Whistler - High Notes Trail

Lower part of Blackscomb Mountain from our hotel room

We did this hike because I wanted to go to a game convention.

For several years I have been interested in DragonFlight. I know some wargamers in the Seattle area who attend the convention so I figured it would be easy to arrange games. Since it is during the summer, I also thought I could combine it with some hiking in the Cascades. I never made it though because the timing just wasn't ever right. While I worked at the University of Idaho I usually took the whole month of July off. DragonFlight was always the weekend right after I got back, so it wasn't the best time to ask for a long weekend. Since I retired from the U of I this past June, it seemed like this would be the year that I would finally make it to Dragonflight.

Sandy serves on the regional board of directors for Thrivent Financial. They scheduled a meeting in Portland for a Monday in August. When we checked, it was the day after DragonFlight finished. She suggested that I could go to DragonFlight, she would fly to her meeting in Portland, and we could meet up and do something for a couple of days after her meeting. Her original proposal was to go to the Columbia Gorge Hotel, a really cool, old, historic hotel that we had stayed at once before many years ago. It looked like everything lined up so we arranged for a dog sitter for Abby. Sandy committed to her meeting and booked her air travel to Portland.

Whistler summit from the upper gondola station

Well, by the time we actually left, the trip had evolved a lot. I didn't make it to DragonFlight. The hotel where it is held sold out all of their rooms way in advance, before I made reservations. I checked with three of my wargaming buddies in Seattle to try to arrange a game. They each said that they were already had game sessions planned. It looked like lining up games would be more work than I had thought. By coincidence it turned out that all three of my friends were in the same game, even though they hadn't known each other beforehand and didn't know I had contacted all of them separately. So I dropped the idea of going to DragonFlight for this year. Again. Still, I thought I could do some hiking before meeting up with Sandy. But with all the smoke from forest fires this season (and I must also admit, a lack of ambition) I didn't leave early to hike.

The back end of the trip changed as well. First Sandy suggested going to the Oregon Coast but I was nervous about that idea. It tends to be very foggy along the coast during the summer. Instead I proposed Whistler, British Columbia. Earlier in the year we had talked about going there but never made solid plans. Sandy liked the idea so we got busy researching hotels and booked one for the week after Sandy's meeting. I pulled out my Whistler hiking guide and started to pick out hikes that we could do. It looked like we were set.

We rode an airy chairlift the final thousand feet to the top

Sandy had her business meeting while I did a hike. Then we were off to Canada. Sandy wanted to make one stop as we passed through Vancouver. A friend had recommended that she check out Voyageur Soap and Candle, a shop that sells supplies for making your own soaps and candles. Sandy will often invite friends over to our house to spend the evening making special soaps with essential oils, so she wanted to stock up on supplies. The shop was in Langley, one of the southern burbs of Vancouver. I knew the area because it was close to where I go each November for BottosCon (another wargaming convention) so we didn't have any trouble finding the place. The store had a lot of stuff that Sandy liked and she came away with a pretty good haul, so our Canada trip started with a success.

Next we had to get through Vancouver. There was no way to go around it. We were nervous because we had a terrible time with traffic when we drove through the city in July of 2014 while returning from our trip to Vancouver Island, even though it was a Sunday. This time we took TC1 instead of BC99 and it proved to be a much better route. We still had to endure stop and go traffic on the freeway for about half an hour, but it was a lot better than last time. Once we got through the city we made good time up to Whistler.

Me, Sandy, Stoneman, and Mr and Mrs Oblivious

After checking in at the Pinnacle Hotel we went for a walk to explore the town. Whistler has a large pedestrian-only area with a lot of shops and restaurants. Sandy said it reminded her of Zermatt. We had lunch at Gnarly Roots Pizza where we could sit on the patio and enjoy the nice weather. The pizza was pretty good too. They also had a gelato counter inside so afterwards we shared an ice cream for dessert. Our strength renewed by a good lunch, we spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the town, checking out the shops, and making sure we knew where the gondola was located so we would be ready for our hike the next day. We ended the day with a beer and then dinner on the patio at BrewHouse. With all the traffic going by on the village pedestrian walk, it was a great place for people watching.

