St Mark's Summit is a relatively easy way to get hiking deep into Vancouver's amazing mountains. Starting this hike at Cypress Mountain Resort means you ascend by car for most of the elevation gain. Even though you still have another 460 metres in 5.5k to hike, the beautiful forest and frequent Howe Sound views make it seem quick and easy.
It takes about 1.5 hours to reach St Mark's Summit from the Cypress Resort trail head, and the views are fantastic. Not only because of the incredible vantage point over Howe Sound, but the abruptness of St Mark's Summit. The cliffs below you are frighteningly vertical, making the views fantastically majestic. Also the sheer drop off makes Howe Sound and the speck sized boats seem so surreal.
The third and possibly the best feature of the St Mark's Summit hike is the intricately huge and varied terrain on the summit. You stand and marvel at one viewpoint, then moments later your friend appears at an extraordinarily improbable, and worryingly dangerous rock outcrop a few dozen metres away.
This hilarious game of hide and seek, seemingly can go on forever. As one terrific viewpoint leads to another, then another. Over and over, the St Mark's Summit reveals one breathtaking vantage point after another, until you are exhausted more with the views than the hike that got you there.
When you estimate your hiking time for St Mark's Summit, but sure to include an hour at least at the summit. And before you begin your hike back to Cypress, take a moment to glance back at the distant Lions. This incredible trail continues to them and beyond, you've just done 5.5k of the 29k, phenomenal Howe Sound Crest Trail.
The beautiful Cypress Mountain Resort is the location of the trailhead to the hike to St Mark's Summit. As it is one of among several hikes along the Howe Sound Crest Trail, the trailhead signs and markers don't indicate St Mark's Summit. Instead you have to follow the well laid out and frequent signs that direct you to the Howe Sound Crest Trail and The Lions. The Lions is the well known and highly visible Vancouver mountain on the Howe Sound Crest Trail and sits just beyond St Mark's Summit on the trail. So if you follow the signs for The Lions you will reach the Summit of St Mark's.
You will also find nice public washrooms and water fountains as well as take-away, concession style food and drinks for the trail. As you exit the daylodge, go down the gradual stairs the bend to the right and you will see a large Cypress Provincial Park map kiosk. From there you will see, about 10 metres away, the trailhead marked with the first of many, Cypress Provincial Park trail signs. It shows an arrow pointing to the nice gravel trail stretching into the trees and "Howe Sound Crest Trail".
The gravel and dirt trail winds through a beautiful and deep forest, occasionally following switchback as the trail ascends further into the mountains. After 20 minutes the trail and forest above and around it noticeably changes to a more wild and natural looking forest. The trail skirts the edge of some steep, though very safe cliffs and your first amazing view of Howe Sound. The intense blue of the ocean far below contrasting with the distant, dark green, tree covered mountains, which then contrast back to the light blue of the sky is breathtaking. So close to Vancouver, yet very little of humanity is visible. No building, no houses, cars or highways in this enormously sweeping view of the British Columbia's coast. Just the occasional, and very distant sailboats silently catching the famous Howe Sound wind shown by the telltale white wash trailing behind.
After 40 minutes on the trail the mostly gravel trail has long since given way to the more natural looking dirt trail. Plenty of tree roots zig zag across the trail and plenty of moderately steep switchbacks mark this section of the trail. At one hour into the trail a faint trail leaves the main trail to the left and following for about 20 seconds takes you to a fabulous cliff with more amazing views of Howe Sound and the first really beautiful area to stop and sit down. However, St Mark's Summit is only 15 minutes further along the trail.
St Mark's Summit is, you suddenly realize is quite large as there are in fact several different and equally beautiful viewpoints to see. Each one has a different perspective on the Howe Sound below. Some views are framed by impossibly huge trees seemingly growing out of the solid rock of the mountain. Other viewpoints have gorgeous clearings where you could sit and enjoy a picnic on the edge of the world or put up a tent with a hard to beat view. There is even a small waterfall barely audible in the background forest that you can reach in just a two minute hike from the summit.
