Hiking Tweedsmuir in the heart of Chilcotin from Turner Lake

What if I told you that you could take a hike or a flight, to a mountain lake and find a canoe and gear waiting for you.  You could take the canoe out to explore a chain of lakes teeming with cutthroat trout and surrounded by glacier-capped peaks.  You camp on beaches and watch the sun set over the pristine mountains. Best of all, you might go days without seeing another soul. Welcome to British Columbia’s Tweedsmuir South Provincial Park.

Tweedsmuir is one of BC’s hidden gems.  BC has quite a few of them, actually. The northern two-thirds of the province is forever getting ignored on those “top adventures in BC” lists.  Here’s a secret: That’s where they all are. And while part of me wants to keep them secret, the other part knows that the folks willing to make the effort to get there deserve that sliver of paradise.

Tweedsmuir itself isn’t actually that hard to access.  At the heart of the Chilcotin, it’s just a day’s drive from Vancouver (albeit a very long day).  Hikers can park and be in the colorful alpine of the Rainbow Range in a matter of hours and spend days wandering up peaks and camping in the valleys.  Access to the Turner Lake Chain is a bit trickier, but you don’t need to plan as far ahead as the more famous Bowron Lake Chain to the east.

Quick Facts

Time: 3-5 days

Distance: 25 km (15.5 miles)

Fees: CDN $5 per night for camping, $40 per day for canoe rental, plus costs of flights if you choose not to walk in.

Portages: Seven in total, though some can be skipped.  The longest is 500 m.

Facilities:  All campsites are equipped with pit toilets, fire rings, and bear caches.  They are all well maintained by the park operator. Turner Lake West camp also has lakes .

Difficulty: Moderate – the creeks can be portaged, but wind can make travel on the lakes dangerous.

Why We Chose Turner Lake

We went to Tweedsmuir on our honeymoon for two weeks of hiking and canoeing.  Tweedsmuir was a great choice. My husband loves the Chilcotins and I had the Rainbow Range on my bucket list.  Plus it was just a few hours away from our new home in the Caribou.

How to Get There

Tweedsmuir is located 217 miles west of Williams Lake.  The highway is a windy one so it can take over six hours to navigate.

There are two ways to get to the Turner Lake Chain – flying from Nimpo Lake, or hiking from the trail head at the Atnarko River.  Either way, you’ll want to stop at the Tweedsmuir Air base at Stewart’s Lodge on Nimpo Lake to pay for a canoe rental and back country fees.

Walking

The turnoff to the trail head is another 30 miles down the highway, then another 10 miles down a rough gravel road (4×4 required) along the Atnarko River.  The Atnarko is famous for its abundant grizzly bear population, so keep your eyes out and bear spray ready.

From the trail head, it’s another 7.5-mile hike to the Tweedsmuir Wilderness Camp at the north end of Turner Lake.  From there, you can pick up your cane and be on your way. The hike is a 6-9 hour slog with a 2600 ft elevation gain.  I was lucky enough to skip it, but reports make the trail seem pretty tedious. BC Parks recommends doing the first part of the trail in the late morning or early afternoon when the bears are resting.  Bring bear spray and make lots of noise so you don’t surprise a snoozing bear.

Flying

Since it was our honeymoon and we splurged and got ourselves a plain.  Fly with Tweedsmuir Air out of Nimpo Lake. The flight will cost CDN $350 for a Cessna (2-3 people) or $525 for a Beaver (4-6 people).  Flying will also get you a bird’s eye view of Canada’s Largest unbroken waterfall, Hunlen Falls.

What to Pack

Bear spray:  Tweedsmuir has one of the highest densities of apex predators in the world.  Firearms are not allowed in BC parks (so bear spray is a must).

Good rain gear: We spent some time above Turner Lake before the trip and spent one miserable day hiking in the snow and rain, plus met a few afternoon storms.  Good rain gear is a must.

Fishing rod and fishing license:  The fish pretty much catch themselves on the Turner Lake Chain.  Leave your bait at home. The whole chain has a bait ban (and fishing is so easy, it’s really not needed).

