Tag Archives: hiking

Winter snowshoeing

Top Tips for Winter Hiking

Hiking can absolutely be a year-round activity. However, hiking in winter is a little different to hiking in summer. It’s cold and dark. There are more hazards. And having the right gear can make the difference between a great day out and a downright miserable experience.

If you’re hoping to hit the trails this winter, here are some top tips to keep you safe and warm.

Check the trail conditions

If you’re planning a hike, then you probably have an objective in mind. Do some research to find out what the trail conditions are like.

For recent events, find the nearest mountain listed on mountain-forecast.com and cross-reference the week’s weather with your intended destination. If the hike is in the vicinity of a ski resort, check snow-forecast.com instead. The resort might also have webcams you can check. Then take a look at local hiking forums and social media. Reach out to anyone who’s recently been in the area and ask them questions – was there snow on the trail? Was it horrendously muddy? How’s the access road? Hikers are a friendly bunch and will be more than happy to share information with you.

Let the conditions guide your decision-making. If the trail is likely to present difficulties – such as snow, ice or swollen waterways – then ask yourself if you’re equipped to deal with those kinds of conditions. If not, explore alternative options instead.

Check the weather and time of sunrise/sunset

Checking the weather forecast on the day of your hike is good practice, no matter what month it is. But it’s particularly important during the winter months when small temperature drops can make the difference between hiking in the rain and hiking in a blizzard.

If the weather is less than favourable, don’t be afraid to shelve your plans for another day. Remember, heavy rains can cause rivers to swell, low visibility can make navigation impossible, high winds can cause trees to fall and unstable loading in avalanche terrain. If the weather is going to compromise your safety, don’t go.

Also pay close attention to the number of daylight hours you have available. When checking the forecast, take note of when the sun sets. You can of course hike in the dark if you want (provided you have a sufficient light source), but don’t let it catch you out. You might prefer to start early and finish early. That way, you can be home safe and sound by the time darkness falls.

Woman and dog stand by nearly frozen lake
First snowfall of the season

Wear and carry layers – and lots of them!

Once you’re on the trails, the key is to dress in layers. Actually, this applies year-round, but all the more so in winter when you’ll quickly switch between hot and cold.

In the past, I’d arrive at the trailhead shivering and put all my layers on. Then I’d hike for about five minutes, be sweltering hot and have to take them all off again. I’ve finally learned that I’ll quickly warm up once I get moving. I’ve also learned that it’s bad to overheat while hiking in the winter. Someone once said to me: “you sweat; you die.” This is slightly alarmist, but I get the point. If you start sweating, that moisture will cool on your skin. When you stop, you’ll suddenly be extremely cold.

So, dress in layers. During the hike, remove and add layers as needed. If you’re getting hot, stop and peel some clothes off. If you’re getting cold, stop and add more. It can be tempting to ignore your body temperature and carry on hiking. However, you either risk over-heating – meaning you’ll get sweaty and then eventually become very cold. Or you risk a steady descent into mild hypothermia, from which it can be very difficult to warm up from. Don’t worry about stopping your group so you can layer/un-layer. Chances are, everyone else will want to do the same thing.

On the top, you’ll want a base layer which wicks sweat away. Don’t wear cotton – it retains moisture and will make you colder in the long-run. Then you’ll want a mid-layer, which is something a little warmer like a fleece. Then you’ll want a shell jacket for your outer layer. A waterproof jacket is ideal because it prevents wind chill and keeps you dry. When you stop (or if you get cold), whip out a down jacket and some additional mid-layers to keep you toasty. On your lower half, you’ll want moisture wicking tights/leggings and some waterproof trousers (pants) on top. You can remove the latter if you get hot or conditions are dry.

You should also take a warm hat, gloves and a buff to protect your face from wind chill. I like to take spare gloves and socks, just in case the pair I’m wearing get wet or I’m really, really cold. Take more clothes than you think you need – even if that means taking a bigger bag than you normally would on a day hike.

Wear the right footwear

You can get away with hiking in trainers in the summer. Not so in the winter. You’ll absolutely need waterproof hiking boots. They should be high-cut, meaning they wrap around your ankle. They should also have aggressive lugs which allow for better traction in wet, slippery conditions. If it’s going to be really cold, you can invest in a pair of insulated hiking boots.

Synthetic or wool socks will help keep your feet dry. Gaiters can also be helpful if you’re going to be wading through mud, slush or snow.

Carry micro spikes and snowshoes

If the trail is snow-covered, you’ll either need micro spikes, snowshoes or both. Lots of people automatically reach for snowshoes when they’re hiking in snow. However, snowshoes are only useful for floating in deep snow. They provide a greater surface area so prevent you from sinking. But they don’t have very good grip. If the trail is full of compressed, icy snow, then micro spikes are better. If it’s steep, then you might need crampons.

It’s very easy to slip and hurt yourself in winter conditions. In fact, this is a common cause of winter hiking accidents. Even the first snowfall of the season can turn the trail into an ice rink. If you don’t want to be sliding down on your backside, be sure to carry micro spikes and/or snowshoes with you. Micro spikes can be easily stashed in your bag when you don’t need them, while snowshoes can be lashed onto the outside of your rucksack.

Keep eating and drinking

You might not feel very hungry or thirsty while hiking in winter, yet it’s vital that you keep eating and drinking.

You actually burn more calories while hiking in winter because your body is working harder to keep warm. Stay fuelled by guzzling high-energy snacks at regular intervals. Some foods become solid at low temperatures, so things like a traditional sandwich might not be too palatable. Hunks of hard cheese and dark chocolate work well. I also like to take a flask of hot soup to glug at lunchtime.

Stay hydrated by taking regular sips of water. You might not sweat as much as you do when hiking in summer, but you’re still losing moisture. The tubes on hydration bladders often freeze in cold weather. You can combat this by filling your bladder with warm water and sipping on it frequently throughout the day. You can also try an insulated tube cover, or simply switch to insulated bottles instead.

Prepare for the unexpected

I once read that when even if you’re planning on a day hike, you should be prepared for an overnight hike. This is all the more pertinent in winter when you have fewer daylight hours to get yourself out of a jam.

Always carry the 10 Essentials with you. Then, think like a catastrophist and pack extra of everything. This includes extra layers, food, lights and batteries or chargers for electronics (which often die in cold weather!) Take a bivvy bag just in case you end up camping overnight. Stick some handwarmers in your bag which will save your fingers if you get really cold. And always leave a trip plan with a friend or family member.

Get avalanche safety training

If you plan on venturing into avalanche terrain, then you need to attend an Avalanche Skills Training (AST) course. This gives you the knowledge required to identify avalanche hazards and minimise the risks. You and every member of your party will need to carry an avalanche receiver, probe and shovel – and know how to use them!

It’s a common misconception that only skiers and snowboarders get caught in avalanches. Actually, snowshoers and winter hikers are frequently killed or injured in the mountains, be it in avalanches or collapsed cornices. Obviously, it all depends on where you’re hiking. If you’re trudging across the Mendip Hills in England, you don’t need to know the meaning of surface hoar. But if you’re headed to snowy peaks, it could be crucial. If you’re not sure, book yourself onto a course anyway. You’ll learn a bunch of interesting (and potentially life-saving) information and maybe even make some new hiking buddies in the process.

If you have any other tips for winter hiking then I’d love to hear them!

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Golden larches in Manning Provincial Park

Frosty Mountain Golden Larches Hike

See the golden larches in Manning Provincial Park by hiking the Frosty Mountain trail in late September or early October.

What are the golden larches?

As the season shifts from summer to autumn, there’s one question on every hiker’s mind: have the larches turned golden yet? If you’re wondering what all the hype is about, then let me explain.

You’ve heard of coniferous trees, right? They have needle-like leaves which stay put year-round. Then there are deciduous trees. They turn a riot of colours before shedding their leaves for the season. Well, larches are conifers – but unusually, they also lose their needles. Cool eh?

The result is that for a few precious weeks each year, larch trees around the world turn a beautiful golden colour. Arrive too early and they’ll still be green. Get there too late and the needles will already have dropped, leaving the trees bald until spring.

