Table of Contents
1 – Intro
2 – Stein Resources
3 – Author Background/Experience
4 – Access
5 – How to Experience the Stein
6 – Commentary on Lower Valley Camping
7 – Commentary on the Stein Traverse
8 – Commentary on the Mini Traverse
9 – Trail Descriptions
10 – Packrafting / Kayaking
11 – Other Creative Trip Options
1 – Intro
The Stein Valley is a wilderness area in Southwestern BC, Canada. The entire 1070 km2 watershed has been protected in a provincial park after a prolonged conservation battle in the 70-90’s. Thanks to the passion of that generation, none of the Stein drainage has ever been logged and industrial activity has been non-existant other than a small and defunct silver mine.
The Stein Valley is unique in that it is the only park in North America in close proximity to an urban center (>1 million people) with an intact suite of top predators. Grizzly, wolf, cougar, wolverine and lynx are all here.
Despite the close urban proximity, visitorship is sparse and recreation opportunities are wonderfully underdeveloped. Attractions include alpine lakes where glaciers calve mini icebergs, hundreds of kilometers walkable of alpine ridges, the tallest peaks in southwestern BC, the Klackarpun icefield, 60km of wild river and 150km of valley trails.
Due to lack of amenities, development and publicity, recreation in the Stein Valley low. The main access point at the river mouth is visited regularly by weekend hikers, but I estimate about 50 people per year make it into the heart of the park.
In this short guide, I’ll opine on how best to experience the park, comment on popular trips, provide basic trail beta and suggest a number of untested but possibly outstanding routes.
While this guide provides general beta on the main trails, it lags substantially behind G. White’s guidebook in terms of detailed trail info, local ecology and history. I highly recommend picking up G. White’s guide. The unique attributes of this guide are more up to date trail conditions, off-trail route suggestions and unbeatably low price.
2 – Resources:
Stein to Joffre by Trail Ventures – Best map but cuts off parts of the southern divide.
ITMB Stein map – Older, ugly and not particularly accurate
Lizzie Creek Backcountry Ski Map – Ski possibilities in the Lizzie area.
Stein Valley Wilderness Guide 2ED, Gordon White 2013 – Good guidebook.
Stein: The Way of the River, M’Gonigle & Wickwire 1988 – Fantastic historical info.
Exploring the Stein River Valley, Freeman and Thompson 1979 – Outdated but neat piece of history.
3 – Author Background / Stein Experience:
I’ve hiked the full Stein Traverse four times (2010, 2011, 2012, 2017) which took 8 days (2010, 2011), 2 days (2012) or 1 day (2017). I’ve also camped in the lower valley, rafted the middle Stein, hiked to Kent Lake and skied/hiked the “mini traverse” (Blowdown Pass to Lytton) solo in winter 2015. I’ve also skied in the Lizzie Creek area and tried to ski the southern divide twice but never made much past Caltha due to the weather.
4 – Access:
The main access to the Stein is from the east (Lytton) but there is also access from the west and north sides. Coming in from the south would require combining logging roads with an off-trail route of your own creation.
The main access from the east is the only access with normal park amenities (signage, washrooms, picnic tables). To get here, drive the Lytton-Lillooet Hwy to just north of Lytton, BC where you turn west onto the Lytton Ferry Rd. Immediately cross the Fraser River on the free ferry, which doesn’t run at night or during a few breaks. Across the ferry, turn right (north) and drive for about 5km, at which point signs will direct you down a dirt road (1km) into the park. If you go too far you’ll cross the Stein river.
The other access points are from the north and west. From the north, you can drive up the Blowdown Creek FSR from Duffey Lake road for about 10km in a 2WD car. A jeep could make it a few kms further to the pass via the old silver mining road, but most folks hike up. The old road continues several kilometers into the Stein, but please respect the non-motorized laws, as driving in further detracts from other peoples experiences.
For western access, head east on hwy 99 from Pemberton, BC after stopping for coffee at the Mt. Currie Coffee Co. or the Blackbird Bakery. After 8km, turn right to stay on the 99 (well signed) in the town of Mt. Currie and then 17km after leaving Pemberton you’ll be driving past Lillooet Lake. Just past the lake, turn right onto the In-SHUCK-ch forest service road, which heads south down the lakes’ eastern shore. Drive this for 15km to the Lizzie Creek FSR (on your left). You can park here at the start of the Lizzie FSR (if you have a wimpy or shiny car) or drive up 1.5 km to the start of the trail, which is on the outside of a switchback with some markers indicating the spot (see map below). There is a bit of parking there.
Prior to 2003 you could drive 10km up Lizzie Creek to Lizzie Lake, but major washouts that year changed all that. The main washout occurred at a spot where Lizzie Creek meanders against a 30 meter high cliff on the north side. When the logging road was built it was routed entirely on the north side except for this spot, where the road briefly crossed over and back rather than climbing over the cliff. So the road used to have two bridges about 200m apart but now both are washed out. Now you have a choice between 3 options: two detours on the north side of the creek above the cliff, or crossing the creek twice.
