Vancouver enjoys a reputation as one of the world’s most attractive cities for a reason. The downtown is sandwiched between the Pacific and the snow-capped peaks of the Cascade Mountains, with postcard vistas from most city blocks. But the amazing thing is how close the city is to some truly wild and relatively unexplored mountain landscapes. Mt. Seymour Provincial Park is about a thirty-minute car ride from downtown Vancouver. And while weather in the city is mild in May, Mt. Seymour – rising more than 4,000 feet above sea level – is still covered with towering drifts of snow at this time of year, some more than 30 feet deep. In other words, conditions are perfect for indulging your Arctic expedition fantasies . . . no special gear or expertise required.
The solitary road up Mt. Seymour dead-ends at the parking lot of Mt. Seymour Ski Resort, a modest operation with three chairlifts and 23 runs. Past the snowboard park and the lodge, at the far end of the parking lot, a foot trail marked with orange poles starts up the mountain. On the day that I visit, lots of hikers have snowshoes and ski poles, which are available for rent at the resort, but just as many people are wearing plain-old hiking boots. I get a few looks for wearing a pair of running shoes, but the snow on the trail is packed hard and, apart from a few steep sections, the hiking is easy.
Chalk it up to my childhood on the East Coast – where the mountains are smaller and a foot of snowfall is a major event – but after a few minutes of hiking up Seymour, I’m in awe. The whole forest is buried in at least 10 feet of snow. Pines poke through the drifts, upper branches crusted with ice. Through breaks in the trees, I can make out rows of jagged black mountains stretching into the distance. And this is just a few steps from the parking lot.
After clambering up a steep section of trail, I reach an overlook where a few hikers, stripped down to t-shirts, have stopped for lunch and sit admiring the view. Further on, the trail dips before making a final ascent up Seymour’s imposing peak. A set of signs stuck in the snow warns of avalanche dangers, inclement weather and other hazards ahead. I stop for a second to reconsider. But the sky is clear. Older couples, families with children, dogs in special snow boots all shuffle by. I push on.
The last half-mile – up the backside of Seymour’s snow-capped dome – is the best part of the hike. The trail gets steeper, switching back and forth as it gains elevation. Near the top, the path cuts through a natural, polar ampitheater, steep white walls rising on all sides. Reflected light from the snow raises the air temperature inside by at least five or 10 degrees. Hikers, having made the two-hour ascent, lounge on the slopes or skim down the sides on sleds improvised from plastic bags and ski jackets. The snow-crusted ends of pine trees – whose trunks lie hidden under dozens of feet of snow – rise up from the drifts like a sentinel of snow men. At the very peak, back-country skiers, having hauled their skis up the mountain, line up for a quick ride down.
I have to overcome a little vertigo to take a peek over the edge. In the distance, I can make out downtown Vancouver. The sight of the city, so close-by, takes the edge off the polar fantasy. But as the wind picks up, and the clouds start to roll in, I’m glad that I don’t have a long hike back. My running shoes are wet. I’m hungry. I’ve gotten my Arctic fix; I’m ready for some sushi and a beer.
- Getting there:
- Mt. Seymour Provincial Park is located in North Vancouver. From Vancouver, cross the Second Narrows Bridge into North Vancouver and follow the Mt. Seymour Parkway until you see signs for the park. Parking at the Mt. Seymour Ski Resort is free. There is no charge for using the trail.
- Getting around:
- The trail starts at the far corner of the parking lot and runs parallel to the ski slope. It is clearly marked with orange poles. A hike to the peak of Mt. Seymour takes approximately 4.5 hours, round-trip. Snowshoes are recommended, but not necessary.
- When to go:
- Trails are open year-round. Snow remains on the peak until late June or early July.
- Bring a plastic bag. After climbing up, you can slide down the mountain, and make the return trip in half the time.