Why Canada's Sea-to-Sky Highway Is the Best Road Trip to Take This Fall
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British Columbia is known for epic hiking in the summer and stellar skiing in the winter. But its shoulder seasons are sorely overlooked.
With fall fast upon us, now's the perfect time to visit one of North America's most beautiful regions without the crowds you'll find during peak season. It's also the ideal time to discover one of the most underrated road trip routes, the Sea-to-Sky Highway.
Like mountains? You're covered. Rugged shoreline? Also covered. Prefer city life? You'll find that along British Columbia Highway 99, too. Though the route is best known for affording impressive coastal vistas, the Sea-to-Sky Highway begins in the heart of Vancouver, making the journey both easily accessible as well as varied in scenery.
It's also infinitely expandable. While you can do the drive out and back in a weekend, there are enough side trips to easily occupy an entire week. However long you have, it's the perfect amount of time.
Things to Do Along the Sea-to-Sky Highway
Eat on Top of Vancouver
The aptly named Top of Vancouver is sort of a tourist trap, but who cares? The food is solid for the price, and the views at the top justify the meal. Plus, it spins. (We all secretly want to dine in a spinning restaurant high above one of the world's most beautiful cities. Right?) It's tough to go wrong if you start the journey here.
Go for Gold
The 2010 Winter Olympics were held in the greater Vancouver area, and travelers can still visit Whistler Olympic Plaza. Grab a token selfie in front of the Olympic Rings, and then take a gondola ride to the top of Blackcomb. For extra adventure, plan to hike back down.
Explore the Out Islands
For travelers with the luxury of time, don't even leave Horseshoe Bay before making your first detour of the trip. There, you'll take a nonstop ferry to nearby Bowen Island, which boasts miles of quiet hiking trails and a distinctly Canadian take on "island time." For island hoppers, there's also a nonstop ferry to Langdale, where you can connect to Keats and Gambier Islands.
Climb the Tunnel Bluffs
Just north of Brunswick Beach is a pull-off and hiking path to Tunnel Bluffs. It's a moderate but fairly accessible climb, and the views across Howe Sound are unforgettable. Pack your hiking shoes so you can continue on to Brunswick Mountain, where a roughly nine-mile hike delivers even more impressive panoramas. (The trail is best tackled before the end of October.)
Visit BC's Third-Highest Falls
Tumbling down over 1,100 feet, Shannon Falls is just off Highway 99. Located in an eponymous provincial park, the falls can be mobbed with tourists during the summer months — but you're more likely to have the natural spectacle to yourself in autumn. Nearby hiking trails will lead you to Lukas Falls (even less touristed), and while you're in the area, consider the Sea to Sky Gondola. It's a busy attraction, yes, but great for families or travelers with limited mobility who still want gorgeous mountain views.
Getting There on Points and Miles
Fall is a great time to score a cheap flight to the Pacific Northwest, whether you're flying into Portland (PDX), Seattle-Tacoma or Vancouver Airport. All three entry points are served by the major US-based air carriers, including United, American and Delta, as well as a host of international airlines. (Follow TPG Alerts on Twitter for airfare deals to these airports.)
Once you land, you’ll need a solid rental car. Be sure to use AutoSlash to secure the best rates out of whichever airport you arrive at. You’ll also want to pay for your car rental with a credit card that includes primary insurance coverage, such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve or Chase Sapphire Preferred.
In Vancouver and Whistler, you'll find loads of properties associated with the major chains, giving you opportunity to cash in Hilton Honors points, IHG points and especially Marriott Rewards points, among others. (In Vancouver, consider The Westin Grand, the JW Marriott Parq Vancouver and the Douglas.)
If you stop frequently in smaller destinations, search for local lodging at Hotels.com, where you can earn 10x miles on hotel stays booked at Hotels.com through Jan. 31, 2020 when using your Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card. You can also take advantage of the Hotels.com Rewards program to earn one free night for every 10 paid nights, effectively boosting your return to 20% when you pay with the Venture card.
All photos by the author.