Strathcona Park Section (34 km)

The Strathcona Park section of the VI Spine Trail follows a series of existing trails to and across the Park, including much of the main trail across Forbidden Plateau that dates back to the 1930’s.

Trail Description (based on hiking the Spine Trail from S to N)

This section starts at the former Forbidden Plateau parking area.  Immediately above the parking area is the concrete foundation of the former ski lodge (photo 01), which is now being cleaned up and modified by volunteers into a skate-board park. The ski lodge collapsed under the record winter snowfall of 1998-99. It was then abandoned, and soon thereafter (2002) the ruins were burned to the ground.  The trail starts just to the right of the foundation (looking uphill) with a short scramble up a steep, loose path. It then heads directly and steeply upslope up the old ski runs, at times underneath the old chair-lift cables.

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1. Abandoned Ski Lodge

After three decades or more without any clearing, the cleared ski runs have mostly re-grown and the young forest reclaiming this site is commonly 10 metres tall (photo 02), with dense patches of Sitka alder on wetter seepage areas.  Above tower 8, the trail swings to the right (northwards) away from the old chairlift. As the trail bends back to the west, the climb moderates considerably.  Continuing up, you will pass a small lake on your left, and then the old bottom terminal of a T-bar that used to run uphill, to your right.  The trail flattens out and crosses a couple of low wet areas to where you will see a  “Strathcona Provincial Park Boundary” sign, fairly high on a tree.  It is high so as to be visible in the deep snowpack conditions (several metres) during typical winters. Soon after this sign, watch for a wide trail on your right where it drops downhill to a BC Parks sign with parks information and maps (photo 03).  From the parking area, up to this sign (2.2 km) takes about an hour to hike.

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2. Ski hill vegetation near lift towers

 

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3. B.C. Parks sign

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From the sign to a trail junction to Mount Becher, a distance of 1.4 km, the Plateau Trail is more like an old road as it is about 5 metres wide (photo 04).  Much of it has been seriously eroded by water since it was built decades ago, an appalling testament to inadequate maintenance in this oldest of BC Provincial Parks (established in 1911). Even so, this section affords many good views of subalpine forests dominated by mountain hemlock (a distinct species from the lower-elevation western hemlock), ponds and small lakes, and open grassy-looking meadows dominated by cottongrass, with numerous other wetland species (photo 05).

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4. Plateau trail before Becher

 

 

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5. Marsh and fen

 

 

 

 

 

 

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6. Trail Signs

At the trail junction   Forbidden Plateau Trail (aka Plateau Trail) straight ahead; Mount Becher Trail to the left (photo 06)  you can choose to go either way since another junction on the Becher Trail (to the right) goes via Ash Pond and Slingshot Meadow to re-join the main Plateau Trail. Both trails are much narrower from this point onwards.

By going straight ahead, the Plateau Trail is mainly through closed (i.e. fairly dense) mountain hemlock forest; whereas the Mount Becher Trail is far more open as it crosses lots of exposed bedrock. On a hot day, the shady Plateau Trail is recommended; if it is not too hot, the often-exposed Becher Trail will provide more expansive views.  It also allows for a short side-trip to the summit of Mount Becher.

Option A  via the Plateau Trail:

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7. Rich Moist Humic Soils

Staying right at the junction, the first 200 metres past the junction is alongside a wetland and across gentle slopes; but then, the trail drops abruptly downslope across steep sidehills in the upper reaches of the Wattaway Creek valley, including one sharp switchback to your left. You will cross the mainstem of Wattaway Creek at the 1-km mark, which runs dry in mid to late summer (so not a reliable water source).You then climb moderate slopes up and across a low divide into a second tributary valley of the Wattaway to cross a tributary of the Wattaway (about 2.5 km from the junction; also not a reliable water source). Immediately past this second creek crossing, the trail traverses steep colluvial slopes supporting some fern-rich (lush lady fern patches) and shrub-rich growing sites (photo 07).

