Ski Northern BC this Winter
For a dusting of powder and charm.
I remember when I first started getting into hiking in BC, I quickly learned about the provincial parks near to where I live in Squamish such as Garibaldi, Joffre Lakes and the harder to reach Tantalus Provincial Park.
These parks are popular for good reason; they are incredibly beautiful to see and many guidebooks detail how to visit them and what to expect once there.
But as I shared campfires with others, I soon began to hear tales of a place that the guidebooks had forgotten, a place of staggering natural beauty, known mostly to miners who prospected there. This place was peculiar in this part of BC as it was a wide U-shaped mountain pass like those found in the Rockies, not the typical V-shaped valleys of the Coast Ranges.
All stories about this places ended the same way: with the charge, “You need to see this place for yourself!” So I did! What follows is a photo tour of my trip into this place that is known as Athelney Pass, and some advice on how you can visit there also.
My recommendation is to plan to visit Athelney Pass, located in the Squamish-Lillooet area, on a long weekend as you will want three days there, minimum. It will take a day getting in and out, and then you’ll have a day in between to explore the area. I’d also recommend doing the drive the night before you hike in, camping near the trailhead and then starting the hike in at day break.
Most parties that try to do the drive to the trailhead and then start hiking on the same day do not make the pass, and end up camping a few kilometres before it. It is a deceptively difficult and tiring route.
On paper the hike in is only 15 km (9.3 mi) long with 800 m (2,625 ft) of elevation gain. Most seasoned backpackers will have undertaken bigger single days than that in the mountains, but that was likely on a trail. This should not be your first backpack of the season. Be optimistic about making the pass in six to eight hours. Plan for it taking between eight to ten hours.
After you leave your vehicle behind, follow a roughly flagged trail down hill towards the sound of Salal Creek. It should take less than 20 minutes to reach the river.
From here, you will be walking upstream on these river rocks for the majority of the day. These rocks tend to wobble and roll from being polished by the river, so care needs to be taken to not sprain an ankle. Hiking poles are recommended.
Continue upstream of Salal Creek, staying on the right bank of the river. If you feel forced to cross over the river look for trail flagging leading into the trees around this point. There is never a point in this section where you need to cross over Salal Creek.
Eventually you will turn a corner and the view pictured above will unfold in front of you. It’s hard to describe this moment, but when I saw this view, I instantly understood why I had struggled to come here.
Continue upstream and you will eventually be able to leave the banks of Salal Creek behind and start gaining elevation up and over a series of moraines.
You will begin to see the pass leveling out above. Before being able to reach it, you will need to cross two small glacial outflow streams. It is usually difficult to rock hop across these streams, so fording them may be a quick option. This water is extremely cold, so take care while crossing them. Face upstream so the current won’t buckle your legs at the knees.
Once past these streams, you will hike up another moraine and pass by a small aquamarine tarn. If you started hiking later in the morning, then you can consider camping at this lake. Other parties have done so in the past, and you may see evidence of rock walls built for tents. If you still have time, then press on and try to make the pass above. On this occasion, the grass is definitely greener on the other side.
Above this lake, the valley begins to dramatically open up and Salal Creek widens and slows as it meanders through lush alpine meadows.
Continue onwards for another few kilometres. When you see an opportunity, cross over to the left bank of Salal Creek. It can be easily forded also.
On the left side of Salal Creek, you will be able to eventually see the remainders of an old mining cabin that has now collapsed. Around this derelict cabin are some good camp spots.
It’s is worth noting that this area is frequently visited by grizzly bears and cougars. We saw evidence of both while we were there. I’d recommend bringing a bear canister with you for your food or hanging it in a tree far from camp. We hung ours at least 61 m (200 ft) away.
After a peaceful night’s sleep we awoke early before dawn, had breakfast and headed out to explore the interesting mountains above Athelney Pass.
As we hiked up, letting the terrain determine our path as there are no trails, we topped out in meadows of wildflowers which gave way to a moonscape of pumice sand and red, yellow and black volcanic rocks.
