Garibaldi Lake, located in Garibaldi Provincial Park near Whistler, British Columbia, is a popular summertime hiking destination. A few weeks ago, on a crisp sunny day, I finally got to hike there in winter. Verdict: It’s a gorgeous cold weather outing. The blanket of white adds a simplicity to the landscape making it appear even grander than in summer. And, there’s a peacefulness that comes with the largely monochromatic scene. Strangely, I can thank the pandemic for allowing me to hike to Garibaldi Lake this winter.
In past years, the access road to the trailhead has not been plowed. This year, B.C. Parks committed to snow clearing throughout the winter. Part of the rational in opening Garibaldi Lake access is to provide backcountry enthusiasts, particularly newbies, with an option deemed relatively safer than other terrain. As people are forced to stay close to home and seek local activities there has been a sharp increase in backcountry usage (and accidents). Just as an aside, our North Shore Search and Rescue team had its busiest January on record.
It can be challenging to get favourable (and safe) conditions to align: low avalanche danger rating, sunny, not too cold, not too windy, good forecast (and then having a free day to take off). My hiking buddies (Morag and Eva) and I hit the jackpot on a beautiful Friday a few weeks ago.
We arrive at the trailhead just after 9:00 a.m. There’s only about five cars in the lot. It helps that it’s a weekday. I’ve heard that this hike can be busy on sunny winter weekends, though nothing like the summer. It hasn’t snowed much the previous week so we strap our snowshoes to our packs and wear our microspikes. The trail is hard packed and we end up wearing our microspikes for the entire hike.
The 20.3 km (12.6 mi) out and back trail is easy to follow and not technically challenging, though the 1012 m (3320 ft) elevation gain makes it a moderately strenuous hike. Much of the first 6 km (3.7 mi), through thick forest, is relentlessly uphill, but the cleverly designed switchbacks rarely makes it feel too steep for too long. The exertion is welcome on a nippy morning. The forest growing on an alarming steep slope is impressive, yet after a few hours I’m anxious to get into the sunshine and open terrain. We trudge on knowing that the rewards are great.
A big reward comes at 6.5 km, where a 150 m (490 ft) side trail leads to a geological marvel called the Barrier: a natural lava dam that formed over 10,000 years ago when lava flow from one of the volcanoes that surround Garibaldi Lake was stopped by glacial ice. Today, the Barrier essentially holds Garibaldi Lake in place.
I get chills at the Barrier viewpoint, and not because it’s cold. The provincial government has declared this an unstable area. Should the Barrier collapse, Garibaldi Lake would drain—a potential catastrophe for the city of Squamish below and adjacent areas. The cliffs and the views are incredible but it’s a scary thing to ponder. If you go to Garibaldi Lake, don’t miss this short detour.
A picture is worth a thousand words, and the one below (not mine) is a great visual of how the Barrier contains Garibaldi Lake.
Beyond the Barrier, the trail levels out with plenty of open spots to catch the sunshine and the views. The remaining 3 km to the edge of Garibaldi Lake are a delight. We especially enjoy hiking along the edge of Barrier Lake, now covered in a thick layer of ice. The wind has left beautiful patterns on the pillowy soft snow.
I get excited on the final approach to Garibaldi Lake, at the Rubble Creek bridge crossing, when the lake and surrounding peaks come into view. I’m used to seeing the amazing turquoise-coloured water but the white covering is sublime. We continue along the edge of the lake, looking for the perfect lunch spot. We are spoiled for choice. In summer, the lake is swarming with visitors. Today, it is exquisitely quiet.
Lunch at the edge of the lake is pretty special. The only thing missing is sun loungers. We get a view of the top of iconic Black Tusk on one side, and an enchanting scene of snow-laden stones on the other side. I’m in my happy zone.
We chat with a group of hikers who are staying overnight at the Garibaldi Lake campground, which is open through the winter. They won’t have any trouble finding spots for their tents; they look to be the only overnighters. The 50-site campground is usually fully booked through the summer months. As tempting as it seems with visions of starry nights, total stillness and sunrise over the frozen lake, I’m thinking it will be darn cold in a tent when the sun goes down.
After a long stop at Garibaldi Lake we make our way back. We decide to take another look at the Barrier and it’s even more spectacular in the late afternoon sun. We’ve lingered so long that our last half hour on the switchbacks are in the dark. It’s not a problem with headlamps. Back at the car, I think Eva wishes she was camping at the lake; me…I’ve had a spectacular day but am quite happy to be returning to a warm bed.
Tips for this hike:
- For directions, map, and stats, see AllTrails.
- This is avalanche country. Check Avalanche Canada Sea to Sky area for up-to-date conditions.
- Don’t let the ideal conditions fool you. Weather changes quickly. Wear layers, waterproof outer garments, and pack extra clothing. Wear warm boots and carry both snowshoes and microspikes. Hiking poles help too. North Shore Search and Rescue has a good review of the 10 Essentials for hiking.
- Start out early and carry headlamps. Count on at least 7 hours, more if you like to take your time.
- Reservations for Garibaldi Lake campground are required year round and can be booked at discovercamping.ca (click on the backcountry reservations option).
- Although the Rubble Creek access road is plowed, delays in clearing and unexpected snow can make it a difficult drive. Bring tire chains and a shovel.
If you’re interested in more winter and summer hiking in Garibaldi Provincial Park, check out my earlier post:
- Winter hiking to Elfin Lakes
- Cheakamus-Helm Creek-Panorama Ridge-Garibaldi Lake traverse
- Cheakamus-Panorama Ridge out and back
- Elfin Lakes and Opal Cone
- Elfin Lakes and the Gargoyles
Have you done any winter hiking/snowshoeing? How do you like it compared to hiking in warmer seasons?