Sea to Sky Gondola - Squamish Hiking Trails
The Sea to Sky Gondola opened in the spring of 2014 and has rapidly expanded into a marvellous array of hiking trails and mountaintop attractions. Located between Stawamus Chief Provincial Park and Shannon Falls Provincial Park the gondola carries you rapidly from the sea to the sky. Departing just a few hundred metres from the ocean at an elevation of 35 metres, to 885 metres in just 10 minutes. In early June you will still feel the chill in the air from the snowy mountain peaks all around.
The deluxe, shiny and new gondolas comfortably seat 8 and the entire 10 minute ride gives you stunning views of Howe Sound, the three summits of the Chief on your left, and distant snowy mountains up ahead. The gondola cabins are almost entirely windows so no matter where you sit you have amazing views. If you are driving from Vancouver the large and easy to spot, Sea to Sky Gondola parking lot is just 45 minutes from Vancouver.
Just off of the Sea to Sky Highway, look for the entrance just past the Shannon Falls Provincial Park entrance or just a couple hundred metres before the Stawamus Chief Provincial Park entrance. Parking is free, however they have signs that indicate that if you plan on parking more than 3 hours you should park at the Shannon Falls parking lot instead. This is a good option as well if you want to take a look at Shannon Falls as well. You can park there, see the amazing Shannon Falls and continue walking to the Sea to Sky Gondola along the connecting trail in less than 15 minutes.
At the top of the gondola you arrive at the spectacular Summit Lodge. You immediately are drawn to enter this cliff-edge building with a restaurant, coffee shop, bar and an enormous sundeck that stretches around half of the building. The sundeck has dozens of tables and of course views of everything. Gondola's coming and going, Howe Sound, Sky Pilot and Co-Pilot(mountains). At one end of the sundeck the Sky Pilot Suspension Bridge extends across a chasm to a rocky outcrop in the direction of Sky Pilot Mountain.
The amazing Sky Pilot Suspension Bridge takes you across to the Spirit Trail and your first of several massive and stunning viewing areas and the start of an interpretive tour of this wonderful forest. Everywhere you turn you see an interesting, written description of what surrounds you as well as frequent park benches to sit and enjoy the view.
"A History in Nature" is the first of these well though out, interpretive murals. It describes the Squamish Nation that has lived here for thousands of years and are part of the Coast Salish Aboriginal Peoples that past and present, stretch along the coast of what is now British Columbia. Prior to European contact in the late 1700's the Squamish people utilized the land, plants and animals in the area in traditional ways with accumulated knowledge of many generations. The mural depicts a beautiful illustration of the "Thunderbird", the official symbol of the Squamish Nation.
A crushed gravel trail quickly ascends beyond this mural, into the forest and the interpretive tour continues. "Nature's Hardware Store". The Squamish people used cedar trees for many things such as clothing, baskets, houses, canoes and various tools. Douglas fir trees were used for canoe poles, harpoon shafts, gaff hooks and dip net handles. Yew trees were used for bows and harpoons. Maple trees were used for canoe paddles. Stinging nettles were made into fishing nets and fishing lines. Moss was used for diapers, bedding and insulation for houses. "Nature's Grocery Store" consisted of blackberries, blackcaps, blueberries, huckleberries, salal berries, salmonberries, wild strawberries, berry shoots and various edible roots.
You quickly notice along the trail that the distant skyline in dominated by some startlingly jagged and snowy mountains. Sky Pilot(mountain) is the jagged, teeth-like mountain with Ledge Mountain on its left and Co Pilot Mountain to its right. Co Pilot Mountain is the distinctly dome shaped mountain that looks remarkably similar to The Lions(West Lion), just south of Squamish. Looking to the left of these rocky, tree-less peaks is the nearer and mostly tree covered Mount Habrich.
The short, 400 metre Spirit Trail that began at the Sky Pilot Suspension Bridge returns you to the Summit Lodge and a large mapboard at the juncture of several more trails. The Sky Pilot Valley Trail and the Skyline Ridge Trail take you deep into the backcountry and into the alpine towards Sky Pilot, Co Pilot and Ledge mountains. These trails are definitely for the adventurous and advanced hikers, although they only become difficult when you near Sky Pilot.
Another trail ascending from near the large mapboard near the Summit Lodge is the Al's Habrich Ridge Trail. This is another difficult, backcountry trail that takes you high into the wilderness toward the summit of Mount Habrich.
Most hikers take the easy and short, Panorama Trail that starts just past the Mount Habrich trailhead. The 1.6 kilometre(roundtrip) Panorama Trail is a wonderful loop trail through the forest to various amazing lookouts. The highlight of this trail is breathtaking Chief Viewing Platform. This wooden deck juts out over a cliff almost 200 metres high. With the three peaks of the Chief far below you and Howe Sound filling the view to the left you stand with treetops all around you.
The Look Back Viewpoint is another highlight of the Panorama Trail as it sits on a wonderful viewpoint across from the Summit Lodge and perpendicular to the gondola. This unique vantage point allows you to see the Summit Lodge framed by the distant Ledge, Sky Pilot and Co-Pilot mountains. As the Look Back trail runs off the main trail, it is usually passed by, making it a quiet corner of the otherwise busy trail network.
The hiking trail network is still growing, however the 400 metre Spirit Trail and the 1.6 kilometre Panorama Trail are a beautiful start. You can wander through both trails in about 40 minutes, however if you appreciate all the views and enjoy the viewing platforms and viewpoints you will probably take over an hour. Also, if you grab a coffee, beer or have a meal in the lodge, you can easily spend another hour or two just marvelling at the view.
Hiking Trails Around the Sea to Sky Gondola
Shannon Falls towers above Howe Sound at 335 metres as the third tallest falls in BC. The wonderful, though very short trail winds through a beautiful old growth forest to get to the base of the falls. From your car to the viewpoint takes only about four minutes, however the trail continues a bit further to a higher viewpoint (five minutes higher). You can even continue along the trail and join with the Stawamus Chief trail which goes to the three summits of the Chief.
Driving Directions to the Sea to Sky Gondola
The Sea to Sky Gondola is easy to spot along the Sea to Sky Highway. The parking lot entrance(if driving from Vancouver) is on your right, just past the entrance to Shannon Falls Provincial Park. If you are driving from Squamish or Whistler you will have to drive past it as there is no turn lane from the north. You just have to turn left into Shannon Falls Provincial Park and then get back on the Sea to Sky Highway heading north and then turn right into the Sea to Sky Gondola parking lot. If you are wanting to park for more than three hours then you are asked to park at the Shannon Falls parking lot and hike the short trail to the Sea to Sky Gondola.