Bottom line: Goat Ridge like -or better- scenery with less than half an effort. By huge margin best of all back-country hiking trails from upper Gondola terminal.
Edit: Detail Report. Adding more detail as this is first of a kind on CT
Skyline Ridge rises between Goat Ridge to the south and Sky Pilot Valley/Al's Habrich Ridge to the north. Before gondola it was quite a task to get here, and likely visited only by few. Now it is becoming very accessible and will see much more traffic- quite deservedly so. Here is view as seen from Goat Ridge
- Skyline alpine area showcased at top of report is in lower center.
The only drawback I can find on this otherwise wonderful destination is initial logging road trudge. About 6.5km with 300m elevation gain - takes about 1 1/2 hrs of rather uneventful walk. 20-30 minutes along Backcountry Access Road (former Shannon FSR) to Sky Pilot Valley junction. Turn right (Purple Trail Marker #1
is here) and descend to Shannon Creek. Solid bridge right now, but looks like it could be swept during high spring runoffs. Then walk back level for another 15 minutes to junction with Shannon Basin Loop - go straight. Still on logging road, but finally some elevation gain. Circles lower part of Skyline Ridge to east side, then switchbacks to logged clearcut. Possible confusion here that will likely be improved by Gondola. Second logging road comes in, but it is not initially clear where to go. Turn right and in few meters watch for steep path on the left side; Skyline Marker is here. Pics from this part (descriptions inside):
Brushed trail now meanders across clear-cut, but soon rejoins logging road. This is also current (July 2014) end of marked trail. Nice little nub affords great views west to Howe Sound as well as north towards Al's Habrich Ridge; Diamond Head pokes behind:
For a second I was afraid this might be the end as Gondola website claims how Skyline trail is "work in progress". But no - well brushed and wide trail continues on. Initially in traverses south for 10 minutes without gaining much elevation, then turns east and dips into the forest. Few orange flags (blue in upper ridge) tell me this was probably some old less-known trail Gondola now cleared. Bit of elevation gain through old growth, then very pleasant meandering leads to first set of lakes - some 20-30minutes past the clearcut. Trip here really begins to pay off.
For next half an hour trail rises gently through open forest between benches - each dotted with very scenic ponds. It is really wonderful area, very much like Goat Ridge "Lake District" - when trail from Petgill Lake first emerges to sub-alpine. I knew already I would lose last gondola ride down, even if there was plenty of time. This was simply too good to be rushed on so kept hiking with camera around my neck; there was something new and wonderful to take picture off behind each corner! Steeper rise now in open terrain with profusion of wild-flowers, with first views of Sky Pilot group finally leads to expansive meadows where trail finally peters out:
Takes about 2 1/2 - 3 hours from Gondola to this point. Advertised return time is 6-8 hours, so it is agreeable turnaround point. However, little nub directly above just begs to be climbed. There is no trail, but you don't need one - just head up anywhere you fancy. There is bit of talus and very minor bluffs to navigate around. Just make mental note of where you left the trail in meadows to be able to pick it up on return. Upon topping out, it became obvious I made the right call for not turning around as best part yet was lying directly ahead:
There is much room for further exploration here. Best turnaround spot is probably largest lake in center of meadows (pic above). It would also be outstanding overnight spot. East end of Goat Ridge also connects up to here; it was very inviting to climb up for better views. Instead I continued towards the Sky-Pilot, but after awhile terrain becomes a bit more bushy and bluffy. It is still easy travel, and I had my lunch directly under Co-pilot studying the way up. I can not vouch for it as I haven't tried it, but it appears entirely feasible to scramble this way, then traverse on north side and perhaps reconnect with standard Sky Pilot trail above Stadium glacier. This would be an awesome loop (and something ecarter has in mind if I am not mistaken). Pictures from this section:
Going back was very slow as I wanted to maximize my time in such scenery. I was not looking forward to yet another descent down Sea-to-Summit, but this was the price I gladly paid. As I was trudging down logging road I realized I could short-cut via Shannon Basin loop trail; this saved quite a bit of time. Was down to Hwy99 around 9pm. My day came to ~30km, 1200 vertical up and almost 2000 vertical down; needless to say my body hates me today ("Why can't you just walk up half an hour to some lake, read a book and take pictures"). Map of my journey, with Sea-to-Summit descent cut off:
Finally, now that I've explored to great extent all back-country hiking trails advertised on Gondola website, I'll say this: Large part is (understandably) walk on deactivated logging roads. For instance, Upper Shannon Basin loop which under summer conditions can appeal only to trail-runners.
Sky Pilot Valley
is also logging road walk in its entirety and really interesting only as Sky Pilot approach. Al's Habrich Ridge
is most rugged and has only 15 minutes of logging road walk - but doesn't really even touch the alpine (It seems current thinking is that trail will end at Neverland Lake, way lower from ridge shoulder). Sea-to-Summit ("Stawamus Grind
") is classic, but does not touch this wonderful alpine waiting above. However Skyline Ridge is something entirely different. This is alpine at its prime and rivals some of the best I've seen in the Rockies. Hopefully it can stay as pristine as it is right now.