Isn’t this a picture of beauty? Look at the fog, that white damp goodness - ah, isn’t it just perfection? Just what someone wants to see after hiking 11 kilometers up a pretty little mountain. It’s the view we all aim for, yes?
Wait - there’s supposed to be a view? One not obscured by an endless, soul-sucking mist? Ah, I guess that’s why pictures like this exist.
Needless to say, this post is going to focus on the absolute fart of a backpacking trip my journey to Elfin Lakes was in the summer of 2019. My crew was not greeted to spectacular alpine views, rugged hills, snowcapped mountains, or something right out of the Lord of the Rings. No, we were greeted with a wall of white, and not a comfy one at that - more like a wet, damp sweater that you can’t rip off no matter how much you want to. It just hung around and really dampened my hiking group’s morale.
It didn’t start out that way though.
We started out in the super-van, my partner’s (let’s be real - his parent’s) old 2003 Dodge minivan slowly crawling up a narrow, washed out mountain road - and I mean it when I say narrow and washed out. I absolutely detest driving, so when we narrowly missed knocking a SUV off into a mountain abyss, I wasn’t exactly in the most forgiving of moods. A few choice words were released into the world, mainly shaming the road for being in such an absolute sorry state. So if you’re planning on visiting this location beware - you’re in for a bumpy ride!
Our problems didn’t end there, unfortunately. The super-van is no spry, young lady, so expecting the gal to make it up a mountain road is a lot to ask. We had to cut our journey to the parking lot a bit premature, as there was simply no way the van was going to ascend what had essentially become a rockfall in the middle of the road - a rockfall that was supposed to be the entrance to the parking lot. I figured it wasn’t worth bottoming out or getting stuck in the middle of nowhere, so I parked the van in a small pullout and encouraged everyone to packed up the gear and walk the remaining distance to the trailhead, which was probably around 500 meters give or take (not bad considering the absolute nightmare that was the road).
From the parking lot you pass a set of yellow gates and move onto an old, gravel road that immediately begins carving its way up the mountains. The quality of the trail is refreshing if you’re remotely familiar with the wet, washed out personality of the paths in the west. As you slowly climb upwards there’s plenty of time to take in the surrounding forest because that’s all you really have a chance to look at on the way up (there’s really no reason to look at your feet as the path is clear). Dense forest, creeping undergrowth, and the odd peek-a-boo mountain view is all the trail offers for roughly 1.5 hours, so be prepared with a camera in hand to capture those rare moments. We did stumble across a nice little babble of a waterfall (trickle fall maybe?) which made for a nice setting to partake in a water break.
The trail continues to wind and slowly track upwards into the subalpine. As the trees begin to thin, you’re greeted to mossy undergrowth, mud, and low-lying bushes - a magical place where I imagine bears love to live. Not surprisingly, hiking this part of the trail was slightly stress-inducing. Despite being only 5 kilometers or so from the trailhead and maybe civilization, this area - Red Heather Meadows specifically, is known as having the some of the highest concentrations of black bears in BC. Fortunately no giant, wilderness creature came barrelling out of the forest in search of a meal, but the bear spray was on hand and our singing voices were louder than ever (singing is a wonderful way to let animals know that you’re in the neighbourhood, even if it’s just a teeny tiny frog).
Besides trees, bushes, and other greenery at this point in the hike the Red Heather Meadows shelters comes into view, along with the Tantalus Range if you’re lucky. My hiking crew was definitely not…at this point in the hike our sunshine had somehow come to standstill, being replaced with innocent looking whisps of cloud. I remember spending a lot of time staring at those clouds, wishing, praying that they didn’t contain the awful damp force of hell known as rain.
These thoughts and prayers carried on throughout the day as the clouds grew heavier and darker, pushing us along Paul Ridge past the well known fork in the trail housing a long, exceptionally well-used mountain biking path. This section of the trail is quite lovely, even with rain clouds bearing down. The trees really thin out revealing valley views and distant mountain peaks - specifically Atwell Peak, the southern summit of Mount Garibaldi. Again - this is only if watery weather isn’t about to reign down.
From this point onwards you follow the ridge to a high point of 1,590 meters and rather abruptly decend down to Elfin Lakes. If you’re hiking relatively early in the season take this plunge a bit carefully. My crew was forced to contend with snow and ice, which made for a rather slippery and amusing slide down. I know for a fact that I took quite the tumble head first, but fortunately even without techical expertise I managed to land rightside up, laughing because while we had arrived to our destination our views were incomplete.
