July 28, 2019

Matier Glacier: The less popular side of Joffre Lakes

Canada, British Columbia

Joffre Lakes is an extremely popular hike that attracts thousands of visitors every year in the Canadian province of British Columbia for many reasons. It is relatively close to Vancouver, it offers a great ratio of difficulty versus reward and you're guaranteed to take an incredible photo to share on social media and make your family and friends jealous of your adventure. If you have an instagram account, chances are you've already seen a photo from this place before.

Not too far from the crowds though, lies Matier Glacier, the source of the blue and cold waters of Joffre Lakes. Often seen by the public but not often visited, the glacier remains as the unknown side of the park due to its arduous hike distance and elevation gain. This, of course, wouldn't stop me and my friend Shayne to explore its majestic ice walls on a weekend adventure.

We left Vancouver on a Saturday morning with big backpacks and two camping reservations, and we drove straight to the trailhead, which is a few kilometres after the city of Pemberton and it took us over 2 hours to reach our destination. At the trailhead we were preparing ourselves to start the hike to the campground as big dark clouds rolled above our heads and rain started pouring on us, that made us stay inside the car until 10am slowing our plans down a little bit. Luckily for us, the forecast was accurate and the weather started clearing pretty fast and blessed us with a great day of adventure.

As we started hiking and the sun started to shine, more and more people showed up and started to pass us on their way up to the second lake (the most famous). Our heavy backpacks full of camera and camping gear slowed us down, not to mention the several stops for water, bug spray and of course, photos and videos.

After almost 2 hours of hiking, arriving at the second lake was a relieve, as I knew the most strenuous part of the trail was gone and we could start to enjoy the view of our main goal for the day, the Matier Glacier. After the middle lake, the crowd starts to fade, most people don't try to reach the upper lake because they are already exhausted. Those who are in better shape hike even further to reach the upper lake, but they decide their final stop will be at the beginning of the lake, where you have an incredible view of Mount Matier, Joffre Peak and our destination: Matier Glacier.

It wouldn't be Joffre Lakes without a photo of someone on the log right? Not pictured here: hundreds of people waiting their turn to take the same photo.

We finally left the crowds behind after reaching the northern shore of the upper lake but we still had to reach the campground, which is located at the end of the upper lake. Looking at the map I thought it would be an easy hike around the lake's shore but that unfortunately didn't turn out to be the case. It looks us almost 1 hour of ups and downs on a trail full of rocks and roots.

At the campground, we took a few minutes of rest, prepared a delicious dehydrated meal and set up our tent on a designated camping spot. Before leaving of course, we placed our camping reservation near the tent in case a ranger would come to check, and yes, from 2019 on you do need a camping reservation for Joffre Lakes and I luckily got one for weekend day. I'm not sure how many of the campers had reservations or how it is enforced as we did not see any rangers during all our stay at the campground.

The trail that goes up to the glacier is pretty easy to find, even though there are no signs, look for a gravel path a few meters away from the campground's highest camping spots and be prepared, because it will require a lot of energy. It is a combination of gravel and rocky terrain that changes constantly and there's a brutal elevation gain in a short distant (450 meters in less than 1,5km), I'd say some parts are around 30 to 40 degrees of inclination, which will for sure make your calves burn.

If you didn't lose your breath from the hike, you will when you turn your head to look back. Every 5 minutes feels like the landscape changes and you have a different view from the upper lake, this also slowed us down and it would be impossible not to take photos of every new angle and composition we found.

The higher you get, the more you start to see: Wild flowers, waterfalls, little animals, bugs (yeah they were terrible) and some weird looking ponds with a red/copper colour which I'm still very intrigued about, they looked nasty to be honest. When you think you're getting there, you look up and there's still a long way to go but at least you're not tired anymore, your body adjust to the elevation and your mind is pretty busy trying to understand how such amazing landscape can exist.

The Upper Joffre Lake starts to look like a big blue heart and the peaks around you reach more than 2500 meters of elevation.

At the end of the gravel trail, you will have to turn left and cross a stream that looks more like a waterslide, but without the fun part. This is definitely a no fall zone but any person who was physically capable of reaching this part of the trail can make it safely to the other side. After crossing it, there are no more defined paths, you can hike or scramble to the glacier in any direction, they all offer different levels of difficulty but be careful because most ways have water sliding down on the rocks which requires double attention to not slip and fall on your knees (yep that was me).

