One Of North America’s Most Spectacular Parks Is Hidden In Canada’s Only Desert
It's hiding some of the most spectacular views in North America.
When you’re seeking turquoise lakes and snow-capped mountains, a few of Canada’s big-name national parks are obvious choices: Banff, Jasper, Yoho. And while the Rockies certainly deserve attention, a lesser-known park a little further south is hiding some of the most incredible views in North America: Cathedral Lakes Provincial Park.
You’ll find Cathedral Lakes in Canada’s only desert – the Okanagan, sitting at the tip of the Sonoran where British Columbia borders with Washington, USA. With temperatures reaching 40 degrees Celsius in summer, it’s not the kind of place you’d expect to find in a country known for its ski runs and lush green forests.
The dusty landscape that surrounds Cathedral Lakes makes the park even more magical: perched high above the heat is a wild oasis with seven glacial lakes, blooming meadows and endless snow-capped mountains. And the best part is there’s no need to wait for big tour groups to move along so you can capture it for yourself.
Cathedral Lakes isn’t just quiet because it’s in the middle of the desert. The lakes, hiking trails, campsites and private lodge accommodation are all located in the park’s core area, 2000m above sea level. The thing is, getting up there is a bit tricky. You can book a return Jeep trip through Cathedral Lakes Lodge, the owners of the singular private road to the top. It’s a fun, bumpy ride that takes just over an hour – but at CA$120 (AU$129) plus taxes per person, it’s not ideal if you’re travelling on a budget.
The alternative is to hike in. The shortest route is the Lakeview Trail, which is 16km long with 1300m elevation. In other words, it’s an exhausting uphill slog – and somewhat cruelly, doesn’t even go past any lakes, but it’s worth it.
If you’re taking the cheap option, make sure you give yourself a full day for the hike – it’s very steep and you’ll need lots of breaks. You can rent an overnight backpack from MEC for CA$10 (AU$11) per day if you don’t own one.
Importantly, remember there’s a cold beer waiting for you at the lodge when you make it to the top (and it won’t cost you an arm and a leg – bless you, CA$5 / AU$5.50 Canadian tinnies!).
Did I mention that it’s worth it? It’s so bloody worth it. Any doubts will fade as soon as you lay eyes on Quiniscoe Lake. The main base for all activities in the park, the large, calm lake lies beneath the sheer, dominating beauty of Quiniscoe Mountain.
On one side is the lodge: a series of rustic log cabins and a communal kitchen and bar. Accommodation here starts at CA$520 (AU$560) per person for two nights or, if you’re going with a group of mates, you can book out a larger cabin.
For the budget traveller, there are campgrounds for just CA$10 (AU$11) per person, per night. You can get a lakeside spot near the lodge – but if you want more privacy and wilderness all to yourself, walk down the trail for about 15 minutes until you hit your second lake, appropriately named Lake of the Woods. Surrounded by dark pines and jagged peaks that are somehow even more stunning than Quiniscoe, you’ll feel like you’re setting up camp inside someone’s desktop background.
Now that you’ve made it to paradise, it’s time to explore. There are many hikes from the core area, but The Rim Trail is the crown jewel – it’s a 10km day trip that combines several shorter routes with one epic mountain ridge. First, you’ll head toward Glacier Lake, winding through meadows blooming with red, yellow and purple flowers.
Once you’re over the fact that Glacier Lake is even prettier than the first two, start hiking up the mountain until you get to the rim. All around are mountains upon mountains, as far as the eye can see.
Further along the rocky ridge is what’s known as Stone City – a collection of huge geological formations that feels like a petrified town.
Watch out for mountain goats as you head back down to yet another lake – a pale turquoise gem named Ladyslipper. The water is so crystal clear that it’s hard not to jump straight in, but it’s glacier-fed and pretty damn cold!
Back at camp, borrow a rowboat or canoe from the lodge and paddle out across the placid water of Quiniscoe Lake. If you’re keen on fishing, the lakes are stocked with abundant rainbow trout. Just make sure you have a license before you set out to make your catch.
Even though it’s in the desert, snow covers the Cathedral Lakes trails for most of the year, so it’s best to visit in summer (June to September). The nearest town is Keremeos, a very scenic four-hour drive from Vancouver. It holds the tasty title of “the fruit stand capital of Canada”, so be sure you stock up on local apples, peaches, apricots, cherries and more. Some places will even let you pick your own! Treat yourself to some freshly made frozen yoghurt from Mariposa Orchards, too – it’s insanely good.
This is also wine country, so don’t leave without a tasting at one of the many vineyards along the Similkameen River. You’ve earned it.
(Lead image: Johan Lolos via Destination British Columbia. All other images: Beth Dalgleish)