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Hiking the 23km Circlet Lake Trail in Strathcona Park, Vancouver Island

Most certainly one of the most underrated provincial parks in British Columbia, Strathcona Provincial Park is a must for anyone who wants to explore beyond the ocean when visiting Vancouver Island. This huge park provides the ‘spine’ of the island, hosting a number of rugged mountains in the 2000m range.

One of the easiest ways to explore Strathcona is via the Paradise Meadows trailhead near the small town of Courtenay. From here, there is a 2km accessible, mostly flat loop around alpine meadows.

Further trails lead into the backcountry from here. One of these goes to Circlet Lake, a beautiful alpine lake underneath a mountain ridge. Read on for our experience hiking a loop route to Circlet Lake plus a quick trail guide. 

JR standing on the boardwalk trail
Starting the Circlet Lake trail just after dawn

Backcountry necessities

jr hiking paradise meadows boardwalk
The sun soon came up as we hiked the trail

Planning the Circlet Lake hike

With the days getting shorter and the weather colder, we were determined to fit in as much as we could before the end of September – once October comes, it feels like winter is just around the corner.

With two perfect weather days falling on our weekend, I suggested an all day hike in Strathcona Provincial Park (30 minutes drive away) to Jean Robert to ‘make the most of the sunshine.’

He wasn’t too enthusiastic, especially when I mentioned starting at 6.30am. I convinced him that we wouldn’t ‘get the chance again!’ (this is a common theme when you live abroad/travel a lot) and we compromised to 8am.

A hiking test

The dream was to hike to the summit of Mount Albert Edward, the distinctive mountain you can see from Mount Washington Alpine Resort (also Vancouver Island’s 6th highest peak).

Realistically though, the most we’d hiked all summer was about 5km and one of those ‘hikes’ involved walking from one pub to another – not exactly the most strenuous of trips, to say the least. 

Mount Albert Edward is a 32km return trip, which most people do as an overnight trip. Not feeling like spending the night, we set off from the parking lot with the aim to just go as far as we could. It was a test of sorts, to see how much we would enjoy a long hike…and also, whether we could actually do it.

We took our 30-litre backpacks full of food (well, cookies and energy bars) to test ourselves that little bit more. Oh, I didn’t mention the other reason not to hike to Albert Edward.

There was a pretty big storm just 3 days before, with quite a lot of snow. The mountains were having a bit of a cold snap.

jr lake helen mackenzie
Lake Helen MacKenzie on the Circlet Lake trail

My shadow on Helen MacKenzie Lake in the early morningIcy boardwalks on the Circlet Lake trail

The Circlet Lake trail starts off on the Paradise Meadows boardwalk, which was all well and good until we discovered that wood can be very icy in the early morning!

About an hour in we reached Lake Helen MacKenzie, serene and quiet at 9am in the morning. Onwards from here, the route ascended and led us over gigantic tree roots and through a fair amount of mud.

A switchback trail led to the local Ranger Cabin, approx 4km from the parking lot where we had started. This is where the landscape turned very pretty; colourful scrubs and hundreds of varieties of mushrooms bloomed everywhere, with Mount Albert Edward as the backdrop.

Reaching Circlet Lake

From here, we lost elevation as soon as we’d gained it; we were hiking uphill and then downhill almost straight after! A bit frustrating, but I kept myself entertained by looking out for the cougar that had been seen in the area recently (with a cub).

Reaching Circlet Lake at lunchtime – 4 hours in – was fantastic, by all of the accounts I had read online this was a pretty average time. It was a beautiful place to stop for some food and a power nap, though we did get told by another hiker after we woke up that they’d just seen a bear nearby.

Range cabin on the way to Circlet Lake
Boardwalk and shadows on the way to Circlet Lake
Wooden boardwalk leading to Circlet Lake
Circlet Lake from one of the campground tent pads
gemma and jr selfie with circlet lake strathcona prk
At Circlet Lake

Hiking back to Paradise Meadows

Circlet Lake is where most people camp before heading up to summit Mount Albert Edward. We continued on a little further up the route to the mountain, but at this point, the path gets pretty rough and harder to follow.

It was also 2.30pm by this time, and we needed to head back down if we wanted to get back to the car before dark. Wouldn’t want to see that cougar at dusk!

We were only 5km from the summit of Mount Albert Edward as our furthest point. From Circlet Lake it is a 10km direct hike back to the parking lot, but we took the longer route back via Kwai Lake, to complete a circuit of sorts.

We passed several lakes on the way back, as well as some workmen in the middle of nowhere replacing some of the boardwalks.

A four-kilometre challenge

The four kilometres from Kwai Lake back to Lake Helen Mackenzie were a killer; two big climbs and lots of mini ups and downs. By this time our knees were hurting, wistfully thinking of the nice, flat boardwalk from earlier in the day. It was also pretty muddy, but by this time I didn’t care so much and just walked through it all. 

The last couple of km ended up being the hardest of the day though, especially with the sun threatening to set on us. We reached the car at 7.30pm (no cougar in sight), missing sunset by about five minutes.

Nevertheless, ten hours of hiking and we’d done it! 23km! We were both pretty proud of this achievement as we’d never really hiked together before, especially with equipment and some elevation.

Mount Albert Edward views
Some of the scenic views from the Forbidden Plateau trails
A snow capped peak above forest
The distinctive peak of Mount Albert Edward from the trail

Sunrise to sunset on the Circlet Lake trail

One of the most memorable parts, for me, was experiencing the whole day from start to finish. Waking up and watching the sunrise, putting on gloves and base layers to hike, getting back down to one layer in the midday heat, putting it all back on in the evening and finally, seeing the sun set.

Thinking that we basically walked the whole day is pretty cool too. Now we know we can do it, though 10-15km in a day is preferable to 23km.

I would recommend exploring Strathcona Park from the Paradise Meadows trailhead for those looking for an easy way into the alpine. The easy drive up to Mount Washington coves the long ascent from sea level and allows hikers to save energy for later. 

Brown sign with hiking distances
Strathcona Park hiking distance signs
hiking through paradise meadows at sunset
Finishing the hike back from Circlet Lake at sunset

The Circlet Lake hike, Strathcona Provincial Park

Strathcona Provincial Park is British Columbia’s oldest provincial park, designated in 1911. Occupying an area of around 250,000 hectares in the middle of Vancouver Island, Strathcona is best known for its rugged mountain peaks and long valley lakes. There are several different trailheads and access points into the park, which one of the easiest and most convenient being Paradise Meadows near Mount Washington Ski Resort (35 mins drive from the town of Courtenay). 

Circlet Lake is located within the Forbidden Plateau area of Strathcona Park. There is no defined ‘Circlet Lake trail;’ the route we took was a combination of other named hikes. The nature of the trails on Forbidden Plateau make it very easy to construct a circular route of your own choosing. 

Our first destination from the Paradise Meadows trailhead was Lake Helen MacKenzie (3.7km), followed by Circlet Lake (8km) and then Kwai Lake (4.5km), Lake Helen MacKenzie again (4km), Battleship Lake (1.3km) and Paradise Meadows trailhead (2km). All distances are approximate.

Click here to view the BC Parks Forbidden Plateau hiking trail Map

Camping at Circlet Lake

There are designated camping areas at Lake Helen MacKenzie (10 spots), Kwai Lake (15) and Circlet Lake (20). 

  • Tent pads, outhouses and bear caches are provided 
  • Campfires are not permitted in any of these camping areas
  • The backcountry fee is $10 per person, per night. You can pay this online in advance on BC Parks’ camping website
  • It is currently not possible to reserve a campsite


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