A lot of trails near Vancouver are very popular. A lot of them are Instagram famous. Some of these trails are good to do once. Experience it, enjoy it, and then find the less beaten path.
Elfin Lakes is worthy of the hype and fame. However those who only visit for a day are missing out on the real wonder of this place.
In the past year I’ve hiked this trail three times: spring, summer and fall. Over the course of my visits I’ve mentally split the trail into three sections.
The trail to Elfin Lakes starts at the end of a long forest service road. The trailhead is at 3200 ft. The first 3 miles are on the relatively easy slope of a decommissioned forest service road. Unfortunately this section is also the most boring with no views to be found in the thick forest. After gaining 1400 ft, the trail opens up into Red Heather Meadows. There’s a warming hut with a stove for winter use. It also makes a good rest stop before the next climb.
The next couple of miles gain another 600 ft alongside meadows and open slopes with great views north and west. In the winter the trail is rerouted to the east side of the ridge in order to avoid avalanche terrain. The high point of the trail is at a comfortable 5200 ft elevation, and boy are the views fantastic.
The last stretch is a 2.5 mile wander along the ridge. The trail gradually drops and offers views of the Tantalus Range to the west and the snow-topped peaks of Garibaldi Provincial Park to the north and east. The lakes are hidden from view until coming over one last crest. The trail drops and gives you a first look at both small lakes. The campground is just to the north-east of the lakes. The overnight shelter is another hundred yards further.
My first visit to Elfin Lakes was in April of last year. I’d snowshoed up the trail with a friend in the afternoon, with food and gear to spend the night in the shelter. It was cool and crisp, with nice views of the surrounding mountains. It felt like a long time before we caught sight of the ranger’s hut that sits alongside the lakes. I really didn’t even know where exactly the lakes were!
There was so much snow that we entered the shelter on the second story balcony. There were steps carved into the snow for access to the outhouse. We really enjoyed the warm comfort of the shelter that night, as well as the company of the few other people who’d made the snowy trek. My best memory of that trip is waking up in the middle of the night and stepping outside to see the stars. They were so bright and clear, plus there was a gentle glow of northern lights!
My second trip to Elfin Lakes was late September. I wanted to bring my husband to this beautiful place. I reserved a couple beds in the shelter, not wanting to risk being too cold in the campground. On this visit, we started our hike in the morning. It was really neat to see the trail without snow, and to realize that it follows a slightly different route in the winter. The views to the west were so much better!
We reached the crest above the lakes a little after noon. The lakes were stunning under the autumn sunshine. We settled into the warm shelter and made some lunch. In the afternoon I enjoyed a short hike to a saddle beside a peak called The Gargoyles. It gave me incredible views of Garibaldi Mountain and the glacier fields beyond it.
My most recent trip was this month. I knew I needed another training hike and I decided to revisit Elfin Lakes. This time I hiked solo, and reserved a site in the campground. I also decided to go mid-week, avoiding the much much busier weekend days.
I started my hike after lunch. I took lots of breaks to take pictures and to drink lots of water. My first view of Elfin Lakes was much more like the photos I’d seen! The lakes were full, and the grass was green. There was even some snow along the shore. The campground has enough tent pads to accommodate over thirty tents. They all have a view of the mountains to the north-east thanks to their position at the top of a slope. I had first pick and chose a spot lower down with a wide-open view.
I spent two nights this visit. I explored the green and flower-filled meadows, went on an awesome day hike and even had a quick dip in the (still very cold) lake. I expect by mid-August the snow has all melted and it will be a perfect temperature for swimming. In the evenings I’d sit in the picnic shelter and socialize and then enjoy the alpenglow colours at sunset.
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Elfin Lakes is a fantastic destination. It’s certainly best appreciated under clear blue skies or occasional clouds. The only season I’d avoid is during the mountain spring – wet, soft snow, indecisive air temps, likely chance of rain, and cold breezes.
I highly encourage visiting during quieter weekdays. Plan to spend a night. It’s a very popular destination as a day hike but I don’t believe the day hikers get the full value that the destination has to offer. Instead, take your time to enjoy the scenery on the climb up. Go for a wander down the trail to see the meadows or walk around the lakes to find the perfect photo. Stay up for sunset.
Having the shelter as an option means you don’t have to have sophisticated backpacking gear to stay overnight. The shelter is equipped with propane stoves for cooking and is heated from late September to May. Swap stories with the other campers who are often visiting from other countries (especially in the summer).
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Don’t forget to respect other campers and follow the principles of Leave No Trace.
Reservations are required year-round for both the shelter and the campground.
While it’s close to the city, weather can be quite different and changes quickly. Be prepared with the Ten Essentials.