Beyond Whistler – an Excursion North

Driving North from Vancouver on the spectacular ‘Sea-to-Sky Highway’, we stopped at the little mining town of Britannia Beach for hot coffee and cold beer for our trip north. Howe Sound was a heavenly blue, and the Tantalus range still snow-capped even in July. That’s the great thing about this drive. 10 minutes out of Vancouver it’s beautiful, and the scenery only gets bigger and wilder the further north you go.
Avoiding Whistler (it’s an easy place to get stuck!), we refuelled in cute, countrified Pemberton and drove in the direction of Lillooet, looking left and right for a likely camping spot. Just past Joffre Lakes, we pulled off the road and down a short forestry track, then hiked our gear in to a clearing by a whitewater river, with mountains and glaciers as the backdrop.
We had struck gold! It was a perfect spot, as pretty as any in the Rockies but only three hours from Vancouver, and with not a soul in sight.
I had noted a grizzly warning back in Pemberton, so we rigged our tarp with guy lines that doubled as trip wires, with our aluminium cookset jangling from it. I didn’t know if it would deter any grizzlies, but it made us feel better as we drank those Britannia Beach beers round our fire that night.
The next morning we hiked across the wooded valley, singing loudly to announce our arrival to the black and grizzly bears, and started up to Joffre Lakes. Like so many hikes in BC, it’s a steep, rocky, sweaty upward slog for much of the hike, but emerges first onto a lovely green wooded lake, and then higher up, to a barren glacial landscape with three calving glaciers dropping into the milky blue Upper Joffre Lake.
It’s a tough climb, but you can do it in a couple of hours, and if you don’t mind lugging your backpack, you can camp on rocky ground right beneath the lovely blue Matier Glacier.
Joffre Lakes are the nearest thing to the Rockies that you can see on a day trip from Whistler or Vancouver, and a marked contrast to the green summer hills of Whistler-Blackcomb. The route there will take you through First Nations reservations, cute country towns and along whitewater rivers, and more world-class salmon fishing spots than you could fish in a year.
It would be unusual if you didn’t spot at least a couple of mule deer or mountain goats, with moose, elk, bear and even cougars if you’re lucky.
And Joffre Lakes is only a little park. The big reserves north of Pemberton have established hike-in Forestry Service campgrounds and networks of more demanding trails if you’re keen. In winter, the snowshoeing is unrivalled, and in summer the icefields are dotted with mountaineers-in-training.
Whistler is fabulous, but I found it refreshing to get out and hike away from the crowds. It gives you a sense of the real wilderness and magnitude of British Columbia. I felt blissfully tiny, and not just compared to the bears!

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