Three kilometers from the Becher junction, a short trail branches off to the right (northeast) to the Drabble Lakes (a good spot for a swim).  An open rock outcrop to the west of the first lake (small) and south of the main lake (largest) provides great views to the west  of Mt. Albert Edward and Mt. Jutland and the intervening ridge that is on the route of the Spine Trail (some 15 km distant, as the crow flies), with Mount Regan poking up behind this ridge (photo 08). Two hundred or so metres past the Drabble side trail, the trail from Mount Becher rejoins the main Plateau Trail, where you will see a sign (photo 09) to Kwai Lake (right) and Slingshot Meadows (ahead and to your left).

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8. Mt. Albert Edward, Mt. Regan and Mt. Jutland (left to right)

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9. Plateau Trail signs at Slingshot Junction

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Option B : via the Mount Becher Trail & Trail to Ash Pond and Slingshot Meadows:

This trail initially goes down the southerly side of the same wetland as the main trail, but soon climbs steadily and steeply across fairly, open bedrock terrain with a mix of heath (heather-dominated vegetation), sparsely vegetated outcrops and clumps of mountain hemlock,  an ecosystem pattern known as Mountain Hemlock Parkland (i.e. as opposed to Mountain Hemlock Forest).

Somewhat over 500 metres along the trail is a side trail (to the left) that goes down to Boston Lake, which is situated in a glacial cirque with a precipitous rock cliff headwall.  In the next couple of hundred meters, an open rock ridge at about the 1200-metre elevation provides good views to the north, with some of the Drabble Lakes at times visible.  Distant views easterly over Georgia Straight to the BC Mainland and Coast Mountains are also impressive in clear weather.  There is a small lake, 1.25 km along the Becher Trail to your right, and a clearing/campsite on your left with two concrete chimney foundations, with cast-in dates in the 1930’s (photo 10). This was the site of the Mount Becher Cabin(photo 11, 12, 13 & 14) which served backcountry users for 50 years.

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10. Cabin Chimney base

 

Lindsay Elms records the following history on his Beyond Nootka webpage:

Clinton Wood had evaluated this site as a potential location for a backcountry cabin in 1926  that would serve as an ideal location for future winter sport activities such as snow-shoeing, skiing and tobogganing.  The building material, wood stove and supplies were carried in by members of the mountaineering club and by packhorses. It was a three-room cabin with a bunkroom that could sleep six to eight people, a kitchen in the middle and a storeroom on the other end. For nearly 50 years this cabin served the mountaineering/skiing community as well as guests who for five dollars could have their equipment carried in by packhorse from the Plateau Lodge. This was the first ski-hill on Vancouver Island and  provided an opportunity for many outdoor enthusiasts to get out and enjoy some skiing from a cabin high in the mountains without having to leave the Island. The cabin was dismantled and burned around 1980 when it became too much of a hazard as the aging timber was literally rotting.

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11. Becher Cabin

 

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12. Close up photo of Becher Cabin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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14. Cabin Site across the lake

 

 

 

 

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13. Cabin corner logs

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The small plateau on which the old cabin site and lake is situated abruptly ends at a steep slope that the trail ascends. Approximately 200 metres past the old cabin site as you break out onto the broad ridge leading up to Mt Becher, watch for a rather obscure trail junction (photo 15) some 15-25 metres past an old wooden sign indicating this way down(photo 16).

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15. Junction 2 to Ash Pond Trail

 

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16. This Way Down sign at Junction 2

Straight ahead (uphill) it is less than a half hour to the summit of Mt. Becher, which affords great view to the east (photo 17) and westwards towards the Comox Glacier (photo 18). Bear right and staying more or less level, you will see a light trail (photo 15) that heads towards Ash Pond (photo 19) marked with triangular fluorescent orange trail markers. Soon, this trail bears directly NW along a linear draw which eventually becomes a sharply incised creek (watch for one potentially hazardous spot where the narrow trail is right on a precipitous drop-off to this creek).  Between this creek and Ash Pond (photo 20, another good spot for a swim on a hot day), the trail winds around/between extensive open bedrock knolls and outcrops.  From Ash Pond, you soon drop off these outcrops into taller, denser mountain hemlock forest, at one point coming close to the Park boundary and an old clearcut now with thick regeneration; this is in the uppermost reaches of Pearce Creek that drains southwards into Comox Lake.

