My friend K has a birthday in late September and every year she organizes a backcountry camping trip to celebrate. Last year we went to the beautiful Semaphore Lakes and this year we headed over to Vancouver Island to explore the Forbidden Plateau area of Strathcona Provincial Park.
The way I had previously thought about it, why would I travel to the Island to visit mountains when we have lots of perfectly good mountains on the mainland? I was sure that Vancouver Island was only good for coastal hiking. Well it turns out I was wrong! It turns out that Vancouver Island has what they call “Island Alpine” and it is awesome! I just came back from 3 days in the area and I know I’ll have to go back to explore some more.
The trip started with an easy drive from Nanaimo north on the Island Highway to Courtenay and then uphill to the ski area at Mount Washington. From the parking lot the crushed gravel trail soon gave way to well maintained boardwalk as we wound our way through marshes and next to ponds. After a few kilometers we stopped next to picturesque Battleship Lake for a lunch break and to admire the beginnings of the fall colours.
After lunch we passed lake after lake and we started to leave the day hikers behind as the trail got a bit muddier and less groomed. In the late afternoon we turned off the main trail and followed a wet side trail down the hill to our home for the night, the campsite at Circlet Lake. The sun had already disappeared behind the mountain and a cold wind was blowing as we grabbed some of the last available tent pads and made dinner. It was too cold too stay up for long so we went to bed early, bundled up tight in our sleeping bags against the frosty night.
The next morning we were up on the early side but the sun hadn’t penetrated down into the valley yet so we ate breakfast in the cold shade. Soon we were on the trail with day packs headed towards the summit of Mount Albert Edward, the 6th highest peak on Vancouver Island (and if we’re being honest, one of the easiest tall peaks to climb on the Island). The trail started out in a muddy and then started to climb rapidly up a steep slope. Before we knew it we were in the subalpine on a plateau stuffed with tiny tarns.
After crossing the plateau we scrambled up a gully and found ourselves above treeline on the horseshoe shaped ridge that connects Mount Albert Edward to a few surrounding peaks. Once on the ridge the foot bed of the trail mostly disappeared and we navigated by following cairns. We made slow progress along the ridge as we searched out the path of least resistance through the rocks and stopped often to take photos, admire the views and have snacks. From time to time the wind would pick up for a few minutes and despite the bright sunshine, it was bitterly cold.
We spotted a small yellow plane off in the distance that came closer and closer, then circled the peak and came back along the ridge, flying low. It was K’s de facto stepdad in his ultralight plane, out for a beautiful day of soaring in the mountains. He flew a few circles over us as we waved and then swooped down low to drop a small package – chocolate bars from the sky along with a note that read “Enjoy your hike”! It was the most excitingly-delivered chocolate I’ve ever eaten!
After our spectacular chocolate delivery we continued working our way along the undulating ridge that seemed to go on for ages (but really it is only about 3.5km long). The final slope up to the summit was steep and a little bit loose with a bit of snow, but it only took about 10 minutes of hard hiking and there we were on the top of the peak. The summit proper had a small cairn and a summit register, but further down the summit ridge was a veritable forest of cairns and inukshuks. We spent quite a while lounging on the summit and enjoying the views while mist from the far side of the peak rose and swirled around us.
Eventually we had to leave the summit and retrace our steps back along the ridge, down to the beautiful sub-alpine plateau, down down down the steep and muddy slope into the forest and eventually back to our campsite. Of course we were late getting to camp again and the sun was already hiding behind the mountain. However, we carried our cooking gear up the hill to the shore of a small pond and enjoyed a waterfront meal. After dinner the moon rose through the trees and we spent a chilly half an hour enjoying the lunar eclipse before heading to bed.
On our final morning we got up early to make a quick breakfast and shake the frost out of our tent flies and then headed back towards the trailhead. Since the trail system is so extensive on Forbidden Plateau we were able to take a route back that was almost entirely different than the way out. We walked through some beautiful meadows and pocket lakes before descending through the forest to the shores of Lake Helen Mackenzie. After a short break lakeside it was a quick walk back to the car on nice boardwalks and gravel trails.
I came home with a bit of a sunburn, lots of photos and a newfound appreciation for this Island Alpine stuff. The Forbidden Plateau area is easy to access, has a great network of trails and has tons of opportunities for off-trail exploration. And as I found out, the scenery is spectacular. Yes we have perfectly good mountains on the mainland, but the ones in the Island Alpine are pointier, craggier and a different kind of pretty than our mainland mountains. It’s an area well worth visiting and despite the extra transportation hassle of getting to Vancouver Island, I know I’ll be back.
If You Go
The main access to the Forbidden Plateau area of Strathcona Provincial Park is from the Paradise Meadows trailhead near the Mount Washington Ski area. Follow the ski area signs from the Island Highway and then proceed to the trailhead next to the Raven Lodge in the nordic ski parking lot.
The trail network is well signed with maps at nearly every junction but it can be helpful to carry a copy of the park map to plan your route through the numerous trails. The trails are well maintained close to the trailhead but further out they get quite muddy and mucky so waterproof footwear and even gaiters can be quite helpful.
Once you get into the alpine terrain, the trails become routes that are sporadically marked with cairns and the footbed disappears. If you plan to tackle one of these routes make sure you have good weather as when the clouds move in it is easy to get disoriented (consult the alpine forecast for Mount Washington). You’ll also want to carry a map and compass and know how to use it.
In this area of the park you must camp in one of the designated campsites at Helen Mackenzie Lake, Kwai Lake or Circlet Lake. Each campsite has tent sites (some with wooden tent pads), food lockers and an outhouse. You’ll need to buy a permit online for $10/person/night. Fires aren’t permitted as this is a sensitive alpine environment. If you plan to explore the alpine areas of the park including the off-trail hike up to Mount Albert Edward, Circlet Lake is the best campsite to choose as your base camp.
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