The Callaghan Valley - Whistler Trails in September
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. You will never, or at least comparatively rarely see anyone on the trails to Cirque Lake, Conflict Lake or Ring Lake for several reasons.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
Callaghan Lake Provincial Park is a relatively untouched wilderness of rugged mountainous terrain. The valley walls were formed by relatively recent glaciation. Evidence of this can be seen in the considerable glacial till and slide materials visible across the lake. Around the lake you will see talus slopes, flat rock benches, cirques, hanging valleys, tarns, waterfalls and upland plateaus with bogs. The wildlife that reside in the area include bobcats, cougars, coyotes, minks, wolverines, wolves, bears, deer, mountain goats and occasionally moose and grizzly bears.
Callaghan Lake is not really a hiking destination but more of a drive to campsite on a beautiful lake, and gateway to some beautiful intermediate hikes. The campsite is small and looks a bit like a parking lot with about a dozen spots to put up a tent near your vehicle. There is a proper boat launch at the campsite and the lake is large and beautiful to paddle.
Surrounded by snowy mountains and nice rock outcrops the lake is good for fishing. If you have a canoe or boat of some kind you can find numerous, breathtaking places to camp. There is even a small island a short five minute paddle away that has a beautiful clearing for a tent, a fire ring and crystal clear water all around, deep enough to dive into.
If you don't have access to a boat you should pick up one of those hilarious, $20 inflatable boats that you find for sale everywhere and bring it along. You could easily use one to ferry your gear/tent across to this above mentioned island as a trail leads to the island with just a 8 metre gap of 1 metre deep water. Either that or walk with your pack above your head. Either way camping at this little island is an absolute paradise when compared to the parking lot of a campsite 300 metres away.
The hiking trails are minimal here due to the steepness and deep forest surrounding the lake. From the main parking area some short trails extend in either direction. The trails to the left go for just a few dozen metres before ending at the lake and river outflow. The trail in the other direction(right if facing the lake from the parking area), takes you around the bottom of the lake and quickly fades into a bit of a bushwhacking route. You can, if you are determined, follow this route around the right side of the lake to its top end and connect to the Cirque Lake trail. The bushwhacking is not that bad and you can stay within sight of the lake the entire time.
At the far end of the lake the rustic and very steep Cirque Lake trail runs along the side of the crashing waterfall all the way to the breathtaking Cirque Lake. If you are motivated and have a canoe this is an amazing area to hike in mostly untouched wilderness where the alpine allows for hiking in several directions to countless lakes and glaciers beyond.
Callaghan Lake campsite also is the start of another little known though beautiful hike deep into the Callaghan Valley. Ring Lake and Conflict Lake. Conflict lake is 5k from the trailhead and is fun, easy and beautiful as the trail takes your through lush forests, meadows and creeks. From Conflict lake to Ring Lake is a more difficult and at time hard to follow trail. The snow persists very lake on this trail (often until late July), but the lake is magnificent and worth the trek. The Callaghan Valley is dog friendly unlike Garibaldi Park, but extreme caution is needed due to this being grizzly territory. If you see a bear here, it will probably be a grizzly. There are no camping facilities at Ring and Conflict Lakes and expect to only find a flat place to put your tent, possibly on snow.
Cirque Lake in the Callaghan Valley
Cirque Lake is a wild and beautiful lake that hides high above and beyond Callaghan Lake in Callaghan Lake Provincial Park. What makes Cirque Lake special among the other sensationally beautiful lakes in the Whistler area is both its location and geologically formed shape. It sits high above Callaghan Lake, which itself is a gorgeous, remote feeling lake. The remoteness of Callaghan Lake is a wonderful mirage, due to the fact that you can drive right to it!
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 find a hiking trail. From the canoe approach, to the right the valley slopes away in a much more inviting(hiking trail) 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 sloping terrain, 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.