Road Trip: The Sea to Sky Highway

One of the most scenic drives in British Columbia is the highway section between West Vancouver and Whistler, known as the Sea to Sky Highway. Previously a dark, intimidating and narrow road clinging to the side of the coastal mountains, the highway was much benefitted as part of the infrastructure improvements that came with hosting the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. The route is about 120 kilometers (75 miles) long and can take anywhere from 2 hours to multiple days to complete, depending upon the stops you choose to make.


Whistler is a center of outdoor recreation activities all year round and the village center tends to attract travellers with larger budgets. If you look a little harder, there are some budget options, with many hotels offering various packages, private rentals, and shared accomodations available. Many travellers to the area travel straight there shortly after arriving in Vancouver, often using a shuttle bus service.


For those wanting to do a self-driving tour, this is the only route to Whistler and although the road is well-built and maintained, it is a mountain highway and is subject to sudden weather changes, especially during the winter. It is mandatory to have winter grade tires from October 01 to March 31. It is strongly recommended that chains and emergency kits are carried.


If you've got a bit more time in the area, it would be a treat to take a slow drive to Whistler. There are beautiful quaint towns, stunning viewpoints, gorgeous parks and trails, waterfalls, and many fun activities along the way. This is a road trip that can take a day or could be stretched over several days. Outside of ski season, campers and hikers will definitely want to take advantage of the longer hikes, which can take all day. Whichever you choose, take your time and enjoy the ride!


1. Horseshoe Bay

The village at Horseshoe Bay is at the southern end of the Sea to Sky Highway. Horseshoe Bay is also where travellers catch ferries to Vancouver Island and other coastal communities. It is a pretty little village with a good selection of restaurants and coffee shops. Home of the famous family-owned Troll's Restaurant with their renowned fish and chips and spectacular service since 1946, this is a good stop for a couple of hours.


Stop for lunch or just coffee, but make sure to wander around the harbour park. This little park is a perfect location for a picnic, ferry watching, photography, or beach-combing. 2. Lion's Bay

The next community north along the road is Lion's Bay. Lion's Bay is a small, picturesque, seaside village along Howe Sound. It is named for the two peaks called The Lions (also known as the Two Sisters by local indigenous peoples) that are said to guard the village.


Near Lion's Bay is a moderate out and back trail known as Tunnel Bluffs. This approximately 11 km (<7 mile) trail includes a lovely river and a stunning view at the top. This hike will take about 4 hours to complete.


3. Porteau Cove Provincial Park

The day use area at Porteau Cove offers grassy picnic sites along the shore. Porteau Cove is very popular with local divers. The waters include a man-made reef and two sunken vessels.

I often stop here for a break and to watch novice divers prepare for and/or return from their first dive.


4. Britannia Mine

The Britannia Mine Museum is a former working copper mine and the employee town that grew up around it. The Mine Museum tour (2 hours) covers the 70 years of operation, complete with many setbacks and disasters. The volunteers offer lively and enthusiastic stories of former employees and their families. It was a favourite student field trip for many classes of my former Social Studies students.

5. Shannon Falls

The Shannon Falls Lookout is a 1.0 kilometer, moderately trafficked loop trail just south of Squamish, good for all skill levels, featuring stunning falls. The dog-friendly trail is primarily used for hiking, walking, and running and is accessible year-round. The trail is very short but winds through old-growth trees to the base of the falls. The trail carries on a little bit further to another, slightly higher elevation viewpoint. This one can get very busy in the summer. I often stopped here when the kids were young: it was a short but active, non-controversial stop. Hiking to the Upper Falls is possible, but it is a very challenging hike and is not generally advised for inexperienced hikers. 6. Sea to Sky Gondola

Take a 10-minute gondola ride up to the summit and marvel at the sweeping views of Howe Sound and surrounding mountains. The price takes this out of the budget travel category but it's not quite a "Splurge". The big gondolas are stroller and wheelchair-accessible, so everyone can enjoy this attraction.


Once at the top, there are several viewing platforms, multiple trails, suspension bridges, and the huge Summit Lodge complete with sit-down dining, an amazing terrace, and a snack shop. The gondola is open year-round with seasonal activities including hiking, snowshoeing, and tubing, Plan to spend at least 2-3 hours exploring the area. This is a must-stop when I take visitors up to Whistler.


7. Stawamus Chief

The "Chief", a huge granite monolith, is one of the region's classic hikes as it towers over the town of Squamish. During the summer months, trails are busy. There are several different hiking options, all of which include significant elevation gains.


The entire Chief Trail to all three peaks is a 6 kilometre (770m gain) looped trail. Most groups will need 4-5 hours to complete. For hikers wanting to visit one peak at a time, the distances and times are a bit shorter lasting between 1.5 and 2.5 hours each.


8. Squamish

Squamish, aka the "Outdoor Recreation Capital of Canada" is located at the northern tip of the island-dotted Howe Sound, and surrounded by mountains. Squamish makes a good stop to gas up and pick up any supplies you'll need, especially if you are self-catering in Whistler. Squamish is home to a vast network of trails for all abilities. Use their excellent website for trail maps and info. My favourite is the Mamquam River trail.


9. Tantalus Lookout

Heading north, there is a worthy pullout with amazing views to stretch your legs and grab some great photos of the stunning scenery.


For those travelling slower and wanting a longer stop, take the side road down to the Brohm Lake Interpretive Forest parking lot. From there, choose one of the trails that circle the lake. The best view is The Tantalus Lookout trail loop, a 5 km intermediate hike. The guidebooks say it will take about 2 hours but that's for folks who don't meander or take a lot of photographs.


10. Garibaldi Lake

This is probably one of my favourite all-day (5-7 hour) hikes. I've done it both as a day trip from home and from backcountry campsites.


This 18 km (820m gain) out and back trail is rated as intermediate, The big draw is the stunning Garibaldi Lake. The trail offers a number of 3 season activity options but is extremely challenging during the winter season.

11. Brandywine Falls

Brandywine Falls is a perfect stop for those travelling through Squamish to Whistler and are just looking for a brief break to stretch their legs. The trail is an easy 30 minute walk to spectacular falls. Dogs are permitted on-leash. The route crosses a covered wooden bridge and continues a short distance past the platform for a view of Daisy Lake. It is very popular and the parking lot can get quite crowded but there is good turn-around rate and you shouldn't have to wait long for a free spot. This really can't be called a hike, it's more of a leisurely stroll but well worth a stop.


12. Train Graveyard

Last but not least is a really unique spot that's a kind of public art gallery, bike playground, and hiking destination. It was also once the location of a horror film. This very popular hike, The "Train Wreck",

used to be off-limits because access to the site involved walking along the railway tracks however the city of Whistler recently built a bridge for safe access (kinda takes away some of the fun when access is allowed). The trail is located at the Interpretive Forest parking off Cheakamus Lake Road on the east side of Highway 99. Don't forget your camera! I hope you'll journey along this incredible stretch of mountain highway and enjoy a stop or two along the way. Whistler is spectacular but the Sea to Sky Highway is the journey that makes the destination even more appreciated. Come discover why our provincial tag line is Beautiful British Columbia.



 

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