6 Ways to Get Wild in British Columbia

Ancient ice caves, glacier-fed lakes, and epic climbing routes await you in B.C.

6 Ways to Get Wild in British Columbia

Ancient ice caves, glacier-fed lakes, and epic climbing routes await you in B.C.

British Columbia isn’t just for storm chasers. With the third largest parks system in North America, Canada’s westernmost province is an adventurer’s paradise year-round. The Sea-to-Sky Corridor stretches along Highway 99 from Vancouver to Squamish and on up to just beyond Whistler. Running along the highway are ancient ice landscapes and the imposing peaks and canyons left where they've thawed. Enter Emily Harrington, a prominent figure in the rock climbing world who’s transitioned into an all-around, all-out mountain adventurer. "British Columbia was spectacular in its beauty and wildness, as expected, but the most memorable aspect for me was the variety of activities one could experience. It's one of the most accessible and high quality mountain playgrounds I have ever visited." Here are six heart-palpitating ways to enjoy B.C. like Harrington does—no slopes required.

HELICOPTER TO AN ICE CAVE

Emily Harrington enters a sparkling ice cave near Whistler, British Colombia. (Video by Bryan Smith, Reel Water Productions)

You don’t have to travel to the Arctic for a perennial frozen expedition. While B.C. is home to a number of ice fields, the one Emily visited with Headline Mountain Holidays is the largest this far south, spanning some 198 square miles and routinely masquerading as polar places in film. The best way to explore it? By bright red A-Star helicopter. Climb aboard with Headline Mountain Holidays for a guided tour that bobs and weaves between peaks of the Coast Mountains en route to the glaciers. There, you’ll disembark to explore an ice cave, a veritable palace of icy aqua chambers, each maze aglow with spires, frozen flows, and native sculptures in naturally formed grand halls. Soak it in over a hearty lunch, included in the excursion.

TRAVEL PEAK-TO-PEAK IN A GONDOLA

Peaks, valleys, and bears—from the sky. Linking Whistler Mountain and Blackcomb Peak, the window-lined PEAK 2 PEAK Gondola puts epic, vast views of the wilderness in your sightline no matter which way you turn. Hovering some 1,500 feet above the valley floor, the gondola reveals a different jaw-dropping vista on each ascent, providing access to Garibaldi Provincial Park’s 750-plus square miles of backcountry. The nearly three-mile journey takes 11 minutes and breaks multiple Guinness World Records—each of which promises to make your stomach drop in adrenaline-rush excitement.

EXPLORE THE ALPINE

More than just a pretty view, the gondola serves as the gateway to a wild playground, with more than 30 miles of trails, black bear sightings among a veritable metropolis of wild flowers, and more at its zenith. Spend a few hours exploring the alpine, toeing the High Note Trail from Whistler Peak into Garibaldi, with the option to go onto the base of Flute Bowl, the locally famed hot spot for backcountry storm chasers during snowier seasons. For next-level panoramas without the hike, opt for the open-air coast to 7th Heaven, the highest lift-accessed summit in the Coast Mountain range (only open for a limited time during the summer).

PADDLE AN ICY BLUE LAKE

The eerily beautiful hue of glacier-fed Green Lake makes it look more like a Caribbean sea than a shallow body of water. Here, floatplanes dance across the surface before buzzing off into the sky, with the Wedge Mountain and Armchair Glacier as a backdrop. Rent a stand-up paddleboard or a kayak to stroke the lake’s surface and watch them as they take off and land before bracing yourself for an exhilarating—and refreshing!—dip in the always-chill glacier waters.

RAPPEL DOWN A GRANITE CLIFF FACE

Emily Harrington makes quick work of the multi-pitch Showcase Spire near Whistler. British Columbia offers climbing routes for all skill levels to explore. (Video by Bryan Smith, Reel Water Productions)

Three pitches, each one more trying than the last, ascend a granite face in Cheakamus Canyon, where a few boulder problems and hundreds of sport climbs spider its steep walls. For a fun climb with transcendent views, look for a small pile of rocks north of the parking area that signifies the trailhead scramble to Star Chek. An intermediate trio of pitches with moves rated 5.7 to 5.9, Star Chek starts at the base of a 300-foot rappel, where you’ll retrace your descent one hold at a time as jade-colored rapids whir in the Cheakamus River below.

TACKLE THE CHIEF

One of the most classic hikes in the Sea-to-Sky Corridor, the Stawamus Chief trail known locally as simply the Chief, is on the up and up from the very start, with steep ascents and chains and ladders to aid you in conquering its more technical parts. The trail links three distinct summits, the first a shorter, albeit still moderately strenuous hike that pays off with incredible views of Howe Sound. For a longer experience, head to Second Peak. Its sprawling summit shows off Squamish and Garibaldi in the distance, as well as First and Third Peaks. Take a good look, because that’s where you’re headed next: to master the large granite slab that marks the third and final peak in the series. Allow about six hours to summit the latter two peaks in one go.

WHERE TO STAY

Just outside of Whistler Village, the Fairmont Chateau Whistler grounds alpine adventure and soft mountain comfort with an experience guide on call should you need some inspiration. Though small and privately owned, the Sundial Boutique Hotel doesn’t skimp on amenities—there’s a rooftop hot tub set against the mountains and options for in-suite hot tubs for guests who want a private soak.

WHAT TO EAT

French meets West Coast at the Red Door Bistro, a tiny spot that focuses on local, organic ingredients accompanied by a superior wine list. Forget to make a reservation? Put your name down and warm up with a drink in the pub next door. Sweet and savory pies alike line the case at Peaked Pies, an Australian joint that serves cheap eats “peaked” with mashed potatoes, mushy green peas, and gravy.

HIDDEN GEM

The architecturally stunning Audain Art Museum is small but mighty, showcasing B.C. art representing First Nations works alongside contemporary pieces. Active adventuring calls for a rest day at Scandinave Spa, where outdoor hot and cold baths and hydrotherapy fixtures are nestled among the spruce and cedar forest.

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO

Easy to access no matter your mode of transportation, Whistler sits less than two hours north of Vancouver on a scenic drive along the Sea to Sky Highway. There are also flight transfers from neighboring major international airports like Vancouver, Seattle, and Bellingham, with shuttle and helicopter transfers also available. Keep in mind that temperatures on the mountains can be 44-50 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than in the valley, with winter (December–February) lows in Whistler Village dropping to 18ºF on average and summer (June–September) temps topping out around 80ºF.


Hannah-Lott Schwartz is a California based travel writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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