April Hiking & Snowshoeing in Whistler
April in Whistler is a wonderful time of year. The winter deep-freeze ends and T-shirt weather erupts. The Village comes alive with the Ski & Snowboard Festival and the excitement of summer approaching
Usually snow in the Village starts the month measured in feet and ends the month, having mostly melted, about halfway up to mid-station on Whistler Mountain. Early in April the usual favourite places to snowshoe are warm and wonderful. Check out the easy ones here... and the more challenging ones here... Snowshoeing to Garibaldi Lake, Panorama Ridge, Taylor Meadows, Helm Creek, Cheakamus Lake, and many others become a lot more enjoyable when you can park your car closer, or even at the trailhead. These places are amazing if you can hike and snowshoe to them in April as you will likely have the whole places to yourself. They are tough hikes though to do on snowshoes, so be prepared. Pristine, all white valleys, so peaceful in the winter, with the long and ever warming days of spring take hold in the mountains. The temperatures in the mountains can still get below freezing, and certainly at night they always do in April, but the days are amazing. Closer to the Village and easier trails are easy to find. Rainbow Falls is a nice little trail that runs through the deep wilderness above Alta Lake. This short trail leads to Rainbow Falls, then continues along and across the Rainbow-Sproatt Flank Trail before ascending up to Rainbow Lake. Rainbow Lake is quite a challenging hike in April as you will encounter quite a bit of snow will need snowshoes to enjoy the hike. Rainbow Lake is 8 kilometres from the trailhead and in April you will encounter snow about 30 minutes into the trail, depending on the previous months snowfall. The Flank Trail runs across and over the Rainbow Trail and you will see the Flank Trail branch off to the left about 20-30 minutes from the Rainbow Trail trailhead. If you are looking for amazing views and a fairly relaxing hike, the Flank Trail is great in April. You almost certainly not need snowshoes and you will get amazing views across to Whistler and Blackcomb mountains as well as Whistler Village and Alta Lake far below you. The various hot springs near Whistler are also great destinations in April. Skookumchuck Hot Springs is open year-round and the two hour drive to reach it is really part of the fun. It is a beautiful drive through Pemberton, Mount Currie and along the beautiful and massive Lillooet Lake and Lillooet River. Sloquet Hot Springs is an hours drive past Skookumchuck and extraordinarily beautiful and desolate. Though gaining popularity, the remoteness almost guarantees no one there but you on a typical April day. You can normally drive right to the Sloquet Hot Springs, but lingering snow on the unmaintained logging road may be too deep so always be prepared to hike up to 8 kilometres if needed from your car to the campsite. Though bumpy and with lots of potholes, the road to Skookumchuck and Sloquet are still drive-able with all types of cars. April is also a great month to see some of the fantastic waterfalls in and around Whistler. are all within a short drive and with easy hikes to them, accessible year-round. Shannon Falls is also a must see, year-round sight in Squamish if you have the time on your drive by.
Elfin Lakes in Garibaldi Provincial Park
Elfin Lakes in Garibaldi Park is an absolutely phenomenal, though long, hiking, biking, snowshoeing and skiing trail that begins at the Diamond Head area in Squamish. From Whistler Village, the trailhead is just over an hours drive away, located near the south end of Garibaldi Provincial Park. Garibaldi Park is the massive wilderness park of nearly two thousand square kilometres that stretches from Squamish to Pemberton. If you are driving the Sea to Sky Highway to Whistler, Garibaldi Park will be the vast wilderness of snow-capped mountains on your right.
The Elfin Lakes trail is very well marked and maintained and leads to the wonderful, Elfin Lakes Hut. This amazing hut sleeps 33 and is solar powered and propane heated. There is a charge of $15/person(payable at the trailhead or online here) to stay the night there which is a small price to pay for the beautiful comfort after the long, 11 kilometre snowshoe hike to get there. This area is very popular with skiers as well as snowshoers in the winter and deep snow covers the trail usually from November to June.
The trail to Elfin Lakes starts out ascending through deep forest, reaching the Red Heather Hut after 5k. This is a small warming hut equipped with a wood stove complete with a stack of wood free to use, though sleeping here is for emergencies only. The final 6k from this hut to Elfin Lakes takes you along a beautiful ridge with amazing views of snowy mountains all around. The sheer distance of this snowshoeing trail ranks it as difficult, though overall you will just be doing a moderately steady ascending trail.
Expect to take four hours to reach the Elfin Lakes Hut as you are almost constantly ascending a gradual, though consistently uphill trail. There are several jaw-dropping views along this final 6k stretch. This trail is so well marked with orange poles and tree markers that you can reliably find your way after dark or before sunrise with good lights to assist you. You often see, with some shock, skiers trudging up the trail, not far from the trailhead after the sun has set. Making their way to the Elfin Lakes Hut in the dead of night seems to be a pastime of quite a few local skiers and boarders.
As this trail is within Garibaldi Park, dogs are not allowed. This is a courtesy to all the animals that inhabit the park and the potential disturbance that dogs my introduce to their environment. BC Parks staff can issue fines for dogs in the park. Though it is rare, it does happen as Elfin Lakes is regularly staffed with rangers and even has a separate ranger station near the Elfin Lakes Hut.
