Sea to Sky Gondola
Credit: Sea to Sky Gondola/Paul Bride

From the Sea to Sky Gondola's offload, it doesn’t take long to leave the crowds behind.

On this sunny summer Sunday, locals and tourists alike are flocking to Squamish, BC’s new Sea to Sky Gondola. Opened in May of this year, this high-speed tram climbs 850 metres from alongside Highway 99 to an offload point with access to alpine hikes, climbing routes and stunning viewpoints previously known only to the hardy adventurer. There’s also a lodge with craft beer on tap and a patio view that rivals any in the province.

It’s popular, to say the least.

However, as my wife and I discover, the bulk of the visitors cease their forward motion at the backcountry trail signage, sticking to the pedestrian, though scenic, Panorama and Spirit trails. The former is a 1.6-km walking path that visitors often push a stroller around, though it culminates with a nice view overtop the Stawamus Chief. The latter features a fully accessible suspension bridge.

Al's Habrich Ridge
Credit: Sea to Sky Gondola/Paul Bride

We’re looking for more of a workout than a 15-minute walk. And Al’s Habrich Ridge Trail — the signature hike of the area — is set to deliver. From the lodge, we wander into the backcountry access area and toward Al’s Habrich’s official start — a wooded path that leads across a creekbed before grading sharply upslope. In this trail’s 5.8-km (one-way) length, it climbs 954 metres.

The benefit of starting from a near-1,000-metre-elevation is immediately apparent. Hiking in BC’s coastal mountains can often mean hours in the tall woods before views open up. Since we skipped the thickest forest below, we’re treated to a bevvy of breathtaking viewpoints that overlook Howe Sound and the Coastal Mountains. Each point seems perfectly spaced from the one before — just as we need a water break, a warm dome of open granite appears and we’re able to refresh amidst a staggering vista.

Once, the Stawamus Chief offered the best local view of any day-hike. Now, thanks to the Sea to Sky Gondola, we’re able to experience panoramas from elevations that dwarf The Chief and still be home for dinner.

We continue onward for a couple of hours to the end of the marked trail, at Neverland Lake. A backcountry route continues from here, with scrambling and mountaineering potential. A few hundred metres from the terminus, we find an offshoot trail to scenic Neverland Falls. It’s a full day of hiking to be sure, and this is just one of several quality marked trails accessed via the gondola — with more in the works.

This type of terrain leaves little wonder why the gondola has become so immediately popular. Though right now, from a knee-weakening vista-point near the terminus of Al’s Habrich Ridge Trail, the mountain feels like our private playground.

Next time, we’ll tackle the 10-km Sky Pilot Valley Trail, or the 19-km Skyline Ridge Trail, or… well, the options seem as vast as the land.

Howe Sound
Credit: David Webb

“In the North American context, what we’ve done is somewhat unique. It’s not a ski area and it’s not just a sightseeing lift,” says Jayson Faulkner, Director of Strategic Planning for Sea to Sky Gondola. Rather, he explains, it’s a way to access the previously inaccessible — a shortcut to the alpine, where prime non-motorized recreational opportunities lie. “We’re not trying to be a theme park,” he assures.

Faulkner explains that such gondolas are commonplace throughout Europe. They open the alpine to a wide range of people — from walking-octogenarians to hard-core mountaineers. Thanks to the terrain accessed by the Sea to Sky Gondola, the same is now true in Squamish — from the aforementioned walking paths, to rock climbing routes, to day-hikes hikes and even serious mountaineering on Sky Pilot (considered some of the premier alpine in the Vancouver area).

“In North America, we haven’t done a great job providing access to the mountains. We have the geography, we just didn’t have the access. The good stuff is in the alpine, up high. That’s where a lot of the inspiration is,” says Faulkner.

Faulkner adds that the response to the gondola has been “tremendous.” Even some locals who were originally opposed or sceptical of the project have bought tickets. Many “hard-cores” who previously held the “you gotta work to get to it” attitude about local mountains have since changed their tune, realizing the benefits of not having to slog up a vertical kilometre to access quality trails. In fact, Faulkner states that “20 to 25 per cent” of the local population has purchased a season pass.

Habrich Backcountry
Credit: Sea to Sky Gondola/Eric Carter

During the initial phases, concerns about the project’s environmental impact were raised.

“There is a delicate balance that exists when you create access. When you build a trail, you’re going to create impact,” says Faulkner. “But a hiking trail is relatively benign.”

This new infrastructure is providing an alternative to what had historically been a resource-based economy. Faulkner explains that, due to the success of the Sea to Sky Gondola, they have shown there is a significant tourist draw to this area — and that tourism in the Upper Shannon Creek Watershed is a viable industry to replace resource extraction.

Furthermore, with the creation of around 100 jobs, plus the related tourism expenditures in Squamish, Faulkner says, “We’re quite clearly establishing a new use to that whole watershed — non-motorized recreation — that has more long term benefits than logging ever could… we just saved an entire watershed from industrial impact.”

Ski Touring
Credit: Sea to Sky Gondola/Paul Bride

Sea to Sky Gondola hopes to be a year-round destination. After a successful opening summer, Faulkner is looking forward to an “untested” winter season.

 “We expect to see lots of snowshoers, we expect to see lots of ski tourers. The snowshoeing is going to be super… The terrain is very well-suited for it — we’re high enough to be fully in the snowbelt,” he explains. “And backcountry skiing has tremendous potential.”

Faulkner says that ski guides who have experienced backcountry slopes the world-round — such as Eric Dumerac from Whistler Alpine Guides — have indicated that terrain accessed via this gondola will be “amazing.” However, skiers should expect experts-only terrain this season, with intermediate slopes ideally opening up in the future.

For the 2015 summer season, Faulkner says they will be increasing their alpine trail systems, including the potential for some via ferrata-style sections, and he hopes to activate their mountain bike program as well. Basically, they will to offer “more of what we’ve got,” and to refine the current experience. 

“People are so happy to get up high, where they can get the views,” says Faulkner. “We’re working to establish the Upper Shannon Creek Watershed as the alpine playground for the entire Lower Mainland.”

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