Snowshoeing at Grouse Mountain

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Trip Report: Elfin Lakes

We’ve been itching to get on an overnight trip since we got back from the GDT and over the winter break was the first chance we’ve managed to make it work. We haven’t done any winter camping before, so we decided on Elfin Lakes – the route is marked and a reasonable length (11km one way) and there’s a heated shelter at the end.

Logistics

All camping in Garibaldi Provincial Park requires permits/reservations year-round. If you plan to go on a weekend, you will need to book well in advance, but weekdays tend to have spots available. All reservations need to be purchased online or by phone in advance – there are no options to pay cash in person anymore.

To get to Elfin Lakes, you will want to the Diamond Head trailhead. Signage to get there is straightforward from the highway. The final several kilometres are on a gravel road. In the winter, you’ll want winter tires and chains – chains are required in the park and the final section of road is quite steep.

The winter route is classified as simple terrain, but you should always check the avalanche forecast before you go.

Trip Report

It snowed the previous day and only a narrow ski track was worn into the trail, so on the way up, we were breaking trail to avoid walking in the ski tracks. We made good time though and got to Red Heather quicker than expected. The shelter was full of skiers taking breaks and we stopped for a quick snack break.

We were happy to find the route from Red Heather to Elfin Lakes was marked the day before as it was snowing and we had very low visibility after leaving Red Heather. It would have been quite slow going without the poles.

Despite the poor visibility, the ridge from Red Heather to Elfin Lakes was easy walking and we quickly made it to the Elfin Lakes shelter. It was early in the day, so we had it to ourselves at first. We ate, played Sushi Go and entertained ourselves on our phones. Over the afternoon, people slowly trickled in and then a whole bunch arrived around dinner time.

As we were considering going to the bed, the CO detector went off due to someone leaving the propane burner on without it being lit. All the doors and windows were opened, but surprisingly few people went outside – I guess most people don’t realize how dangerous carbon monoxide can be. Thankfully it wasn’t too cold out and the skies had somewhat cleared, so we got to enjoy views on the surrounding mountains while we waited for the alarm to stop going off. Once it stopped 20 minutes later, it was time for bed!

We both slept surprisingly well and were nice and toasty warm.

We woke up as others started to wake up and make noise and then went outside to watch the sunrise. After the sunrise, we lazily made breakfast and packed up before starting on our way back down.

We could actually see things on our way down and I can see why this area is so popular! The area is truly beautiful and seeing it all covered in snow is magical. My phone decided it was too cold though and shut itself off early on, so we did not end up with many photos.

We made quick time on the way down and stopped again at Red Heather for lunch. After Red Heather, the trail after was very wide and packed in – certainly not the single ski tracks and making our own trail of the way up.

We made it to the car in just over three hours total including our lunch break.

We drove off and were quite happy we brought chains – there was a Jeep in the ditch that wasn’t there on our way up!

Final Thoughts

Going on a winter overnight was quite fun and I think overall our current gear works quite well. For future non-shelter-based trips, I think we’d want a new shelter, but otherwise I don’t think there’s anything else we’d need.

We also tried out instant miso soup and rice as a breakfast option. It was quite tasty, but not very calorie dense. We’ll need to brainstorm some additions to add more calories.

For Future GDT Hikers

The GDT is an amazing trail and I think it has ruined us in terms of our expectations for other trails in the future. Here are a few resources and our perspective on the GDT. I’ll try to avoid repeating things other hikers have already addressed well – definitely refer to the other hiker journals I have linked below.

For another perspective (and some of the same as well), check out my partner’s reflection on the GDT.

If you have any questions, please feel free to ask!

Resources

Planning Resources

Great Divide Trail Association

The GDT website has an abundance of information and is a great starting point for any questions you have.

Hiker journals I found helpful:

On-Trail Resources

Ryan Silk’s Maps

These were the only physical maps we brought – there were a few sections where it would have been nice to also have larger scale overview maps, but overall these are excellent and if you don’t plan to do the high routes/alternates, these are likely all you need.

GDT App

For finding the trail again on the edge of meadows, having the app was amazing. It also has some helpful notes/comments for planning out your days – we did find all the notes about water crossings to make them sound more intense than they ended up being and I believe we went in a fairly average year for water.

A caveat with the app – be sure you know how to navigate with paper maps/compass and be aware of your device’s limitations.

