Glaciated mountains, wind-whipped bays and hectares of wildlife, the wilderness around Squamish, British Columbia, is waiting to be explored. Although sometimes overshadowed by the well-groomed slopes of Whistler to the north or the cosmopolitan delights of Vancouver to the south, Squamish has a growing list of year-round activities to make it a destination all its own.
The self-proclaimed 'Outdoor Recreation Capital of Canada,' Squamish is a frequent summer destination for travelers eager to experience BC’s green outdoors, but few are aware of the sheer number of activities available, regardless of the time of year. From hitting the backcountry slopes to having an après-ski pint at a local brewery, or from spotting wildlife from an inflatable raft to experiencing the musty thrill of descending into a copper mine, Squamish is the perfect perennial playground.
Backcountry and Nordic skiing
The snowy wilderness around Squamish is free of the lift lanes and crowds found in the resort-heavy areas up north. At nearly 195,000 hectares of rugged trails, glacier-cut valleys and old-growth forests, Garibaldi Provincial Park (env.gov.bc.ca) is an off-piste dream. The popular Elfin Lakes Trail leads skiers past snowcapped peaks and frosted meadows to the Elfin Lakes Shelter, where visitors can stay overnight. Just 50km north of Squamish, the Callaghan Valley offers some of the best Nordic skiing opportunities in all of BC, and there are over 100km of trails with varying degrees of difficulty. Remember to check the avalanche bulletins before heading out – snowslides are common.
Every winter, thousands of eagles come to Squamish to feed on spawning salmon, and local rafting companies like Sunwolf (sunwolf.net) offer a great way to spot the majestic birds. Bring a pair of binoculars to see bald eagles as they swoop across the river or fight over scraps of fish along the banks.
For those who prefer to stick to dry land, Brackendale Eagles Provincial Park (env.gov.bc.ca) is a 755-hectare park dedicated to maintaining healthy habitats for the birds, and the Eagle Run viewing facility gives bird-watchers a chance to see them through telescopes. The best time to spot eagles is mid-December to mid-January.
Quick tip: Hope for cold weather. In low temperatures, the eagles roost to stay warm, and they can be seen low in the trees. On warmer days, the eagles soar on the thermals high above, just out of sight.
Lace up those hiking boots and get ready for some of the best hikes in the province. A local favorite is the trek up Stawamus Chief (aka The Chief), one of the world’s largest granite monoliths. The hike is difficult, but it rewards the sure-footed with sweeping views of Howe Sound and Squamish. Keep an eye out for peregrine falcons that nest in The Chief’s crevices. For something easier on the knees, try the Four Lakes Trail in Alice Lake Provincial Park (env.gov.bc.ca), a 6km loop that meanders through tree-lined lakes and creeks.
With challenging granite crags, incredible views and at least two dozen climbing areas, Squamish has been testing the grip strength of rock climbers for years. If the weather’s bad, head over to Ground Up (climbgroundup.com), Squamish’s very own indoor rock climbing gym, offering lessons to beginners and a variety of difficulties for seasoned scramblers.
Rock-climbing newbies can also check out a via ferrata route. Italian for ‘iron way’, via ferrata is a vertical climb using metal rungs and a cable system. The route available at Sea to Sky Gondola is suitable for all ages.
Windsurfing and kiteboarding
On the Squamish Spit, a 160m-long peninsula of land that juts out of the mouth of the Squamish River into Howe Sound, the conditions are perfect for windsurfing and kiteboarding. Protected from rough surf by Vancouver Island and yet tossed by consistent southeasterly winds, the waters around Squamish attract wind-riders from all over the world. On a clear summer day, the fluttering sails of dozens of windsurfers and kiteboarders can be spotted in the sound. Check out one of the many groups that offer lessons to find out how much of a ‘breeze’ these activities really are.
Quick tip: This whirlwind of activity reaches its peak during the three-day Squamish Wind Festival (squamishwindfestival.com), held every July.
The Squamish River watershed is home to a variety of wild-to-mild rafting routes that meander through the region’s most scenic areas. Spot bears from the safety of a gentle float, or get the adrenaline racing with an action-packed trip down one of the upper routes like Elaho River, where rafters see pristine glaciers and crystalline waterfalls and the rapids are of the heart-pounding Class IV variety. Operators like Canadian Outback Rafting (canadianoutbackrafting.com) provide training and necessary safety equipment.
Any time of year
Sea to Sky Gondola
Completed in 2014, the Sea to Sky Gondola provides access to hectares of rugged backcountry around Mt Habrich, a 1792m horn of granite sticking out of the Coastal Range. The 10-minute ride up gives visitors a chance to take in the bird’s-eye views of Howe Sound and the surrounding mountains. During the ride, keep an eye out for the stern, granite face of nearby Stawamus Chief overlooking Squamish like a massive, rough-cut Sphinx. Whatever the season, the views are spectacular.
Quick tip: Time-limited hikers should check out the Panorama Trail, a quick, 1.6km loop through a sun-dappled forest that leads to a wooden platform and a striking 180°-plus view of Howe Sound.
Britannia Mine Museum
In 1900 the Britannia Mine opened, bringing a minor mineral rush to the area. Underground tunnels stretching 210km were dug into Britannia Mountain in search of precious metals like copper, zinc and gold. At its peak, the Britannia Mine was Canada’s largest copper producer, but the minerals dried up and the mine shut down. The museum, occupying the facility’s former space, offers visitors a chance to travel inside the old mining tunnels, as well as providing a fascinating glimpse at artifacts and historical records of the mine.
Brewery and distillery tours
BC is awash in craft beer and small-batch distilleries, and Squamish doesn’t disappoint. Howe Sound Brewing (howesound.com) has been rolling out barrels of hand-crafted ales and lagers since 1996, and their free brewery tours give visitors an inside look at their process of mixing malt, yeast and hops to create a growing list of award-winning beers. New to the tipple game is Gillespie’s Fine Spirits (gillespiesfinespirits.com), a Squamish-based distillery specializing in gins, vodkas and specialty cocktails.
Where to stay
If you have the equipment, camping is the best budget option around Squamish. Alice Lake Provincial Park (camis.com/DiscoverCamping) has over 100 places to pitch your tent, plus four freshwater lakes, kilometers of trails and several interpretive programs.
For mid-range travelers Sunwolf (sunwolf.net) is an excellent place to spend a few idyllic nights. Ten small but well-furnished riverside cabins sit right on the banks of the Cheakamus River.
Top-end accommodations can be found further afield in Whistler, where travelers can have their pick of luxury digs. Our favorite is Edgewater Lodge, a picturesque property hidden within 42 acres of forest on the shores of Green Lake.
Alexander Howard traveled to Squamish with support from Destination British Columbia. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.