An Outdoor Adventure Mecca
By David Burke / Images By Joern Rohde
As natural settings go, Squamish offers an abundance of idyllic beauty. Located at the head of a fjord known as Howe Sound, Squamish is where the Sea to Sky Corridor’s rivers converge and empty into the sea. Surrounded by forests and snow-capped mountains including awe-inspiring Mount Garibaldi, its landscape is punctuated by one of the world’s largest granite monoliths, the Stawamus Chief.
Still, until recently, Squamish as a place for adventure and outdoor recreation was a bit of a locals’ secret. That began to change during the 1980s, when the community adopted “Outdoor Recreation Capital of Canada” as a promotional slogan, owing to its growing reputation as a mecca for wind sports enthusiasts, climbers, and mountain bikers. In subsequent years as the forest industry — the community’s main economic driver from the late 19th century until the early 2000s — declined, the number of people coming to Squamish to enjoy its wide variety of outdoor recreation opportunities has increased exponentially. These days, Squamish is regarded as so much more than just a rest stop along Highway 99 between the better-known destinations of Vancouver and Whistler.
Long home to members of the Squamish Nation ( Skwxwú7mesh Úxwumixw), who still inhabit the stunning landscape at the northern end of Howe Sound, Squamish still benefits from both shipping and forestry — the latter on a much smaller scale than in the past. Over the past two decades, it has been one of the fastest-growing communities in Canada, thanks in part to an influx of people from the Vancouver area who recognize its obvious assets as a place to live and work. Upgrades to the Sea to Sky Highway that preceded the 2010 Winter Olympics shortened the commute to the city, and an influx of new employers such as craft breweries and mountain bike-based businesses has increased the local job base.
In 2014 the opening of the Sea to Sky Gondola, which is located south of the town centre along Highway 99, gave Squamish a major tourism draw, allowing visitors to enjoy the stunning scenery from on high while giving adventure-seekers better access to nearby backcountry areas. Unfortunately, an act of vandalism in August 2019 forced the gondola to shut down the lift that had transported guests 885 vertical metres (2,800 feet) to the Summit Lodge and the popular Sky Pilot Suspension Bridge. It is expected to reopen in the spring of 2020. In the meantime, the Basecamp Café, guest services desk and gift shop remain open, as do nearby connector trails to the Stawamus Chief and Shannon Falls. Visit seatoskygondola.com.
Squamish’s West Coast Railway Heritage Park features vintage and restored rail cars and the historic Royal Hudson locomotive. From Nov. 23 to Dec. 15, families can ride on the Polar Express, an hour-long train ride modelled after the popular Christmas movie and complete with hot chocolate, Christmas carols, story time and a visit to the North Pole Workshop and Gingerbread Village. Visit wcra.org.
Eleven kilometres south of Squamish in Britannia Beach, the Britannia Mine Museum offers visitors a chance to pan for gold or take a trip on an underground mine train at what was once the most productive copper mine in the British Empire. The museum’s newest attraction, the multimedia “Boom!” presentation, opened in the summer of 2019, and the museum hosts Christmas-themed events on Dec. 7 and 14. Visit britanniaminemuseum.ca.
Brackendale, the northernmost of Squamish’s neighbourhoods, is known as the winter home of the bald eagle. From late November to March, hundreds (sometimes thousands) of the majestic birds descend on Brackendale to dine on the abundant salmon that spawn in the Cheakamus and Squamish river systems. Book an eagle-viewing float trip or visit the dike across from Brackendale Eagles Provincial Park. There, you can see eagles up close by telescope and chat with the interpretive guides stationed there on busy days to offer information about the eagles’ feeding habits and migration routes.
The number and variety of Squamish-based craft breweries, distilleries, and cider makers continue to grow. In 2019, those businesses joined forces to promote a tour called the Squamish Craft Tasting Trail. Guests can pick up a passport and map at any of the 13 featured businesses or the Squamish Adventure Centre and visit as many as possible (no purchase necessary) for the chance to win prizes.
For more information about all Squamish has to offer, visit the Adventure Centre or exploresquamish.com.