Highway 99 is the Sea to Sky Highway, which winds through five distinct biogeoclimatic zones in the Vancouver, Coast and Mountains region of BC, from coastal rain forest at Horseshoe Bay, through Squamish, Garibaldi Provincial Park, and the Resort Municipality of Whistler.
Intensely scenic, the Sea to Sky Highway (Highway 99) crosses paths with two historic routes, the Pemberton Trail and the Gold Rush Heritage Trail, which linked the coast with the interior in the days before the automobile. Along these ancient pathways, generations of Coast Salish people traded with their relations in the Fraser Canyon, while in the 1850s, prospectors stampeded north towards the Cariboo gold fields. In 1915, the Pacific Great Eastern railway began service between Squamish and the Cariboo. For those in search of outdoor recreation, the railway proved an ideal way to reach trailheads in Garibaldi Provincial Park and fishing camps such as Alta Lake’s Rainbow Lodge, situated at the foot of London Mountain.
By the mid-1960s, the prospect of skiers heading from Vancouver to the fledgling trails on London Mountain – by this time renamed Whistler Mountain – prompted the provincial government to open a road north from Horseshoe Bay through Squamish to Whistler. Space being at a premium along steep-sided Howe Sound (North America’s southernmost fjord), the road and railway parallel each other for much of the 28 miles (45 km) between Horseshoe Bay and Squamish at the head of the sound. By 1975, the highway was pushed through to Pemberton, and by 1995 the last stretch of gravel road was paved between Pemberton and Lillooet. (Highway 99 and the railway part company in Pemberton but link up again at Lillooet.) Today, vehicles breeze along the entire route in five hours, the time it took in the 1960s to make the journey just from Horseshoe Bay to Whistler.
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. (The 12-hour train trip between North Vancouver and Prince George in the Central Interior is one of Canada’s most scenic rail journeys. Travellers can choose to disembark or be picked up just about anywhere along its route.) Certainly, Whistler’s success as a resort destination has propelled development, both commercial and recreational, in other parts of the region, particularly Squamish and Pemberton. So too has the popularity of the mountain bike and the sport-utility vehicle. The pace of mountain-bike trailblazing carries on today with the same zeal once devoted to the creation of new ski runs, while logging roads no longer intimidate drivers in search of backcountry getaways as they once did. And it’s not just the proximity to Greater Vancouver that drives this expansion. The landscape itself just happens to be some of the most ideal terrain for outdoor activity in British Columbia.
Squamish (population 16,000) is a relief. Smaller than Vancouver, larger than Whistler, and equidistant from them both, Squamish is the envy of the south coast. It has so many things going for it – location, geography, wildlife, weather – that as forestry declines as the town’s major employer, tourism and outdoor recreation have taken on greater importance. Travellers have always been drawn to Squamish, from the days of the Coast Squamish people, who journeyed between Burrard Inlet and STA-a-mus at the mouth of the Squamish River, to more recent times when steamships began ferrying anglers, climbers, and picnickers here over a century ago. There’s a rich history to the Squamish region, and the best way to experience it is through a favourite outdoor activity. No matter what your pleasure, you’ll follow paths laid down by fellow admirers who’ve cleared the way.
Something magical happens when you arrive at the summit of the small valley that contains Whistler. A cluster of little lakes is gathered here, reflecting the outline of the mountains high above. Alta Lake is the great divide in the Sea to Sky corridor. Water flowing from its south end reaches the Pacific via the Cheakamus and Squamish Rivers, while water flowing from its north end in the River of Golden Dreams eventually reaches the ocean through the Harrison watershed and the Fraser River. No other valley in the Sea to Sky region has such a wealth of small and medium-sized lakes. No other lakes have scenery quite like this to mirror. When you let your eyes rise from the reflection to admire the real thing, the contours of the ski runs on Blackcomb and Whistler Mountains pattern the forested slopes. Above the tree line, you can still see remnants of the most recent ice age in the glaciers that encrust the highest peaks. Take a deep breath of the freshest air imaginable.
Circle Tours: See the best of BC when you embark upon one of the many circle tours that take in the best of British Columbia. Take the Coast Mountains Circle Tour and head north out of Vancouver on the intensely scenic Sea to Sky Highway to the magical winter resort town of Whistler, and continue on to Pemberton and Lillooet. Cross paths with two historic routes – the Pemberton Trail and the Gold Rush Heritage Trail – which linked the coast with the interior in the days before the automobile. Return via the Okanagan and Fraser Valleys.
Location: Horseshoe Bay in North Vancouver is the southern terminus of Highway 99. Lillooet, about 190 miles (310 km) north, is its northern twin. From Lillooet, a recent extension of Highway 99 (formerly called Highway 12) leads almost 47 miles (75 km) farther north and east to its conjunction with Highway 97 at Hat Creek. The southern terminus of the Sea to Sky Highway (Highway 99) is reached via the Trans-Canada Highway (Highway 1) at Horseshoe Bay. The northern terminus lies at its junction with Highway 97, about 7 miles (11 km) north of Cache Creek. An alternative approach near its northern terminus is Highway 12’s junction with Highway 99 at Lillooet.
Despite major improvements over the past 30 years, such as rock scaling, bridge reinforcement, and frequent passing lanes, sections of this predominantly two-lane road can still be extremely treacherous in foul weather. Drive cautiously but not so slowly as to frustrate those who are more familiar with the route. All exits and trailheads are well marked, with adequate room for off-road parking.
The following towns are located on or near the Sea to Sky Highway:
- Horseshoe Bay
- Furry Creek
- Lions Bay
- Britannia Beach
- Garibaldi Highlands
- Callaghan Valley
- Mount Currie