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Swan Lake Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary

Located in the middle of the City of Saanich on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada, Swan Lake Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary protects valuable habitats and rare Canadian ecosystems. Swan Lake Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary is home to just one named mountain, Christmas Hill (110 m/361 ft).

Swan Lake Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary, British Columbia

Geography

Swan Lake Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary is located within the city of Saanich, which is part of the Greater Victoria Area. Victoria is the capital of British Columbia, Canada and is located at the southwest end of Vancouver Island, on the Saanich Peninsula.

The nature sanctuary is divided up into two sections: Swan Lake and Christmas Hill. Swan Lake is a shallow 9.4 ha (23 acre) lake that’s surrounded 43.4 ha (107 acres) of nature sanctuary. A trail follows the perimeter of the lake and includes a boardwalk as well as a floating walkway over the lake. The lake is connected to the top of Christmas Hill via a 1.7 km (1 mi) trail.

Christmas Hill covers 14.5 ha (36 acres) of terrain and the summit is about 98 m (322 m) above the surface level of Swan Lake. Christmas Hill is notable because it is one of the few hilltops in the area with a Garry oak ecosystem that doesn’t have direct road access.

Geology

The Saanich Peninsula is mostly composed of rocks that formed between 200 and 170 million years ago as part of a volcanic island arc that eventually became the Wrangell terrane, or Wrangellia. Around Christmas Hill and Swan Lake, the rocks are part of the West Coast Plutonic suite of Wrangellia.

The underlying rocks of the region are gabbroic and quartz dioritic gneisses with rafts of older metavolcanic and metasedimentary rocks. Having formed in the Pacific Ocean, the Wrangell terrane slowly moved toward North America. This movement continued until about 115 million years ago when the Farallon plate began to subduct beneath North America.

As the oceanic plate slid beneath the continent, the island arc was too large to subduct. Subsequently, it was welded, or accreted, to the edge of North America through the force of the collision. This collision later led to the development of volcanic activity that solidified the connection of the new terrane.

The current topography of Swan Lake and Christmas Hill were largely created during the Pleistocene, when massive glaciers covered most of North America. The historic changes in land levels, sea levels, and the local movement of ice sheets during this time is documented by the current terrain of the nature sanctuary.

Christmas Hill’s current shape was created by at least four glacial periods over the past million years. Showing the typical shape of an ice-scoured hilltop, the local glacial ice moved south, flowing from the taller mountains of the Vancouver Island Ranges and the interior of the island. The glacial ice gently pushed up the northern slope of the mountain and plucked rock from the south slope.

The typical profile of Christmas Hill is of a smooth northern slope with a southern slope that drops abruptly in broken steps. Shallow, wide grooves are obvious within the bedrock of the north slope, which serve as evidence of loose rocks being slowly pushed south. Such sites are visible at the lookout and upon the summit of Christmas Hill.

The glacial maximums of the Pleistocene caused many interesting changes to Swan Lake due to the amount of ice that was covering the island and the continent. At the most recent glacial maximum, so much of the world’s water was locked up as ice that the sea level was about 100 m (330 ft) lower than it is today.

However, the weight of the glaciers pushed Vancouver Island down about 167 m (550 ft) below its present elevation. It was about 13,000 years ago that the ice began to melt in earnest, and in a short period of time, the glaciers receded significantly, releasing water back to the oceans.

At this time, the oceans were about 91 m (300 ft) below their present level; however, the island was still depressed about 167 m (550 ft). This means that, at the time, Swan Lake was under about 64 m (210 ft) of sea water and Christmas Hill was an island that stood about 33 m (100 ft) above the sea.

As the glaciers melted, massive amounts of finely ground rock dust, or “rock flour” was washed off the land and deposited into the ocean. On a local level, the blue-gray marine clay filled the Swan Lake basin with upwards of 15 (50 ft) of this silt, which currently sits under a layer of peat. The clay layer is filled with well preserved marine fossils from this period.

About 8,000 years ago, the bedrock finally rebounded to near current levels, after the melting of the glaciers. As the ocean receded, the basin which was originally scoured out of the bedrock was once again filled with fresh water to create the lake that we see today.

Swan Lake Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary, British Columbia

Ecology

The ecology of the Swan Lake Christmas Hill can be divided between the lakeside ecosystems and the ecosystem upon the hill. The ecosystems around Swan Lake include the wetlands, rocky outcrops with Garry oak and arbutus and a small Douglas fir and grand fir forest.

The wetlands in the region are dominated by willows, red osier dogwood, black cottonwood, and hardhack. Reed canary grass was introduced during the agricultural period of the lake as a feed grass that can withstand winter flooding. The grass persists today around the lake because of its tenacious qualities.

There are a variety of small mammals that inhabit the lakeside and wetlands of the park, such as black-tailed deer, river otters, minks, muskrats, and raccoons. The lake is inhabited by the western painted turtle and the red-eared slider. Meanwhile, American bullfrogs are an invasive species found in the lake, and there are also several species of snake, and lizard.