Just like Goldilocks and her porridge, you’ve got to get it just right.

Golden larches in Manning Provincial Park
Sub-alpine larches turn golden in late September/early October

Where can you see the golden larches?

To get the real wow factor, you’re looking for the sub-alpine larch, known in Latin as the larix lyallii. These are found growing at high elevations where the temperatures are low and the soil is rocky. Stands of sub-alpine larches can be found across Canada and the USA, particularly in the Rockies and the Northern Cascades.

Popular places to see the golden larches include:

  • The Sentinel Pass in Banff National Park, Alberta
  • Chester Lake in Kananaskis Country, Alberta
  • Cathedral Provincial Park, British Columbia
  • Manning Provincial Park, British Columbia
  • Maple Pass Loop, Washington State
  • Cutthroat Pass, Washington State

Golden larches near Vancouver

If you live near Vancouver – and crossing the border isn’t an option (hello Covid) – then the best place to see the golden larches is in Manning Provincial Park.

But here’s the catch: these larches grow high up the side of a mountain. You can’t see them from your car, so you won’t be doing a drive-by photo shoot. Instead, you need to dust off the hiking boots and follow the trail up to Frosty Mountain.

You don’t have to reach the summit of Frosty Mountain, which stands at a considerable 2,408m. In fact, the golden larches plateau is around 2km below the peak. The hike to the plateau is certainly uphill, with approximately 800m elevation gain. But it’s manageable for the intermediate hiker, as the trail ascends gradually during a long series of switchbacks.

Golden larches in Manning Provincial Park
Manning Provincial Park in early October

When to see the golden larches in Manning Provincial Park

The Frosty Mountain hike is typically snow-free from mid-July to early October. To catch the larches at their most vibrant, visit in late September to early October. I went in the first weekend of October and was met with a dazzling array of golden hues.

The weather in late September and early October is unpredictable. The larches are extremely high up and it’s very possible that there will be snow on the ground. Take warm layers and micro-spikes for your hiking boots. Oh, and always carry the 10 Essentials!

Top tip – these glorious larches turn golden for a short period, meaning the trail is very busy at weekends during late September/early October. If possible, time your trip for a week-day.

Frosty Mountain hike quick facts

  • Distance: 22km round trip to Frosty Mountain, or 18km to the larches plateau
  • Start: from the Lightening Lake day-use area in Manning Provincial Park
  • Time needed: between six and nine hours, depending on your speed and whether you go all the way to the summit
  • Dogs: are allowed on leash
  • Elevation gain: 1,150m to the summit, 800m to the larch plateau
  • Camping: is available if you want to do this as an overnight trip. Frosty Creek Wilderness Campsite is around the 7km mark.
  • Alternative routes: it is also possible to reach Frosty Mountain from the Windy Joe trail. Additionally, you can do a loop trail incorporating Lightening Lake, Frosty Mountain and Windy Joe. BC Parks has more information on the options available.
  • The larches in Manning Park: are, according to John Baldwin in Exploring the Coast Mountains on Skis, ‘up to 2,000 years old and are some of the oldest trees in Canada’. Woah.
Manning Provincial Park
It’s thought that these are the oldest trees in Canada!

Hiking the Frosty Mountain trail

The most popular way to see the golden larches in Manning Provincial Park is to hike the Frosty Mountain Trail. This is the route I’ll describe here.

Travel directions

From Vancouver, head east-bound along Highway #1. After Hope, stay in the right-hand lane as it merges into Highway #3. Turn right immediately after Manning Park Resort onto Gibson Pass Road. There’s a signpost for Gibson Pass ski area. After you’ve made the right-hand turn, you’ll see a sign for Lightening Lake. Continue until you reach a fork in the road. Take the left-hand fork towards the Lightening Lake day-use area. Park here.

The route

Start at the Lightening Lake day-use area. If you’re looking at the lake with the parking lot behind you, head left (east) around the lake, keeping the water on your right-hand side. Cross the dam and you’ll see a trail marker for ‘Frosty Mountain trail’.

The trail immediately enters the forest. From now you can expect around 6km of switchbacks. The trail isn’t technical and ascends gradually. However, it’s very narrow which makes overtaking difficult. Bottlenecks can form on busy days, especially when there’s a two-way flow of traffic.

Every now and then the forest opens up and you’ll get a glimpse of Lightening Lake below you and Mount Hozameen in the distance. Eventually the switchbacks end and the trails levels off. You’ll undulate up and down for another 1km or so, after which you’ll reach Frosty Creek Campsite. There’s an emergency shelter, an outhouse and a very small creek.

Manning Provincial Park
Glimpses of Lightening Lake and Mount Hozemeen along the Frosty Mountain trail

Pass through the campsite and over the creek. Now the trail begins to climb again, but it’s only 0.5km until you get to the larch grove, so keep going! Soon you reach a plaque that tells you about larch trees. Finally, you’ll get your first glimpse of the famed golden larches. Continue walking along the trail, which becomes relatively flat. You’ll find larches all around you for around 1km, set against the stunning backdrop of the Northern Cascades.

Golden larches Manning Provincial Park
The golden larches plateau

Soon the trail starts to climb once again. Then, the tree line abruptly comes to an end and you’re faced with a scree field. If you don’t want to continue to Frosty Mountain summit, this is the end of your hike. Turn around and return the way you came, taking time to appreciate the golden larches from an alternative perspective.

If you want to keep going, then be prepared for the difficulty rating to increase. Hike up through the scree field, following the pink dots painted on the stones. It’s steep and the scree is loose, so take care.

Manning Provincial Park
The scree field to the ridge. You can see the summit in the distance

Once you’re at the ridge, turn right and walk along the ridgeline. It remains rocky and the altitude can make it hard going. Keep following the ridge until you reach the east summit.

Manning Provincial Park
Walking along the ridge towards Frosty Mountain

Once you arrive, you can congratulate yourself: you are standing on the highest mountain in Manning Provincial Park!

Take your time to soak up the incredible views. To the south is the Cascade Range in the USA, and to the north is a sweeping panorama of Manning Provincial Park in all its glory. Whichever way you look, there’s layer upon layer of mountains.

Manning Provincial Park
Views from the top of Frosty Moutain in Manning Provincial Park

And there you have it: your complete guide to hiking the golden larches in Manning Provincial Park.

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Howe Sound Crest Trail

Hiking the Howe Sound Crest Trail

Spanning from Cypress Bowl to Porteau Cove, the Howe Sound Crest Trail is one of THE iconic hikes near Vancouver. At 29km long, it’s like a greatest hits list of local peaks, allowing the hiker to bag them all in one fell swoop.

OK, maybe not them all, but your legs will carry you up and over St Mark’s Summit, Mount Unnecessary, The Lions, James Peak, David Peak and, if you want, Brunswick Mountain. Then you’ll skirt round Brunswick Lake, Hanover Lake and Deeks Lake. It’s quite the sightseeing tour. Did I mention the views? They’re spectacular.

If you’re thinking about hiking the Howe Sound Crest Trail (HSCT), here’s what you need to know.

Howe Sound Crest Trail quick facts

  • Distance – 29km, not including a detour to Brunswick Mountain.
  • Rating – very difficult
  • When to hike it – late summer to early autumn, preferably on a clear day when you can enjoy the views!
  • Time needed – two days ideally. Some advanced trail runners tackle it in one day.
  • Logistics – this is a point to point hike. You’ll need to leave a car at either end, or get someone to pick you up/drop you off.
  • Start/end – most people hike the trail from south to north. This mean you’d start at Cypress Bowl (Cypress Mountain Resort) and end at Porteau Road.
  • Camping – wilderness camping is available along the trail. Preferred sites are Magnesia Meadows (14.5km from Cypress), Brunswick Lake (19km from Cypress) and Deeks Lake (22km from Cypress). There are no outhouses, tent pads or bear caches.
  • Water – if you are hiking the trail from south to north, water is scant until you reach Magnesia Meadows. From thereon, you’re never too far from a water source. Boiling or treating drinking water is recommended.
  • Campfires – are not allowed.
  • Dogs – are allowed on leash. However, the section between Mount Unnecessary and Magnesia Meadows is definitely not dog-friendly. There are cables, ropes and steep step-downs. Leave the fur-baby at home.
  • Shorter hikes – you can exit the trail early if you want a shorter hike. Rather than going all the way to Porteau Cove, head down to Lions Bay via the Lions Binkert Trail or the Brunswick Mountain Trail.

