Hiking the Halvor Lunden
Exploring Vancouver's backyard
I first found out about the Halvor Lunden Trail by simply spending too much time looking at maps. Lord knows I never went to Buntzen Lake, looked up at the rocky ridge impossibly far above, and wondered how I could best get up there—the mountains had always been little more than a picturesque backdrop to a perfectly decent swimming lake. Until now.
I had done a little research and knew that it would be a long and difficult hike. But I also knew it offered unsurpassed views of Indian Arm and the smoggy foggy Lower Mainland, and besides, I figured it would be great fun.
It always seems so improbable to discover rich and rewarding alpine hikes within the city and accessible by transit, but there are a few. It's kind of astounding really, and something I think everyone should try take advantage of. Sure, it's nice to have the comfort of a car waiting for you at trail's bottom, but sometimes its nice to not have anything waiting at all. You kinda feel like you're on your own, off on an unsupported adventure.
So ok, taking the bus wasn't exactly convenient — but that was entirely our fault. We missed our stop and got off at the wrong transfer, had to backtrack, and after stopping for lunch ended up taking 3 hrs to get there — but hey, that was part of the spirit of the adventure. And anyway! public transit to the mountains! You can't beat that. It's like discovering an undercurrent of possibility, a whole secret world of untapped and previously unimagined potential. It isn't every day you get to transform public transit into a kick-ass adventure mobile.
There are a few trails in the Buntzen area: around the lake you have the Lake Trail, popular with joggers and dog walkers and perfect for finding quiet swimming holes. On the far west side up on the ridge you have the Diez Vista, a five hour trail popular with trail runners. And on the east, twice as high as the Diez and twice as long, you have the Halvor Lunden, itself a modest little network of 3 connected routes, which, as best I can tell, remains largely unknown.
Named after renowned local trail builder and hiker Halvor Lunden—a Norwegian who migrated to Canada in the early 1950s and built, named, and maintained many of the trails throughout Southwest BC—the trail, while never easy, has begun to slowly deteriorate after his sudden death from cancer in 2008. Well into his 80s Mr Lunden, heavy tool-laden pack in tow, would be found sprinting up the steep slopes, clearing fallen trees, repairing features, and offering many an ill-prepared hiker friendly advice (or even his boots). There are a lot of stories about coming across him on the trail, and his smile, his face, and his warm welcoming voice are all sorely missed. But his legacy endures, and if you've spent much time in the wilderness around the lower mainland chances are you've benefitted from his tireless efforts.
Each of the hikes in the Halvor Lunden are listed as day hikes, but with posted 8-12 hr lengths and over 1000m of elevation gain, doing it an overnighter seemed like a much more manageable and enjoyable way to tackle it. I didn't want to spend all those gruelling sweaty hours clambering up a hill and not even get a sunset/sunrise out of it. No way. I'm just not that kind of hiker.
After a quick consideration we chose the Swan Falls Loop. It's shorter than the Dilly Dally, and unlike Lindsay Lake Loop, it summits Mt Beautiful and descends via a different route than the one you climb. You get to cover more ground, see different views, and as such the marginal increase in length seemed more than worth it.
We packed light, bringing just some trail mix, crackers, a water filter, and our sleeping bags.
The bus dropped us off and we made our way down to the lake. I looked out over the water, at all the happy people splashing and swimming, and then I looked up, way up, to where we'd be hiking. It was daunting. It was crazy. The mountain just rises straight up, one sheer rocky forested face, and it looked almost impossible. Mr Lunden must've been a quite the fellow indeed to carve the trail out of wilderness and hike it on the regular.
We eased into the idea slowly by spending the first few hours down at the lake in the early summer heatwave, swimming and napping and eating a long lazy lunch. It was 4pm by the time we finally took our last swim, shouldered our packs, booted up, and headed for the hill. We found the trailhead in one of the parking lots, and immediately plunged into an idyllic lush mossy west coast forest. But just as quick the trail spat us back out into a clearing with millions of berries. So yeah we put that hike on pause for just a little while longer.
The trail up is devilishly steep, and we stopped a lot in the stifling late afternoon heat. But we pushed through and kept going, climbing and stopping and climbing some more, and the trail gets higher and higher and eventually begins to level out and you enter old growth alpine groves and you kinda forget about the heat and the bugs for a moment. There are thick towering cedars, old and quiet, and you are there, among them. You are there.
By the time we got to the first substantial viewpoint the day was already on the wane, so we ate a bit, hung our food up in a tree, found a nice rocky mossy ledge, and rolled out our sleeping bags. Before us lay sweeping views of faraway Mt Baker and a sprawling dirt-pink Fraser Valley sunset. It was beautiful.
But we hadn't packed a tent or any mesh, and the bugs were truly terrible. As the evening progressed the clouds of black flies gave way to squalls of whining mosquitoes. It was too hot to hide in our sleeping bags, and there were too many bugs not to remain uncovered. We alternated between boiling alive and being eaten alive. We barely slept at all.
The morning couldn't come soon enough. It's always a joy waking up in the wilderness, but after a night sleeping on rocks in bear country with a million buzzing bug butts in your face morning is all the more welcome still. But there is something to be said for bivouacking without a tent, and I recommend it wholeheartedly. Sure, you may not sleep well, but your life will be filled with sleep. There are few enough opportunities to wake up under a blanket of stars and casually look out over a city's soft speckled glow. Without a tent you truly feel the morning slowly building, the slow shift in temperature and humidity, the change in forest sounds, the delicious fresh smell. You see it, you smell it, you feel it coming. The day dawns with you.
Continuing on, there were ample viewpoints and plenty more forest. As we approached the summit the snow began piling up, until we scrambled up onto hot solid rock. One last haul up a rope and we'd done it. The views from atop Mt Beautiful are incredible — Indian Arm blue and dazzling on the one side and Coquitlam Lake crowned with countless snow-capped peaks on the other. It is truly a thing of beauty. It would be a great place to see the sun set and rise, witness a whole night's worth of stargazing. There would probably even be less bugs. Mountaintops are good like that. Next time.
After a little rest and a long gaze out over the landscape we began the long descent. It started slowly, over deep mushy snow. We kept post-holing, feet sometimes plunging into icey creeks hidden beneath the soft surface. At times it was hard to find the trail, but eventually the snow receded and the trail re-emerged, as clear and well-marked as ever.
By golly, the descent is steep! We were tired and exhausted and rushing down the trail to catch the last bus and stumbling on the rock- and root-filled trail. We staggered back down through lush coastal old growth, through groves and gullies, across ancient rock slides, the forest changing dramatically as we quickly descended between climatic zones.
Swan Falls themselves are quite something—the melting snow cascading down the steep rough rounded granite slopes, here and there little pools to quickly cool off in, to clean away the bug juice and sweat. They're but a temporary relief, but sometimes that's all you need to keep going. With the lake still far below, we were hot and sweaty all over again by the time we finally made it down.
That was when we gave in. Last bus be damned, we needed a swim.
The trail ejected us out onto the North Beach, maybe an hour's hobble from the parking lot. It feels like an endless and painfully long walk after a hike like the Halvor Lunden. And since we had missed the bus we had to walk even further — but without cell reception we had no idea just how much further that would be. We began the long slow trek out of the park, our thumbs outstretched to the stream of cars, until we entered cell service and learned the bus stop was only 15 minutes away, at the Anmore Grocery. Perfect! We could have an ice cream cone while we waited. And so we did. Things do work out for the best.
So yeah. I'd hike it again. Definitely.