The best choice is the new (2016) bypass trail. It’s a nice, flat, wide trail that provides good walking. Comparatively, the old (2004) bypass trail is much harder and exposed, but it is the first trail you’ll come to so many parties still take it. This old trail climbs and descends steeply and it sucks. For years this was the only trail, so I recommended crossing the creek on logs (or fording it), but the 2016 trail is much nicer and faster, especially if you park up at its entrance instead of the lower parking spot.
In low water, you can ford the creek or cross the indicated logs to go around. The logs work pretty much anytime of year but at high flows a slip off into the raging creek could be fatal. If you are athletic and aren’t parked at the entrance to the 2016 trail, then crossing on the logs can be faster and more of an adventure. I do this in late summer to save a little time. There are some nice old growth trees (some of the last in the Lizzie valley) and calypso orchids on the south side. If you do choose to cross the creek, there’s a nice large log with flagging on it at the upstream crossing that most people will feel comfortable on, although it is a bit high off the water (8′?) so a fall could break a leg. From here you can walk downstream until you see the logging road on the opposite bank and then ford the creek (knee deep) to reach it or cross on a smaller log a bit further yet that can be wet and slippery as it’s only 2′ off the creek.
The final access point is Texas Creek in the NE corner. I’ve never been up here but it does provide good access to the alpine including the spot where the famous Save the Stein festivals were held in the early 90’s. There is info on this access point on the park website. This access is little used because it’s a long drive to a small alpine area disconnected from the rest of the trail system, but it could a good way to put together an outstanding traverse to other trailheads.
5 – History and How to Experience the Stein
Prior to the 1970’s, the Stein valley saw only light use from the local Nlaka’pamux First Nation as well as a few hunters and trappers. This led to a reasonably well developed trail half way up the river to Cottonwood Creek but little else. As the showdown between clear cut loggers and conservationists brewed in the 70’s and 80’s, a flurry of new trails were hastily constructed to demonstrate the valley’s recreational value. These trails were hastily cut with little thought put into the actual route and most have disappeared from both maps and the forest. At least 1/2 the trails in Freeman and Thompson (1979) don’t exist anymore and probably never really did.
Today there are only a few discernible trails in the park, which are shown above and described at the end. Even these, with the exception of the main valley trail, are best thought of as access tools rather than attractions. The Stryen Creek Trail (officially delisted in 2017) and Cottonwood Creek trail (reclassified to a route in 2017) provide access to the southern and northern alpine respectively.
The focus of the guide is on long traverses via foot, packraft or ski. Despite the lack of good trails, these trips are made possible by the Wisconsin glaciation which covered and rounded off most of the alpine ridges but not the peaks in the Stein, making for an alpine that is both outstandingly scenic and surprisingly efficient to traverse. These ridges are a great way to link together peaks, lakes and glaciers.
The best known such walk in the Stein is the “Stein Traverse” which uses the valley trail (57km) to access a great ridge complex through the western alpine (28km) before descending the old Lizzie road (12km) to the west side. Also hiked occasionally is the “mini traverse” which enters from the north and walks the Cottonwood Creek trail into the valley before heading east to the river mouth.
In this guide I’ll comment and describe these trips and offer suggestions on how to best experience them.
6 – Lower Valley Camping
The most popular activity in the Stein in walk in hiking/backpacking in the first 30 km of the lower valley. It’s a great activity, but straight forward stuff so I won’t spend much time on it here. The appeal of walk in camping/backpacking in the lower valley is that the Stein gets a lot nicer weather than the west side of the Coast Mountains, so when it’s rainy or snowy in Vancouver it’s usually still nice in the Stein. It’s a great spring destination (March – May) and sometimes you can go camping right through the winter. The flip side of this is that it can be extremely hot in July and August. Besides the friendly weather, there is also no fees, a relatively flat trail and plenty of neat attractions including fishing, pictographs and old cabins and caves to hunt out.
Lower valley camping starts from the eastern (Lytton) trailhead. Most folks stick to the first 13km, where there are frequent campsites (every 2-4 km) with outhouses and bear caches (unreservable, no fees). Walk as far as you please, camp and hike back. The campsites are Loop Camp (km 2.5), Devil’s Staircase (km 4.5), Teepee (km 8), Earls Cabin (km 10) and Suspension Bridge (km 13). Beyond the Suspension Bridge the trail isn’t quite as good, but it’s still nice walking to Cottonwood (km 30). There are many areas when you can camp in this section as well, but the official sites are Lean To (km 17), Ponderosa (km 22) and Cottonwood (km 30). See the trails description section for some further info.
