One of the most anticipated stops on our Great Canadian Road Trip was the little town of Squamish, BC. Nestled between Vancouver and Whistler on scenic Highway 99, Squamish is an old logging town that was originally settled by the tribes of the First Nation (like everywhere else). We’d driven through Squamish in January on our way to ski Whistler and even the five-minute stop for gas had us intrigued. Immediately, we were drawn to the impressive rock face looming over downtown – which we later learned is called “The Chief” – but it was the friendly locals, the mountainous backdrop, and the stunning Howe Sound that convinced us to return.
If you like to live more slowly, prefer to be outside, and enjoy a good adventure, then consider making Squamish your next travel destination – and quickly! This town may be lesser known than the tourist hotspots like Vancouver and Whistler, but Squamish is becoming increasingly popular with outdoor enthusiasts and BC locals alike. However, if increasing popularity doesn’t motivate you, then hopefully our top 5 reasons to visit will!
1) The Outdoor Adventure/Sports
If you spend enough time in Squamish (say, five minutes) you’ll start to see phrases like “Adventure Starts Here,” or “Hard-wired for Adventure,” everywhere you turn. We quickly found these Squamish mottos to be one-hundred-percent true and spent more than a week enjoying the various outdoor activities the area had to offer.
Squamish is primarily known as a rock climber’s paradise. The town is home to one of the largest granite rock faces in the world (The Chief) which is the first view you see upon arrival. With access to many of the climbing routes just 5-minutes outside of town, The Chief inspires climbers from around the world to attempt the many routes to the top. Neither Derrick nor I are climbers so we can’t recommend much beyond this popular hotspot, but we did learn that Squamish offers something for climbers of any skill level from beginner to advanced. A good place to start your Squamish rock climbing adventure is the visitor’s center which is staffed by locals who likely just climbed the route they're recommending to you earlier that morning.
Another must-do outdoor adventure in Squamish is mountain biking. Derrick spent two days enjoying the increasingly popular trails at Diamond Head and Alice Lake. Ask a Squamish local where to bike for the day and Diamond Head will be at the top of their list. Since Derrick’s bike was stolen in Victoria at the start of our trip, we ended up having to splurge on a rental. What’s the only silver-lining to bike theft, you ask? Enjoying a high-end model for the cost of a half-day rental. If you need to rent in Squamish, Flying Spirit is the place to go. They have a good selection of bikes for a reasonable price and they’ll point you in the best direction for enjoying the many trail networks in town.
Finally, with its proximity to the stunning Howe Sound, Squamish offers some of the best kiteboarding and windsurfing in the province. While we didn’t give this extreme sport a try (much to Derrick’s dismay) – lessons start at $150/per person! – we did head to the Squamish Spit one afternoon to see what it was all about. We stopped by on a Saturday and were surprised to find hundreds of kite boarders and windsurfers launching directly from the spit. The water and sky were full of brightly colored sails and kites as far as you could see. I was shocked there weren’t any collisions for how packed the sound was.
You can walk to the end of the spit for the best views of the entire sound, but if you’re just there to watch, we recommend enjoying the sport from the bleachers that have been set up at the entrance. The calmer waters by the spit encourage kite boarders to practice tricks and jumps alongside the bleachers so spectators get front row seats to watch a variety of stunts (and wipeouts) every few minutes. Of course, if you have it in the budget, we’d recommend splurging on a lesson so you can experience the sport for yourself. Fair warning, we’ve been told it’s an addicting sport that quickly gets expensive as you invest in your own kite, board, and gear!
2) The Hiking
For those with minimal upper body strength and even less coordination (slowly raises hand), there’s plenty of world-class hiking trails to explore around Squamish. You can choose various hikes in the Sea to Summit Range, aptly named for the trailheads that begin on the shores of Howe Sound and end on peaks that rise 3,000 ft above the water. There’s also the popular Garibaldi Provincial Park which offers day-hikes and multi-day backpacking routes to alpine lakes and snowy peaks. Finally, you can trek the Tantalus Range which is known for its rocky, jagged peaks that jut straight up from the slopes. If you’re looking for a more technical hike, we were told the Black Tusk trail is the best in this range.
Sea to Summit Trail
Unfortunately, we didn’t get to explore many of the hiking trails due to my sprained ankle, but the hikes we did complete inspired us enough to write this post! We kicked off our Squamish hiking experience with the Sea to Summit Trail which we would highly recommend.
