When my Canadian friend mentioned she was going to a wilderness retreat on a mountain that’s only reachable by Jeep, I was intrigued. Then she told me about other pristine provincial parks along the way, and about scenic Route 3 across the Canadian side of the North Cascades. I decided to follow her footsteps for an alluring adventure just north of the border and 100-some miles from Seattle.
A day before we checked into the lodge in Cathedral Provincial Park, my husband and I drove north through the Okanogan Valley in eastern Washington and breezed over the border at the sleepy crossing between Oroville and Osoyoos. Cathedral Lakes Lodge is perched on the banks of shimmering Quiniscoe Lake, and at 6,800 feet it is Canada’s highest full-service hiking and fishing wilderness lodge. Cathedral Provincial Park was the brainchild of a young pioneer named Herb Clark, who fell in love with the area and bought 80 acres of land in 1934. He built two cabins on Quiniscoe Lake and started ferrying people up the steep mountain on a horse track. It wasn’t until 1964 that a proper Jeep road was constructed as well as more cabins and eventually a lodge. The government of British Columbia established Cathedral Provincial Park in 1968.
The park is still only accessible by a private forest-service road, and we had to leave our car in a guarded parking lot at the base of the mountain about 20 miles west of the town of Keremeos. One of the lodge’s Jeeps carried us up the steep twisting road alongside visitors with heavy backpacks who had opted to stay in one of Cathedral Lakes’ back-country campgrounds.
From our upper-floor room in the lodge, we had stellar views of the surrounding peaks and the lake only a stone’s throw away. There’s actually a network of lakes on top of the mountain, and we spent the first day walking around the three closest to the lodge to get used to the higher altitude. On a gentle 3-mile hike, we had a first glimpse of glorious wildflowers at their peak; a profusion of ladyslippers, lupine, paintbrush and columbine unlike anything I had seen that summer.
For most hikers, the main attraction of the park is the Rim Trail, which we tackled on our second day. It’s a hike that has it all: 360-degree views of the North Cascades to the east and south, with the coastal range looming on the western horizon. As we climbed the gradual ascent via Glacier Lake, we passed a prolific array of wildflowers carpeting the meadows and a herd of mountain goats grazing just above the tree line. Once we reached the rim, we had the world at our feet (at 8,000 feet above sea level). Even more astounding was the discovery that we had it to ourselves that day.
We ambled along a precipitous drop for a good half-mile, gaping at vistas of distant mountains and a handful of glistening lakes that dotted the small plateau on which the lodge and campgrounds rested far below. We ate lunch propped against one of the landmarks atop the rim — a Stonehenge-style outcropping that’s aptly named Stone City — before starting the descent along a narrow shale path that plunged steeply down. The hike back to the lodge by way of Ladyslipper Lake seemed twice as long as the hike up, but it was worth every step. I’ve never seen so many larch groves as those we traversed on the mountain’s north side, each tree sprouting a haze of spring-green needles in mid-July. (Larch trees are conifers that lose their delicate needles in the fall after turning bright yellow.) The groves were interspersed with small meadows and sprinklings of wildflowers along the trail, making the 8-mile hike an exhausting but memorable one.
One of the highlights of our stay at Cathedral Lakes was the chance to mingle at meals with other guests, most of them Canadians. We were the only Americans at the lodge among 20-some guests, and everyone ate together at round family-style tables. Our lively conversations ranged from political hot topics to discussions on what brought us to that special place. One night a duo got up and played the piano and acoustic guitar before a delighted group in the common room, performing a variety of Woodstock-style tunes that had everyone in the room singing along.
The lodge has an excellent chef and offered a variety of vegetarian and nonvegetarian dishes and desserts each night. With the full-board option, they also serve lunch or pack a picnic for guests who want to hike all day. Guests in the neighboring cabins and bungalow have their own kitchens and private bathrooms, whereas lodge guests share a few washrooms at the end of the hall.
We also explored Canada’s celebrated wine country along the Okanagan Valley. The Burrowing Owl, my Canadian friend’s favorite winery, featured delectable wines, a fantastic restaurant and a 25-meter pool with a hot tub. Then we visited Nk’Mip Cellars, also in the Okanagan Valley, which claims to be the first indigenous-owned winery in North America. It’s situated on a lovely prospect in the foothills overlooking Osoyoos Lake — said to be the warmest freshwater lake in Canada — and the surrounding grasslands of the Thompson Plateau. The Okanagan region is also known as Canada’s fruit basket and it promotes itself as having “the earliest fruit in the country.” We visited multiple stands overflowing with cherries, peaches and berries that we were permitted to bring back to the U.S.
The return trip along Route 3 — one of the most scenic drives in Canada — was a spectacle in itself through steep rolling hills with ever higher mountains poking up behind them. At one point you descend a hair-raising 2,000 feet in a matter of minutes on what’s called the Hope Slide after reaching the end (or beginning) of Route 3.
We stopped at Manning Provincial Park to break up our return trip to Seattle. The park is so vast that it takes an hour to drive from one end to the other at highway speed. We drove 5 miles up the mountain road across from the Manning Park Resort to the View Ridge Trail. Once again, we had the place to ourselves as we enjoyed 360-degree views of the surrounding mountains wreathed in mist and fog.
We spent a night in the somewhat dated Manning Park Resort, which has a full-service restaurant with decent food. (Groups have the option of staying in adjoining cabins or campsites, and there’s an indoor pool with a hot tub and sauna complex.) The next day we saw few hikers out on various trails in Manning Park even at the height of the summer. We passed one other couple on a 6-mile hike that wound along a forested canyon path and led us past three thundering waterfalls fed by this year’s ample rains. Equally ample were the wildflowers dotting the trail all along the way. The park is probably busier in winter since it has a network of downhill ski slopes as well as cross-country and snowshoe trails.
I would have liked to stay longer at each of these places and explore more hiking trails that both parks offered. But trips like these are mere forays, and I’m already calculating when we might return. In the summer we’d see brilliant wildflowers at their peak again, and in winter we could enjoy Manning Park’s snowshoe and cross-country trails. Then again, another Canadian friend advised me to visit in the fall when multitudes of maple and oak leaves become scarlet and amber. Cathedral park is a must-see in autumn when vast groves of larch trees turn ethereal gold; as far as you can see, she tells me, and as much yellow light as eyes can behold.
Perched on the banks of shimmering Quiniscoe Lake, Cathedral Lakes Lodge is Canada’s highest full-service hiking and fishing wilderness lodge at 6,800 feet. (Valerie Giesbracht / Special to The Seattle Times)
One of the photo credits that originally ran with this story was incorrect. The photo of Cathedral Lakes Lodge was taken by Valerie Giesbracht.
If you go
Manning Park Resort: 7500 Highway #3, Manning Park, B.C.; www.manningpark.com
Cathedral Lakes Lodge: 3276 Highway #6, Slocan Park, B.C.; www.cathedrallakes.ca. The lodge is running a special, good through summer 2020, offering a free third night when guests pay for the first two (must be booked and paid for by Dec. 1.). Cathedral Lakes Lodge closes at the end of September and reopens as soon as the forest road is passable in early June.