Journey to Shangri-La
Backpacking into the Dunbar Lakes Basin
The idea of an earthly paradise is an alluring one. Almost every culture draws upon the motif, uses it to breathe life into both simple allegories and entire ways of being, a beacon of promise and possibility when nothing else seems to be going right. It is a story with a thousand tellings.
So when James Hinton published his 1933 adventure novel Lost Horizon about a place called Shangri-La he tapped into an old vein. He conjured a lush and peaceful valley amid soaring Himalayan peaks, a mystical mythical mountain realm halfway between this world and the next. It was a beautiful and permanently happy land, but it was also remote, cut off from the world, and stumbled upon only by accident. It was an old idea but he gave it a fresh new name, and the word Shangri-La quickly spread around the world, synonymous with paradise.
This past August we teamed up with Kootenay Rockies Tourism to hike and camp and showcase a couple under-the-radar trails in the Purcell Mountains. We hiked to Lake of the Hanging Glacier, Thunderwater Lake, and finally (finally!) to BC'S very own tucked-away paradise — the upper Dunbar Lakes, known to everyone as Shangri-La.
In literature, an adventure often requires an ordeal, and the passage to a promised paradise even more so. There are two ways into Shangri-La, and befitting its name neither are particularly easy. The shorter route via Leadqueen takes you over Tiger Pass and a glacier. The other, via Templeton Lake, is longer and the latter half is rarely traveled and ill-defined. Having neither the requisite gear nor experience for glacier travel, we went with Templeton. And it was a stunner.
Templeton itself is a worthy day hike: it's a beautiful lake, bright and blue and sparkling, with rows of mountains rising from all sides. It's a fairly easy 6km trail with scenic views for most of the way once you exit the forest, with some light talus sections and a final push up a steep incline only at the very end as you near the waterfall dropping from the lake. It's primarily a daytrip destination, and finding a campsite can be tough on the steep shore, but there are a couple good spots. We cooked a quick dinner and set up camp.
The next morning we continued to the far shore of Templeton, following a faint trail on the left side of the lake. From this point directions were a little vague. We eyed a topo map and it seemed like a couple routes might do the trick, so we chose the closer eastern pass and began picking our way up the rock-strewn slope. It was steep but easy enough, a nice rocky ramble.
We climbed up into a copse of larch trees for a quick snack break, eyeing the rocky route above for cairns. They were few and far between and hard to spot amid all the other loose rock, basically only coming into view once we were already on them, but seeing them always provided a nice comfort. We continued on, climbing into several false passes, the rocks seemingly growing larger and sharper with every crest, the crumbling rubble slopes steeper and the perches more precarious.
We passed a tiny dried up tarn, the silty mud cracking in the hot August heat, then a little burbling cascade pouring down a rockface and disappearing into the rubble. It was a bleak and barren landscape, a scene straight out of post-apocalyptica — nothing growing, just endless piles of broken rock somehow scoured into massive folds and ridges, the heavy stones tossed into sculpted slopes like little more than sand. And looming mountains towering all around.
Eventually we reached a large lingering snow patch and we scambled our way up alongside it, the large rocks loose on the steep slopes. And then another flat snow patch which, once tested and found to be soft, we crossed directly. The wind picked up, seemingly howling in fury at how far we'd come, and we saw a solid square cairn planted firmly in place, the yawning emptiness of a descent behind. We had made it to the pass.
The descent into Shangri-La was just as rocky, but the incline was less jarring, with both the rocks and slope gently rounded by glacier action. We hiked down, a great hulking ice sheet to our distant right fanning out into alluvial streams directly below. We could see the hint of a lake through the haze, a glittering mirage after all that rock. It was a feast, and after the long trek it was hard not to be excited.
We descended, reaching a broad flat meadow dotted with tufts of seed pod puffs and stands of larch trees, bisected by the braided milky stream pouring from the ice above. There was a crumbling old cabin, and the razed remains of what looked like a small prospector camp. We wandered down the valley and set up camp on the tough grass.
Whether you arrive via Templeton or Tiger Pass, Shangri-La has ample places to explore. An entire basin awaits: larch meadows, glaciers, rocky hill-tops, scenic perches, a chain of lakes, summit scrambles... you could easily spend a few full days there and still leave wanting to see more.
For an initial survey of the basin we clambered up a nearby hill jutting out into the valley, and found some of the larches were starting to turn yellow. We looked out over the landscape, the lakes and lush forests, and pretended to think about what to do.
But the route before us was obvious. We had to make our way down to the water.
We followed the creek down the rolling valley. As you near the lake the creek cuts through a steep gravel slope, making a final tumbling drop to the lake where it creates a big sandy silty delta. Shangri-La hosts a chain of lakes, each a different hue of light blue as the glacial silt gradually settles out, but there are a handful of other darker lakes and pools scattered around the basin too.
A trail meanders around the lakeshore to a landbridge that separates the two lakes, where the route from Tiger Pass meets the route from Templeton. There are a bunch of nice campsites tucked among the rocks and larches, and crowning views of the Septet Range across the lake. A series of cascades connect the two lakes, and a few more rough campsites can be found as you trace the shore of the second lake.
Horeb Mountain dominates this part of the landscape, a great crumbling rock citadel, and perfect companion to Mt Ethelbert across the the valley. The Tiger Pass glacier spills down the rubble, cracked with crevasses. Bear tracks amble across the mud and scraggly puffs of western anemone dance in the wind. And not a person in sight.
Making our way back to camp, we cut across the creek to explore a rubbly rocky hill opposite. The larches were beginning to turn here too, a golden glowing hallway of forest. It quickly opened up to another western anemone-filled meadow, and we crested the hill to see the first lake spread below us. There is a unique and worthwhile view in literally every direction.
We descended back down to the lake, then followed the shore back to the creek delta. It was getting on to dinnertime.
As we packed up our camp and began the long slog back up the rubble, we looked back to see faint rays of light searching the valley. We unshouldered our bags, cooked a quick breakfast, and warmed in the growing strength of the morning sun. Shangri-La was one of the prettiest hikes we'd ever done. The long trek over barren broken rock to get there had made it feel like a real journey, like a trial or rite of passage, after which the first view of the lush larch basin seemed like a glimpse of a promised land. I don't know. I don't mean to wax so poetic. It just felt like a really special place.
We finished our breakfast on the rocks, then shouldered our bags and took one last look out over the glaciers, over the braided creek, the larch meadows and the lake far below. It was a little hard to leave, but at least we had one comfort: unlike its namesake, this Shangri-La existed firmly in this world, in the realm of maps as well as memories. We'd be able to find our way back here again.
Big thanks to Kootenay Rockies for helping make this trip possible