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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The Lions on the Howe Sound Crest Trail

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 Cypress Coach Lines does offer transportation to the Cypress provincial park during the summer months and into the middle of September. It may also be possible to take an Uber directly to Cypress mountain.  Either of these options still leaves you in need of a pickup, a way to drop your car in advance, or a hitchhike back from the end point at Porteau cove.

Later in the season, 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. I did this. It was brutal.

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. There have been several forced evacuations as a result of people trying, so 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 grueling 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. World Nomads has great plans that include emergency evacuation for this type of adventure.

Backcountry Camping: Unlike hikes like the Rockwall Trail, you will not find outhouses, tent pads, or no bear caches on the Howe Sound Crest Trail.  You must come prepared with your trowel for digging a cathole, and a bear canister to store your food.

Bears: You’re in bear country. Make lots of noise, bring bear spray and a bear canister to store your food (as there are no hangs/boxes). 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 (remove your bear can or take food with you) 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! 

Packing List for Backpacking the Howe Sound Crest Trail

Since I first wrote this post I’ve changed my gear setup quite a bit and moved towards a lightweight setup. Intense backpacking trips like the Howe Sound Crest Trail or the Rockwall Trail are a lot more enjoyable with less weight, letting you cover more distance with ease.

If you’re new to backpacking, don’t stress out about buying the latest and greatest equipment. Save money and use things you already own  or borrow things from a friend. Later, when you’ve gained more experience, modify your kit and change out gear as you get a better understanding of what creature comforts you can and can’t live without.

With this in mind, here’s some gear suggestions for taking this trip:

Essential Gear to Pack

Tent

The Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2’s unique blend of functionality, livability, weight and durability have earned high praise for several years! Big Agnes’s customer service is also second to none!  This tent and the Nemo Dagger OMSO were front runners for me when I upgraded my tent setup this year. 

Ultimately, I  prioritized weight and bought the Mountain Hardwear Strato UL2 over the MSR Freelite. I would have bought the MSR, but it was sold out. If you never backpack alone and don’t mind the extra weight most of these tents are also available in 3-person models.

Hiking Backpack

If you’re relatively new to backpacking and building out your kit slowly, there is nothing wrong with using a large size travel backpack with a decent suspension system and padded hipbelt or borrowing a pack from a friend. This gives you time to decide what features you need and whether or not backpacking (and the gear) is something you’re going to invest in.  When I first started backpacking, I used my Khmer Explorer Travel Set on the West Coast Trail and Sunshine Coast Trail which worked great despite my poor packing skills (don’t recommend backpacking with 55lbs…)!  

If you’ve begun dialing in your backpacking kit,  checkout the Gregory Focal or Women’s specific Facet which at ~2.5lbs provide a great compromise between barebones ultralight packs and the heavier feature laden packs. 

If you’re ready to go to an extreme level of gram counting and have eliminated all creature comforts check out the Hyperlite 3400 southwest. It’s 100% waterproof and constructed from ultra light dyneema fabric.

Sleeping Mat

I used to have terrible sleeps in the backcountry until I switched to the Therm-a-Rest . It’s incredibly lightweight, comfortable and packs down to the size of a Nalgene bottle. This is probably one of my favorite backpacking items! Try it out. You won’t regret it. Sleep well!

Backpacking Pillow

Yes, you can sleep with a pillow not made of bunched up clothes in the backcountry. Check out the Big Agnes Q-Core Deluxe Pillow, It packs down ultra small, weighs almost nothing and provides a new level of comfort after long days on the trail.

Sleeping Bag

I can’t speak highly enough of Patagonia’s sleeping bags I invested in one several years ago. It’s unbelievably lightweight and packs down small. I found the 30°F / -1°C to be perfect for most outings. Like all Patagonia products, it’s not cheap, but they stand behind their gear and the quality matches the price point. If you spend a lot of time in colder environments they also make a 20°F / -7°C version.  These bags are a very worthwhile splurge you won’t be disappointed in.

Water Purification

 I’m a huge fan of the Steripen. It’s light, portable and only takes minutes to purify a liter of water in a Nalgene. Press the button, place the pen in your bottle, and stir for a couple minutes. It’s like magic! Make sure to bring a few purification tablets as a backup should you run into any technical problems/dead battery with your Steripen.

Swiss Army Knife

Fixing gear, cutting food, a swiss army knife is your go to everything too for backpacking.

Stove & Fuel

Lightweight, convenient, and reliable, the MSR pocket rocket has been my go to backpacking stove for years.

Cookset

I love the GSI Halulite Microdualist II, Two-person cookset. It’s lightweight and I can fit my MSR pocket rocket and a fuel canister inside. If you don’t already have a stove consider the MSR PocketRocket Stove Kit for an all-inclusive solution.

