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A Canadian Road Trip With Views You Won’t Soon Forget

Mix stellar sightseeing with Indigenous culture and outdoor fun on British Columbia’s Sea to Sky Highway

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Jaw-dropping views unfurl along most every mile of the scenic Sea to Sky Highway in British Columbia (B.C.), Canada’s westernmost province. The 73-mile drive (a.k.a. Highway 99) begins at sea level in the Greater Vancouver area near the U.S. border and climbs steadily in elevation to the premier four-season resort of Whistler, site of the skiing and sliding events for the 2010 Winter Olympics and home to Whistler and Blackcomb mountains, both soaring more than 7,000 feet.

The road shadows sometimes sparkling Howe Sound, North America’s southernmost fjord, as it climbs deep within the Coast Range, a belt of densely forested, glacier-covered peaks that begins in Alaska and stretches dramatically south through most of B.C. You’ll be tempted by all the stunning natural beauty, but keep your eyes on the road, it twists and turns.

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​The awesome views alone are reason enough to make the drive, but there’s even more to like. The highway traverses ancestral Indigenous territory, where there are numerous opportunities to learn about the rich cultural history of the Squamish and Lil’wat people who have inhabited this diverse land for many millennia. The region is also an outdoor recreational playground with few equals in North America. Year-round, alpine activities for all levels of fitness abound.

spinner image hiker standing over howe sound in british columbia
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Day 1: West Vancouver to Squamish, British Columbia (35½ miles)

Bypass congested downtown Vancouver by entering Canada at the Pacific Highway truck crossing and following Route 15 to Highway 1 and proceeding north. The road becomes Highway 99 in West Vancouver, a suburb with spectacular views of the Burrard Inlet. These views form a prelude to 26 miles of infinite Howe Sound vistas that begin 8 miles farther west in Horseshoe Bay, where you can get your first Indigenous lesson. You’ll find the first of nine informational kiosks spread out along this drive offering Squamish and Lil’wat legends, natural history and other fascinating information. You’ll learn about mystical beings, where the Squamish Nation medical people trained and more. Download a kiosk guide, so you know where to find the kiosks (typically in vista point parking lots). 

​As you continue, the sun glistens off the triangular sound with Coast Range peaks glimmering in the background. Stop in Britannia Beach, about 20 miles north on 99 from Horseshoe Bay, to tour the Britannia Mine Museum and learn about the mine that once produced the most copper in the British Commonwealth. You can even comfortably ride a mining train into the mountainside.

​Five miles up the road are three must-see attractions closely clustered together. Shannon Falls Provincial Park's star is its 1,099-foot waterfall. At Stawamus Chief Provincial Park, see the tallest granite monolith (2,297 feet) north of Yosemite. Here, a kiosk describes Sinulhk-ay’, the two-headed serpent that scaled the mountain long ago, according to Squamish legend. At both parks, easy 15-minute walks from their parking lots lead to the best vantage points.

​Between the two parks, the accessible Sea to Sky Gondola reveals breathtaking views from 2,904 feet above the sound. Once you offload, take the quarter-mile Spirit Trail or three-quarter-mile Panorama Trail, both accessible with viewing platforms that will take your breath away. Pose for selfies on the Sky Pilot Suspension Bridge, then settle onto the Sky Pilot Eatery deck with a wrap, sandwich or barbecue for lunch. 

​Continue for about 2½ miles into the town of Squamish, Canada’s “Outdoor Recreation Capital.” Once a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it coffee stop for skiers heading to Whistler, the town is now a growing community (population about 24,000) that’s a destination in its own right, with restaurants, breweries and abundant outdoor adventures. Stop at the Squamish Adventure Centre for information on hiking trails or to book a kayaking, mountain biking or other active tour. (You can easily spend another full day here enjoying all the outdoor pursuits available.)

​Where to stay: The 20-room Howe Sound Inn & Brewing is centrally located with clean, well-lighted efficient rooms at reasonable prices for a tourist town. A ramp leads into the inn, and a lobby elevator is available, but no rooms are designed for the visually or hearing impaired. Dine here at the brewpub. The elevated pub grub menu features a tangy brisket sandwich made with 12-hour house-smoked brisket. 

spinner image interior of the lilwat cultural centre in squamish british columbia
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Day 2: Squamish to Whistler (37 miles)

Drive 5½ miles north to Brackendale for breakfast at Fergie’s Café, a rustically elegant restaurant serving a delectable steelhead trout eggs benedict and scrumptious potato hash. Its barnwood-paneled dining room has so many windows that you feel like you’re eating in a treehouse. Keep your eyes peeled for bald eagles in the Sitka spruce. 