The Howe Sound is the view you see in the foreground. As you turn away from the ocean view to the mountains behind you, you see the marvellous Lions just a few kilometres away and looking very impressively near. Looking toward The Lions, the Howe Sound Crest Trail disappears down from St Mark's Summit and invitingly into the distance.
Black Tusk is the amazingly distinct mountain in Garibaldi Park that can be seen from the Sea to Sky Highway dozens of kilometres away. Along with the Chief in Squamish, these two mountains are probably the most noticable peaks in all of the Garibaldi Mountain Range.
Black Tusk stands at 2319 metres and owes its distinct appearance to an odd set of geologic circumstances. About 170,000 years ago renewed volcanic activity in what is now Garibaldi Park produced a lava dome within a cinder-rich volcanic cone itself over a million years old. Cinder-rich simply means that the cone formed out of explosive volcanic action and hardened, to some extent, in the air and therefore filled with air pockets and evidently light and weak in structure. The Black Tusk hardened inside this more easily eroded cinder cone so in the past 170,000 years the outer cinder cone has crumbled away to reveal the lava dome within. The Black Tusk itself is extremely crumbly as well as can be seen in the astonishingly consistent in size pieces of it tumbling down the majestic slopes all around.
Black Tusk can be reached by two main Garibaldi Park trailhead. The usual route is from the main Garibaldi Lake trailhead at Rubble Creek. From here it is a beautiful, though long 15k hike to the summit, or at least the impressive areas below the summit. The other, less frequently hiked trail to Black Tusk is from the Cheakamus Lake trailhead nearer to Whistler. This route is in some ways superior to the Garibaldi Lake route in that it is hardly used, and quiet and peaceful. This route is also 15k to Black Tusk and passes through the beautiful Helm Creek area of Garibaldi Park. Helm Creek is also home to a beautiful camping area.
The location of Helm Creek Campground has two tremendous advantages. First it is just a great location. About halfway between Cheakamus Lake and Black Tusk it lays in some amazingly scenic areas. Beautiful, climbable mountains all around. Amazing fields of snow that run all the way to the base of Black Tusk. Rivers, creeks and waterfalls everywhere you turn. And the campground area itself is very nice. A large, grassy field ringed by trees and Helm Creek. The area really has no trails except the Helm Creek trail that runs past it, but there are infinitely numerous directions you can wander. Exploring in any direction takes you to more and more pristine, green fields, streams, pocket lakes and mountain views.
Though most just use it as a base to extend onto Black Tusk, it is a great base for so much more. Helm Peak, Corrie Peak, Cinder Cone, Empetrum Peak as well as the more frequented Panorama Ridge, Black Tusk and Garibaldi Lake. The second great aspect of Helm Creek as a campground is that it is quiet and serene when compared with the other two area campgrounds. Garibaldi Lake and Taylor Meadows are very busy all summer long. In fact there is a posting part way up the trail to Garibaldi Lake indicating how crowded it is and if it is full.
The reason that these two campgrounds are so much more busy than Helm Creek is not that they are nicer, but simply that their trailhead is closer to Vancouver where the bulk of the hiking traffic emanates from. The trailheads are only about 30 minutes apart, but that makes all the difference. For the serenity and accompanying beauty, Helm Creek Campground is well worth the extra 30 minute drive.
The trailhead for Helm Creek is the same as for Cheakamus Lake, so a beautiful multi-day hike can easily be done from here. Camping at Cheakamus Lake one day, then Helm Creek another, then Taylor Meadows another as you explore the huge array of spectacular sites in Garibaldi Park. If you are ambitious for a tougher hike you can link several hikes together, and in fact begin your hike at the Whistler Gondola. From there hike the amazing Musical Bumps via the High Note Trail out to Russet Lake. Another gorgeous mountain paradise and has a similar hut to Wedgemount Lake. From Russet you can descend down Singing Creek (rough, not well established trail) for 3k and arrive at the Cheakamus Lake Campground furthest from the Cheakamus Lake trailhead. Then you can hike 9k to Helm Creek.
