When it comes to exploring the great outdoors, British Columbia seems to have it all—hiking up to gorgeous waterfalls, kayaking around hidden lakes, and walking across suspension bridges in the forest.
Earlier this fall, I did all of the above while visiting Canada’s third-most populous province. It was the most active I had ever been in my entire life, and I loved every minute.
I always thought an outdoorsy trip was more aspirational than attainable, especially in a destination like British Columbia. The region’s mountainous terrain, rivers, and forests helped cement its position as one of the best places to do all things outdoors, even at the most extreme levels. (The Greater Vancouver area hosted the Winter Olympics in 2010.)
I’m so glad I proved myself wrong.
I was delighted to find that in BC, it’s not just about extreme sports and activities. In fact it was the perfect place for making outdoor adventures enjoyable for everyone, no matter the skill level.
At the invitation of Destination British Columbia, I arrived in the province with the goal of pursuing activities that anyone can do in two of its most popular destinations, Whistler and Vancouver, and its most up-and-coming, Squamish.
My trip started in Whistler, a skiing and snowboarding paradise in the winter and a hiking and biking haven in the fall. The weather was perfect. Warm and sunny during the day, with a crisp fall chill in the night. Many of the people I met reminded me that this was unusual for BC as it’s typically rainy and chilly during this time of year. I guess I brought some California sunshine with me. (You’re welcome, British Columbians.)
I wasted no time getting to the many outdoor adventures that awaited me in Whistler. First stop: Peak 2 Peak Gondola, the first of quite a few gondola rides to come during my BC stay.
I stayed in the center of Whistler Village at the Whistler Peak Lodge, which was a short seven minute walk to the gondola. I made sure to arrive not too long after opening time in case there would be long lines, but I guess everyone else had the same idea because there were a lot of people waiting to board.
I eventually made my way to the front of the line, and honestly I was not prepared for what was in store. It felt as if I were floating inside of a postcard with mountains and forests as the backdrop. The higher up we’d go on the gondola, the more beautiful the view became with skies so clear it was easy to see the surrounding mountains.
The 2.7-mile, 11-minute journey spans the distance between Whistler and Blackcomb mountains, and actually allows you to see both mountains on the same day. Once at the top of either mountain, there are countless trails to choose from and perfect opportunities to take photos.
Because I had a full day of activity ahead of me, I didn’t have time to explore the trails while atop the mountains, but I added it to what would become a long list of things to do when I visit again.
I eventually hopped aboard one of the gondolas heading back down the mountain. During my descent, I was even more awestruck. I paid closer attention to the forest beneath my feet. The trees were shades of green, red and brown, capturing the essence of autumn, my favorite time of the year.
After a full morning up in the mountains, I ventured back to Whistler Village for a bike ride to Lost Lake. Tranquil and sort of hidden within the forest, Lost Lake is best known for swimming, fishing and lounging in the sun in non-winter months. My activity of choice at the lake on this particular day, however, was kayaking.
Along with my gracious tour guide Jeannie from Whistler Eco Tours, we biked through some of Whistler’s Valley Trail on the way to the lake. The smell of pine and cedar wafted through the air as the wind blew in my face. We’d slow down as we passed pedestrians and their dogs along the mostly flat trail. There were some slight inclines, particularly as we got closer to the lake, but it was totally doable even for someone like me who doesn’t bike daily. I was warned that we might see a bear along the route. Luckily we didn’t see any bears, but we did see the excrement they left behind.
Once we made it to the lake, we parked our bikes and headed down to the water to prepare for kayaking. Even though there were people lounging and sunbathing, the lake wasn’t very crowded. Seeing the water be so still and peaceful sort of calmed my fears about kayaking for the first time. Thankfully, I didn’t have to do it alone. With Jeannie guiding me from the back seat of the kayak, we paddled our way around Lost Lake.
It took me a few tries to really get the hang of the paddles–I splashed water all over my clothes, and probably Jeannie’s too, but I think I did a pretty decent job for my first time. I can probably even do it solo now. Aside from the experience tiring my arms out, it was actually pretty fun.
Once we finished kayaking, we biked back to Whistler Village. I had a couple hours to kill before setting off on another outdoor jaunt, this time through an old-growth forest as part of Vallea Lumina, a multi-media night walk with a light show and radio transmissions telling the story of two long-ago hikers and their journey in the shadow of the mountains.
I had never walked in the woods at night before and it was a little scary. I started the trail behind a group of people, but I was alone at some stops along the path. There were lanterns attached to the trees that kept walkways lit, but much of the path was very dark. I kept thinking someone or something was going to jump out at me. Thankfully, that did not happen.
The beginning of the trail had a pretty steep incline that I was not prepared for. Plus, there were so many stairs. In retrospect, I would not have done this on the same day that involved a lot of walking, biking and kayaking. I should’ve definitely split this up over two days. I am not an athlete, but apparently I thought I was one in Whistler that day.
On the next leg of my trip, I made my way down to Squamish, the self-proclaimed “Outdoor Recreation Capital of Canada” situated between Whistler and Vancouver. I stayed at the Executive Suites Hotel & Resort, which is located in Squamish’s very residential Garibaldi Highlands neighborhood. On the drive there, I almost thought I took a wrong turn because there were lots of craftsman-style houses and townhomes. It didn’t seem like the type of neighborhood that would have a hotel.
