Elfin Lakes in Garibaldi Provincial Park
Elfin Lakes in Garibaldi Park is an absolutely phenomenal, though long, hiking, biking, snowshoeing and skiing trail that begins at the Diamond Head area in Squamish. From Whistler Village, the trailhead is just over an hours drive away, located near the south end of Garibaldi Provincial Park. Garibaldi Park is the massive wilderness park of nearly two thousand square kilometres that stretches from Squamish to Pemberton. If you are driving the Sea to Sky Highway to Whistler, Garibaldi Park will be the vast wilderness of snow-capped mountains on your right.
The Elfin Lakes trail is very well marked and maintained and leads to the wonderful, Elfin Lakes hut. This amazing hut sleeps 33 and is solar powered and propane heated. There is a charge of $15 to stay the night there which is a small price to pay for the beautiful comfort after the long, 11 kilometre snowshoe or hike to get there. Kids 6-15 pay $10 per person, per night, and kids under 6 are free. The Elfin Lakes hut fee includes your backcountry camping permit, so one adult staying in the hut pays a total of $15. If you want to stay in the Wedgemount Lake hut or the Russet Lake hut, you simply buy a campsite pass and if the hut has an empty bed when you arrive, you take it. There are no reservations for these two smaller huts and the rule is simply first come, first served. This area is very popular with skiers as well as snowshoers in the winter and deep snow covers the trail usually from November to June.
The trail to Elfin Lakes starts out ascending through deep forest, reaching the Red Heather Hut after 5k. This is a small warming hut equipped with a wood stove complete with a stack of wood free to use, though sleeping here is for emergencies only. The final 6k from this hut to Elfin Lakes takes you along a beautiful ridge with amazing views of snowy mountains all around. The sheer distance of this snowshoeing trail ranks it as difficult, though overall you will just be doing a moderately steady ascending trail.
Expect to take four hours to reach the Elfin Lakes Hut as you are almost constantly ascending a gradual, though consistently uphill trail. There are several jaw-dropping views along this final 6k stretch. This trail is so well marked with orange poles and tree markers that you can reliably find your way after dark or before sunrise with good lights to assist you. You often see, with some shock, skiers trudging up the trail, not far from the trailhead after the sun has set. Making their way to the Elfin Lakes hut in the dead of night seems to be a pastime of quite a few local skiers and boarders.
As this trail is within Garibaldi Park, dogs are not allowed. This is a courtesy to all the animals that inhabit the park and the potential disturbance that dogs my introduce to their environment. BC Parks staff can issue fines for dogs in the park. Though it is rare, it does happen as Elfin Lakes is regularly staffed with rangers and even has a separate ranger station near the Elfin Lakes hut. Getting to the trailhead can be brutal during periods of heavy snow. The gravel road runs deep and high into the mountains to the trailhead parking lot. You should be prepared with tire chains and may have to walk from the lower parking lot below the main, usually deep with snow trailhead parking lot. If you don't have tire chains, you may get turned back by authorities on the drive up.
The Elfin Lakes Trail - Details & Map
Driving to the Elfin Lakes trailhead is quite fun as you emerge from the tacky strip mall along the Sea to Sky Highway and quickly ascend into the wilderness. If you are driving south from Whistler you turn left after Canadian Tire onto Mamquam Road and continue past the golf course on your right and then through Quest University. Not long after you pass the university the road narrows and turns from pavement to gravel.
In the winter months you have to be prepared for snow on the road and several signs will indicate chains must be carried. You may be able to drive to the trailhead, then return from your hike a day or two later to a metre of snow on the access road. You will get little sympathy from road crews if you find yourself stranded due to poor planning. There is another parking lot before the main parking lot at the trailhead. It is located before the last steep and if snow covered, potentially dangerous final section of road. If you are worried about driving on steep, snowy sections of road, be sure to park at this lower area.
