Howe Sound Crest Trail – Your Guide to Hiking the HSCT

The Howe Sound Crest Trail offers the best of the incredible BC backcountry only minutes from Vancouver. Here's a complete guide to this ambitious backcountry adventure.
View from Magnesia Meadows on the Howe Sound Crest Trail
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The Howe Sound Crest Trail (HSCT) offers the ambitious hiker a taste of the best of the incredible BC backcountry!  The 33 km HSCT crosses over and around some of the North Shore’s most iconic mountains including the Lions, James Peak, Mt. Harvey, and Brunswick Mountain. Along the way you’ll be inundated with stunning vistas of the coastal mountain range and Howe Sound. Frequent scrambles, mild exposure, and a few precarious sections with chains/ropes make the Howe Sound Crest Trail an ambitious 1-2 night backcountry trip (or an even more ambitious trail run) not for the faint of heart. To the ambitious hiker the rewards of this journey are unmatched by anything with this proximity to Vancouver. 

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View of the lions on the Howe Sound Crest Trail
Photo Credit Stephen Evans

How to get to the Howe Sound Crest Trail

The Howe Sound Crest Trail is typically done as a point-to-point hike from south to north starting from Cypress mountain near West Vancouver and finishing at Porteau cove. North to south navigation is also possible, but adds significant elevation gain to your hike.  There is no Translink (public bus) available to Cypress mountain or Porteau cove, but Parkbus does offer transportation to the Cypress provincial park on weekends during the summer months.  

Without Parkbus, a multi vehicle solution or a generous friend willing to pick you up and drop you off is required. It is also possible to hike up the Baden Powell from Horseshoe Bay (public transit accessible) to begin your hike, but this will add an extra 9km and over 1000 meters of elevation gain to an already long and strenuous adventure.

Important considerations for the Howe Sound Crest Trail

Water: As the trail spends a lot of time meandering along ridges and on summits, water can be an issue on this hike. Come prepared by carrying at least 5L.

Dogs: There are several segments of the trail that your furry friend will not be able to negotiate and there have been several forced evacuations as a result of people trying, so make sure to leave your dog at home for this one.

Cell Reception: Good reception is available until Brunswick lake. After that, expect to lose it until the gruelling final slog down the 5km of access road.

Insurance: If you’re travelling from outside Canada, make sure your travel insurance covers you for this type of adventure. If you’re looking for comprehensive coverage, World Nomads has many great options for protecting adventure lovers.

Backcountry Camping: No outhouses, no camping pads, no bear caches. Come prepared with your trowel, and rope for hanging your food and don’t forget to pack out everything you bring in.

Bears: You’re in bear country. Make lots of noise, bring bear spray and be extra noisy in the obvious areas overgrown with berries (I spooked a bear in the berry-laden meadow between David Peak and Magnesia Meadows).

Other information: Check BC Parks website for important updates on trail access or warnings.

View from the campsite at magnesia meadows
Photo Credit Stephen Evans

Camping spot recommendations for the Howe Sound Crest Trail

1 night on the trail: Magnesia Meadows

 A long first day brings to you this beautiful campsite situated in a gorgeous alpine meadow with an incredible sunset view of Mt. Harvey and out towards the Howe Sound and Sunshine Coast. Magnesia Meadows has a good consistent water source provided by a small tarn that is a close walk from the emergency shelter.

2 nights on the trail:

For night 1 find a spot with access to a tarn for water near Unnecessary Mountain or the East Lion. For night 2 camp on the beautiful shore of Brunswick lake.

How long will it take to hike the Howe Sound Crest Trail

To give you an approximate idea, here’s my rough timing for the Howe Sound Crest Trail done as 2 days and 1 night. Please note I added several hours and a lot of energy by hiking up the Baden Powell trail from Horseshoe Bay. If you go this route, I’d suggest taking the first possible morning bus to Horseshoe Bay to limit the potential of being forced to hike in the dark. As a baseline, I’d classify my pace on the faster side. Leave early on day one to avoid hiking in the dark, especially in the fall as the days grow shorter.

Horseshoe Bay to Cypress Mountain via Baden Powell Trail – 2.5 hrs

Cypress Mountain to Magnesia Meadows (with a couple quick stops and 30 minute lunch) – 9 hours

Magnesia Meadows to Highway 99 (including ascent up Brunswick Mountain, swim in Brunswick lake and lunch) – 7 hours

Hiking the Howe Sound Crest Trail:

From the parking lot at Cypress Mountain pass the lodge on the left hand side and head toward the main wooden sign post for the ski resort. You should see several sign posts indicating St. Marks summit and the Howe Sound Crest Trail.

View from St Marks Summit near Cypress Mountain

Cypress Mountain to St. Marks Summit

You’re off! The first 6km of the Howe Sound Crest Trail meanders through the trees before making several switchbacks to the top of St. Marks summit. The first part of the trail is relatively uneventful and can be quite busy. St. Marks is a hugely popular day-hike and the throngs of running shoe, jean clad, hikers may leave you wondering if you’ve somehow gotten lost … fear not! Following St. Marks the crowds thin and the hike becomes a lot quieter.

Once you’ve reached the summit of St. Marks, follow the paths off to the left to find the best view spots and take a moment to savour your first great vista. You likely won’t have the view to yourself, but it’s gorgeous nonetheless and worthy of a snack stop (or lunch if you’e been really ambitious and come up the Baden Powell from Horseshoe Bay or are taking 2 nights to complete the trail).