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17. Mt. Becher towards Drabble

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18. Comox Glacier from Mt. Becher

 

 

After a kilometer or so of this closed forest, the trail breaks out into the open around the margin of Slingshot Meadow, and then climbs uphill somewhat to the east to rejoin the main Plateau Trail (photo 09), which continues onwards to Kwai Lake.

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19. Ash Pond Trail near Becher Trail

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20. Ash Pond

Back on the main Plateau Trail:

For the next 3.2 km, the main Plateau Trail continues across undulating terrain with mountain hemlock forest before breaking out into the Mackenzie Meadows, that is apart from a localized more open area near a small lake about half way along this section.  There are two trail routes across/around Mackenzie Meadows (trail signs in photos 21 & 22).

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21. Trail Junction east end of McKenzie Meadow

 

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22. Trail Junction East end of McKenzie Meadows

The original Plateau Trail crosses much of the grassy meadow that is underlain by soft organic soils, saturated with water in all but the driest summers (photo 23). A Meadow Bypass Trail skirts around the south side of the Meadow through closed forest on better drained soils.  To minimize your impact on McKenzie Meadows (and impact on the Park), the Spine Trail hiker should generally take the Bypass route.  Only use the trail across the Meadows in late summer after a prolonged period of dry weather; and even then, take care to stay on the trail so as not to impact the sensitive vegetation and soils.  Even in the driest conditions, you will still have to hop across some deep wetland channels as the old log bridges are mostly collapsed.

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23. McKenzie Meadows

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24. Salmonberry on fluvial fan

 

Along the western-most 200 metres of the Bypass Trail, you will cross an active alluvial fan which supports a relatively rare subalpine forest ecosystem comprised of tall amabilis fir (Pacific silver fir), mountain hemlock and even a few subalpine fir with their distinctive bluish green needles, and with a dense shrub understory of salmonberry (photo 24).  The trail crosses the Meadows inflow creek on a pair of large windfalls (photo 25).

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25. Logs over McKenzie inflow creek

 

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26. McKenzie Lake

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27. McKenzie Campsite

At about 4 km from the trail junction, at the western end of Mackenzie Meadows, a short trail (200 metres) branches off to the north to the Mackenzie Lake Campsite (photos 26 & 27). Keep in mind that here as throughout Strathcona Park, fires/campfires are not permitted.  This is not only to avoid of the risk of starting a wildfire, but also because the consumption of wood in the slow growing subalpine forests impacts subalpine soils, subalpine ecosystems and the habitats of many species.

The side trail continues along the west side of McKenzie Lake for an additional 200 m to Douglas Lake.  On the northeast side of the lake on an open rock outcrop overlooking the lake is a memorial cairn to William Douglas, for whom the lake was named (photo 28).  The inscription on the plaque (photo 29) reads:

Douglas Lake – Named for William Douglas who is remembered as a generous citizen of Courtenay, as a brilliant, self-taught mathematician and as a keen sportsman who loved and pioneered Forbidden Plateau.

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28. Cairn at Douglas Lake

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29. Plaque on cairn.

 

 

From the cairn, a trail winds its way upslope for about 150 m to the Douglas Lake Cabin (photo 30 & 31), an immaculately kept, small, dry log cabin with three bunks, table and a bench (a woodstove cannot be used at this time due to lack of a stovepipe).

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30. Douglas Lake Cabin

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31. Douglas Lake Cabin Inside

 

 

 

 

To the west of McKenzie Meadows, the Plateau Trail initially climbs up alongside the Meadows inflow creek gully and is again largely through closed mountain hemlock forest (photos 32 & 33) for another 2 km before regaining more variable cover with a mix of closed forest, more open forest and a few open wetlands and outcrops, a vegetation mix/pattern that continues to near Panther Lake.

