For her maiden camping voyage, Rove-Inn, our 2008 Land Rover, wheeled to South Chilcotin Mountains Provincial Park. Original inhabitants of this area called it Skumakun (Land of Plenty) owing to an abundance of grizzlies, moose, wolverines, grey wolves, large cougars, coyotes, mule deer, bighorn sheep, eagles, owls… It’s one of the wildest and most varied parks in North America: dusty plains, thick forests, alpine meadows, rolling mountains, gushing rivers and glacier-fed lakes. Although only a half-day’s drive north of Vancouver, it’s not well known. Perhaps because of its limited accessibility (mostly forestry roads requiring 4WD). A controversial past regarding usage (miners, foresters, ranchers, outfitters, horseback riders, bikers, hikers). And lack of information about its splendours (the first guidebook wasn’t published until 2015).
Our favourite authors of hiking guidebooks wrote about a 4-day backpacking trip in Chilcotin they rated 4/4, beyond our jubilado desires, but their descriptions are spot on:
Peaks coloured junkyard rust on one side, golf-course green on another…The meadows are bigger than some airports…a mysterious appeal… You might feel a lightness of being here, a sensation we associate with desert hiking in winter.
The web isn’t replete with info on hiking in Chilcotin either. Trailforks says:
There are over 200 km’s of trails through broad valleys, alpine meadows and ridges, offer an excellent variety of loop trips of varying difficulty and distances for hikers, horse riders and mountain bikers. These trails are rugged, wilderness trails. They are not regularly maintained. Signage rarely exists. Be prepared, and be self-sufficient. Carry a folding saw, and be prepared to use it.
A local guide from Tyax Resort is quoted saying,
One wrong turn on one of these trails and you might end up walking all the way to Williams Lake.
Hmmm. Not my idea of hiking nirvana.
To Southern Chilcotin Mountains Guidebook, awkwardly organized and written, we looked for help. But none of the distances or elevations it gives for the trails we hiked corresponded to Magellan’s GPS and we got lost twice using its directions to reach the trailhead to Leckie Falls.
The volcanic Chilcotin mountains are more than four million years old. The area’s original inhabitants were the Tsilhqot’in (Chilcotin), shrewd traders and fierce warriors. Europeans arrived at the turn of the nineteenth century and by 1829, the Hudson’s Bay Company had built Fort Chilcotin at the confluence of the Chilko and Chilcotin rivers. Gold fever struck later in the century and boomed from 1930-1970 with thousands of fortune seekers settling in towns like the aptly named Gold Bridge. (The Bralorne Pioneer mine that opened in 1932 was the largest gold mine in Canadian history.) To feed the huge demand the gold rush created for horses and beef, ranches sprang up, like the famous Gang Ranch, once the largest of its kind in the world and still the king of beef production in the province. In the 1950s big-game hunting, fishing and tourism became popular.
Longstanding efforts to preserve the area were made by organizations and locals like Ted “Chilco” Choate, a hunting guide who wrote about the wilderness lifestyle. In 1937, the Vancouver Natural History Society proposed a provincial park, but in typical government speed, a study wasn’t initiated until 1975 while mining and logging carried on. Just before the 2001 election, the government declared the area protected. Chilcotin became a provincial park in 2010, one of North America’s largest contiguous networks of subalpine and alpine singletrack, shaped by First Nations, gold prospectors, pioneering ranchers and early outfitters, a legacy now shared by horseback riders, hikers and mountain bikers. Although not in that order of frequency of use.
Before I tell you more about that, look at the three trails we hiked. Steep and rugged, their backbones created by horses’ hooves, creased by mountain-bike tires and, less rarely, trodded by hikers like us.
First was North Cinnabar, technically not in the park and three kilometres from the Tyax Resort. Fourteen kilometres through open forest, a clearcut, gorgeous alpine meadows and a 636 metre elevation gain. It took us 6.5 hours. As soon as we spotted them, two guys on motorbikes, sheepishly and without a word, gunned their engines and sped off.
North Cinnabar was but a warmup to Leckie Falls, a 19 kilometre excursion via Gun Creek—the size of most rivers. We met a couple on pedal bikes who had journeyed all the way from Alaska! Later on, a group of five mountain bikers flew by us despite the hike’s 591 metre elevation gain. Exhausted from the punishing trail, we were too tired to drive back to our campsite at Mowson Pond. Will revealing that we stayed overnight at the trail head, not far from a sign that said “No Camping”, result in a fine from B.C. Parks? Shhh…
Mountain biking in the Chilcotins took off in the early 2000s. The bikers were scorned by hikers and horseback riders who felt, at times with good reason, that the newcomers were overusing and abusing the trails. Confrontations led to a B.C. Parks survey that showed mountain bikers were the predominant users at 55 percent, while hikers made up 22 percent and horseback riders a mere 4 percent. So the government granted mountain bikers unrestricted access. Part of the conflict was the result of poor trail maintenance and, as you can see from our photos, it’s still an issue. B.C. spends the least in Canada per hectare on provincial parks, $2.80 compared to $30 in Alberta, for example. It is mountain bikers who often volunteer to pick up the slack in Chilcotin.
We hiked Taylor Creek on the first day of September. Although shorter than the other two trails, it gains 977 metres in elevation over just 12.5 kilometres. This time we saw hikers. Sort of. A father and son in a dilapidated cabin built by miners in the 1920s, mountain men in camouflage, each carrying a bow-and-arrow, on the hunt for mule deer. Friendly guys.
Summarizing our three-day survey in Skumakun the Land of Plenty, over 45.5 kilometres and a total elevation gain of 2,204 metres, we saw:
Animals and birds: 1
Hikers (us): 2
(Illegal) Motor-bikers: 2
Mountain bikers: 7
Plenty of land for man and beast. This woman prefers other terrains. Still, I look at this sped-up 60-second video of setting up Rove-Inn in Chilcotin and think, “when can we return?”
Cadham, Will. ”Responsible Recreation, Striking a Balance in the Chilcotins.” Freehub magazine.
Copeland, Kathy and Craig. Don’t Waste Your Time in the BC Coast Mountains. Riondel, BC: Voice in the Wilderness Press, Inc. , 1997.
Sissons, Mark. “A slice of South Chilcotin Paradise.” Vancouver Sun. July 31, 2014.