The Heather Trail is one of British Columbia’s premier backpacking paths, offering huge rewards for relatively little effort.
Featuring sweeping mountain views, vibrant wildflower meadows, great camping facilities and minimal elevation gain, it’s the ideal destination for a first time backpacking trip.
Usually hiked as an 44km out and back route over 3 days, the Heather Trail can also be incorporated into a 39km thru-hike. It’s also popular to day hike the first 8km (16km return) with an optional summit of the First Brother.
The path 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.
In this post, discover everything you need to know about hiking the Heather Trail. Here’s what to expect:
- About the Heather Trail
- Hike experience
- Heather Trail hiking guide
Updated April 2022. Photos are from September 2017 and July 2021. This post includes some affiliate links. If you make a purchase via one of these links, we may receive a small percentage of the sale at no extra cost to you.
Location: Manning Park
Distance: 22km one way to Nicomen Lake
Elevation gain: 750m
Hike type: Out and back (or part of a thru-hike)
Time: 8-10 hours to Nicomen Lake
Fees: $5/per person/per night camping
Dogs: Permitted on leash
- Always bring the 10 Essentials
- Know how to stay safe in the backcountry
- Remember to Leave No Trace to help keep the wilderness wild
- Understand how to avoid negative bear encounters
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An introduction to the Heather Trail
The Heather Trail is located in E.C. Manning Provincial Park (usually referred to as simply ‘Manning Park’) in southwestern British Columbia, Canada.
Manning Park is located on the traditional territory of the Syilx, Nlaka’pamux and the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.
The Heather Trail is a 22km long hiking path running from Blackwall Peak to Nicomen Lake, through a series of alpine meadows. With the trailhead being located at 1980m elevation, hikers enjoy panoramic views from the very beginning.
Manning Park as we know it today wouldn’t exist without the Heather Trail. The meadows were once used by settlers to graze sheep, a factor that led activists to campaign for protection.
The Three Brothers Mountain Reserve was established in 1931, a reference to the mountain range that borders the meadows. This reserve eventually transformed into E.C. Manning Provincial Park, named in memory of BC’s Chief Forester from 1936-41.
Today, the Heather Trail features three backcountry campgrounds and a well established path through the meadows. It is one of the most accessible places to see alpine wildflowers in British Columbia.
The Heather Trail: Hike Experience
Read on for a quick overview of the Heather Trail, from Blackwall Peak to Nicomen Lake.
Parking lot to Buckhorn Campsite
The Heather Trail starts on Blackwall Peak, at an elevation of 1980m. There are trailheads located in both the upper and lower parking lots, with the latter being slightly longer.
No matter which route you choose, the path descends slowly as it follows the slope of Lone Man Ridge. Endless layers of mountains lie ahead and wildflowers already line the trail.
The trails soon intersect and continue a slow descent into the valley. The landscape becomes more lush and forested, with large wildflower meadows appearing on both sides. Buckhorn Campground appears after a long flat section.
Buckhorn Campground to Kicking Horse Campground
Leaving Buckhorn, the trail climbs out of the forest and up to the alpine meadows. The ascent is pretty steady, with over 200m gained in just under 2km.
The first section is shaded by trees, which gradually recede after 750m or so (15 minutes of continuous hiking). At this point, the views start appearing and wildflower meadows appear next to the trail.
The climb continues, still with a steady ascent. But there’s plenty of good places to stop and take in the panoramas. The path finally levels off around 2.4km after leaving Buckhorn Campground.
This is the most spectacular section of the Heather Trail, with spectacular views in all directions and a plethora of wildflowers everywhere. The path meanders through the meadows and descends into a very dry area.
Most day hikers turn around at this point or take the detour to the First Brother summit (see below). The trail then follows the base of the other brothers as it approaches Kicking Horse Campground.
First Brother summit
A fun (and popular) side trip from the Heather Trail is to summit the First Brother. There actually four ‘Brother’ mountains along this trail, but only one has an established trail to the top.
