Sometimes, I like to visit a new place without knowing a single thing about it.
I’ll ask a stranger something like, “Give me the name of a place where you would take your family for a weekend.”
Such was the case on a recent two-day foray into British Columbia. I just wanted a name. “Tell me a good place near Vancouver where I can hike in any season.”
Without preconceived ideas or expectations, a new destination can surprise you. Rounding that bend to an unexpected scene helps a person embrace flexibility.
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And so, I set out with that in mind. I embarked on a nature lover’s road trip to Lower B.C. based on names alone. Here’s what I found.
Stop No. 1: Boundary Bay Regional Park
My dad has a thing for photographing birds. Not boring little brown birds that chase bugs, I’m talking meat eaters — the kind that shred mammals with razor-sharp talons and beaks.
That’s what brought us to the wide gravel pathway snaking through Boundary Bay’s wetlands. The grassy fields and tidelands spreading before a Mount Baker backdrop is moderately scenic during the low season. But the wintering birds of prey are the big draw.
As my dad would say, “It’s a target-rich environment.”
In the span of about two hours we spotted at least 75 raptors — swift little falcons, intense Cooper’s hawks, gorgeous Northern harriers with their pleated wings, and, of course, bald eagles by the dozen. But my dad was most excited about showing me the owls.
We strolled a few hundred yards when he suddenly took an interest in a clump of scrub just off the path. “There’s one!” he barked. I wondered if he was some kind of witch doctor, because there was no way he just “happened to see” the perfectly camouflaged long-eared owl hiding there.
But then he admitted the bird was on the same branch the day before. Apparently owls don’t move very often.
The snowy owls are harder to spot this year, but a few are still around (look for a pair on top of the water tower near the 64th Street entrance). Nevertheless, the sheer number of meat eaters hunting voles at close range is impressive even for the nonbirder.
So the hike was a good warm-up, and certainly a convenient place to stretch legs (by foot, bike or horse) on the 10-mile Dyke Trail where you can witness the highest concentration of raptors.
Stop No. 2: Golden Ears Provincial Park
The next day I found myself standing at the edge of a colossal mirror. At least, that’s how it felt. Alouette Lake was so still that I couldn’t tell which way was up and which was reflection.
It was a breathtaking scene, yet I was alone. Behind me, thousands of empty parking spaces hinted at the throngs that would arrive come summer. But on this day, I had it all to myself.
Winter hiking has its advantages.
For scenic trails without the snowpack, it’s hard to beat Golden Ears Provincial Park, if for no other reason than it feels like you’re deep in mountains, even though many of the trails are just above sea level.
It’s spooky to explore a big park such as Golden Ears without encountering another soul. It gave me the sense that I was somewhere in Alaska, not an hour from a major city.
If the weather cooperates, you’ll be rewarded with glimpses of mountain amphitheaters and the ear-shaped double-summit peaks that give the park its name.
Options exist for alpine ascents, but this time of year most visitors stick to the well-graded pathways such as the Lower Falls Trail (3 miles round-trip) that meanders through second-growth forest cloaked in moss and littered with boulders.
After three hours I finally met other hikers, Andrea McArthur and Michelle Chretien, who were watching their dogs, Narnia and Packer, splash in the frigid waters of the Gold River.
“Name a beautiful place where you would take your dog,” I asked them. They both agreed: Buntzen Lake.
And I was off.
Sunset comes early in the winter, and I was hustling to make it around the 5-mile Lake Trail loop before nightfall. But the low-angle sun was doing crazy things to the light, and it was hard to put the camera down.
The water in the Buntzen reservoir is so clear that it messes with your head. B.C. Hydro taps it for power generation, keeping the surrounding area pristine for hikers, horses and canoeists.
A loon streaked across the flat surface as the sunbeams cut through evergreens, bouncing light every which way. I was thankful that the trail was relatively flat and I could cover a lot of ground quickly, because scenes like this made me stop to gape.
At dusk I met the largest group of people I’d seen all day: a few fishermen and a handful of dog owners making use of the massive off-leash area at South Beach.
As the sun turned the surrounding hillsides a rusty hue, I read the park’s trail map, noting the trails that led into the surrounding watershed.
I began to plot my return, vowing not to tell my future companions anything about our destination.
Why ruin their surprise?
Seattle freelancer Jeff Layton has traveled to more than 75 countries as a journalist, photographer and tour leader. He blogs at www.MarriedToAdventure.com.