I had done most of the main trails available at Mount Seymour Provincial Park, but had always had my eye on the Elsay Lake Trail. Listed as being a more challenging one, it has the benefit of a lake and an emergency hut when you get where you're going, which makes it a good candidate for an overnight trip that doesn't require a lot of driving to get to the trail head. I finally had the opportunity to hike it a few weeks ago with my friend Carolyn. So here's my report.
Elsay Lake Trail Stats
Time: 11-15 hours (round trip)
Distance: 20km (round trip)
Elevation Gain: 1180 metres
Season: June - October
The start of the trail has you heading up the mountain following the trail toward the Mount Seymour peaks. This is the section that is, in my mind, a trail of only moderate difficulty. As you approach the final ascent to the peaks, a sign directs you toward the Elsay Lake trail, complete with signage warning that you are going into more challenging backcountry and to make sure you are fully equipped for the journey. This is not an overstatement. While the trail can theoretically be done in one day, it would be really hard on the legs and knees to do so. It is more safely done as an overnight trek with an ultralight pack, with trekking poles. A pack with much more than that could make some of the more hazardous terrain even more hazardous. I also recommend hiking this one with a partner, as I did, especially if you're tackling it on a weekday. We didn't see one other person on the entirety of the Elsay Lake backcountry until we were almost all the way back. There was also only cell reception on a couple of sections of the trail, so keep that in mind.
Brace Yourself for Boulder Fields
What makes this hike so challenging, is that it takes you across multiple boulder fields. Even in dry conditions, you have to watch your step for loose, unstable rocks that could cause you to lose your balance and potentially fall down the steep, rocky mountainside. I was hiking with a physically fit, competent woman with a lot of hiking experience. We each had a near-misses where we placed a foot on unstable ground and nearly went tumbling down the hillside. But for the grace of well-employed trekking poles, we both got out of our individual near-misses unscathed, except for a couple of bruises. Fortunately, the boulder fields have plenty of rock cairns indicated where to go, where flags were otherwise impractical. So at least there was that.
Because you have to pick your way slowly both up and down these boulder fields, you, you'll find that it's a lot harder on the legs than just a straight up or downhill. Both of us had sore legs for 2-3 days after the hike, and it's only a 20km out-and-back hike. I hiked the entirety of the West Coast Trail, a full 75km in less than 3 days, with multi-story ladders and everything, but I didn't get sore once throughout the duration of the trip. It just goes to show how much of a difference more challenging terrain can make. Thankfully, it wasn't raining. I don't think I would even want to attempt that kind of hike when it's wet.
Improvised Creek Crossings
While it wasn't raining the day we hiked the Elsay Lake Trail, it had been raining quite a bit the few days leading up to our hike. As such, the rivers were higher than they usually were. There were a few crossings where the trail markers led us to go where is simply wasn't safe to cross. We had to hike up or down river a couple of times to find a safer way over. There was one crossing where we had to go a ways up river to find a downed tree to shimmy across because there was just no other way. There were more little streams that were convenient for refilling bottles than there might have been otherwise too, which was a nice perk, but I would have rather not had the extra effort of trying to find safe creek crossings.
Limited Views for the Level Effort
Usually when the terrain is as challenging as what we experienced on the Elsay Lake Trail, there are beautiful views that help take the edge off, to make the whole challenge worthwhile. This is not that kind of hike. We got a couple of peak-a-boo views of the Indian Arm way off in the distance and a few sweeping views looking out on forest hillside, but not much other than that. As we trekked on, it was hard not to wonder if all the effort was worth it.
The Experience of Isolation
As mentioned before, we didn't see a single soul the entire time we were hiking until we were nearing the end of the Elsay Lake trail on our way back. I am not unfamiliar with this feeling, having hiked the Howe Sound Crest Trail as my first overnight solo backpacking trip. Once I got past the Lions, I was alone for all the most challenging parts of that trail, and while it was unnerving at times, there were so many beautiful views, it all balanced out.
I was grateful for having a hiking partner on the Elsay Lake Trail. Without much in the way of views, and all the extremely technical hiking, having a partner with whom I could commiserate and share conversation over the course of the somewhat monotonous terrain, made it a more enjoyable experience. If I had been alone and isolated on the trail, I think I probably would have sworn a lot more (not to say that I didn't swear with her there...).
Cabin in the Woods
Our plan was to camp near the emergency shelter at Elsay Lake, but when we got there, we discovered that the lake had become swollen from the recent rains, and its waters went all the way up to the cabin itself, completely covering all the ideal ground for pitching a tent. In the end, we decided it made the most sense to sleep in the loft of the cabin. We rinsed off in the frigid waters of the lake, had our evening meal, enjoyed what little of the sunset we could see (the surrounding mountains cover up most of it). We then hung up our food on the line in the cabin to keep the mice out of it and headed up to the loft to bunker down for the night.
As we were drifting off to sleep, we both heard a loud noise coming from the front of the cabin. It sounded like a large animal, lumbering across the wooden slats. It was dark and ominous and we both held our breath until whatever it was moved on. Neither of us wanted to look out the window to see what it was. It was too dark to see much anyway, and we both wanted to believe it was a raccoon and just leave it at that. Once it moved off though, I went down the first level and used a trekking pole to prop the door. I knew it wouldn't keep a large animal out if it was motivated, but at least we would hear it fall if something forced its way in. I also made sure I kept my knife close to my hand as we slept. Whatever it was, we did hear a similar sound come back again later, but the rest of the night was quiet. We were both glad to be up in the loft with solid walls surrounding us, knowing there was no one around for miles.
Worth the Effort?
After all that, one might ask if this trail was worth all the effort. I felt it was worth doing once, but I wouldn't do it again, even under ideal conditions. It's not that I mind the challenge, I just would have wanted more reward for the effort. At least the first time going, you have the reward of not knowing what to expect and the novelty that comes with it. Now that I know, I wouldn't want to subject myself or anyone else to that without something more appealing as a reward. Ah well, while it wasn't as magical as other hikes I've done, there is something to be said about having endured it and done so with another like-minded human. Each hike I go on, I learn something about myself and my hiking partner. This is part of what makes it such an adventure.
Have you ever hiked the Elsay Lake Trail? If so, how was the experience for you? Please share your experiences in the comments.