Winter Snowshoe Camping at Elfin Lakes

A trip into a winter wonderland

Last weekend Haney invited Yuki and I to go snowshoe camping at Elfin Lakes. We didn’t have a lot of time to organize and coordinate, agreeing to to Thursday, so we rushed Friday night to prepare food and organize our gear.

Further trouble to the planning occurred Friday night when Haney’s boyfriend Elliot booked a Modo Nissan Rogue only to find out that the battery was dead. His phone was also dead so it took him an hour to find a phone and call for a boost. Then he had to drive around to recharge the battery.

We got going early Saturday morning at 5:30. The plan was to snowshoe into Elfin Lakes in Garibaldi Lake to a year-round cabin where we could stay the night. The cabin is very popular because it is one of the only heated cabins around and is easily accessible so we aimed to arrive early.

We got off to a good start at 5:30 but soon drove into dense fog on the North shore limiting visibility to less than 30m. We had to slow right down and take it careful. In Squamish we stopped at McDonalds for take-out breakfast and then got on the road again. Yuki and I were surprised when we turned back South but the other two had been to Elfin Lakes before and knew the way. Following Google Maps, we turned down Mamquam road at the base of the Chief and got onto a forest service road. Excited, we barrelled down the empty road slowly climbing into the mountains.

Eventually we came to a fork in the road which wasn’t on Haney’s google maps. At first we went down the right side but then I pulled out our offline maps to double check and it seemed like the other way went in the direction we wanted to go. We were able to make a u-turn and go up the left side. We passed a water tower that they recognized and not long after we then suddenly dumped the front end of the suv into a trench crossing the road.

Usually when the forest roads are closed they dig trenches across the road to stop people from venturing in. We had unknowingly driven into one bottoming the front of the Rogue. Reversing out and we went to investigate. It was clear that the trench had eroded with the help of a little stream into a ditch. Unfazed, I spotted while Elliot maneuvered across the shallow side. We got stuck spinning the wheels so we piled up some rocks on the lower side and Yuki, Haney, and I pushed. Triumphant, not 50 meters further up the road there was another trench. This one was shallower and we crossed it with relative ease. Then another 50 meters was a third trench. After crossing this trench and making a tight turn on a switch back we crossed a fourth trench and at the fifth, we decided to check our maps again. It seemed like we had taken the wrong turn. This meant that we had to backtrack across the last four trenches.

Yuki and I were having a blast but the other two were pretty nervous. It made me realize how much more experience we have driving down forest roads so when we turned down the “right” road and came to a steep hill mostly covered in snow, we took on the challenge directing the driver to keep the right side on an exposed line of gravel at the edge of a ditch. Climbing our way up, we confirmed that while the Nissan Rogue says it is a 4x4 on the driver’s dash, it really is more of an AWD. Mid-way up the hill we spotted two trucks at the top so we walked up and talking with them found out that we were completely on the wrong road.

It turns out that there are two roads: Mamquam Forest Service Road and Mamquam Road. We had failed to check the BC Parks website which says that Google Maps is wrong. The real kicker was that Friday night I had asked if anyone had prepared maps and seeing as no one had, I had printed some maps incase we needed them in an emergency. They lay unused in my backpack as we galavanted through the wilderness. One double check would have confirmed that the road into Garibaldi Park is much further North. Oh well, Yuki and I enjoyed bombing through the forest roads but now it was time to backtrack to the highway and get on the right road.

It turns out that the proper road is paved most of the way. The turn-off is after McDonalds at Canadian Tire and passes Quest University. Afterwards there is a dirt road but it is well maintained. In the parking lot we saw several sedans and other cars indicating that it is quite accessible and a truck isn’t actually needed.

We arrived two hours later than originally anticipated so when we talked to the park ranger we were able to secure 4 spots with only 6 remaining of the 33 beds in the cabin. Then we joined a small crowd of ski touring guys and girls making their way up the trail.

