Black Tusk via Helm Creek

Black Tusk via Helm Creek

Black Tusk is one of the most iconic and distinct landmarks near Whistler (Canada). I have wanted to hike up here ever since I first saw the jaunty-looking peak from afar. However as it is a tough hike, Marc and I waited until we had plenty of experience hiking in BC before we dared give it a go. It was worth the wait – I loved every second of this gorgeous hike.

It is possible for fast/strong walkers to hike up to Black Tusk as a long day hike. However if you can, it is even more pleasant to camp up in the alpine to make this into a more manageable adventure. We camped at Helm Creek (although camping at Taylor Meadows would also work well if you can nab a campsite there.)

Black Tusk via Helm Creek map:

This map shows the entire route. If you camp, you’ll be starting 7.5km in.

Black Tusk via Helm Creek – the basics

Distance: 17.7km return from Helm Creek
(33km as a day hike from the Cheakamus Lake trailhead.)
Elevation gain: 910m from Helm Creek (or 1750m as a day hike) 
High Points
: We went to the base of the Tusk at 2200m. The summit is 2319m.
Time: 6-7 hours from Helm Creek (10.5-11.5 hours as a day hike.)
What to bring:
Water, snacks and your camera!
The 10 essentials. This walk is high in the alpine so you need to stay safe!
Bring bear spray
Facilities: You can camp at Helm Creek Campground,
Dogs: No Doggies in Garibaldi Provincial Park.
How hard is it? Hard (especially as a day hike) as it is long. Most of the walk is not technical, although the last hike is on slide-y scree which can be exhausting. We did not climb the volcanic ‘tusk’ for the final section. I do not recommend attempting that without the appropriate equipment and training. Be prepared for jelly-legs.

Black Tusk via Helm Creek – Getting started

The start of this hike is the same as my previous post about camping at Helm Creek (click through for more detailed instructions.) We stayed overnight at Helm Creek. The following morning we woke up early as we wanted to get going before it got too hot.

If you start at Helm Creek campground, you can’t really go wrong! The trail starts with a gradual incline for about 2km after Helm Creek Campground. You can see your objective, Black Tusk, the entire time.

Helm Lake and Cinder Flats

The start of this hike is the same as the trail to Panorama Ridge. As I mentioned in my previous post, the best part about hiking via Helm Creek is that it traverses through the incredible volcanic scenery of Cinder Flats to Helm Lake.

After 4.5km from the campground you’ll reach the turn off to Panorama Ridge. This is the view backwards towards Helm Lake and Whistler.

Meadow time

Next, you’ll hike for 5km through flower-filled meadows to reach the (well sign-posted) turn off for Black Tusk. This is a gorgeous (and easy) part of the trail, so enjoy it! The only downside is you need to go downhill for part of it. If you’re camping at Helm Creek you need to save some energy for the hike back along here later.

Plenty of water

We found there was plenty of water in the meadows with frequent streams alongside the trail. If you have a water filter, just make sure you fill your flask before you turn off the main large switch back on Black Tusk.

The steep section

As soon as you turn onto the Black Tusk trail, the path is steep. To give you an idea; You gain 510m in elevation in just 2km. The trail is pretty easy to follow and there are incredible views in all directions, so take it slowly and stop for lots of breaks to enjoy the views.

First Views of Black Tusk

Once you reach the top of the meadows the trail becomes more rocky with some large patches of snow (in July). The trail is still pretty good as it is maintained right up to the dark scree section below the tusk.

Volcanic Scree

Black Tusk is the core of an ancient stratovolcano, so previously there must have been a huge volcanic crater (like Mount Garibaldi.) Over the last million years, the loose cinder has eroded the cone, leaving only the hard lava core of Black Tusk. The next section of trail hikes up on these eroded cinder rocks.

Cinders are are fragments of solidified lava, so they don’t weigh much and they are happy to tumble down the trail. The trail is harder to hike on as you go up the mountain. The cinder rocks get smaller (and slidy-er.) As you get closer to the ridge it feels like you slide backwards a half a step for each step forwards.