For our first hike, the guide book listed several excellent possibilities but we quickly settled on the High Notes Trail. It actually starts from the summit of Whistler Mountain, which is reached by taking a gondola and then a chairlift. From the top of the mountain the trail descends and winds around the mountain, ending up back at the high gondola station. The entire hike is above treeline and promised fantastic views in all directions. The forecast for the next day was for clear, sunny weather so we thought that we would do this hike first when we could enjoy the views. Since we had to pay for the gondola ride, which was very pricey, we also wanted to do it on a low-risk weather day to make sure that we got our money's worth. No going back the next day if we got rain or fog. There was even the added benefit that it was close by. We could walk to the base of the gondola at the other end of the village. We didn't need to get up super early to drive an hour or more to reach the trailhead.

High Notes Trailhead on the summit of Whistler mountain

Once we had decided what we were doing the next day I did a late evening reconnaisance, walking over to the gondola station to make sure we knew what time they opened. It was confusing. There was a sign at the ticket office that said the gondola opened at 10 am. But there was also a handout/map of the trails that were accessible from the gondola which said that it started at 9:30 am. I figured that we should be there at 9:30 to be safe.

Besides getting to sleep in a little, the late start meant that we had plenty of time to eat before we left for the hike. Sandy loves to go out for breakfast and she had spotted a crepe place near our hotel that served breakfast. She was anxious to try it. They opened at 8 am (at least they were specific) so the timing worked perfectly. We were the first ones there, right after they opened. We enjoyed our breakfast and finished with plenty of time to pick up our hiking gear and get to the gondola ticket office before 9:30. The tickets were expensive, $57 Canadian each (about $45 USD) for a one day ticket. Interestingly enough, a season pass was only about half again as much. Unfortunately there was only the one trail that the gondola accessed that we really wanted to do so we had to pay the premium single-day price.

The Black Tusk in the distance

Since the brochure said the gondola opened at 9:30 and the sign said 10, I asked the lady at the ticket desk when it started. "Oh, around 9:30 or 10." Ok. That didn't help clear up my confusion.

There were already about fifty people in line at the gondola station when we got there. During the summer, they have three different groups of people who ride the gondola. Obviously there are the tourists, who ride up to reach a high viewpoint, look around and take pictures, and then ride back down. Then there are hikers like us. There are a number of trails on the upper part of both Whistler Mountain and Blackcomb Mountain. Riding the gondola lets you enjoy beautiful views right from the start of your hike without the long, hard and tedious work of climbing up to the high country. It's very common in Europe and Sandy and I have done a lot of hikes like that in the Alps.

A marmot - one of Whistler Mountain's namesake Whistlers

The most numerous group though is mountain bikers. Someone in Whistler had the clever idea to promote mountain biking in the summer and now it provides a lot of their business outside of ski season. The gondola and the various chair lifts are all set up to carry bikes as well as people. Many of the downhill ski runs are configured as mountain bike tracks, complete with jumps and obstacles. In fact, both mountains are set up as a Mountain Bike Park for the summer, claimed to be the biggest and best bike park in the world. So a lot of people do mountain biking in Whistler the way someone would ski in the winter. They spend the whole day riding the lifts to get to the top of the runs and then riding their bikes down. Most of the mountain bikers were decked out with pretty serious gear. Apparently there are many different levels of difficulty of bike trails on the mountain. There were also schools for mountain biking, with lots of kids collecting by various signs that divided them up by skill and experience, from "beginner" to "intermediate" to "advanced/expert". There are mountain bikers everywhere: on the mountain, riding the lifts and in the village.

Sandy on a rare level section of the High Notes Trail

The gondola started about 9:40 and once it was going the line moved swiftly. Soon we were riding up the mountain. Since I was facing into the slope I couldn't see the distant view. I was just looking down at the various ski runs, bike tracks and service roads below us when about a quarter of the way up the mountain I noticed a black bear. There had been notices about bears around the resort. Even in the village, the garbage bins were bear proof. When I first saw them I thought that was going overboard a bit but I guess not. Apparently there is a significant black bear population around Whistler, and the bears are often sighted on trails, from the gondola (check), on the golf course, in the bike park and even in town. At least there aren't many grizzlies to worry about. There are some in the BC coast range but not many, and they are rare near Whistler. Sandy and I got pretty tired of worrying about grizzlies all the time on our last trip to the Canadian Rockies. I don't worry too much about black bears or brown bears although in this case we had the ideal situation. We got a good view of a bear from the gondola where we were perfectly safe.