Mamquam Road becomes Garibaldi Park Road as you continue ascending ever steeper to the trailhead parking area. At the parking area you will find a nice information board and an outhouse. Parking is free at all BC Parks, however there is a charge for overnight parking in Garibaldi Provincial Park. In 2018 there were a lot of changes introduced with Garibaldi Provincial Park’s campsite reservations. The first big change is that overnight camping fees are required at all campgrounds, year-round. It is still free to day hike in the park, but sleeping in the park requires a reservation and camping fees apply in all areas of Garibaldi Park. You can’t pay by cash or at the trailheads or at the campgrounds. Reservations must be made in advance via the BC Parks online reservation service or at the call center. It is a pretty organized and fair reservation system. Fairly easy to use online and reasonably priced. The revenue goes into maintaining trails, access roads, parking lots, park buildings and snow removal.
The 11 kilometre(7 mile) hike to Elfin Lakes is a constant and steady ascent that begins with several switchbacks. The sign at the trailhead shows the distances to the Red Heather Shelter(5k), Elfin Lakes(11k) and Mamquam Lake(22k). The trail to Elfin Lakes is only moderately challenging, however the long distance makes it quite challenging if you are carrying a heavy pack or bringing kids along.
The fact that there is a shelter after only 5 kilometres indicates that the 11k distance to the lakes is a bit of a journey. The Red Heather Shelter at 5k is for some, a destination on its own. An unexpectedly idyllic little hut that for much of the year is consumed by snow. The roof is often a metre deep with snow and unable to slide off, builds up around the edges, making the hut often invisible from the side. Getting in the front entrance usually requires an abruptly steep slope down to the door. The back door has an adjacent window that glows a beautiful blue from the wall of icy snow that often buries the back door.
The Red Heather Hut is a survival shelter/warming hut, that is not to be used as an overnight shelter, except of course when absolutely necessary. On snow camping is allowed in the vicinity of the Red Heather Hut in the winter months. On first glance this may seem like a poor substitute to Elfin Lakes, however, the short hike is quick and easy. And you will be under a magnificent starry sky surrounded by idyllic mountains. If the weather is particularly bad, camping here may be a nice idea. Most push on to the ever more scenic trail that quickly ascends to Paul Ridge. On cold and snowy days, the wonderful wood stove and stack of wood outside makes it a very enticing pit-stop on the way to Elfin Lakes. Two sturdy picnic tables and a sink, propane stove top burner and large pot make the shelter an effective place to picnic and warm up.
The walls are lined with clothing hooks indicating that this shelter sees a lot of traffic. For the most part however, you will find the hut deserted. Occasionally in the evening you will find a couple drinking wine by the fire, enjoying this rustic paradise. If you are lucky enough to be here on a clear night, the stars will shine like diamonds this far from the bright lights of civilisation.
If you can pull yourself away from the luxurious warmth of the Red Heather Hut you will find the trail quickly becomes more challenging. Increasingly steep sections lead to some downhill parts. All the while following the easily visible orange poles that mark the winter snowshoe route. The poles are frequent and have reflectors on them making them visible at night if you have a light. If you are motivating and competent hiking after dark, the Elfin Lakes trail is pretty easy to follow.
If you are not well prepared, however, you may easily stray from the trail and get dangerously lost. From the trailhead to the Red Heather Hut is hard to stray from, even after dark, however, the Red Heather Hut to the Elfin Lakes hut is well marked, but tricky to follow at night. If you don't know what you are doing, you can easily lose the trail and get into big trouble.
The section of trail from the Red Heather Hut to Elfin Lakes is considerably more scenic than the first 5 kilometres of the trail. Much of the route is along Paul Ridge which gives you sweeping views both left and right of endless snowy mountains. If you hike it during a full moon, the mountains light up all around you in a surreal world trapped between day and night. The serenity and vastness of this part of the world are magnificent.
