Winter hike and overnight at Elfin Lakes, Garibaldi Provincial Park

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Elfin Lakes Trail, Garibaldi Provincial Park—C.Helbig

I have raved about this hike in summer and now I’m going to sing its praises in winter. The snowy mountain scenery along the Elfin Lakes trail in Garibaldi Provincial Park, near Squamish, British Columbia, is stunning. Hiking it on a windstill day, under a cerulean sky is pure happiness for me.  It’s still early in 2018, but our hike to Elfin Lakes and overnight at its backcountry shelter may well turn out to be the highlight of my year. 

The trail to Elfin Lakes is 11 km (7 miles) one way with  an elevation gain of 600 m (1969 ft). Estimated time to Elfin Lakes in winter is 3-5 hours. It varies greatly depending on conditions and how many photos you take along the way (over 200 for me, putting us at turtle pace).  The hike is easily done as an out and back in a day (in good conditions) but when the scenery is this beautiful and there’s a warm overnight shelter at Elfin Lakes, why rush?

No fresh snow and a recent thaw and freeze had left the trail hard packed. Our Microspikes (crampons) worked perfectly, but we strapped our snowshoes to our packs just in case. The first part of the trail is a zigzag through the forest. It’s pleasant enough but we always get excited when we reach Red Heather shelter, at the 5 km mark, where the worst of the uphill slog is over and the terrain opens up to postcard vistas of the Garibaldi Massif and the Coast Mountain range.  Take a look…

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Mike and me with Mt. Garibaldi in the background

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Wide open vistas on the  trail to Elfin Lakes—C.Helbig

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The meandering trail and blanket of white is a soothing scene—C.Helbig

I love the mountain views, but walking through what I call the enchanted forest is equally special. Sections of the regular summer trail have been rerouted to minimize avalanche danger, and these travel along the backside of the ridge where snow covered trees look like whimsical Dr. Seuss scenes.

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The enchanted winter forest—C.Helbig

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Snow covered trees are sculpted into fantasy creatures—C.Helbig

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Mike having a standoff with a snow serpent—C.Helbig

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One of my many favourite sections—C.Helbig

The combination of freezing, thawing and wind has left some very cool snow patterns. My photos don’t do them justice. They remind me a bit of the undulating rock formations that we saw in Coyote Buttes, Arizona (a temporary snow version).

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Wave patterns on the snow covered hills near Elfin Lakes—C.Helbig

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Cool quilted pattern on one of the frozen Elfin lakes—C.Helbig

 

As we approached the Elfin shelter, I wondered why it looked so much smaller than how I remembered it from summer. On closer look, I saw that 8-10 feet of snow had all but buried the ground floor. Snow steps have been built leading down to the ground floor entrance.

The upstairs houses 33 people in bunk beds and the ground floor has a kitchen with a couple of propane cooktops. In summer, water is easy to fetch at the adjacent lake; in winter it’s snow melt (takes longer, but at least there’s lots of it). The shelter is warm and has a nice communal vibe. I prefer the nearby campsite in summer, but in winter the Elfin Lakes shelter is a much appreciated amenity.

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Elfin Lakes shelter, Garibaldi Provincial Park—C.Helbig

Another reason to make Elfin Lakes an overnight trip rather than rushing back is the sunset. In a word…sensational. What a way to end a perfect winter day in the backcountry.

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Sunset at Elfin Lakes, Garibaldi Provincial Park—C.Helbig

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It just kept getting better watching sunset at Elfin Lakes—C.Helbig

It started out overcast on our hike back the next day. I gave my camera a rest but pulled it out when I saw a gorgeous cloud formation. The stark image below is one of my favourites.

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Planning Tips

Access: The trailhead is 85 km (52 miles) from downtown Vancouver via the Sea to Sky Highway. In Squamish, turn east onto Mamquam Road at the Canadian Tire Store. Follow the signs for Garibaldi Park Diamond Head. The trailhead is 16 km from the highway.  The road turns to gravel and is quite rough. At higher elevation it can be covered with hard packed snow. A 4WD and chains are recommended.

Reservations: Reservations for the Elfin Lakes shelter and campground are now required year round. This can be done at discovercamping.ca. Book well in advance for weekends.

Trail Info: 11 km (8 miles) one way to Elfin Lakes. Elevation gain 600 m (1969 ft).  Rated as moderately strenuous.  3-5 hours one way depending on conditions. The trail is clearly marked with orange snow poles. Heed avalanche warnings and detours. Avalanche danger ratings can be found at avalanchecanada.ca

Gear: Depending on preference and conditions, the trail can be done on touring skis, snowshoes or crampons. Wear/bring layers as conditions change quickly. Sunglasses, goggles, poles, are all helpful. If veering off the main trail, avalanche gear/training are essential. If staying overnight at Elfin Lakes shelter, bring a sleeping pad and bag, cooking pot (large pots for boiling water are available at shelter), eating utensils, headlamp. Your feet will appreciate a pair of old slippers.

