Garibaldi Lake, 22 Jan 2023

Opinion:

Normally I find this trail to be quite easy and enjoyable but some days your body lets you know just how many switchbacks there are between the trailhead and the first place with a view. (The answer is too many!) It’s definitely a trail that requires perseverance, especially in the snow. But seeing everything in its winter coat was magical and the combination of the peaceful forest and the expansive views won me over in the end. The Barrier makes for a fine winter sunset location too. Just remember to be well prepared for winter travel.

Fact

The road to the parking lot is only ploughed occasionally (at least according to the BC Parks website) but was in good enough shape for almost any car to make it – provided they’re equipped with suitable tyres. The surface was quite icy and rutted, so I tried to widen out the ruts by driving in the snow at their edges to make it easier for lower-clearance cars. About a dozen cars were parked when we pulled up (with two more showing up soon after) including a Corolla and a Yaris. However, all-wheel or four-wheel drive is probably good to have.

The trail was easy to follow through to the lake with a well-beaten path in the snow that was mostly firm enough to walk on. In general, snowshoes or microspikes weren’t really necessary, except at the lake (and anywhere off trail) where the snow was soft and powdery, and the first 2.5 km, which was icy in the morning but had become softer by sunset. The first kilometre of the trail was largely snow-free. There was a beaten path across Barrier Lake that seemed to be safe enough for us to follow, although the top layers of the lake ice were still disconcertingly slushy. There was no cracking or other indications of ice instability, though you should always check before attempting to cross. There were a few fallen trees across the trail but all were easy to step over. The creek at the 1.5 km mark has flowed around the bridge and eroded the original trail, the bridge is now more of a dam than a useful bridge. However, it was easy to negotiate.

Wildlife sightings were limited to a couple of Douglas squirrels plus hearing calls from chickadees and a raven or two. The snow was full of the tracks of snowshoe hares, mice or voles, and squirrels. In a couple of places, tracks led to a hole in the snow and promptly re-appeared a few metres away.

Distance: 18 km
Elevation gain: 970 m
Time: 8 h / 6 h (total / moving time)

Key moments

  • 😀 Sitting in the warm sun at the Barrier with an incredible view before us
  • 😀 Having the clouds part and the sun light up the mountains across the lake
  • 😀 Catching the setting sun and the clouds in the valley from the Barrier
  • 😀 Watching the afternoon light in the forest change from gold, to blue, to pink before fading into night
  • 😀 Enjoying the quiet of the forest away from Rubble Creek
  • 😀 The feeling of persisting and being rewarded by the experience
  • 🙁 Struggling up the many switchbacks, I felt ready to give up at several points

Story

Only half an hour in and I was already flagging, quite literally putting one foot in front of the other as we trudged up the trail. It wasn’t even hard going, the snow nice and firm enough to walk on, but this morning my body was simply not enjoying the challenge and every fibre of my being was willing me to give up. (Do it! The others won’t mind!) As we passed the first kilometre marker I grudgingly thought, “One down, 17 to go” which was not the most helpful attitude. Gradually, more kilometres passed by as we slogged uphill. I was getting a bit frustrated as I don’t usually find this trail difficult. I’ve been biking to work twice a week and we’ve been hiking regularly, having just put in a record year. And yet, here I was struggling like someone who hadn’t hiked a trail like this in years.

And yet we continued on, the countless switchbacks leading us left then right, but always up. Above the sound of my footsteps on the snow and my laboured breathing, I heard a Douglas squirrel chattering away in a nearby tree, no doubt offended by our presence. I looked to see another leap from a stump to a trunk. As I gradually warmed to the task at hand, I realized another change in the soundscape: silence. We had turned away from Rubble Creek, rushing so loudly even in the depths of winter, and were now among quiet snow-plastered trees. It seemed like a good moment to pause and catch our breath, and take stock of our progress. The silence was wonderful and the blue sky visible through the tree canopy above us heralded a good day, some warmth to relish, and views to uplift and inspire.

But we weren’t done with the switchbacks. I made the mistake of checking the map to see where we were and was reminded of just how many still lay ahead of us. What is it about never-ending switchbacks? Why do they seem so demoralizing? Is it the time spent walking while not seeming to get anywhere? Do they seem worse in the forest with no views to break up the monotony? I had no answers other than to keep going, to hold out for that next kilometre marker that indicated that, yes, we were actually getting closer to our destination.

The high-pitched squeaks of chickadees caught my ear as we hiked, and as I began to take more notice of my surroundings, I could see the snow was covered with the distinctive tracks of snowshoe hares. I hoped, as I always do, to see one, thinking (somewhat irrationally) that a glimpse at the beginning of the year of the rabbit would be a good omen. Today, though, all we saw were tracks criss-crossing the snow all around us.

