Cirque Lake - Whistler Hiking Trails
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 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.
Cirque Lake - Parking, Hiking & Camping Details
The trailhead to Cirque Lake is found at the far end of . 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 bumpy logging road for 8km. This logging road is usually deep with snow until mid June. In 2011 there was a metre of snow as of June 30th at the Callaghan campsite. There is lots of parking at Callaghan Lake, an outhouse, boat launch and several nice campsites.
To reach the very hidden trailhead to Cirque Lake, paddle your canoe towards the waterfall far off in the distance. Not until you are only 50 metres from the shore, nearest the sound of the now hidden waterfall, you will see a small clearing jutting out from the shore, this is the trailhead, despite it not looking like one. Pull your canoe up here and drag into the bushes. Only a few metres into shore you will notice an obvious trail. There are even plenty of tree markers on the way. From here it is only an hour hike to the lake, though even steeper than the Wedgemount trail. About two thirds of the way to the lake you will reach a large, steep boulder field and have to decide to bear left or right around a vertical cliff. Both ways will get you to the top. Both are treacherous. But the route to the right is slightly less frightening.
At the lake finding a piece of ground suitable for a tent is hard, though two can be found with a little bit of looking. One in the gap in the cliffs where the lake first spills out, and another high up on the cliff to the right. Both are equally spectacular, and you will quickly notice an incredible phenomenon of the Cirque. The wonderful stillness of the air. The cold mountain winds don't penetrate the cirque, yet the sunshine pours in. Outside the cirque you will need a jacket and sweater on a summer day. Inside it's the warm, serene shelter of paradise.
Callaghan Lake Provincial Park and Cirque Lake are very dog friendly. The area is fairly quiet, especially compared to the hectic Garibaldi Provincial Park across the valley, where dogs are prohibited. The trail to Cirque Lake is very steep, so you have to consider that when thinking of bringing your dog. If you and your dog are OK with a few spots where he will need a boost, then you should be fine bringing him along. Though the campsite at Callaghan Lake is occasionally busy, Cirque lake, owing to its difficult access, should be devoid of people.
The Callaghan Valley is grizzly bear territory, and though bear/human conflicts are virtually unknown here, it is worth keeping in mind on the trail. Sightings are very rare, so count yourself lucky if you spot a grizzly and are quick enough to snap a photo. If you are used to seeing black bears around Whistler, the tell-tale, large hump on the back of a grizzly's neck will give you quite a shock.
Other Hikes and Sights Near Cirque Lake
Alexander Falls is a very impressive 43 metre/141foot waterfall just before the left turn to Callaghan Lake and Madeley Lake. Accessible 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 Alexander Falls 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. 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 6 spots to put up a tent. 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. To get there from Madeley, drive back the way you came from and at the T junction, turn right and drive for about 8 kilometres. Ring Lake is a fantastically beautiful and wonderfully remote lake similar to but considerably farther to hike to reach it. 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 trailhead to Ring and Conflict Lakes is very close to the Callaghan Lake Provincial Park campsite. About 200 metres before the Callaghan Lake campsite on your left you will see and unmarked parking area and a trail that crosses the river over a large log bridge. A few minutes into the trail you will start seeing trail signs. Madeley Lake is a well hidden, though easily drivable lake in the beautiful Callaghan Valley. Unlike the terrible gravel road (4x4 recommended though recently graded) to Callaghan Lake, the relatively smooth gravel road to Madeley Lake is drivable by car (relatively easily and safely). Just a 10 minute drive from the main, paved road to Whistler Olympic Park, Madeley makes a great side-trip on the way to or from the very popular 2010 Olympic attraction. This is an amazing place to camp. If looking for solitude at a paradise, mountain lake, Madeley Lake is hard to beat. Rainbow Lake is one of the original hiking trails in Whistler that has existed well before Whistler was called Whistler. The 8k trail is challenging though beautiful as it passes through an impressively huge forest of giant trees. There are several wonderful bridge crossings and crashing river views. Rainbow Lake itself is surreal and beautiful. An unnaturally bright, green meadow extends from one side of the lake and a field of starkly white erratics litter the landscape along the shores of the crystal clear lake. Rainbow Lake is Whistler's water source so swimming, fishing, dogs and camping are not allowed. There are, you will quickly notice upon reaching Rainbow Lake, that a trail continues past the lake then forks.