Part V - Crossing the Coastal Range to Vancouver

Day 17 – Dying on the Duffy - Marble Canyon to Pemberton

By Bike:
Distance: 98.3 miles

Elevation Gain: 6,780 ft
Today was the big day – I would finally meet my nemesis, “The Duffy” (aka. “The Death Pass”), for a fight to the death. The prize – seeing Whistler, riding into Vancouver, and completing my trip. And if I failed? Then I would have a sad, long retreat as I biked to the nearest town with a Greyhound station, probably a full days’ ride away.

Although I would have loved to avoid The Duffy, there was no way around it to reach Whistler. Whistler only has two roads leading to the outside world – Highway 99 (Sea to Sky Highway) to Vancouver, which was only completed in the 60’s, and the Duffy Lake Road. The Duffy Lake Road was created in the 1970s after it was realized that Whistler needed another road connection to the rest of British Columbia, as the rugged location of the Sea to Sky highway meant that it was regularly out of service due to avalanches and segments falling into the ocean in landslides.

There is a nice flat valley linking Lillooet with Pemberton, but this had already been filled with the Seton Lake Reservoir and a railroad. However, while a route for this backcountry access was being sought, a series of logging roads in the Lillooet and Cayoosh Mountains between Lillooet and Mt Curie grew together. So road planners just link together a route over the mountain range with the existing logging roads. As far as I know, the road was only paved in 1992. Beyond this and my research on Google Maps determining the elevation gain and road grades (many +10% slopes, none less than 5% for the first 1,500 ft), I had absolutely no information about the road or what to expect.

Comparisons of the Duffy Lake Road to other cycling climbs

That was until yesterday when a local ranger at Marble Canyon eased my fears by saying the road had decent shoulders (so I could stop or walk by bike if things got desperate), somewhat regular cycling traffic, and that I could easily access the creek throughout the canyon to refill water. In light of this information, I traveled at half capacity with water. Since the pass looked to span the middle 1/3 of the Coastal Range, I also expected a lush, cool mountain pass. Between this information and expectations, and the fact that I had made it to here from Calgary without using my granny gear, I felt confident that I could make it over the pass, even with 80 lbs of gear. And once that was over, I only had a short ways on flat ground to reach the hostel in Pemberton.

I had hoped to make it to Lillooet the day before, as it is the last town before the pass, making it an ideal starting point. But I was wearing down enough from the long distances and intensive heat that I fell short, spending the night 30 miles away in the very nice Marble Canyon Campground. I rose early and was on the road by 8 am. As I descended out of the Pavilion Range through the town of Pavilion, the landscape changed again from cool green forests to hot dry and rocky grasslands and arid mountains. I had two good humps to get over as I reached Fountain, and then a nice long downhill towards the surprisingly arid town of Lillooet. Annoyingly, I had to climb a steep hill and backtrack up the canyon several miles after leaving the highway to reach Lillooet, but I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to have a good last meal before the crux of the trip.

Approaching Fountain

I had a large chicken teriyaki sandwich at Subway and a lot of sides to top off for the ride, chugging as much water as I could as I hung around the restaurant. I tried to procrastinate and delay the inevitable, but by 10:30 am I decided I had better get moving, so I headed out. By this time it had gotten very hot outside and my bike thermometer was already reading 95o F! I learned later that despite appearing to be 1/3 of the way into the Coastal Range from the interior, Lillooete was actually one of the hottest towns in British Columbia! This was an added difficulty for the climb I had not expected.


After I left town, it wasn’t long before I hit the start of the major hill climbing. I had a nice warm-up of a short 11% hill – my steepest yet. Here I finally broke out my secret weapon and switched to the third chain ring Granny Gear on my bike. This was as easy as it was going to get. The hill didn’t last very long before flattening at a viewpoint of the Seton Lake Reservoir, the watery barrier that blocked an easy flat route to Pemberton. I enjoyed my last few minutes of relative comfort for the day here, looking at the flat reservoir winding away through the mountains, and then up at the Duffy Lake Road as it switch-backed up a headwall to enter the canyon above. And then I launched into my assault in full force.

