The Elfin Lakes hike in Garibaldi Provincial Park is a marvelous full day outing. Most years there are wildflowers in abundance and take-your-breath away beautiful mountain scenery – at least once you get past the Red Heather Shelter. But note, that the Elfin Lakes area holds its snow well into June – and even late August, as we discovered one year. It was a total shock to us.
In late August on the Elfin Lakes hike there were snowfields where usually there are trails lined with wildflowers. In past years when we’ve hiked the trail in July, there’s only been distant snow on mountain peaks. But record snowfall in winter, a cool spring along with a cooler than normal early summer didn’t allow for much melting. Most of the snow we hiked on will not have time to melt – but this fortunately is a rarity.
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Elfin Lakes hike summary
Distance: 22 km return (13.6 miles).
Elevation gain: 600 metres (1,968 feet)
Time needed: 5.5 – 7 hours
Best time to hike: July – October
Dogs: Not allowed
Day-use pass: You ‘ll need a free day-use Pass to access Elfin Lakes via the Diamond Head trailhead from June 14, 2023 – October 9, 2023. Reserve a day-use pass from BC Parksas there is no available first come, first served parking during the time period.
Bikes are allowed – though some years you won’t get past the Red Heather Shelter because of snow.
You are allowed to swim in the top lake – but the bottom lake is reserved for drinking water.
There is a ranger station not far from the second lake. There is also an overnight shelter for people who are hiking to Opal Cone and beyond.
Elfin Lakes hike description
The first hour or so of the Elfin Lakes hike takes you up to the Red Heather Shelter along a gravel road. It offers peek-a-boo views of Squamish, the odd wildflower but little else. It isn’t until you get close to treeline that the hike gets interesting. In years the snow stays late you need to be comfortable hiking on snow to make it to the Elfin Lakes. Snowshoes or icers and leg gaiters plus hiking poles would come in handy.
I highly recommend carrying an ice axe, if you know its going to be snowy, so should you slip on a snowfield – and there are a few steep ones – you could self arrest, before hitting the rocks. No sense throwing in a trip to the hospital in with the hike.
What happens once you reach treeline on the Elfin Lakes hike
Once above treeline on the Elfin Lakes hike spectacular views of the Tantalus Range unfold to the west. Going forward you’ll see Diamond Head, Opal Cone, Columnar Peak, and Atwell Peak – plus a host of glaciers.
The bulk of the ascent is finished within 20 minutes of passing the Red Heather Shelter. Then you can enjoy some easy contouring, minor ups and downs and then a final short descent to reach the Elfin Lakes. The last year we did the Elfin Lakes hike, the lakes were still under a blanket of ice. Normally you can go for a swim in the lake!
Have a look at the lodge, built in the 1940’s by Joan Matthews, a champion slalom skier and world-class ski jumpers, Ottar and Emil Brandvold. They offered overnight accommodation and guided trips beginning in 1946. Thousands of people visited.
It operated until the late 1960’s when it was then sold to the province.
A shelter was built next to the lodge in 1975 – and it offers sleeping for 33 people in bunk beds.
Camping and shelter at Elfin Lakes
You can stay in the Elfin Lakes shelter at Elfin Lakes. Or there’s the option of camping with 35 reservable spots not far from the lakes. The Red Heather campground also has 15 reservable spots. Check out the Garibaldi Provincial Park website as you must book online.
Options to extend the hike
There are options to extend the Elfin Lakes hike. Continue for another 11 km, climbing an additional 570 m to reach Mamquam Lake. You used to be able to camp at Mamquam Lake, but that’s no longer possible. Instead camp at Rampart Ponds Campground, 1.5 km before Mamquam Lake. I have read reports in the past that flies at Mamquam Lake were notoriously awful.
The hike to Mamquam Lake is best done as a backpacking trip as its 22 km one way from the parking lot.
From Elfin Lakes you can do a couple of shorter add-ons. It’s another 6.5 km one way to Opal Cone (the rim of an extinct volcano) with an elevation gain of 250 m. You can see Mamquam Lake from the top of it.
Little Diamond Head is another option. It’s 7.0 km one way with an elevation gain of 625 m.
Getting to the Elfin Lakes trailhead
The trailhead for Elfin Lakes is reached by turning right (east) onto Mamquam Road at the north end of Squamish – by the Canadian Tire. Follow the road, which is mostly a dusty, rough gravel road, for 16 km (10 miles) to reach the signed trailhead. Parking is free.
Things to take on the Elfin Lakes hike
If you get a blister I highly recommend Leukotape or Compeed – a Band Aid-like product I discovered when hiking the Cumbria Way in England and ended up with massive blisters after getting wet feet.