There’s some important safety information tucked into this list. For the sake of clarity, I’m going to expand on a few points.

Honestly, it’s very difficult

I hiked the Howe Sound Crest Trail from south to north, stopping at Magnesia Meadows overnight. Honestly, the first day kicked my butt. I don’t want to sound too big for my (hiking) boots, but I’ve done trails rated as difficult before and thought they weren’t so bad. But this was a different story. The first half of the trail sees you scaling up and down various peaks. It’s steep, not only going up, but going down too. There are ropes, cables, boulders, scrambles and sheer drops. The terrain is technical and progress is often slow-going. When you’ve got an overnight pack on, it makes it all the more difficult.

Be warned: the Howe Sound Crest Trail is not for beginners, or indeed intermediate hikers. It’s hard. For fit and experienced hikers, this is a challenging and highly rewarding experience. Be prepared and be sure to carry the 10 essentials with you.

This is a late summer/early autumn hike only

Snow persists on the HSCT well into summer. It may balmy down in the city in June, but up at 1,500m you’ll find yourself knee-deep in the white stuff. “I’m not deterred by a bit of snow”, you might think. That’s all well and good, but the terrain of the Howe Sound Crest Trail means that you’d need avalanche training and mountaineering skills to traverse it safely. There’s a particularly sketchy col in between The Lions which can be covered in a thick slab of compact snow, even when everything else is bone dry. Slip here and you’d promptly slide 50 feet into a boulder field.

You may be itching to tick this one off your bucket list, but be patient and wait for the right conditions. The snow pack changes every year, so it’s impossible to say exactly when the Howe Sound Crest Trail is hike-able. Usually, you’ll be looking from late July to early October.

Howe Sound Crest Trail
Looking across to Enchantment Lake

How long does it take?

If you hike the Howe Sound Crest Trail, you’ll no doubt see trail runners tackling the length of it in one day. You could, in theory, hike the HSCT in one day too. However, you would need to start very early and travel very quickly to avoid being caught out by nightfall. This would be a shame, as the Howe Sound Crest Trail is beautiful. You’ll want to take your time – and hike in daylight – to fully appreciate the views.

So, from a safety perspective, and for your own enjoyment, this is best done as an overnight hike. One night will suffice, but if you really want to savour the scenery, you could stay for two nights.

I’m always wary of disclosing how long a hike has taken me, as everyone’s abilities are different. To give you an idea, we were hiking for nine hours each day. The first day included two short rest stops. The 4km between The Lions and Magnesia Meadows took three hours alone due to the difficulty of the terrain. The second day was more leisurely and included a detour to Brunswick Mountain and multiple stops for lunch and lake swimming.

Howe Sound Crest Trail
Stunning scenery along the Howe Sound Crest Trail

Parking and logistics

This is a point to point hike, meaning a bit of planning is required in terms of logistics. Ideally, your group will have two cars. On the morning of your hike (or the evening before) you can drop one car at your end destination. You can then all pile into the remaining car and drive to your start point. That way, when you finish your hike, you’ll have a car waiting for you. You can collect the other car on your way home.

I didn’t have two cars, so instead dropped my car at Porteau Cove the evening before the hike. My boyfriend collected me in an Evo. In the morning, a friend picked us up and dropped us at Cypress Mountain Resort, where we started our hike.

There is a large parking lot at Cypress Mountain. To save your legs, you’ll want to park as close to the ski lodge as possible. The address is Cypress Mountain, 6000 Cypress Bowl Road, West Vancouver, BC V7V 3N9. Take exit #8 off Highway 1. At the northerly end, you need to park at Porteau Road parking lot. Follow Highway 99 and exit at Porteau Road. The parking lot can be found on the east-side of the highway, up a short hill.

Hiking the Howe Sound Crest Trail – the route

Most people opt to hike the Howe Sound Crest Trail from Cypress to Porteau Cove because the elevation gain is significantly shorter. If you, too, are stomping in this direction, then here’s what you’ll find.

St Mark’s Summit – approx. 5.5km from Cypress

The first hurdle to overcome on the Howe Sound Crest Trail is St Mark’s Summit. From Cypress Mountain Resort, there are plenty of maps and signposts towards the Howe Sound Crest Trail. You can take either the east or west access trail – you’ll end up in the same place. You can veer off the trail to the Bowen Lookout if you want. Otherwise, continue to follow signs for the Howe Sound Crest Trail. As you near the top there’s a series of steep switchbacks. Afterwards, the gradient starts to level out and the trail can be muddy. Soon afterwards, you’ll come to the summit. This is your first real chance to enjoy the stunning views across the Howe Sound.

The hike to St Mark’s Summit is a popular one. From here, the trail is quieter with fewer signposts. Be sure to look out for orange markers.

Mount Unnecessary, north and south peaks – approx. 7km from Cypress

Follow the trail round to the left where there’s a steep drop down the back side of St Mark’s Summit, only to be followed by a taxing ascent through the forest. This section is challenging with a heavy pack on and there are lots of tree roots to haul yourself over. You’ll soon appreciate why it’s called Mount Unnecessary, as you’ll wish this mountain-shaped obstacle wasn’t standing in between you and The Lions.

Finally, you pop out of the treeline and come to a rocky ridge. Follow this and you’ll reach the south peak of Mount Unnecessary, followed by the north peak. There are supposedly incredible views from this vantage point, which at the north peak stands at 1,542m. I say supposedly, because unfortunately when I went, we were shrouded in clouds. Well, you can’t plan the weather.

Woman walks along snowy rocky ridge
The ridge leading to Mount Unnecessary

The Lions – approx. 10.2km from Cypress

From the north peak of Mount Unnecessary, you scramble down some steep rocks with the help of a rope. From here, follow the trail towards The Lions. You’ll come to a rocky slope, at the top of which you’ll see the Search and Rescue Cache. Follow the trail upwards. It can be difficult to navigate this section, but some of the rocks have faded orange paint on. Continue to follow the ridge crest until you come to the base of the West Lion.

Experienced scramblers and climbers may choose to drop their packs here and climb up the West Lion. I’ve not done it myself but I know others who have. They report that it’s a no-fall zone – so it’s best left to those who know what they’re doing.

James Peak

At this point, things step up a notch in terms of fear factor. You’ll drop downwards slightly and follow the trail across the col between the West and East Lions. This is the sketchy section I mentioned previously which is often covered in snow. The trail traverses around the East Lion and is very narrow and exposed. You’ll then ascend upwards, rounding some small peaks – don’t be fooled, this isn’t James Peak!

Instead, you need to descend steeply around the base of Thomas Peak, where you’ll come to a boulder field. This can be covered in snow, making the trail difficult to follow – keep an eye on those orange trail markers. If you’re looking at the boulder field, you need to stay high, keeping to the left.

Woman traverses snowy boulder field
Crossing the boulder field

After a couple of hundred metres there’s an exit that takes you back into the forest. This area is known as Enchantment Pass. Soon it becomes incredibly steep and exposed as you climb the ridge to James Peak. There’s a chain rope to help you.

Woman scrambles up mountainside
Scrambling up the side of James Peak with the help of a chain rope

David’s Peak

Once you’ve enjoyed yet more incredible views, it’s time to descend from James Peak. The terrain becomes more open and meadow-like, but the respite doesn’t last long as there’s one more peak to summit – David’s Peak. Once again, this is a steep climb, followed by a steep descent the other side. By now you’re in the forest and it’s a matter of climbing up and over trees roots.

Magnesia Meadows – approx. 14.5km from Cypress

Once you’re descending David’s Peak, you know there’s not far to go until Magnesia Meadows. However, the going can be slow down the backside of David’s Peak. Once at the bottom, there’s an agonising incline up an old logging road. This section is open, grassy and full of berries – making it a hot-spot for bears. Keep grinding away until you reach a junction. Turn right and you’ll see the Magnesia Meadows emergency shelter in the distance.

