North Cinnabar Basin to Upper Eldorado Basin: 12 km, +565 m, -635 m, 8h 20m
For once, I had a decent night’s sleep. Normally I listen for all manner of noises when it’s so quiet but last night I wasn’t bothered at all. I poked my head out of the tent during the night to see a deep blue sky filled with stars; so many stars! Without my glasses I couldn’t see much detail and I was content to fall back asleep again, dreaming of starry skies. Birdsong brought me round at about 4:30 am and I drifted in and out of sleep until the sun came up around 6 am. Our clear view to the east meant that the sun was warming up the tent as soon as it rose, and it wasn’t long before it was too hot for us to stay inside our sleeping bags.
Birdsong brought me round … and I drifted in and out of sleep until the sun came up
I lasted until about 7 am and began packing away my sleeping gear. We chatted about our plans for the morning and decided that we didn’t want to brave the onslaught awaiting us (the bugs were already gathering on the tent) and so starting packing up our gear, with the intention of stopping somewhere less buggy for breakfast. I stepped outside to go and retrieve our food bags, where I discovered I’d tied one of them on a tree running with sap. The cord was now so very sticky – which I absolutely hate, perhaps more than anything. (Maria laughs at me when I get sticky hands as it absolutely paralyzes me and I just want to get them un-sticky as soon as possible.) I had the bright idea of putting some duct tape over the sticky sections, and it worked wonders. Except that I could no longer cinch the Ursack closed as the toggle wouldn’t go over the tape. Hmm. Now what? At that moment I didn’t have much choice, so I just tied the bag as tightly as I could. Besides, we would be stopping again fairly soon for breakfast and I could try something then.
Back at the tent, I wandered carefully around the meadow to catch up a bit on my missed flower photographs from yesterday. There were so many flowers it was hard to choose where to start. Should I pick the beautiful gleaming white bog orchids? Or the fiery paintbrush? You can never have enough moptop photos. But those lupines also look great. Alas, there were no glacier lilies to be found, though there were plenty of seed heads already nodding on their stems, and a few fading petals clung on here and there.
A stiff climb is one way to start a morning before breakfast!
I thought we’d move more quickly given the mosquito situation but it wasn’t until nearly 9 am that we hoisted up our packs and returned to the trail. We followed the single-track path towards the head of the valley, the meadows around us bright green against a pure blue sky. As we reached the upper stretches of the valley, the trail turned sharply right to switchback up a green and flowery slope, gaining height quickly and easily. Well, as easy as it could be given we were still carrying nearly a week’s worth of food and hadn’t yet eaten breakfast! From this vantage point, we could see what appeared to be a few good camping spots, with patches of bare earth close to some large trees for shelter. Given that our plan was to return here on our final night, we thought we’d check them out then. (Spoiler: we didn’t make it back here.)
A stiff climb is one way to start a morning before breakfast! We were happy to gain the ridge and followed it south for a short distance until we came to a spot that offered both shade and a slight breeze to keep the bugs away. We dropped our packs, set about boiling some water, and we sat with our oatmeal and morning drinks on this ridge with a magnificent view into the next valley. What a place to be having breakfast! We could see into the North Cinnabar basin behind us, the whole valley laid out with our approach from yesterday suddenly looking very far away. In front of us lay a whole new – and, according to the map, pathless – valley that looked so very inviting. Another time, perhaps.
After wiling away a leisurely hour, we felt it was time to get moving again. We followed the ridge upwards, the views getting more eye-popping as we climbed – we were torn as to which direction to look and every time we turned our heads we exclaimed anew. Our ridge soon merged with another, the one that we planned to hike to get back to this spot. The route wasn’t marked on the map but the route looked easy, we could see a trail, and later saw a couple of mountain bikers. A buzzing sound caught our attention and we looked up to see the floatplane from Tyax Adventures fly overhead, no doubt transporting hikers or (more likely) bikers to Spruce Lake.
We came to a high point on the ridge, a fascinating little rocky outcrop, where our jaws just dropped at the 360-degree panorama.
