Sea to Sky Gondola beckons lazy day-trippers to Squamish—and into downtown
For as long as I can remember, Squamish has been a drive-by town. Located around the halfway mark on the road trip from Vancouver to Whistler, it was the logical place to grab a coffee or deal with the consequences of too much. The view of the town from Highway 99 never inspired exploration. Lined with Golden Arches, Whopper drive-throughs, and gas stations, Squamish seemed to be one giant strip mall. The only exciting thing was the 10-metre-tall Sam the Lumberjack statue, wielding its axe by the side of the road.
These days, the town bills itself as the Outdoor Recreation Capital of Canada, and it’s highly attractive to those who like to get sweaty, muddy, or soaking wet. But contrary to popular belief, not everybody on the West Coast spends their weekends hiking, climbing, kayaking, and subsisting on Clif Bars. For some of us, the perfect summer day starts with buying blueberries at the farmers market and ends with a few pints of IPA on the patio—and not much else in between.
Until recently, there was scant reason for a lazybones like me to make Squamish a getaway destination—other than the upcoming Squamish Valley Music Festival, that is. But this changed when the new Sea to Sky Gondola opened last May between Shannon Falls Provincial Park and Stawamus Chief Provincial Park. While the gondola has opened up all kinds of hiking trails, it’s also attracting sightseers who have no interest in breaking a sweat but still want to check out the view from 885 metres above sea level.
On a recent Saturday, I drove up to see it myself. Since Squamish is just an hour from Vancouver (rather than Whistler’s two hours), it’s the perfect day trip for the lazy, hazy days of summer: I could dawdle over pancakes and still be home before the sun set. I even had time to venture into downtown Squamish, where I found a town that’s much more than its fast-food façade.
The Squamish Farmers’ Market runs downtown every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. until the end of October in an area that’s quite charming. Cheery flower baskets line Cleveland Avenue, where there are plenty of good eating options. Zephyr Café serves vegan and gluten-free dishes and has an adorable patio decorated with vintage records. Casa Norte Taqueria has a bright, colourful patio hidden off its back parking lot and interesting options like ceviche-stuffed fish tacos.
Casa Norte just opened last fall, and while new restaurants like it cater to changing tastes in Squamish, some old-school options remain. Lotus Gardens appears to be stuck in the 1970s with its sign advertising “Chinese and Canadian food”. The building is included in the self-guided Squamish Heritage Walking Tour of local landmarks; you can follow it at squamishhistory.ca/ or get details from a billboard nearby at Cleveland Avenue and Winnipeg Street.
The farmers market, however, is thoroughly 2014, selling gorgeous local basil, green onions the length of my arm, and Purebread’s fantastic chocolate sour-cherry loaf. I bought an Australian Ned Kelly pie from the Pie Company and let the flaky pastry fall where it might in the adjacent O’Siem Pavilion Park. Stuffed with ground beef, bacon, cheese, and a whole baked egg, it was so delicious I went back for more. Then, after a quick walk along the nearby Mamquam Blind Channel waterfront, I hopped in my car for the 10-minute drive to the gondola.
Much has already been written about how the gondola opens up hiking in the Stawamus Chief area, that it's Squamish's answer to the Grouse Grind, and it offers many trails from the top . All the less energetic day-tripper needs to know is this: the view from the top is like nothing you’ve ever seen before, and it will change how you see Squamish from the road forever.
Immediately on the journey up, Howe Sound unfurls below you. Who knew all those windsurfers and kiteboarders were whizzing by on the Spit, tucked away where the Squamish River meets the sea. The 10-minute ride is comfortable since each enclosed cabin takes just eight people (all seated), and plenty of the cabins ply the route. You ascend higher than the top of the Chief, allowing a taste of what rock climbers see without clinging to sheer granite for dear life.
At the top, Howe Sound appears a gorgeous blue-green and as dewy as a National Geographic centrefold. The expansive 5,000-square-foot deck offers views every which way that include the snow-speckled Sky Pilot and Copilot mountain peaks.
A 100-metre-long suspension bridge leads you to another viewing platform, which links up with the 1.6-kilometre Panorama Trail. This loop is more of a walk than a hike--no sports bra required--and it’s worth doing just for the view up the Squamish Valley. A narrow, cantilevered deck, the Chief Overlook Viewing Platform gives you a good perspective on those kiteboarders as well as, of course, the Chief itself.
But really, if all you do is have a beer on the main deck, the trip is worthwhile. There’s something cool about drinking Howe Sound Brewing beer while looking down—down!—on Howe Sound. The indoor bar offers three varieties from that local brewer on tap: Garibaldi Honey Pale Ale, Four Way Fruit Ale, and Sky Pilot Northwest Pale Ale. The latter hoppy beer was brewed in collaboration with the gondola operation and is named after the peak you see while drinking it.Beer flights will be available soon.
A few other beers are available by the bottle, including Phillips Blue Buck, Russell Eastern Promises, and Russell IP'Eh. Wine is also served by the glass or bottle, and includes local options from BlastedChurch, Tinhorn Creek, and more.
There’s a cafeteria-style restaurant inside that serves burgers, sandwiches, and the like, which you can bring out to the deck, where there’s plenty of seating. However, the kitchen is clearly still working out some kinks: my pulled-pork tacos were dripping with fat.
On Friday, Saturday, and Sunday starting at 5 p.m., table service is offered on a portion of the deck. The menu is similar to the self-serve offerings, with some more refined options like a charcuterie and cheese plate. After August 31, evening dining continues on Fridays and Saturdays only until Thanksgiving weekend (October 11).
Of course, you could always ride the gondola back down and continue sampling beer at Howe Sound Brewing itself. Located two blocks from the Squamish Farmers’ Market, it has a brew pub with a patio view of the Chief and a restaurant that offers pizza, fresh oysters, and more. There’s even a 20-room inn if you want to turn your day trip into a weekend.
Let the hikers get an early start; there’s no shame in sleeping in the next day.
ACCESS: Check the websites of the Sea to Sky Gondola, the Squamish Farmers’ Market, and the Howe Sound Inn and Brewing Company for hours and info. (It's slightly cheaper to buy gondola tickets online than onsite.)
Note that there are two free parking lots for the Gondola; one at the base for visits up to three hours, and the other in the Darrell Bay overflow parking lot for longer stays. A free shuttle runs continually between them on weekends; flag it down anywhere in the Darrell Bay lot.
Or, it’s a pleasant 15-minute walk from Darrell Bay to the Gondola through the Shannon Falls Provincial Park connector trail; follow the blue signs and turn left just past the Shannon Falls gift shop to access it.