Brew Lake - Whistler Hiking Trails
Brew Lake is beautiful mountain lake just a short drive south of Whistler and is relatively unknown and seldom hiked. The lake lays in a massive alpine valley of enormous erratics scattered around and in the lake. On first seeing Brew Lake it looks serene, yet wild and hostile. The lake is surrounded on one side by idyllic tree covered hills and lakeside cliffs and on the other side a brutal looking wasteland of huge boulders sloping up from the lake to the skyline. Hiking into this wasteland of erratics reveals an amazing paradise of small, island forests, cute streams and endless worlds within worlds to explore. You find yourself wandering along like a kid mesmerized at what you will find next.
Brew Lake itself doesn't come close in wow factor to the postcard-perfect alpine lakes such as Wedgemount Lake, Joffre Lakes, Cheakamus Lake or Garibaldi Lake, but I does beat these lakes in other aspects. Because Brew Lake is outside of Garibaldi Park few people have heard of it. More often than not you will have both the lake and entire valley to yourself. An increasingly rare occurrence elsewhere that gives the place a quiet calm and that strange and satisfying feeling that there are no other humans for quite some distance. You have that exhilarating wilderness feeling that sometimes gets lost on other Whistler area hikes when you start the trail from a parking lot packed with cars. The fact that the Brew Lake trail doesn't have a parking lot or proper trailhead actually makes it more mysterious, adventurous and in some ways more fun.
Brew Lake is shallow and absolutely crystal clear. Mesmerizingly clear. You can look across the lake and see smooth and rounded rocks scattered across the lake bottom. The lake is also relatively small at just a few hundred metres across and unexpectedly warm to swim in. Breathtakingly cold lakes are the norm in the Whistler area. Try swimming in Wedgemount, Joffre, Russet, Cirque, Cheakamus or Garibaldi Lake for any length of time and you will be shivering cold. You can manage a minute or two swimming in these lakes, but certainly not 20 or 30 minutes as you can in Brew Lake. There are even some massive, flat topped erratics in the lake to swim to and lounge on. The sun makes them amazingly warm on a sunny day. The edge of the lake surrounded by grass areas littered with erratics making it tricky to find a spot for a tent, but easy to find a place to sit. Once you do find a place for your tent, further exploration reveals countless other great spots. Grassy clifftops, clearings at the edge of streams.
A third aspect of Brew Lake that beats the local, alpine lake competition is the hike itself. It is amazing. Comparable in difficulty to the Wedgemount Lake trail, though two kilometres shorter and packed with things to see. From the dozen or so amazing viewpoints on various plateaus steps from the trail to the endless gnarled, weather-beaten, yet captivating forests of twisted, mangled, huge and bewildering trees. Over and over along the 5 kilometre trail you stop and stare in wonder at how a huge tree, 30 metres tall can have an absurd, sideways L-shape in its trunk big enough to stand in. You see it over and over until eventually you work out that when these trees are young they spend most of the year under metres of snow. Over the years they grow at an unusual looking right angle, as if growing sideways. Eventually the tree grows big and thick enough to not have the snow push it over and it grows vertical again. But of course it keeps this hilarious L-shape as it continues to grow. You start spotting the smaller ones everywhere you look. The trunk comes out of the ground one metre, then one metre horizontal, then one metre vertical again. Hilarious. Absurd and hilarious.
Another remarkable highlight of the Brew Lake trail are the boulder fields along the continuously steep route. Over and over, you climb over and in between truck sized boulders absurdly crowded together from centuries of crumbling from the alarmingly steep cliffs above. Often, you stop and lean against a cliff to catch your breath only to notice that it is not a cliff, but instead a ridiculously enormous boulder that is perched on the edge of a cliff of other sized boulders, themselves perched on a cliff of boulders. None of which look capable of supporting what is above it. And all of which look likely to collapse in a cataclysmic instant that would forever leave you under a mile of mountain.
