Sunday, May 10, 2020

Panorama Ridge and Garibaldi Lake

Garibaldi Lake and Mt. Garibaldi from Panorama Ridge
32 km round trip/semi-loop, 1600 meters elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous, but this is still a long and hard hike
Access: Paved road to trailhead, parking free

Perched over Garibaldi Lake in British Columbia's Pacific Ranges, Panorama Ridge delivers one of the most spectacular views of water, rock, and ice in all North America. Just over an hour away from Canada's largest West Coast city, this Garibaldi Provincial Park hike is extremely popular and tests the limits of a day hike, at 20 miles long with a full mile of elevation gain. It's hard to snag backcountry campsites for this hike due to its popularity, but fit and fast hikers will find that despite the formidable length and elevation gain stats for this hike, the well-built trails and even grades make this a fairly stomachable long day hike. Whether you attempt it in a day or overnight, however, the views from Panorama Ridge on a clear day are sure to dazzle. This is one of the premier hikes of the continent and one that should be on every hiker's bucket list.

There's a number of trail permutations for doing this hike; one can do a round trip to just Panorama Ridge or just Garibaldi Lake or a round trip to Panorama Ridge via Garibaldi Lake both ways, but the best approach is to hit Panorama Ridge first via Taylor Meadows, then returning via Garibaldi Lake. Day hikers looking for a slightly easier outing should consider doing just the round trip to Garibaldi Lake, which is still a hefty day hike.

I hiked Panorama Ridge during the last day of a Labor Day trip to Vancouver and Whistler. The weather report for the holiday weekend was decent when I left Seattle but then shifted once I arrived around Whistler, so I was unsure at the start of my hike whether I'd be able to see the views at Panorama Ridge that others have raved about. From Vancouver, take the Sea to Sky Highway (Highway 99) north past Squamish and and turn right onto Daisy Lake Road, which is marked with a BC parks sign for the Garibaldi Lake and Black Tusk Trailhead. Follow this road for 2 km to reach the Rubble Creek Trailhead, a large parking lot.

The trail left from the corner of the parking lot near the creek and immediately began an ascent through the forest. The trail was very wide and well maintained and the grade was steady, making for a reasonable uphill climb. As I had only about 13 hours of daylight for this very substantial hike, I set out on the trail before sunrise and pushed myself uphill at a good clip; it helped that I had just returned from climbing Mount Rainier the weekend prior and that I was still in good shape. In the 6 km from the trailhead to the first junction, the trail ascended about 750 meters through a long set of switchbacks, knocking out about half of the hike's elevation gain.

At the junction, I took the left fork, which headed towards Taylor Meadows. This trail initially continued climbing, packing in another 100 meters of elevation gain before flattening out and reaching the Taylor Meadows Campground. Here, the trees began to thin and the trail followed a boardwalk through nice meadows with views of Black Tusk's distinctive peak.

Black Tusk from Taylor Meadows
The Taylor Meadows Campground is a nice backcountry campground with 40 established campsites that are reservable online- it's a reaonable option for hikers who want to spend more time in the beautiful high country of Garibaldi Park, but like all other backcountry campgrounds in the park it's extremely popular.

After passing the campground, I reached another trail junction, 2 km from the previous one. The right fork led down to Garibaldi Lake, so I took the left fork, which headed towards Black Tusk and Panorama Ridge. The next 2 km tackled a reasonable ascent that largely stayed out in the open. Black Tusk was still visible ahead but morning cloud cover prevented me from seeing most of the other peaks.

At 10 km into the hike, I arrived at the next junction: here, the right fork led down to Garibaldi and the left fork continued to Black Tusk and Panorama Ridge. I proceeded to the left here, but I would take the Garibaldi Lake fork on my return trip. The open meadows here provided great views of the slopes of Black Tusk ahead as we approached the base of the mountain, although the spire of the Tusk itself was now hidden by its lower ridges.

Meadows at the base of Black Tusk
Half a kilometer past the last junction, I passed the spur trail that led towards the high slopes of Black Tusk; I stayed straight on the trail towards Panorama Ridge. This stretch of trail had some beautiful meadows with burbling streams tumbling through and some last remnants of the summer's wildflower bloom providing splotches of color. As the trail gently ascended on the lower slopes of Black Tusk, there were views of a meadowed basin below and peeks of the turquoise color of Garibaldi Lake far below.

As I approached Panorama Ridge, the views kept improving: soon, Mimulus Lake came into view at the foot of the ridge, surrounded by lush meadows.

Mimulus Lake
Looking back to the west, I spotted Mount Tantalus- a high rocky ridge adorned with glaciers across the Cheakamus River Valley- rising majestically above the nearby meadows.