Water Bottle

Nalgenes are always a backcountry favorite. If you’re cutting weight or looking for a way to save a buck, a simple smart water is the go-to for ultralight backpackers. I’ve recently moved to a hydration reservoir as it allows me to stay hydrated continuously without stopping to grab and open a bottle.

Extra Water storage

Extra water storage capacity makes cooking that much easier and camp life more enjoyable so make sure to invest in something like the MSR DromLite Bag V2. It’s also a must for a trip without reliable water sources like the Howe Sound Crest Trail (later in the year) where hauling more water may be essential.

First Aid Kit

From blisters, to scrapes, and cuts. A first aid kit is an essential item to have.  The pre-built kits from Adventure Medical Kits have served me well on many adventurers. At the end of your trip write down any items you used and replace them so they’re ready for your next adventure.

Trowel & Toilet Paper

The HSCT does not have any established outhouses, so you’ll  need  a trowel to dig a cathole when nature calls.  Followminimum impact camping principals and go at least 200m away from any established trails, campsites, or water (creeks, lakes, rivers etc.).  Pack your TP out, I know it’s gross, but just do it. 

Hiking Poles

I once had an ego and thought I didn’t need poles. Then I completed the Howe Sound Crest Trail and my knees screamed at me for the next week. My overweight pack and lack of poles were to blame. Poles are great for reducing the strain of long grueling descents and providing extra stability on exposed sections. Both these features you’ll experience on the Howe Sound Crest Trail, so do yourself a favor and get a pair of poles. For a reliable entry level option try these Black Diamond Poles or consider upgrading to the carbon fiber to save extra weight.

Headlamp

The Spot 350 is the way to go with 6 modes including the night vision saving red light! Red light mode takes a minute to get used to, but once you do it’s a total game changer trust me! The stars never looked so good! 

Bear Spray

When traveling in bear country, Bear Spray is a must. Make sure to remove the packaging and check the expiration date before heading out.

Bear Canister or Ursack * Don't Forget

Keeping your food safe from bears is an essential part of keeping you safe and being a responsible backpacker. The Howe Sound Crest Trail doesn’t offer any food storage so bring a bear canister to keep your food safe. They’re bulky, they’re annoying to pack, but they work well as stools and are far more convenient and effective than hanging your food. For several people go with the BV500 for solo adventures the BV450 works great.  To save weight Ursacks are also a great option, but they need to be tied to a tree and don’t prevent your food from being crushed and smashed by a hungry bear.

Don”t overlook safe food storage, as if a bear gets into your food it will need to be destroyed.  End of story. 

GPS, Compass & Map

Download the GAIA app for maps and gps. I always bring a traditional compass and map as well in the case of technical problems or dead batteries.

Luxury Items to Pack

These items are not necessary, but may be worth it depending on your weight priorities and the distance you plan to cover.

Backpacking Chair

After a long day on the trail there’s nothing better than finding a nice comfortable spot to rest your weary glutes. I’m a big fan of the Big Agnes Mica Basin Camp Chair. At just over 1kg, it’s light enough to justify bringing on slower/easier backpacking trips where weight isn’t as big of consideration or for trips where you’re taking day trips from an established base camp.

Hammock

If you’ve never strung up a hammock between two trees deep in the backcountry you’re missing out! Nothing beats getting horizontal with some great reading material in the pre-dinner hours or taking in an amazing sunset from your own outdoor couch.  The ENO Double Nest has room for two and at ½ kg  it’s hardly even a splurge to pack.  P.S don’t forget the straps to hang it.

Clothing & Accessories to Pack

Shell Jacket

An essential piece for wind, rain, snow. I’ve had great luck with an older version of the MEC Flash Cloud. Also check out the Patagonia Torrentshell  (or Womens version).

Sun Hat & Winter Hat/Toque

A ball cap or tilly hat keeps your face protected from the intense mountain sun. A toque is great for warming up during chilly mornings or evenings.  Here are a bunch of great options.

Sunglasses

Protect your eyes!

Rainpants

Mountain weather can change fast and rain pants are an absolute lifesaver to have in your backpacking kit. Many have the ability to quickly take them on and off without removing your shoes/boots allowing you to stay comfortable eveb if you get caught in a sudden downpour. Check out the Torrentshell in mens or womens.  

Zip Off Hiking Pants (1 - 2 Pair)

I never thought I’d see the day I embraced the zip-off pant. But hey, they’re really the best of both worlds for rapidly changing mountain environments and keeping warm in the evening when the temperature drops. Check out the Quandary Pant for a great option.

Puff Jacket

I’ve had the Patagonia Men’s Nano Puff® Hoody for years. It’s perfect multi-functional item for everyday, backpacking, and pretty much anything where you might need a bit of warmth. I’m still looking for an activity it doesn’t work for. They also make the Nano Puff in a women’s version.

