Located less than 1.5 hours from downtown Vancouver, The Red Heather area of Garibaldi Provincial Park is a fantastic backcountry area for winter recreation. It’s proximity to Squamish and ease of access makes this an incredibly popular area, and for good reason! A moderate track up with wide open mountain vistas and deep snow is a great spot for a day of snowshoeing, ski touring, or hiking. It also makes a great place to camp, but only in the winter, as there is no camping in the Red Heather Area in the summer.
To reach the trailhead, take highway 99 (Sea-to-Sky) 4km north of downtown Squamish and turn right on Mamquam Road (at the Canadian Tire). Follow that road alongside the golf club and turn left onto Highland Way. At the top of the hill at the roundabout, turn right and head up the hill towards Quest University. Once you have reached a T in the road, turn left on to Mamquam Road, which eventually turns into a gravel road (Garibaldi Park Road at this point.) Follow this road up until you see a sign indicating a left turn to Garibaldi park, where you will switchback and continue up. You will reach a gate at the “chain-up area.” This is where you can put your tire chains on for the remaining 1km.
If all of this seems overly complicated and you are not reading this in the year 1996, you can always just enter “Elfin Lake Trailhead, Diamond Head Trail” into Google Maps and let the internet do its thing.
As for tire chains, yes you need them. Yes, you definitely need them. Even if you don’t need them, you absolutely need them. All cars and trucks above the chain-up area are required to have tire chains, and the Parks staff are either at the chain-up telling you as much, or you will be receiving a $115 ticket for your troubles. And that’s the preferable option, as the last 1km is a steep, icy road with questionable plowing consistency, and no guard rails to protect your Prius from launching down the side of a mountain. So, yes, bring tire chains!
Once at the trailhead, you will begin a 5km steady ascent along an old access road. You can typically do this with microspikes and often just winter boots. The road is mostly forested, opening up a bit in the last 500m. At the 5km mark you will reach the Red Heather Shelter. This is a small cabin with a wood stove (please conserve the wood), propane stove and pot for melting snow, and two picnic tables. This is strictly a warming hut, so no staying overnight, but is a great place to rest after the climb and have lunch or a snack. There is also an outhouse located a few metres beyond the hut.
Beyond the hut, the terrain opens up into a large, open meadow below a long ridge running east from Red Heather another 5km to Elfin Lakes. In the Red Heather area, you can hike, ski, or snowshoe a further kilometre up the meadow (following the large orange wands that mark the winter route) to the shoulder of Round Mountain. This is a great place, on a clear day, for an absolutely spectacular view of the Garibaldi Massif and Atwell Peak. You really feel like you’ve reached the big mountains of BC here.
As a quick and easy day trip, this is a great place to turn around. You can also continue on along the winter route a further 4km or so to Elfin Lakes if you have bigger ambitions. Keep in mind that beyond this point the trail gets trickier and there are potential avalanche slopes, so be prepared for that.
On a clear winter or spring day, Red Heather will be filled with a brightly covered assortment of hikers, snowshoers, skiers, splitboarders, and avalanche students. If you head up early enough, you may even see a few bleary eyed campers emerging from their winter tents. That’s because this is a perfect location to dip your toe into the magic of winter backcountry camping (don’t forget to book your backcountry permits.) The weather is relatively predictable, it isn’t too far from the car, and the warming hut provides a slight bit of security if things go a bit sideways. But to be clear, you definitely can’t sleep in there!
Garibaldi Park is a truly magnificent place, and is absolutely enormous. The crown jewel of the BC Parks system, it is a true mountain wilderness in every sense. However, for us humans, the beautiful forests, massive alpine peaks, and cascading glaciers that dot the interior of the park are hard to access. But if you want to get a feel for what the land beyond the edge of park has to offer, and you don’t have a few days of trekking and mountaineering in you, Red Heather is an excellent introduction.
And as always…
Be sure to make and leave a trip plan with someone. A great resource for this can be found at Adventure Smart.
If you are heading into avalanche terrain, know the forecast, bring your beacon, probe, and shovel, and know how to use them! If you don’t, Canada West Mountain School runs great two-day Avalanche Skills Training Courses on Mount Seymour. It can save your life.
If you’re heading into the backcountry, make sure you always pack the ten essentials!