If you can manage to park cars at Whistler and another at the Garibaldi Lake trailhead at Rubble Creek, you can do this wonderful array of trails linearly and take in a staggering array of stunning sights. Russet Lake, Cheakamus Lake, Helm Creek, Black Tusk, Panorama Ridge, Taylor Meadows and Garibaldi Lake are the more well known highlights of an amazing route like this.
If just hiking from the Cheakamus Lake trailhead the trail has little elevation change for the first 1.5k. At 1.5k you will see a sign directing you to the branching trail to Helm Creek. This takes you down to the huge and gorgeous Cheakamus Lake to cross a nice suspension bridge. Then the steadily uphill grind begins, and doesn't end until you reach the Campground. The deep forest of towering Hemlocks and Cedars keeps the views to a minimum on the trail until about 5k after the Cheakamus River crossing where you run closer to the Helm Creek which can be heard crashing near the trail before it comes into sight. The total distance from the Cheakamus Trailhead to the Helm Creek Campground is 9k.
The campground is wonderfully laid out. With 9 well designed and located, wooden tent pads. Most are steps from Helm Creek. If it took you 1.5 to 2 hours to hike to Helm Creek, then it will take you about the same to hike to Panorama Ridge or the summit of Black Tusk. Corrie Lake is another interesting hike from Helm Creek. If you have ever hiked the High Note Trail on Whistler Mountain you will no doubt have noticed the surreal looking lake, well above Cheakamus Lake and looks to be almost hovering in the forest. Though a bushwack from Helm Creek, it is well worth the couple kilometres to reach. If nothing else, to say you stood on the shores of this remarkable lake.
A good idea if hiking to Helm Creek is to grab a topo map of the area then just pick a mountain and go. Every mountain you can point to on the map is a reachable and almost certainly, an amazing potential hike. And with the staggering array of choices, you will likely spot more bears than humans in such an unexpectedly secluded part of Garibaldi Park.
The hike from Helm Creek to Black Tusk is very beautiful. If you do it in one day from the Cheakamus trailhead to the Black Tusk summit you will likely take From the Helm Creek Campground and well worn and well signed trail ascends into the trees and almost directly aims for Black Tusk. Though still about 6k away, it dominates the view from all areas of Helm Creek. In July the snowline will be not too far above Helm Creek, though due to the gradual rise in elevation and weeks of warm temperatures, the snow is hard and easy to walk on without the help of snowshoes.
From Helm Creek to Black Tusk is about 5.5k and takes about two hours and there are a couple options. One of course is to keep to the marked trail as it runs past Black Tusk far to your right and get on to the Black Tusk trail up the conventional, Rubble Creek trailhead way. The better option from Helm Creek is to veer off the trail about 400 metres before reaching Helm Lake, cross the shallow, though wide Helm Creek and follow the obvious route to Black Tusk. This route is faster and absolutely amazing.
The terrain is breathtaking from the moment you leave the established trail until you reach the summit of Black Tusk. Though it looks daunting from the start, near Helm Lake, it is only moderately challenging. No excessive climbs, no ropes needed. The distance from the Helm Creek crossing to the summit is about 2.6k as you follow a relatively straight line. Climbing quickly and reaching the shockingly black rock that has crumbled from the Tusk. To your right you will eventually see the broad sloping side of Black Tusk give way to a massive valley of snow. To your left the valley descends away from you into a breathtaking valley of dead trees, green grassy meadows and the distant river flowing through the mountains.
This route joins with the normal Black Tusk trail route near the base of Black Tusk. From this point you walk the black bridge-like ridge of rock to touch Black Tusk itself. Then you walk the trail that runs at the top of the scree around the left side to reach the perilous looking chute up to the summit. This resting area has incredible views of the valley below and the amazingly blue Garibaldi Lake contrasting with the black rock all around and the pure white snow more distant.
This final chute turns back quite a few people at this point as it looks extremely dangerous. Chunks of rock tumble down it from people above. Handholds routinely crumble in your hands. And looking down reveals the distinctly real possibility of tumbling down a brutal scree slope for several hundred metres. There have been some injuries here requiring emergency airlifts out, however they are remarkably few.
