Winter hike to Garibaldi Lake, British Columbia

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:

Have you done any winter hiking/snowshoeing? How do you like it compared to hiking in warmer seasons?

Categories: British Columbia, Canada, Hiking | Tags: , , , | 50 Comments

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50 thoughts on “Winter hike to Garibaldi Lake, British Columbia

  1. Great wintery scenes!

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  2. Stunning views. Looks like a great hike.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m not sure which is more amazing: the Barrier or the lake. Beautiful photos!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. What a serene and peaceful day it must have been without the masses of people, Caroline. I love your pictures, and must confess that I would also rather have returned to a warm bed than gazing at the stars.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks Jolandi. This hike is incredible but I avoid it on sunny, summer weekends. It was a real treat being there with only a handful of other folks. The warm bed, hot shower and hearty hot meal were much appreciated.

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      • I can completely understand that, Caroline. I know I cannot have gorgeous places just to myself, but definitely prefer that to sharing it with lots of other people. I do not like crowds.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Absolutely thrilling and spectacular, Caroline. What a gorgeous hike. Wonderful post.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. wonderful pictures, feels like being there

    Liked by 2 people

  7. It looks magical! Wonderful that due to the pandemic it is accessible this winter. Good tips on checking for avalanche as well. wonderful photos showing the beauty of a winter wonderland.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks Sue. Fortunately there are a few pandemic perks and I’m happy that we were able to get up there. We’ve been having a bad avalanche season. Just last weekend two people died near Whistler. It’s beautiful out there, but as you know, you gotta be careful.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Great hike and photos, Caroline. Like you, I’ll take a warm winter bed at night. Thanks for the post!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks Mike. It was a great day. I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one who prefers a warm bed. I get cold easily and I’m just not cut out for cold-weather tenting.

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  9. This looks like such a beautiful park, especially in the winter when the landscape is covered in snow. We tried winter camping for the first time earlier in January, but the temperature was just below freezing. Not sure I could handle anything colder than that. That’s great that BC Parks has been making more of an effort to plow some of the roads and parking lots for a few of the parks. I’ve found the same thing is happening here in Ontario, which is great.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good for you guys for trying winter camping. I’ve camped in the mountains in summer where nighttime temps dropped just below freezing, and even then I was a little cold. Mind you, my sleeping bag and pad are only rated for minimum around 0°. I too don’t think I could handle much colder and I’m not ready to invest in warmer gear.
      I’m happy to hear that Ontario is also making more parks accessible this winter. Makes total sense. Happy local wandering!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. The weather gods were smiling at the three of you that day — what a beautiful, sunny day for hiking at a place as pretty as Barrier Lake! Your “peaceful winter scene at Barrier Lake” particularly caught my attention. For some reason the undulating snow and the patterns (probably carved out by the wind?) remind me of the desert I saw in Jordan, although the difference between the two couldn’t be starker, I know.

    Liked by 1 person

    • They were for sure, Bama! As I mentioned, it’s tricky to get all the conditions to align and then also have that correspond to a day when everyone is off work (and preferably a weekday).
      I’m sure the forces at play in creating the snow patterns (yes, mostly wind) are similiar to what happens in the desert. I too have thought about this similarity in two very different environments. Stunning natural creations in both cases.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Fantastic place. I’m not one for snowy hikes. But I’d like to hike there in the spring or autumn. The Barrier is something else.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fall is a beautiful time for this hike. The red and golden vegetation pops next to the turquoise-hued lake. You can see it in one of the photos in the collage at the end of the post.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Beautiful combination of snow and blue sky, this gives great images.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Looks amazing, Caroline, but right now I’m frozen stiff after a hike in Colorado in very cold temps! Still, the snowfall there is so beautiful, and I’m sure the terrain, the weather, and the good company made for a fantastic day!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sorry I couldn’t warm you up with images of tropical islands and lovely beaches (I could use some of that too). We had a deep freeze here last week—not bad in Vancouver but cripplingly cold in other parts of B.C. and Canada. Glad to hear that you got out for a hike despite the cold temps, Lexie. It’ll make that hot bath/shower feel all the better.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. This is stunning but as a South African who’s not used to the snow, I’d never hike in it. I’d be too afraid of freezing or an avalanche 😅 It does look like you had a great time though.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know it sounds a bit intimidating when you’re not accustomed to snow. We’ve got trails where avalanches aren’t a big concern, and with the proper warm clothing and footwear, I bet you’d find it enjoyable.

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  15. Wow….wow.. so pretty! Loved it! Superb captures!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. What a beautiful hike! The lake looks so peaceful and Barrier lookout is gorgeous summer or winter. That’s impressive that the parks are clearing parking lots for people to have safe options. Here they just show pictures of favourite summer hikes and point our avalanche danger and tell people not to go instead of suggesting safe options. I know Search and Rescue is busy here too this year. Is the trail so busy that it’s hard packed and you didn’t need snowshoes or was it frozen? Maggie

    Liked by 2 people

    • They are certainly not clearing all the access roads/parking. And, I’m not sure they will continue funding for this next winter, so I’m glad we got out. The hard packed was a bit of both—cold temps that formed a frozen layer after a period of thawing and foot traffic. This trail gets its share of winter visitors on nice weekends. Higher up towards the lake there was nice light covering of new snow.

      Liked by 1 person

  17. Great shots!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Wow, what a spectacular place to explore in winter, Caroline. As you know, we don’t get much snow in Ireland, but I have always been fascinated by snow, and the way it changes a landscape. I am glad to hear you enjoyed your time in the wilderness, the winter months shouldn’t be out of bounds for anyone interested in hiking – so long as you prepare yourself and your gear correctly. Thanks for sharing such beautiful photos and have a good day. Aiva 🙂 xxx

    Liked by 2 people

    • I too love how the seasons can totally change a landscape, Aiva. This winter excursion almost felt like a completely new hike. Sometimes I also feel that way when I’m walking a different direction (some people prefer loop hikes but an out and back can also give a completely different perspective). With proper planning and caution, our backcountry hikes (winter and summer) are very rewarding.

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  19. What a lovely post with amazing views of the mountains!

    The Barrier view looks stunning too.
    Also, thanks for the tips with directions, map, and stats on alltrails. Much appreciated.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. This looks absolutely glorious, and reminds me of my years up north XC skiing in pristine wilderness.
    Alison

    Liked by 1 person

  21. I didn’t think Americans could enter Canada right now during the pandemic.

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  22. That looks absolutely spectacular. Thanks for the photos.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. NICOLE BEISSNER

    I’m jealous! Looks and sounds super awesome😎☀️Sent from my Galaxy

    Liked by 1 person

    • I almost wimped out of doing this, but it once again confirmed to me that one should go for it when conditions are good…and they were perfect. Just read the sad news about the two fatal Whistler area avalanches and the guy who got lost in Elfin Lakes area (rescued, thank goodness). Got to have a healthy respect for the backcountry. Looking forward to hiking with you!

      Like

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