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32. Trail just west of McKenzie Meadows

 

 

 

 

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33. Hemlock Forest ~ 1km west of Douglas Lake

Close along the east side of Panther Lake, the trail is again through closed mountain hemlock forest and a refreshing dip in the lake is always an option.  Just past the northerly tip of Panther Lake, the trail jogs sharply west to cross over the outlet creek from the lake (photo 34).

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34. Panther Crossing

 

From this creek crossing, the trail continues through the now familiar mix of open and closed forest, and open wetlands with ponds to a junction with a trail to Mariwood Lake at 1.4 km; and to a junction with the trail to Kwai Lake at 2.3 km.  If you plan to camp at Circlet Lake, consider taking the trail westwards (to your left) at the 1.4 km junction (photo 35) past the south side of Mariwood Lake.

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35. Panther to Mariwood Junction

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36. Panther to Kwai Junction

If you plan on camping at Kwai Lake, take the trail westwards at the 2.3 km junction (photo 36). The trail east (right) from this junction goes via Croteau, Lady and Battleship Lakes to Paradise Meadows and the trailhead (and road access) at Mount Washington, a distance of 7.6 km (good to keep in mind if for some reason you need to get back to civilization, services at this point).

Either way you choose to go, the trails re-join in the vicinity of Whiskey Meadows (photo 37) and the route continues to the west towards Circlet Lake and Circlet Campground that is on the east side of the lake.  On the way to Circlet, watch for some old rusty colored piles of waste rock (photo 38) with a small creek winding through them.  These deposits were excavated from test pits and hand-driven adits during gold and copper prospecting in the 1930s. As you approach Circlet Lake, the plateau ends; terrain gets rougher and you soon reach another trail junction. Go right for several hundred metres to and through the Circlet Campground; straight ahead is the trail to Mt. Albert Edward and Mt. Jutland.

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37. Whiskey Meadows

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38. Signs of mining activity from the 1930’s.

The Circlet Lake Campground has 20 wooden tent platforms (photos 39 & 40), an overflow area and several other informal spots to camp when the campsite is full, a common occurrence on summer weekends.  If you can’t find an available platform, do you best to minimize your impact on the fragile vegetation.  The heather and other shrubs are many decades if not centuries old, easily damaged (brittle) and exceedingly slow to re-grow (in fact, they won’t re-grow unless measures are taken to preclude foot traffic, as was done in the Kwai Lake Campground area). Water is only available from the lake; hence it must be boiled before drinking or use for cooking. A water filter is a good idea since Giardia is reportedly endemic throughout the Park.

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39. Circlet Campsite

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40. VISPINE volunteers overnighting at Circlet on wooden platforms

From Circlet, the route of the Spine Trail follows the Albert Edward Trail for about 2.4 km.  After an easy start across moderate slopes, the badly eroded trail soon climbs very steeply for about 500 metres directly uphill to a sparsely treed subalpine plateau with several small tarns and ponds. The trail then ascends another steep pitch with lots of exposed bedrock up to the main ridge. A large cairn of boulders and directional signs to Mt. Albert Edward, Mt. Jutland and Gem Lake (photo 41 & 42) used to mark the main trail junction, but now the trail to Albert Edward stays a bit lower to the south.

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41. Signage near cairn, Mt. Alberta Edward (R), Mt. Regan (L)

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42. Terry Lewis near signage cairn

The Spine Trail route (no longer a continuous well-defined trail) goes by this cairn and continues in a northwesterly direction along Jutland Ridge (photo 43) which provides easy hiking and great views including the view to Gem Lake (photo 44) situated in a cirque surrounded by cliffs and defined by the peaks of Regan, Albert Edward and Jutland. Small rock cairns mark the route as far as Mt. Jutland (1820 m summit elevation), but past Jutland there are no more cairns.

