|Empress Mountain south aspect from Peden Ridge. Photo by dreardon
Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, Canada, is located at the southern tip of Vancouver Island. The city is grouped together with several other municipalities and together the whole conurbation is known by the rather grand title of the Capital Regional District - or CRD - and is home to almost 350,000 people.
The CRD is surrounded on three sides by water and on the fourth by a series of low mountain ranges up to a height of 600m or so. The hills fall into two main areas divided by the Goldstream River watershed. To the east of Goldstream is the Gowlland range plus the lower hills on the east side of the Saanich Peninsula and to the west the Sooke Hills run up to and just beyond the western limits of the town of Sooke.
Empress Mountain from the ridges to the southeast
Most of the forested hills in the CRD are modest, unassuming but fun outings and make great winter training grounds. The standard routes to the many summits are typically short and straightforward and more than adequately covered by the descriptions in the parent area page
. Empress Mountain is the highest and most remote summit in the group and can also be approached by a variety of means. For all of these reasons, I considered it worthy of its own page.
Empress Mountain northwest aspect from Emperor Mountain
Empress Mountain is another of the cadre of mountains on Vancouver Island whose name reflects the history of the island as a Crown Colony. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, even after the Island had become part of the new Province of BC, the predominantly British colonists retained strong ties and unwavering loyalties to the mother country and in particular to the Royal Family of the Saxe-Coburgs (later the Windsors). Thus we have Victoria Peak
, King’s Peak
, Queen’s Peak, Crown Mountain
, Mt George V
, Mt Albert Edward
and Alexandra Peak
(for the wife of King Edward VII (earlier Prince Albert Edward, eldest son of Queen Victoria)).
The “Empress” in question is, of course, Victoria, Empress of India.
Victoria, the capital city of British Columbia, can be reached directly by air from Toronto, Vancouver, Seattle, Calgary, Edmonton and recently from San Francisco and by ferry from Port Angeles on The Coho and on BC Ferries from Vancouver.
There is bus service from downtown Victoria to Sooke that crosses the foot of Harbourview and Sooke River Roads and it might be feasible to use this to access the routes described below. Car rental is available everywhere, of course, and affords flexibility and simplification of logistics in accessing the trailheads.
Empress Mountain can be approached from many start points but I will concentrate on the principal three and the onward routes from there. The actual climb to the summit is brief – probably no more than 15 minutes – but the approaches are long and, sometimes tedious. I will describe the standard routes which are mostly on crumbly old logging roads as well as a much more interesting and testing approach north across the intervening ridges to the southeast.
Directions assume approach from Victoria.
Your aim will be to reach map coordinates (NAD83) N48 27.803 W123 40.313 from where the summit is a steep but brief 15 minute climb away. To do so, choose from among the following options.
Empress Mountain Routes
1.Via Harbourview Road and Crabapple Lake.
Approach from Victoria on Highway 1 and take the Colwood exit on Highway 14 in the direction of Sooke and Port Renfrew.
Exactly 4.2 km after "17 Mile" pub, watch for Harbourview Road on the right. Turn here and drive ~1 km to the new (November 2010) parking lot. This is the first development in the CRD’s new Sea to Sea Regional Park. There is an information sign at the parking area and there will soon be toilets and a mountain bike washing station. Starting altitude is about 60 metres.
Harbourview Road is the main access point to many of the hills that border the Charters River Valley (see the parent area page) and the lakes at the head of the valley and was a logical choice as the main focal point of the new park. It was also illegally abused for many years by off road vehicle drivers and you will see much evidence of their rampant wanderings off both sides of the road in the form of stripped rock and vegetation and even an abandoned vehicle.
|Harbourview Road TH
|Abandoned truck on HV Road
Walk up the road for about 8 km, past the access points for Mt Manuel Quimper, Ragged Mountain and Sooke Mountain, to a prominent junction at N48 27.057 W123 39.024. Keep right here.
Continue north through a very rough section of road 2 km to the remains of Eric Barnard's hut on Crabapple Lake.
Proceed on the same road as it swings west and then south around Crabapple and the hills to its northwest and down to another junction at N48 27.866 W123 40.095 in another 2 km. Turn right here.
Go ahead 300 metres up to a high point in the road at the aiming point of N48 27.803 W123 40.313 and the start of the route to the summit.
2.Via Todd Creek.
Most people would regard this as the standard route up Empress Mountain.
Approach from Victoria on Highway 1 as above and drive past Harbourview Road 2.7 km to Sooke River Road on the right.
At 4.70 km from Highway 14 look for a gated old logging road leading off to the right. It’s marked with a redundant sign “No Motorized Vehicles”. There’s no indication, however, that this is the way to Empress. Park here by the side of the road. Starting altitude is about 50 metres.
Go up the old road and in 5-10 minutes cross the Galloping Goose cycle path. The route now slowly gains 500 metres in altitude over the next 7 km and 2.5 hours as you negotiate what remains of the road. Side trails lead off to the left and right but the main through route is largely unmistakable. There are several phases where the old road bed has washed away completely and the route often lies through slick water polished boulders which may even be under running water in times of heavy rain.
For the first 25-30 minutes the road follows Todd Creek and offers easy going.
At N48 25.880 W123 42.156 you will cross the old flowline and arrive at a prominent trail junction. The route on the right is the historic Harrison Trail built by Claude Harrison to his cabin on Grassie Lake. Your route lies straight ahead.
At 40-45 minutes note the wreck of an old red car on the left above the river and shortly thereafter cross Todd Creek. After heavy rain this might have to be waded.
|Todd Creek route start
|Fording Todd Creek
|Todd Creek "trail"
|Todd Creek route. Critical trail fork
Proceeding north from the creek crossing, two trails lead off to the left – to the south and north ends of Peden Lake respectively - before at about 90 minutes from the start and at 355 metres, a well-flagged trail leads off to the right. This goes SE to the north end of Grassie Lake. Your route lies straight ahead.