Howe Sound Crest Trail
Hiking in to Magnesia Meadows – the red emergency shelter is in the distance

This is a gorgeous place to camp overnight. The views of the Howe Sound are framed by Mount Harvey on your left and the forest on your right. There’s a running stream for water and you can take refuge in the emergency shelter if needed. There’s no outhouse or bear caches, so bring a trowel and bear bag for your food.

Howe Sound Crest Trail
Camping at Magnesia Meadows

Brunswick Mountain – optional

From Magnesia Meadows, the trail continues gently upwards past the emergency shelter and into the trees. The terrain is much more manageable from here and you will cover the remaining distance much faster.

Howe Sound Crest Trail
Views across the Howe Sound

However, you can extend your hike if you want by taking a detour up to Brunswick Mountain. If so, watch out for the trail marker on your right (around 2km from Magnesia Meadows). Stash your bags and continue up the Brunswick Mountain Trail. It’s a scramble to the top but you’ll be treated to incredible views. Return to your bags and re-join the Howe Sound Crest Trail.

Brunswick Mountain
Brunswick Mountain

Brunswick Lake – approx. 19km from Cypress

Back on the Howe Sound Crest Trail, the gradient remains fairly level. Then, you’ll start to drop steadily downwards. This section is full of pretty meadows with tarns. You’ll come to the emergency shelter above Brunswick Lake before descending further to the lake itself.

Howe Sound Crest Trail
The emergency shelter sits just above the lake

The lake is a brilliant blue colour and very cold, as you’ll soon find out when you take your shoes and socks off to wade across to the other side. Take care – the underwater stones are slippery and uneven. I saw one hiker in front of me fall right in. I was glad to have my sandals with me!

This is another great spot to camp, or at least to stop for a sandwich and a swim.

Brunswick Lake
Brunswick Lake

Deeks Lake – approx. 22km from Cypress

From here, a creek runs all the way to Deeks Lake. The trail runs parallel to it. You’ll pass by a waterfall and Hanover Lake, which like Brunswick Lake is bright blue in colour. There are some more creek crossings, so you’ll be taking your socks and shoes off a couple more times. Otherwise, the trail is fairly easy. It undulates up and down with a few rocky sections, plus a slippery section near the waterfall.

When you get your first glimpse of Deeks Lake you’ll start to traverse around the water’s edge. There’s a short uphill followed by a short downhill, after which you’ll come to a log jam across the lake. Cross over here to the other side. There are a few camping spots, and you’ll probably be greeted by day trippers who have hiked up to the lake for a swim. Speaking of which, this is good place to have a dunk and a final pitstop before the long descent to the car.

Woman swims in alpine lake
Deeks Lake

Porteau Cove Road parking lot – approx. 29km from Cypress

Once you set off from Deeks Lake, you are firmly on the home stretch. It’s a long way downhill from here and your knees may start to get creaky. Down you’ll go, past a waterfall, through the forest and out onto a (boring) logging road.

Due to logging activity, there is currently a detour at the end of the trail. This brings you out below the parking lot. Ordinarily, you would continue down the logging road until you reach a yellow gate. The Porteau Road parking lot is just beyond it.

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Hiking the Juan de Fuca Trail

The Juan de Fuca Marine Trail is a 47km hiking trail located on the west coast of Vancouver Island. If you’re thinking about hiking it, here’s what you need to know.

Shorter hikes

You can access the Juan de Fuca trail at four different trailheads – Botanical Beach, Parkinson Creek, Sombrio Beach and China Beach. If you’re looking for a day hike, you can park at any of these locations and explore a section of the trail as an out-an-back hike. If you prefer not to turn back on yourself, you could always shuttle cars or catch the West Coast Trail Express back to your vehicle.

For a kids-friendly option, park at China Beach and walk the 2km down to Mystic Beach. To make it longer, carry on to Bear Beach, which is another 7km from Mystic Beach. For something longer still, start at Sombrio Beach and walk all the way to Botanical Beach. From there, get a friend to drive you back to Sombrio or reserve a spot on the West Coast Trail Express from Port Renfrew – just make sure you get to the bus on time!

Bear Beach

Hiking the whole trail

If you want to complete the whole trail, you can do so in one day as a trail run, or as a multi-day hike. The number of days you need is entirely up to you. If you travel quickly, you could do it over two days, spending the night at either Sombrio Beach or Chin Beach. However, this will be a push for many. Also, it would be a shame to rush your way through this beautiful corner of the world.

I hiked it over three nights and four days. I front-loaded the distance, with a long first day followed by three fairly relaxing days. This gave me more beach-chilling time – always a good thing! It also gave me a day each to hike the most difficult sections.

Man lies on beach log next to campfire
Sometimes it’s good to relax!

Camping on the Juan de Fuca trail

There are six campsites to choose from along the way. No reservations are needed. At each you’ll find bear caches and outhouses. You don’t need a permit to hike the trail, but the campsites cost $10 per night, per person. You can pay online before you go, or take cash and use the self-registration envelopes when you’re there.

The trail is open year-round and can be hiked in either direction. If you hike from north to south, the starting point is Botanical Beach (near Port Renfrew) and the end is China Beach (near Jordan River). If you’re going in this direction, you will reach the campsites in the following order –

  • Payzant Creek
  • Little Kuitshe
  • Sombrio Beach
  • Chin Beach
  • Bear Beach
  • Mystic Beach

Payzant Creek and Little Kuitshe campsites are in the forest, so can get muddy. Sombrio Beach and Mystic Beach campsites are often busy, as they are readily accessed from the road, making them popular with non-hikers. Chin Beach can also fill up quickly. Because the campsites are first come, first serve, it’s a good idea to leave early in the morning to bag the best spots.

What’s the trail like?

As you might expect from a coastal hike, the trail is undulating. Most of the flat sections are on the beaches. You may have heard of (or even hiked) the Juan de Fuca’s more famous neighbour, the West Coast Trail. While the West Coast Trail is known for its boardwalks and ladders, the Juan de Fuca trail is known for its technical terrain and relentless elevation change.

Hiking through the forest
And along the beaches

On the trail map, you’ll see that some sections are classed as ‘moderate’, others as either ‘difficult’ or ‘most difficult’. The most difficult section requires you to traverse up and down steep ravines, which can be tiring, especially with a heavy pack on. Thankfully it was fairly dry while I was there, but no doubt it could get very slippery in bad weather. Which brings me on to my next point…

The Juan de Fuca trail is very wet, partly thanks to the number of creeks which pass through it, and partly thanks to its location on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Even at the end of summer there were deep sections of mud. Wet weather gear is a must and gaiters are recommended. The creeks mean you can refill your water pouches whenever you need, although the water should be treated or boiled before drinking.

Here’s how I hiked the Juan de Fuca trail

My boyfriend and I hiked the Juan de Fuca trail at the end of August, opting to go from north to south. Here’s how it went down…

Day 1 – Port Renfrew to Sombrio Beach – 20kms

After sleeping in our car at the Jordan River Regional Park Campground for a night, we got up early and moved the car to the China Beach day use parking lot. Be sure to remove your valuables because break-ins have been known.

I’d reserved a space on the West Coast Trail Express, so waited by the highway for it to arrive at around 8am. I didn’t think it was going to stop, but in fact, it pulls into a rest stop a little further up the road, on the far side of the highway.

After about an hour we reached Port Renfrew. We got off the bus and hiked 2km up the road to the Botanical Beach trailhead, which is the start (or end) of the Juan de Fuca trail. This is a bit of a nuisance, but it’s as close as you can get in the bus. You might want to hitch a lift!

Shortly before Payzant Creek there’s a sign to Providence Cove. This is a lovely spot to have lunch and a swim.

Two people making tea on a portable stove on a stone beach
Taking a lunch break at Providence Cove on the Juan de Fuca trail

We had planned to spend the first night at Little Kuitshe, but made good progress so continued on to Sombrio Beach. This is a long first day at over 20kms, but it made the remaining days much more leisurely.

