Car Camping the Sea-To-Sky Highway
The Sea-to-Sky Highway burrows into the heart of British Columbia’s Coast Mountains, traversing rugged shores of the Salish Sea and alpine terrain that isn’t quite like anything in the continental United States. In the summer, the Sea-to-Sky Highway accesses backpacking, mountain biking, hot springs, and hikes with staggering mountain views and wildlife in abundance. It takes less than a week to drive a loop through the Coast Mountains, and here are adventure recommendations to help inspire your journey.
Clocking in at just 360 miles from start to finish, the loop circumnavigating Stein Valley Heritage Park and Garibaldi and Golden Ears provincial parks is actually relatively short, spanning anywhere from seven to nine hours of drive time. Most of that mileage spans the return trip from Lilloet to Vancouver. That’s good news for anyone who wants to frontload this trip: between Vancouver, Squamish, Whistler, and Joffre Lakes is an abundance of backcountry opportunity.
By the numbers: 360 miles, 7 hours 40 minutes of drive time.
First Stop: Squamish
Just 30 (thirty!) miles north of Vancouver, Squamish is the first of several mountain hideaways. The Stawamus Chief makes Squamish memorable, its presence looming over everything. Nevertheless, there’s much more to do here than bouldering and sport and trad climbing.
First, where to stay? Campers want to camp, and you have options.
Presiding over the outdoor environment in Squamish is the most face of the Stawamus Chief. Also known as Yosemite North, the 1,000-foot dome is a summer climber’s dream with routes to fit every style—though trad and bouldering predominate. The Mountain Project (https://www.mountainproject.com/area/105805895/the-chief) has your fix.
When you’ve had enough granite, Diamond Head beckons with singletrack. Valleycliffe is another solid option, as is Legacy, Recycle, and Pseudo Tsuga and Half Nelson + Full Nelson Loop.
This is the last time you’ll see the sea before heading into the mountains, so take the opportunity to find a viewpoint—also needed practice for the ascents ahead. Near Shannon Falls, the Sea to Summit Hike offers views over the Salish Sea, which become more dramatic on the way back down via the Sea-to-Sky Gondola.
Second Stop: Whistler
“Bring me men to match my mountains: Bring me men to match my plains: Men with empires in their purpose and new eras in their brains,” wrote poet Sam Walter Foss. Thus begins the slow and stunning journey into the interior of the Coast Mountains of British Columbia, as transfixing as it is transformative.
Where to Stay
There are two available campgrounds in Whistler:
- Stawamus Chief Provincial Park: situated under the unmistakable Chief, an official park campground offers well-maintained spots for $10 per night. There is easy access to hiking trails here, including a summit trail to the top of the Chief. Of course, the Chief’s routes are right there for the climbing as well.
- Squamish Climbers Camp: not far away, you can camp for free at pullouts along the first mile of the Marquam River Forest Service Road. Sites are unmaintained, and you won’t have any amenities—but they’re free.
- Alice Lake: the provincial park just north of Squamish has an enormous 96-site campground with amenities that include electricity and showers.
- Cat Lake: a quieter alternative a bit farther north, Cat Lake offers a little more seclusion at its 50 walk-in sites.
Whistler is well known for its skiing, of course, but it’s also a great summer destination for mountain biking on Westside Mountain, North Whistler Mountain, and South Whistler Mountain, Duncan’s Trail being an all-time classic. There will be many fine mountain hikes in the provincial parks of BC, but two of the best are found here. The Brew Lake Hike to Brew Hut has staggering mountain views of the Black Tusk, the Coast Mountains’ dental retort to Colorado’s Lone Eagle Peak, and it’s a fantastic overnight option to kick off the visit to the Coast Mountains. The Black Tusk is a classic Canadian conquest of that very peak.
Don’t forget that the road is a destination in itself. Brandywine Falls, Alexander Falls, and the Whistler Olympic Park are roadside stops with great photo ops.
Technically, the corridor “ends” near Whistler, but there’s more to see beyond the resort town. End your trip with a backcountry night at Joffre Lakes, where cerulean waters are fed by the picturesque glaciers capping Joffre Peak. In the morning, follow the course of Highway 12 down the east slope through Lilloet to Vancouver.
- Whistler RV Park and Campground: lavish by campground comparisons, this one has disc golf and Wi-Fi. Not exactly your backcountry experience, but a great place to post up for deeper dives into the mountains.
- Riverside Resort Campground
- Cal-Cheak Recreation Site offers more than 50 walk-in sites for $13.00 per night. More typical for car camping, its sites are spartan and offer simple tables and pit toilets.
There is no end to the montane beauty in the Coast Mountains. What favorite stops did I miss?