An absolute must do day-trip or overnight destination. It experiences much less traffic than most other trails in the sea to sky/Whistler area and offers very easy access to get deep into the wilderness. It is breathtaking and there are miles and miles of alpine terrain to explore around you. There is one catch when venturing to cirque lake that makes it so unique. You must paddle across the lake to get to the trailhead. The mix of paddling and hiking is what makes this such a fun destination. The physical trail is short and steep. You will gain close to 400m over a 1 kilometer stretch. I’ve given this hike a rating of intermediate because the the trail markings aren’t well maintained and the trail itself is rugged.
Remember the Backcountry Basics
- Carry your Survival Kit & Essentials
- Let someone know where you’re going with a Trip Plan
- Know how to avoid negative wildlife encounters
- Practice Leave No Trace to keep the wilderness pristine
- Carry a Satellite Communicator like SPOT X
|Distance (Round Trip)||3.2km|
|Time Needed (Paddle)||45 minutes|
|Time Needed (Hike)||1.5 hours|
|Camping||Yes - Backcountry|
How to Get There?
Cirque lake is located in the Callaghan provincial park. From highway 99 you are going to turn off on Callaghan Valley Road. Drive up the winding road towards Whistler Olympic Park until you see the sign for Callaghan Lake Provincial park shortly after Alexander Falls Provincial Park. Take a left onto the Callaghan Lake FSR and prepare yourself for a bumpy 8.5km climb. This road is roped off until May 15th every year but unless you are prepared with chains and ropes I wouldn’t recommend heading up there until the snow has melted completely by mid or late June. The road can be travelled by just about any vehicle if driven slowly and carefully. I would recommend a higher clearance vehicle as I saw a Honda Accord and Toyota corolla bottom out a number of times when crossing some of the deeper trenches across the road.
First Stop: Callaghan Lake
Callaghan lake is where you are going to park your vehicle to begin the adventure. I most recently visited on a long weekend in 2020 and the amount of people camping on the side of the road was astounding. Most of these people were car camping on the sides of the roads with no water view or access. I’m sure they were all having a good party up there, but it did not look like a desirable spot on a busy weekend to park the car and camp. On the contrary, it is a great spot to visit for a paddle on your kayak, paddle board or whatever water sport you fancy. It’s also a decent spot to catch a few trout on gear or the fly when the conditions are right.
Cross The Lake and Find The Trailhead
In order to get to the cirque lake trailhead you will have to cross Callaghan lake. I was with a group of 5 people including my parents, so I decided to use my small custom blow up fly fishing boat and a blow up Kayak to make the crossing. Bringing my boat along was a little overkill, but I knew I wanted to try my luck for some trout while trolling over to the trailhead and back. Any sort of small human powered watercraft will do the trick and you can honestly use whatever you can get your hands on. Personally, I think a paddle board would be idea but I even saw a group cross the lake in explorer 200 blowups from Canadian tire. If you’re using a cheap inflatable like this, remember to wear a pfd or stay close to shore because the water in these glacial lakes is super cold and hypothermia can setin fast and make it impossible to swim to shore.
From the boat Launch at Callaghan lake the trailhead is a straight shoot across. Paddle across the lake until you see a stream of running water/hear a waterfall. The paddle is about 2km and should not take any longer than a half hour or so. We took our time and paddled around so we could enjoy the water a bit more. Once you get to runoff stream you are going to want to bring your vessel to shore on the grassy patch to the left or right of the stream. There was an insane amount of bugs in this area as it was quite marshy so wear some layers and prepare to get your hiking boots ASAP to ensure you don’t get eaten to death. There is a soil patch and a man made log bench
The trail itself isn’t super well marked but has been walked enough that you can see a track on the ground. You are going to follow the river up and at some point will need to cross over to the left. Depending on the flow of the water cross over right at the beginning or walk into the forest for a few hundred meters before crossing over. Continue up the trail enjoying the sounds of the falls to your left as you continue to climb. You will continue up the trail in the forest and will hit a portion where it gets very steep. This portion is usually quite wet and slippery so be careful and use the ropes if needed. This short and steep section of the trail sets the tone for the rest of this hike.
The trail will open up to an open rocky section. You will see some orange markers and tape depending on what survived the winter snow. I stayed to the left as I made my way up the rocky section, but blaze your own trail because any path will work.
Make sure to turn around and look back a whole bunch of times as you will get an amazing view of Callaghan lake. Once you get to the top of this steep rocky area you are going to keep trekking forward and Cirque lake will come into view.
In July when we visited the snowpack still was yet to completely melt and cirque lake was frozen. I hiked up with my fly rod hoping to get a couple casts but cannot report on the bite since it was completely icing off and not safe to get too close to the shores edges. I’ve heard that the lake is great swimming hole in the summer.
Who wouldn’t want to take a bath in a glacier blue volcano staring at an Alpine meadow. The shape of the cirque lake is what is truly amazing, the extreme vertical walls create a unique shape which makes you feel like you are in the center of a stadium. Once the snow melts you can venture past cirque lake and further up the surrounding peaks and deeper into the wilderness.
I’m absolutely planning to head to cirque lake again this summer for a swim in Late August September and will make a point to float around on the blowup kayak, catch some fish and get a feel for the surrounding areas.
Have you ever taken a swim in cirque lake?
Let me know in the comments.