Want to know the very best hike in the North Shore mountains?
It’s the one that allows you to take in some incredible sights and get home safe without the help of North Shore Rescue.
BC AdventureSmart, the province’s trail safety and education agency, is launching a series of videos aimed making sure hikers get the most of their trail experience without biting off more than they can chew.
The Grouse Grind
Location: Grouse Mountain Regional Park
Length of trail: 2.5 kilometres, one way
Elevation: 800 metres
Level of difficulty: Advanced
Length of time: 2.5 hours
What are the safety risks of Grouse Grind?
The Grouse Grind is one of the most popular hikes in Metro Vancouver. There are sweet bragging rights waiting for everyone who makes it to the top.
But, because of its popularity, people routinely underestimate how tough Mother Nature’s StairMaster, as it’s affectionately known, can be. It requires a base level of physical fitness to be safely climbed.
The trailhead gate is only opened when weather and trail conditions allow, typically from May to October. Always check with Metro Vancouver before you go. Just past the gate, the trail forks. Keep left to head up the Grind.
For the first few gentle minutes of the hike, you might be lulled into a false sense of security that the rest of the way won’t be so bad. Don’t kid yourself.
The trail is very well marked so getting lost isn’t typically an issue but, by the time you reach the one-quarter mark, you will have had a taste of what’s to come. A lot of people realize at this point that they don’t have the stamina or the water needed to make it to the top, and make the smart decision to turn back. It only gets tougher from here.
In terms of terrain, you’ll find much of the path is mostly stairs, or roots and rocks. At times, you’ll need to use your hands to scramble up particularly steep sections.
BC AdventureSmart recommends taking plenty of breaks to rest, hydrate and have a snack. If you start feeling dizzy, it’s time to stop.
There are Grouse Mountain park rangers who patrol the area but still, District of North Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services members find themselves doing the Grouse Grind all the time, to help injured and exhausted hikers back down.
“It's not uncommon for us to probably do about 20 to 25 Grouse Grind or BCMC rescues in a summer season,” said Chief Brian Hutchinson. “Know your limits.”
The most common problems are ankle injuries because people choose to hike in footwear that isn’t appropriate for climbing a mountain in rough terrain. People also need to get carried out because they’ve become too exhausted.
And there have been a number of fatalities on the trail over the years, mostly due to heart attacks.
Even people who think they’re in decent health find out otherwise because of the exertion the trail requires.
“You'll get a number of medical conditions bringing themselves to the fore, due to the very nature of making your way up the Grind. We get calls for shortness of breath, chest pain,” Hutchinson said.
Also be wary of changing weather conditions too, Hutchinson warned, noting they routinely deal with patients who are either overheated or hypothermic, depending on what time of year it is.
The vast majority of people will get back to the parking lot via the Grouse Mountain resort's SkyRide tram, at a cost of $20. It takes about 15 minutes, although there may be a lineup.
You can also take the BCMC Route back through the forest, although it is not as well developed as the Grind and it is strenuous in its own way on the way back down. Make sure you have enough time to make it back before sundown.
Don’t attempt going back down via the Grind. It’s not permitted and it’s a major faux pas to get into the way of others coming up.
What are the safety risks of Howe Sound Crest Trail?
But the first leg of the hike to St. Marks Summit draws in thousands of hikers each summer, many of whom find it more challenging than they were prepared for. This guide will focus on that hike.
“I think it's a beautiful stretch. You need to just be really attuned to the conditions and to how your body is doing during that hike,” said North Shore Rescue team leader Mike Danks. “We have so many people that aim to do that hike, but it's a little bit more than they're physically able to do.”
The first 45 minutes or so to Strachan Meadows is well marked and maintained.
Strachan Meadows to St. Marks Summit takes about two hours, though people often miss the hard left turn at the beginning and wind up going down Lembke Creek drainage.
The trail gets rough and rugged near the top. The switchbacks leading up are steeper and more technical than many expect, and it’s fairly easy to get off trail, Danks warns.
A very common issue for North Shore Rescue in the summer months is people going to watch the sun set from the summit without proper flashlights to help guide them home.
A lot of folks choose to call it quits here. If you or anyone in your group is starting to struggle, now is the time to turn back, especially if the weather is getting bad.
From there, the 2.25-kilometre stretch to Unnecessary Mountain, the trail is covered in loose rocks and roots.
The next leg leads to The Lions, also known as the Two Sisters or Ch'ich'iyúy Elxwíkn. Again, if things are looking difficult, there is the option of turning back or, in this case, following the very steep and eroded Unnecessary Mountain Trail down to Lions Bay.
All too often, when people do stray from the Howe Sound Crest Trail, they find themselves going downhill, which is always a bad idea in the North Shore Mountains, but especially so here. There are steep drainages on the east and west sides of the ridgeline.
“Both of which are very unforgiving,” Danks said. “We've had numerous searches — multi-day searches. We've had numerous injuries.”
The safest time of year to attempt the hike is from July to October, when there isn’t likely to be snow obscuring trail markers or causing avalanches or falls.
BC Parks doesn’t recommend going past the Bowen Lookout in winter or early spring, unless you are trained and equipped for avalanche country.
“I think a lot of people are completely naive to that. Within the first 20 minutes of your hike, you're putting yourself at significant risk,” Danks said.
