The Flank Trail - Whistler Snowshoe Trails
Trails run so abundant in Whistler that many go unnoticed, neglected or taken for granted. The Flank Trail is one of these. Most people in Whistler don't even know about it, but the ones that do, love it.
Officially known as the Rainbow-Sproatt Flank Trail, it runs the length of Whistler Valley, opposite Whistler and Blackcomb mountains. Flanking both these enormous mountains, the Flank Trail is the inspiration for an ever-growing number of trails that run to it, from it, and across it.
From the Callaghan Valley, far south of Whistler, near Whistler Olympic Park it begins(or ends). It then stretches 40 kilometres along the flank of the massive and sprawling Mount Sproatt, then Rainbow Mountain, where it finally terminates near Ancient Cedars and Showh Lakes.
Ancient Cedars and Showh Lakes are well north of Whistler Village and adjacent to Green Lake.
The 40 kilometre trail takes you past some pretty amazing sights. From the beginning, Whistler Olympic Park is interesting and beautiful. Sitting high up in the Callaghan Valley and built for the 2010 Olympic Games, Whistler Olympic Park is an impressive, civilized oasis in an otherwise thick forest wilderness.
Open year-round, this metropolis in the woods, depending on the season is home to cross country skiing, snowshoeing, a biathlon experience, a surprisingly nice cafe, and endless trails to see the Olympic sights. Not least the giant ski jump that you can get up close to to appreciate its enormity.
Just a short hike from Whistler Olympic Park on the Flank Trail takes you past the long abandoned Northair Mine. This briefly thriving gold mine is now an unusual little world in the woods.
A beautiful little lake dominates the area now with a dirt road running along its edge and to the surreal, cement skeleton-like foundations of what must have been quite a large building.
The foundations are now adorned with brightly painted murals and several small fire pits. Standing in the relic you can look across the beautiful lake, green forest beyond and Rainbow Mountain in the distance. In the summer and fall you can drive to Northair as the Flank Trail that passes here is more accurately an old logging road, than a hiking trail.
Past Northair Mine, the Flank Trail slowly descends toward Whistler and the logging road finally gives way to a wide trail that you quickly discover is popular with bikes. The length, width and beautifully gradual elevation gain and loss of the Flank Trail makes it an amazing trail on a bike. You can cover a great distance, see dozens of amazing viewpoints and all the while along are comparatively relaxing route.
The Flank Trail continues to descend all the way to Function Junction, the southernmost neighbourhood in Whistler. It then turns 90 degrees to the left and ascends quickly along the flank of Mount Sproatt.
Tremendous views of Alpha Lake, then Nita Lake, and finally Alta Lake come into view as you appreciate how quickly you have climbed. Paddle-boarders on the lakes are tiny specks that take a moment for your mind to comprehend what they are.
Along this section, more than any other on the Flank Trail, you see frequent side trails. Almost always on your right, these purpose built bike trails, almost all black diamond in difficulty, plunge into the forest and along and over rock cliffs, over bridges and various ramps.
Hiking trails here inspire and enable more bike trails, which in turn enable more hiking trails. This back and forth trail building frenzy has, and is, producing a bewildering and ever expanding trail network on this once sleepy side of the valley.
From Whistler Olympic Park to the Rainbow Trail, you will have hiked halfway around Mount Sproatt. The Flank Trail seems to terminate at the Rainbow Trail, however a small sign directs you to turn right, follow the Rainbow Trail, for a couple hundred metres, then left after the water treatment building to the beautiful bridge over Twenty One Mile Creek.
A beautiful way to access the Flank Trail on snowshoes or on foot any time of the year is via the Rainbow Trail near Rainbow Park on the far side of Alta Lake. From the road-side parking at the trailhead you are immediately plunged into deep forest, deep snow, and the sound of crashing water nearby.
The Rainbow Trail winds through the forest fairly steeply upward. In less than a kilometre you come to Rainbow Falls crashing down through huge pillows of snow. This little waterfall sits in a beautiful little snowy enclave that feels as though it belongs in some movie. Deep snow, crystal clear green water cascading down from a frozen cliff. A little, hidden paradise. One of many in Whistler.
Further up the trail takes you to the first signs for the Flank Trail. The Flank Trail overlaps and crosses the Rainbow Trail for half a kilometre.
Following the Flank Trail to the right takes you to a very scenic bridge over 21 Mile Creek. Following the Flank Trail to the left leads you to a steady ascent for 400 metres along the Rainbow Lake trail to the trail turnoff to the Flank Trail.