Tantalus rising over the meadows
The trail passed Mimulus and Black Tusk Lakes and finally arrived at the junction for Panorama Ridge at 12.5 km from the trailhead. At this fork, the Helm Creek Trail led off to Helm Lake and Cheakamus Lake on the left; I took the right fork, the trail for Panorama Ridge itself.

Helm Lake
Starting the final stretch of trail to Panorama Ridge, the trail dropped slightly to a saddle between Helm Lake and Black Tusk Lake, then approached the lakeshore of beautiful Black Tusk Lake.

Black Tusk Lake and Panorama Ridge
After passing Black Tusk Lake, the trail began the hike's final climb through the last 2 km to the ridge. The trail initially climbed through mixed tree cover and meadows that provided views of both Black Tusk Lake and Mimulus Lake below. In the distance, the summit and glaciers of Mount Tantalus danced in and out of the clouds.

Black Tusk and Mimulus Lakes with Tantalus peeping through the clouds
Once the trail climbed onto the the north ridge of Panorama Ridge itself, the tree cover ended. A barren landscape of rock and ice lay ahead, with the crest of Panorama Ridge and the small glaciers of its north aspect beckoning. This final stretch of trail was quite steep as I covered about 300 meters in elevation gain in less than 2 km. The views made the climb much easier: Black Tusk dominated the scenery behind me to the north, its rugged pinnacle jutting into the sky like the prow of a sinking ship. Mimulus, Black Tusk, and Helm Lake dotted the saddle between the ridge I was standing on and the Tusk. Many peaks of the Pacific Ranges were visible beyond, hiding the nearby Pemberton Icefield, the southernmost of Canada's many large icefields.

Black Tusk rises over Mimulus, Black Tusk, and Helm Lakes
Glaciated peaks of the Pacific Ranges
The trail up Panorama Ridge approached the small glacier on the ridge's north slopes on its final ascent as I pushed my way up towards the top. While not a particularly impressive glacier, it's still rare to get a chance to study a glacier so close up from a trail. A number of crevasses running across the glacier helped make clear that this body of ice was truly a glacier rather than just a permanent snowfield.

Glacier on Panorama Ridge
A final push brought me to the top of Panorama Ridge, 15 km from the trailhead and 2100 meters (6950 feet) above sea level. Unfortunately, the view was initially fogged over when I reached the top. Low clouds obstructed views of any of the glaciated peaks to the south, although I could see Garibaldi Lake's turquoise waters below.

Turquoise Garibaldi Lake under a blanket of clouds
I had the summit largely to myself when I arrived, a function of my early start time from the trailhead. As I had time to spare, I decided to wait a while and see if the cloud conditions would change. My patience was rewarded; unfortunately, so were the late-risers. After an hour of sitting in the mist at the top, the clouds began to shift and lift and all of sudden, amazing views over Garibaldi Lake to Mount Garibaldi and the other glaciated peaks of the Pacific Ranges opened up. The view was jaw-dropping, but as many other hikers had since arrived at the summit mine wasn't the only jaw that had to be picked off the ground.

Garibaldi Lake
Looking out at the view, to the left of Mount Garibaldi rose a formidable set of glaciated peaks. The Sphinx, Mount Carr, and Castle Towers Mountain were all cloaked in rugged ice. The most impressive of this lot was the Sphinx, a rock spine peeking above draped sheets of ice that were scored with crevasses and marked with dark lateral moraines. Three nascent glacial lakes filled the valley at the toe of the Sphinx Glacier, draining the century-old ice melt through newly exposed rock into Garibaldi Lake.

The Sphinx
Mount Garibaldi rose at the head of the lake, named after the famous Italian unifier by a British survey of the BC coast in the 1860s. This 2678-meter (8786-foot) tall stratovolcano is the namesake for Garibaldi Provincial Park and is one of the volcanoes of the Canadian side of the Cascadian Volcanic Arc. Formed by the subduction of the Juan de Fuca Plate below the North American Plate, the Cascadian Volcanic Arc stretches from Lassen Peak in California to Silverthrone Peak in British Columbia. Mount Garibaldi is in the center of a collection of nearby volcanic features, including Black Tusk, which is the andestic core of a now-extinct volcano.

Mount Garibaldi rises over Garibaldi Lake
As the first summit on Panorama Ridge began to crowd, I hiked just a bit further down a saddle and up to the next peak on the ridge, which was much quieter but had much the same views.

Castle Towers Mountain, Mount Carr, and the Sphinx
Looking to the north, I spotted the distinctive man-made alterations of Whistler Mountain, Canada's largest ski resort and one of the sites used for ski events during the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. The mountain's system of lifts and gondolas also makes it an excellent summer hiking destination, with the beautiful Whistler High Note Trail.

Whistler Mountain
The second summit on the ridge also gave a nice view over the glacier on the north side of the ridge, as well as back to Black Tusk and the lakes on the north side.