7 – Commentary on the Stein Traverse
In various venues the Stein Traverse is described as either the ultimate wilderness experience, or a horrific slog. What it really is (from east to west) is 15 km of pretty good trail, 42km of mostly poor-okay trail with a few nice spots, 28km of incredible alpine and then a 12km green alder tunnel down an old logging road. For more details, see section 9 (trail descriptions). The traverse is a great trip but almost entirely due to the alpine and adjacent lakes (Stein, Lizzie). If you can’t handle some – or a lot – of suffering, you won’t like it. Those who are happy to accept below average trail for a more remote experience will be delighted.
With that said, major trail work was done in 2016 and 2017 which substantially improved the main trail. The worst part – the alder covered burn zone from 2006 around Avalanche Creek – has been vastly improved, and the entire valley trail was cleared of deadfall (of course some more has since fallen). Even the stretch of trail rising from Lizzie Lake up to Lizzie cabin was cleared of it’s formerly substantial deadfall and is now in pretty good shape. A windstorm in fall 2016 did add a moderate amount of new deadfall to the trail, but overall the trail is WAY better than it was prior to 2016.
The traditional suggestion for the Stein Traverse (See G. White’s guidebook) is to start from the west, which I disagree with. Starting from the west is easier in that you gain elevation gently on a former logging road rather than a steep trail up from Stein Lake. It also lets you have a recent weather forecast for the exposed alpine section. The downfall is that you see all the best terrain in the first 40% of the trip. The valley trail isn’t terrible, but it can seem that way if it has to follow the high bar set by the alpine.
So I recommend starting from the east. In doing so, you’ll gain a wilder feel in the alpine since you’re probably 4-5 days in before you even start the ascent. The remote upper valley trail will make the trip feel wild even before you’re amongst the peaks. This gives the trip it’s zenith on the penultimate day and leaves the logging road descent as a time for reflection. It also lines you up for incredible post trip eats in Pemberton at either the Pony or Mile One Eatery, rather than the limited fare served in Lytton. It’s also worth considering starting at Blowdown/Cottonwood on the north side instead of Lytton. This adds a bit of alpine to the trip and most importantly, can make the logistics/shuttling quite a bit quicker, but the regular traverse is better as it provides more diverse scenery. With that said, if you walk the “angel’s crest” ridge (see last section) instead of the trail through the Cottonwood valley and then head west to Stein Lake and beyond, you’ll have one amazing trip.
The main criticism of the Stein Traverse is that the effort is high relative to the alpine it crosses, which some of my trip suggestions seek to improve. Both the length and difficulty of the access are substantial, so you have to enjoy this sort of semi-suffering adventure. If you do, check out the detailed trail/route description for this traverse in section 9.
My suggested itinerary for the Stein Traverse is:
Day 1: Sort logistics, start mid day at Lytton (yes it’ll be hot) and hike 13-14km of easy trail to the suspension bridge camp or Riverside camp just beyond.
Day 2: Hike to Cottonwood Camp (km 29) or Logjam camp (km37). The latter isn’t nearly as nice, but it lines you up to camp at a nice spot on the river tomorrow and then more time at Stein Lake on day 4.
Day 3: Hike to Avalanche Camp (km 47, good camp) from Cottonwood or to a nice unofficial river side camp (km 52) just prior to the upper cable crossing if you were at log jam.
Day 4: Arrive at Stein lake (km 57, mediocre camp), relax and go fishing.
Day 5: Stein Lake to Puppet Lake (or Tundra Lake in a big day)
Day 6: Puppet to Caltha Lake (if you were at Tundra, also bag a peak en route)
Day 7: Caltha to Lizzie Cabin (fairly easy, bag a peak on white lupine ridge)
Day 8: Lizzie Cabin to Finish.
8 – Commentary on Mini Traverse
The “mini traverse” starts from the Blowdown FSR on the north side, heads over Blowdown pass and walks 30km south down the Cottonwood valley to meet the Stein River at its midpoint. At the river, it follow the valley trail east 30km to the river mouth.
The main advantage of this trip is that you park at a high elevation (1650m/5400′) leaving just 550m to the pass, beyond which everything is downhill.
The downside of the mini traverse is the alpine is limited and over quickly. The 1 hour / 3 km section over Blowdown pass is the extent of it, and even this is sullied by the old mining road which demonstrates just how slowly scars heal in the alpine. For this reason, walking the “Angels Walk” ridge (which divides Cottonwood and Scudamore valleys) instead of the parallel Cottonwood trail makes for a vastly better trip than the standard mini traverse. Even better would be walking Angel’s Walk into the valley, and then turning west to hike the meat of the main traverse.
