Howe Sound Crest Trail: Cypress Mountain to Porteau Cove (3 days / 29 km)

The Howe Sound Crest Trail is a difficult point-to-point trail that starts at the Cypress Mountain parking lot and finishes at Porteau Cove. You summit multiple mountains along the route and walk along ridgelines. It is beautiful, it is exhausting and it feels like a real accomplishment. This route is very exposed at some points (think large drop-offs on one or both sides of the trail) and requires some technical hiking. I would not recommend doing this hike as a beginner backpacker. There is very limited access to water along the first half of the route. 

There is some spotty cell service along the route, and there are a few options for exiting the trail early (I recommend doing the research before you start to know where these are). 

About us – our group was 3 pretty active women. I am from Ontario, definitely not used to the elevation gains. My friends both live in BC and have been hiking very actively in this terrain throughout the past year. I for sure slowed my friends down! We are all rock climbers and very comfortable on technical terrain. 

Trip Completed: August 2021


Trip Summary

Starting Point: Cypress Mountain Parking Lot (North of Vancouver)

Ending Point: Porteau Cove (20 minutes south of Squamish)

Total Distance: 29 km

Elevation Gain: Approx 1,830 m gain / 2,600 m descent

Duration: 3 days / 2 nights

Difficulty: Advanced

Location

North of Vancouver, BC

Traditional Territory: This route takes place on the traditional territory of Squamish, Musqueam, Tsleil-Wautut, Coast Salish and Stó:lō (source). 

Maps & Resources

Guidebook: Outdoor Vancouver HSCT Guide

Map: AllTrails – Howe Sound Crest Trail

Campsite Reservations: No.

Permits: No.

Outfitters & Shuttles

We didn’t need an outfitter for this trip as we have all of our own gear. As the hike is very close to Vancouver and Squamish, there are endless options for acquiring proper gear in the area. 

Shuttle: We started in Squamish, drove south to the parking lot at Porteau Cove and left a car there. We drove a second car to the Cypress Lake Parking Lot and left the car there for my friend’s lovely boyfriend to pick up and drive back to Squamish for us.

Trip Report

Day 1: Cypress Mountain Parking Lot to (just past) James Peak (~14 km / 9 hour day)

NOTE: There is not a reliable source of water along the path until you get to Magnesium Meadows, about halfway along the trail. Supposedly, there are some tarns off the trail, but we did not have reliable information about where they were, so we did not use any of them. We carried about 5 L of water each for drinking and our dehydrated meals. We assumed this water may have to last us about a day and a half.

Driving to the Trailhead: We got off to a much later start than we anticipated. We dropped off the first car at the Porteau Cove parking lot at 9 am, and made it to the Cypress Mountain Parking lot by 10 am. The parking lot was surprisingly busy (like active ski day busy) and it was raining. Not an ideal start for a hiking trail that is supposed to have incredible views! 

The trail starts out very flat and groomed, but don’t let that trick you into a false sense of security for what is coming! The trail up to St. Marks is a popular, well-maintained day hike. The trail soon switches into a series of challenging switchbacks. My hiking poles definitely became useful right away. The view at St. Mark’s Summit is supposed to be amazing, but since it was raining, we only got an incredible view of the large white clouds ahead of us. 

Once we passed St. Marks Summit, the terrain became much more rugged and the day hikers essentially disappeared. That’s it! We were in the backcountry! From this point on, there were a lot of ups and downs as you summit more mountains, and that initial elevation gain meant that there should have been pretty incredible views for the rest of the hike.

We stopped around 2:30 pm for lunch at Unnecessary Mountain.

Our original plan had been to scramble up the Lions and camp nearby, but because of the rainy conditions, we decided that plan was much too dangerous and not worthwhile considering that there was no view. The Lion’s are two moderate scrambles that are only recommended for experienced scramblers or with someone who is familiar with the route. It can be very easy to lose the path and there is a lot of exposure that can get to your head. People have fallen off the scrambles and died.

We decided to push further ahead to cover more distance before setting up camp. Ideally, at the Magnesium Meadows, because of the reliable water source.

When passing the Lions, there is a small section with a HUGE drop-off on the right-hand side. This was comfortable for the three of us, with our rock climbing experience, but we passed 2 other hikers, one of whom was very uncomfortable with the exposure, and actually dropped her hiking pole down the side. It only rolled down a few meters, and so we were able to rescue it for her. This crossing is one of the few sections of the hike that I would make sure you are comfortable with before attempting this trail. The exposure can really get to your head! 

