South Chilcotins, 17-25 Jul 2021

Opinion:
Well, the South Chilcotin Mountains work their magic once again! A tough but immensely satisfying week-long traverse of the park with many literal and figurative ups and downs. If ever a trip could qualify as epic, it’d be this one. Although the weather was kinder to us than on previous trips, it was gratifying that all our planning paid off, the creek crossings were easy, and we had good camping spots and water sources at each spot. The highlights were summiting Mount Sheba, the amount of time spent hiking on ridges, and the float plane drop-off at the stunningly blue Lorna Lake. Although not all the passengers may agree, I wouldn’t have complained if the float plane flight was longer!

As I’ve said in previous posts on this area, it’s not a place for beginners as it requires experience with route-finding and navigation and you must have top-notch Leave No Trace skills. But with those in hand, it’s a simply amazing area for backpacking.

Fact
We drove the Hurley Forest Service Road from/to Pemberton and encountered no issues. As usual it was bumpy and rough in spots, but overall in decent shape. We parked our car at Tyax Adventures and took a float plane flight to Lorna Lake. Splitting the $1400 fare between 4 or 5 people made it reasonably affordable. Tyax adds a $10 per person trail maintenance fee. It dawned on us that it’s really only for maintaining the mountain bike trails in the area, as we encountered a couple of distinctly unmaintained hiking trails. The flight lasted about 25 minutes and we flew up Gun Creek to Spruce Lake then over to Tyaughton Creek, through Elbow Pass before the descent along Big Creek into Lorna Lake. Take off and landing were really smooth despite the wind. Note that the road down to Tyax has a gate but – at least when we retrieved our car – the chain is only looped over the post and the gate can be opened. Be sure to leave the gate as you found it.

Our route took us from Lorna Lake (with a day exploring the Sluice Creek drainage), through Lorna Pass, across Tyaughton Creek, over Deer Pass (with a day exploring in the direction of Mount Solomon), along Sheba Ridge (summiting Mount Sheba en route), down to Cowboy Camp via the southern detour and Open Heart Connector, then out via the Mid Grasslands and the High Trail to Windy Pass, then east on Taylor-Pearson through Eldorado Pass to Camel Pass, and finally “Ridge-o-rama” to the North Cinnabar trail and back to the car at Tyaughton Lake. The map published by Trail Ventures BC was vital in both the planning and hiking of our route. Don’t skimp: just buy it!

We followed trails for much of the route with the exception of travel along the high ridges where trails were intermittent, as indicated on the map. The Open Heart Connector had many downed trees, especially on the lower section, it disappeared and reappeared several times in open meadows, and petered out altogether just before joining Upper Grasslands. (On closer inspection of the map, this should not have been a surprise – I’ve said the same thing on each of our trips here!) I was surprised at how indistinct some of the trails were, despite being marked on the map as primary (or secondary) trails. We also lost the trail on the east end of Sheba Ridge in the section of forest about 1 km from the Open Heart junction. In other words, be prepared to navigate yourself!

We camped at Lorna Lake for two nights. The main camping area was in the trees just up the slope from the floatplane dock, where there is room for perhaps half-a-dozen tents. Since that was occupied by another group, we found alternative camping among open forest about 150 m north along the trail. This campsite – which is in Big Creek Provincial Park – had a fairly new outhouse and a metal food cache.

The secondary camping area marked on the Trail Ventures BC map is at the north end of the lake, with a couple of open spots with space for 3 or 4 tents at most (if you don’t mind setting up close to your neighbours). Note this spot was very windy during our visit as it is fully exposed to the elements. But it does make for a fine photo-op. We collected water from the lake and the outlet creek.

We spent the third and fourth nights at Deer Pass. While there were plenty of flat spots to set up a tent, this area was also totally exposed to the elements and was extremely windy. The tarn near the pass was a good water source and was not silty – at least as long as no one or nothing ventured in to stir up the mud on the bottom! Food storage was an issue here and we made use of a few hefty rock caches built by previous hikers. Note this only dissuades marmots and would not prevent a bear from getting your food so a bear-proof container is highly recommend – we have Ursacks.

Our fifth night was next to a tarn below Mount Sheba. This was the highest camping spot of our trip at about 2360 m and it, too, was very windy. We set up our tents at the eastern end of the tarn and built up small rock walls to provide a little shelter from the wind. The south side of the tarn had plenty of open space for tents. Food storage was also an issue here and we hung our Ursacks from rocks on a mound above the tarn. The tarn itself was quite silty and we noticed a distinct (but thankfully temporary) slowdown in our water filter.

