The Phillips Ridge Trail offers efficient access to subalpine meadows at Arnica Lake. It continues along a rough route to the Golden Hinde.
The active mining operations and constant hum take away from the wilderness experience until up on Phillips Ridge where it’s easy to forget about it. There are no BC Parks amenities at the Arnica Lake campground besides three wooden tent pads. There are excellent front-country campsites with more amenities at the Ralph River Campground. Our preference is to car camp at Ralph River and hike the Phillips Ridge Trail to Arnica Lake as a day trip.
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. Google Maps
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. 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. All front-country camping reservations must be made through Discover Camping.
- Phillips Ridge Trail to Arnica Lake – July 21-22, 2020
- Phillips Ridge Trail to Arnica Lake – May 7, 2016
Phillips Ridge Trailhead to Arnica Lake – July 21-22, 2020
- Distance: 15.3 km
- Duration: 2 days
- Peak: 1395 m
- Gain: 1076 m
- Map: CalTopo
My original objective was to camp two nights at Arnica Lake. I wanted to survey terrain for future trips on the Golden Hinde Traverse and around the Phillips Ridge Horseshoe. My actual trip turned into a one nighter. On day one, I hiked up the Phillips Ridge Trail to Arnica Lake and explored Phillips Ridge for a couple of kilometres beyond the lake. Day two, I awoke with a new plan and headed back down the mountain chased by swarms of mosquitos. Highlights included near perfect weather, surveying new terrain, and an early morning viewing of a mother black bear and her two cubs walking along the shoreline of Arnica Lake.
The forecast was for mainly sunny skies, a zero to low probability of precipitation, and warm temperatures with a cooling trend. Both days were hot and buggy.
- Day 1: 1130 h, Phillips Ridge Trailhead. Elevation: 360 m, Sky: clear, Precipitation: nil, Temperature: 21.6ºC, Humidity: 56.5%, Wind: calm. 1500 h, Arnica Lake Camp. Elevation: 1200 m, Sky: clear, Precipitation: nil, Temperature: 25.4ºC, Humidity: 43.2%, Wind: calm. 2000 h, Arnica Lake Camp. Elevation: 1200 m. Sky: scattered clouds, Precipitation: nil, Temperature: 19.6ºC, Humidity: 74.7%, Wind: calm.
- Day 2: 0800 h, Arnica Lake Camp. Elevation: 1200 m, Sky: broken clouds, Precipitation: nil, Temperature: 15.0ºC, Humidity: 90.0%, Wind: light S. 1145 h, Phillips Ridge Trailhead. Elevation: 360 m, Sky: scattered clouds, Precipitation: nil, Temperature: 24.6°C, Humidity: 55.9%, Wind: calm.
Data logged with Kestrel Meters Drop D3
The Phillips Ridge Trail starts with well-engineered switchbacks all the way to Arnica Lake. There are three signed water fills at 500 m, 700 m, and 1050 m. The trail then meanders through subalpine meadows and tarns gently up onto Phillips Ridge. The terrain opens up at 1400 m with spectacular vistas in all directions.
- Day 1: Phillips Ridge Trailhead to Arnica Lake. Distance: 7.00 km, Duration: 3:19’49, Ascent 834 m, Ascent Time: 2:40’25, Descent: 18 m, Descent Time: 05’16.0. Arnica Lake to Phillips Ridge return. Distance: 4.60 km, Duration: 2:00’08, Ascent 236 m, Ascent Time: 49’46.0, Descent: 234 m, Descent Time: 44’31.0. Map 1/2
- Day 2: Arnica Lake to Phillips Ridge Trailhead. Distance: 6.95 km, Duration: 2:36’51, Ascent 6 m, Ascent Time: 02’52.0, Descent: 830 m, Descent Time: 2:02’10. Map
Data logged with Suunto 9 Baro
The best wildlife viewing was on the morning of day two. A mother black bear walking with her two cubs along the shoreline of Arnica Lake. Mom was digging under deadfall looking for grubs. The two cubs were zig-zagging and bouncing around. They looked content passing the time being wild in their natural habitat. Other wildlife of note were the clouds of mosquitoes and black flies around Arnica Lake and on Phillips Ridge. Lots of birds live in that zone, including hermit thrushes, varied thrushes, Pacific wrens, woodpeckers, and hummingbirds.
Besides the bugs, hazards were limited to the heavy industrial traffic at the mine site. Sun exposure, heat exhaustion, and dehydration were all considered and mitigated with sun protection, ample fluids, and electrolytes. Fill your water at the signs!
Phillips Ridge Trailhead to Arnica Lake – May 7, 2016
- Distance: 11.8 km
- Duration: 8 h 33 min
- Peak: 1211 m
- Gain: 921 m
- Map: CalTopo
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.
Phillips Ridge Trailhead to Snow Line
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. 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, GPS, 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 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.