Distance: 29.3 km
Time: 2 - 4 days
Elevation Change: 537 m
Topographical Map: 92 I/5
Season: Mar to Oct
Access: Greyhound services Lytton, the nearest community to the Stein Valley trailhead, twice daily. [See Getting to Hope & Lytton. ] As no taxi or other public transportation services exist it will be necessary to arrange for a lift 6.8 km to the trailhead through the Lytton & District Chamber of Commerce. See below for details. If arriving in Lytton without making prior arrangements negotiating with local residents on the main street is also effective and should cost between $10-25 each way. Be sure to arrange for a pick up at the end of your trip as well. Traffic is very limited along the access road so hitchhiking is not a particularly viable alternative. The ferry across the Fraser River, a unique, water-powered craft, does not operate during the heaviest days of spring runoff. If planning to go to the Stein at any time from May through early July check with travel information in Lytton or contact the department of highways to ensure that the ferry is indeed operating.
Assuming you arrived in Lytton on the morning bus you'll likely reach the trailhead in the early afternoon, too early to set up camp. Those arriving later will find excellent camping at the trailhead on Van Winkle Flats. Water is 300 metres down the main trail at Stryen Creek but an outhouse, large fire pit and grassy, open terrain characteristic of the interior dry belt combine to make for an ideal place from which to get an early morning start. As the Stein River itself can be heavily laden with glacial till, topping up with water from clear-running side creeks whenever possible is advisable.
Trailhead to Devil's Staircase: 5.3 km
Just beyond Stryen Creek you'll encounter the first "power spot," a granite outcropping where puberty rituals were once commonplace. Imagine nearly naked young Nlaka'pamux children left here in the dark, in the cold, often alone, filled with fear and awe and hunger until in a waking dream they encountered their personal spirits. The bizarre creatures daubed in scarlet onto the cliff face are the representations of those visions, the spirits which would guide them and fortify them for the rest of their lives. Their transition to adulthood complete, these young native people were free to return to their tribe accompanied by a newfound strength and purpose.
The trail continues over fairly even terrain for the next 5 km before reaching the ominously named Devil's Staircase. The forest cover of the lower canyon is refreshingly different for those used to the lush vegetation of coastal British Columbia. Here ponderous ponderosa pine with striking jigsaw-puzzle bark and lodgepole pine predominate in the arid, rocky terrain. There is little understory vegetation and lichens cling to every surface. The luminous yellow wolf lichen is particularly conspicuous, a warning to hungry ungulates to stay clear. Morels, gigantic shaggy manes and pine mushrooms pop up following the autumn rains. All are easily recognizable and delicious and the latter matsutake in particular are harvested by local natives for shipment to Japan where they may fetch $30 - $100 or more per mushroom in the supermarkets. In late summer and fall look for spawning salmon whenever the trail veers near the river bank. Pink, coho and chinook salmon all fight for spawning sites in the gravel of the Stein River with odd-numbered years seeing the heaviest returns of spawning pinks. By November most will have been reduced to spent carcasses, scant pickings for scavenging ravens, marten and bear. At the foot of the Devil's Staircase a side trail leads to a pleasantly situated campsite. Mount the "stairs" instead and zigzag up to the 400 metre mark where the trail crosses a wide scree slope then descends to the valley bottom again before repeating the manoeuvre up and over rocky talus one more time. While carefully picking your way over these rocky slides note the relatively large, well-formed crystals of mica and quartz. This one kilometre section of trail is by far the most difficult though very few should find it taxing in the extreme. At the foot of the second talus slope a series of pictographs can be found on the cliff faces some 100 metres downstream.
The main route continues upstream through a small cedar grove, winding along the river until the 8.3 km mark where you'll encounter a teepee on the benchland above the river. Innumerable tent sites, a pit toilet and bear-proof food locker juxtaposed against steep cliffs towering overhead on the other side of the river completes the picture. The teepee stands as a monument to the protest rallies throughout the Stein Valley in the late 1980s during the campaign to save the Stein Valley from certain annihilation at the hands of the logging interests. No need to be beguiled by this attractive site however as excellent camping can be found in many places from here to Cable Crossing. Pause a moment at Teaspoon Creek 1.2 km further on to contemplate the so-called "culturally modified trees" that abound in the large cedar grove here. During the dog days of summer the cool darkness here will be most welcome.
Devil's Staircase to Buried Treasure: 5.5 km
Keep an eye open for the glint of buried treasure as you cover the next 1.2 km to Earl's Cabin. Once the home of trapper Fred Earl, the original cabin was abandoned when Earl went off to fight for God and country during World War I. Regrettably, Earl never returned leaving behind rumours of a $12,000 cache of gold which he had reportedly panned from the creek that bears his name. The cabin which occupies the site at present is a reconstruction. The forest hereabouts was opened up considerably during the forest fire of 1994 as Earl's cabin became ground zero in the battle against the blaze. A rough helicopter landing pad and base camp were then hewn from the forest. The understory vegetation has recovered though the scorched bark of larger trees hereabouts should provide a sober reminder to keep fires small when you must keep them at all.