You can hike the “mini traverse” in either direction, but starting in the North is easier because it gives a downhill trip, and because navigation going out of the Cottonwood Valley is easier than going in. This trail used to be rough, but it was cleared in 2010 and the southern half was cleared and remarked again 2012 after it burned, so it’s actually pretty good walking except for the last 2km down to the river. This last 2km is talus slopes with occasional cairns and trail makers, but no obvious trail. If you’re hiking south you may lose the trail as you descend the talus slopes to the Stein River but it’s no problem because you’ll intercept the valley trail eventually. If you’re hiking up from the river you’ve got a tougher task sleuthing out the occasional marker and cairn until you’re out of the main river valley, at which point the trail becomes obvious. The Cottonwood Valley is rarely visited, but it’s a neat area that’s worth heading into.
Where the two forks of Cottonwood Creek meet is a reasonably developed campsite (picnic table, bear bin). It’s the only such camping area in the Cottonwood drainage until the creek mouth, but there are lots of other areas you could set up a tent. A reasonable southbound itinerary is to hike to the forks of Cottonwood Creek on day 1, Stein River on day 2, the suspension bridge on day 3 and finish on day 4.
9 – Stein Trails Description
There are only three marked trails in the Stein, as shown above. The main valley trail runs east-west across the park. The Stryen Creek trail is the short trail on the eastern side, while the Cottonwood Creek trail splits off from the main river trail mid-valley and runs northwest over Blowdown Pass until it hits a driveable logging road in north of the park along Blowdown Creek.
MAIN VALLEY TRAIL
From the parking lot on the eastern side of the park, the trail begins on the south side of the river. The first 13km to the suspension bridge is good walking, although quite hot in mid summer. “Devil’s Staircase” is no such thing, as it’s an easy 5 minute climb, although the ups and down for the next 2km do get a bit tiresome. Good camps are found every few kilometers. There’s Loop Camp (Km 2), Devil’s Staircase (Km 4), Teepee (Km 8), Earl’s Cabin (Km 10) and the Suspension Bridge Camp (Km 13). This section is the highest used area in the park.
Just after a nice camp at km 13 the trail crosses to the north side of the river via a suspension bridge and remains good walking for another 2km. In this section there’s another nice camp spot (“Riverside”) with a tree platform but no other amenities. After this point, the trail sees less use. From km 15 to the Ponderosa Shelter (km 21) the trail is a mix of good forest walking and mildly brushy walking near the river with alder, rosehips and horsetail. Camping at the Ponderosa shelter (built 1972) is a bit gloomy, as the shelter is run down. The actual Ponderosa camp is 5 minutes further across the creek and is nicer. The trail itself currently skirts the Ponderosa shelter, so you might miss it entirely, which is fine.
From Ponderosa, it’s 8km to Cottonwood Creek (km 29). This section is more of the same half brushy, half good walking with some talus thrown in, until the last 3km, which is fast forest walking. There used to be quite a bit of riparian trail that was rather brushy, but most of these sections were re-routed in 2016 so the walking is generally better. The only exception is a few talus fields, where the trail disappears for a few hundred meters and you need a keen eye to follow the cairns.
When you arrive at Cottonwood Creek there is a nice camping area, a fire ring, map and an outhouse. It’s a good spot to camp. Cottonwood falls is worth the 5 minute hike upstream. The actual trail up the Cottonwood valley starts a minute back at the signed junction. Cross Cottonwood Creek via the bridge just downstream of camp (the cable car has been removed). While this bridge is old, it’s due to be replaced and even if it gives out before that happens, fording wouldn’t be hard.
After Cottonwood Creek, the trail is mostly good walking but can be overgrown with Fireweed if you’re one of the first parties through that year. The fireweed won’t slow you down much. Cross Scudamore Creek around km 33 via the new cable car and then arrive at Logjam camp (km 37.7). The logjam is neat, but the camp itself isn’t anything special. Feels a bit gloomy to me.
For the next 7km the trail follows the river. It’s decent walking although there will be some trees down and some fireweed sections. Only full traverse hikers make it this far, and there’s probably only 30-50 of them per year, so it’s not a well worn footpath. Thanks to recent remarking and maintenance, it’s not hard to follow like it was prior to 2016.
Around km 44 the trail climbs away from the river until km 51. This area burned in the 90’s and was extremely shrubby by 2015, but is now far better. It’s still a bit slow and can be quite hot as the valley wall gets a lot of sun exposure, but it’s not too hard. You should be able to do 2.5 – 3km/hr with a moderate effort.
In this section, some maps show a few camps but only “Mid Canyon Camp” aka “Avalanche Camp” (km 47) just east of Avalanche Creek really exists. It’s a nice beautiful spot with a great view, outhouse, heli pad and bear locker. Water is 2 minutes further west at the creek. I’ve camped here without incident, but this spot is notorious for packrats nibbling on gear so watch your stuff. It’s often referred to as “Packrat camp”. If you can manage, going another 5km to camp at the river (km 51) is better.