The Flank Trail from here quickly ascends through more deep forest and finally after 15 minutes opens up and flattens out. The views become beautiful and trail less tiring. Whistler, Blackcomb and Wedge mountains all come dramatically into view and Alta Lake appears far below. Just steps from the trail take you to pristine, snowy outcrops, perfect for taking in the view on a sunny day.. and with most of the Flank Trail south facing, sun will always be facing you over Whistler.
The Flank Trail is way more than a days hike on foot or snowshoes. It is best tackled in pieces. The great advantage of accessing it from the Rainbow Trail is that you are roughly in the middle of the trail. On snowshoes, it is especially good. The Rainbow Trail is steep here, but very scenic and even small kids won't complain. Every bend in the trail reveals another great view. Dramatic views of the crashing creek, beautiful snow weighed down trees, wilderness waterfall and a wonderful, snowy bridge crossing, all in the first 15 minutes on the trail. Fantastic.
Flank Trail Directions and Map
Directions to trailhead(see the map below): Zero your odometer at Village Gate Boulevard(in Whistler Village), drive north on Highway 99. At 3.8km turn left onto Alpine Way, then at the next stop sign turn left onto Rainbow Drive. Continue straight until at 6.8km you will see the trailhead sign, "Rainbow Trail" on your right, half buried in snow most of the winter. There is room for several cars to park, but be careful as if the parking are is packed with snow, you may be able to get in, but not be able to get out easily. Keep that in mind and park in a way that allows you to get out easily. Hike up the Rainbow Trail and to reach Rainbow Falls, bear right at the two obvious forks in the trail. Backtrack from Rainbow Falls, rejoin the Rainbow Trail and you will come out to the service road to the water treatment building. Follow the Flank Trail right to go to the bridge over 21 Mile Creek or take the Rainbow Trail/Flank Trail straight and in about 15 minutes you will see the sign for the Flank Trail on your left(see the map above).
If winter camping is your thing, the Flank Trail is a paradise. Most of the 40 kilometre length winds its way to one amazing clifftop clearing to the next. As you snowshoe or hike the trail you will notice dozens of easy-to-miss, buried in snow, side trails. Many of these take you just metres from the Flank Trail to wonderful clearings, perched on the edge of rocky outcrops. High above Alta Lake and Whistler Village beyond, the views are amazing. This is pretty close to effortless winter camping as once you get on the Flank Trail it is pretty relaxing as the elevation changes only moderately. The Rainbow Trail access to the Flank Trail, shown here is perfect for getting onto the Flank Trail and quickly finding a great place to put up a tent. Snowshoe or hike up the Rainbow Trail and turn left onto the Flank Trail(as the Rainbow Trail continues to Rainbow Lake). Within 5 minutes along the Flank Trail you will start seeing these side trails on your left and endless great tent spots overlooking Whistler. Hotels, B&B's and hostels are of course plentiful in Whistler.
There are no washroom facilities or outhouses at the Rainbow Trail trailhead show here. However, there is an outhouse where the Flank Trail branches off from the Rainbow Trail(see Flank Trail map above). There are deluxe washrooms at Rainbow Park just a couple hundred metres down the road from the Rainbow Trail trailhead. While in the area you should stop by Rainbow Park. Any day of the year and in any weather, day or night, Rainbow Park is beautiful. Its great location, looking across Alta Lake to snow covered Wedgemount Lake, Blackcomb Mountain and Whistler Mountain is often spectacular. The long pier stretches out into the frozen lake and glows white with ice and snow all around. Few lights can be seen to take away from the dazzling star filled sky. The milky way is well defined and all winter the lights from the groomers on Whistler and Blackcomb zig-zag across the slopes.
The Flank Trail is almost entirely dog friendly, however, the small 500 metre section that piggybacks on the Rainbow Trail is not. Rainbow Lake and the Rainbow Trail are in the watershed that Whistler gets its water from. You will see big mapboards at various places along the Rainbow Trail showing you the boundaries of the Rainbow Lake watershed as well as no dogs allowed signs. Keep that in mind if you are venturing in the area with your dog. There are plenty of dog friendly alternative access points to the Flank Trail nearby. For example, at the end of Stonebridge Place, a new hiking, biking, snowshoeing trail is taking shape and may prove to be the best and shortest route access this part of the Flank Trail. For more dog friendly snowshoeing trails in Whistler try here..