Black Tusk – Landing place of the Thunderbird

This area has been inhabited by the Sk̲wx̲wú7mesh (Squamish) and L̓il̓wat7úl (Lil’wat) communities long before any European or Asian settlers arrived in Whistler. Their oral stories tell of a village called Spo7ez at Rubble Creek where both communities lived, trading with each other. Over time, the villagers started to disrespect each other so a Thunderbird who lived on Black Tusk decided to take action. He flapped his wings, causing the volcano to erupt. This buried their village under a massive pile of rubble.

For the people that survived, they took this as a message that they need to work together and coexist with each other peacefully. After the eruption both communities only kept seasonal camps in this area. Any part of the valley where you can see Black Tusk was shared. Read more about the story and learn about the indigenous people of this area here and here.

The tough section

It only looks like a teeny section of trail, but it took me 30 minutes to hike up the scree slope to the ridge below Black Tusk. As you can see below, the cinder rocks are easily eroded, so it is easy to see the path. The rocks are unstable so it makes this very tiring.

Once you’re on the ridge, it is even harder! The trail is super steep, even more slippery and has a cliff on one side and a very steep slope on the other.

Black Tusk Lunch Spot

There is a flat area right before you reach the giant basalt columns of the main tusk. We stopped here to take in the views and eat lunch. It is just far enough away from the main tusk that we felt safe from rockfalls. We did hear quite a few rocks breaking off and smashing their way down. If you plan on climbing higher make sure you bring a helmet!

This is the view from the edge of the tusk to the drop offs that were sculpted by ancient lava.

This is the view back towards Panorama Ridge (the mountain we climbed the previous day, below left) as well as Garibaldi Lake. The large volcano off in the distance is Mount Garibaldi.

Continuing on up?

If you have the right equipment and experience, you can continue up further. You’ll climb around the base, then scramble up an exposed rock chimney to reach the top of the lava column. The true summit is another 120m higher. Can you spot Marc in my photo for scale?

This photo gives an idea about how steep the drop-offs are up here! We didn’t stay long below the lava, but we enjoyed relaxing at the viewpoint just before the exposed section of trail.

On the way back, we hiked out to the end of the ridge above the Blackcomb Glacier. There are more incredible views into Garibaldi Provincial Park.

Black Tusk Heading down

I was more worried about hiking down those scree slopes than going up them. However I found if I bent my knees and was ready to slide, retracing our steps down Black Tusk was not quite as bad as I expected. Once you are down to the maintained path it is easy to retrace your steps back to Helm Creek.

Is Black Tusk for everyone?

Hiking up Black Tusk is one of the more difficult trails in Garibaldi Provincial Park; Even if you don’t complete the scramble to the true summit. Having said that, it did feel very doable, even for amateurs like us, especially when camping at Helm Creek. I don’t think this is a good option for beginners; But it is a fabulous adventure if you are used to hiking in BC.

Optional extra – hike to Garibaldi Lake

After seeing Garibaldi Lake from above we decided to hike an extra 2.5km to pop over there for a swim. It took around an extra half an hour to reach the shore of this stunning lake.

I wasn’t planning to swim, so I just went in my undies (then hiked back later with a soggy bottom.) The water was far warmer than I was expecting. It was just perfect.

This is the look of happy hikers who have finished one of their big goals for the year *and* sneaked an extra swim in. Strava recorded 24km and 1080m elevation gain. That doesn’t sound too bad considering all the incredible views we were treated to!

By the time we’d made it back to Helm Creek Campground, we were completely exhausted but very happy. As always I’ll finish with some panoramas to show of the fantastic tusk-filled scenery.

What do you think? Would you give this hike a whirl? Even scramble to the summit? Or would you prefer to admire Black Tusk from afar?

Black Tusk via Helm Creek - epic hike near Whistler Black Tusk via Helm Creek near Whistler Black Tusk in Garibaldi Provincial Park

25 thoughts on “Black Tusk via Helm Creek

  1. Just another beautiful hike in Garibaldi eh? 🙂 You had the perfect day for it. Love the heather shot and the morning campground view. The lake was warmer than expected? Warm is not a word I would normally associate with Garibaldi Lake 😀 I can dip my feet in it but that’s as far as it goes.

