Gwillim Lakes/Drinnon Pass

Turquoise lakes, mirrored pools, and circles of peaks all around! The hike to Gwillim Lakes goes from ‘impressive’ to ‘fantastically incredible’ and doesn’t stop there! This is one of the region’s best hikes and a worthwhile backpacking destination for a weekend in alpine paradise.

Summary
Trailhead: Hodor Creek Road
Distance, round trip: 12km
Elevation: +894m
Season: mid-July to late September
Difficulty:  Difficult

Download file: gwillim.gpx

Trailhead & Driving Directions

Prepare yourself for a long backcountry grind. The majority of the roads are in good condition, but 4WD and high clearance are recommended for the final few kms.

Starting from Playmor Junction, drive 15.4km north up Highway 6. Then turn onto Passmore Upper Road across from the power station. Resetting your odometer, follow Passmore Upper Road as it turns into Little Slocan Road for 25km. You’ll pass the turnoff for the Little Slocan Lakes campground. Then watch for signs for “Valhalla Provincial Park” and turn left onto Hodor Creek Road. Drive another 21km.

The last 2.4km of Hoder Creek are in rough shape with overgrown alder and large rocks and bumps to grind up. Ouch, bump, bump. Not recommended for a low clearance 2WD vehicle.

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Backpacking Paradise

The trail to Gwillim Lakes is strung between a series of backcountry campgrounds. While it’s possible to reach Gwillim Lakes within 2.5-3 hours, it is worthwhile to plan an overnight trip and really enjoy the area. As the trail ascends, the scenery at each campground intensifies.

Up to Drinnon Lake

The hike up to Drinnon Lake is a steady huff up through the forest and across two rock slides. You’ll cross over into Valhalla Provincial Park as you near the top of the ridge.

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Drinnon Lake is just over the top of the ridge and is a pretty spot. The first campground is here and spiky peaks can be viewed just over Drinnon Pass. Drinnon Lake is reached after about an hour of hiking.

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Scenery at Drinnon Lake

Drinnon Pass

After crossing a bridge over the creek, the trail quickly ascends up to Drinnon Pass. The forest opens up to sub-alpine meadows, full of flowers and ground squirrels.

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Looking back towards Drinnon Lake

You’ll pass the second campground named “Wicca” on Drinnon Pass, and then the trail will begin to meander enticingly through a series of meadows and pools.

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At the top of Drinnon Pass, you’ve climbed 430m up from the trailhead.

Wicca Peak on a smoky day

Higher Still to Gwillim Lakes

The trail descends on the other side of Drinnon Pass and dips down to an unnamed lake. As you begin to climb again, the rush of waterfalls can be heard in the distance.

Gwillim Lakes is behind a final ridge and climb up is taxing but so worthwhile! About half way up, you’ll be able to look to your right and see this:

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Gwillim Lakes Drainage
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Waterfall from Gwillim Lakes

As you get higher, the trail begins to edge along a massive rock face. It’s hard heavy marching, but the end is almost in sight.

Backpacking up the final ascent to Gwillim Lakes

Paradise at Gwillim Lakes

When you finally get to the top, you’ll be amazed! The landscape is gorgeous! Pools of clear water, reflecting mountains and sky. Lakes and waterfalls. And all around, towering peaks!

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Pools at Gwillim Lakes, with Black Prince Peak (left) and Lucifer Peak (right)

The final campground is at Gwillim Lakes and is the most popular of the three, but the sites are scattered around spaciously. There is a nice cooking area by the lake, as well as backcountry pit toilets and bear bins.

Moonrise over the Valhallas

If you’re day hiking, then Gwillim Lakes may be your final destination. However, if you are a quick hiker or spending a few days, there is more to explore.

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Upper Lakes Basin is above waterfall, Lucifer Pass beyond

Upper Gwillim Lakes

Beyond the Upper Lakes, you can scramble higher to Lucifer Pass and survey the north Valhalla ranges. To reach the upper lakes, pass through the campground heading north towards Lucifer Peak. Watch for the trail as it crosses Gwillim Creek and then continues up a grassy-ramp interspersed with boulders and cairns. Climb this ramp to ascend to the upper basin.

Beneath Lucifer Peak by the Upper Lakes

Strong hikers have the option to ascend through Lucifer Pass, crossing the boulder beneath Lucifer Peak and the Black Prince. Even stronger hikers who don’t mind some exposure can scramble up Lucifer Peak from its ridge to the east.

