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Basking in Cathedral Park's golden glow

Picture this classic Canadian scene: a rustic lodge set beside a shimmering lake with a majestic mountain poised high above. We recognized it instantly on our arrival last fall at Cathedral Park’s Quiniscoe Lake.

Picture this classic Canadian scene: a rustic lodge set beside a shimmering lake with a majestic mountain poised high above. We recognized it instantly on our arrival last fall at Cathedral Park’s Quiniscoe Lake. The image was calendar-perfect and appeared as if out of nowhere at the end of a long journey.

We’d left Vancouver four hours earlier and headed east to Keremeos, a small farming community in the southwest corner of the Okanagan that, with justification, bills itself as the Fruit Stand Capital of Canada. On its western outskirts, where displays of squashes and pumpkins loomed large, we turned south across the Ashnola River. As we followed the river southwest towards Cathedral Park the ground grew thick with mahonia nervosa , or Oregon grape, heavy with clusters of blue berries.

Just inside the provincial park we rendezvoused with Richard Padmos, owner of Cathedral Lakes Lodge. We tossed our packs into his truck, then set off on a dizzying 1,300-metre ascent up the private road in ultra-low gear. If we’d had more time – and gumption – we might have hiked the 16-kilometre-long Lakeview Trail, which intersected with the road in several places, to reach the lodge and adjacent provincial campground on Quiniscoe Lake. In this case, the truck-fare seemed like money well spent, especially as we later learned that rewarding viewpoints along the trail are few and far between.

It’s a rare road that so conveniently connects semi-desert and alpine environments. Fewer still deliver as rewarding a vista as awaited us on this late September afternoon. Nothing we had witnessed on the journey prepared us for the scene. It felt as if we were suddenly looking at the world through gold-tinted spectacles. An alpine larch forest encircled the lake and carried on above in waves of saffron. Our visit unexpectedly coincided with the annual colour change that alpine larches undergo each fall. Larches differ from all other evergreens in not retaining their foliage over the winter. Golden needles carpeted the forest floor. They dropped of their own accord and with the steady encouragement of the chill wind which, here at 2,000-metres elevation, promised snow if provoked by precipitation.

We were dumbstruck, fixed to the spot as if awakening into a dreamscape. True, we’d come predisposed to enchantment. Cathedral Park’s reputation for beauty proceeds it. That image is almost entirely based on the rock formations that dominate the skyline. Soon enough we’d be wandering among them. To begin, however, we’d have to shake off the spell cast by the larches. We wandered along filigree-covered trails beneath the wizened boughs of larches that led to Glacier and Pyramid Lakes, as well as Lake of the Woods where two loons serenely floated. We watched as the sun played shadow tricks on Grimface Mountain and the gap-toothed columns of Denture Ridge. Only when the persistent breeze began to numb us did we retreat to the lodge for the night. Next door, a light shone in the ranger’s cabin, the campground’s lone occupant. In a matter of days she would be pulling out for the season.

Over dinner our fellow guests – a pair from Kitsilano, several British tourists, some hikers from nearby Washington state, and a Castlegar couple making their annual visit to the park – shared their feelings that this was indeed a magical realm. With the exception of a lone angler in search of rainbow and cutthroat trout, we all had exploration in mind. The five Cathedral Lakes formed a hub from which a dozen trails spiralled out into the adjacent meadows and ridges. Elevation gain hardly mattered as the tallest peaks rose little more than 800 metres above the lakes. In the opinion of one seasoned Washingtonian hiker, Cathedral Ridge boasted a bizarre display of rock formations seen nowhere else in the North Cascades.

As we discovered the next day, hikers can scamper as easily as mountain goats through the open alpine and up onto Cathedral Ridge’s sweeping rim. And they should come prepared to cope with changeable weather. Storms can materialize out of nowhere. From up on the ridge it was easy to see why. Nothing stands in the way of weather up here where the jagged northern fringe of the Cascade Mountains meets the gently rolling Monashees. It felt as if we could touch the jetstream. Strong gusts kept us well back from the edge of the rim, from where we peeked back down on the azure lakes.

We pulled the hoods of our windbreakers around our ears as we followed a series of cairns, paint-daubed boulders, and signposts past soaring rock shapes, the most prominent of which bore cute nicknames like the Devil’s Woodpile. When we came upon weirdly wind-eroded quartz monzonite, we knew we’d stumbled into what is known as Stone City. As it was nearing break time, we sought shelter and from that exalted space looked far off south into the Pasayten Wilderness, known as one of Washington’s loneliest wildlands. Larches ran up the sides of peak after peak, highlighting the distant horizon. Prospects for future explorations abounded, not just south but also east. Newly-created Snowy Park covers 21,000 hectares between Cathedral Park and Osoyoos. We could return to the region in June to watch the larches grow lime-green needles, or in July to catch the wildflowers, or in August once the bugs were gone, or in September to reclaim the part of our hearts that we were sure to leave behind.

As a postscript to our visit, a week later we flew over Cathedral park on our way to Calgary. Even from 10,000 metres telltale swaths of gold proclaimed larch forests. If we looked closely enough we could even see ourselves, proof that it is possible to be in two places at once.

Travel notes:

Cathedral Park lies 370 kilometres east of Vancouver. Optimum time to visit the park is between late May and early October. There’s a charge of $5 (cash) per person per night to camp in July and August. For detailed information, contact B.C. Park rangers Jen Picker or Randy Morris in Summerland, 1-250-494-6500. Wear good hiking boots and carry a walking stick or ski pole to negotiate some of the trickier slopes. To contact Cathedral Lakes Lodge, call 1-800-255-4453 or visit their Web site at Depending on the month, round-trip transportation to the lodge and Quiniscoe Lake provincial campground from the park entrance ranges from $55-$65 per person. B.C. Parks Web site