We rounded the final switchback and passed the almost-buried 6-km marker post which gave me a little morale boost as this meant we were close to the Taylor Meadows junction. I waited for Maria and Gabriela, having scooted on ahead with that boost, and we discussed our plans for the rest of the day. I for one was not interested in adding the extra distance to visit Taylor Meadows, even with the promise of seeing a snowy Black Tusk, and I was relieved that we were all in agreement. With that decision made, we continued onwards for another couple of hundred metres before taking the side-trail to the Barrier viewpoint and the promise of a sunny view.

Ah, bliss! The sun was skirting a cloud bank but there was enough warmth to its light to cheer us all up, and we stomped out an area of snow to stop and have a snack. As always on hikes, I was down to just a T-shirt as I overheated on the hike up, but I was instantly reaching for my jacket to keep in whatever warmth I had earned. The view was superb with clear views over to the mountains on the other side of the Cheakamus River valley: the great snowy hulk of Cloudburst, and the pyramidal summit of Tricouni the most obvious peaks. The jagged mountain tops of the Tantalus Range poked up over the trees covering the Barrier itself. It was a glorious spot to rest.

The snacks and the scenery combined to rejuvenate our spirits and we returned to the forest to continue our journey to the lake. A path in the snow led across Barrier Lake, which we decided was safe enough to follow, even though the top layer of ice was alarmingly slushy. But we heard no creaks or cracks and there were no signs of open water so we tentatively carried on across the lake, climbing up the bank at the far side (with a little relief, I must admit) and following the snowy gully that led through to Lesser Garibaldi Lake. Here, there were two sets of animal tracks that led from one side of the gully to the other: one from a snowshoe hare that had made the open crossing, the other looked to be from a squirrel, a line of pairs of paw-prints in the soft snow.

Ahead of us we could see open water in the next lake, and we followed the ski tracks up to rejoin the trail. Crossing Taylor Creek was a little nerve-wracking, the narrow deck of the bridge was perhaps 2.5 metres above the snowy and icy rocks and was made narrower by the accumulated snow. But as a consolation, the ice formations in the creek were really quite lovely. I just had to be careful where I put my feet to take a photo…

Picking up the trail again, we continued on to Garibaldi Lake, meeting a few groups on their way back down, including a couple of campers who’d endured temperatures around -15 C overnight. Having recently experienced -10 C, that didn’t seem so bad, but I must admit I’m not in a hurry to camp in those temperatures, though I would like to try some winter camping. The uphill was still not ready to give up but we just wanted it to end, even if it was more gradual now. We willed ourselves on and were relieved when we came to the sharp right-hand turn that took us down to the lake.

We emerged from the trees and walked onto the snowy frozen lake. I love this moment when the expanse of the lake and the glaciated mountains beyond are revealed. Today, the view was a little muted as the clouds were still covering the mountain tops, but that didn’t matter: we were here and that felt good. All the complaints of earlier had been (mostly) forgotten and we revelled at being in such a majestic place. We walked around the edge of the lake to reach a point with a clear view across it, close to the Battleship Islands, where we dropped our packs and pulled out our well-earned lunches. Maria had her tea while I had hot chocolate, which disappeared in no time. The problem with cold days is that you still need to drink plenty but it’s hard to get enthusiastic about drinking chilled water. Despite our years of hiking, we have yet to settle on a method of carrying water that we can keep warm (or at least, not freezing cold) but still keep accessible. Any suggestions?

Despite the cloudy conditions, I took the requisite photos of the view, a little bummed that it was so cloudy. But as I drained the last of my hot chocolate, something magical happened. At first it was just a glimpse of the summit of Guard Mountain poking through the clouds. To be honest, this was spectacular enough and I eagerly took a photo, having been inspired by a recent photo taken in Scotland by Thomas Heaton that showed clearing storm clouds swirling around jagged mountain peaks. Then the sun broke through to light up that mountain, the Sphinx Glacier started to glow, and before I knew it, there was a band of blue sky above the far mountains and they now shone in the bright afternoon sun.

Wow! I proceeded to take even more photos, switching lenses a couple of times depending on what was catching my eye, which was pretty much anywhere with sunshine. It was a stunning sight, a gift we hadn’t even dared hope for when we arrived, a moment of nature’s magic. I put on my snowshoes (finally – after carrying them for nearly 4 hours!) and wandered around in the deep powdery snow seeking out different perspectives for photos. It was so much fun and I could have easily extended our lunch break into spending the rest of the afternoon here. Unsurprisingly, we had the hardest time leaving, but we were only half-way and needed to get going again.

