My good friend K’s birthday falls in late September and every year she organizes an awesome backpacking trip to celebrate. This year we headed to Semaphore Lakes which is northwest of Pemberton, BC.
I had heard that the Semaphore Lakes area has a lot going for it: a relatively short hike in, lots of options for camping, beautiful alpine scenery and some great beginner scrambling. No one in our group had been there before, but given the area’s stellar reputation, we decided to make it a three day weekend. What a fabulous decision – Semaphore Lakes lived up to the hype and I can assure you it’s well worth taking a vacation day for!
We left Vancouver on Saturday morning and hit the trailhead in the early afternoon. The last 20km or so of the drive are on the rough gravel Hurley River Forest Service Road. The road is normally potholed, bumpy and wash-boarded but fine for two wheel drive vehicles. On this trip however, some heavy rains earlier in the week had made the final few kilometres of road before the trailhead quite treacherous. In a few sections there was about 6 inches of mud! We were driving our 4 wheel drive Nissan XTerra and were fine but there were some tense moments for the 2 wheel drive Toyota Matrix. However, thanks to some aggressive driving (and a bit of wheel spinning and rocking) we were able to get both vehicles to the trailhead.
The hike from the trailhead to the first major lake is only about 2.5km long, but the trail does gain about 350m in elevation over that distance. At times the trail is quite steep, climbing up over lots of slippery roots, rocks and mud. After a little over an hour of climbing the trail pops out of the trees into more alpine terrain and soon the first of many lakes comes into view. There are many lakes and small ponds scattered around, with tons of informal trails snaking everywhere.
The most popular places to camp are the two largest lakes: the first lake that the trail comes to, and a slightly larger lake just downhill to the north. We chose the larger lake and quickly found space for our four tents on a bench slightly above the lake that was somewhat sheltered from the wind. A convenient boulder 50 meters away served as our kitchen area. We quickly set up camp and cooked dinner. Soon darkness was falling and a cold wind was blowing. Since we were the alpine and couldn’t have a campfire, we quickly headed to bed. I got up a few times in the night to pee and found a bit of ice forming on the tent fly.
The next morning we had a leisurely breakfast in the sun and geared up for a hike. The nearly freezing temperatures of the night before were soon forgotten as the sun beat down from a cloudless sky. It was hard to believe that a t-shirt and shorts were the best choice of clothing after being bundled up in layers of down the night before.
We headed across the meadows and around numerous little lakes and ponds towards the base of Locomotive Mountain. K was our navigator in this trail-less terrain and led us up several talus slopes towards the ridge of the mountain. Part way up Greg and I found that our summit fever wasn’t as strong as the rest of the group so we decided to make our way down to explore the lakes while the rest finished the scramble to the summit.
Sometimes I am stricken with summit fever in the same way that K was that day. But sometimes I just want to slow down and take it all in. On this trip I was awestruck by the beauty of the alpine meadows and wanted to spend more time there. The summit of Locomotive was a big pile of talus and boulders and for Greg and I, the meadows were more enticing than the summit.
After parting ways with the rest of our group, Greg and I headed across the wide rocky bowl to a tiny bright blue tarn we could see in the distance. When we reached the tarn we found that it was perched on a large rocky outcropping with a great view of the whole Semaphore Lakes area as well as the Hurley River valley. What a great place to relax and enjoy lunch! After lunch we decided to do some exploring and found an alternative way down to the valley below. We wandered over the moonscape of the moraines left over from the long ago retreat of the Train Glacier to the base of a huge waterfall descending the rock face way above us from underneath the new position of that same glacier.
Later we wandered over to the lowest (and most turquoise) of the many lakes in the area for another snack break and chance to enjoy our surroundings including the gorgeous fall colours of the blueberry bushes. Eventually we headed back up the rise towards camp on one of dozens of informal trails that weave all around the multitude of little lakes and ponds. Since it was a Sunday night the area was quiet with no one else around and only the roar of the distant waterfall broke the stillness. After the others arrived back from their successful scramble of Locomotive Mountain we cooked up a big warm dinner and sat back to watch the stars come out. It was a bit warmer on our second night so we were able to stay out longer identifying the constellations and even spotting a few shooting stars.
The next morning around 7am I awoke to an unpleasant sound: rain on the tent fly. The patter of the rain increased and decreased over the next 30 minutes as I silently hoped for it to stop. I was worried that the sloppy mud on the road would be much, much worse after more rain. Soon I heard the sound of zippers from the other tents so I started to pack up quickly inside the tent. By the time I got out K had put up a tarp over the kitchen area. The rain lessened to a mist for a brief moment so I took down our tent as quickly as possible and headed over to the kitchen for breakfast. As we ate the rain got stronger and stronger. The rest of the group tried to wait it out to see if it would let up, but it didn’t seem to be so they had to go out into the thick of it to take down their very wet tents.
Eventually we packed up and headed into the mist down the muddy, rooty and slippery trail towards the trailhead. We had hoped that we would be able to descend faster than we had ascended, but on a technical trail like this one, it really wasn’t possible and our time down was about the same. As we got closer to the trailhead we could hear the sound of heavy trucks on the logging road. As we got closer we realized it sounded like machinery. When we finally popped out onto the road we could see a massive vehicle with many lights on it through the fog. It was a grader! They were grading the road! The deadly mud from Saturday morning had been graded and compacted into a real roadbed. The drive down to the pavement was rocky and bumpy so we took it fairly slow, but it was relatively painless compared to the way up. We stopped for warm food at the Pony restaurant in Pemberton since none of us had felt like standing around in the rain eating a hiker’s lunch of pepperoni and cheese earlier.
If You Go:
Semaphore Lakes is hike number 5 in the BC hiking bible, 103 Hikes in Southwestern British Columbia and it provides good directions to the trailhead and of the trail into the core lakes area. If you want to explore the surrounding mountains including Locomotive Mountain, pick up a copy of Matt Gunn’s Scrambles in Southwest BC. Be aware that there is a maze of confusing trails in the alpine meadow are, but once you go up the mountains there are no trails so you’ll need to be comfortable navigating on your own with a map and compass and/or GPS.
Getting to the trail requires travelling on the Hurley River Forest Service Road which can be quite rough and is only open seasonally. All-wheel drive or four-wheel drive is recommended due to the steep hills, potholes and rocks, but determined two-wheel drive cars can usually make it. Check road conditions before you go at isurvivedthehurley.com.
There are no designated or improved campsites in this area and it is delicate alpine terrain so tread carefully. There are no outhouses or food cache facilities. Use existing campsites to minimize impacts. Dispose of human waste properly in a cat hole and pack out your garbage.
This is prime habitat for both grizzly and black bears so be bear aware: Cook and eat well away from your tent. Carry bear spray and make noise while you hike. Bring bear canisters to store your food as hanging food in a tree is difficult here because the trees are fairly short.
Do not build campfires as the alpine trees grow very slowly and the soils are fragile so gathering firewood or charring the ground will soon destroy this fragile ecosystem. Unfortunately we found a lot of evidence of previous campfires and watched our neighbours across the lake light a fire while we were there.
This is a beautiful area that has seen a ton of human traffic in the last decade as it has been discovered by more and more people since it is in two popular guidebooks. It is currently not maintained or protected and is in danger of being loved to death. Treat it well and encourage others to do the same.
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