Walk to St. Marks Summit — Howe Sound Crest Trail

Saint Marks Summit is a great day-destination on the Howe Sound Crest Trail. The viewpoint near the summit is about half the distance from the ski slopes in Cypress Bowl to The Lions. This is the hike that provides the most spectacular views of my home, Bowen Island, yet I hadn’t walked here in over a decade. Since the Olympics at Cypress Mountain (name of the ski resort — there is no hill or slope nearby with the name Cypress) in Cypress Provincial Park, there have been many changes to this trail. It wasn’t until a couple of days ago when I spoke to BC Parks Area Supervisor, Larry Fyroishko, that I learned what was happening to this trail.

The Mouth of the fjord called Howe Sound

The mouth of the fjord called Howe Sound; Bowen Island; in the distance Georgia Strait and Vancouver Island. Bowyer Island is in the foreground. The point on the right is the Sunshine Coast and the town of Gibsons. Below is the Sea-To-Sky highway and a glimpse of West Vancouver on the left. This is from The Balcony on St. Marks Summit

(If you don’t see the rest of this story, click Continue Reading)

This Amanita Muscaria, or Fly Agaric, was beside the trail near Yew Lake

This Amanita Muscaria, or Fly Agaric, was beside the trail near Yew Lake, just moments from the Cypress Provincial Park parking lot. (click for larger image)

As a result of the Olympics, the amount of parking at the top of the Cypress Bowl road is now huge. At the time of writing, there is no charge for parking.

The hike begins with a well groomed  front-country path from the west end of the parking lot to Yew lake. If you have non-hiking visitors, and you’d like them to see some local, high altitude, old growth forest, this location is beautiful for an easy stroll.

The path meets the no-barriers standards.

You will not work up a sweat if your destination is Yew Lake.

Yew Lake, Cypress Bowl Provincial Park

Yew Lake, Cypress Provincial Park

Morning reflections — Yew Lake

Morning reflections — Yew Lake

From Yew Lake, the packed gravel path (much better than a trail) leaves the valley and climbs steeply up Mt. Strachan just outside the west boundary of the ski area. While it begins in a recent cut block, it tops out in an old growth forest. At a kiosk, it turns northward and leads around the back side of Strachan to the meadows. Where the trail snakes into a deep avalanche gully, the packed-gravel trail ends, but the path continues wide and groomed for easy walking. We were surprised to see a mighty new bridge that spans the creek draining the Meadows.  A short way beyond we saw the back hoe that was responsible for this backcoutry road building.

Strachan Meadows Bridge

Strachan Meadows Bridge Construction

Backcountry Backhoe - Bobcat

Trail Builder

Mt Strachan and the Christmas Gully

Mt. Strachan 4769 feet, and the Christmas Gully

At this point, there is another attractive destination. Looking south, across the meadows, the peak of Mt. Strachan towers only 1,400 feet above. There is a rustic flagged trail that leads up the east side of the gully to the col between the peak and the dome of the ski hill. (In the winter, when the avalanche conditions are safe, that gully can be an attractive out-of-bounds ski chute. Fine print: go at your own risk, backcountry travel is dangerous, even deadly, don’t even consider it if you don’t know what you are doing, legal blah blah.) From the top of Strachan there are great views of Vancouver. The return route would be down any of the ski runs back to the trailhead.

The Balcony a viewpoint near St Marks Summit

The Balcony, a viewpoint near St Marks Summit that overlooks Howe Sound

At some point, the groomed trail ends, and suddenly the hiker is on a real backcountry trail. It climbs northward from the meadows at 3400′ to a bump on the ridge of the Howe Sound Crest about 3800′. There is a small drop and the trail follows the narrow ridge for another half kilometer when the climb to St. Marks Summit begins. The destination for most people are the tops of the spectacular cliffs facing west with views of Howe Sound. If you have time, go beyond the trail marker, and follow the path down and to the west. There is a lower, but better viewpoint that we called The Balcony.

Mt Sedgwick, Mt. Tantalus, Serratus Mt., and Alpha from St. Marks Summit

The brown slopes of Mt. Sedgwick 6815′; the dark towers of Mt. Tantalus 8540′, Serratus Mt. 7632′ and Alpha Mt. 7562′ (You are clicking on these image to see them full size, eh?)

Most folks seem satisfied with the views, but if we were going to something called a summit, I wanted to be on the top. We discovered a faint trail that winds eastward around the upper part of the hill to a treed summit without views. On the way we could look to the north to the Tantalus Range. And The Lions, still 3-1/2 km away (that’s as the crow flies).

Unnecessary Mt. 5079', the West Lion 5427',  and the East Lion 5269'

Unnecessary Mt. 5079′, the West Lion 5427′, and the East Lion 5269′

After all this walking, we were only half way to The Lions. Once, if people wanted to climb one of The Lions, this was the only trail. St. Marks Summit is 4498 feet. Ahead is a drop to a col 600 feet below, and then there is the climb over Unnecessary Mountain 1100 feet above that low point. No wonder the climbers named that hill, Unnecessary.

I learned from Larry Fyroishko that one of the consequences of the Olympics in 2010 was a legacy fund established for recreation that was completely separate from the ski area. A committee of local stakeholders, including first nations, was assembled to determine how that money would be used. Two projects emerged: the restoration of the Hollyburn Lodge, and improvements to the Howe Sound Crest trail.

The HS Crest trail begins in Cypress Bowl, and meanders northward along peaks and high ridges to the east of Howe Sound. It descends to sea level at Porteau Cove. The trail has a reputation of being a very rugged multiday traverse.

Along with BC Parks, the trail upgrade project is sponsored by the Federation of Mountain Clubs of BC (FMCBC). The current plan is to improve the trail to The Lions. It seems that most people don’t run into problems on the trip out to The Lions. After a strenuous climb up one of the Lions, about the time they reach St. Marks on the return trip they are approaching exhaustion. Right now the project is to create an excellent path as far as it is feasible to use a machine. Thereafter, they will do the best they can with trail crews.

All this will facilitate a number of adventures for hill walkers of all capabilities, including a no-barriers tour of Yew lake, a short loop up to HS Crest trail and back down the ski hill, and the longer loop mentioned above to the top of Mt. Strachan. From Lions Bay there is access to several points along the HS Crest permitting loops.

The pictures were taken during our hike on October 6. A couple of weeks has past while I researched this story. Today it is pouring rain, and writing this is allowing me to revisit this trip.

More fine print: this trail is high altitude backcountry. All of us who love the wilderness want to share it with everybody. The beginning of the HS Crest Trail is now a very gentle introduction — it is actually within the municipality of West Vancouver and access is a paved road. However, after only a hour’s walking the traveler is far from help. Rescue is difficult, especially when the conditions deteriorate. When it is raining in the city, up there you may find wild winter conditions. Please go, but please go prepared. This article is a report, not instruction. You are responsible for your own safety.


1 Response to “Walk to St. Marks Summit — Howe Sound Crest Trail”

  1. 1 If you want to explore our local mountains… | Salish Sea Trackback on June 16, 2015 at 12:17 am

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