Ringed by steep cliffs around the circular Cirque Lake, it seemed like we were looking into the heart of an ancient volcanic crater. It wouldn’t be surprising since across the valley in the distance was the iconic Black Tusk mountain rising out of the snow, it the cone of an ancient volcano where the rest has long since eroded away. However Cirque Lake was formed by a perfectly placed glacier. A cirque glacier in the northern hemisphere must be on the northeast slope of the mountain, protected from the sun and winds, and the glacial ice gradually hallows out a deep, amphitheater-like basin over many years.
While we knew that Cirque Lake was formed by a glacier, we did not expect it to be full of ice in the height of summer.
Our weekend at Callaghan Lake Provincial Park was a hidden gem full of surprises and a heck of a lot of mosquitoes.
Set on the tranquil and forest ringed Callaghan Lake, the main campsite at the end of the rough 8km FSR can get a little rowdy on the weekends. However, it was a short paddle across the lake to a small island that we largely had all to ourselves. All around the small island, the water is a translucent emerald green sparkling in the sunlight and the perfect temperature for a cool refreshing dip. The flies grew thick around dusk and the rainbow trout in the lake started jumping. I completely understand why fishing lures are in the shapes of flies now!
The stars were glorious overhead at night and it always amazes me the difference of the night sky from urban areas to the wilderness. I wondered what we loose growing up in the city and only seeing the few brightest stars and the planets. Do we miss out on feeling small under the vast blanket of glowing stars and staring out into infinity? Our night sky was even more impressive with shooting stars of the annual Perseid meteor shower in late July and August.
The next day, we paddled to the other side of the lake guided by the sound of rushing waterfall. Though the cascading ribbon of white is obvious on the paddle up, the creek came out under dense vegetation and was harder to find.
The trail itself can be broken up into roughly four parts: a ramble through the forest beside the creek, a steep ascent beside the waterfall and then turning away from the waterfall up a boulder field. The final part is up in the sub-alpine with stunning views, beautiful shrubby flowers and up over a ridge to the Cirque Lake.
In the middle of summer and feeling the heat of the sun down by Callaghan Lake, it is easy to forget how conditions can quickly change. Up at Cirque Lake, we were walking across snow and the water was full of icebergs and partially melted ice from the winter freeze.
That didn’t stop us from taking an icy dip in the frigid waters. My lungs gasped with the shock of the cold and though it was only seconds that I was submerged, it felt like an sluggish eternity as I flailed to the surface.
We were not prepared to camp in the snow so went back on the ridge to the scenic lookout point. Though we hypothesized that there would be less bugs away from standing water (the crashing of the waterfall could be heard but not seen) and higher in elevation (minutes away from where everything was covered in snow), mother nature surprised us by swarms of mosquitoes even thicker than at Callaghan Lake below.
For a number of reasons (of which the swarms of mosquitoes were one but also because the road was closing for the Ironman Race the next morning and I wanted to get home for my sister’s birthday), we decided to head down after a lovely afternoon nap.
There was a soft glow of the twilight after sunset that seems to extend for hours in our Canadian summers. The water of Callaghan Lake was like glass as glided across it. We got to our vehicles and loaded in the fading light and made our way back to Vancouver.
Route notes and tips
- There is a sign for Callaghan Lake on Hwy 99 going north. It is shortly after Brandywine Falls and Brew Creek FSR. If you’re going north, Callaghan Valley Road is about 70km from Vancouver. It is 8km of paved road, then a left turn over a small bridge to Callaghan FSR for 8km. Callaghan FSR has some cross ditches and lots of potholes. Cars can make it but it is much easier for trucks!
- If you think that Callaghan Lake is in the rough shape of a lopsided squished heart, the main campsite and launch is at the rounded point by the Callaghan Creek entrance (which looks awesome for hanging out with friends in an innertube by the way!). Looking out at the lake, the small island is not really visible as it fades into its green surroundings but it is in the left lobe of the heart. The waterfall and trailhead to Cirque Lake is at the end of the right lobe of the heart. The paddle to either destination is short, about 2km to the trailhead and about 1 km to the island. It is about 1.5km paddle from the island to the trailhead.
- The island is small and there are about 5 decently flat spots to put a small tent and a few more sloppy spots. Directly across the narrow channel to the mainland is a small trail into the woods on the mainland itself that people use as a washroom. Please continue to use it as the small island can easily become disgusting.
- At the trailhead, there are a couple of campsites further in from the lakeshore in the beginning of the hike by the creek
- The trail is about 2km with each part being roughly equal. However, this can very from person to person and the amount of gear they are carrying. While one online guide stated that each portion is about 15 mins in length, I felt that the first flat part went fairly quick, the second part was steep but also over quite quickly. There is a part with a rope to pull up on. The third part over the boulder field is the most challenging especially with heavy backpacks. Keep to the right and there’s a bit of a trail. This part felt the longest for me… up and down! I was a bit tired for the last part so that took a bit longer for me as well. Also, there are so many amazing views that it makes it take longer too!
- There are a couple camping spots above Cirque Lake but more stunning spots at the ridgeline lookout point above the boulder field.
Things to bring on this trip
- warm clothes as nights get cold even with the height of summer and temperatures drop with elevation
- bug spray and mosquito head net (one that fits over hats)
- optional- a small flask of whiskey to warm up after a chilly dip with icebergs