    I’ve yet to attempt the summit – I’ve got as far as the base of the climb and decided it was too busy. Even the traverse underneath Black Tusk was sketchy enough for me, very steep side hilling on that cinder.

    I really like how the Indigenous stories line up with the geological history – there was a big landslide that buried part of the Cheakamus River several thousand years ago and you can still see some of the old trees poking out of the river, remnants of the buried forest.

    1. We swam in the section of lake near the island. I think maybe the shallow waters near the edge had a chance to warm up (as normally I am a wimp with cold water!) It was a really lovely temperature.

      It wasn’t busy when we went, but neither of us felt safe climbing up to the summit. I would be up for it if I went with someone who knows the route well (and if I’d brought a helmet!)

      I loved that the first nation stories match up! I mean, it makes sense as that must be the point of the story.

  2. I visited Whistler a couple years back but didn’t go to Black Tusk – oh, how I’d love to visit there! It looks so beautiful and the photographs captured it perfectly.

  3. It’s really nerve wracking when hiking down Josy!! But.. Loving how plenty landscapes are there in a hike!! Ahhh, and the Black Tusk??? It looks perfect!!

  4. Simply beautiful. I haven’t done much hiking in BC, but spent the past year and half hiking in the Colorado Rockies. There are so many hidden wonders. You just have to be willing to hike to them.

  5. Great hike and you were smart not to go to the summit. I did it once and was scared shi*&%less; I though I might have to be rescued from the top because I was so afraid of going back down. Anyway, made it, but I won’t ever do that again. It is such a scenically spectacular area…just love Garibaldi.

  6. Wow you did amazing to get up there…that seems like such a longgg hike! I love the fact that there are so many streams, that must be beautiful to pass over and over again.

  7. Those black rocks look so pretty! You do like jumping pictures eh ahah! The view is amazing from the top! Was the swim cold, those lakes are always really cold!

  8. This looks like an amazing place to spend the day (or week)! I would be completely exhausted after all of the hiking, but it would be so worth it.

  9. Wow, what a hike! I’m a hiker myself and need to add Black Tusk to my list, after some training of course! And your pictures are amazing! Thanks for sharing!

  10. What an impressive trail and a great achievement to complete it – congrats! The volcanic landscape looks incredible! What an amazing hike! I love the additional stop at Garibaldi Lake – a refreshing swim sounds like a great way to revive yourself for the decent! With those steep drop off I’m not sure I’m brave enough to tackle Black Tusk but I loved having the chance to explore the trail through your post! Thanks for the great guide!

  11. I hadn’t heard of this spot before, but it looks like a beautiful spot once you get to the top! I wouldn’t mind the steep part if I get to see that.

  12. The views look magical! I am not really a huge fan of hiking unless I am occupied with great scenery along the way. But I am not sure if I can make this hike without injuring myself in one way or another. Looks worth it though. Thanks for the excellent guide!

  13. We loved all the hiking we did when we visited Whistler. But we would never have tackled anything as challenging as Black Tusk. Even of we did not go up the final volcanic tusk. But those views are quite stunning. The flowers in the meadows are a great reminder of the summer beauty even if there is still snow at the heights.

  14. What an amazing hike from Helm Creek with rewarding views! I can see why Black Tusk is one of the most iconic and distinct landmarks near Whistler, Canada. And loved the story of the Thunderbird.

  15. Just WOW! Hiking to Black Tusk looks epic. The area is gorgeous! I loved reading about you taking a dip at the lake. We have jumped into lakes in our undies many times. Haha. Always enjoy reading your hiking articles from Canada. We really want to visit someday. Great share.

  16. Oh my gosh what a beautiful hike! The peak is so stunning and your photos capture it perfectly. I love that you took the time to over night camp and go swimming! Saving this for when I can make the hike.

    1. Yay!! Thanks Susanna. I am glad you like the look of it too. I think you’d love it as you’re used to big mountains. 🙂

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