GDT Hiker Notes

Save a copy of this on your phone – maybe skim through it beforehand, but it is most useful to have on-trail to plan out your days and know what’s up ahead.

GDT Facebook Group

Trail closures and reroutes are posted in the group and it can be useful to connect with other hikers.

Gear

Gear List

Most other hikers we saw leaned towards the ultralight/light side of the spectrum, but there were some hikers with more traditional gear out there as well. Generally, I’d suggest trying to get your gear weight down as much as possible – the food carries are long so you want to minimize your weight as much as possible.

Some general things I’d recommend:

  • Rain gear – Bring full rain gear (pants and jacket) – you’ll likely encounter at least one day off going through wet brush and the car wash is slightly more tolerable with rain pants
  • Headlamps – We didn’t use our headlamps until the last couple of days. Unless you plan to night-hike you can probably bring something super basic.
  • Water filter – there’s a fair number of glacial streams, make sure you can backwash/clean your filter
  • Canister stove – it’s possible to buy canister fuel in most of the resupply locations, we were somewhat concerned about this, but it didn’t end up being an issue
  • Satellite messenger/emergency beacon – We found our inReach to be very useful for getting weather forecasts and checking in on the status of the forest fires. 
  • Sleep system for couples – For couples specifically, I can’t recommend a double quilt and sleeping mat highly enough!

There are a significant number of sections that are either entirely off-trail or on a very poor trail, so navigation skills are definitely needed. The vast majority of those sections follow nice geographical features though (ridges, rivers), so the navigation is pretty straightforward as long as you can orient yourself correctly.

We brought paper maps, but for navigation during the day, we mostly used the GDT app on our phones. In particular, the app was helpful for navigating when the trail followed ATV trails as they are a bit of a maze and for refinding the trail at the edge of meadows.

Resupply Strategy

You don’t really have many options in terms of resupply due to the spacing. Generally, I’d recommend mailing your resupplies; it would be possible to buy as you go, but it would be very pricey (ie >$10 for a bag of chips pricey in some locations).

If we were to do the trail again, I’d probably mail 10-20% less food than we did. Not because we didn’t eat it all, but because we ended up being bored with some items or not liking them as much as we anticipated. We ended up ditching some items and replacing it with food we bought at every resupply.

Some notes on each resupply location:

Waterton – Surprisingly well-stocked store. Make sure to book a spot in the campground.

Coleman – Stay with Alannah and Dan at A Safe Haven! They are really the only trail angels on the GDT. We got three delicious meals a day (and Alannah is amazing about accommodating allergies and dietary restrictions), laundry, driven to Blairmore to pick up supplies, and last but not least, a dry comfy bed for the night. A Safe Haven is also the only place with a hiker box we encountered on the trail.

Peter Lougheed – Minimize your time here if possible. We found hitching to be a lot more difficult than anticipated for a park and also had a negative encounter with an Alberta Parks Conservation Officer who told us hitchhiking was dangerous and quasi-threatened to send the RCMP by to ticket us. It is possible to take a shower at the Boulton Creek Campground if you want even if you don’t camp there; you can buy tokens at the trading post. Visitor Centre wifi is slooow when people are around, but the speed is pretty decent otherwise.

Assiniboine Lodge – Not a resupply location, but definitely try to time your day so you arrive here when they are open (4 – 5pm). They’ve got tea, cake and beer (and cider and wine). Bring cash!

Banff – Stop by Sunshine Village for lunch, but I wouldn’t recommend going into Banff unless you absolutely have to. If you do have to, make reservations beforehand otherwise you are likely to find yourself spending far more than you are comfortable spending on accommodations. Banff is expensive and busy. We ended up having to stay in Banff to do a phone interview and it was honestly the worst part of the hike.

Field – There are laundry and wifi at the Truffle Pig. Don’t expect to find accommodations here unless you’ve made reservations. I know several other hikers recommended hitching to Golden and taking a zero there – the hostel in Golden is apparently quite hiker-friendly.

Crossing Resort – If you plan to buy as you go, the Crossing is the one location you should send a package to. They have a store, but prices are absurd. There are wifi and laundry here, but it is supposed to be only for guests – we did end up staying overnight here, so not sure how well enforced this is.

Maligne Lake Lodge – Another not resupply location, but they’ve got a cafeteria and small store (no wifi) if you want to take a beer and charge your devices break.

