Well the title of this post is Elfin Lakes in fall, but really what I think I mean is Elfin Lakes in almost winter. I was determined to get up to Elfin Lakes this autumn. We had done an overnight trip up there in early October a few years ago and the fall colours in the meadows were amazing! We planned a trip for (Canadian) Thanksgiving weekend but the forecast was for torrential downpours so we didn’t go. Sad face.
So of course I was excited when my friend S emailed to say he was visiting from Seattle and wanted to go hiking at Elfin! We headed out early on a Saturday morning with a few other friends. The previous week had been unseasonably cold and clear in the city so we knew that we might not be hiking in fall; instead we might be hiking in winter!
Once on the trail we found that it was a weird in-between season – it was bitterly cold and everything was frozen, but there wasn’t much snow around. The first few kilometers of the trail are on an old road in the forest and there isn’t much scenery.
Near the five-kilometer mark we stopped at the Red Heather hut, a small warming hut, for a snack. Since the trail had been increasingly icy, we put on microspikes (mini-crampons) as we continued our hike.
Shortly after leaving the Red Heather hut the trail gains Paul Ridge and breaks out into the alpine above the treeline. There were fabulous views across the Squamish river valley towards the Tantalus Range and to the north of us were the snowy glaciated peaks of Garibaldi Park including Diamond Head.
The trail undulates along the ridge for about 6 kilometers before reaching Elfin Lakes. Even though the trail looks fairly flat on a map, it always feels like one is either walking up or down hill on this section. As well, the trail is tucked away on the north side of Paul Ridge, which means for much of the time on winter days, the trail is in the shade. It was so cold on our trip that we only took breaks in sunny patches, basking in its warmth like lizards.
By early afternoon we had arrived at Elfin Lakes. I had only ever seen the lakes smothered in so much snow so that I didn’t even know they were there or in the fall, surrounded by blueberry bushes and meadow. On this trip they were topped with a glassy smooth layer of deep blue ice! We headed up to the lakeside picnic table outside the new cooking shelter as we wanted to stay outside and enjoy the view instead of hiding inside the dark (but warm) hut.
We ate a lovely lunch in the warm sun (despite the fact that the air temperature was well below freezing). As we watched, a hiker strode up, changed into skates and proceeded to glide up and down the edge of the lake. It had never occurred to me to haul skates 11 kilometres up a mountain, but it looked like it was well worth the effort!
After lunch we headed back up to the ridge and began the long slog back to the car, first up and down all the bumps in the ridge and then down, down, down the old road through the forest. Long downhill road walks like these seem to be hard on my joints and feet and for the last few kilometers I kept wishing that the parking lot would be around the next bend in the trail.
All five of us had done the hike before and all five of us are fast hikers (although I’ll admit I am the slowest in this group) so we finished the trip in about 7.5 hours including lunch. I think this is a pretty fast time given the icy conditions.
If You Go:
Elfin Lakes is located at the south end of Garibaldi Provincial Park, just outside Squamish. Information on the trail can be found on the park’s website, as well as in popular hiking books such as 105 Hikes.
The drive in to the trailhead is on logging roads that are have potholes and washboard sections as well as some one lane bridges. A 4-wheel drive is nice to have but not strictly necessary as plenty of regular cars make it all the way up. In the winter the road is sporadically plowed and can become notoriously icy. Don’t even think of venturing up here in the winter without snow tires AND chains. People slide off the road into the steep forest every weekend. No joke.
The trail to the lakes is 22km return with about 600m of elevation gain. The trail is an old road for its entire length as it used to service a private lodge. There are a few places where you can choose to take a footpath instead of the road if you like and these junctions are well marked. This trail is also open to bikes and we did see a group on fatbikes enjoying the challenging snowy conditions as well as a few on regular mountain bikes.
There is a public hut that sleeps 33 people at the lakes as well as a campground. The hut is very popular in winter and will be full every Friday and Saturday night. See the BC Parks website for more info. However, if you are fit and can handle the distance, Elfin Lakes is definitely doable as a day hike rather than staying overnight.
Conditions at Elfin can vary considerably throughout the seasons. In fall and spring it can be very icy, as it was when I went and microspikes or crampons could be very useful (although we saw plenty of people on the trail without them and they seemed to be doing fine). In the winter skis or snowshoes are necessary to deal with the deep snow and the park rangers set an alternate trail using bamboo poles as markers. This alternate winter route bypasses some of the avalanche prone areas that exist on the summer trail.
Since I was up there last weekend, it has warmed up and rained in the city, but word is that it’s snowing higher up. It’s likely that all that ice is covered by snow now, and that snowshoes are required. It is winter up there now, so I guess we went right at the cusp between fall and winter.
Have you been to Elfin? What time of year is your favourite to visit?