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.
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.
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?