I have raved about this hike in summer and now I’m going to sing its praises in winter. The snowy mountain scenery along the Elfin Lakes trail in Garibaldi Provincial Park, near Squamish, British Columbia, is stunning. Hiking it on a windstill day, under a cerulean sky is pure happiness for me. It’s still early in 2018, but our hike to Elfin Lakes and overnight at its backcountry shelter may well turn out to be the highlight of my year.
The trail to Elfin Lakes is 11 km (7 miles) one way with an elevation gain of 600 m (1969 ft). Estimated time to Elfin Lakes in winter is 3-5 hours. It varies greatly depending on conditions and how many photos you take along the way (over 200 for me, putting us at turtle pace). The hike is easily done as an out and back in a day (in good conditions) but when the scenery is this beautiful and there’s a warm overnight shelter at Elfin Lakes, why rush?
No fresh snow and a recent thaw and freeze had left the trail hard packed. Our Microspikes (crampons) worked perfectly, but we strapped our snowshoes to our packs just in case. The first part of the trail is a zigzag through the forest. It’s pleasant enough but we always get excited when we reach Red Heather shelter, at the 5 km mark, where the worst of the uphill slog is over and the terrain opens up to postcard vistas of the Garibaldi Massif and the Coast Mountain range. Take a look…
I love the mountain views, but walking through what I call the enchanted forest is equally special. Sections of the regular summer trail have been rerouted to minimize avalanche danger, and these travel along the backside of the ridge where snow covered trees look like whimsical Dr. Seuss scenes.
The combination of freezing, thawing and wind has left some very cool snow patterns. My photos don’t do them justice. They remind me a bit of the undulating rock formations that we saw in Coyote Buttes, Arizona (a temporary snow version).
As we approached the Elfin shelter, I wondered why it looked so much smaller than how I remembered it from summer. On closer look, I saw that 8-10 feet of snow had all but buried the ground floor. Snow steps have been built leading down to the ground floor entrance.
The upstairs houses 33 people in bunk beds and the ground floor has a kitchen with a couple of propane cooktops. In summer, water is easy to fetch at the adjacent lake; in winter it’s snow melt (takes longer, but at least there’s lots of it). The shelter is warm and has a nice communal vibe. I prefer the nearby campsite in summer, but in winter the Elfin Lakes shelter is a much appreciated amenity.
Another reason to make Elfin Lakes an overnight trip rather than rushing back is the sunset. In a word…sensational. What a way to end a perfect winter day in the backcountry.
It started out overcast on our hike back the next day. I gave my camera a rest but pulled it out when I saw a gorgeous cloud formation. The stark image below is one of my favourites.
Access: The trailhead is 85 km (52 miles) from downtown Vancouver via the Sea to Sky Highway. In Squamish, turn east onto Mamquam Road at the Canadian Tire Store. Follow the signs for Garibaldi Park Diamond Head. The trailhead is 16 km from the highway. The road turns to gravel and is quite rough. At higher elevation it can be covered with hard packed snow. A 4WD and chains are recommended.
Reservations: Reservations for the Elfin Lakes shelter and campground are now required year round. This can be done at discovercamping.ca. Book well in advance for weekends.
Trail Info: 11 km (8 miles) one way to Elfin Lakes. Elevation gain 600 m (1969 ft). Rated as moderately strenuous. 3-5 hours one way depending on conditions. The trail is clearly marked with orange snow poles. Heed avalanche warnings and detours. Avalanche danger ratings can be found at avalanchecanada.ca
Gear: Depending on preference and conditions, the trail can be done on touring skis, snowshoes or crampons. Wear/bring layers as conditions change quickly. Sunglasses, goggles, poles, are all helpful. If veering off the main trail, avalanche gear/training are essential. If staying overnight at Elfin Lakes shelter, bring a sleeping pad and bag, cooking pot (large pots for boiling water are available at shelter), eating utensils, headlamp. Your feet will appreciate a pair of old slippers.
Check out my post on summer hiking to Elfin Lakes and onwards to Opal Cone.