The route up towards the summit (1km one way with 150m elevation gain) 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.
From this position, you can see spectacular 360 degrees views of the rugged Cascades, the snowy Coast Mountains and the rolling hills of the Similkameen Valley.
Kicking Horse Campground to Nicomen Lake
The route from Kicking Horse Campground to Nicomen Lake stays on the high ground, with far reaching views in multiple directions. The trail is still lined with wildflowers here.
There are some smaller hills but nothing too strenuous until you reach a crumbling ridge above Nicomen Lake. From above, the 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 the ridge and then down a dozen rocky switchbacks (approx 230m elevation loss). And all the while, the tantalising image of Nicomen Lake lounges in the background.
With six tent pads lining the lakeshore, Nicomen Lake is a serene spot to spend the night.
Nicomen Lake also marks the end of the Heather Trail. The return journey is via the same route, unless you have already decided to thru-hike the trail (see below).
Thru-hiking the Heather Trail
If you don’t like the idea of hiking the same route twice, consider thru-hiking the Heather Trail. We did this in September 2017.
From Nicomen Lake, follow the Grainger Creek Trail for 11.5km. Downhill almost all the way, this switchback focused trail is set entirely in the trees with zero views. Depending on recent weather conditions and maintenance, there may be some blowdown obstacles.
At Grainger Creek Campground, it’s time to switch to the Hope Pass Trail for the final 5.5km. This section is a little more interesting. 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 is far more relaxed here, with a fairly undulating path all the way to the highway.
There is one last challenge, however, just 300m from the end. The trail crosses the Skaist River, where there is no official crossing.
When we visited, there was a very large log forming a bridge (no handrails) over the river. I have heard (2021) that this log is no longer there and crossing is now more difficult.
Despite the Grainger Creek section not being the most exciting trail, I enjoyed completing the Heather Trail as a thru-hike. Travelling one way with no turning back is immensely satisfying.
The Heather Trail: Hiking guide
Inspired to hike the Heather Trail yourself? This section of the post includes all of the information you need to hike the trail, including parking details, fee breakdown, campground information and more!
The Heather Trail is located in E.C. Manning Provincial Park, British Columbia. The park straddles the North Cascade Mountains, with the coastal rainforest on one side and the semi-arid landscape of the Okanagan on the other.
The drive to the trailhead from Vancouver is 233km, about three and a half hours. It’s a very similar distance from Kelowna as well (242km).
The Heather Trail is 22km or 21km long, depending which parking lot is used as a starting point. The official end point of the Heather Trail is Nicomen Lake.
The majority of people turn around at Nicomen Lake and hike back to the parking lot. The total hiking distance is therefore 44km or 42km.
Some hikers choose to traverse the Heather Trail as part of a thru-hike, continuing another 17km to Cayuse Flats. The total thru-hike distance is 39km or 40km, depending on the parking lot chosen. More details later in this guide.
In my mind, the Heather Trail is a low difficulty backpacking path. By day hiking standards, I’d say it is on the easier side of intermediate level.
If you don’t hike often or have never backpacked before, you may find the Heather Trail to be more challenging than this.
With the trailhead being located at 1980m, most of the hike elevation is gained on the drive to the parking lot. Besides a couple of significant ascents and descents, most of the hike is pretty cruisy with a mixture of meandering and flat terrain.
Due to the elevation at the start, there are rewards right away (mountain views, wildflowers etc.). This definitely helps with motivation!
For all of the above reasons, I think the Heather Trail is a great pick for a first time backpacking trip.
When to hike the Heather Trail
The Heather Trail’s hiking season is pretty short. The road to the trailhead usually opens in early July, often in time for the Canada Day long weekend. Access is closed again in late September or early October.
The exact dates vary from year to year as they are dependent on seasonal weather conditions and resultant snow melt.
The main Heather Trail hiking season is mid July to early September.
Snow patches are not uncommon on the Heather Trail in early July. The streams and creeks are usually running pretty high at this time (due to snow melt), which can leave the trail pretty wet and muddy. Nicomen Lake is normally still thawing in early July.
