A classic hike for exceptional wildflower displays and eye-popping views, Elk Mountain is well worth the stiff climb. The best turnaround spot is the cairn with a panoramic view over the Chilliwack River valley, there’s really little point continuing to the viewless summit of Mount Thurston – unless, like me, you are keen to see the small patch of glacier lilies in bloom. Bring plenty of water as there is none on the trail beyond a couple of creeks crossed within the first 15 minutes.
I turned up early (before 7 am) and was the fourth car in the parking lot. By the time I returned to the car at 3 pm, cars were parked at least half a kilometre down the road. The trail was in great shape – dry and easy to walk in the forest and along the ridge without only very few mud patches and no snow before the cairn viewpoint. Between there at the summit of Thurston, there was some snow in the meadow but it posed no issues with navigation. Beyond Thurston, snow became continuous again (at least as far as I followed it) though, again, it looked easy to stay on the trail with a boot track in the snow and trail markers visible. Some of the steeper sections were slick, especially with the morning dew, or loose and care was needed here, especially on the descent. I saw many people struggling on the steeper sections (both going up and down).
Of course, with this being Elk Mountain, flowers were abundant and varied. A quick run-down, organized by colour. White: queen’s cup, foamflower, bunchberry, trillium (almost done), spring beauty, Siberian miner’s lettuce, baneberry, false Solomon’s seal, star-flowered false Solomon’s seal, thimbleberry, Sitka valerian, strawberry, Saskatoon berry, death camas, field chickweed, woolly pussytoes, western starflower, coast boykinia, fringecup, plus two unidentified species. Red/pink: paintbrush, western columbine, spotted coralroot, rosy twistedstalk, salmonberry, a vetch, Davidson’s penstemon, flowering currant, kinnikinnick. Yellow: glacier lily, large-leaved avens, yellow stream violet, buttercup, early coralroot, Columbia lily (buds), arnica, plus what I think might be Martindale’s lomatium (Cascade desert parsley). Blue/purple: Alaska violet, (small-flowered?) blue-eyed Mary, spreading phlox, small-flowered penstemon, Arctic lupine. Brown: piggyback plant, wild ginger, chocolate lily, western meadowrue (male – female flowers are pink).
Plenty of birds singing today most notably wrens, varied thrushes, and hermit thrushes, I also heard chickadees, nuthatches (one came to visit while I was eating my lunch – and I couldn’t tell if it was the usual red-breasted nuthatch or its white-breasted relative), and a couple of Canada jays checked me out at Thurston summit. Watch out for little toads on this trail – I was thankful that their reflexes were quicker than mine! There were a few hungry mosquitoes on the lower portion of the trail and near Mount Thurston summit where I picked up a few bites. An inquisitive Douglas squirrel kept watch on me as I passed. There was some fresh bear poop on the ridge beyond Elk summit but no sign of the culprit. The best wildlife sighting was the trio of snowshoe hares chasing each other through the undergrowth at the side of the (not so new) logging road just over 1.5 km from the start.
Distance: 15.5 km
Elevation gain: 1145 m
Time: 8 h 05 m
Route on AllTrails
This hike lies on the tradition, ancestral, and unceded lands of the Stó:lō First Nation.
- 🙂 Being surrounded by glacier lilies while a varied thrush whistled away in the trees around me
- 🙂 Watching three snowshoe hares chase each other through the undergrowth – it’s amazing how much noise they make!
- 🙂 The quiet of the forest at 7 am was just wonderful
- 🙂 Standing for a moment to watch and listen to a hermit thrush in a nearby tree top
- 🙂 The views from the ridge never get old
- ☹️ Nothing really – a few annoying mosquitoes. Does that count?
What else am I going to do when I have a sunny day to myself? Maria was off having fun elsewhere so I dragged myself out of bed at 5 am to get an early start on this hike. The drive was nice and quiet, the parking lot had only a few cars, and I was pulling my boots on by 6:50 am. I couldn’t wait to get on the trail and was immediately surrounded by the blissful silence of the forest disturbed only by my footsteps and breathing. Being solo, I took the opportunity to push myself a little harder than when part of a group and made good time on the first section of the trail. I took note of the flowers as I passed but decided to take photos on my descent later when it would be brighter.
I crossed the logging road and looked up to see the ridge of Elk Mountain – it looked a long way up from here! Once back in the trees, I continued my push uphill, slowing down to a more manageable pace as the trail steepened and my initial surge of energy began to wane. The quiet was just so lovely and the cool morning air was welcome on my face. A few hikers were already descending, some with dogs, having done a quick jaunt up to the first viewpoint. I guess that makes a good turnaround point if short for time, but my goal was to spend as much time as possible on the trail.
