Let’s get a couple of initial issues out of the way – firstly, criticism of the new gondola’s location, plowing straight through Stawamus Chief Provincial Park.
The new gondola sits on the Sea To Sky Highway, between Shannon Falls and the Chief’s granite behemoth, and as far as I could see upon visiting, respects the local environment and First Nations heritage as much as possible.
Building materials are largely leaf or tree coloured, so blend in well with the forest around and educational signs abound, informing visitors of the practices of First Nations people in the area and how they used the environment around them in their everyday life.
Secondly, there is an argument that the new gondola is just a lazy option for people who don’t want to earn their magnificent views by hiking the Stawamus Chief.
Undeniably, the views from the Chief and the Sea To Sky Highway are certainly worth seeing, whether you’re visiting or live in British Columbia. For me, they make the highway up to Whistler my favourite road in the world and last year, I hiked all three summits of the Chief.
I considered myself pretty well-prepared, wearing hiking boots and sportswear, and was reasonably fit at the time, doing bootcamp at least once a week and biking most places.
But it was technically the hardest hike I have ever done, edging along narrow granite ledges using chains sunken into the rock, squeezing between granite crevices and clambering over huge boulders.
And there were many people on the Chief that day who were ill-equipped, wearing unsuitable clothing or obviously lacking the necessary fitness level.
Many of them were stopped, obstructing the already limited route up or down, suffering exhaustion and dehydration.
According to Emergency Management BC’s weekly reports for 2013, last year 30 people were injured, lost or stranded on the Chief. Two people died – one hiker and one climber.
If the Sea To Sky Gondola allows some of those people to get off the Chief, but still enjoy spectacular views over the Howe Sound fjord, that’s probably a good thing.
Having said that, when I tried out the new Sea To Sky Gondola with friends this summer, it did feel a bit like cheating.
Entry was $35 for a round trip on the gondola, with access to a central lodge, trails, viewpoints and a suspension bridge.
The ascent took only 10 minutes and takes you higher than the Chief. It was a glorious, sunny day when we rode up and the glistening views over the Howe Sound and back down to the Chief were beautiful.
At the top, since I was suffering a sporting injury, we took the Sky Pilot Suspension Bridge and two easy, green trails, the Spirit Trail and the Panorama Trail.
The bridge is not very long and compared to Capilano Suspension Bridge, feels like you’re walking on solid ground, but the views are fantastic.
At the end of the bridge, the Spirit Trail winds a 400m loop through the forest, with a viewing platform looking over the Howe Sound and the Sky Pilot mountain range.
Panorama Trail is a 1.6 km loop, with several viewing points, in particular a projected walkway which offers gorgeous views over the Chief.
It was strange to see all those hikers below me, when I had done so little work to be standing there above them.
Both of these trails are classed as Walking Trails on the Sea To Sky Gondola website – they are the only two available at the summit.
All other trails linked to the summit are classed as Hiking, and are a longer distance, harder difficulty or just plain backcountry.
These include the Sea To Summit Trail, which is an alternate, if steep and challenging, 9.8 km route from the base to the summit, bypassing the gondola completely. If you do hike up, one-way download tickets cost $9.95.
Once you have downloaded, it’s only a short, easy connector trail from the base to nearby Shannon Falls, which is always worth a stop.
Overall, the Sea To Sky Gondola’s easy trail options are limited, but I thought it was a good day out, particularly if you or your companions would struggle with the arduous climb up the Chief. And if you do want to head up repeatedly for the more difficult trails, a season pass will cost $99.
More information, including maps and trail descriptions: http://www.
Have you been on the new Sea To Sky Gondola? What did you think?