Earl's Cabin to Cable Crossing: 2.4 km
The main trail follows Earl Creek upstream to a small bridge before returning to the banks of the Stein River. The next 1.3 km are easy going, leading to a point where the trail is squeezed between rocky bluffs and the cascading river itself. Though in recent history some sections of the cliff have collapsed, the rest of the face is alive with surreal creatures daubed in haematite-based pigments. Continuing on for another 15 minutes or so you will come to a large forest campsite complete with the usual amenities. The cable car, 13.2 km from the trailhead, is nearby. Another trapper's cabin will be found about 300 metres beyond the campsite on the same side of the river. This cabin was built in 1953 by Adam Klein who began trapping in the area some 28 years earlier after running away from home at the age of 18.
If you prefer a more open setting to camp in, cross the river one at a time on the rickety cable car that dates from 1986 when the Western Canada Wilderness Committee sought to encourage recreation in the area as a way of building support against planned logging. Be sure to unhook the cable car from the landing when finished so other hikers can also cross here. Continue upstream another few minutes along the foot of a field of huge boulders. After spring runoff a large island in the centre of the river makes an ideal site for camping under the stars. To reach the island it may be necessary to get your feet wet crossing a flood channel. Camping here is not recommended during the spring or during periods of high rainfall.
Cable Crossing to Ponderosa Shelter: 7.8 km
From Cable Crossing the dry, arid benchlands give way to the interior Douglas fir zone. Huge cottonwoods, aspen and poplar are common along the river's edge while the underbrush has suddenly become thick, sometimes impenetrable. Due to reduced traffic and abundant vegetation the trail narrows considerably and can be quite overgrown and marshy in the spring. The 7.8 km to Ponderosa Shelter can be undertaken as an out and back day trip with limited gear or, for those with time on their hands, a camping destination in itself. On the way to Ponderosa Shelter you'll cross a number of creeks in quick succession. The first suitable campsite is at Waterfall Creek. Just 400 metres beyond note the beaver pond from which you'll soon climb above the valley bottom. The trail skirts the edge of a succession of "granite gardens" before returning to the flood plains below. Just 20 minutes further on take the left fork of the trail to reach Ponderosa Shelter, an attractive wilderness campsite complete with dilapidated wooden structure.
Most weekend warriors never tread beyond Ponderosa Shelter though the description continues to Cottonwood Creek 8.3 km away through similar, mid-valley, terrain. Returning to the trailhead 21 km away is best done over two days with the bulk of the distance being accomplished on the first day. The remainder can be undertaken prior to making a rendezvous with your prearranged shuttle.
Ponderosa Shelter to Cottonwood Cr: 8.3 km
Those continuing deeper into the valley will encounter the remains of a log lean-to 400 metres beyond Ponderosa Shelter. The next kilometre brings welcomed if brief respite from the marsh and mosquitoes as the forest opens up somewhat before reverting to wetlands once again. Note in passing that many of the red cedars here too bear the marks of fibre harvesting dating to pre-European times. At about the halfway point between Ponderosa Shelter and Cottonwood Creek climb the bluffs for a panorama of the mid-valley. From here swamp gives way to open forest once again all the way to Burnt Cabin Creek where you'll find a rustic campsite. Continuing on to Cottonwood Creek, the trail follows the river through the flood plains once more, passing through stands of ancient cottonwood then over a boulder garden just one kilometre from the campsite. Attractive Cottonwood Falls is just a few minutes upstream from the camp.
The other campsite near Cottonwood Creek has been set aside as a Youth Rediscovery camp, part of a program aimed at putting native youths in touch with their heritage.
One of the back doors on the Stein Valley, Blowdown Pass, can be reached from Cottonwood Creek campsite. Follow the Blowdown Pass Trail for about half an hour to reach a viewpoint well above the valley bottom. Hiking the 33 km through to Duffy Lake Road is certainly possible though such an uphill undertaking is complicated by a complete lack of public transportation alternatives between Pemberton and Lillooet. Hitchhiking remains viable along this paved wilderness highway for the truly determined. Rather than climbing out of the Stein Valley, follow the route in reverse instead, starting high near Duffy Lake and working down from Blowdown Pass to Cottonwood Creek following the Stein to the trailhead at Van Dyke Flats. The alpine scenery is certainly worth the extra hassle involved. This mini-traverse is detailed below.