Located in the scenic alpine setting of Garibaldi Provincial Park near Squamish, British Columbia, the Elfin Lakes trail takes you to two beautiful alpine lakes with spectacular vistas of Mount Garibaldi, Atwell Peak, The Gargoyles, Columnar Peak, Diamond Head, Opal Cone and the Mamquam Icefield. A popular hiking trail in summer, it also offers a winter trail experience for snowshoers and ski tourers. One draw for this hike is the opportunity to do an overnight trip and sleep in the heated Elfin Lakes shelter.
The trail to Elfin Lakes takes you through a safe route and is safe from any avalanche terrain all winter long, although you are advised to heed the advice of BC Parks on the latest trail conditions at: http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks/explore/parkpgs/garibaldi/
Due to the popularity of the trail, the snow is often compacted down quite a lot, so if you are well-equipped you can sometimes get away with simply wearing trail crampons and gaiters like I did in my video.
The trail itself is a steady but not overtly strenuous uphill climb to reach the hut at Elfin Lakes. The time taken to complete the trail depends on weather and snow conditions, so times can have great variability; plan for a full-day adventure leaving 6-8 hours for the return trip. In winter, there is only 8 hours of daylight, so starting the hike at dawn is recommended.
The trail from the parking lot to Elfin Lakes only requires 600 meters of elevation gain and is a round-trip of 22km, making it one of the easier backcountry hikes north of Vancouver’s north shore mountains.
For the first 5km, you ascend uphill along a wide gravel road which was originally the main road to access the old Diamond Head Lodge at Elfin Lakes. The surrounding forest helps to makes this still a worthwhile section of trail to experience. From October to December, sections of this trail will be dry, icey or snow (and often all three on the same day) so it is recommended to bring traction spikes or snowshoes.
After 5km, hikers will reach the Red Heather shelter, a furnace heated shelter offering you the opportunity to rest and warm up before you complete the next 6km to Elfin Lakes. There is also a restroom. Camping is not permitted in this shelter except in the case of emergency.
Shortly after the Red Heather hut, the trail opens up above the tree line and you are gifted with incredible views of nearby mountain peaks.
The highest point on the trail is Paul Ridge at 1,660m and from there you descend a small amount down to 1,470m to Elfin Lakes.
Elfin Lakes offers an overnight shelter equipped with bunks for 33 people (11 double bunks, 12 single bunks), picnic tables, propane hot plates, sinks, propane heaters and lights, along with toilet facilities. If you wish to camp overnight or sleep in the hut you need to buy a permit from the Discover Campsites website prior to arrival at the trailhead.
If you camp overnight at the Elfin Lakes shelter, it opens up the possibility to head further along the trail toward the Gargoyles, Opal Cone and Mamquam Lake. You may have to break in your own unmarked trails through the snow and be warned, beyond Elfin Lakes there are potential avalanche risks. You will need to take the requisite snow travel safety precautions if you trek beyond Elfin Lakes.
The Elfin Lakes/Diamond Head trailhead is about 90 minutes from Vancouver, and 30-minute 16km drive from downtown Squamish up a mostly easy grade narrow gravel mountain road; watch for potholes. 4x4 vehicles are recommended, although 2-wheel drive cars can successfully make the journey.
From Highway 99 you turn off onto Mamquam Road, then follow the road-signs directing you through the Garibaldi highlands residential neighbourhood to Garibaldi Park Diamond Head. You should not follow Google Maps directions to Elfin Lakes due to recent road rerouting.
From October to April, it is mandatory to have winter tires and carry tire chains even if the road is dry. Be warned that if you start the hike in dry snow-free conditions in October-December period, conditions can quickly change and snowfalls can turn the road into snow and slick ice before you can retreat back to your vehicle.
The final curve to the parking lot is the steepest part of the road and is somewhat sketchy in icey conditions, you may choose to park in one of the lower overflow parking/ turnaround areas and walk up this final section of road. Make sure you have traction spikes for your walk down. You must also leave 20ft of clearance for the road if it needs to be plowed, you will be fined and possibly towed if you don’t comply.