Strangely the chaotic brutality of these sections of the Brew Lake trail are also some of the most dramatically beautiful. Seeing boulders, some the size of houses as far as you can see. Giant mangled trees crushed between them. Then in a few steps you are back in the forest, clinging to tree roots as you scramble up steep tunnels of forest squinting to see the next orange trail marker. Every so often you emerge from the jungle tunnels to a flat clearing, oddly dry and hardly any trees. What trees there are are ferociously hardy looking krummholz. Once again, you eventually work out the reason for such unusual little places in the otherwise lush forest. These places exist on relatively recently deposited, house sized boulders. Centuries have smoothed the surrounding areas over into lush forests, but some of these bulges are too high in the ground. The soil is thin and any trees that take root have to survive on what become like small desert islands. Dry and hot all summer and only the hardiest of trees survive. Twisted, gnarled krummholz occupy these eerie and numerous, dry plateaus.
The Brew Lake trail, which has at least three access points, none with signs, however, the trail itself is well marked. So once you find the trail markers you will have found the Brew Lake trail. The various ways are not very straight forward and active logging in the area seems to effect the access points almost yearly. Brew Lake in the past was often reached by starting at Brandywine Falls Provincial Park and hiking along train tracks for a couple kilometres before reaching a barely marked Brew Lake trailhead at the edge of the train tracks. This access is long and tedious, parking is a big problem, and of course walking along the train tracks is illegal.
There is a better and shorter access point further up the Brew Lake Trail, accessible from the Brew Main Road and seems to currently be the shortest summer hiking route (as of September 2013). This area is home to the Whistler RV Park and Campground, and despite the logging road leading to the unmarked trailhead to Brew Lake, it is not too difficult to find. From the Sea to Sky Highway (16 kilometres south of Whistler Village at Village Gate Boulevard), turn right onto Brew Creek Road. See the map below for detailed directions and parking and trailhead locations. This route is considerably shorter than the longer, train track trespassing route that has been used in the past.
Brew Lake - Parking, Hiking & Camping Details
The logging road that you take from the paved Brew Main Road is very smooth gravel with hardly any potholes and easily drivable by cars. This logging road takes you three kilometres up into the forest and across a bridge where the smooth logging road suddenly becomes terribly overgrown and has several huge washouts. Cars will need to park along the road just past this bridge (see map below), and hike this short, easy and scenic 1.3k to the access point to the Brew Lake Trail. If you have a 4x4 you can continue further depending on how well you fare with washouts. Most 4x4's should be OK for the first couple washouts. There are plenty of places to park along the edge of the overgrown road on this last stretch of road.
Finding the Brew Lake trail is tricky from this overgrown logging road as the flagging tapes only begin when you near the trail(about 30 metres from the overgrown logging road). This short, 30 metre long section that sort of links the old logging road to the Brew Lake trail is hard to spot. It is however, very accurately shown on the map below. So just look for where it should be and walk into the trees until you spot the orange tree markers as well as the large yellow, square reflectors on the trees. They signify a fork in a trail, which you will immediately come to. Take the right fork and you will start ascending the very well marked trail. Make sure you remember these large tree markers or you may walk past this junction on your return journey.
The trail is well marked with orange tape, yellow tree reflectors, older worn out silver tree reflectors and rock cairns almost every dozen metres. This is well needed though as the trail is at times extremely steep, for the most part overgrown and never in a straight line as it winds its way through wonderfully deep forest. You gain elevation very fast and there are dozens of fantastic viewpoints. Black Tusk and Mount Garibaldi are clearly visible across the valley as well as Wedge Mountain in the distance.
Despite the frequency of trail markings, it is very easy to wander off of the trail, and this is a very dangerous trail to get lost on. Much of it traverses through mighty boulder fields with precarious truck sized rocks around and above you. Fortunately, if/when you stray off of the trail, backtracking a few metres gets you back on track easily and the trail markers are so consistent that if you don't see one for more than 30 metres or so, you are probably not on the trail. Keep this in mind on the boulder sections. You will always see rock cairns to guide you so if you don't see any indications of a trail, cairn, worn path or other markers, then don't continue for more than 30 metres. You definately want to have a map of the trail in your pocket and/or a gps or smartphone/tablet with a gps and map of the area for peace of mind and safety. Having a flashlight/headlamp on this trail is essential for safety as well. When the sun gets low in the sky in the evening the trail markers get very hard to spot.
