The Heather Trail offers what I believe to be a near-perfect backpacking experience with stunning views, interesting terrain and great camping facilities. The difficulty level is low too, providing huge reward for very little effort. Usually an out and back trail, the Heather Trail can also be part of a thru-hike. This, to me, is a huge bonus because this means there is no backtracking!
The Heather Trail travels over mountain ridges, through several valleys, across alpine meadows, and finally, ends at a hidden lake. I say, ‘finally,’ but this is the kind of trail where the kilometres past quickly. Instead of counting distance, it is way more fun to count mountain peaks. And there are plenty of them in every direction. On our hike, we could also see the twisting ribbons of smoke from nearby wildfires. We almost didn’t even go on this adventure, fearing the skies would be too smoky. It’s a very good thing we didn’t let it put us off. It was one of our best hiking experiences so far!
Low effort, high reward
This trail is well known for its beautiful displays of wildflowers. The prime time to see these wildflowers is usually July. Heading out to hike the trail in early September, we had long missed the window of opportunity. But that was fine. We weren’t here to see wildflowers. It was the views we were after. And it was epic views we got, more than we ever could have hoped for. And with astoundingly little effort too. If you’re a bit of a lazy (or complete novice) hiker, this may be the ultimate trail for you.
The most crucial to know is that the majority of the Heather Trail’s elevation is gained on the steep trip up Blackwell Drive to the trailhead. This means that the rest of the journey to Nicomen Ridge (21km) is a cruisy hike through beautiful alpine meadows with little dramatic elevation gain or loss. A quick ascent from the valley where the first campsite is located is as bad as it gets. Another awesome thing about this hike is that you really don’t notice the distance or elevation too much with those incredible views everywhere you look. I was surprised every time I looked back to see the distance we had travelled.
Until this hike, I never truly understood why some trails have a campsite located only a few kilometres from the beginning. On the Heather Trail, it makes total sense. For novice hikers, camping at Buckhorn (4.5km from the lower Blackwall parking lot) is an awesome way to try out backpacking for the first time. The best of the trail can then easily be explored from the campsite on a day hike.
Another great reason for Buckhorn is for late-starters. In our case, we left the lower parking lot at 6pm. Just over an hour later, our tent was fully set up and our stove warming up water for dinner. The next day we woke fully refreshed for the uphill section to the Bonnevier Ridge. Our journey to Nicomen Lake (16.5km) would then be that little bit wonderfully shorter.
Ascending the First Brother
A fun (and popular) side trip from the Heather Trail is to summit the First Brother mountain. There actually four ‘Brother’ mountains along this trail, but only one has an established trail to the top. The route up towards the summit is unsurprisingly steep and rocky, however, the panoramas of the ridge ahead and the valley bottom below gets better and better with every step.
We didn’t actually reach the true summit, stopping just as the elevation flattened out a little and the ridge started to get narrower. With the blistering chilly wind, we were both losing any kind of feeling in our hands. From our lookout, we could see epic 360 degrees views of the rugged Cascades, the snowy Coast Mountains, the rolling hills of the Similkameen Valley and also sadly, the smoke rising from nearby wildfires. This is the kind of view I’d love to stop and savour for hours; it really felt like being on top of the world. Unfortunately for us, the cold wind was unrelenting.
camping at nicomen Lake
From above, Nicomen Lake glitters dark blue. Up close, it sparkles varying shades of green in the sunlight. To see this though, you have to carefully travel across a crumbling ridge and then down a dozen rocky switchbacks. And all the while, the tantalising image of Nicomen Lake lounges in the background. Arriving at the little campsite is the perfect relief after that unexpectedly tense descent. Six tent pads line the water alongside an old wooden shelter.
Bright morning sun was appreciated to thaw off our icy tent. The fishing is rumoured to be excellent here due to the reasonably long access but we had no such luck. It appeared that, despite the sunshine, the fish weren’t quite warm enough to think about eating.
The Grainger Creek trail
From one of the best hikes to one of the dull, all in 24 hours or less. The 11.5km from Nicomen Lake to Grainger Creek campsite is LONG. It is a classic single track hike edging along mountains, the vast majority of which is downhill with a crazy elevation loss of 800m. These mountains I mention? Unfortunately, you never see them. Shortly after leaving lovely little Nicomen Lake behind, the trail enters the dense forest and stays there for the entirety.
In the opposite direction, this trail would be something of a personal hell. Downhill, it was pleasant (but slightly boring) switchback focused hike through the sunlit trees. Indeed, sometimes the trail ran quite literally through trees with a lot of blowdown obstacles along the route.
A few hours in, we realised we had possibly underestimated how far our proposed lunch stop was. Looking at the map, Grainger Creek campsite looked to be half the way to Cayuse Flats (17km). It’s actually more like two-thirds of the distance once the steep elevation loss has been taken into account. So it was a long morning to say the least.
Hope Pass Trail
The third and final hike necessary to finish our thru-hike was a little more interesting than the steep switchbacks to Grainger Creek. The Hope Pass is a wagon trail built in 1861/2 on the request of the Royal Engineers. The trail is consequently very wide, so much so that we could actually hike side by side for the most part. The elevation was also more relaxed here, with a fairly undulating path all the way to the highway. Being so wide, densely forested and also fairly flat, it strongly reminded me of hiking the South Downs Way in the UK.
The Hope Pass did have one last challenge for us. Just 300m from the end, we were met with a very large tree trunk and a broken BC Parks sign in the middle of the trail. The tree trunk led over the neighbouring river. It was not an obstacle but rather a bridge. Being about fifteen metres long and with no handrails of any kind (and at the end of 40+km), let’s just say that I wasn’t best pleased to see this tree trunk. But hey, nothing like a bit of adrenaline and fear to finish a hike!
Thru-hiking the Heather Trail: essential details
The Heather Trail is most often hiked as an out and back trail from either of the Blackwall parking lots in E.C. Manning Park. Camping possibilities include Buckhorn (5km), Kicking Horse (13.5km) and right at the end at Nicomen Lake (21km). All campsites are well maintained with a bear cache, outhouse and tent pads. The fee is $5/per night/per person payable before you start your hike either online or at the Manning Park Visitor Centre. We found water sources at least every 1km or 2km along the trail.
A thru-hike of the Heather Trail is possible by following the Grainger Creek and Hope Pass trails back to Cayuse Flats. There is space at Cayuse Flats for about six or seven parked vehicles (ours was the only vehicle here). A shuttle system (thanks Mum and Dad!) with two vehicles is necessary to do this without relying on hitchhiking or a strenuous and potentially dangerous hike back along the highway. I would not recommend attempting to thru-hike the other way (clockwise) due to the huge elevation change and general tedium you may experience.
Despite the Grainger Creek section not being the most exciting trail to say the least, I still enjoyed completing the Heather Trail as a thru-hike. Travelling one way with no turning back is immensely satisfying. With a thru-hike, the trail in the distance is always unknown and therefore I find it that bit more interesting, even when the scenery may be fairly bland.
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