A thoroughly enjoyable area to explore, albeit one not to be underestimated. The trail to Valentine Lake was really quite lovely, though I worry about the route through the meadows becoming a mucky mess. The lake was pretty and best appreciated from higher ground. Cassiope Mountain was a moderately challenging scramble on account of us taking an unknown ascent route followed by a descent in twilight and darkness. I do not condone ignoring your turnaround time! But the views from the summit were stupendous. Don’t feel up to climbing Cassiope? Then just go to the col to get almost the same views for much less effort.
The Spetch Creek forest service road (FSR) was in a very mixed condition. Parts were excellent – smooth and easy – and parts were badly affected by last winter’s storms leading to severe erosion. The road up to the 4.5 km mark was navigable by any vehicle with at least a small amount of clearance (the water bars were quite shallow and easy to deal with) and either all-wheel drive or careful driving. The steep hill at about 1 km was very rough and loose and needed careful negotiation (I put our CR-V in first gear and picked my line accordingly to avoid the loosest ground). Another section around 3.5 km was very badly eroded and we had to drive through some encroaching alder in order to avoid the worst of the rutting. We were stopped by a huge washout at 4.5 km (as was an older model Subaru Forester) that needed high clearance and four-wheel drive to get through. Beyond that, at about 5.4 km, lay another couple of significant washouts. However, the rest of the road was in very good condition and easy to walk. At the official trailhead (about 8 km from the Pemberton Portage Road), we encountered four pick-up trucks (three Toyota Tacomas and a Ford F-150).
The trail through to Valentine Lake was in very good condition and was easy to follow. There were a number a fallen trees in the first couple of kilometres that were occasionally tricky to negotiate with an overnight pack but all were passable. The trail became fainter once in the meadows and was occasionally soft and muddy underfoot. I hope this trail doesn’t turn into the mess that is the Tricouni Meadows trail, but unfortunately it’s probably only a matter of time as this trail is on Crown land and thus has no management agency.
Good camping was at a premium near the lake. We camped on some patches of heather about 100 m from the lake. There was a single (large) tent pad nearby. Matt Gunn’s Scrambles book mentions a camping area at the east end of the lake. While the ground is level and open, it is not a great area for camping as it forms part of a wetland at the edge of the lake – it was nice and dry on the day we arrived but was sopping wet 24 hours later. There is room for one, maybe two, small tents (at most) on the driest ground. Another group had pitched their tent on a flat spot among the boulders on the south-west side of the lake but there isn’t much room here either. Naturally, the area has no facilities so please practice your best Leave No Trace principles. The lake and its outlet creek were good water sources.
A fairly good trail led off east along the north side of the lake and started up the slope towards the Cassiope-Saxifrage col but it disappeared among the heather and trees after less than half a kilometre. Beyond that point, there were no navigational markers but the route towards the col was obvious. Negotiating the small streams in the meadows was tricky and it would be easy to make a mis-step here. After levelling off, the route was a sea of mostly stable boulders and travel was relatively easy. Heading south from the lake outlet, once over the boulders and heather, a faint trail led up a steep dirt slope to gain the south-west ridge of Cassiope, though it disappeared once on the ridge. This ridge had no markers, cairns, or flagging, so navigation is left entirely up to the explorer. Gaining the summit ridge required careful choice of route and it took us a couple of false starts to find a safe way – don’t go this way unless you’re a confident scrambler.
On the final approach to Cassiope, the descending airy ridge mentioned in the Scrambles book was indeed quite airy and I almost stopped here, but the granite was grippy and walking down was straightforward. However, it would be a very different proposition if the rock was wet. The slabs below the summit itself were trickier, at least for those of us not blessed with long legs. Descending from Cassiope towards the col, there were a few cairns to keep us on track but, again, it was mostly a matter of picking the safest route – fortunately there was a fairly obvious (if sometimes steep) safe route. However, I think it might be quite difficult for novice scramblers. The route description in the Scrambles book was good enough to get us to and from the summit but it’s terse so don’t expect detailed hand-holding.
There wasn’t much blooming as we approach autumn. Pearly everlasting was still in flower along the road, we found some lupines on the south-west ridge, small-flowered paintbrush, partridgefoot, leatherleaf saxifrage in the damp meadows, along with purple mountain daisies, arnica, pink monkey flower, and a few fringed grass-of-Parnassus. There were lots of fungi in the forest and plenty of berries – thimbleberries and raspberries along the logging road, blueberries galore in the meadows and near the lake.
We saw a few ducks on Valentine Lake and heard chickadees and nuthatches in the forest. The prize sightings were a weasel that came to check us out at breakfast by the lake on Monday morning and a small flock of (presumably mountain) bluebirds as we reached the bowl below the col. Surprisingly there were still enough mosquitoes to be annoying and we picked up a few bites. We also saw a black bear on the railway tracks on our drive back down towards Pemberton.
Distance: 31 km
Elevation gain: 1975 m
Time: 3 days
- Parking to trailhead (one way): 3.5 km, 415 m, 1 h 30 m / 1 h 5 m (ascent / descent times)
- Trailhead to Valentine Lake (one way): 5.5 km, 565 m, 2 h 25 m / 1 h 55 m
- Cassiope Peak from Valentine Lake via south-west ridge (return): 6.5 km, 530 m, 4 h 55 m
- Cassiope-Saxifrage col from Valentine Lake (return): 5 km, 410 m, 3 h 50 m
- Misc wanderings: 2 km, 55 m
- 🙂 Walking through the meadows in warm late summer sunshine was blissful
- 🙂 So much solitude – we saw no one for the rest of the weekend after we left the lake to tackle Cassiope
- 🙂 A little weasel came to visit us at breakfast on our last morning
- 🙂 Watching a flock of bluebirds flit from tree to tree across the upper meadows
- 🙂 Reaching the summit of Cassiope Mountain felt like a real achievement
- 🙂 Admiring the new views of familiar peaks from Cassiope and the col
- 🙂 Seeing the moon set over Valentine Lake on our descent through the meadows and eating our dinner by starlight next to the lake
- ☹️ Losing a whole day to bad weather is always frustrating
- ☹️ The realization that we’d be descending unknown terrain in the dark after summiting Cassiope
To avoid this post getting too long, I’m going to write about each day separately. Our weekend looked like this:
- Day 1: Hike in to Valentine Lake, ascend Cassiope Mountain via southwest ridge, descend via standard route
- Day 2: Shelter in the tent and under the tarp from the torrential rain and gusts of wind
- Day 3: Hike up to the Cassiope-Saxifrage col, pack-up and hike back to the car
We teamed up with our friend Stephen Hui for this trip so you may find it in a guide book in the future. It was frustrating to have our only full day up there to be entirely taken out by the weather but, as on our South Chilcotins trip in 2020, we relaxed and rested in the tent and made use of our tarp for getting some fresh air and hot drinks. We knew there was a chance of bad weather so we made sure to pack extra tea and coffee. I highly recommend doing that as you just never know when you might need that extra comfort! Thankfully the days either side were fine and mostly sunny, and we managed to do quite a bit of exploring. Of course, we didn’t make it to Saxifrage which saves it for next time. And there will definitely be a next time.