Vancouver has a ton of great hikes close to town, but many of the trails are covered with snow until June or July. By late March, I’m usually not in the mood to pull out the snowshoes, and would rather see fresh green leaves and waterfalls than snowbanks. Here is a list of my favourite snow-free hikes that are great for March – late May.
1. Stawamus Chief (Peaks 3-2-1)
Stats: 8 km, 4 hours, 702 m elevation change
Pros: beautiful views of Howe Sound
Cons: Trail is very crowded
This iconic hike leads to the top of Stawamus Chief – a granite monolith near Squamish (second largest in the world!) that’s also popular with climbers. My favourite way to hike the Chief is to first go to the Third Peak, then descend to the Second Peak, and then go to the First Peak (most people just do the First Peak, and it’s the most crowded). Each peak offers a unique view of the surrounding area. From the second peak, if you muster the courage to look over the edge, you can see a sheer drop off all the way to the bottom! The trail from the second to first peak has chains to assist you in narrow/slippery places, which makes it really interesting. There used to be a shortcut accessed via metal rungs screwed into the mountainside, but a few of them have broken off, so it’s no longer safe to use that route. Once you reach the First Peak, you can enjoy panoramic views of Howe Sound – the sea water takes on a stunning green hue on sunny days.
How to get there: from Vancouver, drive on Highway 99 north from Vancouver towards Squamish. It’s 60 km from the start of Hwy 99. You can park either at Shannon Falls Provincial Park or at the Sea to Sky Gondola parking lot.
2. Sea to Summit
Stats: 7.5 km, 918 m elevation gain, ~5 hrs
Pros: beautiful views of Howe sound; waterfalls; facilities at the top of the gondola (viewing platforms, suspension bridge); can ride the gondola down to save your knees ($15)
Cons: crowded for the first 1/3 of the trail as you have to share the trail with the Chief hikers; can be crowded at the top of gondola as well
This new-ish trail was constructed in 2014 for those who want to hike to the top of the Sea-to-Sky gondola instead of riding up. It’s an extension of the Upper Shannon Falls trail that also shares the first part of the trail with the Chief trail. At the junction, go right towards Upper Shannon Falls. You will have a few viewpoints along the way and you will see a small waterfall that is Upper Shannon Falls. At the very top of the trail, there are a few steep sections, so ropes have been hung to assist you to pull yourself up. From the top of the trail, you can see expansive views of Howe Sound, as well as the Sky Pilot mountains and the top of the Chief (as you are now higher than the Chief). There are a few photogenic spots for pictures, including a wooden viewing platform and a suspension bridge. There is even a café and washrooms in the lodge. Use the gondola for the ride down – it’s about 10 minutes and well worth the price of $15 to save your knees from the gruelling hike down.
How to get there: see directions for Stawamus Chief above
3. High Falls Creek
Stats: 12 km, 640 m elevation gain, ~5 hrs
Pros: interesting trail that involves some chain- and rope-assisted scrambling; beautiful waterfalls; awesome views of Squamish Valley and Tantalus Ridge
Cons: trailhead can be challenging to find
Another great early-season hike in the Squamish area, this trail is not nearly as popular than the first two. It’s best to save this one for a sunny day to thoroughly enjoy the plentiful views and avoid slipping on rocks. The trail starts out with some chain-assisted scrambling (don’t worry, it’s fun and easy to do unless you are very afraid of heights) and continues through sunny forest covered with rich yellow and green mosses. You will see several awesome viewpoints along the way, with views of Squamish Valley and the waterfalls where High Creek is roaring through a narrow opening in the rocks. The falls are spectacular in the spring! The trail continues through the forest and eventually comes out at a logging road which is the end of the trail. If you go up the logging road for 200 meters or so, you will be treated to a great view of the valley and the mountain ridges, and it’s a good spot to have lunch. To go down, you have two options. You can either hiking down the same way you came, or take the logging road for ~5 km back to your car. As boring as it sounds, I recommend going on the logging road as it has fantastic views and some interesting vegetation including BC dogwood trees (the official tree of our province), which just may be in bloom!
How to get there: Drive to Squamish then drive north for ~10 km. Turn left onto Squamish Valley Road (the entrance to Alice Lake Provincial Park is on the other side of this intersection). Follow Squamish Valley Road for 27 km. At some point, the road will turn to gravel, but it’s a good road and you don’t have to drive far on gravel. Any car can make it. When you see a bridge on the left across the river, keep going, that’s Ashlu Road, you don’t need to take that. Eventually you will come to Cheakamus Generating Station. Keep going and in about 1 km park on the side of the road just before the bridge. Cross the bridge on foot. Keep going a little bit further and you’ll see a narrow trail going into the bushes on your right. That’s the trailhead.
