E. C. Manning Provincial Park
Length: 20.4 km
Time: 7 - 9 hours
Best Time to Go: Mid-June to Mid-September
Start of Trail: Strawberry Flats parking lot, or Spruce Bay parking lot
NOTE: camping is permitted at Mowich Wilderness Campsite on Skyline II, 11.9 km from Strawberry Flats. No camping is permitted on Skyline I.
Skyline I is a good, sturdy full day hike for most hikers. It encompasses a variety of terrains and environmental zones, and on a clear day it offers stunning panoramas. The trail is often done as a loop with cars left at both ends, but the additional 3.8 km between the two trailheads can be readily walked, either along the road or along the north section of the Gibson Loop Trail. Bring your own water on this hike as there is no water between the burn and the descent to Lightning Lake, 8-9 km away.
Starting at the Strawberry Flats end, walk along the old fire access road through the Lodgepole Pine forest, and through the flower meadow that is pretty in June with Strawberry blossoms and greening perennials in mid-July to August with a splash of bloom that attracts hummingbirds and butterflies. The notable peak to the west is Red Mountain, 2922 m, named for the colour of its exposed iron ore deposits. About .4 km along the road, the Skyline I trail narrows and heads south, no-north facing slopes, through dense Engelmann Spruce and Alpine Fir forest. The first meadow is reached at 3.7 km. This area is more sheltered and good for sighting Spruce Grouse and Three-toed Woodpeckers, and for hearing Crossbills, Nuthatches and Hermit Thrushes. There are Western Anemone, Marsh Marigold and Green Bog Orchid in the spring; Cow Parsnip, Lupine, Pink Mimulus, Arnica and more orchids blooming later in the season. This is also the beginning of a great bird-watching area that continues to the burn, caused by a forest fire in the mid 1940s. The burn also gives a clear view of the valley below.
The trail comes to a sharp turn at 5.9 km, just above Despair Pass, which is the junction with Skyline II; it offers the first glimpse of Thunder Lake, the western-most lake in the Lightning Lake chain. From here, overnighters can continue the 6.5 km to the Mowich Wilderness Campsite on Skyline II. Day-trippers head east on the ridge 450-700 m above the Lightning Lake chain’s valley.
Hiking east, you first pass through a sub-alpine meadow with a tremendous floral display and a panoramic view. On a clear, warm day, this is the highlight of the trip. Western Anemone and Glacier Lily carpet about 1 km of south-facing meadows in mid to late June. In July Lupin, Paintbrush and Arnica appear; then Mountain Daisy and Cow Parsnip. By mid to late August the summer bloom is over and the trail is obscured by the leaves and flower heads of the dying plants. In or after a rain or heavy dew, the growth effectively soaks a hiker from the thighs down.
Any point along the meadow trail is a panoramic delight! The snow parched rugged peaks to the south are in the U.S.A.; Mt. Hozameen’s twin peaks and Castle Mountain are both visible here. Most of the tree covered slopes in front are north of the border. Lone Mountain rises out of Thunder Lake which is cluttered with old avalanche debris.
The meadows offer a strong temptation for romping. Don’t do it! Even the effects of a hiker sitting on plants at lunchtime are remarkably apparent for days afterwards. On a dry day, the trail itself offers a fine sitting spot. Otherwise your best bet is to continue to either side of the meadows to one of the more rocky viewpoints. Enjoy lunch, but in moderation, as there are several heart-thumping knolls to scale on the 3.75 km ridge to the east, which will compete for your body’s energy while your stomach attempts to digest! If starting from the Spruce Bay parking lot it might be a good idea to wait for lunch until just before the meadows.
The trail generally stays 180 m below the ridge crest on the south side, but rises to the top of the knolls which offer good views in either direction. The Gibson Pass ski area is visible in the valley below to the north, while Blackwall Peak, the Cascade Lookout and the Three Brothers area stretch to the northeast. The three lakes, Thunder, Strike and Flash peek through the valley trees at regular intervals, and Mt. Frosty sits imposingly on the same side.
For approximately 1.25 km the effects of the 1994 forest fire are apparent. Along this part of the trail there are three areas that were cleared for fire fighting purposes i.e. helipads and water reservoirs. The rejuvenation of the forest floor is not as obvious as the moonscape that lies ahead. In this area please stay on the trail to reduce erosion and destruction of new plant growth.
It is a long, slow curl down to the valley floor after the initial quick elevation drop. The trail is a bit wet in spots where rivulets are crossed and is steep enough to scrunch toes to the front of boots, but after a rain it is refreshingly green with an amazing display of lichens and mosses. Long Western White Pine cones are scattered along the trail. Eventually the trail merges into an old fire access road, which leads down to the Lightning Lake junction. Follow the Lightning Lake trail about 1 km east to the Spruce Bay parking lot and your day’s hike is at an end.
Skyline I is one of the most popular and strenuous full day hikes in Manning Park, and offers a variety of sights and sounds throughout its hiking season from mid-June to mid-September. Respect it and enjoy.
Although this trail description covered the start from Strawberry Flats, it is as enjoyable (and preferred by many) to start from Spruce Bay parking lot. The initial elevation gain is more strenuous but the views offered by this route are exceptional and well worth the effort.
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