Just as grass is always greener in neighbouring back yards, lake water is always bluer the next valley over. At least that seems to be the case along the Sea to Sky corridor. With the advent of hot weather, droves of city dwellers turn their backs on the Salish Sea and head north to picnic and camp on the shores of Alice Lake north of Squamish. In turn, local residents there, as well as from Whistler and Pemberton, pack picnic hampers and journey farther up the highway to Birkenhead Lake, north of Pemberton and Garibaldi Provincial Park.
It’s a tough call as to which of the two lakes makes a better choice. Alice Lake’s waterfront is certainly more urban, in a manicured kind of way, with the added advantages of warmer swimming plus an expansive network of footpaths and cycling trails. On the other hand, Birkenhead Lake is far larger with more rugged surroundings to charm paddlers and anglers alike. And for the first time this year, running water is available at its campsites, marking the end of the hand-pump era. As for popularity, it’s a tossup. Reservations at each provincial park are strongly recommended. Trust me. When the Georgia Straight visited Birkenhead Lake at the start of the Victoria Day weekend, the park was full; only a few spots remained in the tightly spaced overflow section.
Although Alice Lake offers the convenience of proximity to Metro Vancouver, if travel time is not an issue, the three-hour drive to Birkenhead Lake beyond Squamish offers a wealth of rewards along the way. Minutes north of Alice Lake, spectacular views of the Tantalus Range, a massive wall of glaciated peaks, unfold to the west of the highway above the Squamish Valley. Beyond Whistler, traffic thins noticeably. Nothing tops the release of making your way out of the mountains through Pemberton before following the historic Gold Rush Trail route—now a paved road—as it winds and climbs alongside the Birkenhead River toward D’Arcy.
In contrast to Alice, where little of the circular lake is concealed, Birkenhead is far more outstretched. Much of its southern half is hidden from view of the park’s sandy beach at the north end. By land, the best way to see the lake and surrounding peaks unfold is to follow a six-kilometre portion of the Sea to Sky Trail that leads above the north shore. The trail lends itself just as readily to cycling as walking, though be prepared to shoulder your bike when rock-hopping across a creek or two. Either coming or going, those on foot would do well to loop along the two-kilometre Lakeside Trail that links the campground with a grove of old-growth Douglas fir and the Sea to Sky Trail above. Encouraged by the wind, trunks of sagging snags rub together, eliciting deep groans from the forest canopy. Find a sheltered spot on the beach in front of the grove where you can admire Birkenhead Mountain’s three peaks, which rise in graceful ascendancy. Other than here and at the park’s beach—replete with picnic tables, an off-leash dog area, and a boat launch—access points to the lake are scarce for those on foot.
Far more numerous vantage points await those who explore the lake by water. Set out early in the day to paddle to the southern end before a predictable breeze disturbs the glassy surface. Pull in to picnic and sunbathe where avalanche chutes have created gravel bars. From these, you can admire the spires of Sun God Mountain dominant to the south and mounts Gandalf and Shadowfax to the north. Even better, come ashore on the sandbar where Sockeye Creek flows into the lake’s midpoint. Competition for these prime spots is as avid as that for the Dolly Varden char sought by anglers bobbing off the mouth of the creek.
Whether you find yourself at Alice or Birkenhead lakes, one thing is certain: the implicit reward of exploring either is the discovery that, yes, the greens of the forest and the blues of the lakes surpass anything on offer in your back yard.
Access: Alice Lake Provincial Park lies 72 kilometres north of Vancouver, just east of Highway 99 in Squamish. Birkenhead Lake lies a farther 153 kilometres north, 219 kilometres from Vancouver. A fee of $24 per night is charged for each of Alice Lake’s 108 campsites and $15 per night for Birkenhead’s 79 spaces. To make campsite reservations, call 604-689-9025.