Our camp on the flattop overlooking looking up to Elkhorn Mountain

Climbing Elkhorn and Elkhorn South Mountain

In Activity, Backpacking, Mountaineering, Regional Districts, Strathcona Regional District by Explorington1 Comment

Elkhorn and Elkhorn South Mountains overlook the Elk River Valley, inside Strathcona Park on Vancouver Island. Elkhorn is easily identifiable by its classic Matterhorn shape, making it distinct in the Strathcona landscape. At 2,194 metres, Elkhorn is the second tallest peak on Vancouver Island. Of note, it is one of the 9 peaks needed for the Island Qualifiers (IQ9). Elkhorn South Mountain is a much more accommodating mountain, a simple slope that ends in a sheer drop off with magnificent views of the valley below. Both have amazing views of Mount Colonel Foster, Landslide Lake and Foster Lakes.
Elkhorn Mountain and Elkhorn South Mountain Map with photos

Total Distance: 29.4 km
Starting Elevation: 90 m
Max Elevation 2192 m
Total Elevation Gain: 2926 m
Time: 3 days

We accessed these peaks from the Elk River Trail, located off highway 28. The Elk River Trail is a well developed trail, maintained  by BC Parks. It is an often used trail that stretches along a section of the Elk River, leading to Landslide Lake and Foster Lake (Iceberg Lake). A favourite trip for hikers of all ages, the trail is easy walking through the old growth forest. Day trips and overnight trips are possible as there are multiple campsites along the trail.  Further, many mountaineering trips originate along this trail as it is used to access alpine routes for Elkhorn Mountain, Colonel Foster, Rambler, Elkhorn South and many more including the Elk River Traverse.

As with many of the Vancouver Island peaks, half the adventure is in achieving the summit and the other half is in the approach route. Those seeking Elkhorn’s summit should be prepared to ford a river, hike up exposed forest and slippery rock, all this before you reach the alpine.

Ryan and I have done a number of trips together; Golden Hinde, Rugged Mountain and a 7 day traverse through Strathcona, where we checked off nine mountains on the list of peaks over 6000 feet.  When he gave me a call in early June about a trip up Elkhorn, I jumped at the chance to head to the hills and collect one more IQ!

June 27, Ryan picked me up bright and early for our 3 day adventure. We arrived at the trailhead before 11 AM. As we prepped our bags the sun beat down on us, our brows beaded with perspiration. The temperature was approaching 30 C.  We took note of two hikers preparing for a trip, one was examining an unfolded map of Strathcona.  One came over and introduced himself, Thomas Radetzki, a fellow member of the Alpine Club of Canada – Vancouver Island Chapter. They were heading out on a much bigger adventure than simply two peaks but they were including Elkhorn..

We were off and hiking by 11:15. The approach we used follows a well marked access point along the Elk River Trail around 3.5 km, hard to miss as there is a wood sign naming Elkhorn with a directional arrow which points to the Elk River.  We crossed it easily using flip flops we brought for the crossing. We cached them for our return trip.

Elkhorn and Elkhorn South (Colwell) Route
Ryan wandering the route Elk River Trail

The route trends generally southwest, immediately after the river there is some minor shrub to deal with but within 5 minutes we were free of the shrub and hiking in the forest. The lower section of the forest lacks large trees, quite probably regrowth but farther along the trail the trees become more typical of old growth, varying sizes allowing patches of light to pass through.  The route is easy to follow, though not a proper trail the route is mostly well booted and where not it’s lightly flagged. We were able to follow it all the way up.

We each carried three litres of water and we needed it. They day was sweltering, and the forest and in the forrest there was no breeze to cool us. The route follows southeasterly. The two biggest challenges to overcome are a section of steep slippery rock and a section of extremely steep forest. The steep forest requires the use of hands to grab roots, branches and trunks, as you haul yourself up , while the slippery rock (1120 m) has a hand-line installed, making it little more than an inconvenience to scramble up.  It took us around 4 hours to reach the North col at 1344 metres. We were slowed by heavy bags and the heat of the day.

Elkhorn and Elkhorn South (Colwell) Route
Ryan employing the existing handline to scale wet rock

As we sat at the North Col, Erich and Thomas came over the hill, we continued our hike together. From the col the route travels east along a ribboned path that treks along the south face of the ridge. The protected nature of the valley has allowed the trees in the area to remain large, despite the high elevation. We hiked over rock and through trees for close to another hour before they finaly gave way, revealing the rocky ridge around 1500 metres in elevation.

The route wanders the ridge, giving views in multiple directs as it leads to a large rocky flat area and the first tarn of our trip! We stopped and filled our water bottles and drank deeply.  We continued on our way, staying right (south) of the first bump traversing the slope until we fount a path to follow, which gave us access to a high point on this ridge (1741 m).  The view from this flat pedestal gave some of the best views of the surrounding areas. We could see the various peaks that form the horseshoe ridge, Elkhorn, Elkhorn South, Rambler, Colonel Foster, Volcano,  Puzzle, Wolf, Kings, and the various valleys dropping off beside the ridge. Not to brag but this location was probably the best view of all my previous tenting sites.   We spent 7 h. 45 min. hiking the near 10 kilometers to our camp and gained 1530 metres in elevation. The heat made it troublesome to maintain a quick pace, as did the heavier backpacks.