Jasper – Favourite non-trail spot of the GDT. Still a bit touristy, but waaaay less so than Banff. If you are solo, you’ll probably be able to find accommodations, but if you are a couple or group, you’ll likely want to book these in advance. The downtown hostel is the nicest hostel I’ve been at with great cooking facilities, laundry and wifi. 

Prince George – You’ll likely need to stay overnight here before catching your transportation home. There are lots of hotels and the bus system is decent for getting around town if you need to.

Permits and Schedule

So booking permits is definitely a hassle – Dan has already written up a great summary about this including a couple sample itineraries, check that out for sure.

Make sure to confirm all the dates and which parks require permits in advance – these tend to change every year. Once you have the dates, book them in your calendar – including the time they open – and make your bookings the second they open.

We did take the approach of booking everything in advance, which worked well for the first part of the trail, but by the end, we were ahead of schedule by a couple of days. I’d highly encourage others to make reservations – many areas aren’t really accommodating to dispersed camping. In particular in Banff National Park, the Rockwall Trail in Kootenay National Park, and the Skyline Trail in Jasper National Park, the trails are very busy and it is unlikely you will find a spot available if you show up without a reservation.

Regardless of whether you make reservations or not, please pay into the system as much as possible. Buy a Discovery Pass. Donate to the GDTA.

Getting to/from the trail

Getting to Waterton

There used to be a Greyhound bus that went from Calgary to Pincher Creek and then you could hitch from Pincher Creek to Waterton. Greyhound doesn’t operate in Western Canada anymore, so this isn’t an option. Check out the GDT website for most recent updates, but you’re probably in for a long hitch.

Getting from Kakwa

Kakwa Lake is 100km from the highway and 30km from the drivable part of the FSR connecting it to the highway. Unless you have arranged a ride in advance, expect to walk all the way to the highway. We were definitely more optimistic than we should have been about getting a ride early on and we didn’t encounter anyone on the road until we were only ~25km from the highway. It is easy walking and more than doable to do 50km/day and get it done in two days, just be mentally prepared for it.

Final Thoughts

The Great Divide Trail is an amazingly beautiful trail.

Be prepared for the lows to be as low as the highs are high. The highs are so so high, but you’ll also encounter extreme lows when you are stuck walking on a shitty ATV road or bushwhacking through a soggy non-existant trail or crossing the same river for the fifth time that day. The highs do make it all worth it though.

Finish at Kakwa. This is the final exam you’ve been preparing for on the rest of the trail and you are going to nail it.

And finally, to quote one of the first thru-hikers I encountered online, thru-hiking will break your heart.

Days 49 and 50 – The road out

GDT kms: 28.1 (+ 12.7 on the drivable part of the road)

We had a nice lazy start as neither of us were in a particular hurry to start. We saw a moose on the road pretty early on, but otherwise the road was quite boring.

We ate our lunch in front of a snowmobile club cabin a few minutes outside of the park – it looked to be a quite nice little place in the winter, they had a wood fire-heated hot tub and a light up palm tree that looked pretty snazzy and reminded both of us of Club Mech.

The afternoon definitely drew on and was even more boring than the morning – especially once we got past the muddy ATV roads and were on the drivable road. I was definitely starting to annoy Kyle as I tried to think of topics to talk about to keep myself entertained.

After hitting 40km, we decided that was enough for the day and found a flat patch on the side of the road to camp in around 6pm. This area apparently has issues with porcupines, so we brought everything inside the tent to avoid it getting nibbled on – I’m still somewhat concerned we might wakeup in the middle of the night to an army of porcupines trying to get in the tent, but hopefully that doesn’t happen.

Bonus kms: ~34

It started raining around 4am and we groggily got up to close the vestibule doors and then went back to sleep. It was still raining when we hoped to get up, but neither of us were in a hurry to hit the road again, so we both rolled over and went back to sleep for another hour. When we woke up again, the rain had stopped, but we discovered our packs had pushed the bathtub floor out into the rain and we had a lovely puddle inside.

Once we were on our way, it was another boring day of walking with no evidence of vehicles or other people. It was well into the afternoon and I had my head down listening to podcasts when Kyle called out to get my attention – there were trucks ahead!

We encountered a wildfire crew and Bruce, the team supervisor, said we could grab a ride with him if we were willing to wait around for an hour and a half until they were finished for the day – we were very willing to wait! As the crew came in, they were all a bit incredulous as Bruce explained up that the random people sitting in his truck had walked there from the Canada-US border.

A couple hours later and we were in Prince George, checked into a motel and at Wendy’s getting the frosty Kyle had been craving for the past few days.