After Avalanche camp the trail skirts the side wall for a few more moderately tough kms before descending a talus field to the Stein River (km 51) and from here the walking is good to Stein Lake. In the next few kms are several incredible stands of old growth Douglas Fir and Cedar. There is a beautiful camp spot along the river just before the upper cable crossing (km 52) and then it’s more good walking to Stein Lake. There’s only one camp area at Stein Lake just after the cable car which holds 2-3 tents, so don’t look around too hard for something more substantial. You can walk along the south shore if you want to do some fishing (Rainbow Trout!).
From Stein Lake, cross the outflow via the cable car. Don’t even think about following the north shore of the lake and ascending the outflow from Puppet Lake as some guides suggest. It can be done, but it’s way slower, harder and tougher and you’ll miss some great alpine. Instead, follow the main trail east for a while until the ascent to the alpine begins. This section of trail could use some work as there are trees down and eroded spots, but the trail condition aren’t a big deal relative to the challenge of the 1200m climb, which is steep and often a bit loose. Ascending isn’t too bad, but you’ll likely land on your butt once or twice if descending.
Shortly after you reach the top, the trail markers end. The rest of the route is now unmarked until Lizzie Cabin except for hiker built cairns, which are frequent. Feel free to add some if you’re confident that you’re on route. The footpath is pretty well worn in the alpine so despite the lack of markers the route is usually easy to follow. The exception to this is for eastbound hikers trying to find the marked trail to descend to Stein Lake from the alpine. This can be tough, as the markers are sparse and faded near the ridge, while the trail is eroded and vague and over the years hikers have worn in many faint paths. Be attentive as you near the end of the ridge for faded markers.
The ridgewalk to Tundra lake is spectacular and slow but straightforward walking once you’re on top. Water is scarce if the snow has all melted but usually there are still a few snowbanks in late August. The longest lasting snowbank lies on the east side of the ridge just before you leave the ridge near Tundra Peak.
Half way to Tundra is the option to descend to Puppet lake (south of the ridge) for water or camping. There are also two lakes on the North side of the ridge that look equally appealing but they’re a little further down. A proper camp site now exists at Puppet, so it’s a nice spot to stop. The alpine section is superb, so if you have the time I suggest stopping at Puppet to stretch it out.
The trickiest part of this section is getting off the ridge when the time comes to cross the east face of Tundra Peak over to Tundra Lake (see “Scrambly Bail” noted in the picture below). I’ve never found a good way of doing this. You’ll be walking along the nice ridge and able to see Tundra Lake from here, but there won’t be an obvious way to get off the ridge down to the talus filled bowl you need to cross. As you continue along the ridge, the trail just gets fainter and fainter since more and more folks have bailed off. Some maps show the route continuing on the ridge right over Tundra peak itself, but this option is usually quite snowy and I haven’t tried it.
My advice to is not to bail off too early, but wait until you’re near the talus in the main bowl. You should be able to scout a decent line that “goes” from the ridge to the bowl, and then bail off the ridge using the numerous Krumholtz trees for hand holds. Some people will find the 50 foot down scramble a bit terrifying but it’s not ridiculous. As far as scrambling goes, this is minor. So in short, bail off whereever it looks reasonable once you’re beside the rocky bowl across the SE face of Tundra Peak.
Once off the ridge, it’s an easy contour across the talus bowl and over the far ridge, behind which lies Tundra Lake. The main camp spot was originally near the outflow, and then later on first big knoll on the North side of the lake, but it moved back to the outflow in 2017. It’s slightly off route, but it’s the best spot to camp. The an amazing spot with better camping and an outhouse. Tundra lake is awesome. Go for a dip.
To get from Tundra Lake to Caltha Lake most folks will boulder hop the north shore of Tundra Lake and go over the pass behind the lake, but it is also an option to cross the outflow of Tundra Lake and circle around Caltha Mountain itself, past Figure 8 lakes, to reach Caltha Lake (not shown). This route is gorgeous but longer and harder to navigate. It’s worth doing if you have the skills and extra time, but most folks will stick to the north shore of Tundra Lake.
There aren’t very many cairns along the North shore of Tundra because the talus is so large they are hard to spot anyways. The normal route is shown in orange above. The key points to note are (1) the normal route goes above the large knoll about 1/3 of the way along the shore, and (2) after this you want to stick to the shoreline until you are near the “cliffy bluff”, at which point you ascend gradually to the pass. It might be tempting to stay high after the knoll, but this means a lot of side-hilling on usually slick vegetation. It’s inefficient and there’s a much higher chance you’ll slip and break a pole or ankle. So descend to the shore and don’t climb until just before the cliffy bluff.
I’ve also shown a “low route” which goes below the main bluff. I have done this route, and it works, but there are two spots where you have to be agile and hang off the vegetation to avoid wet feet. It is definitely faster, as you aren’t gaining and losing as much vertical, so it is a good option for folks who are agile or okay with wet feet. As mentioned, there are two spots where you have to hang off the vegetation and make a few large steps to avoid stepping in the water. With a 70L pack, you’d probably be getting wet feet.
