by Ariel Taylor | Just because it’s raining in Vancouver doesn’t mean you should hide inside. I’ll admit that our seaside city can get pretty dreary during winter months, but all that H20 also provides our coastal mountains with plenty of opportunities to revisit winter as it should be. Snowy peaks, crunchy footsteps and even sunshine await. If you’re still not convinced, you’re lucky spring is just around the corner.
Garibaldi Provincial Park spans an incredible 194,650 hectares along the Sea to Sky corridor between Squamish and Pemberton. Though best known for high-profile Whistler/Blackcomb, the park offers a number of single and multi-day options ranging from moderate to advanced. There’s just way too much to cover in a single article so I’ll start closer to home with the park’s Diamond Head area located just outside of Squamish.
There are two options I’ll touch on depending on just how much time you’ve got and just how far you’re comfortable trekking. Located only 5km from the trailhead, Red Heather cabin is everyone’s first stop and potentially your turnaround point. Perched at the base of a steep ridge, the trail opens onto sprawling meadows that reveal the alpine perimeter above. The cabin is really more of a day shelter, meant to be slept in only during emergencies, or enjoyed by day hikers needing a warm up. There’s a wood stove and plenty of chopped firewood provided by generous donations to BC Parks (if you plan on using the cabin, pay it forward and make a donation). There’s an outhouse in operation year round and plenty of Whiskey Jacks who have no qualms about sharing your food. If you’re patient they’ll be eating out of your hands in no time.
Heading out from Red Heather you’ll climb a steep ridge and be quickly rewarded for your efforts. The higher alpine trail provides sweeping views of the Squamish River Valley and Mt. Garibaldi, an impressive 2,687m peak. Your final destination of Elfin Lakes is another 6km down the trail, but the steep climb is basically over and you’ll cover this second half more quickly. At Elfin Lakes there is a year-round cabin equipped to house upwards of 30 people in second-floor bunks and three propane burners offer a convenient cooking option. On weekends the cabin almost always reaches capacity so don’t bank on landing a bunk. Large pots are provided to melt snow for drinking water or boil in summer months from the nearby lake. There are bathrooms, lights, and plenty of seating. Recently, rangers completed construction of an additional day shelter to accommodate the increasing number of visitors that this beautiful destination attracts. If you do plan to stay the night there is a $15 per person per night charge, payable in cash to the drop box located in the parking lot.
From Vancouver take Hwy 99 north to Squamish and turn right off the highway onto Mamquam Road. Follow the pavement until it narrows and turns to gravel as you wind through the backyard of Quest University. You’ll stay on this road for 16km, making a single left hand turn within the last km into Garibaldi Park (don’t worry, there’s a big sign). From this point on the road gets a little gnarly. In winter it’s important you’re prepared for icy conditions and act accordingly. There are two parking lots – the first is located 1km from the trailhead and at the base of a steep hill – when in doubt, park there and just suck up the extra walking distance. I promise you’ll be happy you did, and yes, I am speaking from personal experience.
From the trailhead the path resembles more of an overgrown logging road as it climbs back and forth up to the Red Heather cabin. Don’t be too discouraged by the initial steepness — it does flatten out. If you go all the way to Elfin Lakes you’ll have climbed 600m of elevation in total. Red Heather should take most people around 2 hours to reach. For those continuing on to Elfin Lakes, you’re looking at around 4 hours one way. I have done this hike at night with headlamps, but I’d recommend that first timers plan their day so as to avoid getting caught in the dark.
The higher elevation means snow sticks around longer so just because it feels like spring in the city doesn’t mean it’s not still winter in the park. Snowshoes are definitely recommended but not necessarily required if you’re just heading to the Red Heather midpoint. Dress warmly, but remember you’ll heat up en route so layer up to avoid sweating. Definitely bring plenty of water and something yummy to eat. You’re stomach will thank you by the time you’re back down at the parking lot!
1. Pack out whatever you’ve packed in. In other words, don’t be an ass and leave any of your garbage behind. Bring a ziplock, stuff it in your pockets, whatever.
2. There are sadly no dogs allowed anywhere in Garibaldi Park due to the fragile high alpine ecosystem it houses. As tempting as it may be, this rule is strictly enforced by rangers and you will be fined. Fair warning.
3. Tell someone where you’re going and when you plan to return – I’m really not trying to be your mom about this, but anyone who’s ever been lost wishes they’d remembered this.
4. Stay on the trail! Beyond the obvious risk of simply getting lost, there are other reasons to heed this advice. In winter months the threat of avalanches are real and staying on trail significantly minimizes the risk. In the spring and summer, alpine meadows bloom in thousands of rare and delicate flowers. The high elevation and severe weather conditions means many of these plants are extremely old. Trampling them just simply isn’t cool – remember you’re a visitor and should act accordingly.
PS. check out the BC Parks website here
Ariel Taylor is a writer and professional student living and working in the West End. Though never short on opinions, she approaches most things in life with an open mind and a grain of salt. She suffers from acute wanderlust (hence her Get Your Ass Outside column) and as a result can be packed for most adventures in 10 minutes or less.