Update on the popular Berg Lake Trail in Mount Robson Provincial Park

Submitted by Mike Nash – Caledonia Ramblers (Prince George)

Mount Robson in the mist (Photo by Judy Lett, July 2020)

Mount Robson in the mist (Photo by Judy Lett, July 2020)

For the interest of FMCBC members who are considering hiking into Mount Robson / Berg Lake during this summer’s Covid-19 pandemic, here’s what my wife, Judy and I discovered on our trip there last week:

  1. Since the inside of the Visitor Centre is only open only to staff this year, Berg Lake Trail registrations are being done under a canopy set up on the deck at the rear door. A possible time-saver for trail users, therefore, is not watching the mandatory 26-minute orientation video inside the Visitor Centre during registration. Instead, you must watch it online and complete an overnight hiker sign-off sheet acknowledging that you have done so before starting your hike. You can find the links to the video and sign-off sheet on the Mount Robson Provincial Park main page, which in turn directs you to the orientation page and video.If you have not done this ahead of time, free Wi-Fi is available at the Visitor Centre where the URL for the video is posted, and there are sign-off sheets available in the registration area. These web pages also provide helpful instructions on how to use the new reservation system. Incidentally, there are other interesting resources on the site, including ‘Visualizing 100 Years of Robson Landscape Change’ at https://robsonlandscape.weebly.com/, where you can find Mountain Legacy Project comparison views taken 100 years apart, such as that of Berg Lake and the Robson Glacier (just sweep your cursor back and forth across the page to see the remarkable changes). I discussed this in a recent Cloudburst review of ‘Surveying the 120th Meridian and the Great Divide.’
  2. Plan to arrive at the Robson Visitor Centre before 3:30 p.m. (even if your first camp is only six kilometres in at Kinney Lake, or 11 kilometres in at Whitehorn) as that’s when registration closes for the day.
  3. The main thing new this year is that the covered shelters are closed to hikers because of the pandemic. Backpackers are instead being allowed to take tarps and fasten them to trees. I was previously aware that the increasingly popular hammock camping is not allowed on the Berg Lake Trail because of this no tying to trees rule, but I was surprised to learn that it also applied to tarps. Of course, a tarp can also be rigged without fastening to trees by means of trekking poles.
  4. We noted that many backpackers were disregarding this new rule and were using the shelters anyway (it was a fairly wet trip). This was especially evident at the popular Whitehorn campground where the shelter now has five instead of four picnic tables inside, all of which were being fully used, plus an additional group was cooking supper on the ground between the tables. In short, the shelter was crowded. There is likely some risk of contracting airborne viruses in crowded open-air shelters, and a definite concern is touching surfaces such as heavily used picnic tables, bridge railings, outhouses, etc., especially on such a popular trail with visitors from afar and also perhaps with predominantly young adults on the trail who may have had greater social exposure to the virus. It is therefore worthwhile taking a lightweight tarp and cordage with you to facilitate shelter and social distancing around camp, plus a small bottle of hand sanitizer. Practice setting up your tarp with poles before you leave home if you haven’t done it before; there are plenty of tarp set-up videos on YouTube.
  5. One disturbing trend that we noticed is that some thoughtless individuals are throwing their used, non-biodegradable hand-wipes alongside the trails and in the bush around some of the camps. I first saw this trend all along the Skyline Trail in Jasper National park three years ago and it is beginning to spread to our local trails, exacerbated no doubt by the Covid-19 situation. A ranger that we met on the hike out told us that every year along the Berg Lake Trail they have to remove over a ton of garbage that visitors have left behind. Added to this, any incentive to pick up after others on the trail is definitely diminished this year with the uncertainties of the virus.
  6. Most camp sites were fully booked when we made our reservation, but as we’ve seen in recent years there were plenty of no-show tent pads everywhere, except at Whitehorn with just one empty site. We camped at Marmot at the south end of Berg Lake, so I can’t speak to conditions at the main Berg Lake campsite at the north end. My suggestion is that you persevere in trying to get a reservation as cancellations do occur, or even take a chance and show up and hope for some vacancies. Be flexible, don’t expect to get a spot at the main Berg Lake site; mid-week is obviously best; and have a backup plan if you go on spec, such as the Mount Fitzwilliam Trail near the east end of the Highway 16 corridor through the park.
  7. While the new reservation system might be adequate for booking front country campsites, I found it to be awkward and cumbersome for linking campsites for multi-day backpacking trips. It seemed to me to be inefficient, error-prone, non-intuitive, and lacking the real-time maps of its easier-to-use predecessor. BC Parks’ contract with the old reservation system provider expired last year and they went out to competitive bid. A new company was selected that had a history of running reservations for a number of park systems in North America, but there are teething problems that have likely been exacerbated by the Covid-19 situation and travel restrictions on staff getting out to field locations to see how it’s actually working. So, I recommend that you reference the instructions on the BC Parks web page mentioned previously, and allow yourself time to learn the new system’s idiosyncrasies.
  8. Driving to the trailhead from the Visitor Centre, you pass through a staffed checkpoint on the access road that screens people going in and gives priority to registered backpackers. We expected that there would be lots of parking at the trailhead, but it turned out to be almost as full as ever with many day hikers and an almost full complement of backpackers. This checkpoint might be useful for turning around foreign license plated vehicles in transit through Canada who are not supposed to be stopping to use recreational facilities, and possibly late-arriving and therefore unregistered backpackers, and it’s also an opportunity to screen and brief day hikers on Covid-19 guidelines.
  9. Other noticeable differences were that there were no large tour bus groups of day hikers and no continuous helicopter traffic as Yellowhead has suspended their weekday day-tripper flights.
  10. The hiker demographic appears to be quite different this year from that of predominantly older, international visitors that we have seen in recent years. We met no overseas visitors and only a few from other Canadian Provinces. Most backpackers were from around BC and appeared to be mainly in the 20’s age range, which was nice to see. Everyone that we met was courteous on the trail and strove to maintain the two-metre distance.
  11. The trails were quite muddy this year because of the very wet spring and early summer, especially between White Falls and Emperor Falls – the worst that I recall seeing in 42 years of hiking to Berg Lake. Otherwise, things are in good shape, with recent maintenance and infrastructure work in evidence. We saw no wildlife larger than squirrels in the park, although the critter count along Highway 16 amounted to a respectable five black bears, two moose and one deer. The flowers were at their peak, and surprisingly there were few bugs anywhere.
Unusually prominent seracs on the Berg Lake Glacier (Photo by Judy Lett, July 2020)

Unusually prominent seracs on the Berg Lake Glacier (Photo by Judy Lett, July 2020)

In summary, do try the Berg Lake Trail this year; the park is open for business and the staff are doing a great job. For those of us living in North Central BC, it’s a privilege to have such an outstanding place almost on our doorstep, and we make good use of it. It’s also nice for visitors from afar to meet and chat with locals to get that all-important local beta on other outdoor opportunities in the region. View a gallery and video of Judy Lett’s pictures from the trip.