Spectacular Howe Sound is North America’s southernmost fjord, located northwest of Vancouver and extending from West Vancouver north to Squamish. Surrounded by towering peaks that rise straight out of the sea, Howe Sound is Vancouver’s playground for sailing, diving, camping, hiking, and a host of other recreational activities.
Space is at a premium along the steep-sided Howe Sound. The intensely scenic Sea to Sky Highway (Highway 99) and the B.C Railway parallel each other on the eastern shoreline of Howe Sound for much of the 28 miles (45 km) between Horseshoe Bay and Squamish at the head of Howe Sound. The highway links Vancouver with Squamish, Whistler and Pemberton, before linking up with Highway 12 (from Hope and Lytton) at Lillooet. Both the railway, which now departs from its southern depot in North Vancouver, and Highway 99 have helped introduce visitors to the backcountry region in the Sea to Sky corridor.
Location: Howe Sound is located between the Lower Mainland and the Sunshine Coast, and incorporates many islands, and clusters of islands, the largest of which are Bowen Island and Gambier Island. Smaller islands are Keats Island, opposite Gibsons on the Sechelt Peninsula, and Anvil Island located directly opposite Porteau Cove Provincial Park on Highway 99.
Larger communities along the western shoreline of Howe Sound include Gibsons, Langdale and Port Mellon on the Sechelt Peninsula. Horseshoe Bay, Lions Bay and Britannia Beach are situated on the eastern shoreline, with Squamish located at the head of Howe Sound.
Five BC Ferries’ terminals are located in Howe Sound, at Bowen Island, Langdale, Keats Island, Gambier Island and Horseshoe Bay, which serves Bowen Island, the Sunshine Coast (Langdale) and Vancouver Island (Departure Bay in Nanaimo). Keats Island and Gambier Island are served from the ferry terminal at Langdale.
Horseshoe Bay is the gateway to Howe Sound, a quaint and picturesque seaside village on the North Shore of Vancouver best known for its BC Ferry terminal serving Snug Cove on Bowen Island, Langdale on the Sunshine Coast, and Departure Bay in Nanaimo on Vancouver Island.
Lions Bay is a small seaside village on the shoreline of Howe Sound, surrounded by the majestic Coast Mountains, with spectacular views of the ocean and the Gulf Islands.
Britannia Beach is a National Historic Site and home to the BC Mining Museum, situated above the Sea to Sky Highway. The Britannia Beach mine boomed in the late 1920s and early 1930s, becoming the largest producer of copper in the British Commonwealth by 1929.
Squamish is situated at the head of Howe Sound, surrounded by mountains and cradled in natural beauty as only a West Coast community can be, offering an abundance of attractions, activities and outdoor adventure.
Langdale is a tiny village on the north side of Howe Sound, and the BC Ferry terminal linking Highway 99 at Horseshoe Bay (Vancouver) to Highway 101, the main route connecting communities on the Sechelt and Malaspina Peninsulas of the Sunshine Coast.
Gibsons is a scenic seaside village, just minutes south of the Langdale Ferry Terminal, which serves as the gateway to the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia. Gibsons harbour is everything it should be, chock full of boats and atmosphere.
Diving: As you turn into Porteau Cove Provincial Park, located near the midpoint of Howe Sound north of Horseshoe Bay on Hwy 99, you pass information signs, directed at divers, that detail the location of several marine vessels scuttled offshore specifically for underwater exploration. The first of these boats was sunk in 1981, when the park was opened. Marine life is attracted to such wrecks, making a dive even more exciting. Small floats positioned offshore help divers orient themselves. Affix a flag to one of these to warn boaters to stay well away. This is not a challenging dive, but it is an interesting introduction to Howe Sound nonetheless.
Kayaking: When flat-calm, Howe Sound is an inviting place to paddle, but beware the outflow winds that build on summer days. The Sound is a channel for winds drawn out to the ocean from cooler inland regions. Kayakers will have an easier time of it than canoeists when the winds rise. It’s worth heading offshore to enjoy the views of the Howe Sound Crest and Britannia ranges that are not revealed from land. The 1.2-mile (2-km) paddle north from Porteau Cove to Furry Creek is a pleasant workout. Watch for pictographs painted on the rock face on the north side of the small bay just past Furry Creek. (Keep an eye out for errant golf balls that may shank your way from the nearby golf course.)
