I’ve driven through this burg of roughly 17,000 souls, about halfway between Vancouver and the skiing and snowboarding resort of Whistler Blackcomb, more than a dozen times. And each trip, I would gaze at the Stawamus Chief, a granite monolith that rises more than 2,100 feet above Howe Sound and that looks as if it had been plucked out of Yosemite National Park.
I’d heard stories about the great rafting, hiking, rock climbing, mountain biking, sea kayaking, kite boarding and other activities that have earned Squamish the reputation as one of Canada’s main outdoor recreation meccas. But it took me a couple of decades to finally stop and visit the for four days last summer. It was worth the wait.
On the first day, my 25-year-old son Matt and I hiked up the backside of the Chief on a path that started out moderately steep and then got steeper, following a twisting route more than 1,500 feet to the top of the massif and its three rounded peaks.
On a few occasions, we had to squeeze through narrow passages and use a chain bolted into the rock to ascend a steep pitch. But we paced ourselves and were rewarded with stunning views of Howe Sound and the snow-covered peaks in the Coast Range.
We also watched rock climbers ascend some of the more than 300 nearly vertical paths that snake up the face of the Chief. All told, locals say, the Squamish area has nearly 1,200 routes at Shannon Falls, Murrin Park, Malamute and Little Smoke Bluffs. Bouldering is popular in the region too.
Visitors who want another way to see Howe Sound from on high have been able to take the new Sea to Sky Gondola (www.seatoskygondola.com) just outside Stawamus Chief Provincial Park. The gondola rises nearly 3,000 feet beside Shannon Falls from the sound to a summit lodge.
The ascent takes about 10 minutes and provides riders access to hiking trails, viewing platforms and a suspension bridge. Come winter, it will provide access to backcountry skiing.
In the afternoon, we wandered down the main drag in Squamish and had delicious pizza (along with a couple of beers) at the Howe Sound Inn & Brewing Co., which has a huge mural of the Chief in its dining room and has long been popular with the outdoorsy set. I liked the Garibaldi Honey Pale Ale, my son the Devil’s Elbow Honey India Pale Ale.
That night, we retired to Sunwolf, an old fishing lodge that has been refurbished by a pair of expat Brits, Jess and Jake Freese, who came to British Columbia to ski at Whistler and eventually settled in Brackendale, just outside Squamish.
Their small resort is at the confluence of the Cheakamus and Cheekye rivers beneath 7,500-foot-tall Mt. Alpha. Sunwolf has 11 private cabins and tasty meals at Fergie’s Café, which gets its food from several local organic farms and has long been popular with anglers. The eggs Benedict, homemade sausages, smoked meats and baked goods were delicious.
The lodge offers several rafting packages, including a mellow one on the Cheakamus that is suitable for families with children.
On our third day, Matt and I signed on to a trip for more experienced river runners, bouncing through rapids on the rollicking and mist-covered Elaho.
The river boasted some Class III and IV rapids (moderate to difficult) with names such as Devil’s Elbow, Freight Train and Woo Tang Wave. We also got to jump off a 20-foot cliff and enjoy a gourmet barbecue lunch of marinated salmon, salad and delicious desserts.
Other activities can be arranged at Sunwolf, including horseback riding, hiking and mountain biking. If you just want to kick back at the resort, there’s a volleyball net, a lawn for games, a hot tub and a barbecue pit if you want to cook your own food.
Come winter, when hundreds of eagles congregate near here, the resort offers popular eagle rafting trips.
“Once, when it was snowing and the birds had no interest in flying, we were able to float by a tree that had 20 eagles just 15 feet away from us,” Jake Freese told me one morning over coffee.
The last day of our visit, Matt and I connected with Tyson Bell, who runs Coast River Kayak (coastriverkayak.com), for some paddling on Howe Sound. Once we got the feel of our sea kayaks, we paddled out into the Squamish River Estuary and then farther out into the sound, which looked to me like a Norwegian fiord. There we saw eagles, an otter and several seals as Bell told us about the ecology of the sound and its human history.
There were other humans on the water that day too, because Squamish has become a hotspot for kite boarders and windsurfers who were zipping across the water. Thanks to predictable winds on warm sunny days, the Squamish Spit has become the top kite boarding location in western Canada.
Bell also leads whitewater kayak trips on local rivers, and if I’d had time, I’d have joined him for an excursion down some challenging rapids on the Upper Cheakamus.
But I’ll have to save that for another visit to Squamish, along with mountain biking, horseback riding, waterfall viewing, birdwatching, scuba diving and the other outdoor activities.
If you go
THE BEST WAY TO VANCOUVER, CANADA
From LAX, Alaska, Air Canada, WestJet and United offer nonstop service to Vancouver; Delta, Alaska, Air Canada, United, WestJet and US Airways offer connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip fares begin at $355, including taxes and fees.
WHERE TO STAY
Sunwolf, 70002 Squamish Valley Road, Brackendale, Canada; (877) 806-8046, www.sunwolf.net. Standard cabins $100 a night; with kitchenette, $110 a night. Larger accommodations available. Whitewater rafting through Sept. 15. Bald eagle viewing floats, Dec.1-Feb.15.
WHERE TO EAT
Howe Sound Inn & Brewing Co., 37801 Cleveland Ave., Squamish, Canada; (800) 919-2537, howesound.com. Pizzas $13-$15.
TO LEARN MORE
Tourism Squamish, www.tourismsquamish.com