Any snowshoers or ski tourers around Vancouver will likely be familiar with the Elfin Lakes winter trail. This is a personal favorite for many because of its well-marked route and spectacular views.
The trailhead is only about a 30 minute drive from downtown Squamish, although driving the gravel road in winter conditions can be challenging and often requires winter tires, a 4×4 and/or chains. The trail itself is a steady uphill climb of 11 km to reach the hut at Elfin Lakes, and will take around 3 – 5 hours, each way (with great variability depending on weather and snow conditions). The elevation gain is 600 m, with the highest point of the hike reaching about 1,660 m along Paul Ridge before you descend to the Elfin Lakes hut at 1,470 m. There are spectacular views of nearby mountain peaks along the way to the lakes as you make your way along the marked snowshoe trail.
Another draw for this hike is the ability to sleep in the heated Elfin Lakes shelter. That is, if you can be one of the first 33 people there to claim one of the bunks!
(If you are looking for the guide to the Elfin Lakes summer route – click here)
Elfin Lakes Winter Trail Summary
Distance: 22 km
Elevation Gain: 700 m
Highest Point: 1,660 m (Paul Ridge)
Time Needed: 7 to 10 hours (or overnight)
Type: Out and Back
Dogs Allowed: No
Est. Driving Time from Vancouver: 1 hour 30 minutes
Trailhead Coordinates: N49.750175, W-123.053186
Starting at the Diamond Head Parking Lot
From the Diamond Head parking lot, the first 5 km of the trail are the steepest of the day. Shortly after beginning the ascent, you’ll reach a switchback going to your left, and continue your uphill march. There will be a few quick views to the west through the trees if you keep your eyes peeled, but most of the trail to the Red Heather shelter is within the forest. At the 5 km mark (roughly 1.5 hours), you will reach the Red Heather shelter and this is a great place to eat, rest, and warm up using the wood furnace before pushing the final 6 km of your hike. Winter camping is permitted here outside the hut and sleeping in the hut is only allowed in emergency. There are restrooms here as well.
Many people day hike to the Red Heather shelter, and enjoy some backcountry snowboarding and skiing along Paul Ridge before heading back to the parking lot.
From Red Heather Hut to Elfin Lakes Hut
Pushing on from the Red Heather hut, the next 6 km provide a few steep sections, but also some flat and downhill relief. From here, once the snow is deep enough, a winter route marked by orange poles will be set up. They are usually very close together, which is useful in the case of a snowstorm or low visibility conditions, and also for those caught outside after sunset. To see if the winter route is in place, and the latest trail conditions, see here.
Simply follow these orange poles and enjoy the views (provided you have good weather), until you finally reach the Elfin Lakes shelter. One of the prominent peaks visible along the way will be Atwell Peak – the diamond-shaped peak off to the north.
You will climb up along Paul Ridge to a high point of about 1,660 m before the trail begins its rolling descent back down, and finally reaching the Elfin Lakes hut at 1,470 m. As you make your way down to the Elfin Lakes hut and ranger lodge a view will open up to your left of the spectacular Mount Garibaldi.
Once you’ve reached the hut, you can go inside to warm up, eat, and hopefully grab a bunk to sleep in.
Camping at the Elfin Lakes shelter opens up the opportunity to other nearby hikes like Gargoyles, Opal Cone and Mamquam Lake. These may or may not be marked for winter routes, but regardless, you will need to take all the requisite snow travel safety precautions if you carry on to any of these other destinations from Elfin Lakes.
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The Elfin Lakes Shelter
There is a large, heated, shelter at Elfin Lakes that sleeps about 33. The cabin is two floors, with bunks on top, and a kitchen and a recreation area on the bottom. Overall, the cabin is comfortable and has gas stoves so you can melt some snow for water, and prepare your meals. There are also outhouses just adjacent to the shelter.
The best, or depending on your luck, worst part of staying at the shelter may be your company. The times I’ve slept at the hut, it’s been a blast, meeting a group of friendly new people – playing board games and trading hiking stories.
I’ve been in the hut with no other people than my friends, and I’ve been at the hut when people are sleeping on the floors for all the bunks being full. It is advised to bring a tent even if you plan on sleeping in the hut, in case it is full. And if you are heading up on the weekend, you are best to leave early to increase your odds of getting a bunk. I would also recommend bringing earplugs, as it can get pretty loud when you are trying to sleep if there are night owls and the inevitable snorers.
Camping at the hut requires paying in advance ($15/night as of 2015) and can be done so here.
Driving Directions and Parking
To get to the trail from Vancouver, take Highway 99 just north past Squamish. As you are driving through Squamish, exit right at the BC Parks sign for Garibaldi Park Diamond Head. This is Mamquam Road, right before the Canadian Tire. It is about 16 km to reach the trailhead from Highway 99, mostly on a narrow, gravel road. The road will steepen and you will pass Quest University. You will eventually see another sign pointing you left, for Garibaldi Park Diamond Head.
Depending on time of year and the conditions, you may need any combo of 4wd, snow tires and chains as the road isn’t always plowed. The road is narrow, and it’s not worth taking chances if your car is not winter-ready, as more than a few cars have fallen off this road before. The final curve before the parking lot is particularly sketchy (steep and often icy), and you may walk in the final few kilometers from an overflow parking/ turnaround area instead of navigating this final part of the road.
Google Map directions are here.
Editor's and Reader's Hike Rating
Variety of the terrain - 65%
Views and scenery - 85%
Not too crowded - 60%
Overall 'fun factor' - 90%
The snowshoe/ski up to Elfin Lakes during the winter provides a great overnight backcountry experience, with a marked winter route and the safety of a heated shelter. It is possible as a day long day-hike as well, but is worth spending the time and making it at least a two day trip.
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