The Duffy Lake Pass

Seton Lake, blocking the easy way to Pemberton
I dropped into my lowest gear, and despite attempting to go as easily as I could, the sustained steepness of the road soon began to get to me. I had to concentrate extremely hard on every muscle contraction to push through pedal revolutions. Creeping uphill at a depressing 3 mph, I tried my best to NOT pay any attention to reaching the top – I would get there when I got there. I began to take mini breaks every 5-10 minutes, and despite the intense pedaling an ensuing soreness and nausea, I didn’t stop for reason of fatigue. Instead, I stopped for the intense heat as temperatures were in the mid to high 90s and the road was NOT shaded here. I tried to ride slow mostly to keep from overheating, but despite my best efforts, nausea would creep in and my heart rate would rise into the high 180s. This was O.K., but as soon as I started to feel chills in my spine, arms, legs, or head, I immediately stopped and guzzled water to avoid the imminent onset of heat exhaustion.

I think Connie was thinking more about the majority of the pass and not the first headwall, which is passed quickly in a car, when she said the road was shaded and water was accessible. Ascending on the steep canyon wall, there was absolutely no access to water. Even though the first climbing only lasts for about 5 miles, it is so steep that I was on it for well over an hour. Between time spent on the climb and the intense heat, I soon ran out of water, cursing Connie’s suggestion to carry less as I sucked the last few drops out of my camelback.

At one point I reached one of the steepest sections of the road (about 15% is my best estimate based on topos and the road grade signs) as it wound through another series of 180 degree switch backs up the mountainside. The shoulder narrowed, and as I was wary of riding too far out in the road, I hugged the side, a few inches away from a concrete k-rail. At my slow speed on the steep slope, I couldn’t help but wobble a bit, especially when the (fortunately) rare car passed (no R.V.s here!).

Walking my bike on the unpaved section. My 'incident' happened at the curve below

As I neared the second switchback, I grazed the k-rail with my front right pannier, and in one slow “rrrrrrrip!” the concrete wall pried the entire pannier mount off my front wheel! Unbalanced, the front wheel swung outwards and I stood up on the road to avoid toppling over. Crap! and a variety of other obscenities poured forth. This was NOT what I needed right now. I walked my bike up to the switchback where there was more space on the outside of the road to inspect the damage. A critical piece holding my pannier to my bike was a very long screw that was perhaps close to 2” long. Fortunately the screw had bent and then snapped in the center as the pannier was pried off, breaking far away from the threads in my bike frame and pannier mount, and nothing else was broken. Unfortunately, out of all of the spare parts I brought, I had neglected to bring such long screws for the front pannier mount (I had replacement screws for every other part of my bike, though).

It would be impossible to continue riding with this breakdown, and although I didn’t have any way to reattach the pannier, in lack of any better ideas, I plopped down on the roadside and began untwisting the bent pieces of screws out of my bike with pliers.

Mountains above the Duffy Lake road.

In a second incredibly lucky break on my trip, it was only about 10 minutes before a van stopped on the pullout to see if I was all right. Riding in the van were Aniel and Mark, from Boulder, Colorado. They were physicists working at the university there, and Aniel was now moving to a position in Fairbanks, so Mark was driving Aniel up there, taking some detours along the way for a scenic road trip. Inside of their van, then, they just happened to have all types of spare parts for vehicle repair (their van was a piece of crap that had to be fixed several times already) and lab equipment. They might have some spare parts to fix my breakdown! After moving out of the way for a logging truck that was attempting to make the turn around the tight switchback, my saviors set to work helping me out.

Aniel and Mark also had gallons of extra water, and while Aniel tried various screws to find one long enough and the right diameter for my pannier, Mark filled up my camel back and two more liters of water bottles. And Aniel found a screw that worked! It was a little long, but barely short enough to fit in through the pannier mount and screw into the bike frame. Bizarrely, tearing off my front pannier was extremely fortunate for me, as it was quickly repaired and incidentally solved my serious water problem.