Cheakamus Lake in Garibaldi Provincial Park

The gondola took us to Roundhouse Lodge. At 6069 feet, it was almost four thousand feet above our starting point in the village. We had an outstanding view of the Whistler Valley and behind it, the snow covered mountains of the Pacific Coast Range to the north and west.

But we weren't at the top of Whistler Mountain yet, which was the starting point for our hike. We still had to ride a chair lift up another thousand feet to the summit of the mountain. Reaching the bottom station of the chairlift was an easy hike of less than half a mile from where we were, except that there was a closed gate at the start of the trail. In fact, it had a sign on it that said "Closed". I talked to an employee of the lodge and he said that the trail was only opened when the lift started, usually at 11 am. Except that most days it opened sooner. It all depended on when the operators got it started up. I had to admit that the lift operations were certainly laid back!

We were anxious to start hiking so we were glad when they openend the trail at 10:45. I guess they decided to split the difference. There were about twenty hikers that all started off together. They were all waiting for the Peak Express lift to the top to start up. But at two or three people per chair, it didn't take long for everyone to get on the lift. There were cliffs falling from the summit on the north side and the chair lift rose directly over them. It was an exciting ride but it's not like you could fall off or anything. We survived and in ten minutes we were at 7,156 feet on top of Whistler Mountain.

Sandy on a difficult spot crossing a rock band

Well, almost. To our left there was a slight rise and a lookout tower. It was about fifty feet higher than where we were. In my youth I definitely would have run up to the highest point without hesitation, but there wasn't really any reason other than to say that I had done it. So just as I had done a few days before on my hike in Oregon, I came close to but did not actually reach the summit of a mountain. The view was better where we were anyway.

And what a view. Now we could see to the south into Garibaldi Provincial Park. To the southwest, we could see the Tantalus Range, which we had driven through on our way to Whistler the day before. It was a perfect blue-sky sunny day. It was amazing.

Just to our right as we got off the lift was a giant Inukshuk. It consists of unfinished stones piled to resemble a human figure. They were used by the native Inuit people in many polar regions as signposts to travelers to indicate the direction that they should follow. Kind of a giant stone "Kilroy was here". The large Inukshuk near the summit of Whistler Mountain was built as a symbol of the 2010 Winter Olympics, which were held in British Columbia.

Of course everyone wanted their picture taken with the Stone Man. People were pretty good taking turns, just like at Delicate Arch in Utah. Except when it was our turn. Someone agreed to take a picture of Sandy and I but unfortunately two people kept standing in the background taking selfies. I almost made a comment but decided it wasn't worth it. So we ended up with a photobomb. It kind of spoiled our best couple photo, which of course is a very important part of any trip.

Looking back to spectacular peaks to the west

Right behind the Stone Man was a sign for the High Notes Trailhead. I don't know many trails that start on the top of a mountain. The John Muir Trail in the Sierra Nevada in California has one end on the summit of Mt. Whitney, but that is where people ususally finish, not start. So this was not your ordinary trail.

Since the trailhead was at the top of a mountain, there was nowhere for the trail to go but down. It descended the west ridge of Whistler Mountain very quickly. The trail was definitely steep with a lot of loose dirt and gravel. You had to be very careful not to slip. You had to keep your eyes and your mind focused on your next step. It was too bad because you wanted to be looking at the fantastic scenery and thinking transcendent thoughts inspired by the beautiful view. Plus it was hard work and slow going. It took us about an hour to descend the first steep section. I did insert quite a few short stops so I could safely admire the view.

