British Columbia Road Trip

Such Great Heights

By Allison Williams March 23, 2012 Published in the April 2012 issue of Seattle Met

Photo: Courtesy Grouse Mountain

Grouse Mountain’s Eye of the Wind

5 Days | 570 Miles Round Trip *

I had just one goal in British Columbia: vertigo. The province has a strange affinity for dangling, suspending, and swinging people from absurd heights, so that seemed achievable. I have no fear of heights, but I wanted to be truly wowed by their sky-high trams and trolleys. Just try to freak me out, Canada.

First up on the BC loop is North Vancouver, where the Capilano River gorge sits 10 minutes from downtown. A century ago, an enterprising Vancouverite built a swinging suspension bridge from one side of the plunging crevasse to the other; now the compound includes a Swiss Family Robinson–style network of tree platforms and the new Cliffwalk. Open since June 2011 and hovering at an improbable angle over the gorge, the cantilevered walkway is only as thick as a few two-by-fours—but it’s stable. So solid, really, that it’s hard to access the terror the 1903 visitors felt when they inched across the chasm’s first cable bridge.

You barely have to move the car to get to Vancouver’s next stomach-churning site, Grouse Mountain. An aerial tram only gets you to a ski base, also home to zip lines and a grizzly bear habitat; it takes a chairlift to reach the lone 215-foot windmill, shiny and white enough to have been made by Apple.

Grouse’s Eye of the Wind exists to generate a quarter of the ski area’s power, but it also promotes clean energy and offers a view from 20 stories up. The glass bubble provides sight lines in every direction while 12,200-pound blades slowly rotate outside. The one-of-a-kind platform does wobble a bit in the wind, but scary? Not really, at least not until a supervillain turns the bizarre lookout into his lair.

From North Vancouver, Highway 99 winds up Horseshoe Bay to Whistler, but the twisty two hours don’t terrify drivers as much as they used to. The aptly named Sea-to-Sky Highway was widened for the 2010 Olympics, resulting in an astounding 66 percent fewer car crashes.

Whistler’s high-end ski village has only grown since the Games. Dining is trending to local ingredients, with local chef Owen Foster introducing a buzzy charcuterie program to restaurants like Alta Bistro and Aura. Dig in to salty bresaola and coppa while decoding the Whistler-Blackcomb map; gondolas, high-speed quads, T-bars, and ski runs crisscross the two mountains like Chutes and Ladders. The year-round Peak 2 Peak Gondola traverses them all and the valley that bisects Whistler and Blackcomb, with 1.88 miles of unsupported cable between towers—the longest in the world. On a bluebird day, distant mountain ranges line the horizon like waves.

Hold out for one of two glass-bottomed cars, or, better yet, imagine what happens should the gondola’s main and backup engines improbably break. Repairmen would ride a rescue car out to stranded passengers using bicycle power—yes, a bicycle on the world’s longest high wire. But without a total mechanical shutdown, most riders aren’t rattled; the gondola ride is as smooth as first tracks in powder.

After traveling up and across, there’s not much left except going down. To the east at the Hell’s Gate Airtram, visitors scoot down into Fraser Canyon. The Swiss-built tram cars motor down to the river-bottomed valley, where a small complex is home to a fudge factory, fisheries exhibit, and a whole host of gold-panning, railway-building ghosts. Vertigo? Nah. The 1,100-foot descent is more scenic than terrifying.

The real gut wrench is the intervening drive, the four-hour arc from Whistler to Hell’s Gate. Traffic on the skinny Highway 99 thins out in Pemberton, a farming town north of the ski resort. In traversing the Coast Mountains, it’s nothing but one-way bridges, steep drop-offs, and inclines that’ll make a small car feel out of shape.

Stop too long in one spot and you’ll risk being pummeled by rocks the size of grapefruit. The only real way station is bump-in-the-road Lillooet, where the Greek Dina’s Place Restaurant does a passable job with poutine. Before you brave the second half of the drive’s mountain-high roads, it settles a still-panicked stomach. You win, Canada.


Alta Bistro
104-4319 Main St, Whistler, British Columbia,

2131 Lake Placid Rd, Whistler, British Columbia,

Dina’s Place Restaurant
690 Main St, Lillooet, British Columbia,


Capilano Suspension Bridge
3735 Capilano Rd, North Vancouver, British Columbia,

Eye of the Wind
6400 Nancy Greene Way, North Vancouver, British Columbia,

Hell’s Gate Airtram
43111 Trans Canada Hwy, Boston Bar, British Columbia,

Peak 2 Peak Gondola
4545 Blackcomb Way, Whistler, British Columbia,

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British Columbia Side Trips

Britannia Mine Museum The prettiest sights may be aboveground, but the copper dug from the bowels of British Columbia had as much to do with its growth. The stair-step mining building looks familiar because it was featured in McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Scooby-Doo 2, and The X-Files, among others. 1 Forbes Way, Britannia Beach, British Columbia, 604-896-2233;

Tuckkwiowhum Village Fraser Canyon’s native culture is evoked in a collection of lodges, earth ovens, and a sweat lodge. Tours feature a meal and Nlaka’pamux storytelling about the area’s long history. 46292 Tuckkwiowhum Rd, Boston Bar, British Columbia, 604-867-8844;

*All distances measured from Seattle.

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