No, it’s not an oxymoron. While hiking the Frosty Mountain trail in E.C. Manning Provincial Park, I was introduced to the alpine larch, a deciduous conifer that sheds its needles every fall and grows them back in spring. For a few weeks, in late September/early October, the Frosty Mountain larches become a blaze of golden colour. My hiking buddy Eva and I timed our October 2 hike perfectly for this stunning fall display and learned some cool things about British Columbia’s toughest and oldest tree.
Alpine larches are not found in the coastal forests around my Vancouver neighbourhood. The closest place to see these trees (from Vancouver) is in Manning Park, about a 3 hour drive east of the city.
To view the Manning Park larches you need to hike to the Frosty Mountain larch plateau, an 18 km out-and-back trip. There’s an optional 4 km extension to the top of Frosty Mountain, which has great views to the colourful plateau and mountains beyond.
The Lightning Lake day-use parking lot, where the trail begins, was already three-quarters full when we arrived early on a Friday morning. We heard later that the weekend was a zoo. This hike has become extremely popular during the short fall colour period.
Kudos to the trail designers/builders. The terrain up to Frosty Mountain, the highest peak in Manning Park (2408 m) is steep, but the switchback that snake through the forest for the first 5 km have a moderate grade and the trail is amazingly smooth. Despite the continuous elevation gain, we found it easy going and enjoyed the lovely views down to Lightning Lake. The trail flattens out considerably over the next 2 km and in no time we passed by the Frosty Creek backcountry camp, at the 7 km mark.
Just beyond the camp, the alpine larches begin to appear. There’s a plaque along the trail with information that blew us away. Larches are one of the few tree species that thrive in cold, harsh conditions. The ones in Manning Park are only found above 2000 m and many of them are reportedly approaching 2000 years old!
The larch plateau is a big, wide-open area that starts around the 8 km mark and continues for about a kilometre. The golden-hued larches sparkle in the sunlight, nestled among crimson coloured ground cover and set against a backdrop of the stark scree slopes of Frosty Mountain. Eva and I found the perfect lunch spot to take in the magical scene. It’s a place that should not be rushed. For those who aren’t interested in continuing to Frosty’s peak, the larch plateau makes a totally satisfying end destination.
There must be something about the golden larches that makes visitors (us included) especially happy. Most of the hikers we encountered on the trail were noticeably joyful. I’m sure the unseasonably warm weather didn’t hurt either.
It was tough to drag ourselves from the plateau, but with lots of daylight and curiosity left, we decided to carry on. Above the larch plateau, the trail becomes narrow and rocky as it sharply zig-zags to the Frosty Mountain ridge. This is the steepest part of the entire trail, but it doesn’t last long. There are pink markings on the rocks for route guidance. Once on the ridge (at the intersection with the Windy Joe trail), the incline levels a bit and it’s only about 500 m to Frosty’s east summit at 2408 m. The west summit, about a kilometre further and only 20 m higher, is the true summit, but venturing beyond the east summit is not recommended due to the challenging terrain.
The sky was a bit hazy from smoke caused by fires in the U.S. Northwest, but the views down to the larch plateau did not disappoint. We shared the summit with a group of enthusiastic high school students from the town of Hope. I’m a little jealous that I never got to do anything this adventures when I was in high school, and I’m in awe of the principal and teachers who were in charge of the “youngins”.
The return trip was perhaps even more spectacular than the way up. The late afternoon sun gave the larches an incredibly warm, golden-orange glow. We couldn’t resist a 15-minute nap/meditation in a pretty meadow. It was the ultimate closure for our introduction to the amazing alpine larch trees and an all-around terrific hike.
Frosty Mountain Trail Information
Distance: 18 km (11 mi) out-and-back to larch plateau. 22 km (14 mi) out-and-back to Frosty Mountain east summit. There is a loop option via Windy Joe trail but this adds considerable distance.
Time: 7.5 hours, but add a buffer for frequent photo stops
Elevation gain: 800 m (2625 ft) to larch plateau 1160 m (3,805 ft) to Frosty Mountain summit
High point: 2408 m (7,900 ft)
Trailhead: Lightning Lake day-use area, Manning Park
Directions/map: Refer to vancouvertrails.com
Lodging/Camping: Manning Park has a lodge and several campgrounds. Lightning Lake is the closest campground to the Frosty Mountain trailhead. Campgrounds have a combination of reservable and first-come sites. Reservations can be made at discovercamping.ca. Starting mid-September, campgrounds that remain open are all first-come-first-serve. Manning is a popular park, so plan ahead.
Tips: During the golden larch period, do this hike on a weekday if possible. Bring all the water you need for a full day hike as water sources along the trail are very limited.
More Manning Park hikes: We also did the Three Brothers Trail, which is awesome. For great posts about several Manning hikes check out Josy’s blog A Walk and a Lark.