Story By Amity Moore Joyce. Illustration By James McInvale.
The scenic best of British Columbia comes together on this road trip between Vancouver and Whistler.
Just a few miles into the drive and it’s easy to see why locals and visitors alike beeline for BC Highway 99, better known as the Sea to Sky Highway. Almost immediately upon leaving Vancouver, the scenic beauty begins, with vast Howe Sound on the left and the coastal temperate rainforest seemingly riding shotgun.
You could simply drive the two (traffic-dependent) hours to Squamish and on to Whistler for a summary of the gorgeous journey. Or, you could turn the two hours into two days, maybe more, to delve into what’s hidden in the forest, what else rises among the mountains and what can be found near the water’s edge.
Brave the Bridge
The awesome views never end. Additionally, the year-round route offers manmade attractions that seamlessly intermingle with the natural ones. Before leaving Vancouver, for example, stop at Capilano Suspension Bridge Park in North Vancouver. A modern, steel-cable suspension bridge hangs where the original hemp rope-and-cedar plank footbridge first spanned the canyon in 1889. Walk the 450 feet across and dare to look 230 feet down to the Capilano River. The park’s newest attraction, Cliffwalk, is a series of narrow, suspended cantilever walkways jutting out from granite cliffs and winding through the rainforest.
Pull over again outside West Vancouver at Whytecliff Park, an easy detour off Highway 99 with walking trails, swimming and views of the Strait of Georgia. From the park’s rocky shores, you might spy any of the more than 200 marine animal species that live in the park — one of Canada’s first marine protected areas.
For the next 20 miles, the highway curves around tall cliffs, its two to four lanes sandwiched between the water and the land. In recognition of the region’s First Nations, the road signs are in both Squamish and English. To learn more about the indigenous people, look for Cultural Journey interpretive kiosks, designed in the shape of woven cedar-bark hats. The first one is near Horseshoe Bay.
By now, mountains pierce the horizon, adding another photo-worthy element to the picturesque scene unfolding beyond the windshield. The area feels wild, despite the developed road and pockets of civilization off its exits. It has long attracted fortune seekers and explorers. And fortunes certainly were made as a stop at Britannia Beach, site of the Britannia Mine Museum, a National Historic site, attests. Get acquainted with what was once the largest copper producer in the British Empire by browsing exhibits or boarding a mining train and chugging into a tunnel to experience the same darkness early miners faced. Boom!, a multi-sensory attraction, teaches about the site’s original innerworkings by recreating its sights, sounds and smells.
Outdoor recreation, notably hiking, skiing and mountain biking, defines British Columbia, and the Sea to Sky Highway leads to them all.
Hike to the base of Shannon Falls just outside of Squamish, or if you’re not up for the easy adventure, see the falls at a distance from the parking lot of the Sea to Sky Gondola. The third-highest waterfall in the province drops more than 1,000 feet from the lip of Sky Pilot Mountain.
Until recently when vandals cut a main cable, one of the best ways to get an overview of the area and easily access the mountains was to ride the Sea to Sky Gondola. From the top, you can hike trails, absorb long views
of Howe Sound, or observe climbers on the granite backside of Stawamus Chief, aka “The Chief.” When snow falls, the gondola carries snowshoers seeking winter solitude and experienced skiers and snowboarders aiming for backcountry bowls. The gondola is expected to be operating again by Spring 2020.
Squamish itself, known as Canada’s outdoor recreation capital, provides an excellent basecamp, complete with local breweries and restaurants. In these places, share stories and plan what to do next. Mountain biking, perhaps? More than 600 fat-tire trails snake through forests seeded with towering western red cedar, western hemlock and Sitka spruce. Garibaldi Provincial Park, located northeast of Squamish, offers several trails for riding or hiking. Here, pink and white heather grows in summer against a memorable Mount Garibaldi backdrop.
Whistler is close, but one more place deserves unbuckling your seatbelt and exploring on foot. From the parking lot of Brandywine Falls Provincial Park, walk a quarter of a mile along a path, shaded by conifers, to an overlook of Brandywine Falls. The cascade plummets more than 200 feet and splashes into a crater in the canyon below. Caught in the right light, the mist creates a rainbow just above the pool. To extend this excursion, follow the trail a little farther to a view of Daisy Lake.
If you didn’t try mountain biking or didn’t get enough in Squamish, Whistler offers another opportunity to pedal. Mountain bikers claim the ski runs when there’s no snow. But, if there’s snow, the pedestrian-only Whistler Village and its mountains transform into a skier’s and snowboarder’s wonderland. In all seasons, the Peak 2 Peak Gondola accesses trails on Whistler and Blackcomb mountains, enabling you to conclude your Sea to Sky road trip truly in the sky.
Add an epic British Columbia road trip to your “to go” list this year. Your AAA Travel Agent can help! Call 800-750-5386 for more information.
(Traveler — Winter 2020)