Olympic athletes will be heading to Whistler, British Columbia, for the 2010 winter games, but you can get there first with a trip up the Sea to Sky Highway.
Go now, and you will not only beat the rush to the Olympics in February, but you will find plenty to see and do along the way.
The Sea to Sky Highway, which is the section of Highway 99 that runs from Vancouver past Whistler to Pemberton, is being improved through a $600 million project that began in 2004. The project won’t be finished until later this year, but much of the work has already been done.
You will want to start your trip with a visit to Vancouver. A convenient place to stay is the Capilano RV Park, which is at the north end of the Lions Gate Bridge connecting the quieter side of North Vancouver with downtown Vancouver. Of course, a trip to Vancouver would not be complete without visiting some local tourist sites, such as Stanley Park, the Historic Gas Light District and the famous Capilano Suspension Bridge. But rather than going to the site of the Capilano Suspension Bridge, which is crowded and overpriced ($28.95 Canadian for adult admission), drive down the road a ways to Lynn Canyon, a friendlier and more relaxed place. This bridge is shorter and not quite as high as the Capilano Suspension Bridge, but there is no admission fee, it’s narrower and moves around a lot more from people walking on it, making for a more exciting adventure. The bridge connects extensive hiking trails on both sides of Lynn Canyon and is part of the Baden Powell Trail. Visiting late in the day assures ample parking even for a motorhome. RV parking during the middle of a busy day could be a problem, however, and you may want to leave the motorhome behind if you have a tow vehicle and drive that vehicle to the bridge and downtown attractions.
Leaving Vancover, we head north on the highway along beautiful Howe Sound to our first stop, Britannia Beach. Here on the shores of Howe Sound, British Columbia’s mining heritage is preserved at the British Columbia Museum of Mining, which is located at the Britannia Copper Mine. The mine operated from 1888 to the 1970s. In the boom days of the 1920s and 1930s, Britannia was the largest producer of copper ore in the entire British Empire. Tours begin with “The Britannia Story,” featuring rock displays, ore samples, realistic models, maps, drawings, documents and artifacts. Along with the dramatic portrayal of hard-rock mining, with fully functional (loud) air drills and other mining equipment, you’ll get a feeling for the human side of the mining industry, too, reflected in displays of the life and times of workers and their families.
The dominant physical feature at Britannia Beach is the mine’s enormous concentrator building, which sprawls eight levels up the side of a cliff. The highlight for visitors is a journey underground. A mine train carries you into the mountainside where you’ll witness the mining methods used at the mine: drilling, blasting, mucking, sluicing and rock stabilization. Don’t be surprised if you experience a little déjà vu during your visit, as the site is a favorite filming location for television and major motion picture producers. Emerging from the mine, you receive a first-hand look inside the concentrator building, which has stood as a regional landmark for more than 80 years. During peak operations, this mammoth complex processed more than 7,000 tons of ore daily. Your tour will also include the assay office and assorted mine buildings under restoration. Near the end of your tour, try your luck at gold panning. The British Columbia Museum of Mining is open during the summer from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. There is plenty of parking for your RV.
The next stop on the course north is Shannon Falls. Shannon Falls Provincial Park is 16 miles north of Horseshoe Bay. With almost a half-million visitors annually, Shannon Falls is one of the most popular spots to stop along the entire Sea to Sky corridor. RV parking can be difficult on busy days, so arrive early. Located on the east side of the highway, extensive picnic grounds surround the base of B.C.’s third-highest waterfall at 1,105 feet. A boardwalk leads to a viewing platform near the base of the roaring falls. The falls foam and tumble over smooth sides of the granite walls ahead of you. In late summer, the falls do little more than veil the walls with water. During spring runoff, the falls give off a thunderous roar, the spray drenching those who stand too close. People who don’t mind getting wet can follow a rough trail that leads from the viewing platform to the base of the falls.
Back in the RV and continuing north, you will quickly encounter the huge chunk of rock called Stawamus Chief Mountain. Even if you don’t plan to hike, be sure to stop at the Stawamus Chief Mountain viewpoint on the highway in Squamish. An interpretive display will acquaint you with the mountain and some of the history of the region. Grab your binoculars and scan the crag for climbers high up on the sides of the Chief. If you possess climbing experience, bring your gear and join in the fun.
From Stawamus Chief, the road begins to ascend toward Whistler. Before reaching the village of Whistler you will come to the spectacular 216-foot Brandywine Falls. It is best seen from the viewpoint, which also presents some marvelous views of nearby Daisy Lake and the surrounding mountains. This park also provides opportunities for camping, hiking, picnicking and mountain biking. There is plenty of RV parking available. You can also stay the night. Reservations for the campground are not accepted, and campsites are available on a first-come, first-served basis. The campground is open May 15 to October 15.
Whistler’s Many Attractions
Congratulations, you have now reached Whistler prior to the thousands of athletes that will arrive in February 2010. Plan on at least a day or two break before heading farther up the highway.
Many books and articles have been written about the things to see and do in Whistler. When you spend just a day or two, you will have to decide what interests you most as you won’t have time to do it all. However, deciding where to park the RV is easy, as the only RV park in town is the Riverside RV Resort and Campground.
Whistler activities include year-round skiing, mountain biking, hiking, ATV rides and more. Bike trails lead directly from the RV park. You have your choice of paved trails that take you in and around the village or you can challenge yourself on the dirt mountain bike trails. The mountain bike trails are the same routes used by cross-country skiers in the winter and range from easy to advanced. After working up an appetite pedaling around the trails, ride into the village for an enjoyable meal at one of the numerous restaurants.
Back on the highway and pushing on toward Lillooet brings you to Nairn Falls Park and campground near the town of Pemberton. It is a leisurely walk from the campground to view Nairn Falls. Unlike Shannon Falls or Brandywine Falls, Nairn Falls does not drop down a straight course but instead boils through several frothy bowls. The campground offers 94 large gravel camping spots and day-use areas. Facilities include wood, water, fire pits, pit toilets, and a dump station during the summer months. Fees are collected from April to October. The campground gate is closed after October 1.
Pemberton is the official end of the Sea to Sky Highway, but if you have the wanderlust, you can continue beyond Pemberton to Lillooet on the Duffy Lake Road, also designated as Hwy 99. The road climbs into the mountains beside beautiful mountain lakes before descending through a twisty canyon into Lillooet. You will be surprised at how quickly the climate changes from cool lush forests to the semi-arid climate of Lillooet. A word of caution to those traveling this section of highway: there are several grades in excess of 10 percent with tight corners. This is not the place for underpowered rigs or those with marginal brakes. From Lillooet you can travel back to Vancouver via the Fraser Canyon or head off to another adventure in the B.C. interior.
Either way, drive slowly, enjoy the ever-changing scenery and savor the victory of beating an Olympic athlete up the road known as the Sea to Sky Highway.
Dave Helgeson and his wife promote RV and manufactured home shows in western Washington. They spend their free time traveling and enjoying the RV lifestyle.
IF YOU GO:
Here are websites for places along the Sea to Sky Highway:
• Capilano RV Park: www.capilanorvpark.com
• Lynn Canyon Suspension Bridge: www.findfamilyfun.com/lynncanyon.htm
• British Columbia Museum of Mining: www.bcmuseumofmining.org
• Shannon Falls Provincial Park: www.shannonfalls.com
• Stawamus Chief Park: www.stawamuschiefpark.ca
• Riverside RV Resort and Campground: www.whistlercamping.com/home.html