One of my favourite fallback areas to explore, especially when I’m out of other ideas or options. An easy hike in to the lake, although good camping spots are at a premium (especially when conditions are as damp as they were at the time of our trip), with several great destinations to visit. A great way to spend a couple of days, and to eke out one last hit of the alpine before the snow really sets in.
The Blowdown forest service road (FSR) was in decent shape and clear all the way to the trailhead (i.e. start of the 4×4 road). A vehicle with modest clearance is necessary to get through some of the numerous water bars. We saw a Subaru Crosstrek close to and an Outback and Rav 4 at the trailhead. We had no issues driving to the trailhead in our old CR-V. There were lots of puddles, some filling the road so care was needed driving through those as a couple were quite deep. A few fallen trees had been cleared recently, and there’s a fairly large boulder (easily avoided) that came down with one of last winter’s avalanches.
The trail/4×4 road was easy to walk (as expected). The trail off the ATV road through the meadows was easy to follow though very wet and muddy in places. The lake was snow-free. Camping at the lake was limited as the ground was waterlogged. We set up our tents on the obvious open grassy patch next to the lake where there’s a bench and an obviously well-used fire pit. New to us this visit was a metal food bin, located about 100 m west of the outlet creek. The chain had two carabiners that lock the lid, but they were hard to get through the hole in the lid. I fear this will deter many from using it, and will just place their food inside and close the lid, which is definitely not bear-proof! If you can lift the lid, then so can a bear.
We explored the Kidney Lakes on the day we arrived and hiked up to the first summit on the ridge to Gott Peak on the next. A sporadic trail led us almost all the way to the Kidney Lakes before petering out. Similarly, the trail up towards Gott Peak was obvious to begin with but mostly disappeared once it reached the snow line at around 2300 m. Even then the snow wasn’t continuous. There were a few snow patches at lower elevations, especially in sheltered spots, and a dusting on the 4×4 road (which was icy in the morning shade). We considered Gotcha Peak but that route had more snow and we didn’t have microspikes to deal with the icy snow covering the boulders. The snow was up to 20 cm deep where the wind had piled it up. Cornices were beginning to form on the north and east edges of the ridge.
Only a very few hardy purple asters were hanging on in the meadows, joined by some paintbrush along the FSR. Everything else had faded or set seed. The willows were peak yellow as were the aspens along the lower part of the FSR. A few white rhododendron and berry bushes were hanging on to their colourful leaves, as were a few Sitka mountain ash.
We heard and saw whisky jacks (which left us alone, thankfully), Clark’s nutcrackers, mountain chickadees, nuthatches, and pikas. A pair of what I think might have been harlequin ducks were on lower Kidney Lake. We saw mouse, pika, marmot, and ptarmigan tracks in the snow. Some other small birds flew overhead – possibly grey-crowned rosy finches but that was just a guess really.
Distance: 14 km
Elevation gain: 960 m
Time: 2 days (6:50 hiking time)
- 🙂 Watching the mist play over the snow-dusted peaks
- 🙂 Being surrounded by glowing willows
- 🙂 Moments of silence as we explored, and while in the tent
- 🙂 Waking up to a clear sky with a slender crescent moon after a night of rain and snow
- 🙂 Standing on the peak with a complete view of snowy mountains all around
- 🙂 Watching and listening to mountain chickadees at our breakfast spot
- 🙂 The feeling of having the whole place to ourselves
- ☹️ Finding toilet paper flowers still blooming in the meadows
Story: a snowy Saturday
We met Brenda in Horseshoe Bay at 8:15 am and took a cloudy drive up to Squamish, fresh snow visible on Black Tusk and Mount Garibaldi. After a brief stop to stretch our legs and get coffee, we continued up the Sea to Sky Highway, admiring the mist-shrouded Tantalus Range, Mount Fee lit up by the sun, and more fresh snow on Whistler, Blackcomb, and Wedge peaks. The forecast called for showers but they seemed to be holding off for now, with just a few wet patches of road telling of recent rain.
Unsurprisingly, the Joffre Lakes parking lot was already full, even on a dull October day, a far cry from even a few years ago when not even half that many people showed up at the same time of year. Clouds swirled over the Matier glacier, glowing turquoise ice covered with a layer of fresh snow. We drove over Cayoosh Pass and began the gradual descent towards Duffey Lake, passing more snow-dusted peaks and ridges, avalanche paths full of autumn colours, and even a few groves of aspens with brilliant yellow leaves dancing in the breeze. Duffey Lake was a lovely green under today’s cloudy skies and I could see a very snowy Joffre Peak in the rearview mirror as we passed the boat launch.