The trail is pretty easy for the first part. It appears to be an old forest road and makes for a wide shallow incline. At the first switchback we stopped to strip off some layers. Elliot lost a water bottle and we all watched as it rolled slowly down the compacted snow and disappear off to the side of the trail and into the woods. This was unfortunate but Yuki and I always pack extra water incase someone doesn’t have enough and so we didn’t have a problem. We would stop several more times to layer down or layer up depending on the temperature. Hiking is pretty energetic work and it doesn’t take much to start sweating.

The Team reorganizing gear

Further up the trail enters the woods and comes out in an alpine meadow. At 5 km of the 11 km trail there is small hut here which is heated and has a propane stove. It is called the Read Heather Meadows hut and is frequently used as a resting spot on the way to Elfin Lakes and for day trip ski touring groups. We stopped for a short rest here and then continued up. We saw several snowshoers on their way down and some of them had crazy carpets. This got us excited because Yuki and I had packed our toboggans too. The way down was looking like it was going to be a lot of fun.

After Red Heather, the trail climbs onto a ridgeline and with a few ups and downs towards Elfin Lakes. The sky was mostly overcast so we didn’t have fantastic views but when the clouds did part we got some nice glimpses of the snow-covered mountains.

Yuki at the top of the ridge overlooking the great view

Apparently in the summer there are meadows of alpine flowers that are extraordinarily beautiful.

Elliot and Haney sit on the deck of Elfin Lakes Cabin

The Elfin Lakes Cabin is one of the best in the region because it is heated by propane and has propane stoves for cooking. Few other cabins, if any, are heated and do not require hikers to pack cooking ware. It also sleeps 33 people so there are lots of people around. I was surprised that most of the campers were actually snowshoers and not ski tourers. I would have thought there would be few snowshoers but apparently it’s quite common. We also saw a few groups setting up tents for the night and met one couple that slept in an ice cave. Several people have made igloos and ice caves around the hut which are surprisingly spacious. One of the igloos could have slept all of us. Apparently with the right cold-weather sleeping bag and a small candle, it’s possible to warm the ice caves and sleep okay in them.

The Mountains near Elfin Lake Cabin

While Haney and Elliot Napped, Yuki and I went outside to get some photos. It wasn’t generally that cold outside while we were moving around and hiking but as soon as we stopped our body temperatures dropped. After a while Yuki went inside to warm up but I went to explored the ice caves.

After a curry fried rice dinner that I prepared the night before we all went outside to see the sunset. We were a little late so we only caught the last of it. This was a great end to the day and a good time to relax after a hard day of hiking.

It seemed like everyone went to bed at the same time, and got up together. Because there are no dividing walls, there isn’t any sound insulation so once someone starts making noise everyone is up. Our wet boots and socks hadn’t dried overnight but we had packed extra socks so our feet were somewhat drier. Elliot used plastic bags to keep his feet drier.

It snowed overnight and was snowing in the morning so I think a lot of people were anxious to get going. The trail is well marked with bright orange poles approximately every 50 meters so we didn’t have trouble making our way back. It was windy up on the ridge so when we stopped for a break we all faced in the same direction. Although I didn’t take any photos, I really enjoyed being out in the backcountry tramping through the snow. It was a lot of fun to actually need the snow shoes to not sink in and to sometimes make our own way because the trail had been covered in snow.

When we got to the highest point, Yuki and I stowed our snowshoes and broke out the crazy carpets. Haney and Elliot had brought heavy duty garbage bags that worked okay but were a lot harder on the butt. For the rest of the trip down we took turns sledding down the trail. It wasn’t always steep enough to gather enough momentum but when we were able to get going we were able to scoot along the trail and follow the contours left by the ski tourers.

Surprisingly, we were some of the last off the mountain and we didn’t have enough time to go back to Metrotown to wash the car off before returning it as originally planned so we headed straight for Vancouver City Hall. After cleaning up the car and returning it to it’s parking stall we took transit home.

Special thanks to Haney for inviting us on this great trip!