Whistler: hiking

“Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

After spending the previous day in Whistler Valley – see last week’s blog – my brother Ross and I decided it was time to go hiking on Whistler and Blackcomb mountains. We caught the Whistler Village Gondola up to the Roundhouse Lodge – a long ride – and enjoyed the incredible views en route.

The first thing we did on the mountain was take a ride on the PEAK to PEAK gondola, which opened in late 2008 and is something of an engineering marvel. This gondola journeys from Whistler Mountain to Blackcomb Mountain and has the world’s longest unsupported span of 3.024km (1.88 miles) between towers two and three. At the midway point, if you’re afraid of heights, don’t look down! This is the highest lift of its kind at 436 metres (1430 feet) above the valley floor. The PEAK to PEAK gondola also completes the longest continuous lift system on the globe.

In peak season, you can catch a gondola up Whistler Mountain, cross the PEAK to PEAK, and then go down via a chairlift on Blackcomb Mountain – or vice versa – as a round trip. But for us, this wasn’t possible. In mid-September (the off-peak period between the bustling summer and winter seasons), some of the chairlifts are not open. We had to make a return journey on the PEAK to PEAK, so on the way back we made sure we got into one of the glass-bottom lifts – just to confirm how high we really were. It was so much fun.

We spent about two hours on Blackcomb Mountain trying to dust off the cobwebs. For some reason, we were both feeling a bit sluggish. Ross joked that I pushed him too hard on the bike ride the day before … and I think I just had residual tiredness from my two-week hiking trip in the US.

So initially we chose to meander along the gentle Alpine Walk, which is a 1.6km (0.96 miles) loop from Rendezvous Lodge with only an elevation change of 65 metres (213 feet). The highlights were views of Fitzsimmons Valley and Whistler Mountain, as we walked through a sub-alpine forest and emerged to a rocky lookout area. Afterwards, we had coffee and a muffin, which, as fate would have it, would have to sustain us all day!

I should note that just before we returned to Whistler Mountain on the PEAK to PEAK gondola, we spotted a marmot sunning itself on a rock. Years ago, when I was backcountry hiking in Alaska’s Denali National Park, we also saw a couple of marmots. Immediately afterwards, bad things happened (but that’s another story)! Anyhow, at the time, it became this running joke … if we saw a marmot it was NOT a good thing.

Once back at the Roundhouse Lodge, we were both feeling reinvigorated and decided we would tackle the Half Note Trail from Whistler Summit. The official Alpine Trail Map was not very clear with distances because some of the trails joined other trails and it really didn’t give us exact distances for each walk – it seems that you have to figure it out for yourself. I estimated (incorrectly) that the Half Note Trail would be about five kilometres.

Suffice to say, we decided to hold off on lunch until after our hike. Big mistake! Damn that marmot!

From the Roundhouse Lodge, we headed down a short trail to catch the Peak Express chairlift to Whistler Summit (2182 metres, 7087 feet). This was the most thrilling ride of the day because we were sitting in an open chair and it was a really steep incline. It was also bitterly cold, with the breeze coming off a glacier. I’m not really afraid of heights, but I do have a fear of falling (it’s why I’ve never done bungy jumping or skydiving). So I was glued to my seat, trying not to fall out. Instead, I concentrated on the views, which were breathtaking.

At the summit, the wind chill factor added to our discomfort. It was bloody freezing. The Summit Snack Shack, where I’d intended to get us some sustenance for the hike, was also closed. But we decided to push on, and walking (or jumping on the spot) was the best way for us to get warm again.

Before we set off, we looked at the signage at the summit. It was no clearer than the information on our trail map, as below.

LENGTH: 1.2km (0.75ml); 30-60min (one-way)
ELEVATION CHANGE: 258m (902ft)
The Half Note Trail provides a shortened route from the High Note Trail, which connects with Pika’s Traverse back to the Roundhouse Lodge.

LENGTH: 9.4km (5.8ml); 3-4 hours (loop)
ELEVATION CHANGE: 258m (902ft)
Starting behind the Inukshuk at the top of the Peak Express chairlift, hikers will enjoy stunning views of Black Tusk and Cheakamus Lake as they descend through rugged terrain that mellows into a rolling course. Loop back to the Roundhouse Lodge by heading north at the trail junction away from Flute Summit and Singing Pass.

What the above doesn’t make clear is just how far you have to walk along the High Note Trail until you connect with Pika’s Traverse (description below) if you only want to do the Half Note Trail.

LENGTH: 2.3km (1.43ml); 1.5-2 hours (one-way)
ELEVATION CHANGE: 258m (902ft)
This mountain road is used to return from the Half Note Trail to the Roundhouse Lodge. There are some steep sections, please remain on the road.

I should also note that when you do join Pika’s Traverse Road, the signage is very poor (at least it was when we did it). There was major work underway on a new chairlift, so I imagine this situation will be remedied once the work is complete.

I still have no idea how far we actually walked. But, my grumpy not-having-eaten-anything-substantial self was quite certain that it exceeded five kilometres and was more likely 10-12km.

Have I mentioned that I don’t like marmots?

Anyhow – putting all of the above aside – I am so happy we did this hike. It had everything I love about hiking in Canada: the stunning mountain scenery, the pristine lakes and picturesque alpine meadows. I always feel incredibly lucky when I get to spend time in such beautiful places. Plus I just loved being with my big brother; enjoying his company and sharing the experience with him.

Having now done this hike, I would rate it as moderate (or maybe easy/moderate if you’ve eaten some lunch or maybe a PowerBar). The trail descends quite steeply and is challenging at the beginning. But then, it levels out to skirt around the other side of Whistler Mountain. From here, there are amazing views into Garibaldi Provincial Park. The highlights are Black Tusk, a jagged peak of volcanic rock, and Cheakamus Lake, which is a beautiful aqua colour typical of alpine lakes.

From Cheakamus Lake lookout, the trail heads uphill, which was most unexpected. Because that now-infamous trail map had described the trail as “descending through rugged terrain”, I’d assumed it would be mostly downhill to the Roundhouse Lodge. But the trail actually climbs back up to about two-thirds of the way to the summit. Then, from the Pika Traverse Road, it is all downhill and, at times, rather steep.

We were very happy to get back to the Roundhouse Lodge, but a little less happy that it was now so late that the restaurant was also closed. We had to wait until we were back in Whistler Village at about 5pm before we could eat lunch. I’ve never been so ravenous!

Whistler and Blackcomb mountains have approximately 50km (30 miles) of hiking trails and I loved the two that I got to do. Do you have a favourite hike on Whistler or Blackcomb mountains? Or have you done any hikes in Garibaldi Provincial Park?

I definitely hope to get back there one day and, if I do, I’m going to find a better trail guide.


4 thoughts on “Whistler: hiking

  1. I never visited Whistler in the summer but next time I’m in Canada I’ll have to make a special trip. The hikes sound amazing. I did an overnight hike in Garibaldi years ago and it’s a beautiful area.

  2. That first photo is so inspiring – I’m definitely heading over at sometime – mountain bike won’t be far behind us but looks like some great hiking too.

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