We chose to hike near the edge of the cliff to have a better view of the lakes, and we were not disappointed, now we were able to see the Lower, Middle and Upper Joffre Lakes all together, making it one of the best views you can have in the park. From here, we took a moment to eat some snacks and take more photos of these incredible turquoise colours on the lakes, this is created by the glacier flour, which are fine-grained particles of rocks suspended in the water that reflect the blues and the greens colours from light.

Since we took the most scenic way, we encountered some big walls with sharp and loose rocks on our final ascent to the glacier, if you're not comfortable with scrambling, it's better to hike back and find an easier way to reach the glacier. For us it was easy peasy.

The Glacier

I've seen some glaciers in person before, and they are all equally impressive to me, possibly my favourite creation of nature. Their ever changing shapes make Mother Nature the best artist in my opinion, the way they scatter light and create the most different shades of blue is amazing, and it's mind blowing to think this is snow has been compressed for thousands of years and is slowing moving down a mountain like a frozen tsunami. I can't forget the excitement, the feeling of being happy and alive by touching the toe of Matier Glacier. It was hard to get here and the reward was worth it.

When you reach the glacier, you will find hundreds of blocks of ice that separated from the glacier, this is an indicator to be always aware of your surroundings as new pieces can come off and roll towards you. When we taking photos we could hear some scary cracking sounds coming from the inside of the glacier. We were very careful to move through the blocks of ice and the huge ice caves we found along the way. At some parts, the glacier is hollow and feels like it's floating on the mountain, creating these huge caves that spanned hundreds of meters deep. It is advised to have ice climbing equipment and helmets if you want to keep further exploring. We didn't.

After a few hours near the glacier, the sun was starting the set and the temperatures started to drop so we decided to hike down to the campground and take a few extra photo of the waterfalls we saw on our way up. Most of the small streams that come from the glacier merge into a big one and eventually finds its way to the upper lake, creating this almost unreal scenery.

Just before getting the the campground we were blessed with a beautiful blue and pink hour, so I couldn't resist to take a few more photos. The heart shaped lake was now glowing with several shades of purpled blue.

We met 2 other campers on our way back, we talked for a while and they let us take a photo of their tent, they were on the best camping spot of Joffre Lakes, it's a small peninsula that offers 360 degree views of the lake and the mountains. They told us they got here 10:30 am and waited other people to leave to secure this spot, so next time I will have to come earlier.

Lake with the reflection of a beautiful sunset colours

The night went by and we cooked dinner and decided to rest for an hour before going out to take photos os the Milky Way, which didn't happen for two reasons: 1. We were completely exhausted and 2. I checked the location of the Milky Way and it was not going to align with the lake or with the mountains, then we just gave up and decided to rest, so we could wake up early in the morning and go back to Vancouver.

I barely slept, probably for about 30 minutes. I was exhausted but also excited about that day, thinking about the photos I took and the views I had, and also the sound of the rushing water and the glowing stars I could see from my tent were too good to shut my brain down.

Time goes by and the morning came, this time of the year the sunrise is around 5:30 am, so I rushed out of my tent and started my day by packing up everything and getting ready to hike down. You know you only feel sore after you body cool down right? that was the moment I felt my wounded knee and my joints complain about moving for at least 16 hours in the previous day but if there's the one thing I learned is to keep going and get used to the pain.

On our way down, we took a few more photos of course. The first sun rays were starting to hit the mountains around us and if you're a photographer you know this is the best time of the day. We saw a few people hiking up very early and hundreds starting to hike when we got back to the car, another busy day ahead in the park.

Unfortunately not everything is pretty. Hiking back we found A LOT of trash left behind by people. Saturday is the busiest day at Joffre Lakes and not everyone is educated to respect the environment. Fruit peels, plastic bottles and coffee cups could be found everywhere. We collected everything and threw it in the trash cans located at the trailhead. I really hope one day people will understand that even their smallest actions have huge impact on the planet.

Gear I used for these photos

Camera: Sony A7III Full frame mirrorless

Lens: Sony GM 16-35mm f2.8

Lens: Sony G 70-200mm f/4

"Pain is temporary, memories are forever"