Driving the Sea to Sky Highway

Big Attractions, Hidden Gems

Getting there is half the fun — or perhaps more than half. That is certainly true of the drive up the Sea to Sky Highway from Vancouver to Whistler, which ranks consistently as one of the world’s most scenic drives. The drive from West Vancouver northward to Whistler on Highway 99 takes about 90 minutes without stopping, but if you give yourself extra time, there is plenty to see along the way — from quick stopping points to two- and three-hour hikes. While there are well-known places and destinations — the Sea to Sky Gondola and Stawamus Chief in Squamish being just two — there are also quite a few hidden gems. Here are some tips for getting the most out of the journey.

Horseshoe Bay Village, part of West Vancouver, is a quaint setting next to B.C. Ferries’ massive Horseshoe Bay ferry terminal, complete with shops, restaurants and a waterfront park. If you visit, gaze into the trees hanging out over the water to see if you can spot the nesting great blue herons. Porteau Cove Provincial Park is a beautiful place to stop, dip your toes into the chilly waters of Howe Sound and take in the views of Anvil Island and the mountains that surround the fjord.  As you approach Squamish, one of the Sea to Sky Corridor’s many breathtaking waterfalls is just a short walk from a parking area just off Highway 99. Shannon Falls Provincial Park is the site of British Columbia’s third-highest waterfall — 335 metres (1,099 feet) high. If the weather is warm, especially early in the summer, the falls will be howling with snow melt from the winter’s snowpack.

Those with time and energy can access two popular hikes nearby: the Sea to Summit Trail to the top station of the Sea to Sky Gondola or the climb to one or more of the three peaks of the famed granite monolith (and rock climbing mecca) known as the Stawamus Chief. In both cases, hiking boots or sturdy shoes are advisable, as portions of the trails are rocky. The 7.5-kilometre Sea to Summit trail tops out at the Sea to Sky Gondola’s Summit Lodge with its spectacular views and other attractions. If you prefer not to hike down, you can pay for a download ticket (less than a full ticket) and enjoy the gondola ride down. Cool off by taking a summertime dip in the lake at Alice Lake Provincial Park which is also a perfect place for a picnic lunch, at the north end of Squamish. For more information on what to do and see in Squamish, stop by the Squamish Adventure Centre, visit exploresquamish.com or see related article on page 100.

Brohm Lake, four kilometres north of Alice Lake, is another lovely swimming spot — though you will have to sunbathe mostly on the rocks that surround the lake, as there is no beach. Be advised that the small B.C. Forest Service parking area fills up fast on warm summer days, but Alice Lake is a good alternative. Note that parking is illegal anywhere on Highway 99, except in case of emergency. The Tantalus Overlook, which affords spectacular views of the upper Squamish Valley and Tantalus Range, is just a turn off the highway 10 kilometres north of Squamish. If you are headed north, though, be alert for the viewpoint turnoff that heads uphill to the right. The viewpoint on the left side requires a dangerous (and illegal) left turn off the highway and is meant for southbound travellers only. The view from the northbound viewpoint is equally breathtaking.

As you head north, Highway 99 crosses a bridge (known to locals as the Big Orange Bridge, or BOB) and ascends into a rocky corridor that makes up part of the Cheakamus River Canyon. Just after passing through a high rock cut, you will notice a part of the canyon, with the river far below, on your left. Northbound drivers pass B.C. Hydro’s Daisy Lake Dam and power station, and not long after that, they reach Brandywine Falls Provincial Park. The park has washrooms and ample parking for those wishing to make the easy 10-minute walk to the viewing platform for the impressive southward views of Daisy Lake and powerful falls on Brandywine Creek, which plunges 70 metres (230 feet) in a single drop.

Slightly off the beaten track is Alexander Falls, which is well worth a visit. Make the left-hand turn up the Callaghan Valley Road (toward Whistler Olympic Park, venue for the Nordic events during the 2010 Winter Olympics). Watch for wildlife, as bears are often spotted near the road. Eight kilometres up the road is a left-hand turnoff with a small brown B.C. Forest Service recreation area sign. Just down the gravel, 150-metre access road, you can park and walk to the viewpoint for the majestic, three-tiered, 43-metre (141-foot) cascade on Madeley Creek.

In addition to the many terrific attractions of Whistler, one more hidden gem awaits those who visit the resort: the Ancient Cedars Trail. A popular, family-oriented hike with locals, the trails’ parking, wayfinding and interpretive signage and trail infrastructure were upgraded in 2013 through a team effort involving the Resort Municipality of Whistler, Whistler Blackcomb, the Whistler Rotary Club and others. From Highway 99, take a left-hand turn up Cougar Mountain Road at the north end of Green Lake. You will need a vehicle with decent clearance (any truck or sport utility vehicle is fine) to make it confidently up the 4.5 km of gravel road to reach the trailhead. Watch for recreational vehicle traffic, as the road is also the access point for one of Whistler’s adventure tour operators. The five-kilometre hike takes about two hours, ascending into a stunning grove of 900-plus-year-old red cedars representative of the old-growth forests that blanketed southwestern B.C. before the arrival of industrial-scale logging. Several red cedars in the grove are more than three metres (10 feet) in diameter, and some Douglas firs are estimated to be more than 650 years old. Before you go, check with the Whistler Visitor Information Centre to ensure that the trail is free of snow.
For more information on what to do and see in Whistler, visit whistler.com.

Happy travelling!

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