Tent pitched on empty stone beach
Camping at Sombrio Beach

Day 2 – Sombrio Beach to Chin Beach – 8kms

After sheltering from the rain in the morning, we started late and reached our next destination – Chin Beach – in the middle of the afternoon. The delay also meant we caught the tail-end of high tide at Chin Beach, so had to don our sandals and wade through the shallow ocean. Everyone else waited on a rocky outcrop, but I was glad we carried on because by the time we’d put up the tent the campground was full. Better to arrive early on busy weekends!

Woman stares out to sea with red tent in foreground
Camping at Chin Beach

Day 3 – Chin Beach to Bear Beach – 12kms

On day three we hiked as far as Bear Beach, which was my favourite campground. It’s a long beach with sites at both the northern and southern end. In my opinion, the southerly end is better. This is the most difficult section of the hike.

Man stares out to sea
Camping at Bear Beach

Day 4 – Bear Beach to China Beach – 9kms

On the final day we hiked back to the car at the China Beach day use parking lot, although not before a final dunk in the ocean at Mystic Beach. I was glad to finish at my car, rather than worrying about making the bus on time.

Woman swims in sea
Swimming at Mystic Beach

If you’re hiking it in this direction, I would say this is a fairly standard itinerary, as we often saw the same faces at each campground.

What you need to know before you go

If you’re planning on hiking the Juan de Fuca trail, here’s what you need to know before you go –

  • If you don’t have two cars to shuttle then you can book the West Coast Trail Express. It can pick you up at Victoria, Sooke, China Beach, Sombrio Beach, Parkinson Creek or Port Renfrew
  • You don’t need to reserve anything other than the West Coast Trail Express (if using)
  • You don’t need a permit but the campsites are $10 per person, per night
  • Some campsites – particularly Chin Beach and Mystic Beach – fill up quickly, so leave early in the morning to get the best spot
  • Remember to camp above the tideline
  • Certain sections of the trail are cut off at high tide – check the tide times and plan accordingly
  • There are lots of bears in the area – be bear aware
  • The trail is very well-marked and has km markers along the way
  • There is no phone reception in the area
  • Dogs are allowed on the trail
  • It can get very muddy so gaiters are recommended (but not essential)
  • You don’t need to take much water as you can fill up along the way. The water must be boiled or treated before drinking

My thoughts on hiking the Juan de Fuca trail

If you want to try a multi-day thru-hike, the Juan de Fuca trail is a great place to start. At 47kms, the trail isn’t overwhelmingly long, but it still presents challenges. Although there isn’t any cell reception, it also feels quite safe. You aren’t too far from a road and there’s four access points along the way, meaning you can opt out if you need. It’s also much cheaper than the West Coast Trail, for which you need to buy a permit.

Everyone has a different idea of what is ‘difficult’. A trail runner told me that, pound for pound, the Juan de Fuca trail is harder than the West Coast Trail. Why? Because of the terrain. There’s lots of big step-ups and step-downs, logs to clamber over and mud to negotiate. You have to constantly watch your footing, or the tangled web of tree routes will trip you up. And the constant elevation change can be a killer on the joints.

Terrain aside, I didn’t find the hike too difficult. For me, the biggest negative of the Juan de Fuca trail is the proximity of the logging industry. Cutblocks go right up to the trail, and in certain sections the second growth forest looks like it’s dead. But perhaps it’s important to see – that way, we can better appreciate the old growth forests that still remain. And anyway, four days of forest wandering, beach camping and tree hugging is always a joy.

In some sections the cutblock goes right up to the trail
Some of the forest looks like it’s dead

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Hiking in Tetrahedron Provincial Park

If you love a backcountry cabin, then Tetrahedron Provincial Park is for you. With four maintained huts to choose from and a network of hiking trails to explore, it makes for a perfect weekend adventure.

Tetrahedron Provincial Park is located on the Sunshine Coast, near Sechelt. In winter it’s a haven for backcountry skiers, who skin up to Mount Steele and Panther Peak in search of fresh lines. Come the warmer months, hikers hit the trails – although not in any great numbers, it seems. When we visited on a sunny Friday evening in August, ours was the only car in the parking lot.

The hiking here isn’t difficult, if you don’t want it to be. You gain a significant amount of elevation when you drive up the logging road to the trailhead. From then on, you can weave your way along undulating trails, past subalpine lakes and boggy wetlands. If you prefer more of an ascent, the hike to Mount Steele is available and is around 8kms (one way) to the summit.

Chapman Lake

There are four backcountry cabins in the park, making this an ideal opportunity to stay overnight. While the cabins are rustic, they are brilliantly maintained by volunteers at the Tetrahedron Outdoor Club. Each has a stove stocked with firewood, a sink and grey water bucket (but no running water), a dining table and benches, an outhouse and a range of survival equipment. Even comfy sleeping pads are provided.

You cannot reserve these cabins – they are first come, first serve. You have to be prepared to share. The upstairs sleeping quarters are cosy, so you might want to take some ear plugs. In theory, the only other items you need are your sleeping bag, cooking equipment, water, toilet roll and dishwashing soap. I always recommend taking a tent, just in case the cabins are full. And you must pack out what you pack in – including food waste.

The hiking route

The great thing about hiking in Tetrahedron Provincial Park is that there are numerous options open to you. I wanted to see as much as possible in 48 hours, so devised a loop that incorporated all four cabins.

From the parking lot, we hiked the 4.5kms to Edwards Lake cabin. The first section is along an old logging trail, which if truth be told, isn’t very inspirational. Then, all of a sudden, you’re deep within the forest. The bushes are teeming with berries in August (and bears!) The terrain is easy-going, so it doesn’t take long until you skirt the edges of Edwards Lake. The cabin itself is a little further along the trail.

Backcountry cabin in the forest
Edwards Lake cabin

We stayed the night at Edwards Lake cabin, which we had entirely to ourselves. In the morning, we left our big packs behind and put together a day hiking bag. We then headed over to McNair Lake cabin, which is 5kms (one way). The trail rolls up and down, over roots and creeks – some with questionable bridges. As you get closer to Chapman’s Lake, the ground gets wet and boggy. McNair Lake cabin appears shortly afterwards.

Backcountry cabin in the forest
McNair Lake cabin

At this point we still hadn’t seen another human being since entering the park. In fact, we didn’t see anyone else until later that afternoon, when we came across a big group heading to Mount Steele. Walking alone to McNair Cabin was almost eerie, and strange for a Saturday in mid-summer. In Tetrahedron, it feels like you don’t have to go far to achieve a sense of isolation and remoteness.

After eating lunch, we retraced our footsteps almost to Edwards Lake cabin. But instead of turning left to the cabin, we continued upwards to Mount Steele cabin, which from this point is 3km one way. It’s a steep climb, so it’s much easier without a fully loaded backpack. From Mount Steele cabin, it’s a short hike up to the summit. We then returned to Edward’s Lake cabin for a second night, and this time we were joined by a local couple.

Alpine landscape with cabin
Walking up towards Mount Steele cabin

In the morning, we packed up all our belongings and returned almost to the parking lot. However, when we got to Victor’s Landing, we took a left turn towards Bachelor Lake cabin. There’s also a stone arrow on the floor to point you in the right direction. This is not a well-trodden path and is overgrown, so you need to follow your nose. You skirt the edge of the valley before descending down into the forest.

Backcountry cabin in the forest
Bachelor Lake cabin

Apparently, Bachelor Lake cabin is the party cabin. We didn’t find any hungover souls, but we did have lunch and a swim in the lake. We then returned to the parking lot via the normal summer trail – just follow the orange trail markers. And there you have it! Two days, four cabins and a few kms under our belts.

Woman sits in front of lake
Bachelor Lake

Of course, you don’t have to follow this route. You can pick and choose which cabins or lakes you want to go to. Some might prefer the out and back to Mount Steele. This seemed to be the preferred destination for the hikers we did meet. Others may opt for the loop from the parking lot to Edwards Lake, returning via Bachelor Lake. For solitude, I suspect McNair Lake cabin is the best bet. It’s entirely up to you.