Squamish opened the Sea to Summit Gondola back in 2014 which has since attracted many visitors to the area. As one of Squamish’s top tourist attractions, a round-trip ride will run you almost $35 + dinner/souvenirs at the summit. Luckily, Derrick and I discovered that you can hike from the parking lot to the summit and put in some work for your dinner/drinks while skipping the steep (pun intended) round-trip ticket. However, the trail is considered “advanced” so be ready to really work for your views. Once at the top, you can pay half price to ride the gondola back down and give your knees a rest.
We began the trek late in the afternoon so that we’d make it to the top for sunset. For one week each summer, the gondola remains open late so visitors can see the sunset from the top. We happened to hike on the last “late-closing” day and made it to the top just in time for the sky to start changing colors.
We admit this hike is not for everyone. It’s a challenge right out of the gate with one-third of the total elevation gain covered within the first half hour of the hike. If the grueling climb doesn’t kick your ass, the technical and steep portions throughout the rest of the hike will. Some spots even have fixed ropes to help you scale steep rock faces that would be impossible to hike without. Lastly, when you finally reach the top in a sore and sweaty stupor, most of the people up there will be enjoying dinner and drinks in regular clothes, having just taken the gondola to the top (and probably laughed at you hiking below them).
All that aside, we surprisingly had a blast on this trail. The continual hard work rewards you with spectacular views throughout, and you even get to enjoy a portion of the famous Shannon Falls that tourists can’t see from the parking lot (or the gondola). Once you summit, your hard work is constantly rewarded with the many ways to enjoy the views. This includes the Sky Pilot Suspension Bridge and various lookout points accessed by short and easy trails from the gondola. Not to mention, the beer is that much tastier, and the sunset that much more brilliant when you know how hard you worked to enjoy them!
Another hike we completed was Joffre Lakes. This hike is about 1.5 hours outside of Squamish, but the incredible scenery of the hike makes the drive worth it. The trailhead is located along Highway 99 north of Squamish near Pemberton, BC. There are three levels of Joffre Lakes to visit and the trailhead leads you to Lower Joffre Lake almost immediately. We saw some hikers take a dip in the lake, but even at this lower elevation, the glacier-fed waters were freezing!
The rest of the trail continues to Middle and Upper Joffre Lakes. The climb quickly gets steeper and although the path is well-worn, the elevation gain over a short distance is brutal. Luckily, as soon as you see the unbelievably blue waters of Middle Joffre Lake, you’ll forget the hard work it took to get there. This stunning view may entice you to stop here, but you’ll be missing the best part of the hike if you skip Upper Joffre Lake. We enjoyed the stunning middle lake for all of five minutes before continuing up to the final of the Joffre trio.
Upper Joffre offers both the unbelievably blue water paired with the towering and massive Matier Glacier. Between the snow-capped peaks and the crystal-clear water, we had to force ourselves to leave when the time came. However, if you want more time at the lake, there is a backcountry campground at Upper Joffre Lake which we are still kicking ourselves for missing. If you do the hike, you might as well camp and enjoy Joffre Lakes all to yourself once the crowds have gone home.
We may sound like a broken record, but the crowds were a major downfall of this amazing hike. We were told this was a popular trail, but we figured that choosing a Wednesday with a questionable weather forecast would leave us alone on the mountain. Unfortunately, we arrived to a full parking lot and a packed trail. So packed that we found a line of people waiting to take a picture on the sunken tree made famous by Instagram. Again, the views make the long drive and the crazy crowds worth it, but we don’t even know when you could hit this trail without hordes of people. Maybe in the winter?
Finally, the quintessential Squamish hike is The Chief. Unfortunately, after spraining my ankle three times since our visit to Banff, my nuisance of an injury stopped us from reaching the top. However, even if you have just a few days to spend in Squamish, this quick 1-hour hike to the “first peak” of The Chief is a must-do. I’ll leave it up to you to take the pictures from the top ;).
3) The Lakes
While Squamish is paradise to the outdoor adventure-seeker, it does offer plenty of calm wilderness exploration as well. We were fortunate enough to spend an entire week camping at Cat Lake, a semi-remote lake about 20 minutes outside of Squamish. If you’re road tripping and sleeping in your car/RV, the walk-in only sites at Cat Lake aren’t the best option. Luckily, we packed our tent for longer camping stays and set up shop on the shores of this beautiful lake for the week.
We’ll warn you that Cat Lake is a well-known party spot for weekend warriors so camping there on the weekend will be loud and can easily fill up by Friday afternoon. However, the lake offers a peaceful escape during the week and you’ll find plenty of spots without neighbors Monday-Thursday. Cat Lake also offers two day-use beach areas that visitors can enjoy (family-friendly during the day) and it’s one of the warmest lakes in the area for swimming.
