Squamish, British Columbia’s Tourism Treasures
A Small Community Showcases Quality Adventures
By Alison Gardner, Editor, Travel with a Challenge
Squamish (pop 20,000) has a low profile on the tourism route between its massively-popular neighbors, Vancouver, British Columbia, and the internationally-renowned ski destination of Whistler. Squamish sits dead center along the always-spectacular Sea to Sky Highway just one hour’s drive from either of the big draws, making it all too motivating for many visitors to just keep going to their end destination when traveling in either direction. However, that is a mistake, and here is why …
Year round, Squamish is an extraordinary destination in itself with river rafting and wildlife viewing, a world-class mine museum, a massive railway heritage park, a mountain gondola with a day’s worth of activities at the top, a craft beer tasting trail, and character accommodations suitably intimate to underscore the small town atmosphere.
Britannia Mine Museum
I first stopped at the Britannia Mine Museum on the town’s outskirts. While it is anchored by a 97-year-old copper, silver and gold mine and mill once the most productive in the British Empire before closure in 1974, today it is a superbly-informative historical exhibition that justifies a minimum half day to participate in its hands-on activities and tours that appeal to all ages. In mid-2019, the newest attraction was unveiled there with a BOOM! – quite literally and by name – as a light, sound and special effects theatrical mill show creating an immersive experience that takes visitors back to the mine’s heyday in the 1920s.
Deron Johnston, Operations Manager of the museum, views running the attraction as “a constant balancing act between museum visitors, 12,000 school children yearly and film productions which help raise funds to reclaim even more of this already mammoth national historic site.” From Deron’s “updated but not exhaustive” list of TV and movie shoots done between 1989 and 2018, the museum has been part of 60 TV series and 84 movies!
For travelers who like to add some “Set Jetting” to their vacation itinerary, this is good news indeed. Remember The X-Files series? Britannia Mine backdrops played a big part, and it has since been featured in dramas, comedies, mysteries, action movies, science fiction and fantasy films. In fact, the town of Squamish itself and its other huge attraction close to the highway, the Sea to Sky Gondola, have also starred in dozens of film productions in the past 20 years.
Just two kilometers south of Squamish, a trip up the mountain to the 885-meter or 2,950-foot level includes a gondola ride, amazing views of Howe Sound and the townsite far below. At the top a large indoor space and outdoor veranda with a cafeteria, bar and an unusually creative gift shop, dozens of hiking trails, a suspension bridge and a free guided tour add to the experience. For active visitors, this is a full day attraction; for others a half day is the minimum.
The Sea to Sky Gondola can be a crazy busy place, with up to 4,000 people on a summer day. The gondola goes quickly, so the lines move fast, but weekdays outside the summer season are the best times if you want to avoid the crowds and lineups. My favorite is the fall season when the turning leaves in this fjord-like setting add to the spectacle.
Another spectacle to take in as you pass close by on the gondola is the Squamish or Stawamus Chief, a rock dome that is one of the largest granite monoliths in the world and a compelling (occasionally lethal) challenge for elite rock climbers. It towers over 700 meters or 2,300 feet above the waters of Howe Sound.
Small Town Character Accommodations
The first of two modest-sized accommodations sampled while staying in the encouragingly-walkable town of Squamish was a three-star, owner-operated historic gem, Hotel Squamish. The equal size of the liquor store and the hotel on its property spoke of the double duty that small town business owners often orchestrate, but the hotel was very orderly and recently-renovated with a helpful staff and an emphasis on environmentally-friendly everything.
Originally built 100+ years ago by logging company owners, the hotel is one of the oldest buildings in Squamish – once serving as a popular residence for young loggers when they were out of their bush camps and for visitors from around the world.
The second accommodation, Howe Sound Inn & Brewing Company was only a handful of blocks from the first hotel but as different as two neighbors can be. A thoroughly modern but cozy 20-room establishment with incredible views of the Chief and the Tantalus Mountain Range, it included a continental breakfast and a full restaurant on site with plenty of house-made specialties. It also sports an elevator which is always worth mentioning, especially when it comes to suitcase hauling.
Not surprisingly, the largest room in the building is the Brewpub with an impressive two-story beamed ceiling and loads of natural light. It serves up local beer varieties fresh from the owner’s craft brewery on the property together with Buffalo Cauliflower and Tomahawk Pork Chops to Cranberry Pecan Pie from its imaginative pub menu.
Enhancing its growing reputation on the craft brew and distillery scene, Squamish has recently created a Craft Tasting Trail and accompanying passport, together with a map for visitors to follow from one participating brewpub, cidery, distillery or even site-roasted coffee and kombucha maker to another while collecting stamps and prizes along the way. Pick up the passport from the Squamish Adventure Centre or any of the trail participants.
Another highlight of my visit to the Squamish area was a wilderness and eagle viewing float on the Squamish River. This is a tranquil 3.5-hour wildlife-spotting float, not an adrenaline-pumping white water rafting experience, though the Squamish Rafting Company offers both options very professionally.
The float is available from October through April with peak eagle viewing from November through February. In the Fall months, thousands of wild salmon arriving to spawn attract the largest gathering of bald eagles in the world as well as bears, seals swimming up the river and even wolves. All-weather gear, hot beverages and even a hearty bowl of chilli are provided which acknowledges the cooler season, and possibly under-dressed guests.
I had really been looking forward to spending half a day at the West Coast Railway Heritage Park, a 12-acre railway station and town center featuring vintage locomotives, artifacts and themed train rides. However, on the day I rolled up to the gate – you guessed it – the site was closed to visitors because there was filming for a 2019 movie going on inside. Next time!
This park houses the largest collection of railway rolling stock in Western Canada with more than 90 heritage cars and artifacts, the oldest being a “business car” dating back to 1890 and a colonist sleeping car from 1905. On site, there is also the only railway post office car in Canada and a three-kilometer-long miniature railway, all perfect for rail history buffs and multi-generational families.
Squamish is truly a “sea to sky” destination with a huge diversity of adventures to enjoy throughout the year. A stand-alone holiday in small-town Squamish or a few extra days added to a larger itinerary that features Vancouver or Whistler (each one hour away) will strike it rich with a concentration of memorable tourism treasures hard to find anywhere else.
Follow Up FactsFor complete information, visit Tourism Squamish. The Squamish Adventure Centre prominently visible on the Sea to Sky Highway is the local headquarters for visitor information, brochures and expert advice on top experiences, attractions, accommodations, transportation, dining, and events in the area. Also check out the websites for Tourism Vancouver and Tourism Whistler for additional itinerary ideas in the region.
Alison Gardner is a travel journalist, magazine editor, guidebook author, and consultant. She specializes in researching vacations throughout the world, suitable for people over 50 and for women of all ages. She is also the publisher and editor of Travel with a Challenge web magazine, www.travelwithachallenge.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org