At about 120 minutes and 415 metres the route reaches a fork at N48 27.892 W123 40.907. This is the only place where you might go wrong. Look carefully and there is an arrow indicating the correct right fork carved in an alder at the junction.
Head east up the road until, at about 150 minutes from the start and at 585 metres arrive at the high point in the road, the aiming point of N48 27.803 W123 40.313 and the start of the route to the summit.
3.Via the Charters River and Southeast Ridges.
Although recently flagged, a large part of this route involves bush and copious deadfall. Patience and navigational skills should be well to the fore on this one.
The ridges can be used to get quite close to the aiming point of N48 27.803 W123 40.313 and are themselves accessed from an otherwise nondescript waypoint between Sheilds and Grassie Lakes at N48 26.954 W123 40.479. Multiple choices exist in order to arrive at this point.
a)From Charters River pump station
Reach the start point for this option 3.5 km up Sooke River Road from Highway 14 at N48 24.835 W123 42.621. There’s good parking on the road on the south side of the river just before the Waterboard’s pump station.
Walk east and then north on the road for about 5.5 km to Grassie Lake at about 400 metres elevation. A short detour to visit the lake at the site of the old hut there is well worthwhile. Continue north around the west shore of the lake and then east on the old road a total distance of about 1 km to arrive from the west at the start point for the ridges route.
|Charters R route TH
|Todd/Harrison trail junction image coming
|The historic Harrison Trail
b)Via Todd Creek/Harrison Trail
Start off on the route described under 2. above.
At the Harrison Trail junction at N48 25.880 W123 42.156 turn right onto the historic trail and follow it northeast ~ 3.3 km to Grassie Lake. Turn left onto the trail from the Charters River and follow this to the start point as just described.
c)Via Sheilds Lake
Start off from Harbourview Road as described under 1. above.
At the junction for Crabapple Lake at N48 27.057 W123 39.024 turn left instead of right and walk 3 km west, around the north shore of Sheilds Lake, over the low pass between Sheilds and Grassie Lakes and reach the access point from the east.
By whatever means you reach it, from the ridges access point travel northeast on a flagged route, first up open hillside then up a long gully and out onto open bluffs at about N48 27.152 W123 40.289 with nice views south down to Grassie Lake and the Sooke Basin beyond.
Continue north from the open area and into heavy salal. The high point ahead – known unofficially at “Puzzle Peak” – has no views but a trio of interesting monoliths on its north side. Go right over the top or bypass the high point through the salal on the west.
Descend briefly into a low point below Puzzle Peak and cross a deadfall choked saddle before ascending, again northeast, and out onto open ridge once more.
|The SE ridges from Grassie Lake
|Open bluffs on the SE ridges route
|"Puzzle Peak" on the SE ridges route
|SE ridges from the summit of Empress
Continue 700 metres northeast, across another low point and up to the next ridge. This one is known locally as “Dumbbell Ridge”.
Turn northwest briefly to avoid going over the high point to the east, then navigate due north heading for N48 27.775 W123 39.889 and another open bluff right at the end of the ridge, a distance of about 600 metres. At one point a brief descent to the west is required but is well flagged.
From the end of the ridge there is a great view of the southeast aspect of Empress across the valley and about 700 metres away as the crow flies.
Descend steeply northwest from the end of the ridge - about 100 metres of relief is lost – and find an ancient deadfall choked road. Turn left on the road and after 200 metres of climbing under and over deadfall, arrive at the junction with the road coming in from Crabapple Road at N48 27.866 W123 40.095 as described under 1. above.
Keep left here and walk the 300 metres up the road to the start of the route to the summit.
Having reached N48 27.803 W123 40.313 by whatever route you’ve chosen, walk briefly through the trees and out onto open hillside. Several flagged paths cover the 120 vertical metres to the summit in about 15 minutes. In the unlikely event that you can’t find one, just head NNW until the summit communications tower is in sight and then make a beeline towards it.
|Summit route access point
|Empress Mountain S slopes
|Empress Mtn 1937 survey mark
|Empress Mountain summit
The flat rock summit area is quite large, mostly open and offers superb views over the Sooke Hills in all directions, east to downtown Victoria and south across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the Olympic Mountains of Washington State.
There is also a very old BC Control Survey bolt right on the summit. It looks very much like N.C. Stewart’s 1937 markers that I’ve seen on several of the big mountains in the north of the Island and does in fact date from that year. It was placed, however, by F.C. Swannell.
Beginning in the early years of the 20th century, Swannell was one of British Columbia's most famous surveyors and he contributed greatly to the shape of BC by surveying and mapping large portions of the province. See for instance, "Surveying central British Columbia : a photojournal of Frank Swannell, 1920-28" Royal BC Museum, ©2007, ISBN 9780772657428 0772657424
Return to your vehicle by reversing the chosen route or get creative and arrange a car shuttle to start at one point and finish at another. There is lots of scope for variety on the trip to Empress Mountain.
Red Tape and Safety Considerations
The Sea to Sea Regional Park is currently in its infancy and there are, as yet, no parking fees nor other formalities to worry about.
Although close to a major urban centre, Empress Mountain and most of the other Sooke Hills are well off the beaten path. Make sure, therefore, that you have left a detailed intentions plan with someone responsible. The RCMP and the appropriate SAR agency will respond in an emergency but it is up to you to have the mechanism in place that will initiate the call-out process if it becomes necessary.
There is cellular service available from the summit of Empress Mountain and many of the other high points along the way but not from the valley bottoms nor the lakes.