HALFWAY THROUGH THE TREK to Harmony Lake on Whistler Mountain I became lost in the view—a celestial scene of snowy cathedral-like peaks rising above a lush forested valley to kiss the cloud bank. But my reverie was cut short when a hiking companion whispered, “Don’t move. Look to your right.” Fully expecting to see some type of creepy crawler, I followed his gaze to a boulder less than an arm’s length away. There sat a furry, sandy-colored marmot munching on bright blue arctic lupine. Little did I know at the time that the flower-snacking critter was wildlife royalty in Whistler.
Back at the gondola station a guide filled us in. The hoary marmot was nicknamed “the whistler” by British settlers in the early 1900s because of the shrill noise it makes when alerting pals to danger. In the 1960s, four Vancouver entrepreneurs began development of Canada’s premier ski destination and successfully petitioned government officials to change the name of London Mountain to Whistler Mountain, in honor of its cuddliest inhabitants.
If you’ve only experienced Whistler during the winter, then you’ve likely never met a marmot. The creatures don’t emerge from their burrows until mid-May, as the snow begins to melt, at which point they gorge on grasses and flowers. If you ask me, they have the right idea: Whistler is at its best when the weather warms up.
Besides the usual off-season perks—minimal crowds, hotel discounts, and negligible waits for attractions—there are more things to see and do in summer than in winter. There’s boating and kayaking on azure waterways, zip-lining through coastal rain forest, mountain biking on an adrenaline-inducing jumps course, alpine hiking, gondola riding, golfing and, yes, high-altitude skiing and snowboarding. You can now also hit the Whistler Sliding Centre, site of the bobsleigh, luge, and skeleton events for the 2010 Olympic Games.
A five-hour trip north of Seattle on I-5—assuming the line at the Canadian border is mercifully short—the drive to Whistler is made more tolerable via the less-trafficked Pacific Highway border crossing via State Route 543. We stopped for a bite and a latte in Vancouver, then pushed north on the Sea to Sky Highway, which curves around the hypnotizing turquoise waters of Howe Sound and climbs into the jagged Coast Mountains.
The Four Seasons Resort Whistler, located in the upper village, served as our base. Surrounded by a dense evergreen wall, the posh timber-and-stone lodge features spacious wood-trimmed rooms with snowbank-size beds and cozy fireplaces. We tossed the keys to the valet, stashed the bags in our rooms, and dashed off to the Whistler Village Gondola.
Gliding up the side of the mountain, we watched mountain bikers descending 4,900 vertical feet of lift-serviced trails at the Whistler Mountain Bike Park. Dusty, helmeted, and clad in hard plastic protective gear as if dressed for a match in the Thunderdome, the riders raced down the more than 200 trails ranging from gentle banked cruisers to twisted single track to steep rock faces. One guy wiped out and slid briefly on the rough terrain before standing up to reveal his freshly skinned leg. I vowed to stay clear of the park. One of my daredevil travel companions, on the other hand, rented a bike and gear and abandoned our group to spend the rest of the trip on the course.
The gondola ride ends at the mountain’s 6,069-foot peak, the starting point for numerous hiking excursions. Blackcomb and Whistler combined have over 30 miles of well-groomed trails, including the one-and-a-half-mile path to Harmony Lake where we met our marmot friend. Traveling between the two mountains is effortless on the Peak 2 Peak Gondola. An impressive feat of engineering, the nearly three-mile gondola holds the world records for being the longest free-span lift and the highest detachable lift. The 11-minute trip between peaks offers nonstop jaw-dropping views.