Once you’ve savoured the views you’ll drop steeply down the backside of St. Marks before beginning the steep ascent up the appropriately named Mt. Unnecessary.

St. Marks to Mt. Unnecessary

While not the most technically challenging part of the trail, I found the ascent up Unnecessary to be the most mentally gruelling. It’s in the trees, your pack is at its heaviest (assuming you haven’t already eaten too much food) and the toll of descending St. Marks just to make an unnecessary up again (pun intended) is a touch taxing.  After making the slog up for a while, the trees begin to thin out and you’re granted an incredible view of the Howe Sound – the perfect antidote to unnecessary suffering!

The Lions from Unnecessary mountain

Unnecessary Mountain to the Lions

From the top of Unnecessary mountain you’ll make a scramble down a steep roped section before the grade eases briefly as you continue towards the base of the Lions. Keep your eyes peeled for a small detour trail to the right of the main Howe Sound Crest Trail that provides a potential water fill up spot should the need arise! There’s also a few spots in here to make camp if you’re planning a multi-nighter. From here, the trail begins to ascend steeply giving you a taste of the scrambling and challenges to come! Near the top of the ridge a stunning view awaits with huge cliffs dropping off around you! If you’re spending several nights on the trail and time is on your side the Lions provides the opportunity for a scramble and the chance to bag another summit on your epic Howe Sound Crest Trail adventure. Near the base of the Lions, the trail cuts down to the right and the more technical part begins!

The Lions to James Peak

After dropping down slightly the trail traverses a gully along which a series of rock ledges give you your first taste of some exposure. Following the traverse, you’ll ascend steeply to a beautiful spot before another brief descent and level off  to yet another beautiful viewpoint! From the viewpoint, you’ll descend steeply before entering a talus field. Mind your footing through the ankle twisters and keep your eyes peeled for the occasional orange trail marker indicating that you’re on the right path. Towards the left side of the field you’ll exit and begin a steep journey up James Peak. Once at the summit you’ll find a chain rope that can be used for support in crossing a thrilling ridge!  Once across, James peak opens up into a meadow – a great spot to stop and catch your breath!

Scaling the ropes accross James Peak
Photo Credit Stephen Evans

James Peak to David Peak to Magnesia Meadows:

When you’re ready to continue, look for orange markers or flags toward the left side and descending through the meadow. Avoid the false trails leading straight, they end abruptly in descents that would only work with a squirrel suit!

Once you’ve completed your descent through the meadow after James peak, you’ll come to a fork in the road. The left fork leads up and over David peak with a steep scramble through the bush and several roped sections. To the right, the trail circumnavigates David peak, losing significant elevation before forcing you to regain it. During my hike in September of 2019, the route left over David peak appeared to be the only option and was clearly marked as the main route. After ascending and steeply descending David peak the trail veers off to the left passing through a field of berry bushes and ascending towards Harvey pass. Make lots of noise in this area, as tons of ripe berries make this prime prime bear feeding territory late in the season. I spooked a black bear fattening himself up for hibernation on my hike. Once you’ve ascended through the berry-lane you’ll reach Harvey pass and almost immediately see the Magnesia Meadows emergency shelter. Magnesia Meadows is a stunning location to spend the night and the views of Mount Harvey and the Howe Sound are nothing short of spectacular! Set up camp, savour the sunset and rest well, the hardest part of the Howe Sound is now behind you!

View from Magnesia Meadows

Magnesia Meadows to Brunswick Mountain trail:

After packing up, continue past the emergency shelter before veering to the left and hiking through the trees and several meadows with a few views of Mt. Harvey. Around 2km in you’ll encounter a fork in the road for the Brunswick Mountain trail. If you’re up for it, dump your pack and make the 30 minute scramble to bag yet another peak, not to mention some incredible views of the Howe Sound, Mt. Harvey, and the Coast mountain range.

Brunswick Mountain on the howe sound crest trail
Photo credit Stephen Evans

Brunswick Mountain to Brunswick lake:

When you’ve finished the detour up Brunswick mountain, continue along the trail crossing another meadow and a forested area with several tarns before descending to the sublime beauty of brunswick lake. Brunswick lake offers an incredible spot to camp if you continue a ways past the emergency shelter and take a right at the fork to the lakes south shore. It also provides a great spot for a refreshing dip to help cool those aching muscles and joints before continuing the bone crunching descent!  

Brunswick lake the perfect spot for a swim
Photos credit Stephen Evans

Brunswick Lake to Deeks Lake

After you’ve enjoyed some time relaxing at Brunswick lake follow the fork to the left and cross a small rock bridge (another great spot to swim). After descending further, you’ll reach a roped section that helps ease a slippery section by a waterfall. From here you’ll pass along meadows and rocky sections before descending and then eventually crossing a small stream. Eventually you’ll reach deeks lake and traverse the lake through beautiful trees and mossy grounds to the log jammed area and campsite at the opposite side.

Deeks Lake
Photo credit Stephen Evans

Deeks Lake to Highway 99

From Deeks Lake you’ll descend and pass a small waterfall before continuing to descend uneventfully through the forest. From the boundary of the trail, you’ll slog the last 3.5km along a gravel road before shooting out near Porteau Road. Chuck off your pack, pat yourself on the back and drive down the road for a celebratory brew or post adventure feast in Squamish! 

Questions about the Howe Sound Crest Trail? Flip me a note in the comments below and I’ll do my best to help you out! 

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