This site is extremely popular for hiking and nature viewing. Wildflowers are spectacular in July and plenty of butterflies are also seen. Mammals are also abundant with black bears common, especially later in the summer when the blueberries are ripe. A lucky observer may see Mountain Goats on Lady Peak. Hoary Marmots, Cascades Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels, Yellow-pine Chipmunks, Pikas and Black-tailed Deer are also seen. And of course the birding is excellent and offers some species not generally found on the valley floor. The scenery is simply fantastic and a breathtaking view of the valley can be had from the top of Cheam Peak if the air quality is good. Hiking season varies depending on snow levels. On average, one can reach the parking lot by vehicle sometime in June. This is not a road one wants to drive if there is much in the way of snow on it. Snow is often on the trails well into July. Snow begins to fall again typically in early November.
Cheam Ridge Trail begins from the parking lot which lies at 1447 metres in elevation. Your target, Cheam Peak, lies at an elevation of 2112 metres requiring you to climb 665 metres over a distance of 4.5 kilometres to reach it. After surveying your vehicle for damage after driving the rough road up and hefting your pack onto your back, you'll head eastwards along a trail with a mostly gradual incline; a perfect warm up for what's to come. After about a 1 kilometre walk through birdy habitats, all the while being serenaded by Sooty Grouse, Olive-sided Flycatcher and Hermit Thrush, you'll descend down into Spoon Valley. Traversing the valley is about a 500 metre walk where you'll cross a bridge over a small creek and pass Spoon Lake. Flowers are abundant here and the birding is generally good as well. Black Bears love this area and more often then not are seen (usually at a distance) on the northern slope of Spoon Valley grazing on vegetation and blueberries.
From Spoon Lake, the ease of walking ends abruptly, almost even rudely, as it is pretty much entirely uphill from here. After hiking a further 1.5 kilometres, you'll emerge into the saddle between Cheam and Lady Peaks. This short stretch is refreshingly level but disappointingly short. However it is a great place to rest, regroup and poke around for birds and other wildlife.
The final dash is about 1.5 kilometres of trail that is entirely uphill. This stretch is 'ptarmigan territory'. This offers a welcome distraction to your aching legs while you carefully watch the rocks lest one of them turn out to be a well-camouflaged ptarmigan. This last section of the trail is pretty much alpine habitat. Do take care as there are plenty of areas with steep drop offs. Also be considerate of the alpine plants and avoid walking off trail on them as it takes a long time for them to grow and heal after being stepped upon.
Two hours is about the average hiking time for people not stopping to look at wildlife to reach the top. The same person takes about an hour and a half to descend from the peak to the parking lot. Make sure to give yourself plenty of time as hiking in the dark is not fun. If you need further motivation to avoid tardiness, remember the bears! Take plenty of water and wear sunscreen as you are out in the open almost the whole time on this hike. Insects have their moments here, mostly in the first half of the hike, but are generally more than tolerable even without insect repellant. Good footwear is a must. Depending on the season, snow may still be on the trails. Hiking poles can get in the way of holding binoculars and cameras, but are worthwhile encumbrances to help with balance and to share some of the exercise with your arms. Weather can change very quickly even in summer so a light jacket stuffed in your pack may be most welcome.
A good variety of different species have been seen at this site, however seeing anything over 30 species is a very good day up there. Twenty or so species is about average for a day's hike during the summer. Before early June and after September the birds start to become a bit more scarce and a daily total may reach 10 or so species even with some effort put into finding more.
Ptarmigan are naturally one of the most sought after species at this site and both White-tailed and Rock Ptarmigan have been seen with the former being by far the most common and expected of the two. While ptarmigan numbers may not be as abundant as in the past, possibly due to the currently high use of the trail and an unfortunate number of off-leash dogs, they are still found almost exclusively on the last 1.5 kilometre stretch of the trail. August and September are good months to find coveys of them. Ptarmigan tend to be a bit more noisy when hens have chicks to keep in touch with. A theory held by local birders is that a bit of cloud cover helps in bringing more ptarmigan out into the open as they feel safer from the sharp-eyed Golden Eagles and other raptors. If you cannot find ptarmigan on Cheam, a deviation to Lady Peak might be in order (with your legs' permission, of course). Lady Peak tends to be quieter for hikers and dogs. One can reach Lady Peak from the saddle between Cheam and Lady Peak on a narrow but not well-defined trail that is fairly level until you reach the rocks and then have to start climbing. A second option is just down Cheam Trail from the saddle where you will have to go straight up towards Lady Peak. I would go with the former option, but the latter trail is a good return trail to Cheam Trail after exploring Lady Peak.
Grey-crowned Rosy-Finch are almost always encountered on a hike. Breeding does take place here as newly fledged young have been discovered on occasion. Another high-altitude breeder in the area is the American Pipit. Golden Eagles breed in the area as well and are seen regularly. The slate-coloured subspecies of Fox Sparrow have been recorded breeding on occasion along the trail. Listen for their different song from the sooty subspecies of Fox Sparrow that we usually see.
In the late summer and early fall some raptor migratory movement can be observed suggesting that laying down to rest tired legs can turn into some good hawk watching.
The road up to the parking lot also sports plenty of birds. Watch for Ruffed Grouse and Barred Owls among plenty of other bird species.
This hike is a must for a great many reasons. Taking a day to enjoy it will enable one to take in all the views and wildlife to its full extent.
~ By Gord Gadsden, June 19, 2013