An aerial sightseeing ride near Vancouver, B.C., gets everyone high up into the mountains for a taste of wilderness.
If you’re afraid of heights, don’t come near this place.
But if you want to swoop thousands of feet up a mountain, get spectacular views, walk on gentle high-country trails — and learn a bit about the area’s native peoples — then take a ride on the Sea to Sky Gondola near Vancouver, B.C.
The gondola, a ski-lift-type aerial ride, takes sightseers surging up massive granite cliffs to a mountain ridge near the small town of Squamish, halfway between Vancouver and Whistler.
Make it a side trip from Vancouver. Or turn it into an all-day outing with stops at nearby Shannon Falls, a 1,100-foot waterfall, and the Britannia Mine Museum, once the biggest copper mine in the British Empire.
Zipping up the mountain
Squamish is tucked away at the top of Howe Sound, a Norway-like fjord that pierces British Columbia’s rugged Coast Mountains. The town used to live off logging and pulp mills, and most people sped past it on the way to Whistler, the mega ski resort 36 miles up the road.
But Squamish is gentrifying, with outdoors enthusiasts (and refugees from Whistler’s sky-high housing prices) moving in and brew pubs sprouting.
Getting to the Sea to Sky Gondola is a pleasure. It’s a beautiful 37-mile drive from Vancouver, with Highway 99 (the Sea to Sky Highway) clinging to the mountainsides that plunge into sparkling Howe Sound.
The gondola whisks up riders in little metal cabins that dangle from a cable. Each big-windowed cabin holds up to eight passengers.
It takes only 12 minutes to go from the sea-level base to the top of the gondola at about 3,000 feet, with dizzying views all the way.
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This Sea to Sky ride makes it easy for almost anybody to get up into the high country, far from roads, and get a taste of the mountain wilderness.
On my early spring visit, I rode up with a two-stroller family. The excited toddler pressed his nose to the window; the baby chortled as we swooped upward. In the cabin ahead was a man in a wheelchair.
We all rolled off or walked off into the Summit Lodge, a stylishly woodsy building with all the tourist necessities: coffee bar, cafeteria-style restaurant, souvenir shop and restrooms.
I made a beeline for the lodge’s big wood deck, full of picnic tables, for a cup of coffee in the unusually warm spring sunshine. And I drank in views that stretched thousands of feet down to Howe Sound — and up to craggy, cloud-spackled peaks.
Families made a beeline for the Sky Pilot Suspension Bridge that takes off from the lodge. Tweens shrieked in glee as they scampered across the swaying, 360-foot-long wood-and-cable pedestrian bridge that connects the lodge to a rocky knoll, with mist roiling up from the plunging ravine below.
Several short and mostly flat walking trails start near the lodge, looping through thick forest and to lookout platforms.
The ¼-mile Spirit Trail loop is dotted with signs telling the history of the Squamish First Nation, an Indian group whose ancestral lands include the area.
The mile-long Panorama Trail winds through tall firs and cedars to a dramatic viewing platform cantilevered off a cliff with a 360-degree view. It’s like standing on the bow of a ship that’s sailing through the sky.
Hardier hikers can use the gondola for quick access to miles of backcountry trails that climb deeper and higher into the mountains. Or they can hike up from the gondola base for a vertical workout — and reward themselves with cold beer at the Summit Lodge.
In winter, backcountry skiers and snowshoers take to the trails.
Construction of the gondola sparked some environmental controversy since it sits amid Shannon Falls and The Chief, a 2,000-foot granite monolith that draws world-class climbers. Both areas are within provincial parks.
But the Squamish First Nation was among those supporting the gondola, which opened in mid 2014 and has helped put Squamish on the tourism map.
Tickets: Gondola ride for adults costs Cdn. $34.95 (about $27.25). Discounts for seniors, teens and children; those under age 5 free. Hours: Open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (last ride down at 6 p.m.) in April; closed April 27-30 for maintenance. Summer hours begin May 1, 10 a.m. to 6-p.m. daily (last ride down at 7 p.m.). Open Fridays and Saturdays starting May 15 until 8 p.m. (last ride down 9 p.m.). More info: seatoskygondola.com
Just down the road from the gondola is Shannon Falls, a don’t-miss natural roadside attraction. There’s free parking at Shannon Falls Provincial Park, and it’s an easy 10-minute walk on a woodland trail to the waterfall’s base. Look up — and up. Shannon Falls is about 1,100 feet tall, a prodigious skein of water that pours off cliff faces.
Visitors can also walk from Shannon Falls to the Sea to Sky Gondola parking area; it takes about 10 minutes on a flat trail paralleling the highway.
Adjacent to Highway 99 near Squamish and the Sea to Sky Gondola.env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks
Britannia Mine Museum
For something completely different, go underground at the nearby Britannia Mine Museum.
The mine, about 8.5 miles south of the Sea to Sky Gondola, is now a Canadian national historic site. Forty-five minute guided tours take visitors into a rough-hewed mine tunnel and a soaring, 20-story mill building where giant machinery processed and extracted copper ore.
Donning hard hats, tour-goers ride on a clanking, open-sided mine train that winds through dank, dark tunnels. Everyone piles off to see (and hear) old-fashioned rock drills that early miners used.
Britannia Mine opened in the early 1900s and at times employed 2,000 miners before closing in 1974.
As well as the guided tour, visitors can wander on their own through restored mine buildings and exhibits and pan for gold at special troughs.
If you go: Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily with first-come, first-served tours hourly on weekends, fewer on weekdays. britanniaminemuseum.ca
More info: Tourism Squamish, tourismsquamish.com