Porteau Cove, about 15 miles (24 km) north of Horseshoe Bay, is also a designated Marine Provincial park, with sheltered moorage. The boat launch at Porteau Cove Provincial Park is the only public one accessible from Hwy 99 between Horseshoe Bay and Squamish. There is a private boat launch at Sunset Marina, 3 miles (5 km) north of Horseshoe Bay at Sunset Beach, and at Lions Bay Marina, 3 miles (5 km) north of Sunset Beach.
For an extended trip, launch from Lions Bay Marina and head 3 miles (5 km) across Howe Sound to nearby Gambier Island. Tucked away from view just inside its sheltered southeast corner is Halkett Bay Marine Provincial Park. A government wharf lies at the end of the bay where a thick fringe of hemlock and second-growth fir shield the shoreline from view. If you walk into the shade of the trees, you’ll discover a series of clearings linked by old logging trails that have assumed the character of sedate laneways. You could camp here where there are several formal sites or on a small island just offshore in the bay. The island boasts a small beach, above which stands a clearing large enough for one tent. While on Gambier, follow the old logging road that terminates beside the campsites at Halkett Bay west to Camp Fircom, a half-hour walk. At first the road leads through the forest, but it descends to the shoreline as it nears the camp, with a pleasing view south of Hood Point on Bowen Island.
Windsurfing: Oregon has the Columbia Gorge, Squamish has the Spit. Although not as well known, the Squamish Spit is the launch pad for windsurfers, who rely on its predictable wind, known as a squamish, which blows each afternoon. So strong is the force of the breeze that carries across Howe Sound that unwary windsurfers in the waters off the spit often can’t right themselves if they get dunked. An emergency rescue service is on standby to pluck such hapless types from the water. The spit is a long breakwater located at the mouth of the Squamish River. On busy summer weekends, there can be more than a hundred cars parked here. At the very end of the spit is the windsurfer launch area; you can drive to a drop-off point beside it, unload your board, then park.
Windsurfing in Howe Sound and Sea to Sky
Boating & Sailing: Sailing in Howe Sound is a delightful experience, with so much to see and explore. A great place to learn to sail, the protected waters of the Sound provide exciting circumnavigations of Bowen Island and Gambier Island. Snug Cove on emerald Bowen Island is a must-do stop, with an array of attractions, historic old turn-of-the-century buildings, quaint boutiques, and boardwalks. The southwest coast of Gambier Island is deeply indented by a series of secluded bays, providing good anchorages in West Bay and Centre Bay. Sparsely populated Gambier Island is a great place to go ashore and explore. Plumper Cove Marine Provincial Park on Keats Island is also well worth a day’s visit.
Boating, Sailing & Cruising in Howe Sound and the Sunshine Coast
Swimming: A pebble beach slopes gently into Howe Sound in Porteau Cove Provincial Park. On summer days when the tide is low and the sun high, the warm rocks heat the incoming waters, making swimming here a pleasure. For those who brave the ocean, there are hot showers nearby in the changing rooms.
Fishing: For saltwater anglers there are two boat launches in or near Horseshoe Bay in West Vancouver, and one at Lions Bay, 6 miles (10 km) north of Horseshoe Bay.
Boat Rentals, guided fishing charters, sea safaris and marine dockage facilities are available at Sewell’s Marina in Horseshoe Bay. If you want to join the throng, you can rent a boat from Sewell’s Marina for fishing, sightseeing or wildlife viewing. Bring a few friends and explore the islands and inlets of Howe Sound. The family-owned marina has operated at Horseshoe Bay since the 1930s.
