Canada’s backcountry by air

A new ride shimmies over British Columbia’s jaw-dropping wilderness, giving nature lovers access to terrain usually reserved for steely rock climbers and tough backcountry hikers.

Vancouver visitors lured by British Columbia’s jaw-dropping wilderness can now spare their calf muscles thanks to a new attraction opened 16 May. A scenic 60km north of downtown, the Sea to Sky Gondola zips nature-lovers 1,920m up the ridge leading to Mount Habrich for some of the region’s most spectacular panoramas.

For years, the dramatic tree-and-peak-lined area – located around the town of Squamish between Vancouver and Whistler on Highway 99 – has appealed to steely rock climbers and tough backcountry hikers. But the new ski lift­-style ride takes all-comers straight into the heart of the wilderness.

The year-round attraction is the brainchild of co-owner Trevor Dunn, who visited many scenic gondolas around the world before deciding to build a Squamish version. Twenty two million Canadian dollars and a five-year planning process later, and he said the town is ready for an influx of new visitors.

“Squamish has always had a great reputation for extreme outdoor activities like climbing, windsurfing and mountain biking, but there wasn’t much for regular visitors who also like nature,” said Dunn, adding that while a handful of locals initially resisted a wilderness gondola, the vast majority were behind it.

Visitors hopping into the eight-person pea-green pods will need little convincing. The steep, 10-minute ride shimmies over the forest canopy and alongside the landmark Stawamus Chief, a 700m-high granite dome said to be Canada’s largest monolith. Behind, North America’s southernmost fjord  slowly unfurls, lapped by the glittering waters of Howe Sound.

Up top, the wooden Summit Lodge – 885m above sea level – makes the most of the vistas with a wrap-around deck overlooking the glacier-formed panorama. Inside, a bar and cafeteria-style restaurant serves chunky seafood chowder and a hoppy beer produced by local Howe Sound Brewing.

But plunging into the backcountry is the main reason to pay the C$34.95 adult ticket price (alternatively, hikers can sweat a 6km summit-bound trail and pay C$9.95 to take the lift back down). And while an existing network of remote trails plus backcountry skiing and snowshoeing will suddenly be more accessible, most visitors will head for the site’s two new routes.

Attached to the deck, a 110m wood-and-cable suspension bridge gently sways over the trees, providing direct access to the new trails. The first – an easy 400m loop through cedar, hemlock and Douglas Fir trees – is punctuated with panels on local birdlife, from peregrine falcons to northern pygmy owls, as well as the local plants traditionally used by the region’s Squamish First Nation residents. The 1.6km second route takes you deeper into the forest, revealing a slender viewing platform that angles from the cliff like a giant diving board.

According to Dunn, this dramatic, 360-degree viewpoint will be the finale for most people. “We want visitors to see that nature is the real star in BC – and that they can have easy access to it here.”