The Callaghan Valley lays quietly across from Whistler despite being home to some incredible hikes. Ring & Conflict Lake and Cirque Lake are two phenomenal hiking destinations in the valley that few people have even heard of. Cirque Lake resides high above Callaghan Lake at the end of a very steep, though very short hike that runs startlingly close to the almost vertical falls that empty Cirque Lake. Ring and Conflict Lakes sit high up in the mountains 10k west of Callaghan Lake.
First is location. Despite the Callaghan Valley being tremendously beautiful geographically. The distant mountains are snow covered, even in September. The lakes are emerald coloured and crystal clear. The forests are an untouched blanket of beautiful green. The creeks, rivers and waterfalls are everywhere in your view or if not in view, heard as distant sounds of running water.
Despite this beauty, it seems that the biggest reason for the Callaghan Valley's lack of use as a hiking destination is its location next to Garibaldi Park. The beautiful and well known park focuses all the throngs of hikers in the justifiably popular areas of Garibaldi Lake, Black Tusk, Taylor Meadows, Wedgemount Lake and Elfin Lakes. Laying outside this monstrously famous Provincial Park exists the relatively untouched and unknown Callaghan Valley.
The second big reason of course is that the hikes in the Callaghan Valley are unmaintained or at least rarely maintained. The campsite at Callaghan Lake is maintained to a very high standard, however the trail to Cirque Lake evidently doesn't fall into any park jurisdiction and finding the unmarked trailhead is a challenge. There are flagging tapes along the trail after the trailhead.
The third reason, at least for Cirque Lake, for being hardly hiked is the fact that the unmarked trailhead starts at the far end of Callaghan Lake. So you need to canoe or otherwise, boat there. This added impediment surely contributes to this wonderful trail, continuing to be infrequently hiked.
The fourth, more practical, yet inexplicable reason is that the road to Callaghan Lake Provincial Park is horribly unmaintained. Obviously grading this poor logging road is expensive, however it is beyond neglected. Boulders, waterbars and potholes exist on this road to such a high degree that the neglect seems malicious. In fact, the moment you leave the deluxe road to the Olympic Nordic Centre the monstrous potholes begin, presumably scaring away any 4x4 lacking tourists Callaghan Lake Provincial Park bound.
The Callaghan Valley gets a lot of drive in traffic since the recent paving of the road and installation of the fabulous Whistler Olympic Park for the 2010 Olympics. This road is open year-round and in the summer is frequented by bear watchers. The grass along the road is a favourite for bears and in the summer months consistently ensures at least a couple bears along the route to the Callaghan Valley.
Whistler has quite a few beautiful waterfalls to see. From Squamish there is Shannon Falls, then Brandywine Falls closer to Whistler. Rainbow Falls in Whistler and Nairn Falls twenty minutes north. Out of these, Alexander Falls in the Callaghan Valley is both impressively huge and convenient to see. It is located just before the turnoff to Callaghan Lake. You can drive to the viewing platform and actually see the falls without leaving your car. The falls are of the Brandywine Falls style. That is crashing from an abrupt cliff, plunging into the valley below. Loud and beautiful, well worth the 10 minute drive from the Sea to Sky Highway and a must see on the way to hike in the Callaghan Valley.
Callaghan Lake Provincial Park makes a fantastic base for hiking to Cirque Lake as well as Ring and Conflict Lakes. Callaghan Lake is located in between these two fantastic hikes. The Callaghan Lake campsite, though free to use, looks a bit more like a parking lot than a campsite. There are a couple very short trails that run along the very beautiful Callaghan Lake. These trails are only a few dozen metres in length. This campsite is a bit notorious as being a 4x4 drive in, rowdy campsite at times. So be aware of that and plan accordingly. There are plenty of infinitely better spots to set up a tent than the main campsite area.
To find better spots to put up a tent or hike you have to have a boat. Canoeing Callaghan Lake is an ideal way to find a better campsite. In just five minutes after hitting the water you come to spectacular spots, incredible for camping. Some of these spots are on tiny islands near the shore, others on rock cliffs above the lake. The backcountry camping options seem endless once you get out on the lake.