Even in shoulder season, you shouldn’t attempt the trail without crampons, Danks said.
On this trail, it is especially important to stay back from snowy ledges as they may be cornices on the brink of collapse.
Location: Mount Seymour Provincial Park
Length of trail: 8.5 kilometres return from Mount Seymour parking lot
Elevation: 500 metres
Level of difficulty: Advanced
Length of time: 4-5 hours
What are the safety risks of Mount Seymour Trail?
The trail to the peak of Mount Seymour is very popular with hikers in Metro Vancouver but many underestimate its challenge.
This guide is oriented toward summer hikes as winter snowshoe and backcountry ski adventures involve different risks and require a higher level of experience, fitness and equipment.
Snow covers the trail typically from October to June and it may well be present even in the summer. That means you should be at least carrying microspikes in spring and early summer.
The trail traverses three peaks mostly along a ridgeline with beautiful views but a major theme in BC AdventureSmart’s advice is the wrong turns, as the mountain has a great many intersecting trails and junctions where people often go astray.
About a kilometre in is the Suicide Bluffs Loop Trail on the left side. Keep right there and be extra cautious if there is snow on the ground as it may obscure the trail markers. Multiple people have to be rescued each year when they veer into the Suicide Creek drainage.
At about the 2.2-kilometre mark, or one-third of the way to the summit, is Brockton Point. This is a good place to reassess if you or anyone in your group has bitten of more than they can chew as the trail is about to get much tougher.
The trail follows the base of Pump Peak, and eventually reaches a junction with the Elsay Lake trail where many hikers get lost. After a steeper climb to Pump Peak, assess again whether you’ve got the stamina and proper conditions to proceed to Tim Jones Peak. It has steep cliffs on the east and north sides where many injuries have happened.
The summit offers beautiful views of the Vancouver area but, be cautious on the hike home as more people get lost on the return trip than the way to the peak.
Sudden and drastic changes in weather conditions are often an issue in this part of the backcountry, which often means heavy rain, wind, snow and freezing temperatures.
Danks said fog or a low cloud deck is also a major issue as it causes you to lose sight of Vancouver, which results in disorientation. Trusting your compass and map or GPS is key, Danks added.
“Seymour is inherently in whiteout conditions and I personally have been turned around there many times,” he said. “It actually messes with your mind where you are looking at your device, and it's telling you that you're going the right way, yet it feels like you're going the wrong way.”
That becomes an issue especially where the trail consists of more rocks than trees and trail markers become much harder to spot, Danks said. North Shore Rescue volunteers have invested a great deal if time into making sure there is extra signage in areas where people frequently wander.
If you do find yourself bushwhacking with no obvious signs of a trail in eye-shot, call 911.
“If you feel that you are off the trail, please make that call early so we can guide you back out before you lose your cell signal and get yourself into further danger,” Danks said. “Going down in the North Shore Mountains through a gully or a creek is very, very dangerous.”
Location: Cypress Provincial Park
Length of trail: 10 kilometres, one way; takes you from Horse Shoe Bay to a lookout
Elevation: 1,050 metres
Level of difficulty: Advanced
Length of time: 7-9 hours
What are the safety risks of Eagle Bluffs Trail?
Up first is one of the most strenuous hikes in West Vancouver — the Eagle Bluffs Trail from Horseshoe Bay.
Between the months of November and May, snow will be present at higher elevations, which carries the risk of avalanches, falls on ice, collapsing cornices and trail markers being buried by snow. Best to avoid it during that time.
Even in summer, BC AdventureSmart recommends bringing microspikes.
Cell reception is minimal on parts of the trail, so a satellite phone or emergency beacon may be your only way of calling for help if you run into trouble.
The easiest leg of the journey goes from the trailhead to Whyte Lake, which is marked by orange Baden Powell Trail logos (A BP and a fleur-de-lis). This is where the terrain gets more technical with unstable rocks and tree roots. After some time following the Baden Powell Trail, you will reach a flat section, which is about the halfway point of the trip. (Do not take the decommissioned trail to Donut Rock.) From there, the trail becomes highly challenging.
The last 600 metres of elevation is the most strenuous and includes a boulder field where it becomes easier to lose the trail. The final stretch before the Eagle Bluffs lookout involves a climb up a steep rock slab.
If you plan to return to the trailhead in Horseshoe Bay, you should leave yourself four hours to return. You might also choose to get back to civilization via the Cypress Mountain parking lot, which requires an additional climb to the top of Black Mountain first. That carries its own risks.
North Shore Rescue has been called to the area many times over the years, and not everyone who has gotten lost has made it out.
“People get lost on the top of Black Mountain all the time because there is such a vast network of trails,” said Danks. “You get a little bit of fog in there, and you can get turned around so easily.”
But, Danks said, with proper preparation and a decent fitness level to handle the elevation gain, it can be a highly rewarding hike.
“It's such a beautiful trail that it almost keeps you entertained the whole time,” he said.
Every hike in the mountains requires warm, waterproof clothing, hiking boots suitable for the terrain, a head lamp and extra food and water. And no one should venture onto the trails without leaving a trip plan so someone else knows where they’re going and when they’re due back. The BC AdventureSmart app allows users to create a digital trip plan.
The North Shore News will be sharing more of BC AdventureSmart's trail videos as they become available.