Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Sea to Sky Gondola

with 4 comments

Arriving at Summit

Ever since I heard about this proposal I have been looking forward to riding this gondola. I had no sympathy at all for those who opposed it. This is the only way that most people can experience the alpine, and the impact on the regional park – and the Stawamus Chief in particular – is negligible. While a great deal of media coverage was devoted to “concerns” about the Provincial Park, the gondola actually is on land outside the park boundaries. What it does do is make it possible for ordinary people to enjoy the view over Howe Sound, and appreciate the beauty of the surroundings – as well as what is being done to them. I felt then – and still do – that much of the sentiment expressed was of the “after me, no more” principle. The young and super fit can climb mountains and they feel that should remain their exclusive domain. Most gondola installations have been to promote winter sports, especially skiing. There are many more recreational opportunities that the Sea to Sky gondola opens up – if you are in that small group of people capable of thriving in the back country. For people just looking for exercise, and a new place to do that, I am told that the Sea To Summit trail is “better than the Grouse Grind” – whatever that means. The cost of an adult day ticket ($34.95 plus tax) is only $9.95 for those wanting to hike up and ride down. There are also (small) discounts for booking on line

Sea to Sky Gondola

It opened while we were in Italy – and yesterday they had a summer solstice festival, which I hear was quite successful. So we tried to get there early on Sunday to beat the crowds. We also had lunch at the peak as they have Howe Sound Brewery ales on tap, including the quite spectacular Sky Pilot ale. Why they apologized that it was not called an IPA I have no idea. The view from the bar terrace is terrific.

Sea to Sky overview

The operators have built two easy trails: the Panorama Trail (1.6km) to the Chief Viewing Platform and the Spirit Trail (400m) – both gravel surfaced, gently graded and thus accessible to both wheelchairs and strollers. There is also a somewhat superfluous suspension bridge which adds to the appeal for many visitors. I quite like the view straight down into the tops of the trees, but there are many who are nervous of such structures. Of course the Capilano Bridge is a tourist attraction in its own right and one that has been financially successful despite the (in my view) superior and free alternative across Lynn Canyon.

Sky Pilot Suspension Bridge

To get there, you have to drive. The operator thinks that there is plenty of public transport and only operates its own shuttle bus between the base and the long term parking lot at weekends. What would have been far better, of course, is a regular passenger train service. The sale of BC Rail makes that a highly unlikely possibility. The only service now is the Whistler Mountaineer – a service owned by Peter Armstrong, and aimed squarely at wealthy visitors. It does not provide any service to the local communities along it route. Nor will it.

Sea to Sky Gondola pano

I am not going to simply write a promotional piece for a private sector developer (which includes Mountain Equipment Co-op) , but I will say that I was impressed, and I will bring visitors here in future. I have no doubt at all that there will be more development of this new destination. That’s actually a Good Thing. I have used a tourism oriented gondola in Charlotte Amelie, on St Thomas – one of the US Virgin Islands. It gives a nice view of the cruise ship terminal – and that’s all. I felt somewhat swindled. The Sea to Sky is expensive, and it is over an hour from Vancouver if you drive the speed limit (no-one else does) and there is the usual downtown traffic – Burrard Bridge rehabilitation and a partial closure of Howe Street for the Jazz festival just being the start of the summer festivities. But I felt it well worthwhile and I am happy to recommend it.

First Span

Written by Stephen Rees

June 23, 2014 at 9:55 am

Posted in tourism, Transportation

Tagged with ,

4 Responses

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  1. there is a gentle balance to find between accessibility, promoting outdoor activities and keeping a sense of wilderness.

    The Gondola is one thing, allowing effectively a wider audience to enjoy the alpine terrain
    (Sea to Sky tourist offices are fulll of pictures of such terrain, like Brandywine meadow, almost requiring a 4×4 to access, and a 4-5h hike return…that is alas the norm here, …for the bulk of people looking for a ~2h hike, there is usually nothing good to propose)

    to be sure the debate is not limited to the Gondola.
    there is also debate to install or not huts (and if so what kind of hut?) in the backcountry.
    (Here, if you want do a multi day trip, especially winter trip traverse like the Spearhead behind whistler, you have to be fully autonomous, when in Europe, there is usually a very well developped network of huts, greatly improving the back country accessibility, but also changing the nature of the backcountry experience)

    This site presents a side of the debate,
    I post the link, because there is also a section on the difficulty to have biker and hiker co-exist peacefully
    (which remind me the kits beach park debate!)


    June 23, 2014 at 9:36 pm

  2. I was a bit skeptical of this plan when it was proposed, but from all accounts they’ve done an excellent job balancing wilderness with accessibility. If it’s nice on Canada Day, we’re planning on hiking the Sea To Summit trail.


    June 23, 2014 at 10:35 pm

  3. The area around the top station has a number of bare rock “platforms” which make great viewing areas. The trails have branches off them towards these areas, but the actual access is usually bare earth. I suspect as foot traffic grows and run off exposes more rock this will change. And, of course, if you are going to have a viewing area, there has to be some cutting of trees and scrub. The last time I drove back down the Sea to Sky Highway from Squamish, I stopped at all the indicated “view points”. In most cases there is no little or no view as the scrub has not been controlled effectively.

    At my age and state of health I have no intention of going into the back country or exploring wilderness. And every time I read another story about some gormless tourist having to be rescued off the North Shore mountains, my resolve is strengthened.

    Stephen Rees

    June 24, 2014 at 7:33 am

  4. Stephen, I entirely agree with your position on the gondola project. It sounds to be a great tourist attraction and a great way to get more people out into the wilderness of the south coast region with a lot less impact on the environment than a road would have had.

    As to the demise of BC Rail and its replacement by the Whistler Mountaineer, I am not so sad about that. I took the train from Vancouver to Whistler quite a few times when I was young, and it was a super alternative to the bus or hitch-hiking, but how long can a transportation service like that continue to operate at a loss? I know that it could be considered public transit, but I don’t think that much of the public would agree with that. Rich skiers, overpriced alpine playground and all of that.

    There was a very long, complimentary article about the Rocky Mountaineer operation in the Vancouver Sun a day or two ago (July 3 or 4, 2014) and the impact that it has on tourism and the economy in Kamloops.

    You mentioned that Peter Armstrong owns the Rocky Mountaineer/ Whistler Mountaineer rail business. He is now the lead in the NPA’s campaign for this fall’s Vancouver municipal election. I wonder whether his experience in running trains will have any effect on the NPA and debates about transit.

    Adam Fitch

    July 6, 2014 at 6:19 pm

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