A few kilometres further and we turned onto the Blowdown forest service road (FSR), climbing up away from the road and up into the valley. The avalanche paths that had stopped us in June were, of course, free of snow though some of the debris remained. The FSR was an easy drive, never too rough or steep, though I had to stay vigilant for the many well camouflaged little water-bars. In places we slipped and slid on slick mud, edged through road-covering puddles but it wasn’t long before we made the final turn up the hill, passing one parked vehicle, then turning onto the more recent road, through a few more (deeper) water bars, passing two more vehicles, and arriving at the trailhead.
I stepped out of the car and felt the high-elevation chill hit me. Brr! But at least not as cold as it could have been. We gathered our gear, shouldered our packs, and began to hike up the old mining road. With my heel still bothering me, I tried something different to try and keep my boot from aggravating it: I cut a corn protector in half and strategically placed each part either since of the pain point. Let’s see how it works!
We shouldn’t have been surprised but within moments of setting off we began to see snowflakes falling around us. I wondered if there was going to be snow at the lake. Probably not, given the high snowline along the ridges, but perhaps this snow would settle, which would make for a cold night. Undeterred by thoughts of the downsides of waking up in a snowy wonderland, we continued up the gravel road, soon regretting layering up at the cool air. We paused for a delayering session before walking on through the canyon of colourful willow and fading alder.
The snow came down heavier as we climbed, perfect snowflakes that decorated our jackets, melting away before we could get a photo. The peaks around us faded in and out of view as the snow showers passed over, and we marvelled at the burnished flower meadows that stretched down the slopes to meet the trees. A little under an hour into our hike, we reached the junction where the lower road – and our route to the lake – continued on. We sheltered in a clump of trees to catch our breath, the snow falling the heaviest so far.
We were now only 10 minutes from the lake, and we took one of the flagged departures from the road onto a trail that led us through the meadows. The ground was sodden and little jets of water shot out from under my boots as I stepped on the wet grass. The “trail” here was really just a lightly beaten path with a few – very – slippery muddy sections. The remains of the summer’s flowers lined the streams and covered the meadows, mostly fringed grass-of-Parnassus, leatherleaf saxifrage, and marsh marigold seed heads. Ahead of us we could see the snow-dusted cliffs above the lake and it wasn’t before we passed through the last meadow and came to the lakeshore.
The local welcoming committee was quick to greet us: a pair of whisky jacks glided out of a distant tree and landed in another next to us, no doubt seeking an offering from generous hikers. (In case you’re wondering, we’re not generous.) We rock-hopped over the outlet creek to check out the camping spots we’d used in the past. We discounted the first spot as too lumpy for our current tastes, so we walked on to the second spot which turned out to be far too wet at this time of year. We backtracked to the outlet creek, finding a new metal food cache along the way (yay!), and decided to set up in the more popular grassy patch near a large, well-used fire ring. To our amazement, it looked like we were the only ones here.
Time to set up our tents! We set them up close together in the middle of the open patch, taking up enough space to discourage anyone else from camping right next to us. To be honest, I didn’t particularly like this spot despite its natural appeal. It had more of a slope than it first looked, plus I don’t like camping so close to a fire ring as it means previous campers will have eaten here. We prefer to camp well away from where we eat, but the lake doesn’t have many good spots for tents. However, for one night it would do just fine.
We picked up our food and walked back over the creek to a clump of trees that offered shelter from the snow and wind, and set about having a late lunch. Thankfully, the snow wasn’t settling; the soggy ground was clearly not cold enough. We discussed our options for this cloudy, snowy afternoon and opted for the easy wander over to the Kidney Lakes, about a kilometre away. We stowed our food and cooking gear in the cache and set off.
We followed the wet path westwards through to a wet meadow full of marsh marigolds (which we knew from a visit in 2019 was a feast for the eyes when they were in bloom) and rusty orange leatherleaf saxifrage before descending slightly across heather to another meadow at the toe of a talus field. Here we picked our way among the boulders trying to avoid the wettest areas before rejoining the trail that led up a steep heathery slope. A few shrubs were holding on to their leaves, which glowed an orangey-yellow against the dark green heather.
