It used to be that hiking the Stawamus Chief Park trails required some scrambling and acrobatics to get over the massive boulder blocking the main trailhead. The rock was a deterrent to the less agile or adventurous and many a rookie hiker intimidated by the prospect of scaling the 12 foot-or-so barrier turned back instead of pursuing the climb.
That doesn't happen anymore due in part to a new set of stairs that bypassed the rock this spring. The result is an increase in hikers tackling the day hikes up the Chief.
"We've made many improvements mostly to the backside trail - the stairhead being one of the improvements - but we also improved other sections that were eroded and braided and hazardous," said Katy Chambers, BC Parks senior park ranger for the Squamish area. "Use has increased and our highest-use day this year has been 2,500 hikers. We had 1,400 at our highest-use day last year."
A long winter and heavier-than-usual snow load in the alpine has driven recreational hikers to explore other areas in valley bottoms. Improvements to the Sea to Sky Highway have also increased access and are encouraging more day trips from Vancouver.
"We are seeing a lot of people from the city coming up that have done the Grouse Grind and are looking for another challenge or something different," said Chambers.
Upgrades to the trail began in the fall of 2010 and were finished in March of this year. Rotten staircases and areas with overhead fall hazards were tackled first. A number of other sections are still slated for improvement.
"It's an ongoing project. As use increases, the trail definitely needs more maintenance and as the main trail gets busier we're seeing our other trails, the less popular trails, get busier, which also requires more maintenance," said Chambers.
The most popular hike in the park is the First Peak trail, followed by Second Peak trail. The Third Peak and Shannon Falls trails - lightly hiked compared to the first two - are seeing more use as well.
More people in the park means more rescues for Squamish Search and Rescue volunteers.
"We've had three in the last week just on the Chief trail - mostly twisted ankles - just with the sheer numbers you're bound to get more," said Chambers. "Last year's net total of rescues in Stawamus Chief Park was 13 and we're already at that number halfway through this year's hiking season."
As in previous years, cougar sightings in the park have been reported and conservation officers put down a nuisance black bear that was frequenting the campground at the base of the Chief two weeks ago.
Volunteer trail maintenance days are slated for the fall. To help out, go to www.bcparks.ca and follow the links to Stawamus Chief Park for details.