Editor’s Note: The fall is a beautiful time to do this hike, but at time of publishing this post the Whistler Gondola and Peak Chair are closed until the winter season. Access to the trails mentioned would be on the weekends only via the Blackcomb Gondola and PEAK 2 PEAK Gondola until Canadian Thanksgiving (October 10). As the Peak Express on Whistler Mountain is also closed, you will need to head up Pika’s Traverse Road to get to the Half Note and High Note trails. Always check the Mountain Hours of Operation before heading out on your adventure. You can also opt to do this hike without using the gondola system by taking the Singing Pass trail from the base of Whistler Mountain.

Cool, pine air filled my lungs, drops of rain rolled down my face and wind tickled my ears as the sun slipped behind the misty mountains. Dark clouds loomed overhead and fog descended as if someone was setting the scene for the next blockbuster, fantasy movie.

I had two options, return home and give up on hiking to Russet Lake or keep on walking to what I knew would be a day filled with breathtaking views. I turn to my family, my mom and dad still look hopeful, and my younger sister is looking at me expectantly. We walk on.

Moody skies as Alexander and his family hike the High Note Trail.
The skies were a little ominous as we started out along High Note Trail. PHOTO SAMANTHA VAN WOLLEN

Where is Russet Lake?

Growing up in Whistler, I’m aware that it’s famous for its world-class skiing and biking, big mountain adventures, alpine lakes, and the Olympics, you get the picture. But it’s also full of hidden gems that take time to discover. One of these is the hike to Russet Lake, which is perched under the towering Fissile Peak in Garibaldi Provincial Park along the Spearhead Traverse.

You can find Fissile Peak on the Whistler Blackcomb hiking trail map right at the top. From the top of the Peak Express, you can either take Matthew’s Traverse and the Half Note Trail which hits the High Note Trail or opt for the High Note Trail all the way to Musical Bumps. You’ll be passing the aptly named Piccolo, Flute and Oboe peaks on your way. The hike to Russet Lake isn’t so much about the lake itself, it’s more about the incredible journey and views along the way.

Russet Lake with mountain views in the background.
We find Russet Lake in the shadow of Fissile Peak. PHOTO SAMANTHA VAN WOLLEN

This is not an easy hike, I’d give it a black trail rating that requires the right planning and gear. It’s around a 12-kilometre hike with consistent elevation gain, which takes around four to six hours one way from the top of Whistler Mountain (using the gondola system and Peak Express). Although you could go there and back within one day you wouldn’t get time to soak in the lush forests and dramatic mountain landscapes, so I suggest an overnight trip.

On my trip, we took a tent, but you can also opt to stay at the Kees and Claire’s Hut, part of the Spearhead Huts project. But if you do, remember to bring a mattress because even though it feels like five-star accommodation it doesn’t include bedding or blankets.

Hiking to Russet Lake

This one-of-a-kind hiking treasure is only accessible from June to October (unless you want to ski there), as its high elevation means it’s one of the last places to come out of the snow and one of the first to go back in. Always check the weather and what other hikers are saying about the state of the trail so you know what to expect.

The journey starts on the Whistler Village Gondola or a combination of the Blackcomb Gondola and PEAK 2 PEAK, which whisks you up into the alpine (take a look at the hours of operation to make sure what’s running). Then it’s a short hike down to the Peak Express, which takes you to the highest point you can go assisted. The ride up is beautiful and when you reach the top you’re treated to panoramic views of the Coast Mountains you’re about to explore.

INSIDER TIP: Buying a sightseeing ticket for Whistler Blackcomb gets you access to the gondola system. Always check the hours of operation for the gondolas as in the late summer and fall months they are on a reduced schedule.
The Musical Bumps Trail on the way to Russet Lake.
The wildflowers were out on the Musical Bumps Trail. PHOTO SAMANTHA VAN WOLLEN

Once you’ve had your fill of the views it’s time to hike, but don’t worry, this whole hike is full of incredible vistas including views over Cheakamus Lake and over to Black Tusk, an ancient volcano. You are looking for the High Note Trail, which leads you to the Musical Bumps Trail and to your destination – Russet Lake. If you’ve been hiking in the sun the glacially-fed waters are a perfect place to cool off (be aware they will be VERY cold).

Alexander and his family follow the trail to Russet Lake through lush, green mountain pastures.
Green pastures on the last ascend before Russet Lake. PHOTO SAMANTHA VAN WOLLEN

There’s an idyllic stream that runs past the campsite area, the Overlord Glacier glistens in the valley below and the coppery hues of Fissile Peak tower above you. This is a special place.

INSIDER TIP: It’s worth noting that you can also start this hike at the bottom of Whistler Mountain taking the Singing Pass Trail up, but that obviously adds more distance, elevation and time.

Overnight at Russet Lake

As the sun slips over the razor-sharp ridge of the mountain a new chapter begins – nighttime in the mountains. Stars shimmer above your head and the Milky Way slacks across the night sky. Sleeping here is a beautiful, peaceful experience.

Sunrise at Russet Lake campsite in Whistler.
Sunrise at Russet Lake. PHOTO SAMANTHA VAN WOLLEN

Depending on what month it is, it gets dark around 8:30 PM, so I’d suggest setting up camp as soon as you arrive (you don’t want to be hunting for tent pegs in the dark). It’s best to book your campground ahead of time, which can be done on the BC Parks website (you’ll find Garibaldi Park in the backcountry section).

Returning Home

There are no garbage facilities at Russet Lake so make sure to pack out whatever you packed in. One of the things I like about the hike to Russet Lake is that it’s not a loop and you get to experience the incredible, Coast Mountain views in reverse. However, you can opt to change it up when you get to the turning for the High Note trail and take the path on the right to hike past Symphony and then Harmony lakes. If your thighs can handle more you could also continue on the Singing Pass trail all the way to the base of Whistler Mountain.

What to Bring to Russet Lake

It’s pretty obvious by now that on a hike this big you’re going to need more than just a small backpack. I’m a fan of the saying it’s better to be safe than sorry, meaning it’s better to over pack than to under pack. Take a read of what AdventureSmart BC list as the hiking essentials you should pack when exploring.

A list of hiking essentials taken from the AdventureSmart BC website.
PHOTO ADVENTURESMART BC

Before embarking on any outdoor adventure, consider downloading the AdventureSmart BC Trip Plan app. Completing a trip plan is extremely important as it contains vital information that assists the authorities when searching for you in the event of an emergency. It explains your destination, travel route, equipment and expected return time. It also gives you some great peace of mind.

One thing I’d suggest bringing on a trip like this is your family. Those friendly arguments between relatives certainly make the experience more lively. It feels good to explore new places together and have shared memories of our time in the mountains.

Happy adventuring!

Fall in Whistler offers great value on accommodation with rooms from $129 CAD, plus a free $100 CAD Dining Voucher when you book a stay of 3 nights or more.

Author

Alexander Emm is a high school student and self-proclaimed nerd. He loves books, building stuff, the outdoors, making movies, and anything to do with space. He works part-time as a tennis coach at the Whistler Racket Club and as a journalist.