Once you’re over the pass, Caltha Lake is obvious (just like the photo above) and a faint trail with cairns resumes.
The route from Caltha Lake to Lizzie cabin is difficult to describe but you can see it here. The path is fairly obvious except for the talus sections, where cairns exist to get you through if you pay attention. We stayed on route following cairns even during a snowstorm in August 2010. This section has more great scenery. You can camp halfway on White Lupine ridge in nice weather, but it’s only 3-4 hours from Caltha lake to the cabin.
From the cabin there’s an obvious trail down to Lizzie Lake. It had some big logs down on it that were acrobatic to scramble over, but nearly all of this has been cleared as of 2017. Lizzie Lake is loaded with cutthroat trout. It’s unbelievable. From Lizzie Lake, follow the semi-brushy logging road for a few hours and you’re done except for the last creek washout section, which was described in detail under the access section. In short, take the flagged trail on the right (north) side of the old road about 1km before you arrive at the washout.
10 – Packrafting
The Stein River is the only packraft suitable waterway in the valley. There are many side creeks, but they are all too small, too steep, choked with wood or all of the above. As far as I can tell, no one has ever packrafted the entire Stein River but folks have kayaked the Stein River after either illegally chartering a plane to Stein lake, or by commendable fair means of lugging Kayak’s over Van Horlick pass and paddling the class V-VI North Stein to the main river.
One of the neat attributes of the Stein River is that it changes color each year, from clear water in the winter to teal each summer, as the glacier melt contributes more of the water.
The Stein River can be divided into three parts: the upper, mid and lower river. The upper river starts at Stein Lake but it choked with wood until the North Stein tributary feeds in 1.5km downstream. The next 10km have a few large rapids including “Snake Falls” 2.5km from Stein Lake. At first these rapids are inter-mixed with flat water, but after ~5km they become continuous, harder (IV-V) and difficult to escape in a canyon. The best beta on this is here. Only expert paddlers should attempt this section. At this point the hiking trail is high on the north wall, so you are largely committed to the river. The curious and advanced paddler could try a few of the rapids between where the North Stein feeds in and the upper cable car (6km downstream from Stein Lake) but should take out at the cable car.
The middle Stein begins where the valley trail re-joins the river about 13km from Stein Lake and 44km from the river mouth. Here the river changes character dramatically and becomes largely class I water with maybe some class II sections. You can put in as soon as the valley trail reaches the river (near “Raven Camp”). The middle Stein section runs 31km and is nice floating with great fishing spots and few concerns.
The only consideration is wood, which is an on-going concern but the river is mellow enough that it is easy to handle. There are two massive log-jams in the first 10km, which are a bit of pain to portage but easy to see coming. The latter log jam is at Log Jam Camp where the trail is close to the river, so you can intercept the valley trail on the north side to portage. The beavers like to drop cottonwoods on to the river each fall, so they have food for the winter. The spring high water usually pushes this wood out of the way, but there will be a few logs across here and there each year.
The 15km from Raven Camp to Cottonwood hasn’t been packrafted (as far as I can tell) but figure on about 5 hours of floating with a moderate paddling effort and a few portages. I floated the next 8km (Cottonwood to Ponderosa) in 2.5 hrs in fairly low flows in April. It’s all Class I water except a few riffles that might go class II in high water. We easily portaged 6 logs it this section – most of which were single logs that would likely be cleared in May-June, so an July-August float would likely have less.
We found less wood from Ponderosa to Riverside and floated this 7km in 1.75 hrs. Just before Riverside the river starts to change character. There is a horizon line that indicates a short boulder garden (Class II) followed by a similar boulder garden 2x as long. After this, there is a another 1km of faster riffles until the serious water starts at the suspension bridge. An easy clue to take out is the cleared helicopter landing spot about 0.5km above the bridge, but there is also a good take out right at the last meander before the bridge.
The lower Stein is 13km of continuous class III-V boulder garden. I haven’t run it personally, but it’s highly regarded in the white water community. The first 6-7km are continuous class III boulder garden. The rapids get a bit more serious (class IV) about 2km before Devil’s Staircase camp including one supposed class V rapid. After Devil’s staircase the river resumes Class III down to the confluence with the Fraser.
Flows are typically moderate in April, high in May-June and then moderate through the rest of the summer. There is enough year round snowpack and glaciation to keep good water flow right through the summer. Based on the historical data, there is always enough flow to paddle the middle Stein, whereas the boulder gardens in the lower Stein would be problematic at low flows and pushy at high flows.
