Recently included on the New York Times’ 52 places to see in 2015, the new Sea to Sky Gondola located in the Squamish province of British Columbia offers unique access to some of Canada’s most spectacular mountain scenery.
The old logging town of Squamish is nicknamed the ‘Outdoor Recreational Capital of Canada’ and was once a pit stop for skiers heading to Whistler. The area has been inaccessible to most people until recently, but now the epic $22-million Sea to Sky Gondola links visitors to a unique recreational summer and winter mountain playground located between Vancouver and the Whistler Blackcomb Ski Resort that lies another 58 kilometres north.
Leaving Vancouver, I drove an hour north along the jaw-dropping Route 99 (aka the ‘Sea to Sky Highway’), which led me along winding roads with mountainsides that dropped into the shimmering Howe Sound—this route is known to be one of the most spectacular drives in North America.
The area is host to many sites worth visiting, including the Howe Sound fjord, the Stawamus Chief (which attracts world-class climbers), the beautiful high coastal alpine mountains, Shannon Falls (a 10-minute walk from the base of the Gondola), and the Britannia Mine Museum (once the largest copper mine in the British Empire).
I joined hikers, climbers and sightseers inside the custom-made Gondola that can hold up to eight people per cabin, with easy access for wheelchairs and baby strollers, and comfortable well-padded seats. It had large floor-to-ceiling windows that gave us optimum views over the Squamish Chief climbing area and the tumbling water of Shannon Falls.
Entering A Path Less Travelled
So far, around half a million people have made the steep ascent into the wilderness. They then stay in the area to explore beautiful glacial lakes, forests and British Columbia’s sweeping, wild west coast.
I soaked up the spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and coastal forest as the 12-minute Gondola ride (not ideal for vertigo sufferers) carried me from sea level up the face of Mount Habrich until we reached the summit at 885 metres.
During the summer months, the Gondola opens up a world of fantastic hiking and climbing areas, while some people might prefer a ride to the top to dine at the Summit Restaurant or have sunset drinks at the Edge Bar to take in the local entertainment.
At the top, a self-service restaurant and cafe serve dishes made from locally sourced produce, while the high-altitude bar sells local beers, including Sky Pilot, made by the local Howe Sound Brewing Company.
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Outside, there’s a large wooden deck where people can unpack their own food, at tables provided for picnickers, and dine al fresco in the presence of regal craggy mountains and the occasional eagle flying overhead.
Anchored to the Summit Lodge is the 110-metre-long Sky Pilot Suspension Bridge that connects to a grassy knoll. I stepped onto the cable and wood bridge that draws the attention of excited children as they sway above a deep ravine. We were soon encompassed in a fine mist rising from the depths below.
I set off from the deck of the Summit Lodge along well-marked trails and through thick forest, which led to viewing platforms. Other trails included the Panoramic Trail: a 1.6-kilometre loop hike that winds through tall fir and cedar woods with wild Alaskan blueberry bushes and past granite outcroppings, leading into deep backcountry terrain. All trails have been designed to enable you to take in the breathtaking views of the Howe Sound and surrounding ranges.
I followed the Spirit Trail: a 400-metre long loop that starts at the Sky Pilot Suspension Bridge and takes hikers on a cultural journey, stretching back thousands of years, with signs telling the history of the Squamish First Nation: the ancestral owners of this magnificent land. I ended up at the Spirit viewing deck overlooking the Howe Sound, Goat Ridge and Sky Pilot Mountain.
During the winter season, the Gondola offers endless ski touring options, with 1,100 metres of vertical terrain and four alpine bowls for experienced skiers to explore. However, the terrain is not patrolled by anyone from the Gondola company. You are out there on your own and must be well-equipped for skiing in the Canadian backcountry, where conditions can change rapidly.
You must provide your own proper equipment, wear transceivers, carry probes and a shovel (and know how to use them), and have off-piste mountain knowledge. You are also responsible for reading the Exclusion of Liability and Assumption of Risk policies on the back of your ticket.
The Gondola offers a gateway to a number of different backcountry areas, with easy access to Goat Ridge, Mount Habrich, upper Shannon Creek watershed and Sky Pilot Mountain, all of which offer amazing skiing terrain.
However, this area is not for beginners or inexperienced ski tourers. The terrain is large and complex in nature, and with lots of steeps alpine bowls, first-growth forests and extreme couloirs.
The Sea to Sky Gondola company is offering a few new features for the 2015/2016 season including a children’s natural play area, a Summer Solstice Celebration, winemakers’ dinners, a Friday Sunset Music Series and winter fondue nights.
The Gondola is open year-round and passes and maps are downloadable online or can be purchased or collected in person at the Gondola station.
Tips for hiking:
- Never hike alone.
- Be prepared. Mountain weather changes suddenly so carry extra clothing.
- Observe all closures.
- Stay on marked trails to avoid damage to the alpine ecosystem.
- Steep slopes, snow and ice fields are very dangerous. You may encounter various hazards such as cliffs, glaciers, crevasses, rock falls and avalanches.
- Treat all wildlife with caution. Do not feed or approach bears!
- Carry water, food, sunscreen and a watch.
- Make note of the last gondola ride down; it is a long walk if you miss it.
- Fires and camping are not allowed.
Tips for ski touring:
- Dress appropriately.
- Always bring a partner.
- Always carry an avalanche transceiver and know how to use it.
- Always bring a shovel.
- Always carry an avalanche probe.
- Be aware of the difficulty of the terrain and your maximum ability.
- Have knowledge of what to do if you find yourself or someone else in an avalanche.
- Be aware of the snowpack layers.
- Know the recent snowfall.
- Know the current weather conditions (temperature, snowfall, and visibility).
- Always check local avalanche conditions before going.
Visit your local Flight Centre store or call 131 600 for more advice and the latest deals on travelling to Canada.