The Sea to Sky Highway
Depending on who you ask, the section of BC Highway 99, known as the “Sea to Sky Highway” may actually start at the Northern foot of the Lions Gate Bridge, in West Vancouver. This is where the old commuter trains of days-gone-by would pick up passengers heading up the coast. Even the famous old steamer “The Royal Hudson” ran this route from June 1974 until sometime in 2001.
I believe that most people nowadays would agree, however, that the “Sea to Sky Highway” truly begins at the Western most tip of the “Upper Levels Highway”, in the quaint little seaside village of Horseshoe Bay.
Starting at sea level in Horseshoe Bay this spectacular highway eventually climbs to 670 meters near Whistler Blackcomb village. From start to finish you will no doubt encounter something special with each twist and turn of this amazing stretch of scenic blacktop.
Following in the footsteps of the CN Rail Line, the entire 134 kilometers could easily be done in about two hours. It is my strong opinion that just driving this stretch of smooth twists and turns without stopping to see and participate in some of the many points of interest, would be robbing yourself of some incredible views and a whole lot of fun.
For sheer natural beauty and scenic vistas, it’s true that you really don’t have to get off the new improved highway at all. With the truly spectacular fiords of Howe Sounds on the West and the majestic mountains and forests on the East, there is already plenty of natural scenery to hold ones eye. I am, however, very sure you’ll be glad you took the time to stop and “smell the roses” as it were.
Starting with the “world famous” fish and chips at Trolls Restaurant in Horseshoe Bay to the world class skiing destination of Whistler Blackcomb and beyond, there is perhaps more to see and do on this 150 kilometer stretch of road than any other in the world. This may sound like a lofty statement, but whether you are interested in five star dining and hotels, world class skiing and snowboarding, golfing, hiking, backpacking, fishing, mountain biking or just sitting back and relaxing while soaking in nature, you will be very pleased, over and over again!
There is truly so much to offer a tourist heading North on the highway that I couldn’t possibly list everything and every town in this blog. I will give you a pretty good overview, but I highly recommend researching all this strip has to offer before setting out on your journey. I wouldn’t want you to miss anything.
Starting in Horseshoe Bay, this is a cozy little village tucked in neatly beside the BC Ferry Terminal. On another excursion you could head North to the Sunshine Coast, or West to Nanaimo and Vancouver Island. There is even a small walk-on ferry to Bowen Island for a nice day trip or a bike ride… you can do this and still make it back in time for a fish-n-chips dinner.
Lions Bay is the first community you’ll encounter as you head North on the highway. It’s a picturesque little town built right on the side of the mountain. It has great views of Howe Sound and some of the outlying islands.
A little further North on the highway is Porteau Cove Provincial Park where you can scuba dive or snorkel amongst the old ship hulls that have been placed there over the years or just jump into the blue ocean for a refreshing dip. You can stay here in an RV, a tent or you can rent a cabin on the ocean front or just visit the picnic area for lunch. There is also a boat launch if you are the boating or fishing type.
Continuing along the highway golf enthusiasts will want to stop at Furry Creek Golf Course. This is the first of many golf courses you will encounter on your journey. This 18 hole marvel is built right along the edge of the sea.
Britannia Beach and Britannia Historical Museum would be the next stop for history buffs. The 95 year old mine offers guided tours deep into the spooky old mine shafts, as well as all sorts of hands-on displays. There is even gold panning for the kids (or kids-at-heart).
If it’s waterfalls you’re seeking a bit further North is Shannon Falls. Only a ten minute walk from the parking lot and you can view the 3rd highest waterfall in British Columbia. With a drop of over 335 meters, you won’t want to miss this.
The most amazing views on this highway are definitely found at the Sea to Sky Gondola. For the best views of Howe Sound and the surrounding areas, the gondola ride and observation deck at the top offer great photo opportunities as well as just a unique vantage point of the area. Once you take the 10 minute, 850 meter climb, you will be standing 885 meters above Howe Sound! At the top you’ll find a 30 meter suspension bridge!
Moving further North on the highway is The Chief, a world class, sheer face climbing wall that only the truly brave and experienced would attempt to climb. It is however fun just to watch, as men and women hang from ropes while plotting their courses.
If you keep going, you’ll drive into Squamish. Much like Whistler Blackcomb, you could realistically spend an entire weekend in this little town and still not get a chance to try or see everything it has to offer. Tagged as “the Outdoor Recreation Capital of Canada”, Squamish boasts over 500 mountain biking and hiking trails, windsurfing, kayaking, fly fishing, cross country skiing, snow mobiling, camping, swimming and much much more.
For the less adventurous types, there are also art galleries, wonderful B&B’s, great restaurants and nature walks everywhere.
Just a few minutes North of Squamish is Brakendale. You’ll find it is the home to the largest full time bald eagle population on the West Coast. Here you can try a river boat eagle safari during the peak eagle watching season.
If hiking is what you’re looking for, check out Garibaldi Provincial Park. This is a great place to spend the day or the weekend. Known for its two major points of interest, the park offers a spectacular one day trek (4 hours each way). This hike takes you to the breathtaking scene of Garibaldi Lake, nestled below the glacier of the same name. Its pristine, turquoise water serves as a perfect backdrop for your picnic lunch. The lake sits at an elevation of 1450 meters and is a 9 kilometer hike from the Rubble Creek parking lot. From here you can carry on through Taylor Meadow and then begin your climb to the volcanic peak of the towering “Black Tusk”. This black ominous looking rock sits 2319 meters high and will take you another hour or so to reach its peak.
The 360 degree views from the top of Black Tusk are awe inspiring. Be sure to pack your camera as well as a nice pair of walking shoes or hiking boots. If you would like to extend your experience a bit more than how about an overnight stay under the star covered skies of Taylor Meadow? Tenters pick their spots in the meadow and have an absolutely unobstructed view of millions of brightly shining stars. This not only allows you to stay longer at the lake and the peak of the mountain, but where else close to a major city could you find this kind of scenery both day and night?
If you continue along the highway you’ll now enter the world class destination of Whistler Blackcomb. Known for it’s skiing and snowboarding in the winter to it’s seemingly endless list of summer activities, including professional calibre golf courses, mountain biking, zip lining, bungee jumping, horseback riding, kayaking, 4x4ing, heli-skiing and so much more.
Whistler Blackcomb is also home to the world’s largest unsupported lift span which connects the two mountains. At a length of 3.24 kilometers long and an elevation of 436 meters high, you can experience the breathtaking Peak to Peak gondola ride which runs between the top of Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains. On a clear day, it truly seems like you can see forever.
If you’re not so much of an outdoor enthusiast or you just feel the need to pamper yourself, then this is also the place for you. Whistler offers world class health spas, the most famous of which is the Scandinave Spa Blue Mountain. Sitting on multiple acres of forested property, this spa offers more ways to spoil and treat yourself than anywhere else in the province. Along with a long list of 5 star accommodations and dining, not to mention all the night life including pubs, bistros and night clubs, Whistler is “the” vacation spot any time of the year.
There are many many more things to see and do along the Sea to Sky Highway, so much so that I strongly recommend looking into it before you come, because I truly wouldn’t want you to miss any of it.
Whether you are driving a Ferrari, a VW Microbus or on one of our tours, whether you’re a downhill thrill seeker or a nature loving hiker, whether you’re camping, glamping or 5 star hoteling, the Sea to Sky Highway should be on everyone’s bucket list.