Check out my post on summer hiking to Elfin Lakes and onwards to Opal Cone.

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Summer view to Elfin Lakes, Garibaldi Provincial Park—C.Helbig

Categories: Activities, British Columbia, Canada, Hiking, Places | Tags: , , , , | 32 Comments

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32 thoughts on “Winter hike and overnight at Elfin Lakes, Garibaldi Provincial Park

  1. mike fulton

    Great photos. We are going up with a small group of scouts in a week. Looking forward to it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Have fun! This is yet another tremendously beautiful hike in Sea to Sky Country. Try to get to Opal Cone (past Elfin Lake) sometime. It’s probably a bit much for a scouts trip…not sure…but absolutely stunning!

      Like

  2. Looks like you two had a great hike. That landscape looks unreal!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Fantastic photos of the patterns in the snow, Caroline. Would love to see them side by side with your desert photos. If you’re ever in Colorado, you must try the 10th Mountain Division Hut System http://www.huts.org It’s very similar; all you need to carry is your food and sleeping bag. Put it on your list!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Ron. I just took a look at your link. Wow…what an incredible network of huts and trails; they look really great. It’s on my list! (They probably get booked quickly?)

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  4. What a winter wonderland you have captured! My favorite photo is of the enchanted forest which looks like a scene out of a Dr. Seuss book or “The Nutcracker.”

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Gobsmacked

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Mind-blowingly amazing! The whimsical snow-laden trees and wind patterns and views!!! Wow, I really wish I could see it in person. I’m so glad you had the opportunity to do (and share) this hike. I can see why it’ll be in contention for Best of 2018.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. WOW….I need to go there!! Your pictures are amazing. And I can totally see why you’d want to stay the night, that sunset is amazing.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Now I really can’t believe I am going to type this, but I think I might actually prefer to do this hike in the winter! The fantastical snow scenes, the cozy hut, the bracing air – all sound perfectly splendid. I know I’ve said it before, but you are so lucky to live so close to such amazing outdoor activities; I’m always envious of your proximity to great hiking options. Great photos!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m inclined to agree about the winter Lexi, though you really have to catch a good couple of days. I’ve read terrible (and frightening) reports of people doing this in white-out conditions. We are lucky that we live close by and can be flexible with our timing. I was constantly checking the weather report the days leading up to the hike. Hope you’ll come check the area out for yourself sometime.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Your wide open trail pics are great!!!! Really give a feeling. Love this post.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I have to admit, I’m a little jealous. I would love to be there right now. The scenery is breathtaking and so are the pictures.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Your photos are spectacular. I love the patterns in the snow creating texture and the little snow covered shelter. How glorious! And the trees heavy with fresh snow. Oh my…

    Peta

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Peta. As you can probably tell by now, I’m a big snow fan, and its beauty continues to awe me every winter season. Cheers, Caroline

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      • Kinda makes me miss winter…. Although I have no clue how to ski and it seems that is where one gets the most benefit. But I did used to love a fresh snow fall in the burbs of Chicago when we would go with our Aussie to the nature preserve and walk for hours, no matter the weather.

        Liked by 1 person

  12. Monika MacNeill

    Caroline, what a spectacular trip!!!! Beautiful photos!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Mike Hohmann

    Sing those winter praises of the Elfin Lakes trail loud and clear, Caroline. I’ll join in the chorus! A beautiful hike winter or summer, but that deep snow and the weight of heavy snow on the trees is something special. Mike was lucky the snow serpent didn’t unload on him! I’ve never seen anything like those wind patterns across the snow surface before… simply beautiful. Great photos as always.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks Mike. Until this hike I had also not seen (or noticed) these type of snow patterns. I guess it takes certain unique weather conditions. It’s amazing what nature can create.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Wow, gorgeous photos!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Great photos and great winter trip!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Brian Foster

    As usual some very lovely pictures. Winter has somewhat of a chaste simplicity but also a complicated grandeur. Wondering why walking versus cross country skiing? Looks like a great experience all in all. Oh, what did you eat and do people share?

    Liked by 1 person

    • We don’t own touring skis, hence the walking. People bring all sorts of stuff to eat, from canned beans to pasta/sauce, to dehydrated meals… Since it was only one night, I made chicken curry/rice the night before, transferred to a plastic bag. Just heated it up in a small pot…yum! We bring oatmeal for breakfast and cheese, boiled eggs, candied salmon, chocolate, oranges…for lunch/snacks. Sharing is common on a trip like this where many schlepp in more than they need. Carrying weight not as big an issue as for longer trips. A couple of young guys enjoyed my leftover curry!

      Like

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