We walked back along the edge of the lake, enjoying the soft snow, stopping for one or two final photos before turning the corner and walking back to the trail. Much like Barrier Lake, the ice here was also surprisingly slushy, and I must admit I felt more comfortable with my snowshoes on. It was time to finally say goodbye to the lake and I had one last longing look, admiring the distant mountains lit up by the sun, before we began our climb and the long walk back.

As with our rest at the Barrier, our time at the lake had put a spring in our step, and we set off feeling uplifted by the experience. Now the hiking felt easy and all (well, most) of the memories of the uphill slog had evaporated. This is what we had come here to feel! We made short work of getting back to Lesser Garibaldi Lake and retraced our steps back through the gully and across Barrier Lake to rejoin the trail near the Barrier. I was stopped by some glorious afternoon sunlight on the snowy slopes, the sun now quite low in the sky and casting its golden light on the trees and snow. I couldn’t resist calling in at the Barrier viewpoint again where I was treated to another amazing light show.

The clouds in the valley below were being lit from above by the late afternoon sun and were arranged in layers around the mountains. Cloudburst looked spectacular against a golden horizon, while cool blue-white clouds drifted around Tricouni and Cypress peaks. I was transfixed, and it was only going to get better. The clouds drifted up through the bowl formed by the Barrier and glowed gold as the sun shone through the mist. I was taking photographs as if my life depended on it, zooming in, zooming out, focusing on distant mountains, getting the whole valley, the snow in front of me, anything and everything that the sunshine touched. My photographic approach is simply one of grabbing shots as I see them and I generally don’t craft my compositions, but sometimes the scene does it all for you and I felt that all I had to do here was at least apply some of the rudiments I’ve picked up from watching so many hours of YouTube videos.

As at the lake, I could have spent the rest of the day here to take the same pictures again and again as the sun dipped below the Tantalus Range. But time was passing and I needed to catch up with Maria and Gabriela again. I pulled on my backpack and rejoined the trail, and soon we were a group of three once more. It was so much dimmer in the trees but the sunshine still created a wonderful golden glow that was simply a delight to walk through. The snow made all the lichens clinging to the branches stand out so clearly.

With only half-an-hour until sunset, we chased the light down the hill. At one point, as we entered a more shaded section of forest, the light turned a cold blue which hurried us on. As we descended further we suddenly noticed that everything looked pink – we were surrounded by a thin mist which must have been catching the very last light of the day, giving the entire forest a pink aura. Maybe now would be the time to spot a snowshoe hare, a pink rabbit for the new year? Alas, the local lagomorphs had other ideas and we only ever knew of their presence through their tracks.

The pink soon faded to grey, and despite the fading light, we were still able to walk without resorting to our headlamps. Occasional keyhole views of the mountains briefly attracted our attention but even they became too dim to spot. We made very good time on our descent, not minding the switchbacks so much going downhill, and were again struck by the sound of Rubble Creek as we rounded a corner. There’s something about the sound of running water in the dark too – it always sounds so much louder and intimidating than during the day.

We paused at the 2.5 km marker post to swap our snowshoes for microspikes and to have some more water and a snack. By now it was also too dark to rely on natural light so we put on our headlamps for the last half-an-hour or so. With just our microspikes on, the hiking was now exceptionally easy, though we still needed to take care on the uneven snow and occasional rocks, plus there was a small creek to negotiate that had forged a new course for itself after last year’s storms. We passed the 1 km marker post again and we commented on how we’d felt on the way up; now it was 17 km down, 1 to go, and that felt good.

It wasn’t long before we were back at the car, now in a much emptier parking lot. Since leaving the lake, we’d seen no other hikers. To be honest, I thought that was great for two reasons. One, the simple selfish desire to enjoy this space without other people around. Two – and more importantly – it signalled to me that less experienced hikers were avoiding this trail at this time. We’ve hiked this trail in snow a few times in recent years and have always been shocked by the number of hikers, far too many of whom were simply not equipped to deal with such a long or icy trail. I took it to be a good sign that we saw so few under-prepared hikers (only one group of three, slipping their way back down the hill in sneakers).

We piled back into the car and set off down the icy road, the car in first gear to help keep our speed down, and let the tyres roll through some of the snow for a bit more grip than the icy ruts. Once back on pavement, I could relax and we joined the conga line of cars returning to Vancouver from Whistler. We stopped in Squamish for dinner, and the roads were much less busy after that which made for a smoother and more relaxing drive home.

What an amazing day that was, and it yet so nearly wasn’t with low energy levels and gloomy clouds. It was so worth persisting to witness the changing light at the lake and at the Barrier, and so worth spending the time walking through a wonderfully snowy and peaceful forest. Our legs may have been tired but our hearts were full and our spirits were soaring by the end of the day.

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