The most popular time to hike the Heather Trail is from late July to early August. The wildflowers are usually at their peak at this time. The campgrounds are very busy during this period, especially on weekends. There are many day hikers as well.
While there are far less wildflowers to see in mid September, the Heather Trail is surrounded by a beautiful golden hued landscape at this time. It’s also much quieter. I really enjoyed backpacking the trail in September though it was cold at night (-1 or -2°c).
Due to the high elevation, snow can come early to the Heather Trail. The timing varies, but a big dump of snow is not uncommon at the end of September. If you’re planning a trip at this time, play close attention to weather forecasts.
The official trailhead for the Heather Trail is located in the lower parking lot on Blackwall Road, 14km from Highway 3. The distance to Nicomen Lake is 22km from here.
Some hikers choose to start their Heather Trail hike from one of the upper parking lots, 600m further up Blackwall Road. There is a trailhead for the Viewpoint Loop here, which intersects with the Heather Trail after 1km (there is Heather Trail signage). The distance to Nicomen Lake from this alternative trailhead is 21km.
The Heather Trail trailheads are accessed from Blackwall Road, which winds its way 14.6km and 825m up from Highway 3. The turnoff is opposite the exit for Manning Park Resort and the Lightning Lake Campground. Look for the ‘Cascade Lookout’ signs.
The first 8km of the road is paved to the picturesque Cascade Lookout. At this point, the road turns to dirt. The unpaved portion is normally clear of large rocks and other obstacles but it can be bumpy due to washboarding (ripples in the surface of the road). Prepare to drive slowly.
The lower parking lot is located 14km from Highway 3. There is Heather Trail signage, parking on both sides of the road and a couple of outhouses.
The upper parking lots are situated on both sides of the final curve of Blackwall Road, about 600m beyond the lower parking lot. There are outhouses, picnic benches, trail signage and a shelter.
Both parking lots can get very busy on weekends, especially during the wildflower peak (late July to early August).
For those planning to thru-hike the Heather Trail to Cayuse Flats, the parking lot on the other side of Highway 3 has space for about six or seven parked vehicles. There were no other vehicles parked here at the time of our September thru-hike.
The Heather Trail is completely free to hike. Manning Park is also completely free to enter, with no charge for day use.
There are three campgrounds on the Heather Trail, with 2022 camping fees set as $5/per night/per person. Fees must be paid before starting the hike, either online via BC Parks’ Backcountry Permit Registration System or in person at the Manning Park Visitor Centre or Manning Park Lodge.
All three campgrounds work on a first come, first serve system. Manning Park does not have a backcountry camping reservation system. Paying the camping fee does not guarantee a tent pad.
There are three established campgrounds on the Heather Trail. All three campgrounds are well maintained with at least one bear cache and outhouse.
Please note that campfires are not allowed at Buckhorn and Kicking Horse. Although campfires are allowed at Nicomen Lake, they are not recommended due to the delicate alpine environment.
The camping fee is $5/per night/per person, payable before you start your hike. This fee can be paid online via BC Parks’ Backcountry Permit Registration System or in person at the Manning Park Visitor Centre or Manning Park Lodge.
It is important to note that paying for the backcountry permit does not = campsite reservation. There is no reservation system for the campgrounds on the Heather Trail – they work on a first come, first serve system. All three campgrounds are usually very busy on summer weekends.
If you arrive at a campground with no available tent pads (and it would not be safe for you to move to a different campground), find the most durable surface to camp on, preferably a spot that has been previously used for this purpose. Stay one night only.
Buckhorn Campsite is located 4.5km from the Lower Parking Lot and 3.5km from the Upper Parking Lot.
Located in a partially forested area next to a creek, Buckhorn Campground offers both shade and a fairly reliable water source (no views).
Buckhorn Campground is an ideal destination for first time backpackers or anyone getting a late start on the trail.
Novice hikers can set up camp at Buckhorn and then venture up Bonnevier Ridge to the alpine meadows or the First Brother as a day trip.
