There are few highways in Canada as controversial as the Sea to Sky highway (99). Nicknamed the Ski-and-Die for the many people who have died while driving on it to ski in Whistler, it was the subject of intense protest when it was expanded for the 2010 Winter Olympics because of the environmental impact it was going to have on the area’s forests. The protests became so intense that police had to remove demonstrators, including Harriet Nahanee, a respected S?wx?wú7mesh elder, who reportedly ended up dying from health complications relating to her imprisonment.
Few, however, debate the beauty of Sea to Sky country. The 409 km journey hugs the Pacific coastline around Vancouver, serving up spectacular views of Howe Sound, a series of fjords that stretch inland from the Pacific, before pulling away from the water and up into the semi-arid Coast mountains.
As the massive Western Red Cedars of the coastal temperate rainforest around Vancouver give way to hardy mountain evergreen trees at the end of the road around Lillooet, the climatic change from sea to sky in this part of BC is remarkable. One indicator is rainfall—North Vancouver’s average annual rainfall is 1500mm compared to Lillooet’s much drier climate that averages 400mm. Here are a few select stops to make along the way.
Squamish—Canada’s outdoor adventure capital
Most people fly through Squamish on their way north to the ski town Whistler, missing out on Canada’s outdoor adventure capital. Squamish means “Mother of the Wind” in the local First Nation Skwxwú7mesh language, attracting kite surfers and wind surfers from afar to rip through the waters of the Howe Sound.
Despite its gift of wind, Squamish is best known for the Stawamus Chief, an imposing 700m mountain that overlooks the 99 with a steep rock face best known for its many rock climbing routes and surrounding bouldering sites. Whether you’re a climber or hiker, the Chief has a route for you. The main hiking trail will take an hour or so to get to the top and offers such magnificent views of Howe Sound that people come back time and again to repeat the hike. The parking lot is right off the highway, which services the hiking trail and some of the area’s climbing routes. For an added sight, take a side trail leading just south of the Chief to Shannon Falls, the third-highest waterfall in the province.
From late-November to March, Brackendale, on Squamish’s northern edge, is home to one of the world’s greatest concentrations of Bald Eagles who spend their winters preying on easy meals of dead salmon exhausted from their run up the Squamish River. Though there are other sites in the province where eagles are abundant, Brackendale’s viewpoint is superb because it’s easily accessible. Walk along the viewpoint, hike along the rugged Squamish River or kick back with a drink in hand at the well-located restaurant. Peak viewing is from mid-December to mid-January. Exit just north of Squamish at Mamquam Road and head north on Government Road to the viewing area—Eagle Run Park.
Britannia Mine Museum
If history is more your thing, just off the highway at Britannia Beach is the Britannia Mine Museum. Learn about the fascinating history of this former mining town and gain a better understanding of how mining works and the minerals themselves through interactive displays. You can also go underground for a feel of what it was like to mine Britannia’s dark tunnels. You’ll come away with a different perspective of mining and an appreciation for the difficult job.
photo courtesy keepitsurreal (CC BY-SA 2.0)