If you have the courage to make this final ascent, you quickly realize that it is much easier than you thought. There are plenty of good hand and footholds along the way and the gentle slope ensures a comforting feeling of safety. This chute is just a dozen metres until it slopes to a crawling scramble and finally walking on top of the world with absolutely phenomenal views all around.
Kennedy Lake, the largest lake on Vancouver Island is enormous and surrounded by a fantastic tangle of rainforest. One positive legacy of the forestry that existed here is the spider web of logging roads and bridges that allow for access to the otherwise inaccessible parts of this wonderful lake. There are several access points to the lake, but 13k from the highway, at the enormous and disintegrating Kennedy Lake bridge is the most beautiful. A great way to escape the crowds in Tofino and Ucluelet over 45 minutes away.
At this dead end in the logging road (as the bridge is barricaded by boulders as it's unsafe to drive on), there is a fantastic array of outdoor recreation possibilities. First off the Kennedy Lake bridge is the gateway to the amazing Clayoquot Arm Provincial Park. You can launch your boats here, park and/or camp to begin your paddling journey into this 12k paddling route into the wilderness of Clayoquot Sound.
Another canoeing/kayaking option is Kennedy Lake. Leaving from the same boat launch area at the Kennedy Lake bridge you can paddle in the opposite direction to Clayoquot Arm. That is paddling into the massive Kennedy Lake. Within five minutes you are in a serene wilderness setting with frequent small, sandy pocket beaches very suitable for a tent and campfire. Though the shore looks impenetrably thick with greenery most of the time, in fact there are gaps everywhere and natural clearings all along the shore that you can hike through for hours. Plenty of driftwood from this massive lake litter the shoreline everywhere you go as well making an interesting hike.
Another great reason why this area is amazing is the wonderful, sandy beach that stretches for quite a distance. The sandy beach next to the Kennedy Lake bridge is called Redneck Beach. That name derived from the often large gatherings that take place at this convenient, yet far from civilization beach. You can actually drive along the beach to where you want to camp despite the sand. There is room for over a dozen vehicles before this large campsite starts to look busy, it's that big.
This is an unmaintained, backcountry camping area and therefore free to use, but also has to facilities other than a couple pit toilets. Excellent fresh drinking water exists in Kennedy Lake.
Further along this beach through a large tree forest brings you to Rainbow Beach. There is a large and well designed boardwalk that winds through the old growth forest here that makes Cathedral Grove look trifling by comparison. The proper access to Rainbow Beach is not really from walking along the beach from Redneck Beach, but from its own trailhead. About 500 metres back from the Kennedy Lake bridge you will have passed a clearing on your left with an outhouse. If you park here and look in the opposite direction to the outhouse you will see a small trail and beautiful boardwalk. This boardwalk follows an impressive circle route through the forest and links up with Rainbow Beach.
Rainbow Beach is a sharp contrast to Redneck Beach in that it is a series of smaller beaches separated by lots of trees and rock outcroppings. Instead of pushing people together as does Redneck Beach, Rainbow Beach has several separate camping areas stretching out over several hundred metres. Very beautiful beaches and the positive and negative aspect of not having vehicle access. You have to hike the 600 metres. About the only drawback to this beautiful beach is the lack of firewood. Redneck Beach has driftwood everywhere but the more sheltered Rainbow Beach does not. So if you want a fire keep that in mind and try to bring some with you.
This is another unmaintained backcountry camping area with not facilities other than the pit toilet near the small parking area. Drinking water can be obtained from Kennedy Lake.
At 53 metres, Virgin Falls is quite an impressive sight. You walk through the short, two minute forest trail to reach it and it fills your view. It is located in a beautiful oasis it has created. A large, ice cold and crystal clear pool with pebble rocks and waterfall battered logs that flows out in a large, meandering stream through the trees. The whole area is surrounded by huge trees and you feel a strange sense of comfort, like you are in protected place. And when you roll out your sleeping bag in the spectacular setting, you will never want to leave.
