Picture this: spurred by the first light of day, I sip my coffee slowly, watching the steam rise from my mug. The sun hangs low in the sky and warms my face, the rays filtering through immense mountain peaks in every direction casting long shadows over a still valley below. I feel wonderfully small in this moment.
To get here, I hiked in – gear and all.
Before this weekend, if anyone had mentioned going on a hike-in, backcountry camping trip in BC, I would have thought of a gruelling, multi-day excursion, buoyed only by dehydrated meals and supplies from the nearest Mountain Equipment Co-Op store.
We’ve all seen those dreamy photos in our social media feeds, wanderlust-inducing snaps of whereabouts unknown posted by aloof, hip Instagrammers. It’s easy to be intimidated by those images – BC is home to 10 mountain ranges and some of the highest peaks in the country (we do have the Canadian Rockies, after all). For inexperienced hikers it’s natural to assume these are out of reach. But this is Elfin lakes, a spot that’s ideal for first-timers and those who lack the proficiency in planning ahead.
How did I get to a place where a last-minute adventure was on the agenda? Let me backtrack: just a few days before, my roommate bounded home, excited about the recent recommendation she received from a friend about Elfin Lakes. “It looks stunning. It’s so close. We have to go!”
I knew little of Elfin Lakes, mostly being that it was along the Sea-to-Sky Highway between Squamish and Whistler. Any conversation about Garibaldi itself had been in reference to the ubiquitous Black Tusk, an imposing volcanic plug and craggy high-altitude peak, loved by serious hikers as a bucket list-worthy trek. Elfin Lakes, by comparison, was the home of a cute alpine hut, a popular haven of snowshoers and summer day hikers.
Our plan was to hike in, a total of 22 kilometres round-trip, and set up camp at one of the 35 backcountry tenting pads available. Being first-come, first-served (no reservations available as of yet), we, along with two other recruits, set out early on a sunny Saturday. An hour from door to trailhead and we were ready to hike. After registering and paying for our backcountry camping fees at the on-site box ($10 per person, and easy to do online), we strapped on our bags and off we went.
Reviews online might indicate this portion of the trail is “ugly” with “terrible views.” Don’t be deterred: a well-maintained forest service road, the winding road climbs steadily up the side of the mountain, deeply wooded but revealing brief glimpses of Howe Sound and the valley below.
For six kilometres, the trail cuts through this terrain, at which point you come to the Red Heather Hut, a convenient rest stop and sheltered picnic area. We declined to linger, happy to head into the alpine meadows to see those vibrant rolling hills of green, dotted with red and white heather. It was after cresting the first major ridge that we stopped for lunch (no dehydrated meals, but freshly made sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs and turkey bites).
The next portion of trail was surprisingly flat, snaking its way comfortably along the ridge. A relatively easy few kilometres later, we were greeted with this glorious view:
With our thoughts firmly centered on cooling off in that lake, we hurriedly set up camp. I was surprised at how well-equipped the campground is here: wooden platforms extend over the valley floor (a flat pad to sleep on!), two outhouse facilities, a cooking shelter and bear cache hangers.
Bathing suits on, towels in hand we practically ran the few hundred metres to the lake.* Holding our breath, we plunged in: holy br$sk!
*There are two lakes here, the first dedicated for drinking water only. Note: it’s recommended to take a water purification system with you.
We lounged here for an hour, now appreciative of the temperature – each corner of the lake adopted by a group but never enough to make it feel crowded – alternating between drying off in the warm sun and cooling off in the water.
Back at camp, we made dinner by the cookstove on our wooden platform. Burgers, rehydrated mashed potatoes (OK fine – there are some good dehydrated meals) and a couple icy cold beers* (cooled to the perfect temperature in the lake) satiated our hunger.
Note: nothing beats the first sip of a cool beer after a long hike. The sacrifice of shouldering a few beers was so worth it. But, be aware this is the backcountry and a fragile eco-system; you carry out what you carry in and drinking is restricted to your pad only.
With night quickly falling, we sipped ho-cho* by the light of our headlamps, later turning them off to bask in the natural glow of the rising supermoon.
*ho▪ cho | noun | camper’s slang for hot chocolate ▪ “Yo! That ho-cho is delicious!”
To see the moon cast its glow over the valley below, illuminating mountain peaks in the distance was otherwordly. Slowly, voices in the campsite dimmed, the unmistakable sound of zippers opened and closed, and the only light left was the glow of this full bright orb in the dark night sky.
The morning dawned quiet and still, the early sun’s warmth a natural alarm clock to those tenting.
I’m a firm believer that everything is better outdoors – even coffee. We sipped ours slowly, fragrant and black, the view a natural sweetener. It’s wonderful to feel this small.
More coffee, please.
If you go: