Autumn’s chill beckons paddlers and hikers to Whistler lakes and trails
Better hurry—ice crystals will be forming soon on subalpine lakes and trails around Whistler, glassing turquoise-hued surfaces and sprouting from newly frosted ground. Now is the time to pay a final visit shod in hiking boots or with a paddle in hand, to be replaced soon enough by ski poles or snowshoes.
And what a magical time autumn is. Pity those who can’t witness the colours wrought by a succession of nights when the thermometer dips. Nature’s treasure chest waits in a landscape aglow with gold, red, and purple tones. Come along as the Georgia Straight offers the keys to two such recently visited vaults.
First up: Callaghan Lake, set in the provincial park of the same name. Poised at the tree line just south of the resort, the initial approach is easily accomplished. A blacktopped road winds uphill from the Sea to Sky Highway and delivers travellers to the entrance of the Whistler Olympic Park, site of Nordic-ski trails and jumps, one of the lasting legacies of the 2010 Winter Games.
Pause here for a quick look at Alexander Falls, where waters from Madeley Creek tumble below a wooden bridge and course downhill through a thickly wooded valley to merge with the Cheakamus River. Care to overnight en route? The Cal-Cheak forest-service recreation site opposite the Whistler Olympic Park turnoff on Highway 99 offers an inviting valley-bottom campground.
The road above the Whistler Olympic Park transitions abruptly from asphalt to bedrock for the eight-kilometre climb to lakeside. With luck, B.C. Parks may have graded the route a final time. Snowfall accumulations in the upper Callaghan Valley are typically prodigious and leave the approach road to the lake unsuitable for four-wheeled vehicles in all but summer and early autumn months. Depending on the size and frequency of potholes, allow as much as a half-hour to reach the lake’s shoreline. Bonus: by now, frost has dealt a death blow to biting insects.
A rough launch site with several channels cleared of jagged-edged granite teeth invites kayaks and canoes to float onto the clear depths of the two-kilometre-long lake. The voice of a waterfall at the lake’s far end, augmented by wind in the branches of the old-growth forest, carries in the air and blends into a common chord, with an airy note rising closer at hand where Callaghan Creek makes its rapid outflow. From this vantage point, views of surrounding Coast Mountains trump all else. Pairs of loons glide along, momentarily diving, then bobbing up to keep a wary eye on your progress.
From out on the lake, a parade of peaks suddenly appears above the timberline, the foremost being the iconic Black Tusk. Allow a half-hour to reach the lake’s far end; having endured the approach road, you don't need to rush. Drift in the shallows to catch the light show as the shadows of paddlers and the ripples set off by the dip of paddle blades dance across the emerald-coloured bottom in an entrancing aquatic display.
Not everyone owns a watercraft, but most of us are blessed with legs. What kind of shape are yours in? If you’ve spent time this summer putting one foot in front of the other on a mountain trail or two, reward yourself with a climb to Wedgemount Lake in Garibaldi Provincial Park. Its trailhead lies just north of Whistler’s Emerald Estates neighbourhood via a short, well-maintained dirt road off Highway 99.
One caveat: at seven kilometres, this trail may not seem that long, but don’t be fooled. The average three-hour ascent to the glacier-fed lake will give a true measure of your fitness level. The relentless descent may hobble even the most avid Grouse Grind habitué. Do yourself a favour: if you doubt your or your companions’ abilities, treat yourself to the much gentler trail to the equally enchanting Cheakamus Lake, a three-kilometre ramble whose well-marked trailhead lies near Function Junction at the resort’s southern approach.
Autumn rains prompt a profusion of colourful fungi to sprout beside the Wedgemount Lake Trail. The lake feeds a creek of the same name whose course parallels the trail for much of the way. Its commotion spurs hikers onward and upward toward the source of all that tumbling white water glimpsed occasionally through the trunks of the old-growth fir forest whose stocky size diminishes in accordance with the gain in altitude. The cruellest part of this test lies near the top: just when you think the trail can’t get any steeper, it does. If at this point you entertain second thoughts, listen to your body—there’s no shame in turning back. The lake won’t disappear anytime soon, though the glacier that feeds it has shrunk noticeably since the Straight first reported on this route three decades ago. Try again next year.
The sentiments of those who do surmount the final rocky pitch are recorded in a logbook kept inside a modest cabin poised above the lake. Entry after entry raves about the beauty of the setting amid Garibaldi’s tallest peaks, played off against the challenge of the climb. One overachiever boasts of having reached this point in less than two hours.
Whatever. Not just the fittest reap the accolades; all who make it share equally in the glorious rewards.