The small, but very inviting camping area is amazing. Huge trees to your back, phenomenal waterfall to your front. Room for two tents near the cozy and clean fire pit. Endless firewood litters the edge of the waterfalls pool beautifully. Though the loud waterfall makes conversation a bit tough. The wonderful area where the fire is is somewhat sheltered by a couple large trees deflecting some sound and making the camping area all the better.
The Virgin Falls Road is pretty bad, though very beautiful. It is hardly maintained, though still used logging road that hugs the coast much of its 31k length from the Kennedy River bridge turnoff. The potholes are numerous, though expected. What isn't expected is the narrow, overgrown sections.
If you value your vehicles paint, you will find yourself gritting your teeth quite a bit. But then if you have a 4x4, you should likely be used to that and be fine barrelling through these narrow sections. If you are planning on driving up without a 4x4 you should be able to make it, though there are a couple of steep sections that you may have to make a couple runs at to get up.
The hilariously adorable little cabin near Virgin Falls that can be used by anyone and sits at the end of a short side road definitely requires a good 4x4 to reach. But as it is only about 400 metres from the Virgin Falls road, you can park and walk to it if needed. There are two excellent pullout/turn around points on this short road as well in case you chicken out and want to turn around part way in.
The little Virgin Falls cabin is quite amazing for such a remote place. First off, the setting is fantastic. It is located overlooking the beautiful Tofino Creek, and there is a wonderful campfire spot complete with log seats, just steps from the cabin. The cabin itself is equipped with a wood stove and bunk beds. You could easily have 8 people stay and sleep fairly comfortably as there are six bunks and floor room. There are several empty and partly empty booze bottles lining the shelves as well as quite a few odd curiosities in the little cabin. If you are brave enough to drive right to the cabin there is room for several vehicles to park and not obstruct anyone's exit.
The Virgin Falls cabin even has pots and pans for use with the stove and working lanterns and some fantastically kind people have generously equipped it with lots of cut firewood. There is a funny sign on the door declaring that the cabin is for everyone and despite its shabby appearance you get the impression that this cabin on Tofino Creek near Virgin Falls has been well used and well loved for decades.
Though you have to travel a network of logging roads to reach Virgin Falls it is surprisingly easy to find them. The start of the Virgin Falls Road is immediately after the famous Kennedy River bridge. The focal point of the hugely publicized logging protests in 1993 where hundreds were arrested for blockading logging vehicles. The Kennedy River bridge is worth a look. It spans the Kennedy River above the original and now crumbling, wooden bridge. The current one is a massive, solid steel bridge above the old one. You can still see some where protesters attempted to burn the bridge down. Several wooden pilings are severely burned under the bridge.
This bridge is also the gateway to Kennedy River Bog Provincial Park. There are no trails so access is via boat underneath the Kennedy River bridge. Visitors to this park generally park at the Kennedy Lake bridge just a couple kilometres past this bridge where there is an extensive camping area on the nice, sandy beach. Unfortunately that bridge is falling apart and therefore barricaded. So, at least on wheels, that is, it is the end of the road.
To get to the Kennedy River bridge from the highway is easy. From the T junction where you either go to Tofino or Ucluelet or Port Albernie, drive for a couple kilometres in the direction of Port Albernie. Keep your eyes out on your left for the very visible, West Main logging road. Follow it for about 11k until you cross the large Kennedy River bridge. About 50 metres past it you will see the road branch off to the left unmarked but called the Deer Bay Rd on Google maps, but locally known as the Virgin Falls road. (see Google Map below for this turnoff).
Set your odometer to zero and follow this road (bearing left at the Y junction a few minutes in) for 31k. At 31k you will see Virgin Falls from the road, and about 100 metres after seeing it on your left you will spot the very visible trailhead on your left and a slight widening of the road to possibly accomodate two or three vehicles. The trail to the falls is less than a minute long. The very visible but overgrown road you passed at around 28k on your left is the short road to the little cabin on the river.
This is yet another unmaintained and evidently free backcountry camping option. The water is safe for drinking but there are no pit toilets for several dozen kilometres.
