Whistler, host of the 2010 Winter Olympics, is Canada’s uncontested capital of alpine chic. The ski village, year-round population 10,000, has six five-star hotels, a thriving SUV limo service and bars full of ski bums sipping $16 martinis. But venture a bit outside of town and the wilderness closes back in. On the drive north from Whistler, million-dollar chalets quickly give way to much humbler accommodations scattered on Indian reserves. Then – suddenly – there’s nothing at all, just a thin shoelace of asphalt rising steadily into the mountains.
This transition from cushy resort to real backcountry is jarring and seems to catch a lot of people off-guard. I pull off the highway at Joffre Lakes Provincial Park, a popular hiking spot less than an hour’s drive north of Whistler. The park is named after a string of Caribbean-blue glacial lakes tucked away in the mountains. Though its sunny and warm in town, up here there’s still a foot of snow on the ground. Serious hikers stare as a few girls try to negotiate the snowbound trail in sandals and shorts. I’m not much better off, underdressed in jeans and sneakers (or “runners,” as they’re known here), but I make it to the first lake without a problem.
Some of the ice has melted to reveal the glacial water, tinted a deep, electric blue. In the height of summer, the color is even more intense: a brilliant turquoise that you’ll swear is a Photoshop trick in this clip. Beyond the lake, a set of snow-covered mountains rises, throwing their reflection in the water. A sign nearby says the next lake is only two miles up the trail. I figure the scenery is worth a pair of soggy sneakers.
Looking back, this might have been a bad idea. The trail starts out easy, but gets steeper as it winds into pine forest. After a few minutes, I’m alone. Working my way across a sunny clearing, I break through the snow for the first time and end up buried to my waist. Later, I pass a pair of hikers coming down the mountain and realize that I’m out of my league. They’re both wearing snowshoes and carrying helmets and ice picks.
I’m closing in on the second lake when I start to notice some big, ominous prints in the snow. Bears are common around Whistler, and lots of hikers wear bear bells – pretty much little Christmas ornaments that jingle – to scare them off. The tracks skirt the trail, sometimes veering off, but always circling back. They look too big for a dog. They also seem fresh.
Next, a few things happen at once. The second lake comes into view, half-frozen into shimmering bands of blue water and ice. At the same moment, a black ball of fur comes streaking out of the woods. Big enough and hairy enough to be a bear, it’s – of all things – a big, slobering Great Dane. The dog is so heavy that its legs keep poking through the drifts. It rocks back and forth a few times like a snowbound car to break free and makes its way toward me.
A few minutes later, the dog’s owners show up, outfitted in snowshoes and oversized rucksacks. Talk turns to bears and avalanches and inclement weather and greenhorn daytrippers that end up needing to be rescued. I get the hint. One more lake waits a few miles up the trail, but I might leave it for another day.
On the drive back into Whistler, I see a real bear nosing along the highway – It’s so big that drivers are rubbernecking to catch a glimpse. A few minutes later though, I’m back in town, listening to chill-out music at a bar and enjoying a grilled chicken with brie on ciabatta. So it goes in Whistler.
- Getting There:
- Whistler is a two-hours’ drive north of Vancouver along the scenic Sea to Sky Highway, which runs along Lions Bay and offers views of the sea and mountains.
- Getting Around:
- To reach Joffre Lakes Provincial Park, with its Caribbean-blue glacial lakes, continue north along the Sea to Sky Highway for one hour beyond Whistler, passing through the towns of Pemberton and Mt. Currie. The parking lot for the Joffre Lakes trail is directly off of the highway, near the summit of the mountain. There are three lakes in total, about 1/4 mile, two miles and three miles, respectively, from the parking lot.
- When to Go:
- The Joffre Lakes trail is generally snowbound from November through May. The winter scenery makes for great hiking, but snowshoes are recommended. During the summer months, Joffre Lakes is a moderately difficult trail, with some steep sections, but no special equipment is required. Allow about four to five hours, round-trip, to visit all three lakes.