​Continue 32 miles to Whistler, where pedestrian streets are filled with art galleries, shops, eateries and spacious terraces with outdoor seating. Upon arrival, treat yourself to a bird’s-eye view of the area. Take the gondola to the Roundhouse Lodge, nearly 4,000 feet above the village. From there, it’s a quick, level walk to the Peak 2 Peak Gondola, which conveys you over Fitzsimmons Creek to Blackcomb Mountain on the world’s longest unsupported span (1.88 miles). Look for black bears feeding on berries along the valley hillside below. The 22-minute round trip provides the finest views of impressive mountain peaks, glaciers and, 1,427 feet below, the temperate rain forest. 

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​Back at the Roundhouse, head to Whistler’s newest attraction (if you have no mobility issues) for more unparalleled 360-degree views: The Cloudraker Skybridge, a suspension span at the top of Whistler Mountain, is a 15- to 20-minute walk downhill from the Roundhouse. The walk back uphill is a bit of a challenge that takes about 30 minutes, so give your legs a rest at Whiskey Jack’s Umbrella Bar on the Roundhouse’s recently renovated terrace.

​Focus on Indigenous culture in the afternoon, starting at the impressive Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre (SLCC), which offers insight into these two Indigenous nations with such a long history on this land. In hourly tours, cultural ambassadors (members of these two communities) interpret interesting exhibits, share their own family stories and lead interactive activities, such as making buckskin medicine bags. Outdoors, on an Interpretive Forest Trail, learn how the Nations have long used local flora and fauna for food, medicine and tools. For lunch, order a bowl of Lil’wat Venison Chili at the onsite café.

From the SLCC, it’s about a 10-minute stroll to the Audain Art Museum, an attractive facility where you’ll be awed by the impressive Indigenous mask collections. Don’t miss the works by Canadian painter Emily Carr, who spent years living in, sketching and painting coastal Indigenous communities and the surrounding wilderness.

​Cap off the afternoon with a self-guided tour of outdoor Indigenous art around town, most pieces within walking distance. You’ll see more than a dozen totems and sculptures that further illustrate the First Nations’ relationship with their land. 

​Whistler isn’t budget-friendly, so dining out tends to be pricey, but you’ll eat well. Two good dinner choices: Bar Oso for small plates to share, and Il Caminetto for Italian in a sumptuous room. 

​Where to stay: Whistler doesn’t have a true budget season, but prices ease in fall and spring. The 49-room Sundial Boutique Hotel is just steps from the gondola base near restaurants and shops and has wheelchair-accessible rooms. Whistler.com also lists numerous condo and home rentals, as well as seasonal specials and packages.

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Day 3: More Whistler

To enjoy the nature all around you, take a walk on (or cycle) part of the Valley Trail, a flat (gravel and paved) path that runs through Whistler’s neighborhoods. Or hike the Lost Lake Park Nature Trail, which begins a short walk from the Upper Village. The half-mile trail follows Fitzsimmons Creek before climbing gently uphill through old growth forest and around the undeveloped lake, a favorite swimming spot and a tranquil place to rest for a spell. (In winter, skiing tops the activity list, with more than 200 marked ski runs on Whistler’s two mountains.)

​Come lunchtime, try the street-style tacos at La Cantina or artisan pizzas at Creekbread.

​After your active morning, spend the afternoon chilling out (literally) — at the Scandinave Spa, a Nordic oasis that will soothe your muscles and calm your mind. Two miles from the village in a serene mountain setting, it’s a collection of hot and cold plunge pools and steam rooms designed to energize, improve blood flow, help detoxify and release endorphins. Between plunges, relax around outdoor firepits or in hammocks, comfy lounge beds or cozy reading nooks. And pamper yourself with a massage. 

spinner image the british columbia sea to sky highway
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Day 4: Whistler to West Vancouver

Return to the U.S., backtracking on 99. Stop for breakfast about 3 miles south of Whistler at the Southside Diner, a local favorite just off the highway. Fuel up on the hearty Southside Slam — two buttermilk blueberry pancakes, smoked bacon, sausage, eggs and home fries. 

​You can opt to take a longer (about 300 miles), no-less breathtaking alternate route via the Fraser River Canyon.

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