Radar Beach is a beautiful set of three beaches at the end of a difficult hike from the Radar Hill parking lot. Because they are difficult to get to and not on the main tourism maps, they are rarely visited. Though the trail is just over one kilometre long, it will likely take you almost an hour to hike due to its steep and winding course. It is well worn and easy to follow, though after dark it would be almost impossible to follow without lights.
Once you reach the sand you come to a massive, beautiful beach arching in both directions to rocky outcrops. To the left you will find two smaller beaches and steep headlands. Depending on the tide you may be unable to get past the headlands blocking the further beaches. But if you don't mind some scrambling over steep terrain and thick foliage you will find some breathtaking and even more secluded pocket beaches to put up your prohibited tent for an unforgettable night in paradise.
If you plan on staying past dusk, remember not to bring your car as the gates shut after dark. Hitchhike or take a short taxi ride from Tofino. The unmarked trailhead is very easy to find. Turn off of the highway at the Sign for Radar Hill and follow the road straight to the end (do not turn right into the parking lot closest to the Radar Hill Lookout trail). At the parking area, you will see a washroom a few dozen metres to your right, but looking instead to your left you will see a trail disappear into the trees. Follow this and after 15 metres you will see the sign saying that it is a dangerous, unmaintained trail and camping is prohibited. The hike to the beach takes 30 minutes to an hour depending on your speed. You can avoid the muddy sections with some agility, so no hiking shoes necessary. Try to avoid hiking this trail after dark if you can.
Lone Cone is the wonderful cone shaped mountain that dominates the skyline in Tofino. It is just 6k from Tofino on the north-western end of Meares Island. Lone Cone is an incredible hike to do while in Tofino. There are several attributes that make it fantastic. First, its location. Very close to Tofino. Just a short and very scenic boat taxi takes you to the trialhead.
In the 15 minute, fast taxi, you will see a quick look at the spectacular scenery that has made Tofino famous. Small and large islands crammed almost solid with beautifully huge trees. Sandy beaches that make you think more that you are in Hawaii than in Canada. Abrupt, rocky outcrops with chaotic, swirling, clear and green water that the boat taxi/tour guide continuously points to unexpectedly beautiful creatures lurking in. Then you look up in the trees and spot a resident eagle staring menacingly down from a tree branch next to its nest full of offspring. And that's just the first five minutes from the pier.
15 minutes from the pier you arrive at the grungy, though at the same time, beautiful pier at the now abandoned Kakawis. There are still a few dozen houses that line the gravel road you will see as you make your way to the trailhead. A resident caretaker still has a boat at the dock, though you will probably not encounter him. You may read in current Tofino guidebooks that you must call ahead to gain permission to cross this private land to access the trailhead is well out of date and obsolete. If you encounter an emergency on the Lone Cone hike there is excellent cell phone reception from almost anywhere on the trail except a few spotty areas. In an absolute emergency the caretaker may assist you, if you can locate him in the Kakawis village.
From the pier you follow the gravel road which seems to take you further from Lone Cone. About five minutes down this road you will see the houses of Kakawis on your right, and keeping on the gravel road you will soon see the large "Lone Cone" sign pointing you left to the very well marked trail into the deep forest and muddy first section of the trail.
Though there has been a fair amount of mud avoiding constructions you still might get a bit muddy here. Though you can hop from one tree root to another fairly effectively, a couple slips and stumbles may get you wet and dirty.
1.2k into the hike (from the pier), you finally begin ascending. Slowly at first then at 1.8k steeper and steeper. From this point until the end of the trail the hike averages about 45 degrees! Lone Cone is, near and at the top, quite massive. And though the marked trail ends and the amazing views the exploring has just begun. You could wander for hours through the forest at the top, however, the viewpoints on the marked trail are hard to beat.
At the main viewpoint the is a small and evidently well used place for a fire right at the edge of the cliff. This area also, if you were inclined, have room for a tent or two, though you read at the trailhead that camping is prohibited. There are several suitable places to put your tent if you are keen further into the bush past this viewpoint.
There are obviously no facilities or charge for Lone Cone except for the cost of the water taxi to and from the hike.