The Callaghan Lake turnoff is 20km south of Whistler Village. From Whistler drive 20km towards Vancouver, then turn right at the sign for Whistler Olympic Park. Drive up the beautiful, winding road for about 8 minutes. The sign for Callaghan Lake will be just before Whistler Olympic Park, you will turn left, cross a bridge and drive a very bad and horrendously potholed logging road for 6km.
There is something magical about starting a hike in a canoe. A childlike sense of adventure and novelty. The hike to Cirque Lake begins with this sense of excitement. Sheltered by mountains is eerily calm and mesmerizingly clear. You slip away from the shore in tranquil silence as if floating on air. The other end of this once glacial valley is the trailhead. Hidden in the forest and so little used as to remain invisible until you stumble onto it after repeated aborted attempts to find it. The key to finding it is to aim toward the waterfall in the distance. Cascading almost straight down a couple hundred metres from its starting high up the steep mountains.
Still a couple kilometres away, it’s so steep and falls so far as to seem unnaturally loud from halfway across the lake. Keep aiming toward the waterfall in the distance. The closer you get, the less likely it will seem to be the correct way. To the right the valley slopes away in a much more inviting angle. Keep toward the waterfall though and get ready for the next hour of clinging to the scarcely visible, though well flagged trail that snakes upward, often at a 50 degree incline, astonishingly close to that majestic waterfall. Your destination is one of those fantastic forces of nature, a cirque lake.
A perfectly arranged glacier is required to form a cirque lake. A magical combination of size, a certain slope and more unexpectedly, a certain angle away from the sun. In the northern hemisphere, this means the glacier must be on the northeast slope of the mountain, away from the suns rays and the prevailing winds. Thick snow protected in this way grows thicker into glacial ice, then a process of freeze-thaw called nivation, chews at the lower rocks, hollowing out a deep basin. Over a thousand winters you are left with a magnificently circular lake with steep slopes all around. If you arrive at Cirque Lake, near Whistler, BC on a favourably sunny, summer day, you will almost certainly fall silent, gaze in wonder at this spectacular place, and feel in that moment that this place is as perfect as it is possible for a place to be.
Ring Lake is a fantastically beautiful and wonderfully remote lake similar to Cirque Lake but considerably farther to hike. The 10k hike takes you through a beautiful forest of cedars then to a spectacular meadow filled with ponds and ringed with distant, enormous mountains. 5k into the hike you come to Conflict Lake with trails running around it. Signs at various junctions indicate which trail to take to reach Ring Lake, a further 5k from Conflict.
The trail from Conflict Lake to Ring Lake passes through a huge valley for a couple kilometres, then abruptly ascends on the right side of the valley. The trail is poorly marked in this section and you have to keep bearing right to avoid descending back into the valley. 3k of at times very steep, but not technical trail gets you to the magnificent Ring Lake and the imposing Ring Mountain across the emerald green water.
The trailhead to Ring and Conflict Lakes is very close to the Callaghan Lake Provincial Park campsite. From the campsite, drive a couple hundred metres as if returning to Whistler and you will see a clearing on the right and a very well worn trail. From this trail you will see plenty of signs to guide you first to Conflict Lake in 5k, then Ring Lake, another 5k past Conflict.
The 5k hike to Conflict Lake is quite relaxed and easy as you don't gain any significant elevation. The 5k from Conflict to Ring Lake is very steep, and though marked well with flagging tape and cairns, very difficult to follow.
Alexander Falls is a very convenient and beautiful stop on the way to the Callaghan Valley. The well marked turnoff, just before the left turn to the logging road to Callaghan Lake, directs you to the viewpoint just metres from the road.
Alexander Falls are an impressive 43 metres high and over 12 metres wide. This looks very impressive from the recently build and very nice viewing platform bringing you close to the falls and to the edge of the deep chasm.
If you are interested in a hike, there is a trail that starts near the bridge above the falls. To find it go back on the main road (left), turn left immediately and cross the bridge, look for the trail immediately across the bridge for the trail.
You can also reach the top of the falls by bushwhacking from the Alexander Falls viewing platform. A faint, unmarked trail runs off to the right of the platform into the trees. Recommended only for the adventurous.