Life jackets, bailing buckets, and paddles are all provided at the park operator.  

Our Story

Our trip to Tweedsmuir was actually our honeymoon, so we splurged on flights both ways.  We flew into Ptarmigan Lake, about 12 km uphill from Turner Lake and spent a few days climbing mountains before heading to the lake.  We did the chain in five leisurely days.

Day 1:
After hiking the 12 km down from Turner Lake, we paddled around 3 km to Turner Lake West Camp.  We had splurged on a cabin and were thankful because it had absolutely poured for the last 24 hours. The cabin was $50 with a wood stove and some basic furniture.  I was thankful for it, but under most conditions, it wouldn’t have been worth it.

Day 2: 
We paddled the remainder of Turner Lake, plus the small Cutthroat and Vista Lakes.  It was a leisurely day despite the four short portages. The Junker Lake camp was set on a long sandy beach facing stunning mountain views to the south.  We didn’t feel totally welcome though. A loon took it upon itself to break out its territorial display when Clay decided to take a dip.

Day 3:
We woke up to rain and decided to wait it out, and it was late morning by the time we got underway.  It was another short day as we paddled through Wigeon Lake and landed ourselves at Kidney Lake. We again had the campground to ourselves and settled ourselves on a peninsula to watch the sunset as we feasted on our trout dinner.

Day 4:
We got up early to paddle across the lake to the Sunshine Lake trail head.  We brought our own paddle and the fishing rod for the one hour hike to Sunshine Lake.  There is a rustic campsite there, but we settled for a snack and a bit of unsuccessful fishing.  There was a canoe there, but with only one paddle, getting around was more effort than it was worth, so we didn’t go far.

When we got back to Kidney Lake, the wind had picked up, so we long lined the canoe along the shore until we found a sheltered spot to get in. After a long paddle back to camp, hugging the shore to avoid the rough water, we packed up and backtracked to Widgeon Lake.  This was easily our favorite site, with a secluded white sand beach and another sunset view. There was actually someone else at this camp, and we enjoyed an evening sitting around the campfire making new friends.

Day 5:
This was our longest day.  After paddling back to Turner Lake and setting up camp at the western campsite (our pickup location), we paddled to the south end for a hike to Hunlen Falls.  At around 650 – 1350 ft (sources vary widely), Hunlen Falls is Canada’s third tallest waterfall and with the largest continuous drop in the country. It is nothing short of spectacular.  A 30-minute walk took us to a vertigo inducing, unfenced lookout. We had to crawl to the edge to get a good view!

The next day was lounged around at camp until the plane came to take us home at noon.

While You’re in the Area

Hunlen Falls: I’ve already mentioned the falls, but don’t do Turner Lakes without visiting them.  They are 100% worth the side trip. Pictures don’t do it justice.

Atnarko Bear Viewing: If you are in Tweedsmuir during the salmon run in September, don’t miss the bear viewing platform at the Atnarko River, just down the road from the turnoff to Hunlen Falls.   BC Parks brings in rangers from all over the province to give you a safe (and free) chance to watch grizzlies feed on the salmon.

Rainbow Range:  With easy access from the highway, you can do the Rainbow Range as a day hike or spend a few days wandering around exploring the unique alpine landscape.

Bella Coola:  The tiny town of Bella Coola is just 45 minutes down the road from Tweedsmuir.  The highway is famed for its steep descent to the ocean, so be prepared for a driving adventure.  The town offers a remote wilderness setting and a taste of Nuxalk (the local Indigenous people) culture.

Some Final Thoughts

The campsites were well maintained and designed for more people than we saw.  I hear a rumor that it was once busier. It’s actually one of the reasons I want to share this trip so badly.  The contractors who maintain the sites operate as a business. They were doing a good job and deserve more business.

The tent pads were freshly raked, the outhouses clean and stocked with toilet paper.  These are perks I expect in the busier back country near Vancouver – not in the Chilcotin.

Even the storms were amazing!

Watch our trip on YouTube