Review: Canada’s Latest, Greatest Gondola

In 2011, a proposal was presented to build a $22 million, Austrian-inspired mountain gondola on the Sea-to-Sky Highway, overlooking the imposing Stawamus Chief, and located just before the town of Squamish.   While climbers from around the world challenge the imposing rock, the view from atop the Chief makes it a Bucket List day-hike (which is why I included it in my book).   Plans to develop the attraction were met with some concern, as locals worried about tourists crowding the Chief, robbing hikers and climbers of their hard-earned reward.  These concerns were alleviated when four different authorities gave the project its blessing.   Three years later, the Sea-to-Sky Gondola has opened for business, and it’s getting my blessing too.

Hikers of the world, relax.  The gondola steers well clear of the Chief, instead running up a nearby ridge, offering astounding views of the Howe fjord, Sky Pilot mountain, Diamond Head Mountain and the Chief itself.  Viewing platforms and the deck of the Summit Lodge reveal the the highway below snaking along the coast. Here you can see why the Sea-to-Sky Highway deserves its name.  The gondola rises 849 metres to the summit, where visitors can walk on well-marked, comfortably graded paths to various lookouts.  Overlooked by the twin peaks of Sky Pilot,  the 90-metre long, 65-metre high suspension bridge is the most picturesque I’ve ever seen anywhere in the world.   The surrounding landscape is BC coastal scenery at its very best, enjoyed on the lodge’s sunny patio deck with a cold craft beer.  The lodge can accommodate 600 people, and no surprise that weddings and private functions are booking fast.

Other than a month-long seasonal closure in the fall, the Sea-to-Sky Gondola will run year-round.  There are plans for more trails, mountain bike and climbing routes, with snowshoe and cross-country trails in winter. Serious hikers can use the gondola to access backcountry trails, or even forgo the ascent and hike up the ridge, with a $10 download ticket to return to the free parking lot.  I bumped into some folks who had done just that and it took them 2.5 hours to hike up – ideal for those looking for a change of scenery and bigger challenge than Vancouver’s Grouse Grind.    The average visitor will spend 2-3 hours on the top, exploring the lookout points on the wheel-chair friendly 1km Panorama Trail, a meal from the canteen, and the sweeping views of the coastal mountains.  Adult day pass is $35, teens $23, kids $14 and under 6 free.

Ultimately, everyone touching this attraction should be smiling.  With impressive sensitivity to both the natural and cultural environment, the owners have invested in a first-class eco-tourist attraction.   Squamish, Whistler, the First Nations and adjacent Shannon Falls Provincial Park will benefit economically from the increase in tourist traffic.  And the visitor will benefit from a remarkable view and additional must-do on one of the most beautiful drives in Canada.   The mighty Chief can breathe deep too, knowing the Sea to Sky Gondola not only preserves his legacy, it has allowed so many more people to appreciate the beauty of his surroundings.

– Robin Esrock

Great Canadian Bucket List