There is no gauge on the Stein, so the best reference point is this gauge on the Nathatlatch River (one valley south). When I floated the middle Stein in April the Nahatlatch gauge was at 1.1m (water level) or 25m m3/s (discharge), which was plenty. Flows peak at about 2x in the May-June. A rough guess would be 0.6 – 2m would be fine for the middle river, while 1.5m might be ideal for the upper and lower sections.
11 – Suggestions for Outstanding Trips
The Stein contains so many great ridges and lakes that it’s impossible to list all the great trips that are possible. Here I’ll try to provide a sampling of different options that I think have high potential, but keep in mind that almost every ridge in the Stein is walkable if you have the right attitude and experience, so the possibilities are endless. None of these trips are suitable for beginners or intermediate wilderness travellers. To pull any of these off you need strong navigation skills, bear knowledge, moderate comfort scrambling, good fitness and a level head.
A) Angels Traverse – 95km, 6-8 days.
The ridge between the Cottonwood and Scudamore drainages was named “The Angels Walk” by the late Father Damasus (1921 – 1978), who played a large role in saving the Stein. It’s purported to be an outstanding ridgewalk. I haven’t personally walked it, but I did gaze at it while skiing the Cottonwood trail. In addition to good walking and 360 views, this ridge offers a great look at both Petlushkwohap (9642′) and Skihist (9738′) peaks on the opposite side of the valley, which are the highest two peaks in southwestern BC.
This ridge is a far more scenic option than the Cottonwood trail, so this ridge is a great way to spice up the mini traverse, or it can be linked in with the main traverse as suggested here to form a trip similar in length to the Stein Traverse, but with double the alpine. The car shuttle is also way shorter.
There are two ways to gain this ridge, as shown above. The easy option is to follow the road over Blowdown pass and into the Cottonwood valley. After ~5km the road seems to end and a trail continues, but actually the old road crosses the creek and heads up towards the old Silver Queen Mine just below the ridge. Head up here to the end of the road and use your best judgement to gain the ridge. There are a few good options. The second way to gain the ridge is to head off-trail from Blowdown Cabin, which is a nice but unsanctioned cabin built on crown land. I’ve indicated the cabin on the map above. I won’t delve the co-ordinates here, but the interested can easily spot it on Google Earth. Snowmobilers use it in the winter (it has a wood stove) but only the occasional hiker uses it in the summer. From the cabin, scramble over or north of Notgott peak to the ridge.
Once on the ridge, there are a few spots you can bail off to camp, such as the small lake at the old Silver Queen mine. Otherwise stay on the main ridge until you reach the final descent to the Stein River. If you want to visit Cottonwood falls stay as far east on the descent as you can without getting sucked into the Cottonwood Creek canyon. Otherwise just stay anywhere on the main face and descend until you intercept the valley trail. The descent is mostly open, dry pine forest so you’ll have good views to macro-navigate to the river. The valley trail isn’t super obvious as the fireweed can be thick in the valley, so be alert although you’ll soon hit the river if you miss it. From here turn west and follow the Stein Traverse route description.
A good plan for this trip is:
Day 1: Sort logistics, arrive mid-afternoon and hike to either Blowdown Lake or Blowdown Cabin.
Day 2: Hike to small lake at Silver Queen Mine
Day 3: Walk ridge to Cottonwood Camp
Day 4: Camp at the Upper Cable Crossing along the river
Day 5: Camp at Stein Lake. Go fishing.
Day 6: Big day on ridge to Tundra Lake
Day 7: Tundra Lake to Lizzie Cabin (or split this up)
Day 8: Lizzie Cabin to Finish
B) Packrafters Traverse – 95km, 6-8 days
Packrafting provides a way to hike the best parts of the Stein Traverse and then float out large sections of the river instead of walking the valley trail. Follow the itinerary for the Stein Traverse (but from west to east) but put in where the trail rejoins the river above Log Jam camp, or sooner if you’re an expert paddler. Beginner – intermedate paddlers should take out above the lower suspension bridge, while advanced paddlers will enjoy the last 13km of boulder garden.
Casual and cautious itinerary:
Day 1: Sort logistics, get to Lizzie Creek FSR before noon. Hike to Lizzie Cabin
Day 2: Lizzie Cabin to Caltha Lake
Day 3: Caltha to Tundra Lake
Day 4: Tundra Lake to Stein Lake (or layup at Puppet Lake)
Day 5: Stein Lake to Avalanche Creek Camp
Day 6: Avalanche Creek to Stein River and float to Cottonwood Ck
Day 7: Float Cottonwood Ck to Upper Suspension Bridge
Day 8: Hike out
Fast & expert paddler itinerary:
Day 1: Hike to Lizzie Cabin
Day 2: Lizzie Cabin to Tundra Lake
Day 3: Tundra Lake to Stein Lake
Day 4: Hike past North Stein and paddle upper Canyon to Log Jam camp
Day 5: Paddle the rest
C) Stoltmann Traverse – 120km?, 10 days
The late Randy Stoltmann (1962 – 1994) is a personal hero. He was equal parts wilderness crusader and wilderness traveller, and is best known for the central role he played in finding and preserving Canada’s biggest old growth trees in Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park. He died young in a mountaineering accident, but not before undertaking fantastic trips all over the coast mountains of BC.
