Monday, May 4, 2020

St. Mark's Summit

Howe Sound from St. Mark's Summit
12 km round trip, 560 meters elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate, with some rocky and root-filled stretches of trail
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no pass required

Just north of Vancouver, St. Mark's Summit provides a stunning view of British Columbia's Howe Sound and the many peaks of the Pacific Ranges along the coast. This is a popular hike starting from Cypress Provincial Park, which is only a short drive from Vancouver's north shore suburbs. Howe Sound is the southernmost of the many fjords that carve into the Pacific Ranges along the coast of mainland British Columbia; the steep mountains dropping down to the shores of the inlet are extremely dramatic.

I did this hike on the first day of a Labor Day weekend trip to Vancouver and Whistler. After leaving Seattle that morning, I prioritized my scant time and decided to drop by 4 Stones in Richmond, BC for a vegetarian Taiwanese lunch with a vegetarian pork cutlet served with Taiwanese style curry and vegetarian Taiwanese popcorn chicken. From downtown Vancouver, you can reach Cypress Provincial Park by taking Highway 99 north through Stanley Park across the Lions Gate Bridge and then staying on 99 north as it goes through a number of twists and turns; then, merging onto Highway 1 heading west (the Trans-Canada Highway). I took exit 8 for Cypress Provincial Park, turning right onto the Cypress Bowl Road at the end of the ramp and following that road uphill through switchbacks until it ended at the parking area for the Cypress Mountain ski area.

The hike started to the north of ski lodge, so I walked past the ticket office and the numerous mementos from the 2010 Olympics. Cypress Mountain was the site of a few ski and snowboard events when Vancouver hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics; unfortunately, that was a low snow winter and the ski area had insufficient natural snow cover for the events, requiring snow to be transported in from other mountains in the province.

Olympic ski runs at Cypress Provincial Park
The signage at the start of the hike was a little confusing and I ended up starting on the Yew Lake Interpretive Trail going counterclockwise. No worries- this flat, easy trail connected back up to the Howe Sound Trail via a connector trail that visited some impressive old growth forest.

Old growth forest
After reconnecting with the Howe Sound Trail, I followed it north briefly along a flat, wide dirt path before it broke off to the right and began climbing steeply through the forest via switchbacks. At about 2 km into the hike, I reached the turnoff for Bowen Lookout; I checked out this short spur trail, which descended briefly to a view of the Howe Sound. There's only a view there at the moment because of past logging activity; forest regrowth will soon cover this viewpoint.

Howe Sound from Bowen Lookout
I returned to the main trail and followed it two hundred meters to the next junction. Here, a bypass trail returned to Cypress Mountain via a shorter route to the right; I took the left fork to continue north along the Howe Sound Crest Trail. The Howe Sound Crest Trail stretches onward for 29 km, not only delivering hikers to St. Mark's Summit but continuing to the Lions and other peaks rising directly above the southern Howe Sound; it ends by descending to Porteau Cove Provincial Park.

The next stretch of the hike was flat as I hiked through forests on the slopes of Mount Strachan. About a km north of the last junction, the trail emerged into the open at a shelf on the side of Mount Strachan; this spot offered a rare view up to the ridge and summit of Strachan above.

Mount Strachan
The shelf extended into a saddle between Strachan and the next stretch of ridge defining the Howe Crest. Turning at the saddle, the trail offered a glimpse of the Lions to the north. This pair of rocky peaks is perhaps the best known landmark of the Howe Crest, lending their name to the impressive suspension bridge that spans the First Narrows of the Burrard Inlet and unites North Vancouver to Vancouver itself. Past the saddle, the trail began another switchbacking ascent to reach the top of the next ridge, about 4 km from the trailhead.

The Lions
At the time of my visit, there was active work in improving the Howe Sound Crest Trail. The southernmost sections of the trail were extremely well built and comfortable to hike, but after the trail switchbacked up to gain the south ridge of St. Mark's Summit, the improved trail and ended and I found myself struggling through a rough trail full of rocks and roots for the next 2 km. I'd imagine this trail upgrade will be continued at least through St. Mark's Summit, as that's become a popular day hike destination. By the time you read or hike this, conditions may have changed and more of the root-covered and rocky portions may have been smoothed out, but if conditions haven't changed expect some fairly challenging terrain.