The views only got better as we hiked and after all the hard work of yesterday, it all suddenly seemed worthwhile. We came to a high point on the ridge, a fascinating little rocky outcrop, where our jaws just dropped at the 360-degree panorama. North Cinnabar on one side, the Bridge River valley and Gun Lake ahead, Carpenter Lake stretching away to the south-east, ridges and valleys behind us, and the Pearson Creek drainage before us, into which we’d soon be descending. Stunning doesn’t even come close, and the photos just don’t do it justice. It was, without doubt, one of the most impressive and expansive views we’ve ever seen.
We came to a trail junction where an old mining track led away downhill, which we turned onto. After a very steep initial descent, it became quite enjoyable hiking – for a short while anyway. We were surrounded by flowers, the slopes full of indigo Menzies larkspur, probably the most we’ve ever seen. On the opposite side of the track, white bog orchids grew in abundance, the combination of the white and blue creating a two-tone effect, like two opposing sports teams facing off against one another. The pleasant section didn’t last long and the track descended steeply once again, quickly turning into a bit of a gruelling descent on the loose gravel path. I cannot imagine climbing up this trail with an overnight pack – but then I suspect I would have felt the same about the trail we ascended yesterday, so maybe it wouldn’t be so bad? Mind you, at least we had shade on our climb.
After a while we dropped our packs for a rest and to take the pressure off our knees for a few minutes before finishing off the descent in the forest to reach the High Trail where we were greeted by a sign that we were entering the provincial park – at last! To our surprise, the trail immediately narrowed to a single-track footbed. Not that we were complaining as it was so much more enjoyable to hike; that is, apart from the fact that we were now climbing again, albeit gently. I wondered how horses travelled on this trail as it was so narrow. Can they really walk on such a narrow path? I guess so…
It felt like a big landscape, and we were two tiny hikers in the middle of it all.
We passed a large pile of bear poop and a dug-up section of meadow, prompting us to begin to speak up a little louder than we had been. It’s all too easy for us to walk in silence, soaking up the stillness of our surroundings. We couldn’t work out what to say, though, trying to find words that sounded clear and distinct. We tried flower names, then some song lyrics, before settling on the word ‘daisy’ which won out on being easy to say. In the meantime, the trail led us gently up the valley; wonderful easy hiking, even if the views were mostly hidden by the trees. But the trees soon began to thin out and broad, rich meadows began to dominate the slopes around us. We could see up to the ridges on either side, while behind us we had occasional views down the valley towards distant mountain summits. It felt like a big landscape, and we were two tiny hikers in the middle of it all.
How I wished I could have been here a few weeks earlier! I could see the slopes were covered in yellowed, wilting glacier lily leaves mixed in with a carpet of moptops. My imagination ran riot with mental images of how these meadows must’ve looked with a full glacier lily bloom. Those thoughts would have to suffice today, the only glacier lilies we encountered were a few barely holding on to the remains of their petals.
We passed a couple of likely camping spots, really just rough patches of bare earth in a small copse of trees, good enough for a small group (2 or 3 tents) but not much more. Even after yesterday it was only slowly dawning on me that camping here was pretty much what you could make of it.
Our progress had been slow but steady, and 4 hours after setting off, we decided it was time for lunch. There wasn’t anywhere to pull off the trail, so we dropped our packs by some trees with a clear view up and down the trail and pulled out our food. Though still cloudy, the day was remarkably warm and the shade of the trees was most welcome.
As we were finishing up, we were startled by the appearance of another hiker, who was at least as startled as us! We chatted for a few minutes and it turned out she was a steward for one of the cabins at Spruce Lake and was hiking back to the trailhead after her shift. She’d been playing a podcast out loud on her phone as a way to alert wildlife of her presence, but we didn’t hear it until she was right next to us, so it didn’t seem very effective to us. On the other hand, she said she’d never seen a bear on the trail, so go figure. We exchanged mutual exclamations of enthusiasm for our surroundings, and then she was on her way. And so we got on ours.
Tall skinny Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir, both so aromatic in the warmth of the day. I wish I could bottle that scent!
We were now entering the uppermost part of the valley, surrounded entirely by huge green meadows with only a few trees, a smattering of tall skinny Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir, both so aromatic in the warmth of the day. I wish I could bottle that scent – it might just be my favourite. The trail divided at a junction, and we chose the right-hand fork to the pass, which turned out to be a direct, steep climb to Pearson Pass. We guessed that it was primarily used by bikers as a descent route, hence the lack of switchbacks. All we knew was that it was a bit of a grind, and we struggled in the post-lunch heat of the day. Maybe we should have taken the left fork?
