Snowshoeing to the Elfin Lakes Hut in the Garibaldi Range
Come February many Vancouverites start feeling some serious winter FOMO. The grey gloomy weather, the weeks and weeks of dark dreary rain... sometimes we just crave some winter magic, you know? We long for snow — the bright white freshness, the cozy camaraderie, the muffled calm of a landscape transformed and new. We aren't card-carrying Canadians for nothin.
Luckily we have some nearby mountains to escape into. The city's endless rain accumulates in the hills as impossibly deep snow. By the time we hiked up to nearby Elfin Lakes in early February the snow base had already hit 275 cm (over 9ft!). Which is crazy. By the end of the season, cumulative snowfall averages almost 12m, or just shy of 40ft. Which seems totally absolutely bonkers crazy. And a perfect remedy for our rainy city blues.
The days prior to our planned departure were bright and warm and sunny, but on the eve of our trip weather reports began calling for rain. Lots of rain. A big wet mass was moving in from the ocean, hiding the mountains in a sea of interminable grey. We paused. So much for our escape from a wet Vancouver winter. We had dim hopes that the incoming rain would fall as snow up in the mountains, but our sources were a unanimous no. As a rule we don't generally mind long hikes in the rain... but long hikes in biting cold winter rain are a special kind of torture. But, ahhh, what the heck. Even a rainy day in the mountains is better than no time in the mountains. We dragged our feet a bit but we decided to go with it.
The road up to the trailhead is intermittently plowed, but winter tires or chains are required, especially for the final push to the trailhead where chains are mandatory. If you don't have chains no biggie, just park in the lower lot and hike an extra 2km. By the time we arrived at the trailhead the rains were already well on their way, and we started the slow ascent into damp grey soup. The last time we hiked up here together was maybe 4–5 years back, and it was similarly wet and foggy then too. So it goes. The rain came pelting down, sometimes stinging our faces as ice, sometimes a teasing wavering sleet, but mostly just as regular Vancouver-variety rain. We plodded on.
The first 5km is well worn enough to not require snowshoes, but it can also be a little monotonous as you slowly hike up the old service road through thick forest. Eventually you ascend into old growth and the trees balloon in size and stature, before thinning out into meadow and you arrive at the Red Heather Hut.
A spartan little day use shelter warmed by a nice warm fire, the Red Heather marks the halfway point on the trail. After one last push to the ridge its mostly easy going from here on. On a clear day the views are exultant: you can see layers of mountains plunging into Howe Sound, the Tantalus Range, and, once you ascend to the lip of the ridge, Mt Garibaldi itself. But on a cloudy day all you see are a shadowy trees looming in the ghostly grey.
At the ridge the summer and winter routes separate, the winter route diverging south to cling to the trees and steer clear of more challenging avalanche terrain. The winter route is well marked and well-trodden, and people hike it without snowshoes all the time. But the snow is ridiculously deep and even the thought of post-holing is exhausting, so snowshoes are recommended. Especially if you want to feel like a proper Canadian explorer.
Elfin Lakes is a popular destination all year round, and it can get quite busy on weekends. We had planned our trek on a weekday to avoid the crowds, but as luck would have it a class of 20 highschool boys had descended on the hut that very afternoon, plus another 2 groups of 5 people each. We arrived at the hut in the dark grey of twilight to find a veritable hive of activity. The bunks were all occupied, so we hung our jackets up by the fire and waited for everyone to go to bed before laying our mats out on some benches downstairs. It was surprisingly comfortable, but sleep was scant as people kept walking passed us all night long on their way to the outhouse. At least we were warm and dry and cozy.
We had little hope of the weather clearing up for a surprise sunrise, but since we were sleeping in the common area I set my alarm anyway. And good thing! The students descended like a roaring tsunami at 6am sharp. And looking out the door, the dark morning sky was full of budding blue potential. The surrounding mountains were revealed, heavy with snow. Before we knew it a bright shockingly saturated sky bloomed out of the darkness. For a few moments it was so colourful it almost hurt our eyes.
And then, with the next wave of storms already on the horizon, it was time to explore around and find a good spot to dig out a snow cave.
I've made countless snow forts and a couple quinzhees but had never just dug down into deep mountain snow to hollow out a burrow. It might sound a little ratty, but there is a great sense of animal achievement and warm-bodied accomplishment in digging out a cave. It's the best most satisfying thing ever.
I found a serviceable hillside and started digging in. The rain-saturated crust had frozen solid overnight but once I got through that the digging was easy. Before long I had a hole big enough to comfortably fit two. We returned to the hut to brew some hot chocolate, then clambered into the cave where it was warm and white and sheltered from the wind and whipping rain. We spent the rest of the day huddled up reading our books.
On our last night we snagged a bunk and had a much much better sleep. But at 6am the entire cabin started rumbling as 25 kids began packing up their bags and preparing breakfast. By 8am the hut was cleaned and completely emptied, and the rain was thundering on the roof as a sopping send-off. If anything the fog looked even thicker than on the hike in, the rain heavier, wetter, colder. But first: a few short moments to luxuriate in the quiet cabin. A few short moments to make coffee, look out the window, and plan our soggy return to the city far below.