- Start: Diamond Head Trailhead (for Elfin Lakes); Rubble Creek Trailhead (for Garibaldi Lake)
- Distance: 64.6 km
- Duration: 4 days
- Type: Out-and-back (for both)
- Map: Clark Geomatics: Garibaldi Park
- References: The Outbound (Elfin Lakes); The Outbound (Garibaldi Lake)
Mack and I have wanted to take an international trip together for some time now, and since getting into backpacking last year, my goal has been to combine the two. Some of the initial places I looked into were Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia, Fiordland in New Zealand, the Dolomites in Italy, and the Alps in Switzerland. Quite ambitious (at least logistically and financially) for a first international backpacking trip. I soon gave up on these ideas after realizing it would require too much of us (i.e. time and money) for the time being. Now, I’m not sure why or when, but I somehow ended up researching parks in Canada (probably after seeing some pictures in Backpacker Magazine or a similar online source). After looking into several different options (including Banff National Park, Jasper National Park, and Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park), I settled on Garibaldi Provincial Park. It’s conveniently located an hour and a half north of Vancouver, B.C. and would give Mack and me a chance to do some international travel without the stress of flying with all of our gear. Plus, the area is drop-dead gorgeous!
Our trip took us through two of the most stunning places in the entire park: Elfin Lakes and Garibaldi Lake. The latter we used as a base camp to explore other nearby areas, too. Alpine lakes and wildflower meadows, as well as breathtaking mountain scenery, encompassed each day on the trail. Although we ended up getting stuck in a string of less-than-ideal weather days, we were still able to experience so much of the incredible natural beauty that Garibaldi has to offer. We can’t wait to return to explore more of British Columbia and other parks in the Great White North.
Day 1: Diamond Head Trailhead to Elfin Lakes (11.1 km; 2 hours 27 minutes, breaks not included)
Giant, splotchy raindrops pounded the windshield as we drove the Sea to Sky Highway (BC-99) to the Diamond Head parking lot. They would cease, then start again, cease, than start again. The weather was not looking too optimistic and I anticipated a potentially wet, miserable hike up. Fortunately, the rain subsided altogether once we reached the trailhead, although the skies remained grey and overcast. We’d had time the day before and that morning to organize our gear at the hostel in Vancouver, so everything was ready to go once we parked the car. There was only one thing left to do: practice drawing the Counter Assault from the holster on my pack strap. For the first time ever, Mack and I were taking bear spray on a backpacking trip. Although we weren’t likely to see one, British Columbia is home to a high population of black bears. Better safe than sorry. After several repetitions, as well as readjustments to increase the speed of my draw, I re-secured the spray and we set off up the trail.
The first 5.1 km stretch was entirely uphill—mostly gradual, but steep in some sections—on a forest service road. Once we reached Red Heather Shelter, the remaining 6 km to Elfin Lakes was on soft surface trail (at least for the most part). We were high enough in elevation at this point that we were walking through alpine meadows instead of forest. We would’ve had incredible views of the surrounding mountains, too, if it hadn’t been for the cloudy weather. Ugh. Not a single ray of sunshine! At least it wasn’t raining. We saw a lot of people in the last 3 or so km on Paul Ridge, probably heading back after a weekend at the lakes. The descent into the Elfin Lakes basin, though not as breathtaking as I’d imagined since the clouds obscured the mountainous backdrop, was still quite a sight. In fact, the overcast weather lent a mystical quality to the lakes that I don’t think would’ve occurred had the skies been clear and sunny.
For being a backcountry site, it sure felt a lot like “glamping” (or at least our version of it). All tent sites are on raised, wooden platforms to protect the fragile meadow from too much impact. There is a pit toilet with rolls of toilet paper. There are outdoor picnic tables, a day/cooking shelter, and bear cache hangers for storing food at night. Wow! The bear canisters we brought were probably not necessary. We ultimately hoisted them up anyways (in trash bags) so we could also throw in other scented items that didn’t fit in the canister. The weather continued to become worse as the afternoon wore on. Eventually you couldn’t even see the lakes or the meadows. We were lucky we arrived early enough to get a glimpse. By evening it was pouring down rain. Thank goodness for that cooking shelter! We were able to take our time making dinner in a dry, comfortable environment rather than outside in the cold and wet—such “fond” memories of the Hoh River Trail. I hoped that the next day would bring better weather.
