Chris and I had yet to get out on a winter backpacking trip this year. We had wanted to snowshoe up to Garabaldi Lake closer to January, but our schedule and weather never seem to work out. I always thought that Garabaldi Lake had the potential for a gorgeous winter sunrise coming up from behind the mountains, painting the sky over the snow-covered lake. Then, this past week, I saw that Garabaldi got a dump of snow, and I knew that if the weather stayed cold and we just waited a couple of days, we could make a safe overnight trip with less concerns about avalanche risk. The experience was a mixed bag, but an interesting adventure nonetheless.
Garabaldi Lake Winter Snowshoe/Hiking Trail Stats
Time: 6.5-8.5 hours
Net Elevation Gain: 820m
Tale of the Trail: Switchbacks and Setbacks
Going to Garabaldi Lake as a winter/early spring trip is a completely different than tackling it as a snow-free hike at other times of year. When I have done this trail in past summers, it took me closer to 4.5-5 hours round trip. The addition of snow, along with a heavier pack (made 10lbs heavier by carrying all my water for the trip rather than filtering, along with extra gear necessary for safe winter camping) add to the physical rigours of the trip.
When we arrived at the Rubble Creek parking lot trailhead, it was 9°C and there was not much in the way of snow on the lower parts of the trail. We hemmed and hawed as we donned our packs, trying to decide if it was worth the effort of carrying our snowshoes until we got to more consistent snow cover. In the end, we decided that the tiresome process of tromping through the snow for 3 or 4 km in our boots was better than having to carry heavy and awkward snowshoes for 5-6km of switchbacks up the mountain. I stand by this decision. More about how to decide between using snowshoes or micro-spikes.
Our bags were so much heavier than usual even without the snowshoes that it took us much longer to make it up all those switchbacks. We put on our spikes about halfway up when the hard-packed snow cover became more consistent. By the time we got to the deeper, fresher snow at the turnoff to the lake, both of us were pretty pooped. I was glad for the fact that the trail from then on was much more level since the snow added its own resistance since we were without snowshoes to help us glide over it. Thankfully, some kind souls had already snowshoed through the area since the big dump, thus breaking trail for us, making it less of a slog. Another strange additional factor is that the trail ended up being closer to 10-11km up and down (using me and Chris's watches to track), though the posted distance is only 9km. It's possible that the winter trail is a bit more circuitous due to the snow.
The Lakes in Winter
Once we got to the first lake, Barrier Lake, we saw the snowshoe tracks we had been following went out across the frozen lake instead of sticking to the trail. We started following it, but decided to turn back. We figured there would likely be less snow on the tree-lined trail, noticing a lot more accumulation on the open surface of the lake. We figured correctly, and had a much easier time of it walking alongside the lakes.
When we crossed a foot bridge giving us a more expansive view of Lesser Garabaldi Lake, we noticed that parts of the lake were free of ice, so if you do decided to cut over the lakes make sure it's safe to do so. The footbridge crossing itself was pretty cool, giving us a good sense for how much snow the area had gotten over the winter.
Getting to Garabaldi Lake
As we kept along the trail, occasionally taking breaks to catch our breath, we finally got to a spot at a high point on the trail where we could see the mountains presiding over a small glimpse of Garabaldi Lake off in the distance. We were relieved that it was close, which put a little extra spring in our step. It was 6:30pm at the time and we still had until 8:15pm or so before sunset, but we didn't want to feel rushed setting up camp when we finally stopped.
We did our final descent down a small slope and popped out next to the lake. We crossed over to the campground side and kept moving. It was overcast when we arrived, so while the view was nice, it wasn't so captivating that it moved us to stop since we were tired, hungry, and ready to bunker down for the night. It was also 7:30pm by the time we arrived at the campground, so we didn't have a ton of daylight left with which to have dinner and set up camp.
Garabaldi Lake Winter Camping Facilities
When we arrived, we immediately made our way into the enclosed cooking shelter so we could unpack our bags out of the snow and get our dinner ready. The snow was so high that we had to shimmy down a slope of packed snow to get to the door. In the dying light of sunset, the mostly snow-covered windows of the shelter offered little in the way of natural light. I was glad I brought a small tin candle to help it out, along with our headlamps.
It's amazing how much warmer it is in the cooking shelter than it is outside exposed, even without any heat source. And it is so much easier to get your gear organized without any wind or snow kicking around. We were able to quickly and efficiently prepare our food (much easier than doing it in the shelter of a tent), then set about preparing our camp. Sadly, I forgot to get photos of where we camped outside (camping inside the shelter is not permitted). Thankfully, we got exactly what I had hoped for though when I originally planned this trip.
As the light started creeping into our tent, I woke up and decided to brave the cold to go to the washroom. There is in fact a designated winter washroom at the campground, though neither of us ever made it that far, not having need of it, only having had to pee the whole time we were on the mountain. It was not worth having to break trail to use the facilities unless we had to do #2.
As expected, the sunrise was amazing. We got lucky that the cloud-cover had cleared in time for dawn, and we were treated to a beautiful array of colours as the sun crept up behind the mountains.
If you decide to want to camp overnight at Garabaldi Provincial Park, please note that they do collect fees online for backcountry camping, even in the winter. It's important that everyone pays these fees as that is what keeps these trails and campgrounds maintained.
A Brief Detour to the Barrier Viewpoint
Since the weather was better on our way back from the lake, we decided to go the extra 100m off the main trail to go check out the Barrier Viewpoint. We were so glad we did. The barest of flurries that started to flutter down from the clouds served to make the snowy landscape that much more pristine. It was a lovely last look before heading back to the parking lot through the increasingly wet conditions down the switchbacks.
Be Ready to Pivot
If you ever decide to give the winter trail to Garabaldi Lake a try, like with all winter hiking, be ready to pivot. Bring your snowshoes, spikes AND tail extensions (if you have them). Whatever gear you choose to wear, be ready to change it up as the conditions change. We found that it was significantly easier to traverse the deeper snow at the upper elevations in just our boots rather than using our spikes. Traction wasn't an issue and wearing them led to the buildup of ice balls under our feet as the snow got trapped in the chains of our spikes. Even if you checked the trail conditions and mountain weather before heading to the trailhead, conditions can shift drastically when it comes to winter in the mountains. Always bring at least a full day of extra food as emergencies can be that much more dire in winter as they are in summer. Most importantly, leave a LOT of wiggle room in terms of hiking time. It can be a lot harder than you expect and it is best not to get caught out after dark in the winter.
Have you done a trip up to Garabaldi Lake in winter conditions? If so, please share your experiences in the comments so we can all benefit from them