Oh, Canada Part I: Vancouver to Pemberton, British Columbia
Believe it or not, this Orange County girl had gone 26 years of her life without obtaining a U.S. Passport. Grew up two hours from the Mexico border, yet I had never ventured out of the good old red, white and blue. This FINALLY changed 11 months ago when an error fare landed us a pair of roundtrip tickets to Vancouver, Canada for only $50 TOTAL. You read that right… $25 each for roundtrip tickets to another country. This deal was obviously a sign that it was time to become official with the United States in the form of that little blue booklet. In true Sharron fashion, I waited until two days before the outbound flight and opted to sit for a whole morning at the Los Angeles Passport Agency instead of filling out the paperwork in advance like a normal citizen. Alas, the passport was in my hands before my flight and off I went to explore our northern neighbor!
Since then, I’ve traveled back to Canada twice more and we have managed to cover much of Vancouver to Banff within those trips. Obsessed is an understatement; the California mountain regions just cannot compete with the picturesque mountain views that Canada offers. And while my home state will always have a special place in my heart, I have a feeling Canada is going to steal me away a few more times before I can officially check this country off my bucket list.
In this multi-part series, I’m going to dive deep into every waterfall, mountaintop, and small town I explored so you can consider making the voyage to The True North soon. Trust me, it’s worth every penny!
Part I: Vancouver to Pemberton, British Columbia
There’s so much to write about this 90 mile portion of the Canada coast. Even though Vancouver may seem like a light year away to Los Angelenos, it’s actually only a 20 hour car drive (which can be split up into two days of driving/1 day with driver shifts) or a roughly $200 round-trip plane ticket. Let’s be honest: It costs more to get to some places east of Texas. If you’re flying, I strongly recommend renting a car (which can run you as low as $30/day through the Vancouver Airport car rental area). You definitely need vehicle access to be able to enjoy everything that this area has to offer.
In order to navigate up to Pemberton, you take Highway 99/”Sea to Sky highway” north for about two hours. The Sea to Sky highway is one of the top highways to drive in North America due to its wondrous views around every turn. The first time I drove up this highway, my jaw was dropped the WHOLE way. I’ve driven the west coast from San Diego to Oregon and Pacific Coast Highway has nothing on this glorious road. The only highway I would say rivals it is the one you take to get to Banff National Park in Alberta (more on that trip in another post!).
I recommend getting up and hitting the road as early as possible from your Vancouver accommodations because you’re about to go into full-tourist mode and make a LOT of pit stops. First up, the moment you get out of the city you are faced with incredible views of Vancouver Island… which is a whole other provincial park with too many waterfalls and epic trails to count. Unless you can afford to allocate at least two days to Vancouver Island, I wouldn’t recommend spending your money on the boat ride out there. The island is beautiful, but you want to want to be able to truly enjoy it without feeling rushed because it has SO much to offer! To put things into perspective, I’ve seen 5 day backpacking itineraries around just the rim of this island. It’s not one of those tourist attractions that you can knock out in a half day. More on this magnificent island in another post.
Once Vancouver Island is out of sight, you’re about 30 minutes from the wonderful town of Squamish. There’s this rad coffee shop on the right side of the highway before you hit Squamish that (no exaggeration) was the best espresso we have ever stopped into. Their hours are a little wonky, so check online beforehand!
Before you hit Squamish, there’s a pit stop on the right called Shannon Falls. You’ll see signs from the highway so no need to plug it into your GPS. This is only about a mile roundtrip to get to the falls on mostly level dirt/pavement, so it’s a good one to knock out in 20 minutes and can double as a restroom break.
Once you leave Shannon Falls and hop back on Highway 99, you’ll immediately stumble upon a newer tourist destination: The Sea to Sky Gondola. We did this one during our first trip to B.C. and I’ll admit that I would have done it a bit differently if given the opportunity again. You have the option of taking a 10 minute gondola ride to the top (which has beautiful 180 degree views of the Howe Sound water area that you’re paralleling when driving the Sea to Sky highway), then you’re dropped off in tourist land that features overpriced café food, a couple interpretive walking trails, the Sky Pilot suspension bridge (which is a great alternative to the popular Capilano Suspension Bridge that everyone always picks down in Vancouver for their Instagram photos), and a massive kiddie land area.
However, once you get out of the general vicinity where most of the tourists stick to, you have full access to multiple backcountry routes and can hike out as far as your heart desires. Pick up a trail map and get hiking… once we walked for about 30 minutes away from the gondola area, we were completely alone on a crowded Saturday, free to explore as we please.
The trails literally continue for miles so you’re bound to get your fix. The only thing I would have done different about this experience is I would have saved the money spent on the gondola ride ($42 CAD/person roundtrip) and hiked up to the Summit Lodge via the Sea to Sky trail (9 miles roundtrip/3,000ft. gain). This trail requires some rope climbing and is sure to kick your butt before you even reach the lodge. If you’re not up for hiking back down, you can always spend $15 CAD to download only via gondola.
After The Sea to Sky Gondola, you’re basically dumped into the town of Squamish, British Columbia. Squamish stole my heart when I first laid eyes on it… the monolith granite rock that’s immediately in your face once you arrive in town is hard to take in at first (the highway literally runs within 100 yards of the rock face so you can’t miss it).
This rock, known as the Stawamus Chief, stands 2290ft. above the ground on your right while passing through town, while the waters of Howe Sand sit at sea level to your left. The chief is one of the most sought-after rock climbing faces in North America; you’ll notice while driving alongside that there’s a whole parking lot dedicated to climbers (with a few camper vans probably parked within). The parking area features spots where you can set up slacklines and picnic while watching badasses tackle Mother Nature’s creation. And guess what – you can hike to the top as well! It’s technically a set of 3 peaks you can “bag” in a 6.8 mile/2000ft. gain leg buster. Fair warning though: the gain is all in the first 2 miles and those miles consist of 80% steps/10% rock scrambling/10% “hiking”.