This campground has recently been upgraded, with additional bear caches, three new bridges and 14 more tent pads (20+ total).
Kicking Horse Campground
Kicking Horse Campground is located 12km from the Upper Parking Lot and 13km from the Lower Parking Lot.
The campground itself is a slight detour away from the main trail, in a forested area with a small stream. There are 8 tent pads, some with good privacy. Deer sometimes frequent this area.
While there are no views in the campground, you can find some good vistas only 10 minutes walk away.
Kicking Horse Campground is a popular place to base camp for day hikes to Nicomen Lake.
Nicomen Lake Campground
Nicomen Lake Campground is located 21km from the Upper Parking Lot and 22km from the Lower Parking Lot.
The camping area is right on the northern shore of the lake, with 4 of the 6 tent pads having uninterrupted lake views. There is a rustic cabin (no door) nearby commonly used for shelter in bad weather.
Nicomen Lake itself is a very cold, even in the height of summer. It is a refreshing place to swim after a hot hiking day. The fishing is apparently good, though we personally had no luck.
The Heather Trail is a popular hiking path, with an obvious, established route from the two parking lots on Blackwall Peak all the way to Nicomen Lake. There is some official BC Parks’ signage along the route as well.
The side route to the First Brother (of the Three Brothers) is also well used, though the final section of trail to the summit is fairly rocky.
The descent to Nicomen Lake features a number of steep switchbacks. Some people have created additional routes here, but it is still easy to see the main trail.
The Grainger Creek and Hope Pass trails (for a Heather Trail thru-hike) are also established paths, with directional signage to Cayuse Flats.
The Heather Trail is featured on our favourite navigational app – Maps.me. Download the relevant map in advance and you can refer to it offline.
Due to the Heather Trail’s delicate sub-alpine surroundings, please be sure to keep to the main trail at all times. It can take years (even decades) for sub-alpine terrain to recover after being stepped on.
The vast majority of people hike the Heather Trail from southeast (Blackwall Peak) to northwest (Nicomen Lake).
The only way to hike the Heather Trail in the other direction requires an approach on the Nicomen Lake Trail or Grainger Creek and Hope Pass trails (from Cayuse Flats).
The latter is a lot more difficult as it involves a sustained uphill climb of almost 1000m over 17km. It is also a lot less scenic as it is almost entirely forested.
Thru-hiking the Heather Trail
A thru-hike of the Heather Trail is possible by continuing to Cayuse Flats via the Grainger Creek Trail and Hope Pass Trail after Nicomen Lake.
The additional distance is 17km with almost 1000m of elevation loss. The thru-hike distance would therefore be 38 or 39km, depending on which parking lot you start at.
A shuttle system with two vehicles is necessary to complete a Heather Trail thru-hike without relying on hitchhiking or a strenuous and potentially dangerous hike back along the highway.
One vehicle should be parked at one of the Blackwall Peak parking lots to start the hike. The other vehicle is left at the Cayuse Flats parking lot.
The driving distance between the trailheads is almost 40km so expect to spend a couple of hours shuttling vehicles around before your hike.
Personally, I enjoyed hiking the Heather Trail as a thru-hike. I really like hiking one-way and knowing that I won’t need to hike back the same way!
I would not recommend attempting to thru-hike the Heather Trail the other way (Cayuse Flats to Nicomen Lake) due to the large elevation change and general tedium you may experience.
There is a counter argument, however, that hiking from this direction is more climatic, in that the views get better and better as you go (rather than the other way around).
Heather Trail itinerary suggestions
Here are some of the most popular Heather Trail itineraries.
Please note that the * signifes additional kilometres to hike to the summit of the First Brother or hike partway along the ridge.
2 nights base camp at Buckhorn Campground
Day 1 – Lower/Upper parking lot to Buckhorn (4.5km/3.5km)
Day 2 – Day trip to alpine meadows, with optional First Brother summit (around 10km return*)
Day 3 – Buckhorn to parking lot (4.5km/3.5km)
This easy itinerary is ideal for first time backpackers, families with young children or anyone who does not want to hike far with heavy backpacks.
