Our weekend micro-adventure took us to Arnica Lake in Strathcona Park via the Phillips Ridge Trail. We travelled to Strathcona from Victoria the night before and planned to spend the night at Buttle Lake Campground. While driving by the lake, we were delighted to see that Ralph River Campground was open early! The campground was almost deserted and we snagged one of the coveted lakeshore sites. Number 37 was a gem that did not disappoint. The evening alpenglow was calming and the road was unusually silent. We dined on curry boil-a-bags in the shadows of Mount Phillips and Mount Myra. A 3-hour cheater-log from the grocery store made a convenient campfire. We pondered an overnight trip to Arnica Lake the next day, but decided to day-hike there instead. We had such a excellent camp with spectacular views and hummingbird visitors, why tent on mushy snow? Besides, we only had enough food for one good picnic. As we fell asleep, the only sounds were frogs (singing and scrambling into camp) and honking Canada geese.
Drive west on Highway 28 from Campbell River to the entrance of Strathcona Provincial Park (48 km). Proceed down the Buttle Lake Road (Western Mines Road) past the Buttle Narrows Bridge toward the very south end of Buttle Lake. Continue up to the Westmin Mine and drive through the mine site to the trailhead parking lot at the end of the road.
Strathcona Provincial Park has two front-country campgrounds located within park boundaries: Buttle Lake and Ralph River. The Ralph River Campground is closer to the Phillips Ridge Trailhead and has 75 vehicle accessible campsites. Reservations apply to 20 of these sites; the remaining 55 sites are first-come-first-served. The campground offers pit toilets, garbage bins, and recycling. Water is pumped from a well at various stations around the camp. Each site has a picnic table and fire container. The most scenic sites are located along Ralph River and Buttle Lake. Many of these camps have trails leading down to the lakeshore or Ralph River outlet. The zone is gorgeous with dynamic mountain views and riparian wildlife. Ralph River Campground is an excellent basecamp from which to explore south Buttle Lake trails.
Location: Strathcona Provincial Park
Route: Phillips Ridge Trail to Arnica Lake
Date: May 7, 2016
Distance: 11.9 km
Duration: 8 h 33 min
Peak: 1210 m
Gain: 845 m
The entrance to the Phillips Ridge Trail was easy to locate from the parking lot. We walked up the gated gravel road and found the BC Parks sign on the right. The forest trail was rough single-track peppered with storm debris. The high number of switchbacks allowed for a gradual climb. There were large, decayed blowdowns about 50-100 m from the gravel road requiring scrambling. Underfoot the trail was a mix of bone-dry soil, crunchy conifer cones, roots, rocks, and slushy snow starting at about 1125 m. There was one micro creek crossing, otherwise the main water drainage flowed on our left the whole way. We each used one trekking pole to ascend, and two poles to descend. A little less geeky, knees still preserved.
We set a 0600h alarm clock but didn’t leave the tent until 0830. Things were just too comfortable and warm in there. Grogginess prevailed even though the robins were numerous and loud. Sometimes it takes a little longer to shake off the city than we would like. The geese were also awake on Buttle Lake, honking and leading around their new little babies. Rumbling stomachs motivated us towards coffee and chocolate-chipped oatmeal. The drive to the Phillips Ridge Trailhead was quick and efficient from the Ralph River Campground. We saw an enormous pile of bear scat on the road at the south end of Buttle Lake. The elk love this zone of the park too, but no luck seeing any mega fauna that day. It was great to see the water level of Buttle Lake so high this year.
Phillips Ridge Trail to Snow Line
The Phillips Ridge Trail was our first Strathcona ascent of the season. The air felt super hot at 25 degrees C. Luckily, there was lots of ice cold water along the way, collection spots marked with helpful signage. The high number of switchbacks stretched the horizontal distance out considerably. However, we paced ourselves in the heat and drank Nuun electrolyte tablets and sweet Starbucks VIA Refreshers. There were so many conifer cones that we pulled out the Audubon Guide app to learn more about the Western Hemlock. The mine site is visible from several viewpoints along the trail.
Route-Finding to Arnica Lake
It was a happy triumph to find Arnica Lake. Once the slushy snow started and the trail disappeared at about 1150 m, we used wilderness navigation skills. We had a paper map, compass, altimeter, Garmin GPSMAP 64st, and our brains. There was some pink flagging around that was unreliable. I chose one route that unfortunately took us too high up a slippery bluff. After putting on sunscreen, we took a bearing and hiked down a gradual snow ramp in the direction of Arnica Lake. The blue blush of a small, melty tarn came into view, confirming our proximity to the main objective. Eventually the view opened to reveal bright and frozen Arnica Lake.
Arnica Lake Conditions
Arnica Lake looked about 10% melted compared to photos showing its liquid form. The soft snow hid the shoreline and any tent pads. A melted dark-blue ribbon flowed through the white space. The only clue to camp infrastructure was the tip of a wooden staircase near the lake outflow. It was here on a tiny patch of bare ground that we rested and broke for lunch. We packed a meal of crackers, Hornby Island veggie pate, and Daiya dairy-free cheese. A tiny bubbling spring-like feature entertained us while we watched the 2 m thick snow melt. A pair of goldeneyes (Barrow’s or Common) slowly came our way to investigate, diving for lunch in the icy dark ribbon. We brought our camp towels, but took a pass on joining them for a swim.
Snow Line to Phillips Ridge Trailhead
Our feet were moist and getting chilly from the slushy snow, clouds had gathered, and the sun became watery. We thought the actual trail may follow the lake outlet, but the snow was steep and deep through there. We stayed higher and circled back to our previous tracks and the dry soil of the Phillips Ridge Trail. The montane forest descent was cooler with a temperature of about 17 degrees C. We geared up and used gravity to coast down back to the car in the soft light.
It was exciting to visit Arnica Lake together because it was a new zone for both of us. We caught a glimpse of the Phillips Ridge area that we want to explore after more snow melts. We had an excellent subalpine workout and practiced wilderness navigation. Basecamp was fantastic and our sleeps were refreshing. We eagerly anticipate returning to this zone for longer trips in a few months. The Phillips Ridge Trail is a gateway to multiple Strathcona Provincial Park wonders.
End of an Era
The hike up the Phillips Ridge Trail to Arnica Lake marked the noble end of the loyal Salewa Wildfire approach shoes. They were broken and wrecked, wet and dissolving. Cracked and worn to the point of falling off the feet, open to the elements, toe-pinching, no longer able to rise to purpose. We honoured them the next morning at breakfast with an amazing view of the mountains they once climbed.