I’ve completed this beast twice and both times it was worth the burning calves afterwards. You can technically extend the Chief hike into a much longer hike in both directions and there’s onsite camping available in case you want to spend an evening here and hike your heart out.
Continuing on Highway 99 for another 30 minutes will bring you to Brandywine Falls Provincial Park. Again, there will be signs from the road so no need to look up directions. The 230ft. waterfall is viewed from a viewing dock above so you aren’t going to get your epic Instagram photos at the base, but it’s still a beautiful sight to witness. It’s a 45 minute level hike round-trip to the falls but you have the option to extend the walk to a pretty epic view of the Daisy Lake area, so don’t turn around once you hit Brandywine! There’s other hiking trails if you’d like to extend your visit, but unfortunately no camping available.
Once you hit Brandywine Falls, you’re only 15 minutes from the infamous ski town-turned-mega ski resort, Whistler. Whistler Blackcomb hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics, so naturally there’s still Olympic touches set up all over town. Now, whether you stop in Whistler is a preferential choice… the first time we visited British Columbia, we took one look down into the resort area from the stoplight and decided not to stop. I have nothing against Whistler, it’s a beautiful town! I had a chance to explore it during our next vacation here because it was the same weekend as the Ski and Snowboard Festival, so there was a lot more going on in general. However, on busy weekends… clusterf**k is an understatement. Tourist magnet to the max filled with shops that you could just visit in the states like North Face, Patagonia, and Helly Hansen. If you’re a shopper this may be the place for you because the CAD-USD exchange rate is killer at the moment so you can pick up some awesome items at a discount here. If you’re not looking to spend copious amounts of money here, you can walk through the whole resort area in about 30 minutes and view the Olympic memorabilia before continuing on the road trip. If you’re looking to enjoy a drink on an outdoor deck that’s centrally located in people watching land, check out Longhorn Saloon and Grill.
If you want to do a tour of the actual ski area, you can purchase a gondola ticket which takes about an hour roundtrip between the two mega gondolas to view everything. This may be worth the money to you because Whistler Blackcomb features the unique PEAK 2 PEAK Gondola, which is 1) World’s longest unsupported span for a lift of this kind at 1.88miles 2) World’s highest lift of its kind at 1,427ft above the valley floor and 3) World’s longest continuous lift system. Whistler Blackcomb was in a “go big or go home” mood when they built this in 2008. You can even wait a few extra minutes to ride in a “bottomless cabin”, which I politely said f*** no to since I’m scared of heights. The views on this gondola were awesome and it was worth doing once in my opinion.
Now that you’ve gotten your Whistler fix, time to head to one of my favorite “small towns” in British Columbia – Pemberton! We were brought to Pemberton at first thanks to good old Instagram – recognize this photo below?
Keyhole Hot Springs, located in a logging area just outside of Pemby. We are slightly obsessed with hot springs, so when we found out Keyhole was *only* a few hours from Vancouver, we arrived at Vancouver Airport at midnight and were back in our rental car by 6am heading north specifically to find this location. I’m a sucker for open farmland and Pemberton is filled with beautiful farms butted up against towering mountains, so even though Pemby to Keyhole is technically 40 miles of dirt road I was loving every moment. You used to need a 4x4 to get to Keyhole, but since they started logging the area they widened the dirt road/leveled it out so trucks can get through… we got up there in our rental minivan with no issues. Everything is well signed and you check in with the logging company before entering (they keep logs of who goes in/out, don’t be alarmed when they ask for your information!). This is another reason why I love Canada in general… when they start logging in an area that’s frequented by outdoor enthusiasts, the logging companies are usually required to keep the area open to explore. I’ve noticed that these companies wind up producing signage, creating better trails, and maintain the location for us… so it’s almost a plus that they’re working in the area. You and I both know this isn’t always the case in the states! This logging company cut in a quicker trail to Keyhole so hikers weren’t wandering around in the active work areas, old trail reviews show a different route to the hot springs and it can get relatively confusing as a result. Download AllTrails and follow the signs/carry a trail map and you won’t have any issues. It’s only 2.5 miles roundtrip and plenty of camping spots with EPIC river/mountain views, if I had the chance to do this all over again I would have opted to camp because I was legitimately jealous of these campsite locations.
Once you get back in Pemberton, you can grab a bite to eat at Mile One Eating House before heading back to Vancouver. Now, there’s one last stop on our little Sea to Sky roadtrip: Nairn Falls Provincial Park. Even though you can technically knock it out on the way up, I opted to save it for after Keyhole so I can stretch my legs while driving down the coast. It’s about one hour roundtrip from the parking lot to the falls and the trail parallels a fast-moving river. Nairn Falls is one of those waterfalls that may not be tall, but it sure packs a punch when it comes to power. You’re bound to get soaked from the viewing dock so make sure you bring your rain shell along!
If you have extra time and want to explore more beautiful locations between Pemberton and Vancouver, I strongly recommend the following: Joffre Lakes Provincial Park (30 minutes east of Pemberton), Callaghan Lake Provincial Park (between Pemberton and Whistler), and Garibaldi Provincial Park (between Whistler and Squamish). Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance to visit these parks specifically yet… but like I said in the beginning, I have a feeling British Columbia is going to draw me back a few more times before filing this location away as “officially checked off”, so there’s plenty of time to explore this in the near future. 😊
Stay tuned for “Part II: Vancouver to Golden, British Columbia”! If you have any questions about the areas I explained in this post, please feel free to ask them in the comments. I’ll gladly help you out if it means more people visit this wonderful slice of hiking heaven.
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