Perhaps the best perk of Cat Lake are the many logs floating around. Cat Lake got its name from the logging activity in the area that created the access road to the campground. The big CATs (caterpillars) pushed many of the downed logs into the lake creating natural rafts and earning the lake its name in the process. Many of the logs are large enough to hold humans which allows for standing, sitting, and even tanning on the floating logs around the lake. I stuck to my $5 Wal-Mart floaty for most of the week, but Derrick made playing on the logs a regular occurrence.
Brohm Lake is another popular swimming spot in the area. Known as “the local spot,” Brohm is a good place to cliff jump, rope swing, and paddleboard throughout the various day-use areas. There’s also a hike around the lake that offers some more private spots for swimming and hanging out if you want to avoid the crowds in the main day-use beach. Brohm Lake is another stunning lake just outside of downtown and one that we would recommend over Cat Lake if you aren’t looking to spend the night.
Finally, Alice Lake is another popular option for camping, swimming, and hiking in the area. The campground is much more established than the dispersed camping options at Cat Lake, which makes the cost to stay steeper. However, these regulations make Alice Lake a popular family spot for both day-use access and camping in the summer. Derrick even spent some time biking the trails around the lake, so there’s plenty for everyone to do at this popular spot.
4) The Beer!
What would an outdoor adventure paradise be without good craft breweries to enjoy at the end of the day? Squamish’s increasing popularity has encouraged two new breweries and a distillery to open within the last couple of years, all of which we enjoyed after our various explorations. Our favorite on the “Squamish Ale Trail” was Backcountry Brewery. Technically, this brewery hadn’t officially opened and only just celebrated their Grand Opening the weekend we left. However, even during their soft opening, they had plenty of beer options to choose from and offered one of the best menus we’d seen in Squamish. Plus, their beer was the best we tried, which ranks them number one in our book.
Another fun option was A-Frame Brewing (flight pictured above), one of the newest breweries in town with a fun "lake-life" vibe. You'll find plenty of outdoor seating at A-Frame which offers beautiful views of the surrounding mountains. The hand-made stump stools, picnic tables, and wood-carved logo on the wall all add to the rustic vibe which really added to the experience. Not to mention, we booked our flight to Thailand while enjoying a flight at this brewery, so it will always hold a special place in our hearts!
The most popular and well-known brewery in Squamish is Howe Sound Brewing. They were the first to settle in Squamish and have been supplying locals with good beer and great food for over 20 years. This extensive history has allowed them to expand into a full restaurant, brewery and even hotel option next door, which makes them a big name in town. We enjoyed the beer and the food but found we prefer the smaller, start-up breweries to the established staples. I know, we’re snobs.
If you’re more into spirits than beer, Gillespie’s tasting room is your place. Since Derrick and I prefer beer, we only gave their spirits a try at the Farmer’s Market, but locals rave about their cocktails and fun atmosphere. They specialize in gin and vodka so if that’s your thing, go!
5) The Adventure Hostel
Yes, it’s weird to include a specific accommodation in this list, but the Squamish Adventure Inn (Hostel) was one of the highlights of our trip. We decided to splurge on accommodation to take advantage of a shower, laundry, and full kitchen in between two weeks of camping – and we’re so glad we did!
Of course, staying in a hostel is all about the community and shared-space, so if you like your privacy, we recommend looking elsewhere. But if you’re on a budget and want to meet fellow travelers and like-minded people, hostels are a great and affordable option. The Squamish Adventure Inn was also very clean, big, and in the perfect location for exploring downtown and the surrounding areas. We did splurge on a private room so we’d have a small space to ourselves, but the kitchen, bathroom, and lounge areas were all shared with others.
While there, we enjoyed cooking and eating dinner with fellow guests, spent a night playing Clue with a group of college-students from Calgary, and cheered for athletes of the Squamish 50/50 race as they passed by the hostel.
This was our first “official” hostel experience and we both thoroughly enjoyed our stay. We plan to look for this accommodation throughout our travels, and would highly recommend the Squamish Adventure Inn for anyone passing through this amazing town. They’ll be a great resource for planning your adventures, and you’ll likely have plenty of friends to share in your trips if you want some company!
We hope our top 5 reasons have inspired you to add Squamish, BC to your bucket list! This adventure playground definitely deserves a spot and has so much to offer even the least adventurous of travelers (if those people even exist). Of course, we could have listed plenty of additional reasons to head to Squamish, but we'll let you determine some yourself. If you've been to Squamish, be sure to add your reasons in the comments - we are already looking for excuses to go back!