Our sixth night was at the Cowboy Camp, located at the junction of the Mid and Lower Grasslands trails. This was the lowest campsite at just over 1500 m. Given its name, it’s no surprise that it has been heavily used by horse groups. The camp has a table and several benches for seating. A bar has been nailed between two trees but it was really too low to keep food out of reach of any wildlife. We hung our Ursacks from suitable trees nearby. There is an outhouse but it was out of service. There’s an alternative (maybe even slightly better) camping spot a few hundred metres south on the Lower Grasslands trail, next to an old collapsed cabin. The creek was good for fresh water. While the area next to the cooking/eating area would be good camping, it’s far too close, so we camped about 50 m away in the nearby meadows. We felt bad for setting up here but it was only one night and the flowers were mostly finished blooming.

For our final night we found spots along the Taylor-Pearson trail in Upper Taylor Basin. They weren’t ideal spots as we ended up on a mix of heather and rocks; however we later found better spots further away from the trail (something to remember for next time). There were plenty of trees on which to hang our Ursacks. Since we were right at the head of the valley, our water came from the very uppermost headwaters of Taylor Creek.

With the exception of the first camping spot, there were no facilities whatsoever so please practice your best Leave No Trace skills. Bury your leftovers in a cat hole and pack out the TP and all other trash.

We encountered only 6 other backpackers – a group of 4 at Lorna Lake and a pair at Deer Pass – and saw a few day hikers near North Cinnabar. Mountain bikers were common once we reached the trails east of Spruce Lake. Most of them were sufficiently courteous but really they just saw us as an annoying obstacle. Having to wait while a string of 14 (!) pushed their bikes up the hill past us was irritating: it took over 5 minutes for the entire group to pass us, and even then we soon caught up with the stragglers and had our valuable momentum thwarted for a while thereafter.

The weather was mostly a mix of sun and cloud, albeit very windy above the treeline. We had snow showers on the day we left Deer Pass, and again at Mount Sheba, but no other precipitation. Thankfully the showers didn’t last long enough to dampen our enthusiasm. Temperatures were mostly mild (except in the wind!), freezing overnight near Mount Sheba, and then warm on our final descent.

Flowers were abundant although the mid-to-upper meadows were past their peak. The alpine/tundra flowers were definitely at their peak. Where do I start? We saw so many, at least 77 varieties! Okay, arctic lupines (which smelled heavenly), low mountain lupine, red paintbrush, small-flowered paintbrush (Upper Taylor only), lance-leaved stonecrop, Oregon (or spreading) stonecrop, slender cinquefoil, skunky Jacob’s ladder, silky phacelia, alpine pussytoes, woolly pussytoes, rosy pussytoes, golden fleabane, arctic daisy, moss campion, Douglas’ campion, mountain sorrel, dryas, spreading phlox, western anemone, cut-leaf anemone (mostly seed-heads but a few blooming at lower elevations), western spring beauty, glacier lilies, corn lilies, Columbia lilies, western columbine, cow parsley, nodding onion, autumn gentian, pink, white, and yellow heather, kalmia, partridgefoot, rosebay willowherb (fireweed), broad-leaved willowherb, alpine willowherb, pink monkey flower, white bog orchid, leatherleaf saxifrage, spotted saxifrage, Tolmie’s saxifrage, wood betony, bird’s beak lousewort (past peak), yellow rattle, at least two types of arnica, Sitka valerian, rattlesnake plantain, pinedrops, three-flowered avens (mostly gone to seed but a small number still blooming), forget-me-nots, arrowleaf balsamroot, fringed grass-of-Parnassus, thyme-leaved speedwell, edible thistle, white thistle, sulphur buckwheat, white rhododendron, alpine buttercups, globeflower, small-flowered penstemon, a variety of starwort, purple mountain daisy, purple asters, orange agoseris, small-flowered hawkweed, field locoweed, western meadowrue (mostly done), pink wintergreen, one-sided wintergreen, white wintergreen, pipsissewa, purple clover, white clover, bald-hip rose, a variety of larkspur (in the alpine no less), plus two or three yet-to-be identified flowers. Not a bad haul :-)

Wildlife encounters were mostly birds and marmots with a few pikas, tadpoles in a pond, fish in Lorna Lake, about 20 mountain goats, a few mule deer, and a pair of bighorn sheep. The birds we saw or heard included: mountain chickadees, kinglets, Clark’s nutcrackers, a pileated woodpecker, two other unidentified woodpeckers, robins, wrens, a flicker, hermit thrushes, varied thrushes, a raven, a bald eagle, another unidentified raptor, a plover or killdeer of some kind, several grouse, and ptarmigan. Mosquitoes were irritating at low to mid elevations when the wind dropped, horse flies followed us around in the alpine, but, for the most part, bugs weren’t a significant problem.