An explosion of feathers scared the life out of us as an unseen grouse flew up from the ground into a nearby tree. It took a moment for my heart-rate to return to normal and we continued our climb, up alongside a narrow creek lined with decaying hellebore, their pale remains looking skeletal on the ground. The ground levelled off in a lumpy heather meadow and we followed the trail – that we had somehow lost completely on our previous visit to the Kidney Lakes – as it led us over to the edge of the lower lake.
The lake was a perfect still green pool and we followed its edge to the inlet creek before hopping over boulders to reach the equally still upper lake. We stood awhile to take in the scene in front of us: sheer cliffs dusted with wet snow, the summit of Gotcha Peak barely below the clouds. The air was as still as the lake and it all felt so serene and calm as the snow continued to fall around us.
We weren’t sure what to do next, but I floated the idea of walking around the lake to explore some more, rather than simply backtracking, and both Maria and Brenda agreed. We boulder-hopped around the lake and it didn’t lake long to reach the far end, stopping to admire the reflections of the trees that took on the appearance of an audio waveform. Behind us we could see a higher bench that looked easy to reach, but we decided we would need more time to explore up there. Today we were content to keep it low-key. We crossed another small burbling creek lined with more rusty leatherleaf saxifrage and surrounded by burnished grasses. It was quite a lovely scene and I stopped to take a few photos.
In fact, it was all a lovely scene; so peaceful and atmospheric with the towering mist-laden mountain to one side and only the gentle sound of running water and occasional bird calls – the nasal squeaks of nuthatches and harsh cawing of Clark’s nutcrackers – to break the silence. While others may have found it dull and claustrophobic, we revelled in the atmosphere and serenity. The landscape lured us on and we soon completed our circuit of the lake, its surface now scored by the wake from a pair of (harlequin?) ducks. The day became noticeably more dull as the clouds closed in over the mountains and it was definitely time to retrace our steps back to the tents.
We found the trail again and followed it back down the steep slope, startling the same grouse again for heart attack number two! The views over to the flanks of Gott Peak made up for it though, the snow-flecked autumnal slopes sweeping down from the clouds. Back in the meadows by the talus slope (complete with squeaking pika), I noticed some small pools – like miniature subalpine cenotes – full of wriggling larvae, undoubtedly next year’s mosquitoes waiting for their turn to feast on unsuspecting hikers.
It wasn’t long before we were back by the lake and we sought a sheltered clump of trees to make dinner. (Unfortunately, someone had used the same shelter for other purposes… :-/ Thankfully we could avoid it.) We filtered water and made a tasty dinner of miso soup followed by beef stroganoff, then tea and chocolate before packing up as it began to get dark. The snow had continued on and off, occasionally sleety, occasionally heavier, and picked up again as we crawled into the comfort and warmth of the tent.
There’s nothing like getting into the tent and changing out of the day’s clothes, pulling on dry socks and sleepwear before stepping into a welcoming sleeping bag. The night was chilly but not freezing, at least not yet. By now it was dark and quiet, and the only sounds were the steady tattoo of precipitation on the tent and the distant gurgling of the creek, broken only by the rustle of a shifting sleeping bag. I laid on my side with my head on my arm, and noticed the feeling of peace – there was nowhere to be, nothing to do, just be here, now. If I were at home I’d be looking for something to do, something that needs doing, something to watch. But here in the tent, I let my mind wander, mostly thinking about how I could put my thoughts from the day into words. Maria read beside me, the glow of her e-reader the only light.
A momentary pause in the rain permitted us one final comfort break before we set up our pillows and settled down for the night. It was 9:30 pm: hiker midnight! The rain returned and found myself looking forward to a night free of rowdy people, honking cars, and 3-am sirens. Here the rain and creek were my white noise generators. I was comfortable and warm. Now, time to rest, my eyes reliving the amazing colours we’d seen: golden aspens, bright willows, withered grasses, and faded flowers.
A sunny Sunday
Well so much for resting. Rain, sleet, snow; rinse and repeat all night. Add in a bit of wind too. So, not the best night’s sleep, the ground was cold underneath me (had I made my usual mistake of not inflating my mattress enough?) but otherwise I couldn’t really complain. The elements calmed down in the early hours, and I stirred just before sunrise. Peering out of the tent my blurry and bleary eyes were greeted by the sight of the slender crescent moon in a patch of blue pre-dawn sky. Beautiful!
I laid down again and closed my eyes, trying to pluck up the courage to venture outside. Eventually, I hauled myself out into the chilly morning to find the tent covered in a thin layer of frost, though there was none on the ground. Clouds drifted above Blowdown Pass, lit up gold by the rising sun, and I grabbed the camera to take a wander around the meadow in search of things to photograph. The morning was perfectly still and silent, save for the burble of the creek.