Know before you go

The road to the parking lot is steep and extremely rough. We just about managed it in a Honda Odyssey – but only just. If you do not have a 4WD with good clearance, do not attempt to make it to the upper parking lot. If you visit in winter, 4WD and snow chains are essential.

The cabins are maintained by volunteers from the Tetrahedron Outdoor Club. If you’re staying, they ask for a donation of $15 per person, per night, or $25 per family, per night. Fees are payable to the Tetrahedron Outdoor Club can be paid online. If you want to send a cheque, there are pre-addressed envelopes in the cabins.

There is no running water in the cabins. In the summer, you can refill at the creeks and the lakes. Water should be boiled or treated.

In the summer months the park is bursting with berries. Where you find berries, you inevitably find bears (we saw two). So, be bear aware!

Man holds bowl of berries
Freshly picked berries covered in chocolate

There is little-to-no cell reception in the park.

Conditions are very different in winter. The lakes may be frozen and avalanche hazards exist.

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Woman hikes into a forest

Hikes on Vancouver’s North Shore

Vancouver’s North Shore is teeming with hiking trails. In fact, it can be a little overwhelming to know where to start. To help you out, I’ve put together a list of what are (in my humble opinion) the best hikes on Vancouver’s North Shore. That way you can pick and choose depending on your mood.

Where possible I’ve provided links to other sites which provide descriptions of the routes.

Best for little-to-no elevation

Sometimes you want to get outdoors for a good few hours, but you don’t feel up to tackling any mountains. I get it. If so, I recommend the Big Cedar and Kennedy Falls trail on Mount Fromme. This undulating trail is a 10km round-trip, so it’s still a reasonable distance. But with only 150m elevation gain, you don’t need to worry about any thigh-burning ascents.

Dry creek on Mount Fromme

En route to Big Cedar and Kennedy Falls

Another good option is Norvan Falls in Lynn Headquarters Regional Park. It’s very similar in terms of terrain, but is a little longer at 14km.

Woman stands in front of waterfall

Norvan Falls

Both are also great hikes for the winter months, thanks to their low elevation.

Best for steep elevation

On the flip side, maybe you’re keen for a challenge. For some people, a hike ain’t a hike unless there’s a grinding slog uphill. If you’re one of them, I urge you to try Mount Harvey. The hike begins on the logging trail from Lions Bay, then takes a left turn – after which, it’s a steep climb to the top. Once you get there, you’ll be rewarded with some of the best views around. There’s also a secret whiskey stash near the summit!

Mount Harvey summit

Mount Harvey summit

Whiskey stash and note on top of Mount Harvey

The whiskey stash on top of Mount Harvey

If you don’t take the left-hand turn, you’ll end up on the Lions Binkert trail. This is another classic North Shore hike, again with a steep ascent and stunning views.

Because of their high elevation, these hikes are only suitable between the months of July and October (or November if there is no snow). Five hikers died on Mount Harvey in 2017, so please stay safe.

Best for lakes

During summer, you might be keen for a refreshing dunk in an alpine lake. There’s so many to choose from, but I particularly enjoy hiking up to Deeks Lake for a swim. If you start at Porteau Cove then it’s a steep ascent, but that just makes it all the more rewarding. You’ve got to work for it, right?

Two men balance on a log in a lake

Deeks Lake

If you’ve got time, head past Deeks Lake and onto Hanover Lake. It’s not so good for swimming, but the turquoise water set against the backdrop of Brunswick Mountain is beautiful.

Woman looks across blue lake and mountains

Hanover Lake

Remember that alpine lakes are cold! Muscles can quickly seize up, making it difficult to swim. So, stay close to the edge and use a buoyancy aid if needed.

Best for peace and quiet

Despite the abundance of hiking trails near Vancouver, it can sometimes feel like the whole city is out there with you. If you’re craving seclusion, hike to the top of Mount Fromme. You’ll encounter mountain bikers to begin with, but human contact quickly peters out. On a clear day you can see all the way to Mount Baker from the summit.

Woman stands on top of Mount Fromme

Mount Fromme summit

Alternatively, you could make your way to Mount Elsay. Once you get past the turning for Mount Seymour the trail becomes extremely quiet. Although be careful, it can be easy to lose your way. There’s also an unforgiving boulder field to cross. For these reasons, this one’s best left to those with the necessary experience.

Boulder field near Mount Elsay

Boulder field at the bottom of Mount Elsay

Whenever you go on a hike, be sure to leave a trip plan with a family member, friend or colleague. This is particularly important if you’re heading to a lesser-travelled trail.

Best for backcountry camping

If you’re looking for an overnight hike, then top of the charts has got to be the Howe Sound Crest Trail. This 29km trail stretches between Cypress Bowl and Porteau Cove, and takes in a number of the North Shore Peaks. Most people opt to camp at Magnesia Meadows or Brunswick Lake. Take note – this is no walk in the park.

Views across trees and mountains

Hiking along the Howe Sound Crest Trail

Or consider an overnight hike in Seymour Provincial Park. Wilderness camping is permitted north of Brockton Point, although fires are prohibited year round.

Sign towards Elsay Lake

The Mount Elsay Trail is classed as difficult

Don’t forget that snow continues well into the summer months in the North Shore. Hikes such as the Howe Sound Crest Trail and Elsay Lake in Seymour Provincial Park are not do-able until July (unless you are an experienced mountaineer, of course).

Best for foraging

When the forest is dripping with berries, I like to stop for a tasty nibble. In the past, I’ve found the trail to Norvan Falls to be rife with salmonberries, while the trail to Eagle Bluffs offers rich pickings for blueberries. Just remember not to take too much – this is bear food after all!

Woman holds up freshly picked berry

Fresh pickings

It goes without saying that if you don’t know what something is, don’t eat it!

Best for a quick walk

When does a walk become a hike? I’m not sure, but I know that sometimes I just want a little stroll amongst the trees. Nothing too long, and nothing too strenuous. In these situations, my go-to move is either Lynn Loop in Lynn Valley Headquarters, or Rice Lake in Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve.

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Gran Paradiso mountain range

Italy’s Best Kept Secret

Gran Paradiso National Park. Ever heard of it? Because I hadn’t. Not until a fortuitous conversation led me to this secret jewel nestled on the Italian/French border.

But before we get to that, here’s a bit of history, along with some geography thrown in for good measure.

A bit about Gran Paradiso National Park

Gran Paradiso National Park is located in the north west corner of Italy, and joins the Vanoise National Park in France. It crosses two regions – Piedmont and Aosta.

The area was first protected by King Vittorio Emanuele II in 1856 who declared it a royal hunting ground. No one else was allowed to hunt there, on the basis that the local ibex population was nearing extinction.

Years later, King Vittorio Emanuele III went a step further and donated the hunting reserve to the Italian state, thus creating Italy’s first national park in 1922. Thanks to his actions, ibex numbers have soared and now live happily alongside marmots, chamois, vultures, eagles and other flora and fauna.

For those peak baggers amongst you, Gran Paradiso National Park is also home to the highest mountain located entirely within Italy. Gran Paradiso (which gives the park its name) stands at 4,061m. It’s true that there are higher peaks in Italy, such Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn, but they are shared with other countries.

Mountains and meadows in Gran Paradiso National Park

Enjoying the views en route to Colle della Crocetta

Gran Paradiso and the Italian Alps

However, I didn’t know any of that until a few years ago. In fact, I’d never heard of Gran Paradiso National Park. Nor had any of my well-travelled family, friends or acquaintances. Have we all been living in ignorance, or is this Italy’s best kept secret?

Certainly compared to the likes of Venice, the Amalfi Coast and the Cinque Terre, the masses are yet to ‘discover’ this destination. Yes, there are tourists. But hordes, there are not.

In the summer months the meadows are full of flowers and grazing livestock. Raging rivers and streams cut through the landscape, swollen with run-off. The snow-capped peaks of the Graian Alps tower above you, at once beautiful and frightening. Beyond the treeline, the region’s volcanic history is exposed. The black rocks and barren terrain sit starkly against the lush greenery below, providing a menacing reminder of the altitude at which you are standing.