Panorama Ridge glacier
After soaking in the views- some of the most impressive views on the continent- I returned down the ridge and retraced my steps for 5 km back to the junction with the trail down to Garibaldi Lake. This time, I took the fork towards Garibaldi Lake instead of continuing the return towards Taylor Meadows. This trail crossed a creek and then climbed slightly to some meadows with views of Mount Tantalus, then entered the forest and began a steady descent with switchbacks.

Tantalus over meadows
Two kilometers after leaving the previous junction, the trail intersected with the Garibaldi Lake Trail at a switchback. The trail leading right and uphill returned to the trailhead, while the trail leading left and downhill continued to Garibaldi Lake. This trail continued downhill and quickly reached the shoreline of Garibaldi Lake and crossed the outlet of the lake on a bridge. The view of the placid lake from the outlet was surreal and astonishing: the lake was an unbelievable turquoise and Mount Carr and Castle Towers Mountain rose majestically in the distance.

Outlet of Garibaldi Lake
After crossing the outlet, the trail hugged the south shore of the small bay near the outlet on a series of boardwalks. As the trail rounded a bend, the rest of the lake came into view: jewel-like waters backed by an imposing wall of glaciers and peaks. This was one of those sublime sights that we all live to see in person. I continued along the lakeshore until reaching the campground (a 50-site backcountry campground) and found a spot along the shore to enjoy this mesmerizing view. The Battleship Islands dotted the lake and only added to the lake's scenic perfection.

Garibaldi Lake
The only drawback was the large number of visitors. Panorama Ridge was already a little busy but Garibaldi Lake was nearly a circus: there were hundreds of hikers along the lakeshore. This was understandable: Garibaldi Lake is an easier hike destination than Panorama Ridge and it's such a scenic locale close to a major city that I couldn't have expected anything other than crowds.

After enjoying my share of lake views, I started the return journey. After crossing the outlet, I made a short ascent back to the junction with the trail from which I had descended; this time, I chose to take the left fork and started on the 9 km journey back to the trailhead. This trail was a bit more narrow than the wide trail that I had taken toward the direction of the lake in the morning; after a half kilometer, I passed a junction with the trail that headed towards Taylor Meadows. As the trail descended, it passed the Lesser Garibaldi Lake and Barrier Lake in quick succession. Lesser Garibaldi Lake had the same turquoise water as its much larger sibling but lacked the dramatic mountain backdrop; Barrier Lake featured glimpses of the dramatic rock wall of the Barrier.

Lesser Garibaldi Lake
Barrier Lake
After passing Barrier Lake, the trail passed through a rocky cut in the Barrier and then reentered the forest. Shortly after, a spur trail on the left led to a viewpoint of the Barrier. I took this short spur, which delivered me to a dramatic view of the massive lava cliff that holds back Garibaldi Lake. This immense wall of volcanic rock was formed during one of the volcanic episodes of Mount Garibaldi's surrounding vents: the lava flow was blocked from flowing into the Cheakamus River valley by a massive glacier filling the valley. The lava thus cooled into a dramatic wall and formed a natural dam that holds back Garibaldi Lake itself. Today, the Barrier is a geohazard: landslides frequently slough off regions of rock from the face into the valley below. A major landslide in the 19th century is responsible for the name of Garibaldi Lake's outlet stream, Rubble Creek. The area in the Cheakamus River Valley just below the Barrier is no longer inhabited due to the potential of mass wasting events from the Barrier; in a worst case scenario, the collapse of the Barrier could release the waters of Garibaldi Lake in a torrential flood down the Cheakamus River Valley into Howe Sound.

The Barrier
The Barrier viewpoint also provided nice views of the mountains across the valley. The cloudy weather from that morning had dissipated further, making for beautiful sunny views of the nearby Pacific Range peaks. This was the last view of the hike.

Pacific Range views from the Barrier viewpoint
Leaving the Barrier viewpoint, I quickly met back up with the trail that I had taken on the ascent that morning. I made quick work of the final 6 km of descent to return to the trailhead, rushing in part because of my desire to return to Seattle that night and in part because of the crowds of other hikers who were playing loud music on the trail.

On the drive back to the Sea to Sky Highway from the Rubble Creek Trailhead, a group of young hitchhikers flagged me down. Seeing the late hour and the remoteness of the trailhead, I picked them up and gave them a ride back into Vancouver. It was a serendipitous encounter- the three young people were from Guadalajara, Mexico and I learned enough about their home city and the many wonderful things to do there that I ended up traveling there a year and a half later to eat tortas ahogadas, admired the Orozco murals at Hospicio Cabanas, view the depths of Barranca de Oblatos, and hike at Lago de Chapala.

This is a long but stellar hike and one of the highlights of North America. The only drawback is the crowds and seeing the turquoise waters of Garibaldi Lake beneath the great glaciers of the Sphinx and Mount Garibaldi is well worth the trouble of putting up with other hikers.

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