2 nights base camp at Kicking Horse Campground
Day 1 – Parking lot to Kicking Horse (12km/13km)
Day 2 – Day trip to Nicomen Lake (18km)
Day 3 – Kicking Horse to parking lot with optional First Brother summit (12km/13km*)
This longer 2 night itinerary takes in the entire route without the hassle of moving campsites. This is a very popular way to hike the Heather Trail. I think this itinerary would also be a good pick for a first time backpacking trip.
2 night challenge
Day 1 – Parking lot to Nicomen Lake (21km/22km)
Day 2 – Nicomen Lake to Kicking Horse (9km)
Day 3 – Kicking Horse to parking lot via with optional First Brother summit (12km/13km*)
Experienced hikers looking for a challenge may enjoy hiking all the way to Nicomen Lake in one long day. A stop at Kicking Horse Campground on the return journey allows for a visit to the summit of the First Brother.
2 night thru hike to Cayuse Flats
Day 1 – Parking lot to Kicking Horse with optional First Brother summit (12km/13km*)
Day 2 – Kicking Horse to Nicomen Lake (9km)
Day 3 – Nicomen Lake to Cayuse Flats parking lot (17km)
This 2 night itinerary is popular with those hiking the Heather Trail as a thru-hike from Blackwall Peak to Cayuse Flats. The final day is long but downhill almost the entire way. Since we had a late start, we stayed at Buckthorn and then Nicomen Lake.
3 nights with a stay at Nicomen Lake
Day 1 – Parking lot to Kicking Horse (12km/13km)
Day 2 – Kicking Horse to Nicomen Lake (9km)
Day 3 – Nicomen Lake to Kicking Horse (9km)
Day 4 – Kicking Horse to parking lot with optional First Brother summit (12km/13km*)
Camping by the side of Nicomen Lake is a highlight for many when hiking the Heather Trail (despite the bugs!) Break up the journey with a stay at Kicking Horse in each direction.
3 nights with a late start
Day 1 – Parking lot to Buckhorn (4.5km/3.5km)
Day 2 – Buckhorn to Nicomen Lake (17.6km)
Day 3 – Nicomen Lake to Kicking Horse (9km)
Day 4 – Kicking Horse to parking lot with optional First Brother summit (12km/13km*)
Arriving in Manning Park too late to hike all the way to Kicking Horse? Consider a stop at Buckhorn Campground, before moving on to Nicomen Lake the next day. On the way back, stop at Kicking Horse to allow for an easier summit of the First Brother on the last day.
Manning Park is home to a variety of animals, including 60 different types of mammal and more than 200 species of birds. Both grizzly bears and black bears live in this area, though the black variety are far more common.
Keep your eyes open for the tiny pika, who lives in rocky areas. You may also see marmots, deer and ground squirrels.
With so much wildlife in the area (including bears), it is important to store your food carefully when backpacking the Heather Trail. Use the bear caches at the campgrounds but come prepared with some cord in case you need to hang your food instead.
When hiking the trail, be sure to make noise to make your presence known to wildlife. If you do see any wildlife, be sure to give them plenty of space as well as an escape route.
I always recommend carrying bear spray when exploring the backcountry. You’ll probably never have to use it but it offers ‘last resort’ protection in the unlikely event of a negative encounter.
A side note – mosquitoes and flies are pretty prevalent along the Heather Trail from mid July to mid August (ish). We didn’t experience any issues in early June or mid September but I’m sure it varies from year to year. The bugs are apparently pretty bad around Nicomen Lake and Kicking Horse campgrounds.
Read Next: Bear Safety in Canada, Tips and Advice
The Heather Trail is a popular hiking destination but it is still located in a relatively remote backcountry area. Backpackers (and day hikers) must be self sufficient.
Please note that paying the camping fees does not constitute ‘registration’ – BC Parks does not track hikers movements on and off the trail. Please tell someone where you’re going and when you plan to be back so they can raise the alarm if you do not return on time.
