The Lions of British Columbia

The Lions are two most distinctive peaks seen from downtown Vancouver. The best place to see them from relatively close is the dam on Capilano Lake in the north tip of Capilano River Regional Park. There are several trails leading to the Lions. Actually none of the trail leads to any of the peaks.

East Lion is in watershed area and entrance is forbidden. The West Lion is where many people climb instead. There are several ways up to the peak, but they all require some scrambling so it’s considered difficult and dangerous approach here in Canada. Therefore, many hikers finish their ascent on a plateau just at the foot of the West Lion.

The Lions of British Columbia

The Lions of British Columbia.

Options for starting point

The nearest place to start hiking to the Lions is in Lions Bay on Sea to Sky Highway. Here you can use either Binkert Trail (shorter) or Unnecessary Mountain trail (longer). I decided to make a loop and go up with the shorter and most popular Binkert Trail and head down to the settlement via Unnecessary Mountain. Alternative approach to the Lions is from Cypress Provincial Park, but this is significantly longer option.

Lions Bay is a small settlement relatively close to Vancouver. However, with public transit, it still takes almost 2 hours to get there from where we live. The trip requires few changes of buses. From the downtown of Vancouver I took a bus that follows road on seaside to Horseshoe Bay. That’s very nice scenic route and you can see the big cargo ships mooring there from closer than when walking in Stanley Park.

I had to wait for the minibus to Lions Bay for a while, but I was lucky to fit in 90 minutes window to make every change, so I paid only single transit fare. $2.10 for reaching the trail was really good deal. And, even more importantly, I wasn’t dependent on anyone else to get to trailhead. Unfortunately, Katalin couldn’t join me for the hike, because she was away on Vancouver Island.

The way up

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The Binkert Trail is about 8 km long and climbs 1200 m higher. As I was about to find out that guarantees great views to the Howe Sound from above! I started quite late, at 9, but the trail was empty. I didn’t meet anyone until I was coming down from the West Lion towards the Unnecessary Mountain.

At first the trail follows unused logging road. It’s easy to follow and not steep at all. It also means that there are no views as the road leads through the forest. In the forest there are two points where you must turn from the main i.e. better visible road. Both of them are marked, but there is no official signs. The existing marks are obvious, but pretty small, so if you’re walking with others and are busy talking you may miss them and end up on wrong way. Similar signage is there for trails to Harvey Mountain.

Finally, when the forest finally ends there are amazing views to the West Lion and to Harvey Mountain and Howe Sound. The steep Lion looks magnificent. It’s clear that any mistake climbing the peak might be fatal. I wouldn’t approach it when the rocks are wet. From here it feels like the plateau before the Lion appeared deceptively close. I still needed some time to reach junction of my trail with Howe Sound Crest Trail from direction of Unnecessary Mountain. From there I could finally see Vancouver in the far distance. It is also the first time when the East Lion is visible. Continuing to the left, I follow the ridge on rocky two rocky plateaus towards the West Lion. Here I don’t really follow the trail as it’s not so clearly marked and I assume I can follow the ridge. Having the Lion in sight, I suddenly end up on edge of overhanging rock with nothing but few hundred of meters of air when I planned to put my foot in next step.

The West Lion

From this point I can see that the plateau is connected to the Lion only by narrow path. To reach the path, I need to descend about 4 meters down on an exposed rope. The feeling of exposure is reduced by a small tree growing on the way of the potential fall. The rope is quite worn. Luckily I’m not heavy so I manage to descend. From there I can’t spot any marks of the way to the top, so I decide to navigate my own way to the summit.

The West Lion

The West Lion.

My mistake was not to read carefully description of the peak approach before. I decided to go up steering as far from exposed parts as possible, but that led me to nowhere. Or more precisely, to an area that wasn’t too exposed, but there was no points providing sure grip and sliding few meters wasn’t an option here as an abyss started theres. So I decided to track back to the rope which I knew is for sure a part of the approach to the peak used by most of the hikers. Unfortunately from here I still couldn’t see any obvious signs what path to take, so I decided to give up on the Lion 🙁 I went back to the junction of the trails. Around that point I met first hikers.

Better than the famous Grouse Grind

On the junction I went straight towards the Unnecessary Mountain. The mountain got its name because it used to be on the trail to Lions and now it’s unnecessary to climb it to reach the rocky peaks. The views from this part of the trail were still amazing. In the back there are two Lions and in front, but much below are waters of Howe Sound.

Vertical walls from Unnecessary Mountain trail

Vertical walls from Unnecessary Mountain trail. Howe Sound visible in the bottom.

The trail goes next to nice rocky cliffs before reaching the peaks of Unnecessary Mountains. The trail is not well marked. The highest peak of the mountain is marked with one small pole with a map of Howe Sound Crest Trail attached to it. The map doesn’t have any adjacent trails. Because of that finding the trail down to Lions Bay wasn’t that easy.

Rocky cliffs

Rocky cliffs.

First, I continued too far on the main trail following the rocky cliffs that separated me from the ocean. I knew I can’t try to walk down anywhere here. Finally I turned back to the pole with the map. I assumed that the pole is in the place where the trails meet. That was a good assumption. After few minutes of looking for a path down I found a pretty much completely overgrown path leading towards the ocean. There were some old markings, but only on rocks on the ground so some of them were difficult to spot between the vegetation. The path was sometimes much more visible, but sometimes the not overgrown paths ended with a cliff, so I had to retrace my steps and take path covered with vegetation.

Tiny lake on the trail

Little puddle on the trail.

When the trail reached old forest, it transformed to a clearly visible path. But on the way down I had too cross many sections (usually very short) of younger forest where path was completely overgrown. Remembering our short walk next to Vladivostok on similar overgrown path I was a bit concerned how many ticks I’ll have on me before I reach Lions Bay.

Also in some sections the trail is very steep. Combining in some sections all the steepness, young forest and fallen trunks of big old trees, the trail becomes actually challenging. Probably on the way up it’s like the famous Grouse Grind. The Grouse Grind trail is a popular destination for runners who train on the steep approach. This one is probably better as it has much better views and you can go both up and down. On Grouse Grind you have to pay for gondola ride down… And the Unnecessary Mountain trail is empty. There was no people on it.

Way back

Luckily I managed to reach the settlement without any ticks. As on the way up, the nearest bus stop is about 1 km away from the trailhead. This time I took the minibus to the Horseshoe Bay Ferry Terminal and changed there to an express bus to downtown Vancouver. That bus goes from Horseshoe Bay on highway almost to the Lions Gate Bridge, so it’s much faster.

The Lions from Unnecessary Mountain

The Lions from Unnecessary Mountain.

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