Mini road trip: Seattle to Whistler
This journey takes us over the border into Canada and onwards to Whistler along Highway 99 – better known as the Sea to Sky Highway. It’s one of the most scenic drives in the Pacific Northwest. You’ll pass though coastal rainforest, pine-clad mountains and the deep blue waters of Howe Sound. There are incredible views at every turn and the landscape here offers some of the best outdoor recreation opportunities in all of North America.
Without stopping, the drive would take just over four hours – but with so many reasons to get out of the car, we’re sure you’ll want to set aside the whole day…
Leave Seattle behind and head north on Interstate 5 towards the laid-back town of Bellingham, just before the Canadian border. At Burlington, take the exit on to Route 11, where a stretch of road known as the Chuckanut Drive Scenic Byway follows one of the prettiest patches of coastline in Washington.
Our first stop was once a rough-and-ready port town, but over the years its downtown core has transformed into an atmospheric central zone filled with coffee shops, microbreweries, indie boutiques and galleries. Also a jumping off point for ferries to the San Juan islands, Victoria, the Inside Passage and Alaska, the town’s waterfront area has been spruced up too. Formerly run down, it’s slowly become a go-to area for pedestrians, with a waterfront trail and new parks.
Whytecliff Park and Howe Sound
Cross the US-Canada border and head towards Vancouver. This thriving city deserves a separate side trip of its own, but for our mini road trip we’re continuing north towards Whytecliff Park, a great place to stop for a picnic lunch.
Set near West Vancouver’s Horseshoe Bay neighbourhood, this rugged beach park became Canada’s first Marine Protected Area in 1993. You’ll easily find a secluded driftwood-strewn spot to view the rocky islands and still waters of Howe Sound, criss-crossed all day by ferries serving Vancouver and the Sunshine Coast.
Rough but manageable trails lead to clifftops for the best views. Those specks in the water that look like people probably are; the marine park is a popular spot for scuba divers who think nothing of driving up here after office hours to swap a work suit for a wetsuit.
About 15 minutes north of Whytecliff is the sleepy little village of Lions Bay. Stop for coffee overlooking the ocean and stock up on freshly made sandwiches at the cute general store. You’re now travelling on Highway 99, otherwise known as the Sea to Sky Highway, where an alternative picnic spot is at Shannon Falls Provincial Park about 25 minutes north of Lions Bay.
The park can get busy in the height of summer so arrive before midday to secure a picnic table. Then work off your lunch with a walk to the base of the falls along the boardwalk and well-maintained trail. Surrounded by old growth trees and a permanent mist, you’ll hear the water’s thundering roar before the falls come into view. Easy accessibility and the non-strenuous hike make this one of the Sea to Sky Highway’s most popular places to pull over.
If you want to split this journey over two days, Squamish would be a great option for an overnight stop. An old mill and logging town, Squamish is now more focused on the tourist dollar, as well as being home to many ex-Vancouverites who’ve moved up here to escape the high rents of the city.
The adventure sports and hiking scene is huge. The self-proclaimed Outdoor Recreation Capital of Canada offers every kind of adrenaline activity imaginable, including rock climbing, canoeing, whitewater rafting, kite surfing, stand-up paddleboarding, mountain biking, scuba diving, sailing, dirt biking and cross-country skiing – phew. The less mobile and energetic don’t need to miss out either – try eagle viewing, flightseeing, snowmobiling, golfing or horseriding for starters. Accommodation options range from hotels and B&Bs to campsites, RV parks and log cabins along the riverside.
Garibaldi Provincial Park
The word ‘provincial’ might make it sound rather tame, but Garibaldi Provincial Park comprises almost 200,000 hectares and is one of the most dramatic – and accessible – wilderness areas in Canada. This is real backcountry stuff: a rugged skyline of steep volcanic mountains, wildflower alpine meadows, near-impenetrable cedar forests and a number of impressive turquoise lakes. Glacier-encircled Wedgemount Lake and 300 metre-deep Garibaldi Lake are two of the most popular, both of which can be reached via several moderate-to-challenging hiking trails.
Garibaldi Park covers a huge swathe of land between Squamish and Whistler. This is an area with a high concentration of black bears and you’ll need to be bear aware when hiking or travelling through. If you encounter a bear, this will undoubtedly be one of the most memorable moments of your trip, but do take some time to educate yourself so you’ll know what to do to stay safe.
Continue onwards to the premier year-round mountain resort of Whistler. Everything you can do in Squamish and Garibaldi you can also do here, with the added bonus of more than 200 shops, world class spas, four championship golf courses and 100+ restaurants and bars.
Whistler’s two towering peaks – Whistler and Blackcomb – are spanned by the world-record breaking Peak 2 Peak Gondola which has the world’s longest unsupported span and is the highest lift of its kind, at 436 metres above the valley floor. The Peak Chair is also open daily, whisking visitors to the top of Whistler Mountain for all-encompassing views and easy trails into the summit terrain. The Whistler alpine experience can even include wine-tasting on a mountain-top patio or high tea at an alpine hut.
Unless you fancy driving back to Seattle straight away – and we guarantee you won’t – you’ll need somewhere to stay. For the ultimate in mountain luxury, the Fairmont Chateau Whistler and the Four Seasons Resort are arguably the best hotels in town. Another two options right in the heart of Whistler village are Crystal Lodge and Delta Whistler Village Suites, both of which have hot tubs and pools.