Here are some of the main hazards to be aware of while hiking the Heather Trail:
- Weather. With much the trail located above 1900m, weather can change very quickly. Snow is possible even in the middle of summer. Bring appropriate clothing and check the forecast for storms before leaving
- Water. While creeks and streams do cross the trail, some sources run dry in the height of summer. Carry plenty of water and prepare to filter water you do find
- Bears. Manning Park is bear country. Make noise to make your presence known to any bears (or other wildlife) in the area. If staying overnight, keep a clean camp and keep all food and attractants out of reach of wildlife. Read our bear safety guide
- Communication. There is very little phone service along the Heather Trail. Bring a satellite communication devices (Inreach or Spot) for emergencies
- Know your limits. One of the great things about this trail is that you do not have to reserve in advance. If you feel tired, stop at the next campground
- Snow. This trail is best hiked from mid/late July to mid/late September. When hiking outside of this period, expect snow on the trail as well as cold temperatures. The trail can be quite muddy in early July as snow melts
- Wildfires. There have been a number of significant wildfires near the Heather Trail in recent years. Closures can and do happen. Be sure to check the BC Parks’ and Wildfire Service websites before heading to the trailhead
In early and late summer, there are plenty of water sources on the Heather Trail with multiple creeks and streams crossing the path. In the height of summer, finding water becomes more difficult.
Nicomen Lake, as you may expect, has the best water source of any campground on the Heather Trail. Kicking Horse has a small stream and there is a creek at Buckhorn Campground.
These running water sources run lower in the summer and you may need to walk along them to find a better spot to gather water.
Planning to hike the trail between late July and early September? Prepare to carry water between campgrounds.
Due to the unknown quality of the water, I would suggest purifying water on this trail. Personally, I prefer to use a filter as it also removes larger particles in the water. We use MSR’s Trail Shot Filter.
Essential items to bring
Besides all of your camping gear, clothing and 10 Essentials, I’d recommend bringing the following items for your Heather Trail adventure:
- Bear spray. Although it’s unlikely you’ll see any bears or other large mammals, it’s a good idea to carry bear spray ‘just in case.’ Keep it in a convenient place, close enough to access quickly. I’d recommend using a holster like this
- Rope/cord and carabiner. The campgrounds are very busy from late July to late August and the bear caches are often packed. If you’re going on a weekend and plan to stay at Kicking Horse Campground, I would bring 15m of rope/cord and a carabiner for a bear hang as a backup
- Hiking poles. Although this trail doesn’t have a lot of big ascents or descents, you may find hiking poles to be helpful. JR and I usually share a pair of Black Diamond’s Carbon Z poles (less than 300g)
- Backcountry permit receipt. As mentioned, camping is $5/per person/per night on the Heather Trail and must be paid prior to starting your hike
- Sun hat/sunglasses – There isn’t a lot of shade in the alpine meadows and it can get HOT here in summer! Pack a sun hat and a pair of sunglasses, along with some sunscreen for protection from the sun
- Insect repellent. The flies and mosquitoes are particularly bad at Nicomen Lake and in Kicking Horse campground. Be sure to bring insect repellent
- Toilet paper. I never assume that there will be toilet paper in any of the Heather Trail outhouses. Be sure to bring your own!
Where to stay before and after hiking the Heather Trail
Manning Park Resort is an obvious choice if you’re looking for a ‘real bed’ and shower immediately after finishing the trail. The resort offers the choice of rooms, suites, chalets, cottages and villas. There’s an on-site pub and restaurant as well.
If it’s just the shower you’re after, consider a stay at the Lightning Lakes front country campground in Manning Park. This popular campground has 143 campsites, all reservable in advance (two month rolling booking window in 2022). The fee is $35/site.
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One half of the Canadian/British couple behind Off Track Travel, Gemma is happiest when hiking on the trail or planning the next big travel adventure. JR and Gemma are currently based in the beautiful Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada