Contributed by Rikki Ayers
Climbing old growth root ladders to the top of a misty mountain is a quintessential Vancouver Island hiking experience. Spending the night in a cozy, heated, and well-lit hut at the top of that mountain adds a definite something. It makes you feel a bit guilty writing about it because, while the newly-opened 5040 Peak Hut is no secret, it’s special and hopefully will be respectfully preserved for a long time.
The hut is accessed via the Cobalt Lake Trail, a steep climb through old growth and alpine, not far from Port Alberni, in the traditional territory of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth First Nations. The hike is not for the faint of heart—literally, you climb and climb and climb—and you’ll need a 4x4 to get to it via Marion Creek Forest Service Road. The hard work pays off though as you hike alongside rushing waterfalls, the small and incredibly clear Cobalt Lake, and up to the top of the peak, about another hour’s climb past the hut.
According to the Alpine Club of Canada, the 5040 Peak Hut is a mere 12 kilometres (about 7.5 miles) away from North America’s wettest place, Henderson Lake, which receives almost 7 metres (about 276 inches) of rain each year. As luck would have it, some of that precipitation made its way to 5040, surrounding us in waves of mist. The trail and all of its roots and rocks were very slippery—I definitely put my 3K Carbon Fiber Trekking Poles to the test! Walking along the ghostly ridges made me feel like I was at the edge of the world.
The hut itself was built and is maintained by the Alpine Club of Canada (ACC), a registered Amateur Athletic Association and a registered Canadian charity. Reservations are highly recommended. After the hut’s opening was announced at the end of 2018, dates began booking up quickly. The night I stayed, my friends and I shared the full hut with a couple of families, ACC volunteers, and fellow backpackers, while others pitched tents close by. Bunk beds are topped with comfortable mattresses, meaning all you have to do is pack your sleeping bag and an inflatable pillow. The hut also has solar-powered electricity, a wood pellet stove, propane burners, and every type of dishware you could ask for, including at least three different coffee-making devices.
The following morning, I awoke at the ripe hour of 6 a.m., before anyone else, and made coffee (using my own coffee-making apparatus) on the deck overlooking clear skies, alpine wildflowers, and craggy, snowy mountains. The drumming of a grouse backdropped the twitter of songbirds, the only sounds heard high up at 1,320 meters (4,330 feet) – a welcome reprieve from the typical hammering of construction outside of my Victoria apartment building.
The hike back down was even wetter than the hike up! Trekking poles were braced against granite boulders as my friends and I ambled our way down. It should be noted that there is no phone service in the area and you should download a GPS map to ensure you don’t hike astray. Our group almost went the wrong way after we lost the trail on a rocky hillside. In all, it took us about three hours to hike up and almost the same to hike down. After getting picked up again at Marion Creek Forest Service Road, our happily soaked and tired group sat down for a flight of craft beer and pizza at Port Alberni’s Twin City Brewing Company. If you go the other direction, Tofino and Ucluelet are not far.
A little rain never hurt anyone, though you should be prepared for it on any Pacific Northwest hike. Along with my rain pants and jacket, I packed a change of clothing, Tasty Bite Kung Pao, oatmeal, and trail mix to eat (along with a couple of cold ones to celebrate with at the hut!), bear spray (this is black bear and cougar country), my ultralight high-back camp chair (since I had all that extra pack room from not having to bring a tent and mattress), a sleeping bag and biodegradable wet wipes. I also packed dishes and a camp stove, which weren’t really needed. You could easily do this hike with a smaller backpack and minimal gear, which would make ascending and descending much easier.
Hut hikes like the 5040 Peak are a real luxury in the backpacking world. While sleeping in a tent is exhilarating, not having to pack wet gear or worry at 3 a.m. about whether you slipped your hiking boots under the vestibule is nice too. For a true wet coast experience, the 5040 Peak Hut hike is a must!