This traverse was completed for the first and only time by Randy, his brother Greg and trail builder Leo DeGroot in the early 90’s. This route shows a good understanding of the Stein terrain, as it takes advantage of three major ridges to form a wild and outstanding trip with zero chance of seeing another person until the last day. It is likely the epitome of non-technical walking in the Stein.
Anyone considering this trip should pick up Randy’s book Written by the Wind, which is available for pennies on Amazon. I can’t do Randy’s route description justice here, so consult the book. In essence, you drive up the Kwoiek Creek FSR until you reach the southern starting point shown. From here the next 90km are off trail, although navigationally the first 10km might be the toughest as the terrain is more complex. Once you’re on the ridge that forms the NE boundary of Rutledge Creek it’s smooth sailing until you reach the Stein River.
At the river, either ford it or head for the cable car crossing a bit upriver. Ascending to the North Stein ridge will be a bit thick at first, but soon it opens up into spaced out whitebark pines and the climbing is good. Once you’re on the ridge the next several days are all amazing views and good walking with a few navigational challenges and potential scrambles thrown in.
D) Skihist Loop – 75km? 5-6 days
This trip is the most diverse route suggested here with sections of trail, off-trail, packrafting and mountaineering. It also includes a summit of southwestern BC’s highest peak, Skihist (9738′). It’s hard to think of a more interesting way to spend 5 days.
Like many of the trips suggested here, this trip has never been done. A close look via Google Earth indicates it should go but parts of it could be dangerous and might suck, so all the appropriate caveats apply. Start by heading up the Stryen Creek trail to the east fork. Where the trail ends, keeping walking until you gain the ridge east of Nikaia peak. Walk the ridge until just before Winter peak where you bail off north and take the pass north of Winter peak into the upper Kent Creek valley. I’d set up camp here (night 2 if you’re fast, night 3 otherwise) and make a day ascent of Skihist by following the main drainage WSW up the glacier (walk the northern lateral moraine to lower risk) to the pass into the Nesbitt drainage, and then from the pass take the ridge SE to the Skihist summit. Descend back to camp.
From there, spend a day heading down Kent Creek to the Stein River. Parts of this will be tough, but there’s a lot of loosely spaced trees as well that should be good walking. Stay on the west side of the rarely visited Kent Lake and camp at the Cottonwood Creek camp. The last kilometer to the river is very steep and Kent Creek goes over a substantial waterfall, but this slope is forested the whole way and can be done safely if you choose a good route. On your final day float to the suspension bridge (or further if you’re good) and walk the last 13km to your car.
E) Stein Divide Loop – 150km, 10-20 days
Yes here it is. The grand daddy. This trip is head and shoulders above the rest in difficulty, length and commitment. Like several other trips here, it’s never been done, but unlike the others there are obvious areas of technical difficulty. The northern side of the divide includes a few areas that likely get a bit technical, but can usually be skirted by bailing off the ridge. Most areas on the northern divide are hiked or scrambled at least occasionally (every few years).
The south side is tougher, mostly because it includes the Klackarpun icefield and higher peaks. The icefield is fairly intact up top but becomes crevassed where it rolls steeper. Use Google Earth to plan your line across. Still, this icefield has been traversed in the summer on foot, and on skis in the winter, so it’s do-able. Other than that, you’ll have a few tough decisions near peaks on the divide, which will mostly be choices between bailing off the ridge into a thick, slow valley, or sticking with the more technical ridge route. I’ve shown what I think is the best route across the southern divide, but I haven’t put much thought into the northern section.
My suggestion is to start at the river mouth and tackle the northern divide first. To do this, walk back out of the park and cross the Stein River at the road bridge, then head inland. If the north divide goes well keep cruising. If it goes poorly you can bail at Texas Creek, Cottonwood or when you hit the main traverse route near Tundra Lake. Once you’re into the southern divide there are no appealing bail options. You can bail south out some valleys to a long logging road walk, or you can bail into the Stein, swim across the river and hike out the trail.
For a trip of this length, setting up a food cache is a good idea. The ideal spot would be on the west side of Tundra Lake, but it takes at least a day each way to drop food here. If you do make it here, there are some cliffs you could hang a bag off of. A more practical option is to drive up the Van Horlick logging road in the NW corner and do a tree hang near Van Horlick pass, which is ~40% through the trip.
My intentions are to attempt this trip sometime in the next few years, but finding the right partner and a big enough chunk of time off is difficult.
Have fun out there. Toss questions in the comments area. If you want to get in touch email firstname.lastname@example.org