Whistler is surrounded by an immense wilderness dotted with spectacular, hidden lakes and amazing places to set up a tent. Decades of logging activity has left a network of forest service roads that has opened easy access to these places. Some of these you can drive to and some you may need a 4x4 to comfortably get to.
Callaghan Lake - Drive to Provincial Park Campsite
If you have a tent and are arriving in Whistler by car, there are several great, free places to put up a tent. Near the turnoff to Alexander Falls, 30 minutes south of Whistler, turn left from the Sea to Sky Highway and head up the Callaghan Valley (follow signs for the Whistler Olympic Park). After about 10 minutes you will see a turnoff for Callaghan Lake. Follow this, very bumpy 8.5k logging road the the free campground on the shores of Callaghan Lake. The Callaghan Lake campground looks a bit like a parking lot, but it does have a few trails and is located right on the shores of this spectacular lake. If you hike about five minutes along the left side of the lake you will find an amazing little island with room for a tent or two. This breathtaking little island is amazing, trees all around and clear, deep green water all around. You could even dive into the water from most points on the island. To reach it you have to wade, waist deep in water, or if you bring a boat or even an inflatable dinghy you can get you and your gear there without getting wet. Most people camp at one of several, well organized sites, nestled around the main parking area. Though, on first look, these look a bit shabby. When you get yourself set up with a tent and campfire, the area takes on a wonderful, Canadian campsite feel. Trees all around, beautiful lake, and happy, smiling, friendly people, beer in hand, offering to share a drink or some campfire dinner. If you want to get a little more tranquility, then the campsites cover a pretty wide area, and you can get a little further from people if you want to. The campsites are convenient to outhouses and all have metal fire pits. And you will almost always be able, if you want to, place your tent close to your vehicle. The logging road is very bad with potholes and moderately deep washouts, however, cars of all sorts seem to make it there, and you even see the occasional RV. Driving from Whistler Village to Callaghan Lake is about 45 minutes.
Madeley Lake(drive to and easy 100 metre hike to campsite)
Madeley Lake is an amazing place to camp and just a 45 minute drive from Whistler Village. If looking for solitude at a paradise, mountain lake, Madeley Lake is hard to beat. Though somewhat popular with fishing, you are still likely to rarely see anyone at the lake in the summer and never in the fall. Once in a while you will see a car or two at the trailhead to Hanging Lake. If you have a canoe, Madeley is a great place to paddle around or just float in the sun. There is a long forgotten campsite around the far end of the lake that you can walk to in about 5 minutes. Some old picnic tables, fire rings, several tent clearings and a beautiful gravel, sun-facing beach. A wonderfully crashing creek runs along the trail and campsite making the area absurdly idyllic. If you are motivated the Madeley Lake trail runs around the back of the lake from the campsite and up to Hanging Lake, then on to Rainbow Lake. If you can manage it, get someone to drop you off at Madeley, then spend a weekend hiking through paradise and come out at Rainbow Park on Alta Lake! You can even do it in a day in about 8-9 hours at a somewhat relaxed pace. There are signs the entire way(except around the Madeley Lake campsite where there are none).
Northair Mine(4x4 recommended - drive to site)
Northair Mine is a surreal little world of colourful murals on abandoned cement foundations, surrounded by an astoundingly tranquil little lake in a secluded forest. Just a short logging road off of the Callaghan Valley Road takes you to this unusual little abandoned mine(about 45 minutes from Whistler Village). You would have driven by the turnoff if you have been to Whistler Olympic Park, which is just a couple kilometres away. Northair Mine gets its name from the Vancouver based mining company Northair Group. The mine was in production from 1976 and extracted 5 tons of gold before being abandoned in 1982. Northair Mine is tricky to find and even when you near it, the turnoff is not obvious(see the map here for directions). However, once you find it, it is quite a sight. The area that encompasses Northair Mine is huge. About 2 kilometres long, edged by a cliff on one side and a beautiful lake on the other. A nice, smooth gravel road runs through the area, along the edge of the lake toward Whistler Olympic Park. Another gravel road runs through the massive cement foundations of what must have been quite a large building. Beautiful graffiti art covers some of the cement pilings and scattered remnants indicate that this skeleton of a building has been home to its share of gatherings since being abandoned. Another aerial video showing more of the potential tent sites here.
