Care to take a hike in the footsteps of pioneers? Follow the trail to Garibaldi Lake and the Black Tusk north of Squamish and you'll be doing just that. A decade or more before the creation of Garibaldi Provincial Park in the 1920s, climbers from Vancouver's fledgling B.C. Mountaineering Club were already clearing a route to the glacier-fed, turquoise-hued lake and sombre volcanic pillar, one of the most iconic natural features in the Sea to Sky corridor. With the exception of Stawamus Chief Mountain, no other rock formation in the surrounding fortress of coastal peaks is as noticeable or so readily identifiable in a region that's a living lesson in geological history. If that isn't inducement enough, consider that in autumn the colour of Garibaldi Lake is at the apex of its intensity.
Garibaldi Lake is often compared to Lake Louise for its splendour. On the phone from her office in Squamish, Vicki Haberl, planner for B.C. Parks' Lower Mainland regional office, agreed with the comparison. However, she felt that Garibaldi appears even better than its Alberta counterpart because visitors have to earn the view by first undertaking a nine-kilometre, three-hour hike to reach its subalpine shore rather than simply walk a short distance from a parking lot, as is the case with Banff National Park's centrepiece.
During the ascent to the lake, one of the most arresting sights is the Barrier, an enormous lava-flow dam that blocked the valley to originally form the lake. In the mid-1800s, a large portion of its red rock face calved off. Remnants of the avalanche are easily spotted along the banks of aptly named Rubble Creek, which vents from the base of the Barrier, and in the debris fan on both sides of the Cheakamus River. For the best perspective, pause at the six-kilometre viewpoint. Rocks dislodged from the sheer wall continually tumble down into Rubble's percolating white water below.
Garibaldi Lake Trail is surprisingly smooth and welcoming, unlike other rocks-and-roots paths, such as the Helm Creek Trail, an alternate approach to the lake from the Whistler side. Thanks to crews of hydrologists dispatched to the lake in the 1930s to investigate the energy-generating potential of the region, accompanied by wagonloads of summer hikers, today's trail covers much the same gently switchbacked path. Just as then, hikers are advised to carry emergency supplies to cope with ever-changing conditions in the backcountry. B.C. Parks still provides outhouses at Garibaldi Lake, but the Environment Ministry's latest budget afforded no funds for toilet paper, so hikers must bring their own. In 2002, Victoria instituted pay parking in provincial parks. Given the current deficit, pay toilets may be next.
In many ways, this summer has been particularly taxing for B.C. Parks' staff. Among the new duties assigned the remaining three rangers who supervise Garibaldi Park's massive 1,946-square-kilometre range is backpacking in maintenance equipment. Due to cutbacks, annual helicopter supply flights were cancelled. Haberl said that staff visits to the park have been so fleeting that B.C. Parks didn't bother opening the lake's ranger cabin, part of a nest of shelters that housed youth work crews several decades ago.
Photographer Paul Morrison, whose wife, Gail, cooked for the 25-member crews in the late 1970s and early 1980s, recalled that trail-building and maintenance once went on full-time in the summer. On the phone from their Whistler home, the Morrisons, who annually camp at the lake, told the Georgia Straight that in recent years their pet peeve is that no day-to-day maintenance is done on the entire Garibaldi Lake Trail, just patchwork repairs where needed. This is a surprising situation, given that every day hundreds of visitors hike the trail. Indeed, Garibaldi Lake's three campgrounds overflow on weekends between May and October with outdoor buffs drawn from the Lower Mainland, Europe, and Australasia. At times, foot traffic to and from the lake is so busy it rivals vehicle congestion on nearby Highway 99.
Both the Morrisons and Haberl agreed that Garibaldi Lake draws a crowd because of its predictable access coupled with majestic scenery. Whether you sport a light backpack for a day's visit, come more heavily laden to camp, or spiral around the Black Tusk in a paraglider, as some intrepid people do, the view of the lake from Panorama Ridge is a wonder to behold. In the same breath, Paul Morrison could hardly find words to say how disgusted he was to see a natural treasure being run into the ground.
Although Haberl asserted that Garibaldi is one park where the rules are more stringent, such as no dogs or campfires, she did admit that enforcement was problematic with so few staff.
From ranger Dominique Monnier's perspective, the best time to visit Garibaldi Lake is before snowflakes begin to fly at higher elevations. A self-described “dirt-bag climber”, Monnier told the Straight that summer work finances her mountaineering exploits the remainder of the year. As she leaned on a shovel in the silence, the voice of a creek below Sphinx Glacier on the wide lake's far shore could be heard. Her recommendation: set aside three days to ski or snowshoe the route between the Elfin Lakes hut in the park's Diamond Head region and the Garibaldi Lake campground in late winter or early spring. Like charity, that's when snow can be counted on to cover up a multitude of sins. Just don't forget your toilet paper.
Access: The well-marked Garibaldi Lake–Black Tusk trailhead lies 100 kilometres north of Vancouver, just east of Highway 99. Details on Garibaldi Provincial Park are posted at www.env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks/explore/parkpgs/garibaldi. A good perspective on the current state of B.C. Parks is posted at www.friendsofstrathcona.wordpress.com/park-funding.