Over twenty years ago, I found myself researching what kinds of hikes I could look forward to in the Vancouver area. One such search showed me beautiful photos of people camping on a mountain ridge where they could watch the rising and setting sun from their tent. The place was Panorama Ridge on the summit trail to Golden Ears at the provincial park of the same name. I was in awe that you could have such an experience and noted that it was a hike that I wanted to do one day.
I recently hiked part of this route on a quick solo backpacking trip, taking the West Canyon Trail to Alder Flats. Last week, Chris and I hiked the rest of the trail to Panorama Ridge, checking another bucket list hike off my list.
A Trail with a "Difficult" Rating Truly Justified
Every description of the Golden Ears Trail describes it as being difficult, some claiming it to be one of the most difficult trails in the Lower Mainland. I concur with this assessment. It's not simply because of the trail conditions, which have their challenges for sure, it's also getting the right timing to make it less dangerous too.
If your goal is to camp at Panorama Ridge for the night, you want the conditions to be stable enough that you're not going to be caught in a snowstorm up there. This usually means waiting until later in the summer. Unfortunately, a lot of other people do this too, so if you try to do this on a weekend later in the summer, you need to start early to ensure that you can find a spot to camp up there. We went on a Wednesday on the first day of September and there were still around 10 tents or so up there. The conditions were ideal that day too, so that definitely factors into the equation.
We had wanted to do this hike the last two years, but our plans got kiboshed by an early snowfall at the mountain top one year, and wildfire smoke the next. When we saw a good window of opportunity with neither of us working, we jumped at the chance to take advantage.
Times and Distances:
- West Canyon Parking Lot to Alder Flats: 1.5-2 hours, 6km
- Alder Flats to Panorama Ridge: 3.5-4.5 hours, approx. 8km
- Panorama Ridge to Golden Ears Summit (and back): 1.5-2 hours, approx. 2km
(*Note: The start of the trail and most trail reports indicate that the total distance to Panorama Ridge from the West Canyon parking lot is 10.5km. We measured the distance on several different tracker and apps and determined that it was actually closer to 14km.)
To Alder Flats and Beyond
The first third of the distance covered on this hike gets you to Alder Flats. I covered this journey in my previous blog post in which I did some solo-backpacking at Golden Ears. If you want or need to take the hike more slowly, there is backcountry camping available at Alder Flats if you want to get to Alder Flats later in the evening and start your hike earlier the next morning. It's not the most gorgeous camp spot, so it's not really a destination on its own. It just helps you break up the hike if you need to.
As mentioned in my previous blog post, there is a sign warning that there is no water beyond a particular creek as you make your way to Alder Flats. Both times I did this journey, there were still a couple of creeks (like the one in the photo below) at which you could fill up before Alder, but beyond Alder, there is no water at all until Panorama Ridge, and possibly not even there depending on the year, so make sure you have enough to last you until you make your way back down the hill. Take a look online for current trip reports to see if there is still some glacier run-off at Panorama Ridge if you want to have a better idea of whether you'll be able to fill up there.
As you make your way up the trail beyond Alder Flats, you get treated to a couple of expansive views of the valley and Golden Ears mountains themselves. The first one below was the spot where I turned around earlier in the season, the last time I went out backpacking at Golden Ears. These views are awesome, but soon fade to memory as you wind your way up hiking on what seems to be an endless trail of small boulders with the occasional fallen trees.
While there aren't any views for this portion of the trail, there are still a lot of trees, and if you're hiking it in the middle of the day, you'll be happy for the shade they provide, keeping you cool while you hike up the steady incline.
Heading Up with Stairs and Trees
Eventually, you'll come to a steep set of stairs on the right. The pace slows down quite a bit from this point onward as the terrain becomes more technical with light scrambles up tree roots and boulders.
The further up you get, the forest gradually becomes more sparse, but also with a few giant trees around that easily catch the eye.
Some of the scrambles are trickier than others, especially if there's been any recent rain, making it muddier and more slippery. Take your time and watch your footing.
The higher you get, the better the view becomes. Be sure to stop and appreciate some of these views, and catch your breath, drink some water or have a snack while doing so. You might think you're close to being done if you believe the signpost at the outset, but there's still a good ways to go when you start getting the expansive viewpoints.
The reason why we realized this ourselves was at one point we got a good view of Golden Ears, noticing a few colourful tents just below it on a Ridge. You can't really tell from the photo, but the second one above is a shot with the tiny tents in them, so far off in the distance that you can't really see them in the photo. When I saw how far that still was and looked at the distance we had travelled on my watch, I knew I couldn't trust the distance that was listed and knew we still had some hard hiking left to get to that camp. As I passed a couple of nice looking flat areas that could make for a nice camp site, we pressed on toward our destination, where there would be an an outhouse and water source (if the rumours were true).
Expanding Views at the Higher Ranges
While the hike starts to level off for the last 5km, there are still quite a few scrambles in there too. Push harder when it's level, but slow down when you get to the technical bits, especially if you're tired. It can be so easy to make a misstep when you're dying to get where you're going. This is not the time to lose your head.
It is, however, a good time to appreciate all the different views you get in different directions as you wind your way further and further up the mountain.
As the land levels off further, you'll see a few different flat places where people may have camped on their way up out of necessity, not having enough time to make it to Panorama Ridge before sunset. If you have plenty of water and are not hoping to fill up at the official camp area, stopping short is always an option. We had plenty of time ourselves, so we kept pushing on.
The Final Push to Panorama Ridge
The last couple of kilometres to the ridge are easily the most beautiful. Take lots of photos if you have time. Appreciate the journey. You'll eventually come to a ladder going down. It's not much further from this point.
