reflections on the lake. The reality of where we were was only just beginning to sink in. But tiredness was catching up fast. We watched the setting sun light up Pyramid, Grimface, and Lakeview Mountains as well as the Boxcar before hanging our food in a nearby tree (too close really but there were no food caches, which was odd), and then crawling into the tent for a bug-killing spree. Did I mention the bugs?

We laid on our sleeping mats and just relaxed, letting that feeling of not needing to be anywhere else or do anything else sink in. We watched the stars appear through the mesh and I just let my eyes close. It was still too warm to even get into our sleeping bag liners at first, and when we did cool off it felt like such a novelty to actually feel cool! Eventually I retreated into my liner then, later, I slipped into my sleeping bag, laying it over me like a quilt.

After the noise of the city and the heat of the drive, the quiet night was bliss, even if I was surprisingly restless as I took a bit of time to get used to my surroundings. I stirred in the early hours and looked up to see the last quarter moon through the trees, and noticed the summer sky lightening in the east. My eyes closed again and I drifted back to sleep.

And to think, we have four more nights after this…

6 thoughts on “Cathedral Lakes, 30 Jun – 5 Jul 2021

  1. I’m so glad to see Cathedral Lakes. I camped there about 10 years ago and spent three days hiking. Despite the cost of the truck ride up (which has increased significantly) I think it’s totally worth it to get up into the alpine in relative comfort/speed and spend more time hiking in the beautiful alpine. The goats were a highlight for me too. Your wildflower photos are wonderful.

    1. Thanks Caroline! Yes, after our last visit in 2012 turned up zero goats we were inundated with them this time round :-) I agree – part of me is curious about the hike in, but I can’t see me ever really justifying it compared with getting up there in an hour in relative comfort!

  2. Hmmm…would you go again at the end of June, or was it just too awful with the bugs? I would really like to visit Cathedral this year, but I am not sure when would be best… It’s a bit worrying that they do not limit the back country permits. I guess we’ll end up going whenever we can get a shuttle!?

    1. We were taken by surprise as we were there at the same time of year in 2012 and there were no bugs! Mind you, it was much chillier that weekend (we got snowed on!). I think the bugs seemed more annoying because we expected none and I was wearing shorts :-) but in reality they were far from the worst we’ve experienced. If you have bug nets and long sleeves/trousers you should be fine.

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