Guest Author: Steve Andrews
Steve Andrews is a freelance writer and photographer living in Whistler. He is in a constant pursuit of deepening his relationship with mother nature through having the most fun possible on the abundant terrain at our disposal in the area, using a variety of means to interact with the elements.
The Coast Mountain alpine landscape is right up there for some of the best scenery on the planet. The sheer size of the mountains and the glaciers, rivers, lakes and meadows are a lot to take in. But getting to this alpine playground is often the hardest part – with changes in elevation well over 1500 vertical metres (5,000 feet) it can take up to a full day to get from the valley floor to the peak. However, on Whistler and Blackcomb mountains, you can access a vast network of alpine hiking trails with a little help from the ski lifts. For those who want to experience the stunning beauty in the alpine without the extraneous effort to get above the treeline, these lift-accessed hiking trails are for you.
Whistler Mountain, High Note Trail – showing the best of British Columbia’s wilderness. STEVE ANDREWS PHOTO
Whistler Blackcomb has invested a great deal in their hiking trail network. From easy green walks to more challenging advanced routes, everyone can find a way to enjoy the majestic scenery and alpine air, just a short hop from the gondola. The journey starts in Whistler Village, one of the world’s epicenters for mountain fun. A sightseeing ticket will get you access both mountains with a ride between them on the PEAK 2 PEAK Gondola.
If you are short on time, the sightseeing experience alone will give you fantastic views with minimal energy expended in a couple of hours. But if you want really want to get to know the alpine landscape and escape civilization for a while the hiking trails are the way to go. Here’s an overview of the different trails available, to help you plan the perfect day in the unique alpine landscape that will have you back for dinner in the village or one of the renowned on-mountain dining options.
Good to Know: The alpine hiking season generally runs from June to September. Early season the hiking trails may not be open but you can walk between the snow walls on Whistler Mountain, while August tends to be the best time to catch wildflowers in bloom. Natural features, lift operating times and trail opening dates change from year to year depending on weather conditions and snow melt – check with the Whistler Visitor Centre or Guest Services for current conditions.
Marmots on Whistler Mountain – often visible running from the Peak Chair. Keep your ears open for their piercing, ‘whistling’ call. STEVE ANDREWS PHOTO
Whistler Mountain Hiking Trails
From the Roundhouse at the top of the Whistler Village gondola you have several options. You can either:
- Start hiking right from the Roundhouse to get into some beautiful subalpine terrain.
- Take the Peak Express Chair to the top where stunning views and more trails await, or
- Ride the PEAK 2 PEAK Gondola to Blackcomb Mountain for access to next-level views of the Fitzsimmons Valley, Garibaldi Provincial Park, and the town of Whistler.
Whistler Summit Interpretive Walk
Length 1.6 km (1 mi)
Elevation Change: 30m (98ft)
This walk allows you to enjoy singletrack hiking trails over two loops from the highest point on Whistler Mountain. From here you will see stunning views of Black Tusk, the Tantalus Range, and as much of the Coast Range as visibility will allow. Along the way you will find informative interpretive displays sharing history and knowledge about Whistler and the surrounding area.
Peak Express Traverse
Length .6km (.4mi)
Elevation Change: 55m (180ft)
This trail isn’t much on its own, but you will still want to make sure you travel this route as it provides access to the Peak Chair from the Roundhouse. From there you can take an easy 5 minute ride up to the top of Whistler Mountain where several different hiking options await. Or you can simply hang out at the top near the Inukshuk and take in the stunning views.
Wildflower season offers a plethora of blooms to discover – be sure to give yourself time to appreciate the tiny alpine plants and flowers as well as the panoramic views. STEVE ANDREWS PHOTO
Length: 1.2km (.7mi)
Elevation Change: 20m (66ft)
For the perfect easy introduction to the alpine trails, try the Spearhead Walk. This loop starts at the Roundhouse and traverses the surrounding subalpine terrain, including directly underneath the PEAK 2 PEAK Gondola. You can see all the way down to Whistler Village and the surrounding lakes; giving you a unique perspective of the town from up high. Since you return right at the Roundhouse, you can make an easy stop for bathrooms or a bite to eat before continuing on your day.
Harmony Lake Trail and Loop
Length 2.5km (1.6mi)
Elevation Change: 130m (427 ft)
Harmony Lake is the perfect trail for those who want a bit of exercise, but don’t want to go too far from civilization. This moderate hike descends from the Roundhouse down toward Harmony Lake. If you find yourself with a fair amount of energy down at the lake, you can continue on the High Note trail toward Oboe. But if you find that the hike down was enough, you will have a perfect venue to relax and take in the massive surrounding landscape before heading back up toward the Roundhouse – note the elevation change, you will definitely be burning some calories here!