Distance: 88.0 km
Elevation gain/loss: +4450 m, -5300 m
Time: 5 days + 2 days exploration

Key moments

  • πŸ™‚ The floatplane flight – watching the mountains glide by then seeing the incredible colour of Lorna Lake.
  • πŸ™‚ Standing atop the twin summits of Mount Sheba.
  • πŸ™‚ Soaking in the expansive views from the ridges and the sublime (though sometimes challenging) hiking.
  • πŸ™‚ Watching up to 20 mountain goats walk along a high ridge top.
  • πŸ™‚ Those moments of silence in the tent when the wind dropped.
  • πŸ™‚ The first few minutes coming round in the tent to the sound of birdsong and/or a running creek.
  • πŸ™‚ Cresting a ridge line to see the view below for the first time.
  • πŸ™‚ Sitting back on a fine afternoon with a hot drink and watching the clouds go by.
  • πŸ™‚ Finding that Little Mordor really did live up to its name!
  • ☹️ I shouldn’t complain but oh for a few more windless moments up on the ridges!
  • ☹️ Negotiating the washed-out gully at the southern tip of Sheba Ridge was definitely one of those ‘rather be anywhere than here’ moments. Follow the advice on the Trail Ventures BC website instead: go down and around, not up and over!
  • ☹️ Losing the trail (twice) at the end of a long, tiring day was mentally draining.
  • ☹️ The descent from “Ridge-o-rama” was by far the worst trail we hiked – a steep, eroded beeline descent carved to a groove by mountain bikers.

Summary
Our traverse took us from west to east, starting at Lorna Lake (in Big Creek Provincial Park) before heading generally east or south-east until we reached our starting point at Tyaughton Lake.

  • Day 1: Drive to Tyaughton Lake, take floatplane to Lorna Lake
  • Day 2: Explore Sluice Creek valley (14.5 km, +780 m, -780 m)
  • Day 3: Lorna Lake to Deer Pass (16.0 km, +970 m, -580 m)
  • Day 4: Mount Solomon from Deer Pass (6 km, +300 m, -300 m)
  • Day 5: Deer Pass to Mount Sheba (8.5 km, +655 m, -620 m including ascent of Mount Sheba)
  • Day 6: Mount Sheba to Cowboy Camp (13.5 km, +300 m, -1200 m)
  • Day 7: Cowboy Camp to Taylor Basin (14.0 km, +980 m, -330 m including some exploration of Upper Taylor Basin)
  • Day 8: Taylor Basin to Tyaughton Lake (15.5 km, +465 m, -1480 m)
  • Day 9: Drive home via Mile One in Pemberton :-)

Check out the Google map above for our daily wanderings. Important disclaimer: it should not be assumed that the routes shown can be followed as is. Our tolerance for hiking over trail-less or rough terrain may be very different from yours. You must do your own research as to the viability and safety of any routes you undertake in this area!

As always, I intend to write up each day separately so watch this space. I have transcribed all my notes, at least! The holdup will be sifting through the 2300 photos we took…

6 thoughts on “South Chilcotins, 17-25 Jul 2021

  1. I’m so glad that you had another great experience at South Chilcotin. It’s the best kept secret for backpacking and I hope it stays that way. Isn’t that flight into Lorna amazing!? I agree that it could be longer. I love the ridges, meadows and open views that you get in this park. Even the forest sections don’t feel dense and hemmed-in. The word epic is what I use too to describe the backpacking experience there. As much as I enjoyed the Rockwall (post to come) there is something extra special about Chilcotins–the remoteness, lack of people, amazing highs and lows that come with challenging terrain/route finding. Now you have me wanting to summit Mt. Sheba. I gather it’s even more stunning than the views you get on the ridge by Mt. Solomon (that was the highlight for me). Looks like smoke wasn’t an issue. Great report!

    1. Thanks Caroline! Yes, I loved that flight in to Lorna. Yeah, the Chilcotins definitely has a different feel to the Rockies, and I think it feels slightly wilder, definitely more remote, and – yes – all those ridges! Mount Sheba was awesome – intimidating from a distance but quite straightforward in the end. Mount Solomon was a great little summit in its own right – I really liked the view down onto Lizard Lake and Tarns.

      Looking forward to reading about your Rockwall trip!

  2. What an excellent traverse it was. I’d probably (definitely) skip Little Mordor and take the shorter ridge route, if I did that part again.

    1. Agreed – as fascinating as Little Mordor was, it was a long detour to see it, and we had the perfect weather for it so I don’t feel the need to return.

    1. Thanks Diana – yes it was an absolutely amazing trip. We’ve seen our fair share of glacial lakes over the years but Lorna Lake was really something special. Can’t wait to go back!

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