The trail led me up and up, sometimes straight, sometimes on zig-zagging switchbacks, dealing an extra sting of becoming steeper and steeper as I gained elevation. I’ve hiked the trail enough times to know (roughly) where I am at each point and it was with a little relief that I realized I was getting close to the viewpoint. As you might expect, I’ve got to know the lay of the land with experience, but there’s the additional element of knowing where certain plants are flowering at this time of year. So seeing the yellow coralroot was a landmark, as was encountering rosy twistedstalk and baneberry, then the first valerian.
A bit more climbing brought me to the edge of the dense forest and I emerged onto the loose surface of the meadow trail below the first viewpoint. This section might be the most difficult on the entire trail: it’s steep, loose, and often slick, especially early in the day. Climbing up is hard enough but it can be treacherous going back down, and I’ve witnessed many hikers struggle here. The slope on either side of me was full of blooming strawberry, phlox, and – to my surprise – blue-eyed Mary. Now the camera would start to get a workout.
Naturally I paused at the viewpoint to look over the checker-board fields of the Fraser Valley and the mountains beyond in the morning sunshine. It’s always such a fine reward for the slog up through the trees! Having caught my breath I continued upwards, ducking back into the trees for a short time before emerging on the open ridge. I continued climbing to reach a small open meadow with superb views over the Chilliwack River Valley. This little meadow had a number of death camas flowers in bud and is another popular turnaround spot. It seems to get more trampled every year, though, and I wonder how long the meadow will last.
Across the valley and ahead of me lay the impressive peaks of the North Cascades that would be my distant muses for the rest of the day: Mount Baker (Kulshan), Mount McGuire, the Border Peaks, Tomyhoi, and Slesse to name the most prominent. Lining the path at my feet were the first paintbrush flowers, bright red and beautifully backlit as they caught the morning sunlight. A host of other flowers were keeping it company, such as field chickweed, star-flowered false Solomon’s seal, strawberry, and spreading phlox. The summer bloom was well under way and I was looking forward to the rest of the walk along the ridge.
The route descended off the high point (Elk Mountain summit) into a short forested section before emerging into the open again. This is the pattern along the ridge-line – a series of ups and downs, glorious open meadows and welcome cool forest. In some places the meadows drop away very steeply, the slope seeming to plummet all the way to the valley floor. The path is narrow, too, rarely more than a couple of boots wide, which makes passing other hikers a bit tricky as it’s hard to avoid stepping onto the flowers.
Ah, the flowers… There were just so many! Chocolate lilies and lupines, the buds of Columbia lilies decorated with drops of dew, Columbine, and so much more. This hike really has no equal within an hour or so of Vancouver when it comes to summer wildflowers. Perhaps the next most impressive area for flowers is beyond Taylor Meadows near Garibaldi Lake, but that doesn’t have the dramatic views of Elk – at least not until the climb to Black Tusk or Panorama Ridge. Elk is also a shorter hike and it’s possible to see the best flower displays within half the distance of Taylor Meadows.
Not that it matters which hike is best – I’ll happily seek out the flowers on any and every hike these days, be it grand or otherwise.
Bird song caught my ear – the plaintive calls of a nearby hermit thrush. But where was it? I slowed down and scanned the trees and stopped in my tracks when I spotted it perched at the very tip of a dead tree. I brought the camera to my eye and took a few quick photos before recording a short video clip to capture its song, one of my very favourite sounds of summer. The thrush flew off, a sign I had outstayed my welcome, and I continued my hike with its song still ringing in my ears.
I find that on this hike that I end up alternating between flower and mountain photos and I always come home with too many of each. But it’s impossible not to! After a longer spell in the forest – that gave the camera a break – I came to the last climb before the cairn, a steep haul that goes on for longer than expected. I was glad to level off at the cairn and took in the view for a moment before continuing on towards Mount Thurston for my date with some glacier lilies. For the next while, the ridge became more open on both sides and I descended again from the cairn through white rhododendron and blueberry shrubs, mostly still bare, whip-like stalks. Then it was another climb before passing through a large heathery meadow with a small meltwater tarn, the trail still partially covered with snow. To my left I could see the peaks of the Cheam Range. I’ve tried several times to get clear views but have yet to find a good location.
Now it was the final climb to the summit of Mount Thurston, the anticipation of seeing glacier lilies enticing me onwards despite my legs and lungs protesting at yet more uphill. Dots of yellow kept catching my eyes but they were always yellow stream violets, not glacier lilies. As I climbed the final steep little slope I spotted the first of my favourite flowers and paused to let my breathing recover before kneeling down to get the first of many photos.
Flower photography is hard, much harder than you might think. Certainly much harder than I thought when I started so many years ago. I’ve spent many hikes squinting through the viewfinder while kneeling or lying on the ground, trying not to trample any other nearby flowers, with the goal of finding an aesthetically-pleasing angle on the flowers of interest. These are usually glacier lilies, but I’m a fan of many flowers so I’ve been found scrabbling about on my hands and knees taking pictures of paintbrush, gentians, heather, kalmia, queen’s cup, orchids, coralroot, and anemone among others. The list is quite long!