The mountain views from Elfin Lakes are supposed to be magnificent and yet when my hiking crew had arrived that so-called magnificence had transformed into disappointment. The cloud-cover had worsened during our traverse of Paul Ridge, completely obscuring the mountain views that were promised. It didn’t matter if we were positive, it didn’t matter if we crossed our fingers and screamed at the clouds to go away - the grey, damp weather was going to stay, so we just had to find a way to deal with it.
And we did. We did what any other sane person would do - set up camp.
Regardless of the weather, it’s easy to admit that the Elfin Lakes campsite is awesome. Not only is there a shelter that houses rangers and visitors in untimely weather, but there’s a fairly large number of tent platforms that are spectacularly positioned to take in the nearby mountain views. The two small lakes nearby that offer excellent opportunities for photos, but for swimming and water collection as well (one lake is responsible for each - don’t go swimming where you’re not supposed to). There are bear hangs, lunch shelters, and local trails that can be used for trips to Opal Cone, Little Diamond Head, the Gargoyles, and Mamquam Lake. There’s so much to do, so much opportunity, but if the weather is poor, you’re grounded.
We knew it was unlikely that we’d ever have the chance to get out and hike with the rainy weather settling in, so we selected the best sites we could and simply crossed our fingers hoping that the weather would clear up (and surprise it did not). We made dinner, an indulgent mix of pesto pasta and veggies (a treat for sure) and enjoyed some s’mores as the clouds really began to drop. As the remainer of our sunlight began to dim, a thick white fog soon enveloped our campsite, shuttering away our poor mountain views for good. At the time I was not yet ready to retreat to my tent, so I packed on some extra layers and walked around. While I didn’t see anything particularly notable, I was treated to the friendly chatter of some grey jays and the weirdest light coming from the setting sun. The fog, normally white, was a sort of liquid gold. I remember feeling like I was in some kind of kalidescope, spinning in sunlight in a cloud-like world.
The light didn’t last and soon I was driven into my tent for the night. The temperature had plummeted and I jammed myself in my sleeping bag, once again wishing rather hopelessly that the sun would once again return the next morning.
How wrong I was.
After a night of strong winds (I was honestly a bit fearful that my tent would collapse) and dampness seeping in, I woke to a world of white. Amazingly, the fog had thickened overnight and despite being bright, it was impossible to see anymore than 10-20 meters ahead.
My tent was dripping with water and I knew that a quick pack-up would be required - there was no way I was going to let my tent remain upright longet than it needed to be. It wasn’t going to dry out any soon with the fog looming overhead. So rather lazily, I packed up my gear, secured my tent to my backpack, and trudged through the spooky mist to meet my hiking group in a nearby lunch shelter for breakfast. While shovelling oatmeal into my mouth we quickly decided that there was no point in remaining at Elfin Lakes for any longer. Day hikes were an impossibility with reduced visibility and our gear was soaked. With a weather forecast that continued to look dreary it was unlikely the sun would come to our aid and save the day. So with heavy hearts, we wrapped up our morning and left the so-called oasis that was supposed to be Elfin Lakes.
Our hike back to the parking lot was uneventful. The trail conditions remained the same, despite the heavy cloud cover and rain. As our elevation continued to drop however, the fog slowly lifted and the sun started to shine, much to our frustration. It appeared as though the stories about the west coast were true - sunshine was a rarity and you simply had to be prepared for constant rain at all times, in addition to poor mountain views. Disappointment may have dominated the trip, but my hiking crew still had a good time and enjoyed the opportunity to exercise. It’s just a pity that things didn’t turn out for the better.
Distance: 22 kilometers (round trip)
Elevation Gain: 600 meters (approximately)
Highest Point: 1,590 meters
Time Needed: depending on your health, level of fitness, and hiking speed give yourself somewhere between 4-6 hours to do this hike (one way - it’s possible of course to be that quick both ways, but it depends on whether or not you want to punish yourself).
While I was not gifted with glorious weather during this trip, I would still recommend it to anyone looking for something fairly easy to complete (again, this will depend on your level of fitness). The trail is well established and the elevation gain is very friendly for a beginner hiker looking to expand their horizons. I will say however, that if you’re the kind of person looking for a difficult or isolating trip, this is not for you. Be prepared to see people and be prepared to share the trail. This is a very popular hike and isn’t particularly far from Vancouver - you’re looking at maybe a 1.5 hour drive, which means that this trail is highly accessible and again, very often used.
Overall, I’m the kind of person that prefers to remain away from the crowd, so while this hike was a breath of fresh air, I would have much prefered to be further away from civilization. In my opinion, if you can take a ATV up a hiking trail, it’s a bit too crowded for my tastes (at least in the west coast). Still, the trip was enjoyable despite the crappy weather and I hope that one day I can return and give the trail another try - those views slipped through my fingers once and I can’t let it stay that way forever.