Intensely scenic, the Sea to Sky Highway (Highway 99) crosses paths with two historic routes, the Pemberton Trail and the Gold Rush Heritage Trail, which linked the coast with the interior in the days before the automobile. Along these ancient pathways, generations of Coast Salish people traded with their relations in the Fraser Canyon, while in the 1850s, prospectors stampeded north towards the Cariboo gold fields.
By the mid 1960s, the prospect of skiers heading from Vancouver to the fledgling trails on Whistler Mountain, prompted the provincial government to open a road north from Horseshoe Bay through Squamish to Whistler.
Space being a premium along steep-sided Howe Sound, North American’s southernmost fjord, the road and railway parallel each other for much of the 28 miles (45 km) between Horseshoe Bay and Squamish. By 1975 the highway was pushed through to Pemberton, and by 1995 the last stretch of gravel road was paved between Pemberton and Lillooet. Today, vehicles breeze along the entire route in five hours, the time it took in the 1960s to make the journey just from Horseshoe Bay to Whistler.
Departing Vancouver, along the Sea to Sky corridor, north of Horseshoe Bay travellers trace the coastline of Howe Sound as this cliff-hugging highway winds precariously through a dramatic glacier-carved landscape. Of all the natural features in this area, none have greater visual presence than the Lions, or the Two Sisters, as they are called by local Native peoples. Geologists believe that these two peaks are the remnants of a volcanic cone.
Porteau Cove Provincial Park, north of Horseshoe Bay, offers swimming, fishing and excellent scuba diving. Stop at the BC Museum of Mining in Britannia Beach – the old Britannia Copper Mine is now a National Historic site. With almost a half-million visitors annually, Shannon Falls Provincial Park is one of the most beautiful picnic spots in the entire Sea to Sky corridor – extensive picnic grounds surround the base of BC’s third-highest waterfall.
Next stop is Squamish, situated at the head of Howe Sound, and surrounded by the sheer faces of the Coast Mountains. Squamish is cradled in natural beauty, as only a west coast town can be. Squamish is well known for two features that outdoors people will appreciate: winds peculiar to the area provide some of the best windsurfing anywhere on the Pacific Coast; and there’s spectacular hiking and rock climbing at the Stawamus Chief Mountain, the largest free-standing granite monoliths in the world.
Whistler is a European-style resort, which has been recognized as one of the top five international skiing destinations, and arguably the best, in North America. In the summer months Whistler offers a bounty of activities including alpine sightseeing, mountain biking, hiking, river rafting, horseback riding and backcountry tours. Or ride a gondola chair to the top of one of the mountains for breathtaking vistas of the surrounding area.
Pemberton is about 30 minutes north of Whistler. As the Pemberton Valley opens up, so too does the number of roads leading off from Highway 99, providing quick access to hiking, climbing, and mountain biking routes that will be of interest to those seeking backcountry adventure.