Having photographed as many of the flowers as possible on this little slope, I completed my climb to the treed summit and dropped my pack, digging out a Clif bar to top up my energy levels before diving into the next round of photo-taking. I was the only person here – though I was briefly joined by a pair of hikers who were disappointed at the lack of views and so didn’t linger. Similarly, a pair of whisky jacks swooped in to check for hand-outs but soon left when none were forthcoming. For the next while my only companion was a varied thrush that trilled out its song from various trees around me. That was a wonderful treat! I explored the small opening with its patches of glacier lilies, sparse but quite plentiful. I really enjoyed taking my time to size up the best flowers and to find the best angles on those flowers.
The meadow was a bit of a sun trap, enclosed on all sides by tall trees, and there was no wind at all. Perfect conditions for the local mosquitoes to show up and feast on me. Getting those first few bites of the summer is a rite of passage for hikers, a portent of what’s to come later in July and into August. (And oh did we ever encounter them…) They weren’t that bad but of course they’d show up and bite just as I was finalizing my composition and focus. Still, despite the bugs I was happily wandering around, and crawling around, to get the pictures I wanted. At one point I was sitting on the ground just admiring the patch of yellow before me. Sometimes you have to stop and look with your eyes and not get tied to the camera.
In total, I spent about half-an-hour taking flower portraits and I was satisfied I’d captured the best I could do. It was time to move on. My curiosity was piqued by the trail continuing on towards Mount Mercer and I decided to follow it for a short distance to see if the views got any better. The short answer is no, not really, although I did find a mostly clear view of a couple of the Cheam Range peaks – Cheam Peak itself and its neighbour Lady Peak. Both are imposing-looking mountains – we summited Cheam Peak in 2006 – and I would love to get back into that area to tackle them both. The trail disappeared in the snow still clinging to the east side of the ridge and I decided it was time to retrace my steps.
I was soon back at the viewless peak of Mount Thurston and continued on back towards Elk. I stopped again at the steep meadow, this time to focus on the array of spring beauty flowers I’d ignored when I first arrived. Such cute little flowers and so easily overlooked, I always try to remember to take at least one picture of them. I wandered back towards the cairn, enjoying the warm sun and gentle breeze, pausing for a while at the small rocky outcrop just off the trail to admire the panoramic view. A short distance below me I could see another patch of yellow in a small hollow – another spot where glacier lilies grew! Much as I would have loved to have scrambled down to take some more photos, I couldn’t see an easy way down (without a long detour) and decided to leave it for another day. Besides, I’m reluctant to wander across meadows in flower season. Not only does it risk damaging the meadows but it sets a bad example to others, if I’m seen.
Okay the sun was getting too hot now, especially as I climbed back up to the cairn where I paused long enough to take in the views again before continuing back along the ridge. The cool of the forest was welcome relief, if only for a few minutes before I was back out among the flowers. I had hurried my way along earlier to reach the summit of Mount Thurston, so now I took my time to take all the flower photos I wanted: chocolate lilies, paintbrush, lupines, rosy twistedstalk, bunchberry, and more. I also started meeting more hikers and I was happy to be on my way down having had a very peaceful time up here.
The trail ducked back into the trees again and I sought out a comfortable spot with a bit of a view to sit and eat my lunch, surrounded by budding queen’s cup flowers. Now I could face the remaining uphill to the summit of Elk, admiring the expansive views one last time, before beginning the descent to the car. I was stopped again near the first overlook by more flowers – western meadowrue, columbine, phlox, and blue-eyed Mary – then it was back into the forest, descending steeply through the trees. At least until the next patch of flowers to catch my eye – vanilla leaf and baneberry looking good in the sun, then the small patch of yellow coralroot I’d seen earlier. Being solo, I could take my time to try and get a good photo of this lesser-seen variety and I’m quite happy with the results.
For a while I knew there were no flowers to slow me down any more and I made speedy time down the trail, enjoying the easy – if sometimes steep – hiking. As I reached the logging road, I was stopped by a rustling noise in the alders about 20 metres up the road. It wasn’t loud enough for a bear and probably wasn’t a deer either, as the noise seemed to be coming from nearer the ground. And then one, two, three snowshoe hares burst out of the undergrowth and chased each other across the road, down towards me a short distance, and back into the bushes before I barely had time to take on board what I’d just seen. That was cool – I’ve never seen that before! We’ve seen hares along logging road many times but have never seen them chasing each other like that.
And so all I had left was the final one and a half kilometres but I had a date with several key flowers along the way. Spotted coralroot, then queen’s cup, wild ginger, piggyback plant, and western starflower – all the flowers I’d ignored on the way up knowing the light would be better later. With my flower photography completed, I returned to the car feeling refreshed, as if I’d had a full day’s hiking, flower-spotting, and sightseeing. I checked the time and it was 8 hours since I left the car, so yeah, that was a good day’s work!