Sunday, May 15, 2016

Whistler High Note

High Note Trail above Cheakamus Lake
6 miles one way, 1000 feet elevation gain (2200 feet elevation drop)
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Whistler Blackcomb Summer Lift Ticket (~CA $50 per person), gondola and chairlift to trailhead

Okay, so the High Note Trail is cheating: this is a hike from the summit of Whistler Peak, at the heavily developed Whistler Blackcomb Resort in British Columbia, down to a gondola station on the mountain's slopes. The extraordinary number of chairlifts at Whistler Blackcomb allow this hike to be done as a one-way descent, providing maximum views for minimum effort. Hikers who enjoy the feeling of earning their summit will have to swallow their pride to enjoy this trail, though the path through some of the most spectacular alpine scenery in North America makes it well worth it. While Whistler is better known for its winter sports- Whistler Blackcomb hosted many downhill skiing events during the 2010 Vancouver Olympics- the area has just as many recreational opportunities during the summer.

I hiked this trail with my parents when they came to visit the Northwest. We stayed in Squamish, a town about an hour south of Whistler; we arrived in British Columbia just a week after the area was flooded with smoke from a massive wildfire out by Pemberton. We took Highway 99, the Sea to Sky Highway, north from Squamish (having arrived in Squamish from Vancouver on Highway 99 the day before) to Whistler. We turned right into the Whistler resort area at Lorimer Road and followed the parking signs to the large free parking lot at the north end of the resort area. We then followed Blackcomb Way south to the base of the gondolas and purchased summer chairlift day passes (unfortunately, single ride tickets weren't available). We then took the Whistler gondola from the base at the village directly uphill to Roundhouse Lodge high up on Whistler Mountain. After taking some time to explore other parts of the area by gondola (including taking the Peak 2 Peak across to Blackcomb Mountain), we walked from Roundhouse Lodge down to the base of The Peak chairlift, which brought us up to the very summit of Whistler Mountain. The final chairlift ride provided remarkable close-up views of the glaciers high up on Whistler.

Glacier view from the chairlift to Whistler Peak
This is that rare and odd hike where the 360-degree view comes at the beginning: after disembarking from the chairlift, we wandered around the flattened summit, looking out to the glacier-capped peaks of Garibaldi Provincial Park and the endless ridges rising west of the Whistler. We took in the view and took a few photos with the Inukshuk at the summit before following signs for the High Note Trail downhill.

View from Whistler Peak
The initial trail down from the summit was fairly rocky and steep; the trail descended down the west side of the mountain and afforded many views down to the resort town of Whistler and south to Mount Garibaldi and Black Tusk, a very distinct, sharp peak. We hiked past numerous tell-tale signs that we were in a major ski resort: ski runs were marked all over the place, depriving the landscape of any feeling of wilderness. The excellent views compensated for this distinctly unwild feeling.

View to the peaks of Garibaldi Provincial Park
After a substantial descent from the summit, the trail intersected with a ski run leading back to the summit. We crossed the run and continued on the High Note Trail; here, a sign warned hikers that beyond there would be real trail, a little odd considering the descent from the summit offered perhaps the least stable footing of any point along the hike. We continued on the High Note Trail, which briefly entered some woods before emerging onto the beautiful open meadows on Whistler Mountain's south slopes.

High Note Trail
High Note Trail
The mile that followed was some of the most enjoyable alpine hiking found anywhere. The trail winded its way through open meadows littered with wildflowers and butterflies, occasionally crossing small bubbling streams. At this point, there were no signs of the ski resort, making the surroundings seem substantially more natural. There were constant, excellent views of the glacier-capped peaks of Garibaldi Provincial Park across the valley of Cheakamus Lake as well as of the sharp spire of the Black Tusk. Soon, views of the shining turquoise waters of Cheakamus Lake itself emerged below, providing a vivid contrast to the dense evergreen forests of the surrounding mountain slopes.