For people with the necessary experience, there are mountains to conquer and glaciers to traverse. For everyone else, there is a vast network of trails catering to all abilities. Either way, you can rest assured that this is Mother Nature at her finest.

Anyone familiar with the European Alps might say this description rings true of the entire mountain range, which stretches across no less than eight countries. That’s fair enough. But for me, Gran Paradiso holds a special place in my heart.

Maybe it’s because I discovered it entirely by accident. I first became aware of the park while researching a van trip around Italy. While scouring the internet for information, I stumbled upon a Lonely Planet article titled Italy’s Seven Best Hikes. There at number one was a 20km hike through the heart of Gran Paradiso.

Fast forward one week later. I was at a campsite on the Italian Riveria, trying to explain to the man on reception that I was considering a visit to Gran Paradiso National Park. After some confusion (my Italian accent is less than convincing) he shouted “ah ha! This is where I’m from.” I couldn’t believe it! I’d only just learned about this place, now I’d met a real life local. “You must visit my home town, it is most beautiful”, he said.

He wasn’t wrong.

Shepherd's hut in Gran Paradiso National Park

Shepherd’s hut with a view

Piedmont, Italy

Thanks to my new friend’s recommendation, I ended up in a town called Ceresole Reale.

Located in the Orco Valley of the Piedmont (Piemont) region, Ceresole Reale is the last town before a high mountain pass called the Colle del Nivolet. As such, it has that ‘end of the road’ feeling. By which I mean, not many people come here, and seeing as there’s only one road in and out, you’d better hope nothing happens to it.

I stayed at a pristine campsite called Camping Piccolo Paradiso. Despite being August and despite not having booked, I had a choice of pitches to choose from. Opposite is a cosy bar-cum-café-cum-restaurant called La Baita, which is a welcome retreat after a day exploring the wilderness outside.

After setting up camp I spent the afternoon cycling around Lago di Ceresole, which is also a hot spot for windsurfing. The following day I retraced my tracks to the lake, chained up my bike near Villa Poma and followed route 520 to the Colle della Crocetta. This is one of those stunning hikes that takes you through verdant meadows, along the shores of crystal blue alpine lakes, and finally through a moraine to the ridge.

Mountain summit in Gran Paradiso National Park

Atop the Colle della Crocetta

The final day was spent exploring the Nivolet Pass – where, incidentally, the final scene of the Italian Job was filmed. Cyclists and motorbikes are drawn to this road. I can see why. It has gut-lurching hairpins and a steep gradient, making it a challenge. Yet it is stunning. If you make it to the end, you’ll find the Refugio Savoia and a bar. Go and explore the trails, gawp at the moon-like landscape, then enjoy a hot chocolate.

Mountains and lakes in Italy

Exploring the Nivolet

Bar on top of the Nivolet pass

Warming up with a hot chocolate

Aosta, Italy

Now I’d had a taster of Gran Paradiso National Park, I wanted more. So the following year I returned, this time to the Aosta region. I stayed at Campeggio Gran Paradiso in the village of Valnontey, 3km from the large town of Cogne. It was definitely busier here than Ceresole Reale, so if seclusion is a high priority for you, this might not be your cup of tea.

River running through Gran Paradiso National Park

Looking down the valley towards Valnontey

Nevertheless, once you’re out and about, you can quickly leave human contact behind. There are a number of trails straight from the campsite. The valley floor is popular with families, but continue past this and you’ll soon be alone. I found some fantastic hikes in the area, including the one listed by Lonely Planet in their rundown of the seven best hikes in Italy.

This hike follows the Alta Via 2 to the Refugio Sella, one of the many alpine huts open to visitors in the summer months. You can find a definitive list on the Gran Paradiso National Park website. From the refuge, you continue onto Casolari dell’Herbetet and back down to the village. It’s considered a demanding hike, so take heed. If you’re up to it, then it sure is rewarding.

Valley cutting through Gran Paradiso National Park

You need a head for heights on this hike!

As I was making my way down the mountainside, clinging perilously to a chain while the Gran Paradiso massif loomed above me, I had a moment of clarity. In Italian, ‘paradiso’ means ‘paradise’. For me, it certainly lives up to its name. So why has no one heard of it? Who knows, but maybe it’s a good thing.

Man looks across snowy mountaintops

The 10 Essentials for Hiking Safety

While you might not think of hiking as a high-octane, adrenaline junkie activity, it does carry risks. After all, you’re stepping out into the wilderness, which is anything but predictable.

Even if you’re embarking on an easy, well-trodden trail, things can quickly go awry. What if you set off too late and darkness falls before you’ve finished? What if someone rolls an ankle and can no longer walk? What if the weather unexpectedly closes in, meaning you lose your way?

As with all ‘what ifs’, these things may never happen. But they could do. And they could happen to you. That is why you should always carry the ‘10 Essentials’ on each and every hike. Although these won’t guarantee your safety, they could save your life if something goes wrong.

The 10 Essentials

The idea of the 10 Essentials was devised in 1974 by The Mountaineers, a climbing and mountaineering group based in Seattle. Since then the list has developed into 10 ‘systems’ rather than 10 individual items.

You need to bring items from each of these 10 systems on your hikes. Precisely what you bring depends on the nature of your hike. For instance, if you’re taking a short, well-marked trail, you might only need a map and compass. But if you’re striking out into the unknown, you will want a GPS too.

The 10 Essentials are –

Light

Having a source of illumination can make the difference between being able to finish a hike safely in the dark, and having to take shelter for the night. A head torch or flashlight (with spare batteries) will do the trick. Do not rely on your mobile/cell phone – the light is not sufficient and it uses up valuable battery.

Navigation

Take a map of the area and a compass – and know how to use them! You might also want to take a GPS unit. Again, do not rely on your mobile/cell phone as a means of navigation. Even if you have signal (which you might not), the maps do not provide enough information. What’s more, physical maps you can hold don’t require battery.

First aid kit

First aid kits can vary in scope. At the very least you should have scissors, bandages, plasters, blister kits, dressings, protective gloves and a SAM splint. Antiseptic solution and painkillers can also be useful, but make sure they are not past their expiry date. Also, remember to replace any items that you’ve used before heading out on the trails.

Sun protection

Being exposed to the elements all day can quickly lead to sun stroke and severe burns. Prevent this by taking, and frequently applying, high factor sun screen. Wear a wide-brimmed hat and wear clothing that covers your skin but still keeps you cool.

Tools

Situations may arise which necessitate the use of a tool. For instance, you might need to saw wood, build a shelter or open a tin of emergency food. A multi-tool such as a Leatherman or Victorinox Swiss army knife can perform most of these functions. Otherwise, a pocket knife with a strong, sharp blade will do.

Fire

If you need to stop for the night, a fire will keep warm. Unless you have excellent bushcraft skills, you’ll need a lighter or waterproof matches to ignite your kindling. A fire starter will also help to get things going.

Shelter

If you’re going on a day hike and something goes wrong, it could well turn into an overnight hike. This is a terrifying situation to be in, especially if you don’t have any shelter. So, be prepared and carry an emergency bivy bag or something similar. This will help you stay warm and dry.

Extra food

You may already be taking food on your hike, but you need to take extra supplies, over and above what you think you need. That way, if you end up being in the wilderness for more time than expected, you’ll still have something to eat. While Bear Grylls may be able to catch a fish with his bare hands, it’s not actually that easy – best just take more energy bars in case.

Extra water

The same goes for water. Being dehydrated can quickly lead to exhaustion, hypothermia and other issues. Along with taking your own supplies, check the potential water sources before you go, taking into account that they can run dry in warm weather. If you do refill while in the great outdoors, take a water purification system or tablets.

Extra clothes

Finally, take extra clothes. While it might be warm at the bottom of the trail, it can be significantly colder at the top, especially if you’ve worked up a sweat or fallen in water. And if you are outdoors when night falls, things can get very chilly, very quickly. A hat, gloves, jumper and down jacket will keep you snug.