Elkhorn and Elkhorn South (Colwell) Route
A view of our camp from start of the NWR

That evening, wee examined the route we would use the next day….. It didn’t take long for the mosquitos to find us. Although the approach wasn’t buggy, we didn’t experience any bugs in the lower sections of the hike, once at the north col 1150m that we started to experience the scourge. I’m not sure what the mosquitoes are feeding on at this elevation, and maybe the answer is nothing which may explain why they came at us so relentlessly. I forgot my bug net and neither of us brought bug spray so the two of us sat in the hot sun with our water proof-breathables on, eating our meals Not an entirely amazing experience, but typical on par with my experiences from last year. At the end of the hike Ryan was able to count nearly a hundred mosquito bites on his elbows alone.

We watched the sun set and I got a front row view of some of the best sunsets of my summer.

Elkhorn and Elkhorn South (Colwell) Route
Mount Rugged, I think
Elkhorn and Elkhorn South (Colwell) Route
Elkhorn and Elkhorn South (Colwell) Route
Warden and Victoria

We woke early, just after dawn. The dry still air greeted us as we emerged from our tents to witness the first light of the day bathing the features of Elkhorn with light.  From the plateau we hiked to the east edge and descended the easy class 2/3 route and followed the connecting ridge to the start of the Elkhorn massif. At the base of the north west ridge route, we were already over 1850 m.

Elkhorn and Elkhorn South (Colwell) Route
Descending from camp with the connecting ridge in the top of the image

The northwest ridge route is class 4 with moderate exposure with a short section of low fifth class climbing. The crux of the climb is a short section just below the upper snowfield/gendarme and is low fifth class with exposure of several hundred metres. We brought three pieces of protection, small to medium sized cams and a rope for rappelling and climbing.  As we prepared for the climb up the short 5 metre section we saw in the distance Thomas and Erich coming over the connecting ridge toward the base of the massif. By the time I was up the short section, Thomas and Erich were pulling themselves up to the same spot beside us, they were comfortable enough that they didn’t set protection, I’m just not at this level.

At the gendarme there are two options for the route, left up the snow field*, Ryan and I followed this route, and right around the gendarmes exposed south face, Erich and Thomas took this route. The snow slope was very steep with very little run out but the conditions were such that we could kick excellent steps. This and excellent placement of my ice-axe, gave me the confidence to clime without protection over the slope.

Elkhorn and Elkhorn South (Colwell) Route
Elkhorn’s Gendarme, Erich and Thomas pictured
Elkhorn and Elkhorn South (Colwell) Route
Erich and Thomas, defying gravity around the Gendarme

Whichever route you decide to take, you end up at the same point, some short low fifth class steps that are easy to climb with little exposure. We mounted the steps and looked back to see Thomas and Erich rounding the gendarme, the photograph is one of my best this year. The route follows a bench around the south (right) you have the option to stay high or get down low into what I think people call the upper amphitheater. We did both, one on the way up and the other on the way down. I would recommend the lower route, it was much faster and free of exposure, save for choss falling down on your head if anyone is on the summit above.  After climbing out of the basin turn left sharply and head up the class 3/4 gully that leads to the top of the choss pile….er I mean summit.

The four of us lounged on the summit for quite some time, taking in the view of the surrounding landscape. Ryan and I examined Elkhorn South Mountain (Colwell) carefully for a route. It looked easy enough, the trick would be getting to it!  After our snack The two groups went our different ways, Ryan and I descended the northwest ridge route and the other group the west couloir. On our descent we made use of the generous number of rappel stations to make it more relaxed.  From our tent to the summit and back down we did it in 6 hours, no speed record but it was a first ascent of this mountain for each of us. For the record, Erich and Thomas were waiting at the bottom of our route, with their packs off and tent already set up.

Elkhorn and Elkhorn South (Colwell) Route
4 Alpine Club of Canada Members  meet on the summit of Elkhorn

Even with a longer than planned summit if Elkhorn we were back at the start of our route just after noon. We were not ready to pack it in for the day so we set our minds on the next objective, Elkhorn South Mountain. We started the route where the NWR begins and contoured easily along 1900 metres to the visible large rock sitting on the ledge of Elkhorn. The large rock marks the start of the class 3/4 boulder gully that we would follow down nearly 200 metres to an exposed ledge that provides access to the Elkhorn South Mountain. This ledge was the sketchiest part of the trip. Though it is simple walking the ledge slopes and the exposure is tremendous.

Elkhorn and Elkhorn South (Colwell) Route
Ryan starting the descent of boulder gully
Elkhorn and Elkhorn South (Colwell) Route
Ryan, already over the sloping ledge and exposure

In our route we descended to below 1600 metres because we were parched and the water of a tiny rivulet was calling to us, on our return we would stay significantly higher and save some time. The slope of Elkhorn South Mountain (Colwell) is easy and many routes are possible. We made our way to the summit and spent time admiring the 1100+ metre drop to the valley below on the east side of the mountain. By four in the afternoon we were sitting on the summit having our snacks and signing in on the register. We didn’t waste time because we were both tired from the heat and effort of the day. I may have retreated hastily, I left a phone up there… somewhere.

We made it back to camp around 7:30 PM. Though I felt parched, when I calculated I had consumed 14 litres of water on the hike but I was dehydrated and needed much more. We ate dinner and drank our fill of water, I had another 3 litres, with the mosquitoes and hit the sack. Neither of us needed to get up in the night to relive ourselves.

Having completed our two objectives in the same day, we headed home a day early. Though conditions were hot the effort of descending allowed us to remain cool enough. We were back at the creek crossing enjoying a cold beverage by noon and the car by 2.

Beverages cooled in the river

Elkhorn is a popular summit with many different routes. I’d love to hear which route you use to summit this mountain, the second highest on the Island.

* as an end note, the upper snow field totally melted by August of this year leaving a steep scree slope

View dozens more images from this route…


  1. Pingback: Elkhorn & Elkhorn South: Learning about Leadership - Explorington

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.