Recent inspiration from photographers such as Sarah Marino and Alister Benn had me seeking out small scenes, patches of light and shadow, and patterns more than trying to capture the snow-capped mountains. I found pools of water with the barest skiff of surface ice, ripples in the creek reflecting the sunlit clouds, and underwater leaves among other subjects, spending a peaceful half-hour or so exploring the area. Shafts of golden light lit up the slopes below Gott Peak. Later I noticed that the pools of water were even more frozen than when I took my first photos!
I returned to the tent for a few minutes to warm up before starting to pack away some of my gear. I heard Brenda start to stir and nudged Maria awake, deciding that it was now a good time to make a hot drink. We retrieved our food bags and found a different clump of trees for breakfast, still needing a bit of shelter from the occasionally cold breeze. Cute little mountain chickadees joined us, hopping from branch to branch, though unlike their bigger cousins, they never sought any handouts. I brewed myself a new variety of (decaf) coffee, which made a very welcome break from the terrible Starbucks Via instant packets I usually endure. It was good, but could’ve been a little stronger, if I’m to be picky.
We discussed our options for the day as we finished up, and decided that heading for Gott Peak would probably be the easiest destination for the amount of snow on the ground. The bouldery route to Gotcha was likely to be too much of a leg-trap, especially without microspikes. And so we set off up the trail that led up from our camping spot, climbing steeply upwards to join the lower road.
Turning right, we walked towards the pass through an avenue of beautiful sunlit willow bushes, pushing through the rain-soaked foliage. The views opened up as we hiked and we looked back to the bright white peaks of Silent Hub and friends standing tall and shining in the morning sunshine. We could see our tents down by the lake, still deep in shadow. The ascent was nice and gradual, and we revelled in the warm sun and cool air. As we passed a flatter meadow, we spotted a tent with a grandstand view over the lake and valley and made a note of heading for that spot on our next visit here.
A pika darted over the rocks as we joined the upper road, which was in the shade of the peak to the south of the pass, and crunched our way over patches of snow, occasionally icy where vehicles had driven over in recent days. There didn’t seem to be anyone else up here today though, and we remarked on our good fortune at having the place to ourselves. We turned sharply left on a snowy switchback and walked the last hundred metres to the pass. Up to our right, the way to Gotcha Peak was very snowy and we could make out bootprints leading upwards. Maybe it would have been okay after all? It’s always fun to see places you’ve visited from a different angle and it would have been nice to look down onto the Kidney Lakes on such a fine day. But we stuck to our original plan, and on reaching the pass, we turned left.
I was disappointed to see that the chain over the road into the Stein had been removed, as had any large boulders that formed a roadblock in recent years. It pains me to see people disrespecting the land in this way. I took solace in the fact that I knew the road was impassable after only a short distance so no one would be tempted to drive much further.
Putting my irritation aside, I focused on the views before us which were as stunning as ever: the wide open valley, the ridge reaching out ahead of us, and distant snowy peaks. Standing here always brings back fond memories our 2008 traverse from Blowdown Pass through to the Stein Valley, a trip I would like to repeat one day. It was so very tempting to keep walking along the road into the Cottonwood Creek valley…
We turned up the slope to our left and followed the faint trail upwards over grassy meadows to start, then through thickets of stunted spruce, pine, and juniper, before the trail disappeared into the fresh snow. More bootprints dotted the hillside ahead of us, probably from the people in the tent above the lake, and we wondered if we would meet them up here. With no trail to follow, we spread out and made our own way up through the shallow snow, which was only a few inches deep for the most part. Small drifts caught us out occasionally where we would sink in over our ankles, my main concern here not to roll on hidden rocks or slip and damage the underlying meadow.
It was a steep climb, and we took our time but the views were worth it, improving with every step. Gotcha Peak looked amazing in the morning sun and the view over Blowdown Lake to snow-capped Silent Hub and beyond was stunning. As we gained more height the horizon opened up to an incredible sea of mountains, a sight that has stuck with me ever since our first visit here in 2007.
Closer things also caught my eye, such as the faded flowers poking up through the snow, shapes and patterns formed by the wind, ptarmigan tracks. I took advantage of these photogenic distractions to catch my breath and just absorb our surroundings. It was definitely big smile country.
