A Journey on Canada’s Most Scenic Byway
The short road trip on British Columbia's Sea to Sky Highway from Vancouver to Whistler packs in a ton of adventure
The dreamy Sea to Sky Highway in British Columbia is a soaring palette of blues and greens. Snaking north from Horseshoe Bay in Vancouver to Whistler, the 75-mile route makes its way along the Pacific, winding through about an hour and a half’s worth of some of the province’s most spectacular coastal views.
“It felt like Canada’s version of Big Sur” but less crowded, says photographer Jessica Sample, who documented her trip along the Sea to Sky in this series. “In the U.S., it just feels like there’s already so many people everywhere, and on Sea to Sky, there was more of a sense of discovery.”
Photo: Established in 1993 as Canada’s first marine protected area, the ocean around Whytecliff Park on Howe Sound is home to nearly 200 marine animal species and an underwater playground for divers. Landlubbers can explore the gravelly beach and three main hiking trails and cross the iconic land bridge to a granite outcropping before heading north to Whistler.
About 45 minutes north of Vancouver, the Britannia Mine Museum houses a 115-year-old slice of British colonial history. The museum lives at what was previously known as Mill No. 3, which, in the early 1900s, was a formidable, 20-story feat of engineering. “The scale of it really surprised me,” Sample says. Active between 1904 and 1974, Britannia Beach was once the largest copper mine in the entire British Empire, with over 60,000 people living and working in the area during part of the mine’s 70-year life.
Here, one of the museum’s guides, “miner Lara,” stands in an old cart track, now used as part of Mill No. 3’s display. Miners once worked at depths of over 2,100 feet below sea level.
About an hour into the drive, and a few miles before the town of Squamish, sits one of the highway’s most popular attractions: the Sea to Sky Gondola. A ten-minute ride to the cable car’s terminus (a round-trip ticket is about $34) offers 360-degree views of B.C.’s famously rugged coastline.
For road-trippers who want to sweat, the Sea-to-Summit Trail is a more formidable path to the same reward. Hikers gain a little more than 3,000 feet of elevation over some 4.5 miles before reaching the summit lodge. To save your knees on the descent, buy a one-way ticket down on the gondola for around $17.
The gondola and the trail are both closed until spring 2020, following an act of vandalism that severed the gondola cable. The Sea to Sky Basecamp and restaurant, at the bottom of the gondola in Squamish, are still open to the public. Pop in for a snack, a souvenir from the Basecamp shop, and a breathtaking view of the surrounding mountains.
The Sky Pilot Suspension Bridge lies at the gondola’s upper terminus. It measures 330 feet long and hangs thousands of feet above the ground. Sample recommends catching the early-morning light for photos.
There are three viewing platforms near the top of the gondola: the Summit Lodge, the Spirit Deck, and this one, the Chief Overlook. All survey Howe Sound, and the Chief Overlook also offers views of Mamquam Valley and 8,711-foot Mount Atwell. After taking in the scenery, Sample recommends heading about 2.5 miles north to Squamish for beer and eats at Howe Sound Brewing Company.
The Brackendale Art Gallery, just north of Squamish, is a local treasure. “I think the highlight was meeting the founder, Thor Froslev,” (seen above) says Sample. “He was beyond amazing.”
The BAG’s complex, multilayered property offers an eccentric mashup of art, food, theater, and workshops. (In September 2019 alone, the gallery had a film opening about fish farms, acoustic jams, album-launch concerts, an art walk, and various community events.) Entry is from noon to 10 P.M. on weekends or by appointment.
On her way back, Sample stopped to see Froslev again, at his home, which is connected to the gallery. There, he had bees, an “amazing vegetable garden,” and cement castings of his friends’ faces on display.
Visitors looking to meet Froslev should hurry—the gallery is for sale, a decision that he and his wife, Dorte, made as a result of his waning health.
Whistler’s village will be your last stop—but it’s by no means the end of the road. Nestled at the base of Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains, the chalet-style town was the site of a handful of 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics events (including skiing, biathlon, and ski jumping), for good reason. In addition to downhill skiing and snowboarding, winter visitors can play in Olympic Park, snowshoe, toboggan, take a snowmobile ride, bungee jump, and more.
Summer visitors can enjoy zip lining, whitewater rafting, heli tours, paddle sports, and, of course, gravel grinding at the world-famous Whistler Mountain Bike Park. The park, which you can access via chairlift, is split into four zones and boasts 5,000 vertical feet of downhill mountain biking. (Get your passes here.)