B.C.-savvy Kristin Jackson offers a checklist of worthwhile stops on the road to Whistler.
Years ago, the road to Whistler was a white-knuckle drive. The narrow two-lane road clung to cliffs, squeezed around blind corners and dropped off sheerly to the sea. And that was just the first half of the 85-mile route from Vancouver, B.C., to the Whistler ski resort. The second part, from Squamish to Whistler, was a paved version of a logging road, twisting and clambering through tangled forests and mountains.
Fast forward: Highway 99, also called the Sea to Sky Highway, now is an easy and gloriously scenic drive, thanks to hundreds of millions of dollars in improvements. It was blasted straighter and wider — with many four-lane sections — in time for the 2010 Winter Olympics that were held in Whistler and Vancouver. What hasn’t changed along the road are the jaw-dropping views of craggy peaks, Howe Sound inlet and forest wilderness.
You could zip from Vancouver to Whistler in 90 minutes. But why? Instead, stop along the highway to savor the views, see waterfalls, take a walk or explore a mining museum. And don’t miss the roadside kiosks and cultural center in Whistler that showcase the native peoples for whom the region has been home for thousands of years; even road signs are now in aboriginal languages as well as English.
Whether you’re going for spring skiing (until late May) or planning a summer getaway with mountain biking, golf and zip lines, take along this guide to roadside stops from Horseshoe Bay, the southern starting point of the Sea to Sky Highway, to Whistler.
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First Nations kiosks
Get some culture along with scenery by stopping at some of the seven kiosks in pullouts along the highway. They tell of the mythology and everyday life of two native groups, the Squamish and Lil’wat First Nations. Each kiosk has illustrated panels on tribal history and mythology tucked under a distinctive roof shaped like a traditional woven cedar-bark hat. The cultural drive culminates in Whistler at the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre, a don’t-miss small museum. See www.slcc.ca for details on the highway kiosks and museum.
Want to stretch your legs? Porteau Cove Provincial Park, just off the highway, gives views of the shimmering waters and fjordlike Howe Sound where, say Squamish myths, the fearsome two-headed serpent Say-noth-ka roamed.
Stroll the waterfront or picnic in the 123-acre park. Watch scuba divers head out to explore two sunken ships just offshore. More information: www.env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks/explore/parkpgs/porteau/
Looming beside the highway is the historic mill building, part of what was a very productive (and polluting) copper mine that operated from the early 1900s into the 1970s. The 20-story-tall mill is part of the recently renovated Britannia Mine Museum, with interactive exhibits, gold-panning and a ride through a mining tunnel, with visitors donning hard hats to go deep underground in an open-sided mine train. More information: www.bcmuseumofmining.org
Not just another roadside attraction … this don’t-miss waterfall tumbles almost 1,000 feet down massive cliffs. Once privately owned with its water used for making beer, the waterfall now is protected within Shannon Falls Provincial Park.
The waterfall can be seen from the highway. But park your car and take an easy 10-minute walk through the thick forest of hemlock, fir and cedar to the base of the falls where water thunders into a pool, misting the air. See www.env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks/explore/parkpgs/shannon/
From the comfort of your car you can spot rock climbers toiling up the sheer 2,300-foot face of Stawamus Chief, a world-class climbing destination just off the highway. Or park in a viewing area at the base of the massive granite monolith for a closer look.(The hardy could hike a steep trail up the back of Stawamus Chief for dizzying views from the top.)
True confessions: I don’t often stop in Squamish, preferring the natural attractions along the Sea to Sky Highway. But the town, which boomed in the run-up to the Winter Olympics with new condos, hotels and even a Walmart, offers restaurants and pubs.
The adjoining community of Brackendale calls itself the “world eagle capital,” thanks to the hundreds of bald eagles that gather in early winter to pluck salmon from the Squamish River; a land-viewing area and river-float tours help visitors see the eagles. Squamish information: www.tourismsquamish.com
If you stop at only one of the First Nations kiosks along the highway, make it the Tantalus viewpoint (for driving safety, stop there when heading south from Whistler since it’s on the other side of the highway). Perched at about 1,000 feet, the viewpoint looks across a deep valley to the jagged peaks of the rugged Tantalus range. Learn about Squamish history and leaders on the kiosk’s panels.
Have a day to spare and love to hike? A trailhead by the highway is the stepping-off point (once the snow melts) for one of my favorite hikes, a 5.5-mile trek to Garibaldi Lake. The 3.5-mile-long alpine lake, within the sprawling wilderness of the 481,000-acre Garabaldi Provincial Park, is ringed by glacier-draped peaks and Black Tusk, the dramatic basalt core of an eroded volcano that thrusts above the landscape like a giant, dark chimney.
In the Squamish language, Black Tusk is called t’ak’t’ak mu’yin tl’a in7in’a’xe7en — “the landing place of the Thunderbird,” a supernatural creature said to have squeezed the rock into a pinnacle shape with its giant talons.
The trail to Garibaldi Lake switchbacks up about 2,600 feet; make it a long day hike, or backpackers can camp by the lake. See www.env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks/explore/parkpgs/garibaldi/
For a short, easy stroll, Brandywine Falls is a 15-minute walk from a parking lot beside the Sea to Sky Highway. The 200-foot-tall waterfall tumbles through a narrow slot. See www.env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks/explore/parkpgs/brandywine_falls/
Whistler Olympic Park
Before you reach Whistler Village, you pass the Olympic Park. One of the top legacies of the Winter Games, this area — which hosted nordic skiing, ski-jumping and the biathlon competitions — now is open to the public with more than 90 kilometers of trails groomed for cross-country skiing (both classic and skate) winding through the forest or through open meadows with big-mountain views. There’s a stylish timber and glass day lodge, including a cafe.
Whistler Olympic Park is 10 miles south of Whistler and about five miles off the highway (up the Callaghan Valley Road). Entry free for skiers is $15 (weekdays) or $20 (weekends) per person. See www.whistlerolympicpark.com
Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre
On the edge of Whistler Village’s fancy hotels and condos, this museum/cultural center celebrates the Squamish and Lil’wat First Nations, who have lived in the region around Whistler for thousands of years.
It’s a beautifully designed, compact museum with a 15-minute film on the First Nations; galleries of aboriginal artifacts, including a hand-hewn canoe and ceremonial masks; and contemporary artwork (see www.slcc.ca).
One of its real treasures is the staff, young aboriginal people who seem genuinely pleased to talk to visitors, talking of their history and customs.
In the museum cafe, a chef strolled over to my table to check if I liked my meal (I did), explaining how they smoked their locally caught sockeye (used in the cafe’s excellent chowders and salads) and make bannock, a traditional fry bread that he’d flavored with sage and cheese. A young employee took me into a peak-roofed wood building modeled after a Squamish longhouse, and patiently taught me how to weave a cedar-bark bracelet. It’s a souvenir with heart, from an aboriginal heartland.
Kristin Jackson: email@example.com