The nature sanctuary is a prime location for bird watchers year-round as over 200 species are regularly seen around the lake. The fall and spring migrations bring in the largest variety of birds for any given day; however, there are resident populations that can be viewed from around the lake for most of the year. The area around the Nature House is also an ideal location for bird watching, with its commanding view of a variety of habitats.

Christmas Hill supports one of the few remaining areas with an intact Garry oak ecosystem, which is the most endangered ecosystem in Canada. With near exclusive restriction to the Gulf Islands and the southeast coast of Vancouver Island, less than 5 percent of the original Garry oak ecosystem remains in the country.

The pressure of European Canadian settlers converting the land for agriculture and settlement has reduced the Garry oak ecosystem to near extinction. The Garry oak ecosystems are home to more than 90 species that are designated as at risk in British Columbia, approximately 23 of which are threatened or endangered globally.

The namesake tree of the Garry oak ecosystem is a prominent species upon Christmas Hill, as are arbutus trees, both of which rely on a unique soil chemistry to thrive. The hill is inhabited by over 250 plant species and over 25 distinct plant communities.

The spring and summer in the sanctuary bring forth carpets of wildflowers that consist of camas lilies, easter lilies, shooting stars, and chocolate lilies. The yellow montane violet is a small, endangered plant that is protected upon Christmas Hill. Additionally, a small seasonal pond on the hill is home to several unique plant communities that include many of the endangered species found within the park.

Swan Lake Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary, British Columbia

Human History

About 9,000 years ago, after the glacial ice had sufficiently receded, different groups of humans migrated to the west coast of Canada. The fluctuating sea levels, and the warm, wet climate of the area have made it generally difficult to ascertain a cohesive regional history; however, it is quite certain that the Saanich Peninsula was inhabited by at least around 4,150 years ago.

Swan Lake and Christmas Hill are part of the traditional territory of the Songhees Nation of the lək̓ʷəŋən people. The archeological and historical evidence shows that Swan Lake was an important gathering place for the Songhees. Arrowheads and spear tips have been found in abundance in the area and the area contains many of the plants that were traditionally harvested and gathered by Coast Salish peoples.

Among the hundreds of plants that were known to the Songhees for food, medicine, tools, shelter, and ceremony, many were found growing around Swan Lake. Important food plants include the camas lily, western crabapple, wild onion, chocolate lily bulbs, Oregon grape, and salmonberry, among others.

Cattails and rushes were harvested from the shore to weave baskets, mats, clothing, and shelter. Additionally, through trolling, jigging, spearing, and the placement of basket traps, the ancestors of today’s Songhees caught salmon, rainbow trout, steelhead, trout, and perch.

The First Nations of the peninsula traditionally lived their lives according to the seasons. Whether it was fishing season or bird catching season or the season for hunting deer, their activities were focused on what they would need to do to prepare for the future.

European settlement of Vancouver Island began in the early nineteenth century. By the 1850s, the Kosampson, who were the ancestors of today’s Somghees and Esquimalt First Nations, had signed a treaty and agreement with the Hudson Bay Company to sell their rights to much of the Saanich Peninsula, including the areas surrounding Swan Lake and Christmas Hill.

Over the subsequent 150 years, the land around the lake and hill was used as a sheep farm, dairy farms, vineyards, and fruit orchards. Additionally, the Swan Lake Hotel was constructed on the shores of the lake, and it provided a banquet hall for parties, with fishing and sailing in the summer and ice skating in the winter.

Unfortunately, the hotel burned down the first time in 1894, but it was quickly rebuilt. However, while the owner of the hotel was away in 1897 prospecting for gold in the Klondike, the hotel burned down again. This time, it was never rebuilt.

During the industrialization and settlement of the peninsula, large amounts of organic waste were dumped around the lake. The process was referred to a “rampaging cultural eutrophication,” which means that the commercial and agricultural activities were filling the pond with too much waste, changing the conditions of the lake from a clear, cold, lake, to a warm slough that couldn’t support its normal collection of flora and fauna.

With the introduction of proper sewage and waste treatment, the lake began to recover. Subsequently, in 1975, the Swan Lake Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary Society was incorporated. It was established with a mandate to return the area to its natural state and to help educate the public regarding the area and the region’s environment.

Many groups had already been working toward the preservation of the region for over a decade by the time the society was incorporated and they continued their work. Walkways, boardwalks, and a nature house were constructed to enhance visitor enjoyment and education.

Local conservation groups continue to tend to the sanctuary’s native plant garden. They also offer educational activities in the sanctuary.

Best Hikes in Swan Lake Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary

Swan Lake and Christmas Hill are beautiful natural areas in the center of the Greater Victoria area.

