On Easter weekend, T and I did our first real backpacking trip of the season with a few friends. We headed to the Stein Valley – one of my favourite places – on the drier, warmer east side of the Coast Mountains.
A relatively light hiking pack was a nice change from carrying ski equipment, even though we did have our packrafts along. We had four days in the Stein and wanted to do a 60km out and back hike on the main valley trail, while also pursuing a few side objectives. I wanted to go hunting for a secret cave filling with native drawings using only a vague collection of clues, plus I wanted to venture off-trail up a side valley to a sub-alpine lake virtually no one visits. Lastly, we wanted to put in the first packrafting trip on the Stein River (although kayakers have been lugging their heavy boats in at least part way for decades).
That first night I went hunting for the cave. The cave is referred to in some old Stein books, but it’s location is not disclosed. My clues were that’s about 2km up river from the bridge and 600m up from the valley. So off I went scrambling up hopefully the right mountain. I was running out of daylight, but managed to gain the requisite elevation with a little daylight left. I looked around and got some nice views of the valley, but didn’t find the cave.
When I got back and re-checked my list of clues and realized the cave was actually supposed to be 900m up, not 600m, so I had no chance of finding it. Kind of a bummer, but if I knew it was 900m I wouldn’t have gone at all with the fading daylight. I didn’t learn much about where the cave might be, but I did learn the side of that mountain (Evenglow) is pretty serious scrambling and seems unlikely as the area which groups of regular folks visited in the 90’s. Of course the goats had no trouble with it, and left an impressive trail for me to follow the whole way. Other than the ridiculously steep grade and abundant goat scat, parts of the trail looked almost human.
The second day we hiked another 16km up river to Cottonwood camp. We arrived early and headed to the nearby Cottonwood falls. T and I bought a new camera for our travels this year (Panasonic ZS100) so I’ve been trying to learn how to use it. I’ve struggled for years with those “blurry water” shots, but at Cottonwood I had a now-obvious realization. I knew I needed a longer shutter to get blur, but that always meant too bright of a photo and any shutter short enough to expose properly just didn’t look blurred enough. I don’t know why I didn’t think of this years ago, but I waited until dusk when there was a lot less light, put the camera on something stable (a rock) and found success. Apparently the secret is simply waiting until it’s much darker than it looks in the shot.
Also on day two, we ran out of coffee. Well not coffee entirely, but ground coffee. I knew we were low heading in, so I tossed in some whole beans and figured I’d find a way to grind them later. First I tried beating them in the ziplock bag but it got full of rips pretty quickly. I needed a mortar and pestle, which was surprisingly hard to put together. I hunted along the creek for about 30 minutes until I found useable stones. The end result was a setup that was pretty slow to use and could only do about a dozen beans at a time, but it worked. We had delicious coffee.
For the first time in a while, I set an alarm that third morning because three of us planned to get an early start on the side trip to Kent Lake. The Kent valley is a side valley formerly cut off by a glacier, so Kent Creek drops steeply into the main valley including a ~100’ waterfall. That meant we weren’t sure if we could scramble up there or not (there’s no trail), but the allure was strong because there’s no online records of any visits, and the valley contains a large green lake guarded by steep walls on both sides leading to the two highest peaks in southwestern BC (Skihist and Petlushkwohap). So it’s easy to imagine it as a naturally guarded backcountry Eden.
Unfortunately for me, everyone else bailed on the trip. T said it sounded too hard (how wise she is) and our friend Dusan had a sore foot and still many miles to hike out (30km) so he didn’t want to push it. Off I went, solo, at 7am for the 9km off-trail round trip with 850m of vertical gain. I blew up the raft to cross the Stein river and started hiking up the wall beside Kent Creek. It got steep, but not silly steep, and gaining the valley wasn’t that hard. The worse part was the 1km of side hilling on ½ talus and ½ snow before the continuous snow started. That involved a lot of post holing through snow into holes int the talus and thus quite a few cuts on the ankles. Note that low cut socks aren’t great for post holing on crust.
Soon the valley went from a V to a U shape so I dropped to the flat creek bottom and also put on snowshoes as the snow was finally continuous enough. We had packed just one pair of snowshoes between the three of us, so it was good that everyone else had bailed as I needed them. My little MSR Shift kids snowshoes were perfect on the frozen crust and I went from post holing to brisk walking.
Three hours after leaving Cottonwood I arrived at Kent Lake. To be honest, it wasn’t that exciting. The lake was frozen (as I suspected it would be) and it just looked like most valleys in the Coast Mountains, albeit with a large flat spot of snow where the lake is. I suspect it’s pretty nice in the summer though, and I could just see the top of Petlushkwohap in the distance, which is an awesome peak on the life list. I’m glad I went.
I had lunch at the lake, headed back, bumped my knee (still hurts 2 weeks later) and ripped my pants side hilling on the talus, and then paddled back across the river two hours after leaving Kent Lake.
I was back early (1pm), so instead of rafting the Stein River tomorrow morning I figured we’d start now while it’s warm out. The Stein River has lots of rowdy bits, but we were just going to raft 15km in the middle that is almost entirely flat water. There are a few riffles that could be argued as Class II but that’s a stretch.
We put in and the river was nice. There was a bit of wood, but the water wasn’t pushy so it was easy to pull over and portage. We covered the 15km in 4 hours and confirmed my suspicions that (1) there are tons of trout in the river and (2) floating is a viable alternative to hiking. Our speed on the river was a little faster than walking and took a lot less effort.
In mid-summer it would be a great float – especially since around July the river actually changes color from blue to silty green, as the summer heat adds glacier melt. An August traverse starting from the west, over the alpine, and then rafting the middle 30km would be an excellent trip. The glacial flow is substantial enough to provide sufficient water for at least the middle 30km all summer long. Additional river beta is in the Stein Park Guide.
We spent the last night camped by the river in a stoic grove of mature Douglas Fir. The next morning we hiked out along the river, which at this point is a Class III boulder garden that looked tempting to me but no one else, and headed to town to shower, do laundry and pack for what’s next.
Hey thanks for all the insight into Stein Valley. We are planning on hiking it around July 1 to 8. We are debating between doing the lesser traverse with angel walk or the full traverse with packrafting.
We would ideally like to do the trip in 5 or 6 days. Do you think either of those plans are then reasonable? We are fit and experienced hikers but we do not have any experience with packrafts and only a little white water experience. Thanks for any advice.
5-6 for the full traverse would mean long-ish days, but not too bad if people are in reasonable shape and willing to hike a few extra hours if need be. It’ll be quite snowy in early July, but well consolidated so walking on top shouldn’t be too hard. You might like having an ice axe for a few sections where you might be side-hilling on snow, such as around Tundra Lake.
The lesser traverse with Angel’s Walk would fit quite comfortably into that time window. 3 days to the Stein River and 2 days out to Lytton is a pretty comfortable pace. It also will be a bit snowy still but less so and you probably would be fine without the ice axe.
Awesome. How much time do you think packrafting would save vs walking?
Nevermind, I see you updated the park guide with much more info about packrafting: https://intocascadia.com/stein-valley-park-guide/ . Thanks for creating an amazing resource!