A River Runs Through It(drive near or bike/hike to tent site)
A River Runs Through It is a popular bike trail that runs through the forest between Alta Lake Road and the River of Golden Dreams. There are several access points to this trail. The closest access for the place pictured is off of Alta Lake Road, across and down from the Rainbow Trail trailhead to Rainbow Lake. The area pictured is just down from the beautiful suspension bridge crossing on the trail and is easy to find from there. There is also an old logging road that takes you right to it in just a couple hundred metres from Alta Lake Road. If heading along Alta Lake Road from Rainbow Park you will spot this old gravel road on your right(barriers prevent vehicle access), just before you see the Rainbow Trail, trailhead on your left. If you bike or walk down this road for a couple hundred metres you will hear Twnetyone Mile Creek and be able to spot the suspension bridge. If you cross it and immediately turn right, following the river, you will see this spot almost immediately. You can also get to it quite easily from Whistler Village by biking/walking down Lorimer Road(you can also park for free at the end of Lorimer Rd). At the end of Lorimer Rd, take the Valley Trail(follow the sign that indicated Meadow Park), cross the bridge, the train tracks, then immediately turn left along the gravel trail. This trail quickly widens into an old gravel road through the forest and takes you to Alta Lake Rd in about 2 kilometres. Just before you reach Alta Lake Rd, look for the trailhead for "A River Runs Through It" on your left. You will come to the long log/suspension bridge after about 2 kilometres and the site shown here is downriver on the left side.
Green River(drive or bike to tent sites)
Just after the highway turnoff to Wedgemount Lake there is a beautiful picnic area on Green River. Picnic tables, serenity and the hugely crashing Green River make this a great spot to relax before your hike. This is also a superb and free place to camp before and/or after hiking Wedgemount Lake. Beautiful freshwater river and lots of places to put up a tent near the Green River bridge make it an ideal setting. As this is also a picnic area, putting up a tent late in the day and taking it down early in the AM will ensure that you don't impede anyone in the daytime, picnicking. If you plan on staying a bit longer, then there are areas easy to find on the opposite shore that are a bit more hidden and serene. From Whistler Village at Village Gate Boulevard, zero your odometer proceed north on Highway 99. At 11.3km a sign will direct you to turn right to "Wedgemount(Garibaldi)". Parkhurst Ghost Town is not far from here as well. If you drive across the bridge over Green River, then turn right. Follow the gravel road for about 5 minutes. Just past Whistler Painball the road will end at a yellow gate and a trailhead for the Sea to Sky Trail. If you park opposite the gate and walk straight ahead, passing the gate and Sea to Sky trail entrance on your left. Walk along this old gravel road, over the log bridge, then keep walking parallel to the train tracks. In about 10 minutes you will see a small sign for the Parkhurst Trail on your left and this short trail leads to the amazing Parkhurst Ghost Town and dozens of potential tent sites. Click the video link below to see an aerial view of Parkhurst Ghost Town.
Callaghan Lake - Conflict Trailhead(short hike to tent site)
The Callaghan Lake Provincial Park campsite is free but can get somewhat busy and chaotic on long weekends. The 8.5 kilometre logging road to get to the park/campsite is a long way to go to get turned around by an overcrowded place to sleep. Another option is just a short walk away. The unmarked trailhead to Ring and Conflict Lakes is just a few metres before the Callaghan Lake campsite/parking area. There is a wide area with room for several cars at this trailhead. Just a 2 minute walk from here gets you to the old log bridge across Callaghan Creek. And though it looks more like a road than a trail, the road has been blocked for years. Next to Callaghan Creek there is a nice clearing for a couple tents in an unexpectedly beautiful setting. The wonderful, crashing creek is just metres away so you have excellent access to fresh water and you will even find a small fire ring, though much of the summer there is a fire ban, so you shouldn't use it. This is the trailhead to the relatively unknown Ring and Conflict Lake trail. You will rarely see anyone pass by here as most hike to these lakes via Callaghan Country. They have a lodge that does tours, beginning at Conflict Lake. Ring Lake is a worthwhile hiking destination with free alpine camping(no amenities).
Showh Lakes(4x4 to or short hike to lakes)
Showh Lakes are located just past the well known, Ancient Cedars trail. The obvious draw of Ancient Cedars trail tends to make hikers overlook the connecting trail to Showh Lakes. After hiking to Ancient Cedars, halfway along the trail take the connecting trail to Showh Lakes(sometimes known as Showh Lake and Cougar Lake). The trail runs along the left side of the larger lake on your right and then veers left, crosses a creek and circles around the smaller lake on your left where it connects with the logging road and Showh Lakes parking area. You can either follow the road back to your car at the Ancient Cedars trailhead or continue rounding this smaller Showh Lake and rejoin the main trail you came in on and hike back to your car. Showh Lakes are very remote and wild feeling lakes which certainly ads to their draw as fishing lakes. They are sometimes stocked with trout and you will occasionally find a couple fly fishermen out on the water floating inside those funny little one-man rubber float tubes having a great time catching lots of fish. Swimming is not the best at Showh Lakes, however, the wonderful remote setting more than makes up for the lack of inviting beach. The lakes have a nice trail that connects them and along this you will find a nice clearing in the trees good for a tent or two. If this is too buried in trees for you then tenting along the 4x4 access road at the shores of the lake is another option. You can drive any car to the Ancient Cedars trailhead, however the short road to Showh Lakes is 4x4 only, but short enough to walk in about 20 minutes. Showh Lakes is of course free to camp.