Sun Hoodie

When I went backpacking in the Grand Canyon a few years back, I was shocked to see throngs of Arizona Trail thru-hikers wearing hoodies in the 40 C (100F) heat. Turns out they were onto something! A sun hoodie has been one of the best items I’ve added to my backpacking kit. They keep you burn free, are surprisingly cool, and let you get away with leaving the bottle of sunscreen at home. The Sahara Sun Hoodie (men’s/women’s) from REI has served me well or check out these ones from Outdoor Research (men’s / women’s).

Base Layer Top

These Capilene Cool shirts have worked well for me, but pretty much any quick-dry athletic top will work fine.

Base Layer Bottom

A merino bottom baselayer are perfect for warming up at night or during chilly mornings.

Underwear

Patagonia makes fantastic underwear with quality, durability, and comfort far exceeding lululemon, and saxx (I’ve tried both). You decide how many or how few you bring….  

They also make womens’ underwear, but I am unable to advise on fit, form, function or durability on this front… 

3 Pairs of Hiking Socks

Darn Tough Vermont makes the best hiking socks hands down. They’re guaranteed for life/replaced free of charge and they don’t stink. Really! I typically bring 3 pair. 1 pair for hiking, 1 pair to change into at camp, and a reserve to throw into the rotation as needed. 

Gloves

Thin, water resistance 3-season glove is typically perfect for cold mornings or windy summits. 

Camp Shoes

Crocs are back! Well for backpacking camp shoes they never left… They’re lightweight and ugly as ever. Many backpackers find them to be the perfect camp shoe for resting sore feat after a long day in boots/shoes.

Personally, I still hate them. I have an old pair of Tom’s which I occasionally bring. They are light and less bulky than Crocs. If going with a trail runner, I’ll often ditch the camp shoe altogether and just loosen my laces. Your call!  

Trail Runners or Hiking Boots

When I’m going lightweight I’ll wear trail runners. I’ve had great luck with the La Sportiva Bushido II. When I’m carrying more gear/weight or if there’s a chance of snow, I’ll wear a larger more traditional hiking boot, like the Scarpa Kailash.

Microspikes

Microspikes slip effortlessly over your boots and make walking on snow and ice a breeze.

Low Gaiter (season and condition dependent)

Low gaiters are perfect for keeping rocks, sand, and snow out of your boots and preventing blisters.

Toothbrush & Toothpaste

Duck Tape ( for repairs and blisters)

Food

Everyone has different takes and caloric requirements, so I’m not going to tell you exactly what to bring. I generally avoid the just add water meals you find at REI or MEC. They’re overpriced and often don’t rehydrate as you’d like. I usually head to the grocery store and search for things like lentil rice, ramen, or plant-based mac & cheese. They’re basically just add/boil quickly meals.. Always rebag/repack this type of food. As there is no reason to carry unnecessary packaging on the trail. I’m also a big fan of the Patagonia provisions soups and chilis

If you’re looking for incredible dehydrated food check out Food for the Sole. Their salads are some of the best add water food I’ve had in the backcountry. 

Final thoughts on hiking the Howe Sound Crest Trail

The Howe Sound Crest Trail offers an incredible backcountry experience to properly prepared adventurers. If you have questions drop me a note in the comments below and I’ll do my best to help you out! Happy hiking friend! 

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View along the Rockwall Trail towards Floe Lake.

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4 Replies to “Howe Sound Crest Trail – Your Guide to Hiking the HSCT”

    1. Hey Morgan,

      No you don’t! I combed through BC parks website pretty extensively to look for permits or fees prior to heading out and it seems the backcountry for Cypress Provincial Park does not have any fees associated with overnight use. Bonus! Here’s a link to the bc parks website for Cypress as well as they tend to provide updates for trail conditions, closure etc. as well http://bcparks.ca/explore/parkpgs/cypress/

      Hope this helps and you have a great time out there!

      Michael

  1. Hi Michael. Great blog thank you. I’d there any way to avoid the worst exposed parts? My girlfriend isn’t so keen on those sections.
    Cheers
    Seb
    Take me to the river. Ca

    1. Hey Seb,

      Great question. Unfortunately, it’s going to be pretty tough to avoid the highest exposed sections when completing the full HSCT. That said if you were to do an out-and-back trip starting from Porteau Cove Brunswick lake that would be a great option. You could spend a couple of nights at Brunswick lake (beautiful spot btw :)) doing a day trip up to Magnesia Meadows area before coming back the way you came. This way avoids most exposure and would give you a little bit of a sample of the trail.

      Hope this helps Seb and happy adventuring,

      Michael

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