Whether you’re looking for a short walk, a strenuous climb, opportunities for wildlife and bird viewing, or education about the local flora, the nature sanctuary is a great place to visit. The following are some of the major trails and attractions of the Swan Lake Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary.

Swan Lake Trail

The Swan Lake Trail is an easy trail that leads around the perimeter of Swan Lake. The 2.5 km (1.5 mi) trail is relatively flat, and features a boardwalk that extends into the lake, and a 250 m (820 ft) floating walkway across part of the lake.

This hike follows an undulating trail past willows, Douglas fir, and other majestic trees. You’ll likely spy many of the inhabitant birds which may include ducks, swans, or herons.

The Native Plant Garden

The Native Plant Garden is located next to the Nature House, and it features a variety of native wildflowers, shrubs, trees, and ferns.

Some of the many plants found in the garden include Easter lilies, camas lilies, shooting stars, and trilliums, all of which bloom during the spring and summer. This garden is a wonderful example of utilizing local and native vegetation to create beautiful and sustainable gardens that encourage good interactions between local flora and fauna.

Christmas Hill Trail

The main trail that leads from the Nature House alongside Swan Lake to the summit of Christmas Hill is about 1.5 km (1 mi) long and ascends about 97 m (318 ft) from the shore of the lake to the summit.

There is also a loop trail around the hill that takes you to the summit as well as the Swan Lake Viewpoint. This trail is about 2.5 km (1.5 mi) long, and it features an incredible trail with the path and steps made from laid stone.

Part of the trail is named “Byron’s Trail” in memory of the man who helped to create the trail by positioning hundreds of its large stone steps. The trails pass through the incredible Garry oak ecosystem upon the hill and, with a little effort, you may see some of the many rare and endangered plant species and communities that are protected because of this park.

Nearby Cities and Communities

Located in the middle of Saanich, Swan Lake Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary was a local effort that benefits the city and the surrounding region. The following are the major cities that are located near the nature sanctuary:

Victoria

Victoria is the capital of British Columbia. It is situated on the southern end of the Saanich Peninsula of Vancouver Island and is very close to both Saanich and the Swan Lake Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary.

Victoria, British Columbia

A walk through Victoria will evoke images of its colonial past, with the remarkable architecture and the manicured colonial gardens that were built during that period.

While not the oldest European-established settlement on the island, Victoria contains some of the grandest examples of colonial architecture on the island. This includes the beautiful historic Provincial Legislature building and the grand Empress Hotel, both of which were constructed at the turn of the twentieth century.

The architecture of Victoria is stunning; however, it is also located near some incredible wilderness and oceanside attractions. When in Victoria, the beautiful and historical Butchart Gardens are worth visiting, as are the nearby Gowlland Tod and Goldstream Provincial Parks, where you can find incredible views of the ocean as well as beautiful rivers and stunning waterfalls.

Sidney

Located on the north end of the Saanich Peninsula, Sidney is a short drive up the highway from Swan Lake Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary. The city is a major transportation hub on the island, as it is home to the Vitoria Airport as well as Swartz Bay, where the ferries come in from the surrounding region.

However, despite the massive volume of people that regularly pass through Sidney, the city has maintained an incredible small town feel. Perhaps the feeling comes from the friendliness of the locals as you visit one of the many bookstores or coffee shops located along the main street near the harbor.

It may be the conversations that are easy to start up with the locals crabbing or fishing off the pier which brings the small town comfort. Or, perhaps, the small town feeling comes from how people will line up to visit the bakery in the morning to have one of their delicious pastries or an island favorite, the Nanaimo bar.

Sidney, British Columbia

Regardless of why Sidney feels good, it just does. It is a pleasant city to visit and hopefully you’ll find yourself breathing a little easier and relaxing during your visit.

Some of the best places to visit from Sidney are the provincial parks in the Gulf Islands, such as Mount Maxwell and Burgoyne Bay Provincial Park on Salt Spring Island. Alternatively, you may want to visit Galiano, Pender, or one of the many sites that are part of the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve.

Langford and the Highlands

Langford and the Highlands is such an incredible community on the island. With all the amenities of a large city, you can walk out the door in Langford and almost immediately find a wilderness trail to hike.

While Langford is located less than 12 km (7 mi) away from Swan Lake Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary, there are literally over 100 unique trails and dozens of peaks to summit within 10 km (6 mi) of the city.

For example, Gowlland Tod Provincial Park, Goldstream Provincial Park, Thetis Lake Regional Park, Mount Work Regional Park, Sooke Hills Wilderness Regional Park, and Mount Wells Regional Park are situated only minutes from the city.

Additionally, located a little further away from the community are the incredible wilderness areas of Sooke Mountain Provincial Park, Sooke Potholes Provincial and Regional Parks, Sea to Sea Regional Park, Old Baldy Mountain Park, and East Sooke Regional Park. 

Victoria, British Columbia

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