View from Upper Gwillim Lakes over lower lakes

Back Down to Reality

The return trip on a hike is usually pretty anti-climatic. But not at Gwillim – you get all of the spectacular views in reverse!

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[…] spent a magical weekend backpacking into Gwillim Lakes. This is truly my favourite West Kootenay hike and an overnighter was the only way to do it […]

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[…] It has been reported that the Gwillim Lakes trailhead will be moved back sometime in summer 2020, with the final 2.4km blocked off and a designated parking area created at the bottom of the hill. This would increase the hiking distance from trailhead to Gwillim Lakes but would avoid driving the roughest section of roadThe final 2.4km of the Hoder Creek FSR is very rough, with huge rocks and craters. It’s pretty narrow too – our van was scraped quite a lot by branches […]

Russ Heggie
Russ Heggie
2 years ago
Trail Rating :
     

Great trail with snow 1/2 way up today. No wildlife to report which was good as we took our 10&8 year olds up. 3hrs up & 2hrs down. Road up is in good condition short of 1 washout at 32km mark that has been patched but last 2km is a rough and an auto detailers dream!

Trip Date
2020-07-06
Trail Conditions
Fair
Access Road Conditions
Good
Access Road Vehicle
4WD Low Clearance
Anjali Sihlis
Anjali Sihlis
2 years ago

I’m considering using my mountain bike for the last 2.4km of road approach and then locking it up at the trail head. Could this be a better option than trying to drive it with low clearance 4×4?

Abby Wilson
Admin
2 years ago
Reply to  Anjali Sihlis

The last few kms of road are really lumpy and washed out. In previous years, I’ve seen low-clearance 4WD vehicles at the trailhead, but it’s a risk for your vehicle. It would be better to hike or bike the last 2.4 km if you have low clearance. Rumour is that the official trailhead will be moving out so that the final 2.4km goes from road to trail in the future.

Shelby B
Shelby B
1 year ago
Reply to  Abby Wilson

Thank you all for the helpful info!!!☺️

Chevell
Chevell
2 years ago
Trail Rating :
     

I came out of there yesterday and there were two big sink holes on the final 2.4 km of road before the trailhead that are nearly impassable. I would not drive up the final 2.4 km. Park at the bottom for your own safety. Apart from that,it is a beautiful Valley. Well worth the effort.

Trip Date
2020-08-07
Trail Conditions
Good
Access Road Conditions
Poor. Final 2.4 km
Access Road Vehicle
4WD High Clearance
Last edited 2 years ago by Chevell
Alana
Alana
1 year ago

I am extremely curious as how to reserve a site at Upper Gwillim Lakes… Unable to find much information. Thanks!

Abby Wilson
Admin
1 year ago
Reply to  Alana

The sites are first-come-first-served so no reservations require. From the BC Parks website: “Wilderness, backcountry or walk-in camping is allowed; however, no services are provided at the marine sites. The campsites are open year-round when accessible and are available on a first-come, first-served basis. There are facilities at Gwillim, Wicca, Drinnon, Emerald and Cahill Lakes.”

Alana
Alana
1 year ago
Reply to  Abby Wilson

Thank you!! Wasn’t 100% sure. 🙂

Dan McLeod
Dan McLeod
1 year ago

Hi there, just wondering if you could comment on the trail conditions in mid-June? Is it possible to camp this time of year? I appreciate the advice.

Abby Wilson
Admin
1 year ago
Reply to  Dan McLeod

In past years, the campsites have been buried in snow until early July. It depends a bit on snowpack, but best to wait until July.

Julie Robinson
Julie Robinson
1 year ago
Trail Rating :
     

Wondering about camping at the first campsite in June. Is that usually snow covered as well ?

Trail Conditions
ynklude@gmail.com
Abby Wilson
Admin
1 year ago
Reply to  Julie Robinson

Yes the entire trail is at high elevation so all 3 campsites are usually snow-bound until July. The first might be free in late June depending on weather conditions.

Judy
Judy
1 year ago

How long does the drive to the trailhead take from when you get off the highway? (in hours not kilometers)Trying to figure out how much time to allow to get there. Thank you!

Abby Wilson
Admin
1 year ago
Reply to  Judy

About 1.5 hours. It’s not far in distance, but the backcountry roads are slow. It would be good to get a road report once the snow clears for 2021 (early July) as the last few kms of road is very rough and overgrown, even for a 4×4 vehicle.

Josh
Josh
1 year ago

Hi Abby! I would really like to do this hike, but plan to stay in Nelson. From what I hear, it is doable but a long day. We are going to be in the area around August 10.

