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.
is a very impressive 43 metre/141foot waterfall just 30 to 40 minutes south of Whistler in the Callaghan Valley. Open year-round and located just before Whistler Olympic Park where several of the 2010 Olympic events were held. There is a nice viewing platform on the edge of the cliff across from the falls which crash fantastically into the valley below. The parking area and viewing platform at is one big area just 40 metres from the main road (to Whistler Olympic Park). The adventurous can find the obscure trail that leads to both the top of the falls as well as, with great difficulty, to the base of the falls.
Alexander Falls is certainly one of the nicest spots for a picnic in Whistler. The picnic areas are numerous, the surrounding forest is gorgeous and wild and Alexander Falls crashes loud and beautiful in the background. Several picnic tables are located in forested clearings that were once used as campsites, so if you have a big group, you will have lots of room to spread out and enjoy the surroundings.
There is a nice information board with as short history of the areas surrounding Alexander Falls, complete with museum-like pictures of the regions logging history. One depicts, "A Land of Giants" and describes, with photos, how incredibly huge trees were cut down and moved. One picture from 1910, shows 10 men sitting on an enormous, felled tree and looking tiny by comparison. The depiction goes on to show how First Nations people felled trees as long as 8000 years ago.
The history of logging continues to present day logging practices in British Columbia and around Whistler are depicted in another nice museum-like mural on BC's "Green Advantage" and sustainable future.
The drive to Alexander Falls is very nice. As soon as you turn off from the Sea to Sky Highway into the Callaghan Valley you ascend quickly into the mountains. Bears along the roadside are frequently seen as they seem to have a particular fondness for the fields of grass that grow in the sunny meadows that surround this recently constructed, paved road.
The Alexander Falls viewing platform and picnic area was redesigned and reconstructed just before the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. Some of the Nordic competitions took place just a five minute drive north of Alexander Falls. The facilities are still in operation and open to visitors year-round. There is a cafe and visitor centre well worth visiting. The access road to Whistler Olympic Park is blocked by a security gate after hours so keep that in mind when going. The hours change seasonally. In the summer they are open 10am to 4:30pm daily and in the winter 9am to 4:30pm weekdays. Check their website for current opening hours.
Of impressive waterfalls in the Whistler area, several spectacular ones. Others in the area include the amazing Brandywine Falls, Rainbow Falls, and Nairn Falls. Along very difficult hike to Wedgemount Lake you will see the incredible Wedgemount Falls. Down in Squamish, 45 minutes south of Whistler, you will find Shannon Falls.is one of
Other Whistler Area Waterfalls Whistler Hiking Trails
Brandywine Falls: (20 minute drive south of Whistler): Easy, flat trail, 1k hike to falls. Brandywine Falls is a beautiful stop in between Squamish and Whistler. It's about 25 minutes north of Squamish, 11k south of Whistler. The hike from the parking lot to the falls is less than a kilometre and on a wide and flat trail and also park of the amazing Sea to Sky Trail that runs through Whistler. There is a wonderful viewing platform across from the falls the juts out over the edge of the chasm the falls empty into. There is another fantastic place to view the falls that most people miss. There is a great viewpoint from above the falls where you can stand above the Cheakamus River just metres before it falls over the cliff. To find it is easy. As you walk toward the falls from the parking lot you will have to cross train tracks just a few metres from the viewing platform. Standing at the train tracks look to your right and you will see a bridge that the train tracks cross. Walk over to that to see the falls from above. Amazing!
Nairn Falls: (20 minute drive north of Whistler): Easy, flat trail, 1.2k easy hike to falls. Nairn Falls is a wonderful, crashing and chaotic waterfall that surrounds you from the elaborate viewing platform that allows you to safely watch it from above. The beautiful, green water rushes through the deep and angular channels of rock. Nairn Falls Provincial Park is located just a short 20 minute drive north of Whistler. From the large parking lot the well marked trail runs along the Green River for 1.2k to Nairn Falls. The trail is very easy and is hike-able year-round. Though considerable snow falls in the winter months here, the trail remains passable. There is quite a large and beautiful campground at Nairn Falls as well. Located right next to the parking lot there are 94 vehicle accessed campsites that disappear into the forest adjacent to the Green River.
Rainbow Falls: (20 minute drive north of Whistler): Steep but short trail, 0.5k hike to falls. The beautiful and easily accessible Rainbow Falls are located just a short, half kilometre from the Rainbow Lake trailhead. Most hikers don't notice or make the short detour to take a look at Rainbow Falls on their way to Rainbow Lake. Rainbow Falls is a crashing section of falls that runs for several metres and visible at several locations. If you hike to Rainbow Lake you will encounter a couple other falls that are also considered Rainbow Falls, however, this section is generally regarded as "Rainbow Falls". The trailhead is a short 20 minute drive from Whistler Village. There is parking at Rainbow Park at Alta Lake as well as lots of room at the Rainbow Trail trailhead. In the winter there is quite a lot of snow to deal with, however this is a popular trail and you will likely find the snowy trail padded down from snowshoes and walkable without snowshoes even in the depths of winter.
Shannon Falls: (45 minute drive south of Whistler): Steep but short trail, 0.3k hike to falls. Shannon Falls towers above Howe Sound at 335 metres as the third tallest falls in BC. The wonderful, though very short trail winds through a beautiful old growth forest to get to the base of the falls. From your car to the viewpoint takes only about four minutes, however the trail continues a bit further to a higher viewpoint (five minutes higher). You can even continue along the trail and join with the Stawamus Chief Trail which goes to the three summits of the Chief or to the challenging trail to Upper Shannon Falls. The trail to the Stawamus Chief and Upper Shannon Falls are very steep and almost constant stairs to be prepared for quite a workout comparable to the Grouse Grind in Vancouver.
Wedgemount Falls: (10 minute drive north of Whistler): Steep & difficult trail, 5k hike to viewpoint. can be seen along the hike to Wedgemount Lake. At almost 300 metres high, can be heard from a considerable distance. From the trailhead, just beyond Green Lake near Whistler Village the trail is challenging and very steep. Expect to take about 1.5 hours to reach the unmarked but obvious Wedgemount Falls viewpoint. Beyond this viewpoint in just 2 kilometres is the extraordinarily beautiful Wedgemount Lake, Wedgemount Glacier and Wedge Mountain beyond. Wedgemount Lake is a paradise for hiking and is the northern entry to the massive and spectacular Garibaldi Park in Whistler.