The trail contours around the mountain above Cheakamus Lake

Next the trail traversed along the south slopes of the mountain, approximately. It still seemed like we were always either going up or going down, but now it was in equal measure so there was no net elevation gain. It was still slow going and hard work but the view was so amazing that it made it all worthwhile. From this side of the mountain we were looking into Garibaldi Provincial Park. Although there were spectacular mountains reaching to the horizon in every direction, the scenery was dominated by the Black Tusk, an amazing black rock monolith that is the eroded core of an ancient volcano. There is a hike that goes near the peak, Panorama Ridge, that was a candidate for later in the week. You can also hike to the base of the Black Tusk, and although it looks impossible, according to the web the peak is only a scramble. But we didn't manage to do either the climb or the hike.

At one point as we entered a meadow we saw a group of people stopped on the trail ahead of us. There was marmot about ten feet off the trail and he didn't seem to mind all the people that were watching him. He was too busy eating all the lush, plentiful grass to bother with humans. When we heard marmot whistles we looked around and saw three or four more marmots about fifty feet away climbing in the rocks. One was very small and seemed to be a very young marmot (aw, how cute!) who stuck close to momma. Whistler Mountain, and later Whistler the resort, both got their names from marmots, which are very common on the mountain and locally are called "Whistlers". A pretty good name for them actually.

The Spearhead Range came into view after crossing the crest

As the trail wound its way around the mountain, eventually Lake Cheakamus came into view. It's a large lake and because it is fed by glacial runoff, it's a beautiful bluish-green color. With snowy mountains all around it was a spectacular sight. Pictures were tricky because now we were facing into the sun, but we (actually Sandy) managed to get a few good photos. I am embarassed to admit that sometimes her iPhone 5s takes better pictures in bad lighting conditions than my Canon DSLR.

When I checked my GPS to see how much progress we had made, we were surprised that we hadn't gone farther considering how long we had been hiking. We were definitely moving very slowly. At first we attributed it to the steep trail. Now maybe it was due to frequent stops to admire the beautiful view all around us and take lots of pictures. Or maybe we are just getting old and are slowing down. I didn't really mind as I was enjoying the hike all the way. Perfect weather days in the Pacific Coast Range in British Columbia are rare and we certainly couldn't have asked for a better one.

Fitzsimmons Creek, Mt. Macbeth (L) and Fissile Peak (R)

Finally we reached a trail junction. Ahead of us the trail continued an up and down route along the ridge, with the whimsical name of Musical Bumps, because the high points on the ridge are named for musical instruments: Flute, Oboe, etc. Beyond that it continued to Singing Pass in Garibaldi Provinicial Park before returning down Fitzsimmons Creek all the way to Whistler Village. We probably had the time to go farther and still get back in time to catch the last gondola down at 5 pm, but since we had been moving slowly we decided to play it safe. To be honest, we didn't really have the energy to continue further along the ridge either. After eating our lunch (more a light snack really) we took the trail that crossed over the ridgecrest to the other side of the mountain and wound around the north side, back to Roundhouse Lodge and the gondola station.

On the other side of the ridge there was a fantastic view of another set of beautiful mountains, the Spearhead Range, which stretched from Blackscomb Mountain above Whistler Village all the way to Fissile Mountain beyond Singing Pass. The trail was more up and down, descending steeply into a basin and then climbing out again on the other side. After doing that two or three times we were getting ready to be done. It was farther, and took longer, with more ups and downs, than expected. But eventually we made it back to the gondola. It was only 3 pm so we had lots of time to spare.

Home stretch - I don't look tired, do I?

We took a well deserved break and got an order of fries to share and VERY large cokes in the cafeteria at the lodge. We thought about taking the Peak 2 Peak gondola, which crossed the valley over to the high gondola station on Blackscomb Mountain, two miles away. It was included in the price of our ticket. It looked impressive from an engineering standpoint. It is the longest unsupported cable span in the world. But again, although we could say that we had done it, we wouldn't really see anything different. So we decided to just take the gondola back down to Whistler. Maybe we are getting old.

It had been an awesome day. The Pacific Coast Range is as beautiful as any mountains I have ever visited. The High Notes Trail was a world class hike, starting high, above timberline, and staying there for it's entire length, with incredible views in all directions. We were lucky to have perfect weather when we had the chance to walk it.