By Sue Kernaghan, HelloBC.com
Skirting a glacial fjord before climbing into the Coast Mountains, the Sea-to-Sky Highway, a ribbon of road between Vancouver and Whistler, is one of the world’s great road trips.
You can drive the route, also known as British Columbia Highway 99, in less than two hours, but why rush it?
All along the way are long ocean views, jagged peaks, thick forests, evocative historic sites and some of the best outdoor adventure options on the planet.
And that’s just for starters. The new Sea to Sky Gondola, opened in May just south of Squamish, can whisk you high into the alpine to see this landscape from a whole new angle.
The gondola (actually 20 eight-passenger cable cars) soars 885 metres (almost 3,000 feet) from sea level up onto the slopes of Mount Habrich, offering sweeping views of Howe Sound, Stawamus Chief, Shannon Falls and the surrounding peaks.
At the top, viewing options include the Chief Overlook, a deck which cantilevers over a sheer drop (gulp), and the Sky Pilot Suspension Bridge, a 100 metre-long (328-foot-long) walkway stretched high above the fjord. It’s OK. You can look down.
You can also explore 30 kilometres (19 miles) of hiking trails, ranging from stroller-friendly walks to backcountry treks, learn about the local Stawamus First Nation’s heritage along the interpretive Spirit Trail or just soak up the views over lunch at the Summit Lodge. While you’re up there, watch for climbers on neighbouring rock faces and windsurfers in the fjord below.
The Sea to Sky Gondola is a good fit for Squamish, offering relatively low-impact access to high-altitude backcountry in an area already known as an outdoor adventure playground.
About half way along the Sea-to-Sky Highway, tucked between Howe Sound and the Coast Mountains and surrounded by eight provincial parks, Squamish has claimed the title “Outdoor Recreation Capital of Canada.”
And with good reason: it’s not just that you can rock climb, raft, windsurf, hike, bike, scuba dive, fish and golf here, it’s that, in Squamish and all along the Sea-to-Sky Corridor, you can do most of these things at a world-class level.
Rock climbers, for example, speak in hushed tones about the Stawamus Chief. One of North America’s largest granite monoliths, the Chief looms 700 metres (2,300 feet) above the town and attracts climbers from around the globe. Local experts at Canada West Mountain School and Altus Mountain Guides know all about the Chief — and the 1,500 or so other climbing routes in the area.
Not climbing? A hiking trail up the back of the Chief achieves the same views, if less glory. Alternatively, you can settle in over a microbrew at the Howe Sound Inn & Brewing Company and watch the climbers from there.
With so many parks in the area hiking trails abound, from easy walks leading to pretty cascades at Shannon Falls and Brandywine Falls, to multi-day wilderness treks among the glaciers, extinct volcanoes and wildflower meadows of Garibaldi Provincial Park. Mountain bikers are spoilt for choice too; more than 150 routes in the area include the Garibaldi Highlands Trails, a network of forest tracks near Alice Lake Provincial Park.
Even golf has its own alpine spin in Sea-to-Sky Country. At Furry Creek Golf and Country Club, the fairways are carved through mountain and forest, complete with a signature 14th hole set on a peninsula jutting into the sound.
Sea-to-Sky Country is also a fabulous place to get wet. At Squamish Spit, for example, where the Squamish River flows into Howe Sound, the wind patterns are legendary among elite windsurfers and kiteboarders. If you want to give it a try, Squamish Kiteboarding School can get you started.
Scuba divers flock here too, to explore the man-made reefs and sunken ships at Porteau Cove. In addition, the shoreline is a great spot for ocean kayaking, while anglers can choose from saltwater fishing in Howe Sound or fly-fishing in surrounding rivers and lakes.
And did someone say rafting? The rivers along the Sea-to-Sky Corridor foam with whitewater. Several area outfitters, including the Squamish-based Sunwolf Rafting, can take you on a thrill ride down the raging Elaho or a scenic family float along the Cheakamus. One of Sunwolf’s cosy riverside cabins makes a great base, whatever your adventure of choice is.
It’s not all about the outdoors here, though. The Sea-to-Sky Corridor, home to Coast Salish people for thousands of years, is rich in history. Watch for seven Cultural Journey kiosks along the way (there are two additional kiosks in Whistler); each offers insights into the area’s dramatic geography and the mythology of the local Squamish and Lil’wat peoples. The kiosks, designed to look like traditional woven hats, are a part of the Cultural Journey Project by the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre, a must-see museum and gallery in Whistler.
More recent history comes alive at the Britannia Mine Museum, a National Historic Site south of Squamish. Here, you can step back in time to learn what life was like when Britannia was a mining town — a bustling community that was home to one of the British Empire’s top producing copper mines. Now 110 years later, the non-profit Museum features fun, family-friendly, modern and historical exhibits, the awe-inspiring 20-storey Mill building, an underground train and even a gold panning area.
And don’t miss the West Coast Railway Heritage Park in Squamish. This ode to trains is home to more than 60 pieces of historic rolling stock, including a lavish 1890 first class business car and the legendary Royal Hudson, a steam engine that once puffed its way along the sound from Vancouver to Squamish.
It might all be too much for one trip. If you can’t decide what to do, pull into the Squamish Adventure Centre, a striking cedar and glass building at the entrance to town. It’s both a community gathering place and a visitor centre, where you can book activities, buy event tickets, rent bikes and paddleboards, pick up trail maps or kick back at the on-site café.
The folks at the Adventure Centre have the scoop on local festivals, too. Some of the bigger ones include the Squamish Days Loggers Sports Festival, where lumberjacks compete in bucking, chopping, birling and axe-throwing; this event, set for July 31 – August 4, is one of the largest, and oldest, of its kind. The Squamish Mountain Festival celebrates all things alpine July 16 – 20, while several thousand lucky ticket holders will be heading up the highway to catch Arcade Fire, Bruno Mars, Eminem and more at the Squamish Valley Music Festival, August 8 – 10. And birders? Each January they flock to the Brackendale Winter Eagle Festival & Count, a month-long celebration that welcomes raptors to nearby Brackendale, one of the world’s biggest eagle gathering sites.
Whenever you go, you’re assured of stunning views, historic sites, great cultural events and pretty much every kind of outdoor adventure going. The secret to it all? Take your time.
The Sea-to-Sky Highway runs from Vancouver to just north of Whistler. Squamish is about an hour north of downtown Vancouver, and about 45 minutes south of Whistler. If you don’t feel like driving, not to worry — Landsea Tours’ Sea to Sky Tour takes in Horseshoe Bay, Shannon Falls, the Britannia Mine Museum and the Sea to Sky Gondola.
For more on British Columbia’s destinations and travel information, visit HelloBC.com.
SnowOnline Editor: Lori Knowles