It’s hard to sum up this trip as it has been so many different things, but Carrot Quinn certainly captured the essence with

Thru-hiking will break your heart

Day 48 – Holy shit, we did it!

GDT kms: 29.9

For the first time in several days, it isn’t a super cold morning, so I decide to opt for wearing shorts only rather than pulling my dance pants on like I have the past few days. Shortly after we start, I realize this wasn’t the best decision – once we are down in the meadow, it is both frosty and brushy, but it’s a hassle to put on my pants as the cuffs are too small to go over my shoes, so I just push on.

We are quickly up Surprise Pass, the last real alpine of the trail, but unfortunately smoke rolled in again last night and is really limiting our views – probably a good thing we aren’t opting for any of the high alternatives as we wouldn’t be able to see anything anyways.

The rest of our day is through brushy, muddy meadows, but otherwise good and we make pretty good time. I end up leading us Slightly off course when trail disappeared at Broadview, but Kyle got us back on track pretty quickly.

We reach Kakwa Lake and are delighted to see the cabin is just as nice as people said it would be – we actually walked right by the cabin initially because we thought it was too nice to be a public cabin and we went straight for the woodshed thinking it looked more appropriate.

At the volunteer caretaker cabin, we meet John and Joan who are true trail angels – they treat us to dinner and conversation. We are the first people through in over 10 days – seems like the smoke has deterred everyone from visiting.

We end our evening by taking advantage of the wood stove to dry laundry and enjoy a warm dry night indoors.

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GDT Day 48 Holy shit! We actually did it! We've walked 1100 km and 5 degrees of latitude to make it here and it took more than just a little bit of blood, sweat and tears, but we did it. In the words of @carrotquinn, thru-hiking will break your heart, and the GDT definitely broke mine. Today was mostly muddy walking through meadows and the views were pretty limited as smoke had rolled in again overnight. At Kakwa Lake, we met John and Joan, the volunteer caretakers, who are true trail angels and feed us a dinner that will help us stretch our food for the road walk out – we still have 2-3 more days of walking and they warn us we are unlikely to get a ride early on, we are the first people through in over 10 days and not many people are likely to be out due to the smoke.

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Day 47 – Back on good trail!

GDT kms: 36.0

We have a bit of a late start this morning, but we are quickly on good trail and are making good time for the first time in several days. As with the rest of the section, we need to pull out our phone and check the GPS every time we go through a meadow as the trail disappears, but otherwise the trail is straightforward and very pretty.

Most of the day is spent going over a series of gentle passes with beautiful views before we start descending down to the valley. The trail in the valley is supposed to have s junction we take to the left which we never actually find, instead just bushwhacking our way towards the GPS track until we find the trail in the woods that takes us over a little hill. We descend down the other side to Sheep Creek – our destination for the night. It’s another beautiful campsite with a pair of lovely benches overlooking the creek. I’m so happy that we pushed to get here and I’m actually feeling like we can finish this for the first time in several days.

Day 46 – Finally off the river

GDT kms: 21.4

Another cold, dark start, this time well below freezing, but miraculously we didn’t have frozen shoes. When we got on the trail, it was more of what we did yesterday, constant finding/losing trail, and quite slow going. Where we initially planned to camp last night was supposed to be an established site, but we didn’t see any evidence of a camp as we went along, so I’m glad we didn’t press on yesterday to try and get to it.

Eventually we finally turned off the Jackpine into a burn area where the trail disappeared again. This was definitely the easiest burn to get through though and one of the prettiest burns we’ve walked through so far.

After a bit of finding and losing the trail up Little Shale, it eventually became consistent, but rather brushy still. We had the briefest of views at the top and then we needed to go right back down to the bottom to cross a very opaque but thankfully shallow river and then right up to climb Big Shale.

The climb was slow, but once we got above treeline it was beautiful with amazing views of the area and walking at the top. It was after 7pm by the time we were descending, so we stopped at the first flat patch we found that looked reasonable.

It was probably one of our prettiest camp sites so far – we were in between a tiny flat patch between the only trees around and there were two little streams intersecting just ahead that we ate dinner ate.

The climbs today definitely took longer than we would have liked though and now we are a fair bit behind schedule – really hoping that the next couple days are easier so we don’t need to try and stretch our food even more, I’ve already been rationing my snacks so we’ll have at least a bit of food for the potential 3 days walking to the highway.