Newly improved stretch of Howe Sound Crest Trail
Atop the knoll about 4 km in, the trail then dipped a bit as it followed the Howe Sound Crest north, then climbed steadily up the south ridge of St. Mark's Summit for a 200 meter ascent. The trail was quite beaten up at the time of my hike but again, I expect this will improve for the better soon as trail upgrades continue.

The trail skirted the west side of the high point of St. Mark's Summit. A side trail broke off to the left, leading to the main viewpoint just before the Howe Sound Crest Trail started descending.

The spur trail ended at the top of massive rock ledges with a jaw-dropping view over the Howe Sound.  The forested slopes of the mountains across the Sound plunged down to the blue waters of the fjord. While clouds initially covered many of the summits across the Sound, the weather cleared up a bit as I enjoyed the view and soon I could see a number of craggy, glaciated peaks across the water including Mount Tetrahedron on the Sunshine Coast.

Howe Sound from St. Mark's Summit
The view encompassed the many islands that dotted the Howe Sound's wide mouth. Bowen Island was a particularly notable large island near the mouth of the inlet, while the larger, mountainous Gambier Island was barely recognizable as an island from this angle, seeming to fade in with the mountainous coast behind it. The forested top of nearby Bowyer Island the steep slopes of Anvil Island were also noticeable. While I gazed out at this beautiful scene, I watched the ferry connecting Vancouver with the Sunshine Coast run between Horseshoe Bay across the Howe Sound to Hopkins Landing on its far side. Coastal BC- whether its the Sunshine Coast or Vancouver Island- is connected to Vancouver, the province's economic engine, by ferry alone if one does not fly. Thus, British Columbia is home to one of the world's largest ferry systems and- depending on the metric used- the largest in North America (Washington State Ferries is larger by some measures).

Bowen Island and the Horseshoe Bay-Hopkins Landing ferry
Looking back to the south, I spotted ski lifts and ski trails on Black Mountain back at the Cypress Ski Bowl. Black Mountain's slopes plunged precipitously down to the shores of Howe Sound and the thin ribbon of the Sea to Sky Highway. Fjords are a somewhat rare coastal phenomenon, occurring only in regions of the world with mountainous coasts and extensive historical glaciation; in the contiguous US, only Maine and Washington State have features potentially describable as fjords. Yet once across the border in Canada, there are numerous deep and long fjords cut into the Pacific Ranges on the mainland BC coast, starting with Howe Sound and continuing up to the Portland Canal separating BC from Alaska. The Howe Sound is the southernmost of these and the most accessible.

Sea to Sky Highway along the Howe Sound
The rough tread of the unimproved Howe Sound Crest Trail made clear that this was once a wilderness trail. However, the summit's proximity to Vancouver- the fact that it can be reached by a reasonable day hike after a half hour's drive on a nice paved road- and its jaw-dropping fjord views, popularized on social media, have made this a popular destination. While enjoying the summit on a late summer holiday weekend, I encountered dozens of other hikers; there were easily hundreds of hikers on the trail over the course of the day.

The Pacific Ranges rise above Howe Sound
After enjoying the view at the top for a while, I returned to the trailhead, taking the ski trail shortcut back. While driving back to Vancouver for dinner, I stopped at a viewpoint on the Cypress Bowl Road overlooking the Burrard Inlet and Vancouver. As the sun had just set, dusk was settling on the distant San Juan Islands and Mount Baker while the lights of the Vancouver skyline and the Lions Gate Bridge began to twinkle. Cargo ships bringing goods from Asia dotted the Strait of Georgia.

San Juan Islands rising behind the Lions Gate Bridge and the Vancouver skyline
This is a deservedly popular hike with some immense views over a sparkingly blue fjord that is a short drive from the largest city on Canada's West Coast. It's a worthwhile hike for visitors from afar who want to enjoy the environs of Vancouver and it's highly recommended for hikers from the Puget Sound area across the border who want to get a glimpse at some more impressive fjords without flying off to Alaska or Norway.

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