Cirque Lake in the Callaghan Valley - Whistler
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!
Callaghan Lake is accessible via an 8 kilometre weather battered and very potholed forest service road. The entire road is cratered with deep potholes, cut by frequent cross-ditches, and more recently a small section collapsing into the valley below. This logging road begins high up in the Callaghan Valley, which itself is largely overlooked by travellers to Whistler.
The Callaghan Valley is home to quite a few natural and man-made attractions. Brandywine Meadows, Alexander Falls, Northair Mine and Mount Sproatt are all found in the valley. Recently, the 2010 Olympic Games produced the largest man-made attraction in Callaghan Valley, Whistler Olympic Park.
Though Cirque Lake is tremendously far into the wilderness, the amount of hiking required to reach it is effectively less than two kilometres. Another two kilometres of canoeing is required to reach the trailhead at the far end of Callaghan Lake. But for such an enchantingly beautiful, mountain lake, the exertion to reach it is remarkably little.
The other attribute of Cirque Lake that makes it special, is its cirque structure. From the moment you catch sight of Cirque Lake, the abruptly steep sides all around give you the humbling feeling that you are inside a volcano. A volcano filled with emerald water and ringed by grassy meadows and crumbling, near vertical cliffs.
Where you stand, at the entrance to the cirque, is not far from the only water channel out of the cirque. An ever narrowing gap in the cliffs spills water down one cliff after another until reaching Callaghan Lake just 1.4 kilometres away.
Owing to the fact that you have to reach the trailhead to Cirque Lake by boat ensures that it almost always remains deserted. Even in the middle of summer, your tent will almost certainly be the only one that resides in this magical cirque. You sometimes get hikers venturing up from their campsites at Callaghan Lake for a couple hours, otherwise nobody.
One feature of the Cirque Lake trail that no doubt scares hikers away is its steepness and ruggedness. It is mostly very steep, and due to the obliterating effects of winter snow, the trail markers are sporadic at best. One consolation is of course the length of the trail. Under two kilometres, makes the steepness much easier to tackle.
With a heavy pack you can easily hike the trail in a little over an hour. Or an hour and a half or two if you linger at the frequent viewpoints looking back on Callaghan Lake. The eruption of blueberry bushes in August is cause for some delays as well as it is surprisingly hard to pass up feasting on every bush you see.. and you will see a lot.
The trail, for the most part is quite scenic and enjoyable. The first 15 minutes of the trail winds through a cute forest along and over some small streams. The next 15 minutes takes you up some steeper and more challenging terrain that require pulling yourself up with tree roots and at one section a knotted rope.
Thirty minutes into the trail brings you to a massive boulder field that you have to budget your attention between the treacherous boulders ahead and the incredible views of Callaghan Lake behind. The final 15 minutes of the trail is the most enjoyable of all. Summiting the ridge that takes you to the access point entrance to Cirque Lake. This ridge has a clearing with breathtaking views overlooking Callaghan Lake. So beautiful that you will be tempted to drop your pack and spend the night. The real marvel of course lays just 5 minutes ahead.
The Cirque Lake Trail
The parking area for Cirque Lake is the parking area for Callaghan Lake Provincial Park. There are no parking or camping fees in the park and even if the campsites are busy, you will always be able to find a place to park your car. Callaghan Lake Provincial Park is centred around this large camping and parking area at the edge of Callaghan Lake.
Each campsite is designed with a tidy fire ring and sectioned off with rows of rocks. Campers generally park their car next to where the put up their tent. This sometimes leads to some loud campsite parties to erupt.
As you drive into the campsite/parking area you will drive straight into the gravel slope that works as a functional boat launch. You can drop your canoe directly into the water from your roof racks, then park just a few metres away.
Callaghan Lake Provincial Park is wonderfully free of pointless signs, so you won’t find a dedicated parking area or no parking areas. Just use your common sense and find a spot not directly adjacent to a camping area or it will look like the campsite has been occupied by you.
