Everyone has a favourite hike. For some, that hike may be a well-travelled location, such as the Cape Scott Trail, or a route past Lake Helen Mackenzie. For others, favourite routes are more private, with information held close by those in-the-know; secret spots where not many people venture. Assuredly, Horseshoe Mountain belongs in the second category, as one of Vancouver Island’s best-kept secrets.
Horseshoe Mountain has views to rival many of the better-known routes. With easy Class 2 hiking through old-growth forest, and a final approach along a broad, high-elevation alpine ridge to the 1742-metre summit, it’s surprising that Horseshoe Mountain isn’t more well-known. The reason is simple, and the title of this post alludes to it: accessing the trailhead is a pain in the rump!
Any seasoned traveller will acknowledge that it takes a lot of patience and experience to plan a good route. This is especially true on Vancouver Island, where access to most of the worthwhile trailheads is found along logging roads, often past gates, and sometimes over deactivated roads. Researching access roads is a big part of our pre-trip ritual, and Phil does most of the research for our group. In his search for the best route, Phil pores over the Backroads Mapbook, GPS maps, and even Google Earth. He scours trip reports and popular social media sites, looking for information that will get us where we want to go. However, even with the best-laid plans, sometimes things go to heck! This is exactly what happened on August 28th, when Phil and I hiked up Horseshoe Mountain – which wasn’t even our objective for the day!
The original plan was to climb Conuma Mountain, a peak known to have a bushy approach. But as we drove the long road toward Gold River, we changed our plan. Dark clouds brought inclement weather, long before the forecasted afternoon showers. As much as we love to bushwhack, we weren’t interested in fighting through a river’s worth of water and then trying to climb wet, slippery rock. Even under perfect conditions, we were already concerned about the route-finding up the mountain. The rain created too many variables, so we changed our objective to Horseshoe Mountain.
Phil had a GPS route for Horseshoe Mountain that he had collected for a prior trip (which was cancelled due to weather), so we knew where the trail started. Our challenge was in navigating the maze of roads to the trailhead. We didn’t have the luxury of a long pre-planning period, where Google Earth would have revealed the twisty roads up the mountainside. We weren’t able to rely on the Backroads Mapbook, either. Sometimes the book lets you down: we sometimes find roads in the book that, when we arrive, are full of alder trees 30 feet high and four inches thick; other times, we pass spurs that aren’t even in the book. Today was a case of the latter: we could see strings of roads running up the mountain, and found multiple spurs, but none of them were listed in the BRMB. We were forced to look for the trailhead the old-fashioned way.
We knew the hike would be a quick one, so we enjoyed the ride. After three failed forays up incorrect spurs, we finally found the right one. The toughest section of the E-110a80 spur is right at the start. We had to do some fancy wheel-turning in 4Lo, as we drove over a serious washout and a series of rough cross-ditches. However, once past these sections, we were travelling up the side of the mountain over better-quality road.
Once we reached the end of the road, we left my Jeep in the middle of it (~1240m). We examined the terrain and the GPS route. The route ascends a section of logging slash, but we hopped off the logging road and ascended through the old-growth instead. We moved quickly through light blueberry and other low alpine bush, following the path of least resistance to the lake above. Even though the conditions were mostly dry, and the plants were not doused, we were soaked by the time we reached the lake. But there was nothing that could wipe the smiles from our faces once we saw the lake! It’s little more than a large alpine tarn, but its emerald-green waters are beautifully contrasted by the surrounding terrain. It boggled our minds that we didn’t find so much as a poorly booted path or even ribbons as we walked.
Passing on the left of the lake, we again followed the path of least resistance. The slope gains elevation quickly, but the terrain is consistent and easy to follow. We reached the saddle above the lake, and followed a route up a lightly-treed slope to a long alpine ridge at about 1550 metres. As we reached it, our jaws dropped. We didn’t know what to expect, but we would never have predicted a gorgeous, open, alpine ridge.
As we continued northwest toward the final bump, we marveled at the views and at the incredible drop-offs on either side of the ridge. All of these combined to give the ridge a big-mountain feel. We stood close to the edge, trying to look down into the valleys below. Though we could see at least 200 metres down, clouds filled the valley and blocked our view from the ridge. As we climbed, the weather seemed to improve. We reached the summit by noon.
We sat by the summit cairn, eating our lunches, enjoying the view, and identifying peaks. We didn’t have long to enjoy our rest, because the weather was changing again. As we stood on the summit, the wind shifted so that cloud rolled in from almost every direction. The wind billowed up the valley below us, sending clouds tumbling over each other as they reached the ridge. We lost the view of the surrounding mountains, but never the ridge. We decided it was time to retreat.
On our return to the car, we followed a different route. Although it goes, it follows a steeper route that was made difficult by the wet conditions. Our route up would likely be preferred by most, though both go without the worry of navigating around the bluffs visible from the tarn.
Driving long distances isn’t my favourite way to spend a day, but if I want to get to Vancouver Island’s most pristine places, sometimes it is necessary. Although Horseshoe Mountain was a short, easy hike, I don’t regret the long drive because we had such an amazing experience!
Now that I’ve shared one of my secret spots I’d love to hear about your favourite!