Hiking in British Columbia

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The Province of B.C. contains 365,948 sq miles of land ( enough room to accommodate four United Kingdoms plus another Wales). With a sparse population of about 3.5 million, B.C. is a natural haven for outdoorsmen and explorers seeking wide open spaces.

B.C.'s topography is approximately 72% mountainous with a further 18% categorised as rolling hill/plateau. There is no shortage of back country terrain for tourists who delight in riding shank's mare. Most of the mountain areas north of 55 degrees latitude are difficult to access due to the paucity of roads in this largely uninhabited, forested area that extends northward to the Yukon border (60th parallel). Notwithstanding, there are hundreds of developed trails throughout the central and southern regions of the province that are easily accessed from major highways and secondary roads.

There are three main mountain groups in the southern portion of British Columbia : the Rockies, the Columbias and the Coast Mountains. The Rockies mark the Continental Divide (watersheds and glaciers that disperse water westward to the Pacific Ocean, eastward to the plains, and northward to the Arctic Ocean). West of the Divide are the peaks of the B.C. Rockies, most of which exceed 10,000 ft. in height. Mt. Robson, at just under 13,000 ft. is the highest of these. The peaks east of the Continental Divide lie within Alberta. 1

Situated west of the Rockies and separated by the " trench" (a system of river valleys) are the Columbia Mountains. They consist of three connected ranges that are less-widely known than the Rockies, but which offer unlimited hiking, climbing and skiing opportunities. Immediately to the west of the Rockies on the other side of the " trench" stand the Purcell Mts. They join to the north and west with the Selkirks. Numerous peaks in these two ranges exceed 10,000 ft. Touching the northwest section of the Selkirks are the lower and less- rugged Monashees at 8,500 ft. To the west of the Monashees lies a 120 mile wide expanse of smaller mountains (under 7,000 ft.), rolling hills and plateaus.

By area, the Coast Mountains are the largest range in B.C. 2 They extend from the Alaska " panhandle " to the United States border. The middle section of this range (between 50 and 52 dgrees latitude) contains the most rugged and glaciated peaks in all of B.C. with elevations in some areas matching those of the Rockies. These higher peaks are remote. Most are unsuitable for hiking due to extensive glaciation; but there are some good spots to walk on the eastern edge that can be accessed by high-clearance or 4-wheel drive vehicles along logging roads that connect to Hwy 20 (west of Williams Lake). This region is not high-use because there are very few resorts and no provincial campgrounds.

Within the southernmost sections of the Coast Mountains, the peaks are not quite so lofty. Within 100 miles of Vancouver (as the crow flies) there are a half-dozen or so mountains exceeding 9,000 ft. but of those that border the Greater Vancouver districts, only a handful rise above 5,000 ft. Most of the popular trails in the south Coast Mountains are easily reached by vehicle. The town of Whistler, host of the 2010 Winter Olympics ski events, is located within this group of mountains just 75 miles from Vancouver. For the fit and not-so-fit, there are superb summer and autumn walks/hikes in and around Whistler. The established trails in this area are usually snow-free by June and remain so until mid to late October. The optimum time for hiking is late July to early September when most of the nearby campgrounds are open and the wildflowers in the alpine meadows are at their most beautiful display.

In B.C.'s higher mountain areas, hiking co-exists with serious mountaineering. The latter predominates above the tree-line where the well-beaten trails lined with spruce and larch peter out, giving way to meadows, rocky outcroppings, scree slopes, compacted granular snow called neves, 3 and fissured glaciers. The tree-line in the Coast Mountains tends to be much lower (around 5,000 ft.) due to the different species of evergreens that don't survive well above that elevation. 4

There are not many marked hiking trails in B.C. that rise above 8,000 ft. but on some mountain routes in the Rockies and Columbias it is possible for energetic day-hikers to reach 9,500 ft. promontories without the use of technical equipment. That becomes an option for consideration if the slopes and screes extending toward the summit(s) are unobstructed and not too steep. Such off-trail adventures should only be attempted in good weather with clear visibility. Hardy souls intent on proceeding above the tree-line need adequate water, sturdy boots and a first-aid/survival kit. Where the upward route is not obvious, they should also place route markers along the way e.g. erect cairns (without which, orientation may prove confusing during a misty descent). They must also head down from the final destination in time to reach the established trail below an hour (at least) before dusk.

For British hikers and fell-walkers who have never ventured higher than 4,000 ft., the prospect of hiking up to 7,000 ft. may sound daunting. But, in fact, there are only a handful of non-technical hikes in the Rockies and Columbias where there is more than a 4,500 ft. elevation gain. The majority of trailheads begin somewhere between 4,000 and 5,500 ft.; and since the high point of most marked trails is usually below 7,500 ft., simple arithmetic calculates that the elevation gains will be either less or are not much more than the elevation gained on a hike up Snowdon. Having summitted Wales' highest peak in 2005 from the southern approach (Watkin Path), I can assure readers that the degree of difficulty along the upper reaches of that route compares with the more difficult mountain trails in B.C. Those who are not in decent shape and feel concern about possibly overdoing it should verify the elevation gains prior to starting out.

( see next entry on Vancouver area hiking )

1 Banff and Jasper National Parks are situated in Alberta

2 at least half the Rockies lie in Alberta. The Coast Mountains are just as long but extend over a much wider area.

3 pronounced " nay-vays "

4 cedar, hemlock, Douglas fir, balsam and some pines

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