Eventually after a long and sensationally beautiful 11 kilometres, the Elfin Lakes Hut comes into view. Just like the Red Heather Hut, almost entirely buried in snow much of the year, you have to slide down an icy slope to reach the front door. Once inside the warmth hits you. A large furnace blasts out heat and after your eyes adjust to the inky darkness, you can't help but be surprised how huge the hut is inside. From the outside, buried in snow it looks tiny. On the inside you find two floors complete with kitchen, lots of seating areas and tables... and bunk beds to accommodate 33 people!
History of Elfin Lakes
Elfin Lakes has been a popular destination for hiking, snowshoeing and skiing for almost a century. In the 1930's Ottar and Emil Brandvold immigrated to Canada from Norway. Hearing of the wilderness paradise in the Garibaldi region they combed the area for a suitable location to build an alpine lodge. Joined by Ottar's future wife, Joan Mathews of West Vancouver, they decided on Diamond Head, next to the two small lakes to build their dream lodge. Emil, Ottar and Joan built Diamond Head Lodge by hand using the forest surrounding what would become known as Elfin Lakes. The name Elfin Lakes is suspected to have come much later. One record indicates the lakes were once called Crystal Lakes. The earliest indication they were named Elfin Lakes comes from the pamphlet from the Diamond Head Lodge in 1978. Since 1978 the lakes have been known as Elfin Lakes. For thirty years, beginning in the late 1940's the Diamond Head Lodge hosted visitors from around the world. Year-round visitors enjoyed the breathtaking scenery and rugged hospitality. In 1958 the Diamond Head Lodge was bought by the Provincial Government and leased back to the Brandvold's. The Brandvold's continued to operate the lodge until their retirement in 1972. In 1973 the lodge was permanently closed and in 1974 the Elfin Lakes Hut was built to replace the deteriorating lodge. In 2009 the crumbling remains of the Diamond Head Lodge were removed. One corner of this beautiful and cherished building still remain as a tribute to the Brandvold's contribution to the history of this wonderful place.
The Elfin Lakes Hut
The Elfin Lakes campground is located in an incredibly beautiful area of distant, enormous, jagged mountains and beautiful rolling hills and valleys. The two cute little lakes lay next to the amazing Elfin Lakes hut. To snowshoe to this hut is quite something. As you approach it in winter it looks quite small, buried as it invariably is in metres of snow. The entrance is reached by descending a snow staircase. Upon entering you feel an unexpected wave of heat as you realize the hut is heated. There are also propane stoves and very unexpectedly, working lights. The Elfin Lakes hut is solar powered. Amazing. Stairs lead up to a impressively large sleeping area which can accommodate 33 people. A fact you would have never believed from your approach view outside. Not only can it sleep 33, but it does so in style. Beautifully organized, solid looking, wooden bunk beds built right into the structure make the hut look like some characteristically beautiful, European ski lodge. What an great place Elfin Lakes is! There are several outhouses next to the Elfin Lakes hut and plenty of beautiful spots in the area to put up a tent. Even in the bitter cold of winter you will see a few tents a few hundred metres from the hut. There is an amazing plateau near the hut that edges onto a sweeping view of the valley below. This is just one of many million dollar view tent sites to be found in this year-round, mountain paradise. Overnight camping and hut fees are payable by credit card online here.
Trailhead & Parking Directions
There are excellent signs directing you to the Elfin Lakes/Diamond Head trailhead parking. From the Sea to Sky Highway follow the signs to "Garibaldi Park Diamond Head." You will want to turn onto Mamquam Road at the Canadian Tire store in Squamish(left if coming from Whistler, right if coming from Vancouver). Continue following the signs for 16k as they go up a gravel road ending at the parking lot at the trailhead. This road is potentially dangerous to drive in the winter months if you don't have proper tire chains. Even though the road is plowed occasionally it is usually hard packed with snow.