There are still a few scrambles to go, with one particularly hard one at the end. The view is awesome from the last one, but don't focus on that. Focus on your footing and hand holds. Before long, you'll start to hear the sounds of people talking and glimpse a tent or two from certain angles. Then you'll come up over that final rocky outcropping and you'll see the emergency hut/outhouse that marks your arrival at Panorama Ridge.
If the conditions are favourable, you could continue on up a kilometre further and summit Golden Ears, which will add on an additional view of Vancouver far in the distance. We decided not to bother since were were quite bagged (it was our first challenging hike we had done all year) and Chris was jet lagged on top of that. We figured that we have seen that cityscape from several other mountain vantage points before, and didn't need to push it when we were already fatigued, making the very technical assent that much more dangerous. It is generally not recommended to attempt to summit, but if you're an experienced mountaineer/hiker with the necessary energy and equipment, it is do-able.
Camping on Panorama Ridge
There are a handful of tend pads set up around the emergency hut, but there are also a few flat spots all around the area where you can comfortably set up tents. There were not tent pads left when we arrived, but we got a nice flat spot with stellar views on both sides, so we weren't at all disappointed.
We were happy to find the small glacier-fed waterfall was still flowing as reported. I gratefully filled up my bag taking in the view at the same time. The water was clean and clear, though I still filtered it regardless. I am anal about such things, and don't ever want to risk getting a stomach bug.
If you haven't already done so, check out the emergency hut, which is really nothing more than a protected structure with a urine-diverting toilet and a little extra space should you need to be under shelter in an emergency scenario. Do everyone a favour and use the outhouse for number two AND one. There's nothing more off-putting than the pungent smell of urine evaporating around the camp. If everyone pees outside near camp, this is exactly what happens, particularly when it's busy.
There is a line strung up on which some people hang their food. Personally, I think that's kind of gross so I didn't go for that option. We just ate most of our food so we didn't have to worry about storing it overnight. We had a couple of sealed packaged bars left for the next day, but had them safely stored in odour-proof bags. The only real wildlife at this level were tiny shrews, so we weren't concerned about larger animals. That being said, it's important to have everything you need to hang your food in a tree, in case you have to camp somewhere closer to where they roam.
There are a lot of rocky outcropping that make for nice spots at which to cook meals or even use as a stretching apparatus. Of course I was still sore a couple of days after the hike, but the stretch definitely helped me be in better shape for the hike down. Once you've refuelled and changed into warmer clothes, get ready for one of the most beautiful sunsets you'll ever see, if you're fortunate enough to be there on a clear day.
There's nothing quite like ending a long hike by watching the sun slowly creep down behind the mountain range with a stunning show of colours with Pitt Lake far down in the valley below. It was a painstaking process to cut down my sunset photos to only these five, so if you think it's still excessive, tough. Oh and if you wake up in the middle of the night and it's clear, be sure to poke your head out and appreciate the starry sky devoid of city light pollution as well.
Rising with the Sun on Panorama Ridge
As the sun starts to rise in the morning, the light will start to fill your tent. Resist the urge to roll over and bundle up into your sleeping bag and instead open your tent door. You can enjoy the sun rise easily without even getting up.
If you're like me, you'll have to get up to pee anyway, so I bundled myself up and went outside so I could make us some hot coffee for us to enjoy while we watched the sun creep up over the mountains to the East. This display was a wonderful rival for the sunset we had experienced the night prior. Once the show was over, we packed up and started our way down the mountain.
Heading Down from Panorama Ridge
While not as physically demanding as hiking up, from an endurance point of view, you still have to watch your step on your way down. Also, along the ridge area, there are a number of spots where people ventured off trail, creating false paths you could easily mistake for the marked trail. Keep your eyes open for markers so you don't have to double back.
Once you get down to the last set of stairs as you make your way down, watch out for stairs that may be missing boards. The final stair on the case was missing the board when I went. The metal holders were still there, much to my dismay. I stepped down, smashing my knee into one of them painfully in my zest to get to the easier, more gradually slopping part of the trail.
While you may think that the hardest part is done, the section of trail with all the small boulders is more dangerous going down than it is going up. There are a lot of loose ones that are more punishing on the way down than they are going up, so watch your step.
Once you're past Alder Flats, you'll start seeing a lot more people. It's flatter without any real technical challenge, but it can still take a while to get back to the parking lot from there, so if you need water, fill up when you get the chance. When I got to the final creek crossing, I found a lovely pool of water in which to dunk my head. It was past noon at that point and I appreciated the opportunity to cool myself down.
Worth It? Hell, Yeah!
There's no denying that this trail is a hard one. It's around the same distance as the trail to Panorama Ridge at Garabaldi Provincial Park, and similar in difficulty. If trying to decide between the two, the one at Garabaldi has more spectacular views all throughout the trail, but you don't get to camp up top. Instead you set up camp down one of the campgrounds closer to the lake then hike the rest of the way up and back, if you're camping.
Panorama Ridge at Golden Ears gives you the opportunity to camp close to the mountain top and experience one of the most memorable sunsets and sunrises you'll ever see, but ⅔ of the trail isn't as enjoyable in terms of the views.
Both Panorama Ridge trails are worth doing. It's just a question of what kind of experience you want to have. If you do decide to do either trail, be ready for the physical rigours of the trail. And even if you don't intend to camp overnight, be sure to have an extra day's worth of emergency food and some sort of pop-up emergency shelter. The mountain weather is always changing, and you can never know when an injury can occur. Be responsible and have everything you need should the need arise. Then you can just focus on enjoying the trail and all it has to offer.
Have you ever hiked the Golden Ears trail or camped at Panorama Ridge? Please feel free to share your experiences in the comments. :)