Camping space is limited along the shores of Howe Sound. Wherever you decide to overnight, be prepared to share it with sounds from the nearby highway and railway. So close do freight trains come to the sites in Porteau Cove Provincial Park that you might imagine they’re rolling right through your tent. Take heart in the thought that it’s a notch more attractive than having a bear charge through, which is not unheard of elsewhere in the woods of BC. Porteau Cove is located near Howe Sound’s midpoint, 15 miles (24 km) north of Horseshoe Bay on Hwy 99. As you approach it, the beach and jetty are what first catch the eye. Only in winter, once the leaves are down, is it possible to see through the surrounding forest into the little cove itself, where campsites are located. (It takes only several minutes to reach them.) As this is the only provincial campground on the Sound, campsites are in constant demand from late May to early October. If you’re intent on staying here, arrive early in the afternoon or phone ahead for reservations. A sign posted on Hwy 99 informs travellers when the park is full.
Although the vehicle/tent sites go quickly throughout the summer and on Friday and Saturday nights at other times of the year, there is usually a good chance of getting one of the walk-in sites even if you arrive late, except in the months from June to August. As soon as you enter the campground, bear right to see if any of the oceanfront sites are vacant. In the middle of the campground is a washroom facility complete with showers. The walk-in sites are located at the far end of the campground road. An amphitheatre is located between the drive-in and walk-in campsites. Interpretive displays are presented here on summer evenings, one of the most scenic locations in the park. Because there is so little level land, most sites are relatively closely spaced compared to other provincial parks. Tucked in behind the walk-in sites is the cove itself. A stone wall on the west side is one of the few remaining signs of a small settlement that once stood here. There’s a charming sense of formality where an open lawn is laid out beside the cove and a small bridge spans the narrow backwater.
Rock Climbing: For rock climbers (and those who cheer them on) there’s a provincial campground at the base of Stawamus Chief Mountain in Squamish. At last count there were 180 routes to climb here, all of which begin from the base of one of the largest free-standing granite monoliths in the world. You’ll find spiffy drive-in and walk-in sites in Stawamus Chief Provincial Park. Watch for the turnoff from Hwy 99 at the large roadside interpretive area at the south end of town. The forested campground is located at the south end of a rough road that hugs the base of the mountain.
Rock Climbing in the Sea to Sky area.
Picnics: If you are just visiting Porteau Cove Provincial Park for the day, park beside the jetty. This is a wonderful place to enjoy the spectacular views of Howe Sound while watching wet-suited divers enter or emerge from the cold waters of the Sound. Eat your picnic at one of the numerous tables spread around the broad, driftwood-littered beaches on both sides of the jetty. Aptly named Anvil Island sits to the southwest, while the glaciated peaks of the Tantalus Range rise in the northwest. Take a walk to the viewpoint on the trail that leads west from the walk-in campsites and up onto the forested bluff. Stunted shore pines (a coastal variety of lodgepole pine) and stately Sitka spruce provide shelter on the point, from where you can look down on the cove or out across the waters of the sound. This is a quiet place in which to enjoy the surroundings, especially in the early or late hours of the day, or to stop for an off-season breather from the pressures of the highway.
Hiking: The Howe Sound Crest Trail begins in Cypress Provincial Park in North Vancouver and runs almost 18 miles (30 km) across ridges and mountains – including the Lions – while skirting pocket lakes to reach the shores of Howe Sound near Porteau Cove. Phew! Without a doubt this is the way to see as much of Howe Sound as any hiker could wish, but it comes with a price tag: a real grunt. Then again, so are most hikes on the slopes of Howe Sound. There are few breaks in this demanding climb (and punishing descent), and often you can’t see the ocean for the trees. When you do, all else is momentarily put aside. The northern terminus of the Howe Sound Crest Trail is at Hwy 99, 6.7 miles (11 km) north of Lions Bay. There’s a pullout on the west side of the road where you can leave your vehicle.
Wildlife: In spring and fall, the Squamish Estuary provides a rest stop for migratory birds. In winter, the moderating influence of Howe Sound’s ocean waters keeps much of the estuary ice-free. Elegant trumpeter swans spend the winter here, as do regal bald eagles. Bundle up and take a walk to see them.