Other things you must do

Along with carrying the 10 Essentials, you should also –

Carry a communications device – such as a fully charged mobile/cell phone in a waterproof case or bag. Know how to find your GPS coordinates on your phone. Of course, you cannot always depend on phone signal, so a personal locator beacon is also a good idea. Also, take a whistle so you can attract attention. It’s louder and more durable that your voice.

Tell someone where you’re going – give a friend, family member or colleague your trip plan. If you don’t return when you’re supposed to, they can raise the alarm. Because they know your general location, search and rescue teams will be able to focus their efforts on a specific area.

Wear the correct footwear – which means hiking boots with a good tread. Not trainers! Shoes that are not made for hiking will be much more slippery and have less ankle support, significantly increasing the chances of injury.

Wear the correct clothes – preferably you should have base layers which wick away moisture, with warmer layers to put on top, as and when needed. Cotton is not a good material for hiking because it absorbs moisture, making your clothes wet, heavy and cold.

Man fishes at sunrise on East Curme Island

Road Tripping on the Northern Sunshine Coast

The northern Sunshine Coast has everything you could ask for – whether you want to hurl yourself down mountain bike trails at Duck Lake or relax on Savary Island’s white sandy beaches, there’s something for everyone.

After spending five fun-filled days there, some friends asked if I would share my itinerary with them. I thought I’d share it here too, just in case anyone is planning a trip to this spectacular corner of the world. However, a word of warning – we crammed as many activities as possible into the little time we had. For a more chilled approach, you may want to pick and choose or spend longer at each destination.

Happy travels!

Day 1 – Inland Lake Provincial Park

Firstly, we had to get to the southern Sunshine Coast, so we drove from Vancouver to Horseshoe Bay, where we boarded the ferry bound for Langdale. Reservations are highly recommended in the summer months. We then continued from Langdale to the second ferry at Earl’s Cove, the cost of which is included in your ticket. You can’t reserve this ferry, so it’s a case of turning up and hoping for the best.

When we arrived at Saltery Bay we headed to Inland Lake Provincial Park, where I’d made an online reservation for the campsite. At the time of writing, it’s $18 per party, per night.

We had planned to mountain bike at Duck Lake first, and you can rent bikes at Suncoast Cycles if you need. However, we were a little behind schedule, so we bypassed this and went straight to the campsite.

After pitching our tents, we set off to explore the 13km walkway around the lake. There were three of us and we only had two bikes, so we took it in turns to run/cycle around, stopping at frequent intervals for a swim. The water’s lovely and warm and there are some small beaches to relax on.

Man stands on wooden platform in lake

Inland Lake

Day 2 – Confederation Lake

The next day we packed up our hiking bags, moved the car all of 20m to the day-use parking lot at Inland Provincial Park, and hiked up to Confederation Lake. We retraced our steps from the previous day, going around the lake for about 2km, after which there’s a sign pointing uphill to Confederation Lake.

The steep climb takes you through an old growth forest and eventually pops out on the shores of Confederation Lake. Being part of the Sunshine Coast Trail (SCT), there’s a free wooden hut that you can stay in, or you can pitch a tent. If you don’t want to stay the night, this is still a worthwhile (and do-able) day hike – not only for the exercise, but also for the gorgeous destination!

We spent the rest of the day swimming in the lake, which like Inland Lake, is balmy during the summer months. There’s an old rowing boat you can take for a spin, and we tried fishing for trout but with no success. The Vomit Vista viewpoint is just another 800m further on if you can manage it and offers lovely views of the mountains.

For a more in-depth description of the hike, read about my brief encounter with the SCT.

Three friends sit outside a wood cabin

My Swiss Family Robinson

Day 3 – Okeover Inlet

After a relaxing morning swimming and fishing at Confederation Lake, we packed up our bags and headed back down the hill to the car. We got onto Highway 101 and drove to Dinner Rock campsite near Lund. This is a free campsite by the ocean, and while it looked perfectly nice, someone advised us that a large group had been causing all sorts of noise issues and we might be better off at Okeover Arm Provincial Park instead.

Feeling that we were in need of a good night’s sleep, we duly took his advice and rocked up at the Okeover Arm Provincial Park campground. I’d not made a reservation but there was plenty of space. The park warden came around later to collect our fees, which at the time of writing is $18 per party, per night.

We spent the rest of the evening pottering around the campsite. There are some little beaches down by the inlet, all full of oyster shells. It’s an absolutely stunning spot to watch the sunset – on a warm summer’s day the sky becomes a colour palette of reds, and the surrounding mountains each turn a different shade of purple.

Couple look across sea inlet at sunset

Okeover Inlet

Day 4 – Savary Island

In the morning we drove into Lund, which is a pretty little fishing village. We parked the car in the upper hotel car park and paid at the hotel reception desk. I’d pre-booked a Lund Water Taxi to take us to Savary Island, which at the time of writing is $22 per person, $3 per bike, plus tax. We hadn’t had breakfast, so headed to the incredibly popular Nancy’s Bakery for one of her famous cinnamon bun rolls.

It takes just 15 minutes to get to Savary Island, but when you step off the boat, you feel like you’ve been magically transported to a Thai island. Think dusty unpaved roads, long stretches of white sandy beaches, and a seriously laid-back vibe that will make you reluctant to return to the mainland.

We already had two bikes, so hired a third at Savary Bike Rentals, which is a short (uphill) walk from the dock. This is definitely the best way to get around the island, although the terrain is not suitable for thin-wheeled road bikes. Cycling can also be something of a hazard, as I spent more time ogling at all the beautiful wood cabins than watching where I was going.

As you do a loop around the island, there are various little galleries and shops you can stop at. We stumbled upon one family-run business selling lemonade and ice coffees from their kitchen. After placing our order, we were duly ushered onto the deck to relax in deckchairs overlooking the ocean.

Above all else, Savary Island is known for its vast beaches and warm waters. In fact, you’ll find the warmest waters here north of Mexico. So of course, beach hopping was the main activity of the day. The tide was out (and the tides here are huge) so we couldn’t really swim, only paddle. We did discover that low-tide is also excellent for clam-picking, but alas, we weren’t equipped.

We finished off our bike tour at Riggers, the only pub on the island. It was then back to Lund where we indulged in dinner at the Boardwalk Restaurant before heading back to our camp at Okeover Arm Provincial Park.

Woman stands in sea up to her ankles

Savary Island

Day 5 – Desolation Sound

We were conveniently placed the next day for the short journey to Powell River Sea Kayak at Okeover Inlet. I’d reserved some kayaks for two days, so we got the paperwork sorted, loaded up the kayaks and launched shortly after 10am. There’s a parking lot where we left our car.

The waters along the Inlet were very calm, although things did get a little choppier as we reached the open ocean of Desolation Sound. After about 3 hours of paddling a mother orca and her calf swam past. They must have been about 30m away, which was incredible.

Read more about my experience kayaking with orcas in Desolation Sound.

Shortly after we reached the Curmes Islands and decided to occupy a couple of camping pads on East Curme Island. If you want to stay the night, you need to buy a backcountry camping permit in advance, which is $5 per person. There are tent pads and outhouses here, but nothing else. If you run out of water, you can paddle over to Unwin Lake and refill from the freshwater stream.

This is an incredibly beautiful spot overlooking Desolation Sound and we all wished we could stay for longer. In fact, the folks at Powell River Sea Kayak were surprised we had paddled so far just for a night, as most people set up base here and then explore the surrounding area for a few days. Even so, it was well worth it!

Tent pad on East Curme Island

Home for the night on East Curme Island

Day 6 – Back to Vancouver

Then it was time to go home. We kayaked back in windy conditions, hopped in the car and made the long journey back to Vancouver. You can buy your return ferry ticket at Saltery Bay.

We were all pretty exhausted, but at the same time we were chuffed to have had such an amazing road trip. It’s incredible what you can pack into such a short space of time, and it’s certainly opened my eyes to the delights of the northern Sunshine Coast. I’ll definitely be back, and am particularly keen to explore the Sunshine Coast Trail and Desolation Sound in more detail.

‘Til next time!

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