I’ll break my question up into 3 parts for ease:
(1) In your opinion, is this possible?
(2) How long is the drive from Nelson to the trailhead?
(3) How long is the hike roundtrip?

Thank you so much in advance!

Abby Wilson
Admin
1 year ago
Reply to  Josh

Hey Josh, 1) Yes, it is possible with a long day of 11-12 hours from leaving Nelson to returning. 2) 2.5 hours each way in previous years with 1.5+ being on forest service roads. The road gets worse and slower the further up you go with the last 3km being 4WD high clearance only a very challenging. Check out the West Kootenay Hiking Access FB group before your trip to get a recent road report. No one has been up there yet in 2021 to my knowledge. 3) Typically 3 hours up, 2.5 hours down for a moderate hiking pace.… Read more »

Josh
Josh
1 year ago
Reply to  Abby Wilson

Thank you! Very helpful.

Andy Gibb
1 year ago

That looks absolutely stunning! Definitely a place to spend a few days and explore. Alas this summer is already accounted for, but maybe next year….

Alan
Alan
1 year ago

Hello, Does anyone have recent knowledge of the trail conditions? Is there snow on the trail? If so, at what kilometre does the snow start? Are the campsites still covered in snow? Is there a shovel to flatten the snow around the camp pads? I plan to hike up and camp around the 1st July, do you think there will still be snow by then? Is it really necessary to wrap the lower part of your car in chicken wire to prevent the porcupines from eating cables etc? Can you recommend a good website or link for a weather forecast… Read more »

Last edited 1 year ago by Alan
Abby Wilson
Admin
1 year ago
Reply to  Alan

Hi Alan, You’ll want to ask your questions about snow and access on the West Kootenay Hiking Access FB group where over 3000 locals share the latest info. I don’t think anyone has been up to Gwillim yet in 2021 as typically it is snow-bound until mid-July: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1389190787797385 In terms of chicken wire, it’s always recommended to wrap your vehicle at high-elevation trailheads in the Kootenays. It would be a long 40km+ walk out the forest service roads if you came back and found porcupine damage to your vehicle and there is no cell service. There is usually some extra… Read more »

Ryan Angus
Ryan Angus
1 year ago

Hi! Thanks so much for the great info. Any news on if the trailhead did get moved 2.4KM? Also, is there an obvious place to park 2.4KM before the trailhead (i.e. how will we know we reached said destination) before hitting the real rough stuff? Also, is there typically chicken wire available at this area to park? I am travelling from Osoyoos the day before, and was thinking of breaking up the trip by camping near to the trailhead. What is little slocan lake rec site like? Nice? Busy? Any other rec sites or similar nearby that you would recommend?… Read more »

Last edited 1 year ago by Ryan Angus
Abby Wilson
Admin
1 year ago
Reply to  Ryan Angus

The latest info for 2021, is the road is still open to the trailhead, but it’s even rougher for the past 2.4km so many people are parking early. You’ll likely see other vehicles parked at that turn-off, but if not, you can recognize it as there will be a junction with a blue “Valhalla” sign pointing up an overgrown rough road that will make you pause and reconsider the drive! If you reset your odometer before turning onto Hodor Road, this junction will be between 18 and 19km. Many people camp at Little Slocan Lake and hike Gwillim Lakes one… Read more »

Ryan Angus
Ryan Angus
1 year ago
Reply to  Abby Wilson

Great info thank you. Would you recommend taking your own chicken wire?

Abby Wilson
Admin
1 year ago
Reply to  Ryan Angus

Yes, if you’re parking before the trailhead. There is some extra wire to use at the official trailhead, but often it’s all taken on weekends.

Carla
Carla
10 months ago

What are the bugs like at the end of July?

Abby Wilson
Admin
10 months ago
Reply to  Carla

With all those lakes and pools, bug are bad! We usually bring long sleeves, pants, and bug nets.

Dana Diotte
21 days ago
Trail Rating :
     

Gwillim Lakes trailhead access has been cleared of alder for the last 2.4km. Totally drivable in AWD and 4×4 vehicles without risk of scratching vehicles. Subaru’s (crosstrek, forester and outback) and Toyota RAV4’s made it no problem.

Bugs were almost non-existent with a nice breeze. Insanely busy spot on a long weekend though. All campsites were full by evening. Get an early start on busy weekends.

Trip Date
2022-09-03
Trail Conditions
Excellent
Access Road Conditions
Last 2-3km have some gnarly spots. Totally drivable in AWD and 4x4 though.
Access Road Vehicle
4WD Low Clearance
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