Crossing an alpine stream in Symphony Meadows on Whistler Mountain STEVE ANDREWS PHOTO
Length: 1.1km (0.7mi)
Elevation Change: 80m (262ft)
Harmony Meadows gives you a faster route down to the lake (or up if you are travelling in the opposite direction). It involves less traversing for a more direct route than the Harmony Lake Trail, but still ends up in the same area. You can take the Harmony Lake Loop from the end here to extend your hike, or continue onward to the High Note Trail.
There’s no wonder the High Note Trail on Whistler Mountain is a must-do experience. STEVE ANDREWS PHOTO
High Note Trail
Length: 9.4km (5.8mi)
Elevation Change: 258m (846 ft)
If there is only enough time in your day for one epic trail, make it the High Note. This trail leads you on a high alpine traverse of Whistler Mountain and the adjacent Musical Bumps. On your way you will ascend and descend multiple times, so good fitness and footwear are highly recommended, as are water and other key pieces of hiking gear. Note the recommended hiking time for this trail is around 3 – 4 hours, so be sure to head off early to ensure you are back before the lifts shut for the day.
The trail begins by heading around the backside of Whistler Mountain with unbelievable views southward toward Black Tusk, the iconic spire that towers over the landscape. In the distance beyond is Garibaldi, the volcanic mountain that serves as the namesake for Garibaldi Provincial Park, a world-class reserve of wilderness that seemingly extends forever across the horizon.
Good footwear essential – traversing the rocky alpine landscape on the High Note Trail with Black Tusk in the background. STEVE ANDREWS PHOTO
As you venture out toward the musical bumps, you will be treated with an impressive view of the turquoise-coloured Cheakamus Lake. This glacier-fed lake will cause you to stop and admire the scenery for a while; serving as an ideal place to rest for a snack to refuel the remainder of your journey.
The trail extends out to Oboe, the last of the musical bumps before the turnaround point. It is here that you can continue on into the Garibaldi park boundary for a true backcountry alpine hiking experience. From this point you are on your own; so proper planning is essential. If you choose to return back, the trail continues around and down into the beautiful valleys at Symphony and Harmony bowl before climbing back up to the Roundhouse.
Half Note Trail
Length: 1.2km (.7mi)
Elevation Change: 220m (722ft) To High Note Trail
If you wish to catch the best of the High Note trail but are short on time, you can take the Half Note trail as a shortcut. Access is from Matthews Traverse, right at the Saddle near the top of Harmony Chair. This can cut a fair amount of time off from your High Note Hike, so head here if you are short for time but crave the renowned views of High Note.
Snow walls on Pika’s Traverse in early season. MIKE CRANE PHOTO
Pika’s Traverse Road
Length: 2.3km (1.4mi)
Elevation Change: 270m (427ft)
Named after the small squealing rodents that hang out in the alpine rocks, Pika’s is a mountain access road that still offers impressive views across the valley toward Blackcomb and is often the first road to open in early season offering an incredible walk between the snow walls before the other trails open. If you find that you are running short of time on the High Note or Half Note Trails, you can take Half Note to Pika’s for a direct route back to the Roundhouse. The trail can be steep in some sections, and it is important to stick to the trail due to the loose rock in surrounding fields – watch your feet! This is a great trail to compare skiing or snowboarding on the same terrain as it looks like another world in the summer. Seeing the terrain without snow will give you a greater appreciation for what people ride in the winter.
Burnt Stew Road
Length: 1.7km (1.1mi)
Elevation Change: 130m (427ft)
Burnt Stew runs from the peak of Whistler toward Symphony Bowl, eventually meeting up with the High Note Trail. This trail can be run in either direction, cutting significant time off the High Note trail allowing you to cover more ground. If you find yourself taking in more views and pictures than you imagined, it might be wise to head back to the lifts on Burnt Stew. Or you can head straight out on Burnt Stew and take the High Note trail back toward the peak – just make sure you time it so you can catch the Peak Chair back down.
Mathews’ Traverse Road
Length: .9km (.6mi)
Elevation Change: 80m (262ft)
For those who wish to experience the alpine landscape but are either short on time or lower fitness, you can still enjoy the amazing views from the peak on Mathews’ Traverse. This trail leads you from the Peak to the Saddle, where the road forks toward Half Note, Burnt Stew, or Pika’s Traverse. The easy grade can support a walking pace and can accommodate the inexperienced hiker. At any time you can turn around and download from the Peak Chair for the classic views from the comfort of a chairlift.
Whistler Mountain hiking. STEVE ANDREWS PHOTO
Blackcomb Mountain Hiking Trails
Over on Blackcomb, if you decide to take the PEAK 2 PEAK Gondola, you have similar options with the trails around the Rendezvous providing a plethora of subalpine options. In early season (usually June to mid-July) you can also take a bus to the 7th Heaven Chairlift that takes you up to the Horstman Hut for some beautiful high alpine sights.