The climb was not yet done, however, and we moved on in search of the summit. Despite having hiked up here several times I still found myself caught out by the terrain, the peak being further away than it looked from lower down. I angled towards the north side of the ridge and came to the edge where the winter’s cornices were beginning to form. The ridge swept away down to my right, leading over a few bumps towards a trio of peaks informally called the Three Sisters. We’d enjoyed walking that ridge back in 2018 on a visit with our friends Stephen and Jaime (that trip featured two hikes that made it into Stephen’s second hike book, Destination Hikes In and Around Southwestern British Columbia). The descent off the ridge wasn’t as much fun though but that’s a story I’m sure I’ll eventually get round to writing up…
And then we were there! We reached the small sub-summit of Gott Peak and dropped our packs, wandering around to take in the amazing views in all directions. Gott Peak itself looked fantastic – snow-plastered on one side and great burnished meadows sweeping down to the lake on the other – and, although it would have been a worthy objective, we decided that today was not the day and instead relaxed on this peak revelling in the endless sea of other peaks around us. Needless to say the cameras got a good workout: the combination of sunshine, blue sky, autumn colours, and snow-clad summits was irresistible. Even better, it wasn’t as cold we expected and for once the wind wasn’t blowing as hard as it usually does up here.
Alas we couldn’t stay as long as would have liked, and soon began a steady descent, retracing our bootprints in the snow. We savoured the sights as much as possible and it wasn’t long before we were back down at the pass, rejoining the road and walking back in the direction of the tents. I wasn’t paying attention and overshot the turnoff onto the lower road, alerted by Maria who’d noticed the cairn marking the junction. We descended in the warm sunshine picking our way over a small boulder field and reaching the meadow where the other tent was located. Since there didn’t seem to be anyone around we took the short detour to check out the site and I have to say it was terrible with no view of the lake and I can’t see us camping here. Ever. Right? Wink.
We walked back to the lower road and retraced our steps through the golden willows, enjoying the view over the lake, before the final steep descent back to our camping spot. Time to pack away the tents and load up our backpacks before that bittersweet moment of leaving a beautiful place. One last look around, one last check that we hadn’t left anything behind, one last moment to absorb the feeling of this place. Then it was time to begin walking back to the car, back through the wet meadows where we stopped often to turn and admire the view. A short ascent through some boggy sections soon brought us back to the lower road and its glowing yellow willows.
Back on the main road, we settled into a steady rhythm – the walking was easy and our packs felt comparatively light so we made good time without having to work for it. Apart from the crunch of gravel under our boots, the sounds of a lovely little stream running alongside the road kept us company, punctuated by calls from chickadees and nuthatches. Autumnal scents from the decaying plants drifted across our senses, and occasional sun traps in sheltered spots warmed us through. Nearing the end, our path was like a little treed canyon with alder lining the road on our right, deep green fir and spruce on the left. The sun was even warm enough to release the oils from the evergreens – one last whiff of that heavenly summer smell.
Within only forty minutes of leaving the lake, we turned the final sharp corner and were soon back at the car. Talk about an easy hike out! We dropped our packs and changed out of our boots (I was pleased to note that my efforts to deal with my heal issue had worked nicely) before beginning the drive back down the road. And what a leisurely, peaceful drive it was, albeit through many, many puddles with the added bonus of some lovely reflections of the sky. We paused near the aspen patch to photograph them in the afternoon sun, and to admire the big slide path on the opposite side of the Duffey Lake Road before rejoining the paved road.
It was an enjoyable winding drive back to Pemberton, the peaks of Joffre and Matier firmly in the clouds, the Matier glacier above Joffre Lakes glowing blue under a coat of fresh snow. Down and down into the valley and to Mile One for a late lunch/early dinner. Oh what a treat to eat outside in warm sunshine on an October day! Once fed, we got back on the Sea to Sky Highway for a remarkably quiet drive through Whistler, Squamish, and then to Horseshoe Bay. We grabbed a hot chocolate and wandered over to the beach where we watched some harbour seals flop around on the dock at the marina before saying goodbye to Brenda.
The final drive back into town was busier but the sunset was gorgeous and we watched the colours dance and fade across the sky. We were soon home and dragging our packs upstairs, dumping them on the floor and grabbing showers followed by a well-earned beer and dessert.
While it may not have been an epic weekend in terms of distance or elevation gain, it was definitely a glorious and atmospheric couple of days with a tremendous variety of scenery and conditions. And we saw not one other person. Just how we like it.