Camping & Bivouacking at Elfin Lakes
Camping at Elfin Lakes is an amazingly beautiful experience. The valley is huge with stunning mountain peaks all around. The hiking/snowshoeing possibilities seem endless. Year-round the Elfin Lakes Hut has bunk beds for 33 people(11 double bunks and 12 single bunks). The hut also has 4 huge picnic tables inside as well as 2 propane stove-top burners, a washing sink as well as a giant propane stove and solar powered lights. Adjacent to the hut is a row of outhouses. The campsite area at Elfin Lakes is quite large and well organized. 35 tent platforms dot the landscape and on a typical summer weekend, you will find most of them occupied! In the winter months, these tent platforms with be hidden under metres of snow and you can put up a tent nearly anywhere you want. There are various excellent spots overlooking the vast valley just a few dozen metres from the hut. For those seeking solitude, there are endless tent site possibilities further away. Hardcore winter campers often shovel out snow caves to sleep in. Often you will find them in the slopes adjacent to the hut. Pretty amazing and surprisingly comfortable. In 2015, the new campsite at Rampart Ponds was completed. Just 1.5 kilometres before Mamquam Lake, this new campground replaces the old one at Mamquam Lake that was closed recently. It is located 10 kilometres from Elfin Lakes on the trail to Mamquam Lake. The new campground has 12 tent platforms, an outhouse and food storage facilities.
There are two ways to book a reservation to camp in Garibaldi Park. Reserve online 24 hours once the inventory is available for booking. For mobile devices, scroll to bottom of page and click “Switch to Full Site”. Or via the Call Centre (an additional $5 surcharge applies): 1-800-689-9025 (toll free Canada) +1-519-826-6850 (International) 7:00 am-7:00 pm seven days a week. Some of the Garibaldi Park trailheads don’t have reliable cell coverage, so don’t forget to book your reservation before you start hiking! When you book online or by phone you will need the following information. Your arrival date, your desired campground, your group size. Then you have to pick the number of tent pads your party requires. At tent pad is 10 feet by 10 feet and usually accommodates one tent. Each tent pad can fit a maximum of 4 people. For Elfin Shelter choose one “tent pad” per party (up to 4 people). Choose your itinerary for each night. Click “reserve” Fill in the permit holder and camping party information. Pay for your reservation with your credit card.
Facilities at Elfin Lakes
The Elfin Lakes Hut and tent platforms must be reserved ahead of time. Reservations are accepted, however you must pay online and have your camping permit on you at all times in the park. Day hiking is free and there is no charge for parking. There are several outhouses(pit toilets) at Elfin Lakes as well as at the Red Heather Hut 5k into the trail. There are plenty of fresh water sources on the trail as well as at Elfin Lakes. The lower lake is reserved for drinking water and the upper lake is for swimming. Cell phone reception is usually good along the trail and at Elfin Lakes.
Restrictions at Elfin Lakes
Garibaldi Provincial Park is not dog friendly. This is mainly out of respect for the wildlife that frequent the area. There are several great place to hike with your dog in and around Squamish. Alice Lake, Ring and Conflict Lakes and Brew Lake. And in Whistler you should try Whistler Train Wreck, the Sea to Sky Trail, Cheakamus River, Logger's Lake, Joffre Lakes. Bikes are allowed on the main trail from the parking lot to Elfin Lakes only. There are no garbage facilities at Elfin Lake and you must pack out what you pack in. Open fires are prohibited in the park and camp stoves should be used for all cooking. All motorized vehicles are not permitted in the park, including motorcycles, ATV's and snowmobiles.
Wildlife at Elfin Lakes
There are frequent animal sightings on the trail and beyond Elfin Lakes. Black bears, marmots, mountain goats and deer roam Garibaldi Park, though only occasionally seen. Bald eagles and ptarmigans are sometimes spotted on the trail to Elfin Lakes. Of the many animals you will encounter in the park, black bears are the ones you must be most aware of. Fortunately there are food storage facilities at Elfin Lakes as well as at Rampart Ponds. Always remember when encountering bears, calmly back away and wait for them to leave the trail. Don't approach bears and do your best to not surprise them. Though black bears are potentially dangerous, there has never been an unprovoked bear attack in Garibaldi Provincial Park or Whistler.