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43. Jutland Ridge

 

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45. Sean Park, VISPINE Volunteer, looking at Sunrise Lake

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44. Mt. Albert Edward and Gem Lake

By staying towards the northeast side of the ridge, you will get good views of Sunrise Lake (photo 45). Continuing NW along the ridge, you will pass some small tarns (photo 46) and the ridge remains wide open and treeless to a point about 2.5 km NW of Mt. Jutland (you cross the Strathcona Park boundary at about the 2-km point NW of Jutland and enter private lands owned by Island Timberlands (their Oyster River Operation).

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46. Jutland Ridge Tarn

Soon after passing a pair of small tarns, the ridge becomes forested (at about 1350 m elevation). After another kilometer through forest, the route joins a logging road (photo 47) that switchbacks down the valley floor of the upper Oyster River drainage north of Norm Lake (photo 48).

 

 

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47. Roads in distance at north end of Jutland Ridge

 

 

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48. Upper Oyster Valley between Norm and Pearl Lakes

Driving Directions to and GPS Coordinates of the Trail Head

There are two main trailheads for hikers visiting Strathcona Provincial Park, the old Forbidden Plateau Ski-hill and Mount Washington. The Spine Trail route enters the Park from the old Forbidden Plateau Ski-hill.

From Courtenay, turn NW onto Headquarters Road from the Old Island Highway.  Continue along Headquarters for 2.5 km or so to turn left onto Piercy Road.  The old Bailey bridge crossing of the Tsolum River will soon (late 2017) be replaced by a new bridge over the Tsolum. Follow Piercy Road for about 4 km to Forbidden Plateau Road where you will turn left. Continue along Forbidden Plateau Road for 15 km to its terminus at the old Ski-hill parking lot. The first section of this road, which is in the valley, passes numerous rural residential and acreage properties (also a private airfield!) to the base of the mountain where you will see a wide gravel chain-up area. The road hooks sharply left immediately past the chain-up area and just ahead of this switchback changes from a paved to a gravel surface. The road then climbs steadily for more than 500 metres (vertical) via a series of switchbacks to the parking area, and in doing so affords great views eastwards over the Comox Valley lowlands and Georgia Straight across to the BC Mainland with its backdrop of the Coast Mountains. Follow the main tracks, ignoring several side logging roads. Towards the end, several ski cabins front the road as well as a couple of side streets with ski cabins. The last piece of the road becomes a one-way loop that accesses the parking area.

GPS Coordinates:

N49° 39′ 41.9″ W125° 09′ 50.2″ Forbidden Plateau Ski-lodge site and Parking area

N49° 39′ 15.2″ W125° 12′ 17.3″ Junction of Plateau Trail and Mt. Becher Trail

N49° 39′ 12.1″ W125° 13′ 08.9″ Junction of Mt. Becher Trail and Trail to Ash Pond

N49° 40′ 46.1″ W125° 15′ 46.5″ Junction of Plateau Trail with McKenzie Meadows Bypass Trail

N49° 40′ 55.7″ W125° 15′ 52.8″ McKenzie Lake Campsite

N49° 41′ 06.8″ W125° 15′ 59.4″ Douglas Lake Cabin

Parking

Parking is available at the former Ski-hill parking area (free; photo 01).  The lot has room for at least a hundred vehicles, including large trailers and motor homes.  Recreation vehicle folks often stay overnight.

There are 4 old (abandoned) BC parks style campsites just off the northern end of the parking area (photo 01a, 01b), right off the sharp left turn into the parking area.  The old pit toilet buildings have collapsed and there is no water available nearby at the present time.

Other Trails in This Area:

There are numerous mountain biking trails between the old Forbidden Plateau Ski-hill and Comox Lake.  You also pass Nymph Falls Park and trails on your way up Forbidden Plateau Road.

Other Web Links for info on this area

Strathcona Provincial Park website – www.env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks/explore/parkpgs/strath/

Lindsay Elms Beyond Nootka website – http://www.beyondnootka.com/articles/becher.html

Trail Forks Forbidden Plateau trails map – https://www.trailforks.com/region/forbidden-plateau/

Recorded By/Date:

Terry Lewis/ September 2017

 

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