4. Diez Vistas Trail
Stats: 13 km, 455 m elevation gain, ~5 hrs
Pros: several view points with sweeping views of Indian Arm and the North Shore mountains
Cons: trail can be muddy after rain
On a sunny day, Diez Vistas trail offers an unusual vantage point over Indian Arm, and you can see Vancouver, the North Shore mountains, and as far as Vancouver Island. The trail, built by the legendary trail builder Halvor Lunden, originally had 10 viewpoints (hence the name Diez Vistas), but now has only 5 or 6 remain. Begin with an easy stroll along the south shore of Buntzen Lake until you reach the North Beach. From here, cross the creek via a suspension bridge and then the Diez Vistas trail veers off from the main lakeshore trail. Once you cross the bridge, the signage is sort of confusing. I suggest taking a picture of the trail map at the information stand at North Beach and try to follow each turn exactly – this way you won’t get lost. The trail will take you on a long, gradual incline through dense forest until you come to the first viewpoint. From here on, the viewpoints come one after another. After exploring them all, you will follow a steep descent from the ridge back to the lake and the parking lot. When you come across a powerline, continue going straight. Eventually you will descend back to the lakeshore trail – cross the footbridge to get back to the parking lot.
How to get there: the trail begins from the Buntzen Lake parking lot in Anmore.
5. Mount Gardner Trail
Stats: 17 km, 719 m elevation gain, ~7 hrs
Pros: pleasant ferry ride, small island charms, panoramic views from top of Mount Gardner
Cons: Mount Gardner trail system is somewhat confusing
This adventure begins with a 20-min BC ferry ride from Horseshoe Bay to Bowen Island. Leave your car on the mainland, you won’t need it on the island. You can either park at the terminal ($20/day) or at Gleneagles Community Centre (free, but it’s a 20-min walk to the terminal). Arriving at Bowen Island, go will up the road for ~100 meters and then turn right through Crippen Regional Park. Follow the signs to Killarney Lake. The hike is completely flat for this part. Arriving at the lake, take the trail to the left, and then follow the lakeshore trail and the road for a while until you arrive at Mount Gardner Road. From here, you begin your ascent through a rather nondescript forest. Pay close attention to the trail markers – me and my friends had to retrace our steps several times in this area, while being distracted by a conversation. Your goal is the North Summit, where you will find 2 helicopter pads and a cell tower. From the two helipads, you can enjoy views in the opposite directions – one is overlooking Howe Sound and Sunshine Coast, and the other looks out to Vancouver, Horseshoe Bay, and Point Grey peninsula. Both views are spectacular. From here, you can either continue on the loop trail around Mount Gardner summit, which eventually rejoins with the main trail, or retrace your steps back to the start of Mount Gardner Road.
How to get there: Drive to Horseshoe Bay and take the ferry to Bowen Island
6. Oyster Dome Trail
Stats: 10.5 km, 568 m elevation gain, ~3.5 hrs
Pros: pleasant hike through coastal forest, fabulous views of Puget Sound
Cons: have to cross the border into the US; trail is popular and can be crowded
This hike is located across the border in Washington State, near Bellingham. To get here, you will have to drive south on I5 and then take an exit to SR11 (Chuckanut Drive). Closely hugging the cliffs above Samish Bay, Chuckanut Drive is one of the most scenic roads in the WA state and is an absolutely delightful drive. The well-marked Oyster Dome trail begins off of Chuckanut Drive as a moderate climb unto the Blanchard mountainside. After about 3 km, you have the option to veer right to check out the Samish overlook. The Oyster Dome trail continues left. There are other trails in the area, but the Oyster Dome trail is clearly marked. After another 7 km of hiking in the forest, you will arrive at your destination – a rocky outcrop high above Samish Bay, with gorgeous views of the Skagit Valley flats and the bay dotted with many islands. You may also see locals lounging in hammocks tied in the trees, soaking up the quietness and the views.
How to get here: cross the border into the US and drive to Bellingham. Continue on I5 and take exit 250 (Hwy 11 – Chuckanut Drive). Drive south on Chuckanut Drive for about 19 km. You will see Oyster Bar restaurant and a turn-off to Taylor Shellfish Farms on your right. The trailhead is only a short distance further. Park your car on the shoulder making sure the wheels are completely off the white line and walk to the trailhead.