A new option for hiking from the village is the Blackcomb Ascent Trail, a Grouse Grind-esque trail that goes up from the Upper Village to the Wizard Chair, with a second section to be completed in Summer 2017 taking hikers all the way to the Rendezvous . Check out our Insider blog on the Blackcomb Ascent Trail for details.
Part of the alpine walk on Blackcomb Mountain. MIKE CRANE PHOTO
Length: 1.6km (1mi)
Elevation Change: 65m (213 ft)
The Rendezvous Lodge sits right at treeline on the border between the alpine and subalpine. See the subtle changes in these two climate regions on the Alpine Walk, a route that also provides panoramic views of the Fitzsimmons Valley and Whistler Mountain.
Length: 3.7km (2.3 mi)
Elevation Change: 62m (203 ft)
This is the signature trail on Blackcomb, extending from the Alpine Walk into Garibaldi Provincial Park. From this trail you can access the rest of the Blackcomb network. The Overlord trail is perhaps the best place to see alpine wild flowers with seemingly endless alpine meadows along the way. If you really want to make an adventure out of your trip, continue onward toward Garibaldi Provincial Park for true solitude amidst the vast backcountry at your disposal.
Hiking through the meadows on Blackcomb Mountain with Whistler Mountain in the background (Symphony and Harmony Bowls) MIKE CRANE PHOTO
Tree Line Trail
Length: 1.1 km (.7mi)
Elevation Change: 235m (771ft)
Note: Open June – Mid-July only while shuttle bus is running
The Subalpine terrain of the 7th Heaven zone provides some of the most popular tree skiing on both mountains in the winter. In summer it is home to an impressive array of wildlife including squirrels, deer, grouse, and the occasional black bear. This trail branches off the Overlord Trail and takes you down to the 7th Heaven chairlift, which will whisk you up to the top. This will provide the ambitious access to virtually unlimited high alpine exploration options, both on Blackcomb and beyond through Garibaldi and Blackcomb Glacier Provincial parks.
The view from Blackcomb Lake, accessed by Lakeside Loop. MIKE CRANE PHOTO
Length: 1.1km (.7mi)
Elevation Change: 174m (571 ft)
Branching off from the Overlord Trail at roughly the same spot as the Treeline Trail, the Marmot trail heads uphill near the 7th Heaven Chairlift. This out-and-back trail is a short jaunt to where the trees end and the rugged rocky terrain begins.
Length: 1.3km (.8 mi)
Elevation Change: 43m (141ft)
This short loop heads up to Blackcomb Lake, a great picnic spot. It is perfect for those with limited time who want a great view of the alpine wildflowers and vast scenery beyond. It continues past the lake to the Overlord Trail where you can head back toward the lodge or continue on Decker Loop.
Length: 1.8km (1.1 mi)
Elevation Change: 134m (440ft)
Decker Loop is a challenging trail, but don’t let that dissuade you. The rewards for hiking this route will make themselves clear, especially once you make the steep but rewarding climb up the ridge just at the Garibaldi Provincial Park boundary. The trail descends through a boulder field that requires some scrambling to a second tiny lake with incredible views of the Overlord Glacier – as the furthest point on the trail this is an excellent spot to rest, snack and contemplate the majestic surroundings. Here the trail meets up with the Overlord Trail, leading you back through the subalpine landscape to the bottom of the ridge before heading back to the resort. This is the best trail to see alpine wildflowers when they are in bloom.
Returning from the Overlord Glacier Lookout on Blackcomb Mountain. MIKE CRANE PHOTO
Six Quick Hiking Tips
- Buy your tickets ahead of time so you can upload early and have the trails to yourselves
- Make sure you are dressed for mountain weather (which can change quickly). For intermediate and advanced routes ensure you are wearing hiking footwear and carrying food, water and other essential gear for your planned length of hike
- Check trail opening and lift operating times with the Whistler Visitor Centre or Whistler Blackcomb Guest Services and plan your route accordingly so you don’t have to rush back to download
- Pack out what you pack in and leave the environment pristine for the next person
- Keep your eyes peeled and ears open for the best chance of viewing wildlife –that includes the chairlift and gondola ride
- Stick to the trails – the alpine environment is delicate and damage can occur quickly
Time to lace up the shoes and get out there. For more information on hiking around Whistler, including tours, trails and more – visit Whistler.com.
Inukshuk crafted by hikers line up in their hundreds on Whistler Mountain. STEVE ANDREWS PHOTO
Edited July 14, 2017: Black Tusk was referred to incorrectly as a granite spire. According to the Whistler Museum website, Black Tusk is a stratovolcano, with the spire consisting of hardened lava stripped bare by erosion.