Once in the water, navigating to the unmarked Cirque Lake trailhead is easy. Callaghan Lake fills the huge valley for about 2.6 kilometres, and you simply paddle to the far end of the lake. Expect to take 30-40 minutes and halfway along the way you will start hearing the distant crashing of Cirque Falls. You will also be able to see it, very tall and very narrow, a white strip of water coming down the near vertical cliffs. Nearing the end of Callaghan Lake aim for the point where the stream from the falls enter Callaghan Lake. There is a gravel bar built up from several water channels here and a large tree jutting out into the lake.
This is the best spot to aim for as the unmarked trail starts just a few metres from here. It is easy to drag your canoe up to the small and idyllic campsite located just inside the forest here. A cute fire ring and log seat in a clearing that is almost impossibly scenic and much like Cirque Lake, feels far removed from civilisation.
The trail snakes its way through a beautiful forest, always close to streams and within earshot of the crashing falls a few hundred metres to your left. After 15 minutes of relatively flat terrain the trail turns sharply upward as you begin the considerably steep ascent. You will be gaining over 300 metres in the next hour, which doesn’t sound like much, however it is done in less than 2 kilometres(trailhead to lake).
Thirty minutes into the trail you will come to a startlingly violent looking boulder field filling the narrow valley in front of you. The trail here becomes fairly difficult to follow, however you need only focus on reaching the top end of the boulder field. Though the trail is marked with rock cairns and orange tape, the crushing weight of the previous winter’s snow will have swept many of them away.
This is also the section of the trail where you will start taking endless stunning pictures of Callaghan Lake behind you. The deep blue lake filling the valley, green forest all around and Black Tusk surrounded by snowcapped mountains and glaciers.
As you first emerge from the trees and into the boulder field you will cross to the right side, then up this side for about 50 metres before the route zigzags left(in 2015 there is a large fallen tree with orange tape on it laying across your route).
After climbing part way back to the left side of the scree slope you should be able to make out some bright orange tape and/or some rock cairns marking the narrow end of the boulder field. This is where you are aiming and finally exit the boulder field into the forest. This is a tricky exit up into the forest requiring pulling yourself up the gap by clinging to hardy krummholz trees.
This narrow gap into the forest opens up to a cliff on your right and a valley on your left where you can once again hear Cirque Falls. The trail sharply cuts right and up the cliff that moments ago looked impossible to climb. A well worn trail guides you up a few short and very steep sections to reach the top of the cliff.
This section should be manageable by most hikers, though you will have to pull yourself up some tricky sections. The top of the cliff opens to an even more amazing view of Callaghan Lake. Black Tusk and now Mount Garibaldi can be made out on the horizon.
The trail then ascends this beautiful ridge for just a couple hundred metres before descending quickly down another boulder field. Cirque Lake opens up into view and you come to a series of short rocky bluffs overlooking the lake. A trail leads you to a small clearing, perfect for a tent or two and home to a small fire ring. The lake is just another 50 metres down this rocky ridge. The tent area is a perfect combination of a flat dirt area and rocky protrusions with large and small trees all around. The view of Cirque Lake is wide open yet you can easily find shade on a hot day.
Down at the lake you find a rocky shoreline and perfectly clear water, emerald green. You can jump right in from nearly everywhere as you quickly discover the lake is very deep. If you walk along the left side of the lake for a dozen metres you come to a rock outcrop a couple metres above the water that seems designed for lounging and jumping in. Jumping in Cirque Lake is almost a requirement as the water is shockingly cold even on a brutally hot August day.
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, 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 favorably 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.
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(there was a metre of snow as of June 30th, 2011 at the Callaghan Lake 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 up the trail you will come to a massive boulder field. The trail emerges from the forest into this field and cuts across it. You then hike the precarious boulder field along the right side. The route zig-zags all the while following several not so obviously placed cairns and orange trail marker ribbons. At the top of the boulder field you will have to climb up a narrow cliff gap with an impressive array of brutalized krummholz trees. These boulder mangled trees, bent and twisted by the crushing weight of snow and rockfalls. From this gap to Cirque Lake is only another 15 minutes of ever more beautiful views.
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 ridge you hiked in from(pictured above). 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 often 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.