Mike Yardley: Sea to Sky Riding in BC

Mike Yardley,
Publish Date
Saturday, 21 October 2017, 3:07p.m.

Venturing over Vancouver’s Lions Gate Bridge is the gateway to the best of British Colombia’s outdoorsy pursuits, where a supporting cast of stellar encounters lie within easy reach of the city. North Vancouver is home to the city’s self-proclaimed peak, Grouse Mountain, an alpine playground with sizzling views over the glittering lights of downtown, topping out at 4100 feet. The Skyride cable car is a multi-use transporter for ski-bunnies and sightseers alike. If you’re visiting in winter, you can join the city-slickers for some after-work skiing, under flood-lit night slopes.

In the warmer months, the zip-line trails sate the appetites of thrill-seekers, in addition to the alpine hiking and mountain bike trails. If you’re visiting between May and November, don’t miss the grizzly bear refuge, when the two balls of ferocious fluff won’t be hibernating.  Grinder and Cooler are the two resident grizzly bears, after being rescued by wildlife officers several years ago. They sure know how to play to the gallery!

Ten minutes from Grouse Mountain, Capilano Suspension Bridge has wooed the world since the 1880s. 230 feet above the floor of the Capilano Canyon, the steel-cable supported bridge swings high above the cedar-scented rainforest and the cascading waters deep below. Spanning 450 feet, traversing the majestic bridge is a fabulous floating-on-air experience. Recent additions to the nature reserve include a tree tops walk that traverses the dense canopy of firs and cedars, and the glass-bottomed cliff walk which is an ultra-edgy wrap-around escapade.

But beyond North Vancouver, I was particularly keen to strike out on the Sea to Sky Highway, which whisks you all the way to Whistler. I joined LandSea Tours & Adventures who operate a superb return day-trip from Vancouver, with an insightful narration and ample time to do your own thing. Previously a crash-plagued narrow highway, it now takes just ninety minutes to reach Whistler, substantially upgraded at the insistence of the IOC, ahead of the Whistler Olympics in 2010.

But you’ll want to take your time on this spell-blindingly picturesque drive, which throngs with scenic vistas and engaging pit-stops all along the route. Soaring mountain ranges punctuate the terrain, flanking glinting Howe Sound, a glacial fiord that hugs much of the highway. The surrounding hillsides are the giveaway to its glacial pedigree, where the rock faces are all so incredibly grooved and smooth as a result of the glacial grinding.

The bewitching cliffside highway strings together a sweep of communities, starting with Horseshoe Bay and Lions Bay. Like the iconic bridge, Lions Bay takes its name from The Lions, a pair of mountain peaks in the vicinity. The section of highway above the homes of Lions Bay has a special rubber surfacing, to soften the noise pollution from the constant traffic flow. How very BC. We stopped at Porteau Cove, fiendishly popular with scuba divers, where scuttled shipwrecks and artificial reefs support hundreds of species of marine life.

Passing through Britannia Beach, which previously boated the British Empire’s biggest copper mine, we were approaching Squamish, when a strikingly gigantic landmark that looked uncannily like the Rock of Gibraltar or El Capitan, shuffled into view. This towering granite monolith, one of the world’s biggest, is the Stawamus Chief. Its vertiginous rock face dominates the view from the highway and I could just make out fearless rock-climbers ascending its 700 metre-high vertical wall, like intrepid ants on a high-stakes mission.

No, I wasn’t inspired to follow their lead – but quite happy to watch on. Right next door is a gorgeous forested scenic reserve, where the easy trails lead you to Shannon Falls. I spotted a peregrine falcon wheeling in the sky, en-route. They frequently nest here. If you soar like a falcon, the Sea to Sky Country would resemble a geological mosaic of natural drama; from volcanic cones and expansive lava flows to sheets of ice and thundering waterfalls. Shannon Falls is theatrically magnificent, a gushing curtain of water plunging lustily, with a 300 metre drop.

North of Squamish is Brackendale, home to one of the highest concentrations of wintering bald eagles in North America. If you’re visiting in early winter, you can ogle thousands of these majestic birds feasting on salmon carcasses from the main “Eagle Run” viewing facility, during the annual Salmon Run. If you’re extra-lucky, you might even spot beers plucking the fish from the riverbank.  This mass-spectacle of fish returning to their birthplace to die is so immense, that salmon DNA has even been detected in Brackendale’s trees.

One of the region’s newest breathtakers is the Sea to Sky Gondola in Squamish, which opened in 2015, zipping up you to a ridge below Mt. Habrich, which serves up panoramic views of Stawamus Chief and Shannon Falls, along the way. You’ll burn through the pixels snapping away at this seraphic slab of BC.

But if gondola gliding is your gig, nothing compares to the high-wire extravaganza of Whistler’s Peak to Peak experience, an engineering tour de force, gently slinging wide-eyed passengers across the mountaintops, from Whistler to Blackcomb. It holds world records for the longest free span between ropeway towers, at 3.03 kilometres, and for boasting the highest point above the ground, at 436 metres.

I was awestruck by the sprawling alpine panorama on the 4.4km-long ride, which also gives you access to endless miles of high altitude forest-and-flower trails and mountaintop dining. Keep an eye out for the black bears, roaming the mountainsides. I spotted three from the gondola.

Whistler’s reputation as a world-class recreation mecca commands year-round pulling power, from the winter wonderland scenes, straight from a Christmas card, to the summer throng of mountainbikers and hikers.  Visiting in late September, Whistler Bike Park was abuzz with thousands of bikers getting their thrills on the riveting network of lift-serviced trails, providing more terrain than any other bike park in North America.

If you’re a newbie, or simply want to settle for a leisurely pedal, rather than a wild ride on the extreme circuits, the Valley Trail offers an easy 14km loop of pleasurable cycling through forest, meadow and lakeside vistas. No protective armour required!  Finally, the ultimate photo stop has to be the Olympic Rings, alongside the winners’ podium, from the 2010 Games. It was the dream of hosting the Olympics that spawned Whistler’s development in 1960, finally reaching fruition fifty years later.

Landsea Tours & Adventures provides year-round premium experiences and excursions, across Vancouver, Victoria, Whistler, and on the Sea to Sky corridor. The highly trained driver/guides offer brilliantly narrated tours, in ultra-comfy mini-coaches, with hotel pick-ups and drop-offs.  Each tour is unique with a la carte adventure options, allowing for a more personalised experience. Private tours and charter services are also available. They’re a trusted choice for dipping deep into British Colombia’s bounty. www.vancouvertours.com

Air New Zealand is increasing capacity on its Vancouver route, moving from seven to eight weekly services during the first half of January, making it easier than ever for Kiwis to escape to the snow, with increased services during the shoulder periods too. With well-timed overnight flight departures, I managed to sleep my way across most of the Pacific. For best fares and seats to suit, head to www.airnewzealand.co.nz

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