Road trip on the Sea to Sky Highway

Canada’s Highway 99, better known as the Sea to Sky Highway, is regarded as one of the best road trip destinations in the world. Starting in the coastal rain forest at Horseshoe Bay, near Vancouver, this great 2-lane road takes us trough five different climatic zones in British Columbia before reaching its end at the junction with Highway 97 near Cache Creek deep inside Canada.

The road was built during the 1960s by the provincial government to develop tourism in the region around Whistler Mountain. The first part of the route ran from Horseshoe Bay through Squamish to Whistler. In 1975, the highway was extended to Pemberton, and by 1995 the last part between Pemberton and Highway 97 was constructed. In preparation for the 2010 Winter Olympics, the highway was further upgraded with some four-lane divided sections, three lane sections with alternating passing lanes, and some improved two lane sections. Today, travelers can drive the 212mi (340km) from Vancouver to Cache Creek in 5 hours, the time it used to take to get from Vancouver just to Whistler.

Sea to Sky Highway
Sea to Sky Highway

Howe Sound

Starting in Horseshoe Bay (Northern Vancouver), the road runs along the steep-sided Howe Sound. Captain George Vancouver (who gave his name to the city) entered the sound in 1792, and named it after Admiral Earl Howe. While we are driving along the water, the road is paralleled by the British Columbia Railway. Because there are not many options to construct highways and railroads trough the mountains, we will encounter this railroad many times during our trip.

Howe Sound
Howe sound

After about 20 miles (32km) we reach Brittania Beach, a small unincorporated community with a population of about 300. The town first developed between 1899 and 1904 as the residential area for the staff of the Britannia Mining and Smelting Company. The residential areas and the mining operation were physically interrelated, resulting in coincidental mining and community disasters through its history. Floods, fires and avalanches plagued the town throughout the years and killed hundreds of men, women and children. High operating costs and taxes eventually forced the mine to close in 1974.

Today, the town is host to the Britannia Mine Museum, located on the grounds of the old mines. The mine's old concentrator facilities, used to separate copper ore from its containing rock, are a National Historic Site of Canada.

Britannia Mine copper concentrator
Britannia Mine copper concentrator

A few miles further on the road we can see a waterfall. Shannon Falls is composed of a series of cliffs, rising 335 meters above Highways 99, making it the third highest falls in British Columbia. The falls are named after William Shannon, who first settled the property in 1889 and made bricks in the area to sell them to the copper mine. The surrounding area on the north-east shore of the Howe Sound is protected and part of Shannon Falls Provincial Park.

Shannon Falls
Shannon Falls

Squamish

Directly after visiting the park we arrive in Squamish. Smaller than Vancouver, larger than Whistler, and equidistant from them both, Squamish is located at the north end of Howe Sound. Squamish is well known for its outdoor activities, including the Stawamus Chief. This huge cliff-faced granite massif is towering 700m (2,297 ft) above the waters of Howe Sound and is favored by many rock climbers. There are over 300 climbing routes on the Chief proper. For hikers there are different steep trails around the back of the Chief to access the three peaks that make up the massif, all giving great panoramic views of Howe Sound and the surrounding mountains.

Stawamus Chief
The Stawamus Chief

We are leaving the waters of Howe Sound behind us and are heading inland now. The road is slowly climbing as it is winding trough the valleys. Just east of the road between Squamish and Whistler we can find another protected area: Garibaldi Park. The park consists of many steep, rugged mountains, many of which are capped by glaciers. The park includes many dense forests, alpine meadows and extinct volcanoes such as the Black Tusk.

There are five park access and entrance points located along the Sea to Sky Highway. Each entrance provides access to hiking trails with backcountry camping opportunities. More information about the different hiking trails can be found on the park’s official website.

The Black Tusk
Black Tusk, Garibaldi Provincial Park (photo by Andysonic777)

Whistler

Arriving in Whistler is always a fantastic moment. A cluster of little lakes is gathered in the small valley, reflecting the outline of the mountains high above. The contours of the ski runs on Blackcomb and Whistler Mountain pattern the forested slopes. Above the tree line, you can still see remnants of the most recent ice age in the glaciers that encrust the highest peaks. Whistler was named after the “whistle” sound of the marmots living in the area. The Aava Whistler Hotel is great if you want to spend the night here.

The Whistler Blackcomb ski resort is by many measures the largest ski resort in North America; it is 50% larger than its nearest competitor in terms of size and has the greatest uphill lift capacity. The resort also holds the records for the highest and longest unsupported cable car span in the world with the Peak 2 Peak Gondola, moving between Whistler and Blackcomb mountains at the top.

Alta Lake and Whistler Mountain
Alta Lake and Whistler Mountain

Just North of Whistler we find a small village called Pemberton. Until the 1960s the village could be accessed only by train. The village's look is slightly rustic and has the appearance of the set of a western movie, a heritage of its ranching and mining culture during the gold rush era. A few miles further down the road we can see Lillooet Lake.

Lillooet Lake
Lillooet Lake

Lillooet

We keep following the winding road and arrive in Lillooet. Thanks to its location at an intersection of deep gorges in the lee of the Coast Mountains, Lillooet has its own microclimate, resulting in very little precipitation and high temperatures. Shade temperatures are frequently topping 40 °C (104 °F), giving the town the title of "Canada's Hot Spot" in summer. Due to this microclimate, the landscape changes dramatically. The vast green forests make place for the brown and barren Fraser Canyon.

Fraser Canyon
Fraser Canyon

As we head further on the road we arrive at the last highlight of our trip: Pavilion Lake. The lake is most notable for being home to colonies of special micro-organisms, and has become the subject of research by NASA and the Canadian Space Agency. The lake is overlooked by the cliffs of Marble Canyon. The lake and the canyon have also great spiritual significance to the adjoining native communities.

Pavilion Lake
Pavilion Lake

A few miles later the Sea to Sky Highway comes to an end by joining Highway 97. You can drive back to Vancouver on the 97 in about 4h30.

Despite major improvements over the past 30 years, such as rock scaling, bridge reinforcement, and frequent passing lanes, sections of the Sea to Sky Highway can still be extremely treacherous in foul weather. Drive carefully and pull over when driving conditions become dangerous. You can check road and weather conditions on drivebc

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Comments

Did this road on a motorcycle, in the rain, and we thought it was beautiful. Hope you catch it in good weather.

Len