After we passed the Lions, the clouds opened up for a few minutes, and we were able to get our first hint of the incredible views that we had been missing all day. We also saw the ridge that we were going to be following for the next few kilometres – it was pretty amazing.

It must have been around 7 hours that the fatigue really kicked in. I was exhausted, my knee was starting to hurt from all of the elevation exertion that I wasn’t used to. Every time I stopped moving, my legs would start shaking, but we kept going, better to get some of this tricky terrain out of the way, and we weren’t at the water yet. 

Every part of the terrain on this day was incredible, you are constantly going up and down, you are putting your hiking poles aside and using your hands to climb pretty often. At one point, you cross a narrow ridge (less than a foot) with a steep drop on both sides – you hold on to a very heavy metal chain that helps guide you across this dangerous area. It was so cool!

Around 7 pm, we realized that we would not make it to the Meadows. 

Campsite: We stopped at an area between James Peak and David Peak that seemed like other people had camped there before – there were a few remnants of fire pits and most notably, a drinkable tarn (it was about 3 m by 1 m large – and a few inches deep and clear! Unlike the muddy puddles we had seen to date!) There was no thunderbox (there are none on any part of this trail). There was not a good tree to hang our food, but we did put it up in a short tree and it was not disturbed.

Day 2: James Peak to Brunswick Lake (8 km / 7.5 hours)

We woke up in the morning sore but happy. It wasn’t raining, there were a lot of clouds in the sky, but we could also see some patches of blue. 

First up in the morning, we had to climb another steep mountain – I was glad we hadn’t done that the night before. It ended up being about 2 hours before we got to Magnesium Meadows, we were really happy that we had decided not to attempt reaching there the night before. Also, we would have missed so many incredible views by doing that section of the hike in the clouds and darkness. 

Until this point, we had wandered ridges, hiked through fields, held onto ropes and chains to get us down and across sketchy areas. After Magnesium meadows, there is nothing as technically challenging. We passed a few people doing the trail as a day hike (or run) – they all woke up VERY EARLY and were prepared for a very long day. 

We decided to stop for lunch at the top of the scramble up Brunswick Mountain. This is a detour from the main trail, but it is the highest mountain in the area and you have a phenomenal 360 view from the top. We left our main packs at the bottom of the mountain and switched into the daypacks we had brought for this purpose. The scramble was fun and much easier than I was expecting. At the very top, you have the option to walk across the ridgeline. It was pretty exposed and scary looking, we were pretty exhausted from the previous day, so we decided not to bother with that section.

From Brunswick Mountain, it is about 4 km (downhill, for the most part) to Brunswick Lake, where we were planning to camp. We arrived there with plenty of light left and took a dip in the crystal clear – very blue lake. It was pretty cold (normal alpine temperatures for later august) – we lay outside in our sleeping bags and watched the stars come out. It was another amazing, exhausting day.

Campsite: There were plenty of campsite options around the lake, again no thunderboxes. There were a few other campers at the lake, but we didn’t really hear from them from our spot. There is a moving stream where we collected the water to filter. There were better trees to hang out food bags.

Day 3: Brunswick Lake to Porteau Cove Parking Lot (10.5 km / 4 hours)

We woke up to a beautiful clear day. For some reason, I had it in my head that it was just a short trip out down the mountain to the car, but oh, was I wrong. The hike for the day starts out deceivingly flat, until Deeks Lake. After that, it was 2 hours of solid downhill hiking. We descended about 700m in that time. Some of it was very very steep. Honestly, my calves hurt for like 2 days afterwards. 

The logging road at the end of the descent is closed, and so there is an alternative trail that takes you through the woods. It opens up to the side of the highway, and you walk along with that for a few minutes until you get back to the parking lot. 

Getting back to the car was exhilarating, we stopped at a fish and chips hut on the way back to Squamish and oh boy, has the food never tasted so good.

Reflections

This hike was phenomenal, I will definitely remember it for a very long time. And every other hike I do after this will always be compared to this one. I think it was at my limit in terms of my abilities, having hardly hiked all summer, and then hopped on a plane to BC to join my friends on this adventure. BC mountains are NOTHING like Ontario hikes. It would have been good to do some intro to BC hikes to get my legs adjusted to the exertion. 

I would highly recommend waiting for a weather window where you can appreciate the views! 

And I would also recommend watching videos, looking at lots of photos, reading more trip reviews in order to determine if you will be comfortable with the technical challenges of this hike – both in terms of terrain and backcountry skills.

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