Day 2: Elfin Lakes to Diamond Head Trailhead (11.1 km; 2 hours 22 minutes, breaks not included); Rubble Creek Trailhead to Garibaldi Lake (8.7 km; 2 hours 36 minutes, breaks not included)
When I awoke around 5 am and opened my tent door, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the skies had cleared up a little bit and the mountains were more visible than they had been the day before. We packed up quickly and left camp around 6 am. Our plan was to get to the Rubble Creek Trailhead by or before 10 am to ensure we’d be able to park in the lot (which, according to the BC parks website, usually fills by 8 am). On our way down, the sun shone through the clouds and the mountains that we’d missed the day before were actually peeking through. At least we didn’t miss out completely! We got back to the car just before 9 am and headed out to the next trailhead, less than an hour away.
Although very crowded, there were still a number of parking spots available when we arrived at Rubble Creek Trailhead. Maybe it only fills up crazy fast on weekends? We came on a Monday. We threw on our packs and joined the throngs of other hikers heading up. Now, I’m not sure if the elevation gain was really that strenuous (800 m in 8.7 km) or we were just really tired from already having hiked 11.1 km that morning, but the trek up to Garibaldi Lake was an ass-kicker, physically and mentally. Although the trail never got ridiculously steep, the seemingly endless switchbacks and consistent incline wore us down fast. After 6 km the trail finally leveled out in some sections and we were rewarded with views of Barrier Lake and Lesser Garibaldi Lake, openers to the main attraction. The final 2 km seemed to go on forever, but when the lake finally came into view, all that exhaustion seemed to melt away.
The clear, turquoise water had us mesmerized and we dropped our packs at nearby picnic tables to take in the glorious sight before us. After catching our breath and taking in the views, we explored the campground, which, at 50 tent sites compared to Elfin Lakes’ 14 sites, is pretty big. We arrived early enough that most of the sites were empty. We found one we liked, set up our tent, then headed over to the nearest day/cooking shelter—just like the ones at Elfin Lakes—to enjoy a late lunch. Mack rescued a little bird inside that was trying to break its way through the plexiglass windows. Poor thing!
There were several bear warnings posted, asking campers not to cook or eat at their campsite and to keep all food/trash/scented items in the shelters. I found out a little later that a young black bear had to be killed the day before we arrived because people were eating and cooking in their campsites; storing food in their tents; leaving trash everywhere and it wandered into them. Not to get off course from our time at Garibaldi, but I found this blog post (specifically about the bear that was killed) to hit home on the severity of our actions when it comes to bear safety: https://happiestoutdoors.ca/you-killed-a-bear/. It’s so important to remember that we are only visitors in these wild places.
Following our late lunch it started to rain, so we retreated to the tent for a few hours. When we emerged for dinner in the evening, the weather had improved, so we decided to go for a short jaunt along the lake after we ate. I’m so glad we did! Although it was still misting, the sky had cleared tremendously and we could finally take in the surroundings that had been obscured by clouds when we arrived earlier. We explored the Battleship Islands (lava outcrops which have been connected to the shore via man-made stone causeways) and enjoyed views of Mount Price and Clinker Peak, Sphinx Glacier, and Black Tusk. A perfect end to a hard day.
Day 3: Garibaldi Lake to Black Tusk, then back (11 km round-trip; 3 hours 36 minutes, breaks not included)
Our initial goal for the day was to hike to both Black Tusk and Panorama Ridge so we could get back to Vancouver in the early afternoon the next day. It was awfully cloudy when we started off at 8:30 am, so we decided to begin with Black Tusk—Panorama Ridge was the hike I was most looking forward to, so I wanted to give the weather a fighting chance. The initial switchbacks uphill through the forest changed quickly into the wildflowers of Black Tusk Meadows. We were the only ones on the trail and the morning mist blanketing the meadows made it an eerily peaceful hike. The trail took us over a few creeks (Parnasus and Mimulus Creeks respectively), a snowfield, and finally to the scorched black rocks comprising the steep slope leading up to Black Tusk. According to our map, the peak is a remnant of a large volcano that has mostly eroded away. The native people of the area knew it as nq’il’qtens ku skenknap or “seat of thunder,” the home of the mythological thunderbird. The clouds were heavy at the top, making it impossible to see how far we were supposed to ascend. The rock formation was nowhere in sight and all I kept thinking was, “Is this scree climb even worth it?” After 20 or so minutes, we concluded it wasn’t and headed back down. Sigh. Another viewpoint squandered by crappy weather. Panorama Ridge was definitely going to have to wait until the next day.
