Travel up the Sea to Sky Corridor and back down the Fraser Canyon for the ultimate hiker’s road trip.
Distracted driving takes on a different meaning along the Sea to Sky Highway. After people-watching my way through Vancouver’s downtown streets, Stanley Park’s 50 shades of green pulls my eyes from the road. Then it’s the water and mountains over the Lion’s Gate Bridge. Before long, the highway tightropes between sea cliffs, turquoise waters and sprawling peaks as I head towards Squamish.
It only gets worse. Glaciers flash, black bears wave and the mountains don’t stop until Lillooet. Then it’s canyons, rivers and big trees all the way back to Vancouver. It’s a loop drive that goes from sea to summit and back. But the roadside attractions have nothing on what lies a short walk away. Right from the highway, hiking trails reach deep into the candy bag and beyond to places that do far more than simply delight the eyes.
Strachan Mountain is a great example. Perched over Vancouver, the trailhead is only 25 minutes from downtown. From the Cypress Mountain ski area I stride purposefully along the Howe Sound Crest Trail, passing backpack-laden overnighters. Soon the trail bursts from the forest into an alpine meadow. Here, I leave the well-trodden path for a faint route, leading straight up. When my quads start to burn, I look over my shoulder and the views of Howe Sound, guarded by green mountains, inspire me higher. Eventually I reach the twin summits and absorb the panorama: Vancouver and the Strait of Georgia below, Vancouver Island to the west and the Coast Range peaks all around. They beg for me to explore further, and so I do.
Over the next few days I wander north along the Sea to Sky Highway, turn northwest onto the Duffey Lake Road and then swinging back into Vancouver on the Trans Canada Highway. Within a few hours walk of this grand loop of the southern Coast Range I can bag a summit, hug a giant tree, touch a glacier, follow a canyon and run through an alpine meadow.
First up is the nearby Stawamus Chief. The famous granite dome’s sheer wall may look insurmountable from Squamish, but a natural staircase leads up its backside to three summits. It’s an entertaining scramble up the occasional ladder to the top where acrophobes should stay back from the edge. The views over the Squamish estuary and valley to the glacier cloaked Tantalus Range and beyond explain why some locals make this hike a weekly mission.
The highway’s “sky” aspect only becomes more pronounced closer to the resort town of Whistler. Brandywine Meadows is the most inspiring destination in the range. The route climbs quickly through forest into an expansive alpine basin that begs for rambling and yodeling. And even I, who prefers solitude to crowds, has no trouble finding ample space on the loop hike to Decker Tarn on Blackcomb Mountain. Whisked to the alpine on chairlifts, the tourists fall away with every step into this airy playground of craggy summits and rugged glaciers.
Back on the Sea to Sky Highway heading north, it’s a winding plunge into the Pemberton Valley. Then a pastoral ramble under the watchful eye of imposing Mount Currie before the steady grind up the Duffey Lake Road into the cradle of mountains. It could be 10 degrees colder at the road’s summit, near the trailhead to Joffre Lakes, the next must-do hike. The attraction here is not just the trio of ponds reflecting nature’s cathedral, but the blue glacial ice clinging to a head wall at trail’s end.
Continuing on the highway, the road itself is adventure enough as it narrows, swoops and carves toward Lillooet on the Fraser River. In the rainshadow of the mountains this is dry and hot country, polar opposite to the lush coast. I reserve the next hike, along the Stein Canyon, for fall when this area has cooled down. In moderate temperatures the trek, following the Stein River as it plunges and rushes toward the confluence with the Fraser, is a gem. The river’s constant presence prevents boredom. And a short way in it passes pictographs and more await further along the trail.
From the Stein, the loop closes quickly: down the Fraser Canyon, past Hope and into the Fraser Valley. There are more mountains to climb here. Bear Mountain near Harrison Lake might be the best, with its expansive views across the Lower Mainland and deep into Cascades across the valley. Or seek out giant trees in Cultus Lake Provincial Park where a couple of trails lead to several massive Douglas fir.
Back on Mount Strachan, I descend beside the ski area towards Hollyburn Mountain, a lump of a peak that’s still worth the detour. And then it’s a beautiful old forest walk back to my car and satisfaction. In less than four hours I’ve been awed and entertained by a morsel of the Coast Range.
Distance: 570 kilometres
Duration: Five days
Resources: vancouvertrails.com; whistlerblackcomb.com; bcparks.ca; Don’t Waste Your Time In The BC Coast Mountains by Craig and Kathy Copeland; 103 Hikes in Southwestern British Columbia by Jack Bryceland.