This weekend we headed to Diamond Head / Elfin Lakes, a relatively accessible but spectacular alpine area in Garibaldi Provincial Park. It was the first truly autumnal hike of the year, and the weather was overcast, but not raining, with short breaks of sun.
I’ll describe our experience, but first, the pertinent details:
• The Ministry of the Environment does a great job of an ongoing trail report on the area, so check here for the latest before you go.
• Access to Diamond Head is via Highway 99. Heading north on the highway, pass downtown Squamish going towards Garibaldi Highlands. Look for Mamquam Road (it’s a major intersection at a set of lights), and make a right there.
• The road to the trailhead parking lot is gravel, full of potholes, and steep in places. In other words, if you’re deciding whether to take the Hyundai Accent or the 4-wheel drive, take the 4-wheel drive.
• From the trailhead, the hike to Elfin Lakes is 11km, each way. The first 5km is on a wide gravel trail through forested terrain. Enjoyable, but hardly breathtaking.
• Once you hit Red Heather Meadow at 5km, you are in the glorious alpine.
• From there it’s about 1km uphill through terrain that resembles Middle Earth.
• Then you gently descend a ridge for the next 5km until you reach the idyllic Elfin Lakes and the Elfin Lake shelter.
• Expect about a 5 hour trip, including a one hour lunch break at the lakes.
• The summer season in the Diamond Head area is short – July to early October. On this visit, there was zero snow cover on the ground, but that is the exception rather than the rule. On all other visits I’ve been grateful for waterproof hiking boots with good grip.
The Elfin Lakes trail is one of my all-time favourites. It’s moderate in terms of challenge (with the first 5km being the most challenging), and at five hours, isn’t so long – but the payoff (effort vs spectacular view) is enormous.
This was Steve’s first time to Elfin Lakes. My first visit was at age 13 or 14 with a party that included my father, brother, uncle, aunt, and cousins. We were quite a troop of happy wanderers. I’ve been up about five times since, and that feeling of exhilaration I get when emerging from the trees into the alpine does not diminish over time or with repeated visits. And I hate to overuse a word, but the view of Elfin Lakes with Diamond Head in the background really is idyllic.
Something that’s always appealed to me about hiking is that you have to work pretty hard. But if you put in the effort, you will be rewarded. And a huge part of the reward is being somewhere, and seeing something that not everyone has the time, ability, or inclination to see. It makes the experience feel rare, and like a great privilege.
But one of the other things about hiking…once you get to what you thought was your destination, there’s always just a bit farther you want to go. Just over one more ridge is really the place you are meant to be. The Diamond Head area has seemingly unlimited scope for “just a little farther.” From the Elfin Lake shelter, you can head to the Saddle (7km), Little Diamond Head (7km), or Opal Cone (6.5 km, for what I understand are spectacular views).
And then there’s Mamquam Lake. This year we’ve only done day hikes, which we are considering to be reconnaissance missions for larger one/two night hikes next year. And an overnight at Mamquam Lake is high on our list of priorities. Mamquam Lake is about another 11km past Elfin Lakes, so not really hikeable in a day. But check out the payoff. Wow.
The photos in this blog post are from a visit to Elfin Lakes in August of 2011. On the day we went this year, the cloud cover over the mountains reduced my interest in taking photos. But looking back, all I can think about were the stunning autumn colours in the alpine. The ground was aflame with reds, purples, corals, and yellows. While I’m not sure my iphone camera could have captured it adequately, I wish I had something to look back at. Perfect autumns in this area are rare and precious…who knows when we’ll see another?
That’s the great thing about revisiting a favourite trail several times…it’s something new in different weather and at different times of year. Maybe someday we’ll even get to see it in winter, with a pair of snowshoes strapped to our feet.
What I learned on this hike:
• Always bring a dry top to change into. Even though it wasn’t a particularly cold day and it wasn’t raining, when the clouds moved in, a sweaty top quickly became clammy and cold. A change would have been nice.
• A 4-wheel drive helps get you to the Diamond Head trailhead.
• Always take photos!
• Mamquam Lake, here we come.