On our way down, the morning mist was dissipating and we had even more expansive views of the gorgeous meadows we’d passed through on the way up. We were even fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of Garibaldi Lake down below before the clouds rolled back in a moment later. It was already close to noon, so we ran into many people heading up to either Black Tusk or Helm Lake. We met a father-daughter duo who informed us of black bear cubs in the area, with no sign of the mama bear. They looked a bit spooked when they told us. Needless to say, Mack and I made tons of noise and hiked with an extra pep in our step as we continued our descent. We figured we were safe when we ran into a couple of other groups. To be safe, we shared the info about the cubs with them before continuing on. Upon returning to the lake, we enjoyed a cooked lunch—nothing fancy, just ramen—and hot chocolate at the picnic tables.
The rest of the day was spent napping in the tent, journaling out by the lake [me], reading Terry Pratchett [Mack], and playing cards. At dinner, we ate down by the lake since the shelters were full. A couple of rangers passed by, rifles slung over their shoulders, and warned us about bears (emphasis on the plural) in the area. They requested that we come straight to them if we happened to see any. We didn’t end up seeing any (thankfully), but neither of us walked around the campground alone after that.
Day 4: Garibaldi Lake to Panorama Ridge, then back (14 km round-trip; 3 hours 46 minutes, breaks not included); Garibaldi Lake to Rubble Creek Trailhead (8.7 km; 2 hours, breaks not included)
The weather wasn’t looking too promising when we woke up on our last day. Although there was no chance of precipitation, the weather forecast, which Mack had checked the day before, read partly cloudy. At 6 am though, the entire sky above Garibaldi Lake was shrouded in clouds, engulfing the upper parts of the surrounding peaks as well (including Panorama Ridge at the north end of the lake). We figured it was still too early to base the day’s weather on the current conditions, so instead of heading out early like we had the day before, we waited. At 9:30 am, the clouds were clearing pretty well at the eastern and southern ends of the lake,—you could see blue sky, and the sun was shining through!—but conditions hadn’t improved at the northern end. My spirits were starting to sink, but at 10:15 am, we set off anyways.
I was frustrated with the weather, especially with it being our final day (and my birthday!), and hiked at a brisk pace to release some of that frustration. We followed the same route as Black Tusk until we reached the junction about 2.5 km in. Instead of taking the left towards Black Tusk, we continued straight, heading through more beautiful wildflower meadows, and passing Mimulus Lake, which was completely hidden by clouds. However, once we reached the junction with Helm Lake, the weather seemed to be taking a turn for the better. There were less clouds, more blue sky, and we could actually see the sun! It was all uphill from there (literally and figuratively).
As it continued up, the trail went from soft surface to talus and, at times, snow. Since the path is not so clearly defined up here, there are wooden posts at various intervals to keep you on track. These were especially helpful in the clouds. Eventually we were able to make out the ridge we were heading towards. We could still see bright blue sky whenever the clouds parted, so I kept my hopes up. The slope continued to get steeper as we made the final push to the primary viewpoint. There were several people already up there, waiting for the coveted view of Garibaldi Lake. We decided to continue along the ridge to the highest point instead.
Although the view to the south had not improved by the time we reached Panorama Peak, the view to the north, which encompasses Black Tusk, Black Tusk Lake, Helm Lake, other smaller lakes, and the vibrant green meadows contrasting with the higher elevation rock and snow, was spectacular. What a fantastic way to cap off one year and start the next one. We hung out on the peak for a good 20 minutes (maybe more) before deciding to head back over to the more popular viewpoint. On the way over, the clouds lifted ever so slightly that I was able to glimpse (and quickly snap a picture of) Garibaldi Lake just seconds before the clouds obscured it again.
When we reached the other viewpoint, we gauged from the people waiting there that Garibaldi had yet to make an appearance. Desperate for a view, I asked Mack if we could wait as well. The minutes passed, but nothing improved. There were a few moments where the clouds started to shift due to the wind, but it was never enough to fully uncover the lake. I did get some nice glimpses of Mount Garibaldi, the Table, and the Tantalus Range though! After 40 minutes or so, we called it quits and headed back down. I was happy that I got to see anything at all! The cloud situation only seemed to worsen as we descended. Our timing had been just right. It was 3:45 pm when we returned to camp. Knowing we had at least a 2-hour hike ahead of us, we quickly packed up and were back on the trail by 4:30 pm.
The descent back to the parking lot seemed to go by quickly. We were so excited to eat “real” food that we practically ran parts of the hike. The final kilometer was the only time I stopped to admire and take pictures of the beautiful effect the sunlight had shining through the trees. At the parking lot, we shed our packs, removed our boots, and aired our aching feet. We packed up the car, cleaned up a little with some bathing wipes, and headed out to Squamish for a well deserved meal. Down at lower elevation, the weather was a lot nicer and we got the most incredible views of the entire trip (at least of the mountains) while driving the Sea to Sky Highway. British Columbia, you did not disappoint.