After staying generally flat or slightly downhill along much of the mountainside, the trail made a slight climb, cutting through a talus slope, up to the saddle between Whistler Peak and Piccolo Summit. Piccolo is the first of three minor summits on Whistler Mountain southeast of the main peak; collectively known as the Musical Bumps, Piccolo, Flute, and Oboe Peaks separate the ski resort from Singing Pass. At the saddle between Whistler and Piccolo, the High Note Trail intersected with the Half Note Trail, which led back towards the summit of Whistler. We took the right fork to stay on the High Note Trail, which began to cut across the southwestern slopes of Piccolo. More open meadows and views of Cheakamus Lake followed.

Cheakamus Lake
The most difficult section of the trail soon followed: the trail made a sharp turn to the left and scrambled up an eroding slope, then came to a metal boardwalk that skirted the side of a rock and then descended at a steep angle back to solid trail. While most people won't find this segment too troublesome, hikers who don't enjoy scrambling or who have acrophobia may find this stretch of trail unpleasant.

Scramble section along the High Note Trail
Past the short scramble, the trail continued to wind along the open meadows on the slopes of Piccolo, with plenty more beautiful views of Cheakamus Lake. On the far side of the Piccolo, the trail began to climb again towards the saddle between Piccolo and Flute; while following the trail through a talus slope, we noticed a marmot lounging lazily near the trailside on some rocks. It was apparently habituated enough to humans that it didn't even bother sounding a marmot warning whistle when we passed by.

Trailside marmot
At the saddle between Flute and Piccolo, the trail split once again. Here, the right fork headed towards Singing Pass and Russet Lake, continuing along the Musical Bumps. We opted to continue on the High Note Trail, which was the left fork. The trail cut across the flat, meadow-filled saddle and led to new views of the Mount Overlord and the valley between Whistler and Blackcomb.

Saddle between Flute and Piccolo summits
Past the saddle, the trail remained in the alpine. We hiked high above a barren, beautiful bowl surrounded by multicolored ridges, then entered the lush bowl of Symphony Lake. Here, we re-entered ski resort territory: a ski lift cut across the mountainside here towards the summit of Piccolo. Symphony Lake itself was a large pond nestled in a tiny cirque on the slopes of Piccolo. The trail wound down to the side of the lake, then crossed the lake's outlet stream in a flower-strewn meadow. From here, there were incredible views of the glaciers on Mount Overlord and the rocky peak and ski runs of Blackcomb Mountain.

Blackcomb Mountain from near Symphony Lake
Past Symphony Lake, the trail embarked on an uphill ascent of a few hundred feet as it cut up the side of a ridge. A stretch of this trail cut through a talus slope, offering mindblowingly spectacular views of Overlord and the green meadows and bowls near Symphony Lake.

High Note Trail near Symphony Lake
Past the talus slope, the trail dove into one of the few forested stretches of the hike. We continued uphill through the trees until we rounded the end of the ridge, where we found spotty views of Blackcomb Mountain and patches of Indian paintbrush and other summer wildflowers lining the trail. As it was getting late in the day, we were also glad to look northwest and realize that we were within line of sight of the Peak-2-Peak gondola, meaning that the end of the hike at Roundhouse Lodge was no longer too far away.

After rounding the ridge, the trail dropped downhill gently to the shores of Harmony Lake. At this late hour, the small lake on the east side of Whistler Peak was now entirely in the mountain's shadow; the lighting allowed for nice reflections on the lake. We followed the boardwalk around the east and north shores of the lake before starting a final short climb through sparse woods back to the developed area around Roundhouse Lodge.

Harmony Lake
The trail circled around a fenced-off pond then gently cut across the meadows down to the gondola station at Roundhouse Lodge. Once we reached the gondola station, we hopped on a downhill gondola to return to Whistler village.

The network of gondolas and chairlifts at Whistler make this hike relatively easily accessible and easier than most other hikes that access such alpine scenery. It's important to note that this doesn't make this an easy hike; but it's a good choice for hikers looking for a more leisurely way of reaching the alpine.

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