If you do weather the difficult hike you will arrive at a beautiful, secluded backcountry paradise. Beautiful alpine hills and green meadows everywhere you look. There is even a hut available to use further up toward Mount Brew that is usable by anyone. It is easy to find. From the shore of Brew Lake look up and you will see a distinct trail disappearing into the distance across the lake. Follow this trail for about 45 minutes and you will arrive at the hut.
By way of comparison to other hiking trails in the Whistler area, Brew Lake ranks as very difficult. Overall the elevation gain is considerable as you gain 745 metres in just 5 kilometres! Almost equal to the notoriously challenging Wedgemount Lake trail which gains 1220 metres in just 7k. Or the nearby Cirque Lake trail which gains 300 metres in just 2 kilometres The trail length is quite short compared to most other trails around Whistler. The Brew Lake trail is just 5 kilometres long, one way. Compare that to the Wedgemount Lake trail at 7k, the Garibaldi Lake trail at 9k, Black Tusk at 13.5k and Panorama Ridge at 15k!
There are lots of places to put up a tent along the erratic strewn shores of Brew Lake and further up the slope toward Mount Brew there are several amazing meadows, grass clearings and beautiful streams to camp near. Keep in mind that snow persists in this area well into the summer. Sometimes patches of snow will be seen well into August despite the daytime temperatures in the mid 20's (80-90 Fahrenheit)! As Brew Lake is not part of any park it doesn't have campsite facilities like you would find in Garibaldi Park, but you quickly see that this is a good thing. Not that Garibaldi Park campsite facilities are bad, but having a few untouched places within hiking distance are great to find and have a serenity about them that tent pads and signs take away from.
Unlike the majority of the amazing hiking trails in Whistler and Garibaldi Park, the Brew Lake trail is dog friendly. Your dog will go insane with excitement when he spots the bizarre little swimming mice that can be found on the far shore of the lake amongst the boulders. They run around in pairs, oddly not taking notice of humans. Chasing each other along the shores and in and under the water remarkably fast providing an unusual show. For a look at some of the best dog friendly hiking trails around Whistler try here..
There are no campsite facilities at Brew Lake, just a beautiful wilderness paradise. If you want civilized comfort, hike up towards Mount Brew and you will come to the Brew Hut. An elaborate two level hut that is well equipped and capable of accommodating over dozen people! Popular in the winter with skiers, the Brew Hut is rarely used in the summer. Maintained by the Varsity Outdoor Club of UBC, the hut is insulated, has a wood stove, gas stove, lantern and a nearby outhouse. With the scarcity of firewood though, don't expect to use the wood stove in the summer as this is a luxury reserved for the cold winters. In the summer months the Brew Hut is more of a curiosity to explore than an essential shelter as it is the rest of the year. If you do stay at the Brew Hut the VOC requests a $10 usage fee, per person, per night and there is a drop-box at the hut for that purpose.
Brew Lake - Trail Map and Trailhead Directions
Printer, smartphone and tablet friendly. Designed to fit standard printers and copiers. To print: Right Click on the map, save image as, save to desktop, then open the image and print on standard size printer paper. Cell coverage is reliable for most of the trail and the vicinity of Brew Lake and Mount Brew so you will likely be able to access the internet if you have a data plan, however saving this image may be a good idea if you can't get a signal.
From the Sea to Sky Highway (16 kilometres south of Whistler Village at Village Gate Boulevard), turn right onto Brew Creek Road(the next turnoff after the Callaghan Valley turnoff to Whistler Olympic Park). Use this map to find the trailhead as there are no signs and the trail is not visible from the logging road. This route is considerably shorter than the longer, train track trespassing route that has been used in the past. If you are driving from Vancouver, Brew Creek Road is the first left after Brandywine Falls Provincial Park.