Getting to the trailhead can be problematic during periods of heavy snow. The gravel road runs deep and high into the mountains to the trailhead parking lot. You should be prepared with tire chains and may have to walk from the lower parking lot below the main, usually deep with snow trailhead parking lot.
The Elfin Lakes Trail - Details & Map
Driving to the Elfin Lakes trailhead is quite fun as you emerge from the tacky strip mall along the Sea to Sky Highway and quickly ascend into the wilderness. If you are driving south from Whistler you turn left after Canadian Tire onto Mamquam Road and continue past the golf course on your right and then through Quest University. Not long after you pass the university the road narrows and turns from pavement to gravel.
In the winter months you have to be prepared for snow on the road and several signs will indicate chains must be carried. You may be able to drive to the trailhead, then return from your hike a day or two later to a metre of snow on the access road. You will get little sympathy from road crews if you find yourself stranded due to poor planning. There is another parking lot before the main parking lot at the trailhead. It is located before the last steep and if snow covered, potentially dangerous final section of road. If you are worried about driving on steep, snowy sections of road, be sure to park at this lower area.
Mamquam Road becomes Garibaldi Park Road as you continue ascending ever steeper to the trailhead parking area. At the parking area you will find a nice information board and an outhouse. Parking is free at all BC Parks, however there is a charge for overnight parking in Garibaldi Provincial Park. Camping fees are $10 per person, per night for adults and $5 per child per night(6-15 years old). If you stay in the Elfin Lakes Hut the cost is $15 per person per night, or $35 per family per night(children under 6 are free). You can buy your camping permit online here.
The 11 kilometre(7 mile) hike to Elfin Lakes is a constant and steady ascent that begins with several switchbacks. The sign at the trailhead shows the distances to the Red Heather Shelter(5k), Elfin Lakes(11k) and Mamquam Lake(22k). The trail to Elfin Lakes is only moderately challenging, however the long distance makes it quite challenging if you are carrying a heavy pack or bringing kids along.
The fact that there is a shelter after only 5 kilometres indicates that the 11k distance to the lakes is a bit of a journey. The Red Heather Shelter at 5k is for some, a destination on its own. An unexpectedly idyllic little hut that for much of the year is consumed by snow. The roof is often a metre deep with snow and unable to slide off, builds up around the edges, making the hut often invisible from the side. Getting in the front entrance usually requires an abruptly steep slope down to the door. The back door has an adjacent window that glows a beautiful blue from the wall of icy snow that often buries the back door.
The Red Heather Hut is a survival shelter/warming hut, that is not to be used as an overnight shelter, except of course when absolutely necessary. On snow camping is allowed in the vicinity of the Red Heather Hut in the winter months. On first glance this may seem like a poor substitute to Eflin Lakes, however, the short hike is quick and easy. And you will be under a magnificent starry sky surrounded by idyllic mountains. If the weather is particularly bad, camping here may be a nice idea. Most push on to the ever more scenic trail that quickly ascends to Paul Ridge. On cold and snowy days, the wonderful wood stove and stack of wood outside makes it a very enticing pit-stop on the way to Elfin Lakes. Two sturdy picnic tables and a sink, propane stove top burner and large pot make the shelter an effective place to picnic and warm up.
The walls are lined with clothing hooks indicating that this shelter sees a lot of traffic. For the most part however, you will find the hut deserted. Occasionally in the evening you will find a couple drinking wine by the fire, enjoying this rustic paradise. If you are lucky enough to be here on a clear night, the stars will shine like diamonds this far from the bright lights of civilisation.
If you can pull yourself away from the luxurious warmth of the Red Heather Hut you will find the trail quickly becomes more challenging. Increasingly steep sections lead to some downhill parts. All the while following the easily visible orange poles that mark the winter snowshoe route. The poles are frequent and have reflectors on them making them visible at night if you have a light. If you are motivating and competent hiking after dark, the Elfin Lakes trail is pretty easy to follow.
If you are not well prepared, however, you may easily stray from the trail and get dangerously lost. From the trailhead to the Red Heather Hut is hard to stray from, even after dark, however, the Red Heather Hut to the Elfin Lakes Hut is well marked, but tricky to follow at night. If you don't know what you are doing, you can easily lose the trail and get into big trouble.
The section of trail from the Red Heather Hut to Elfin Lakes is considerably more scenic than the first 5 kilometres of the trail. Much of the route is along Paul Ridge which gives you sweeping views both left and right of endless snowy mountains. If you hike it during a full moon, the mountains light up all around you in a surreal world trapped between day and night. The serenity and vastness of this part of the world are magnificent.
Eventually after a long and sensationally beautiful 11 kilometres, the Elfin Lakes Hut comes into view. Just like the Red Heather Hut, almost entirely buried in snow much of the year, you have to slide down an icy slope to reach the front door. Once inside the warmth hits you. A large furnace blasts out heat and after your eyes adjust to the inky darkness, you can't help but be surprised how huge the hut is inside. From the outside, buried in snow it looks tiny. On the inside you find two floors complete with kitchen, lots of seating areas and tables... and bunk beds to accommodate 33 people!