I’ve hiked in British Columbia’s Garibaldi Provincial Park many times, but this trip was extra special: I did it with my son Alex. My body is still recovering from trying to keep up with his blistering 23-year-old pace, but I’m thrilled that we got to share this short backpacking trip. Garibaldi Park, located only a couple of hours north of Vancouver, contains a treasure trove of hiking trails that provide access to high peaks, glaciers, and alpine lakes and meadows. Panorama Ridge has some of the most stunning views I’ve ever seen, and the peaceful route via Helm Creek is my favourite approach.
Panorama Ridge via Helm Creek (Cheakamus trailhead)
Distance: 31 km (19 mi) roundtrip.
Elevation Gain: 1573 m (5160 ft) from trailhead to Panorama Ridge
Trailhead: Cheakamus Lake trailhead, accessed via Highway 99 just south of Whistler: Directions and more information.
Campground: This hike can be done as a long day trip but I prefer a night at Helm Creek campground, 8.5 km (5.3 mi) from Cheakamus Lake trailhead.
Reservations: Both camping and day use reservations are mandatory at Garibaldi. Obtain them at discovercamping.ca. Select “backcountry reservations” from the menu for camping and “day use passes” for day hiking.
It’s a bit of a rocky start at the Cheakamus trailhead. Alex has forgotten his sunglasses and hat—what a surprise. Spare pair of sunglasses in the glove compartment to the rescue. Off we go, practically at running speed. Mama bear has made a special effort to bring lots of snacks, a big lunch and a hearty stew for dinner—baby bear has a voracious appetite. Our packs, for a simple overnight trip, look (and feel) like we’re going away for a week.
The first 2 km is flat and easy, and we whiz by the few other hikers. Beyond that, soon after the turnoff for the Helm Creek trail, the switchbacks up through the forest begin. From previous trips, I don’t remember them being terribly onerous. I soon discover that when you’re walking way faster than your normal pace these switchbacks are tough, really tough. Within 15 minutes I’m drenched and panting like a dog. I’m not sure why I feel compelled to keep up with Alex…probably to prove that my old body still has it.
We make it the 8.5 km and 920 m (gain) to Helm Creek campground in just over two hours. It’s a beautiful, spacious campground with a commanding view of the famous Black Tusk. I’m ready for a nap. But it’s only a pit stop to set up our tent, drop our gear and grab a bite before we continue on to Panorama Ridge.
It’s 7 km from Helm Creek camp to Panorama Ridge with big, open views almost the entire way. I’m relieved that the first 5 km are mostly a gentle uphill. Although the trail is not new to me, I’m transfixed by the ever changing profile of Black Tusk and the unique Cinder Flats shaped by glaciation and volcanic activity. The great scenery is slowing down Alex just a tad as he stops occasionally to take a photo. I prefer this peaceful approach to Panorama ridge versus the much busier Rubble Creek/Garibaldi Lake route (though the lake is incredible).
Just like the switchbacks at the start of the hike, my recollection of the final push to Panorama Ridge is that it’s tough, but manageable. The really steep section thankfully lasts only about 1.5 km. Until now, I’d been keeping up with Alex, but the rocky terrain is challenging and I’m fatigued from our earlier sprint. It feels more difficult than on previous visits. I’m a little frustrated with myself as he scrambles ahead and the gap between us widens. But my self-absorbed competitiveness is upstaged by my delight that we’ve managed to squeak in this hike before Alex leaves for Ontario to do his final semester of university.
When I need a breather, I turn around and look back at where we’ve come from. I love the view to Black Tusk and the three lakes at its base, all with different blue hues. It keeps on getting better the higher I go. Some consider this the co-star view, but for me it’s every bit as spectacular as the view over Garibaldi Lake, which is now just steps ahead.
Alex is waiting for me just below the crest. We take the final steps together as Garibaldi Lake and the surrounding high peaks and glaciers come into view. It remains one of the best nature panoramas I’ve seen. We hang out for awhile before heading back to Helm Creek camp for a well-deserved dinner.
Hiking with my son in this magnificent setting is about the best gift this mama bear could ever hope for.
I took some satisfaction in learning that Alex was a bit sore the next day. Our time back down from camp to the car was slower than our time up. Don’t be put off, I’d classify this as a moderate hike if you take your time.
More posts on hiking in Garibaldi Provincial Park:
Cheakamus-Garibaldi Lake Traverse (thru-hike starting at Cheakamus trailhead and ending at Rubble Creek trailhead)