At least it was a short climb and we soon reached Pearson Pass, a broad, flat pass covered with a pale, sandy soil. According to the guide book, this soil was actually a layer of volcanic deposits from one of the last big eruptions of Mount Meager, nearly 60 km away to the south-west. We paused momentarily to admire the views behind and ahead of us, just as the wind dropped and the clouds cleared to leave us in baking hot sunshine. It was stifling and we pushed ourselves to keep going, now descending through more meadows into the Eldorado drainage. The heat was taking its toll and we toiled even though we were heading downhill. We hiked through open forest and meadows, with some utterly stunning views, but I felt unable to really take in where I was thanks to the heat.
The heat was taking its toll and we toiled even though we were heading downhill
After what felt like an age, we reached thicker tree cover and a trail junction next to a small creek. We made up a litre of Nuun to rehydrate and top up our electrolytes, and immediately felt better on finishing that. I felt that sensation of my eyes rehydrating, my skin cooled, and I began to feel like we could make it. Down and down we continued, eventually dropping 300 m from Pearson Pass to reach our lowest point of the day. The creek we’d been following continued down the slope to our left while we made a sharp right turn to begin climbing – again! – into the upper Eldorado valley.
Ugh, that climb was tough, even though it was gradual. The day was still hot and we were tiring, having been on the move for some seven hours now. I felt my mood deteriorating a little as we trudged through dense, viewless forest, Eldorado Creek far below us in the steep-sided valley, and it took some digging in to keep going. All I wanted was to find a place to put up the tent, and we weren’t there yet.
I took some solace in likening our surroundings to place we’d hiked many years ago, Cottonwood Creek (on our Stein traverse back in 2008). That, too, was a trail following a steep-sided valley, though on that occasion we were heading downstream. No ponderosa pines here, though, mostly spruce – those wonderfully scented spruce. After a period of steady uphill we began to encounter the first clearings, and kept our eyes open for possible camping spots. Most of the meadows were still not flat enough to put up a tent, plus the creek was quite a long way down. Up and up through the valley we went, regaining the sense of space we’d been enjoying a couple of hours earlier.
We had some lovely views of the surrounding ridges, the creek was nearby, and we had a grassy area the size of a football pitch in which to put up our tent.
Once again, we passed the spot marked on the map for camping and we concluded it was no good, so on we continued eventually gaining the uppermost meadows where the terrain levelled off. Now this looked more like it! We had some lovely views of the surrounding ridges, the creek was nearby, and we had an empty grassy area the size of a football pitch in which to put up our tent. With some relief we dropped our packs and began scoping out a camp site.
To our surprise, that was easier said than done, the meadow was extremely lumpy and full of old horse poop, and it took quite a few minutes of scouting around to find a spot where we could be comfortable for a couple of nights. Eventually we settled on the least lumpy spot we could find and put up the tent in the afternoon sunshine. With the worst of the heat gone from the day, we could now enjoy that sunshine and relax. We unpacked our backpacks and tiptoed down the short but steep slope to the lovely meandering creek, soaking our buffs in the cold water to wash our faces, wiping off the grime from the past two days. A pleasant breeze even kept the bugs away, and perhaps for the first time on the trip, we felt we could relax and really enjoy our surroundings.
We filtered some water and walked back over the meadow to the trees where we enjoyed a well earned dinner. Let me tell you, that food tasted so damn good! We sat back with our sleepytime tea and watched the last of the light on the surrounding slopes before packing up and finding some good trees on which to tie our food bags. (Update on the sap: turns out the duct tape was so sticky it more or less completely removed all the stickiness of the sap, so yay for duct tape! I removed the duct tape and was able to cinch up and tie that bag as normal.) We put the fly on the tent and crawled inside as dusk fell. With dusk and the dropping of the breeze came the return of the bugs so we didn’t hang about. A couple of deer ventured out onto the meadows to browse near the trees, one of which turned around and walked off as soon as it saw us.
Once inside the tent, we set about the usual ritual of squashing every bug that had followed us inside before settling down to rest. We were both exhausted from such a long hot day. The last thing I remember was noticing that the clouds had dissipated and the skies were now completely clear again. Maybe I’ll see more stars tonight. Or maybe just the inside of my eyelids.