Once out of the pass, you will lay eyes upon a mountain called “The Elephant” that bears a striking resemblance to another peak that is an icon of Southwest BC, the Black Tusk. This mountain, known as a volcanic plug, was formed in a similar fashion to the Black Tusk, which is why they look very similar.
It looks imposing at first glance, but it can be easily ascended by flanking around it from either side and simply hiking to the top.
From the summit, you can look back out on the pass and towards the impressive tongue of the Ethelweard Glacier. What also makes Athelney Pass unique is that the peaks on the south side of the pass are mostly free of glaciers and can be easily hiked up and scrambled, whereas the peaks on the north side are heavily glaciated and much more technical to ascend.
From The Elephant, we headed up towards Salal Peak. There is a tempting field of snow that looks easy to walk up towards the summit of Salal Peak, but it is actually a glacier and crevassed. Avoid using this snow in favour of staying on the rocks.
Salal Peak can be reached in about 2 hours from The Elephant.
After we had reached the summit of Salal Peak, we continued on towards some bumps that have no name. If you have time, I’d recommend exploring this area. The rock underfoot is really interesting and the views keep changing in surprising ways.
As we explored this area around Salal Peak, we came across more evidence of mining explorations. Some structure must have been planned for this location but it never got built.
It’s incredible, the feeling of being small in this place. The glaciers and peaks felt so immense and all around us. I continued hiking beyond Salal Peak until I could see back down towards Salal Creek below, and the long route we had taken to get in here. I wished I had more time to explore the many other peaks in this area.
When we left Salal Peak behind, we had a choice to either head back down to camp or continue hiking to another mountain. We still had daylight so we continued on towards Ochre Mountain, an appropriately named peak that is comprised of bright red and yellow coloured rocks.
It was a loose scramble to the top, but we made it with a few hours of sunlight left.
As we sat on the summit of Ochre Mountain, I couldn’t help but think about how special this place was and how freeing it had felt to be able to visit three new summits in a day, unencumbered and without any trails or signs to guide me. This is what it means to have the freedom of the hills.
From Ochre Mountain, I could see out towards Downton Lake and onwards towards the small community of Gold Bridge.
As we headed back to camp, our bodies finally feeling tired from a full day in the hills, we felt rewarded for the effort it had taken to visit this place.
That night, the milky way came out above us. In the distance, we could hear thunder clashes and see flashes from lightning. On this sunny long weekend, when most other campgrounds were likely at capacity, we were alone in this huge expanse of mountains. I felt grateful to live in a place were solitude can be found so easily with a little bit of effort and planning.
The next morning, we packed up early and hiked out, knowing we also had a long drive ahead of us when we reached our vehicles. It was a perfectly still and warm morning, which made it hard to leave.
I already have plans to return, with mountaineering equipment to visit the harder, glaciated peaks on the other side of the valley.
So, now that you’ve heard my campfire story, and seen my photos, I hope it has inspired you to visit this place also. The charge is now set to you, “You need to see this place for yourself!”
First, you want to make your way to the town of Pemberton, about half an hour past Whistler. From here, drive along the Lillooet Forest Service Road. At about 46 km (28.6 mi) along this road, you will pass through a creek bed that flows over the road.
High clearance vehicles are recommended for this spot.
Drive a further 48 km before turning left onto the forestry road BR-S25. High clearance 4WD may be required and unfortunately this road may or may not be signed.
From here, it is approximately 10 km (6.2 mi) to the trailhead. The road continues for 3 km (1.9 mi). Keep left at two forks, then right at the third. Roads in this area have been known to change as logging continues, so be prepared that these directions may become inaccurate.
As the way to Athelney Pass is a route and not a trail, somebody in your group should be familiar with navigating by map, compass and GPS. That person can use the coordinates 50°42’52.1″N 123°28’11.8″W to get to the trailhead.
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