Just as I did in Whistler, I started my day off with a gondola ride into the mountains. I didn’t think anything could top the Peak 2 Peak Gondola experience, but the Sea-to-Sky Gondola gave it a run for its money. Sea-to-Sky provided views of not only the lush forests of the region but of the long, deep body of water that makes up the Howe Sound, which extends from West Vancouver north to Squamish, and is surrounded by towering peaks that rise straight out of the sea. Stunning.
Because it wasn’t crowded that particular day, I was able to take in all of this natural beauty on a gondola by myself. The ride was a little nerve wracking at first, but my nerves melted away the minute I saw the beautiful blue waters of the Howe Sound.
Once at the top of the Sea-to-Sky summit, I had access to numerous hiking trails, viewing platforms, a nearly 330-ft long suspension bridge, and rock climbing. I was most excited about the suspension bridge because it was something I had never seen before in person. It’s still hard to believe that multiple people can walk across a bridge made of steel cables without it collapsing into the forest. That thought crossed my mind more than once as I walked across the bridge.
I stopped for a photo or two while on the bridge, but I was mostly focused on getting to the other side. With at least 10 other people trying to get across at once, it made for a very wobbly trek.
Once I made it to the other side, the vistas took my breath away. Along the Spirit and Panorama loop trails, I was able to get 360 views that swept from the high alpine of the mountains to the Howe Sound below. Both trails took about 20-30 minutes each to complete and were mostly flat.
I ended my outdoor adventure for the day at Shannon Falls Provincial Park, just over a mile south of Squamish, to see British Columbia’s third tallest waterfall. (It drops from 1,105 feet–almost as high as the Empire State Building!) I followed a super easy 0.6 mile loop to get to the lookout platform on the first level. Normally I’m the type to find it sufficient to see the waterfall and get good photos, but I decided to challenge myself by hiking up to the second lookout. It wasn’t exactly difficult, but there were a significant amount of stairs to climb just to get up there. It was totally worth it even if I huffed and puffed my way up as the view of the waterfall was incredible. For about 10 minutes, I listened to the soothing sounds of the water as it flowed down the mountain. It was the best way to wrap up my time in Squamish.
By the time the final leg of my British Columbia journey arrived, I had gotten used to starting my day off with a lift up the mountain just as I did in Whistler and Squamish. So I did the same in Vancouver by taking the Skyride, North America’s largest aerial tramway, up to Grouse Mountain.
On the way up, I was rewarded with a panorama of Vancouver, the Pacific Ocean, and the surrounding forest. I was lucky enough to board the tram first and pick the side with the best view. Eventually, it was packed with people on every corner of the tram. With more people comes less space to move around, however, and if you end up on the wrong side of the tram, you won’t get any good views. For that reason, I prefer the gondola experiences in Whistler and Squamish.
Still, I enjoyed my time at Grouse Mountain. At the top, there was a wildlife refuge for grizzly bears, owls, and hummingbirds and the Grouse Grind—commonly referred to as “Mother Nature’s Stairmaster”— a 1.5-mile trail with an elevation gain of 2,624 feet. This hike is so steep that downhill hiking is not even permitted. Hikers must purchase a ticket for a Skyride trip down the mountain. Even before I got to Grouse Mountain, I had already decided that I wasn’t going to even attempt that trail. So I opted to see the bears at the wildlife refuge instead.
After enjoying a visit with the bears, I decided I wanted a closer look at the Douglas Firs in the distance so I hiked up a short but very steep hill to get there. I took my time going up, which wasn’t too bad. It was the coming down part that almost sent me rolling down the hill because the path was sandy in some parts and rocky in others. Luckily, I didn’t fall.
That short hike was enough to tire me out, but I had to find some energy for a visit to Capilano Suspension Bridge Park. Yup. Another day, another suspension bridge. I quickly boarded the Skyride to head back down the mountain. Seven minutes down the road, I drove to the suspension bridge, which was even more crowded than the one in Squamish. There were people holding up the line because they were taking photos on one end of the bridge. On the other end, someone was helping a dog slowly walk across. I assume the pup was a bit nervous.
But perhaps like me the pup put aside nerves when taking in the full expanse of the North Shore mountains in the distance and the rushing Capilano River at the foot of the canyon below.
There were also seven (seven!) additional suspension bridges hanging high in the trees with viewing platforms to see the surrounding rainforest. You’ll certainly get your steps in here, I certainly did.
Kayaking around a lake, biking around Whistler and walking in the forest—at this point, I’d already done more outdoor adventure in this little trip than any of my other vacations combined. But I had one more to go, and it turned out I saved the best for last: a bike ride along the world’s longest uninterrupted waterfront path: the Seawall, which runs 9.4 miles with fantastic views of downtown Vancouver.
After checking out of the Pinnacle Hotel Harbourfront in downtown Vancouver, I rented an e-bike and headed straight for the Seawall, which was about a 10-minute ride away. I didn’t have time to bike the entire route as I only had a few hours left before my flight back home. As I made my way along the path, I saw the North Shore mountains, which looked kind of shadowy behind the clouds. I also saw the Lions Gate Bridge, which reminded me of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco except its suspension towers are green instead of orange.
One of my favorite things about this path was how accessible it was not just for cyclists but for walkers, too. Plus, there were lots of benches along the route as well, which I certainly took advantage of when I needed short breaks.
Out of all the activities I did in British Columbia, biking the Seawall is the main one I feel I must experience again because of what I didn’t get to see. I really wanted to bike up to Prospect Point, which can be accessed from the Seawall. Apparently, the climb up is very steep but it offers some of the best views in Vancouver. Next time, I’ll make sure I have enough time to bike the entire route.