We said our farewells and parted ways. But I wasn’t on the move for long before I reached a short 100 yard section of road that was unpaved. The vehicles driving uphill had to slow down to gain traction in the soft soil, and even the cars had trouble driving up this section. There was no way I was going to even attempt to ride up that, so I dismounted and walked my bike uphill through it. Between the steep hill and my heavy bike, this was surprisingly tiring. Although my slow 3mph climbing speed on my bike was slow enough to tempt me to walk, it was apparent now that it was actually still faster and easier to ride my bike up these hills rather than walking it.

Shortly after I finished the dirt road section and resumed cycling, I came across a man lounging on the rear hatch of his pickup truck on a shady roadside pullout. He was really surprised to see me and my touring rig heading up the pass, and as I crawled by huffing and puffing, he said in astonishment, “You’re a better man than I.” By the minute I was feeling crazier and crazier for attempting the pass loaded down like this.

After what seemed like an eternity, I crested the hill and dropped down steeply on the other side. I crossed a 1-lane wooden bridge as the road crossed the canyon and resumed its ascent on the other side. The grade stayed high, but each hill was shorter and shorter, offering some short reprieve to rest up for the next climb. At the last steep hill, as I crawled over the crest and the valley below rolled away behind the crest off the road, I turned around to see a sign saying “Trucks Gear Down. 13% for 2 km,” and this section didn’t even feel like the worst one!

At last I was over the worst of the climb, and I knew that I was going to make it. I was going slow enough that I didn’t know if I could make it to Pemberton that night, but at least I was going to finish the ride eventually. I had finally climbed high enough that the air had cooled and I was once again surrounded by thick pine forest. The rest of the climb was bittersweet. The road grades had eased up to manageable levels again, and I only had to net 2,000 ft more climbing over 40 miles to reach the pass. But the road was not very fully developed, and it rose and fell with every undulation in the terrain, sometimes climbing high up on the side of the canyon before dropping back down again to follow the river or cross to the other side. These undulations were hard on the morale, especially the ones where the hills dropped down so far that the road disappeared from sight and I couldn’t see where it resumed climbing again.

Still climbing?

Still have more to climb!
But I was enjoying myself, admiring the views and making good progress once again. At least the road was very picturesque, offering occasional views over the forest, and every now and then crossing the canyon creek over old 1-lane wooden bridges. By this time there was more road traffic as I began to pass trailheads and picnic areas. Many of the car travelers honked their horns and cheered as they passed by, congratulating me for making it up here loaded up as I was.

The old wooden bridges on the "Duffy"

Foliage on the Duffy

beer goddess

One highlight of the day was meeting the

Beer Goddess and her son

(sorry, I have lost her name since then). I was cycling along on a straightaway when an SUV pulled up alongside of me and matched my speed. The window rolled down and inside was a kid and his young mother. She hailed me and I took out my headphones to see what was up. She just wanted to chat, curious about what I was doing, so as I rode along on the road we visited, occasionally taking breaks to let cars pass.

Fading daylight on the Duffy

Finally the beer goddess said she needed to get going on her way and tool off, but a few minutes later she came speeding back the other way, turned around, and pulled up alongside me again.

Would I like a beer to celebrate my imminent completion of The Duffy?

“Of course!” I said, “Although I can’t drink it now. I’m so exhausted and dehydrated that I don’t want to get drunk before the descent into Pemberton.”

Insistent on giving me the beer, the beer goddess said she would find a pull-out where she could leave it for me to pick up, so she sped off to hide the beer. Then she sped back to report that she wanted to make sure I didn’t miss it, so she followed me a while longer and as she told me about things to do in and around Vancouver and how nice and accommodating everyone in the area was. Finally we found a pull-out, she awarded me my victory Guinness. What a day!

By now it was beginning to get shady as the sun was getting low in the sky again. I was getting close to the pass, but once again I had to race the sun. I didn’t dare do the extremely steep windy descent in the dark, so if it got dark before I reached the pass I would have to bivvy out in the forest. Tonight I was set on reaching the comfort of the Pemberton Hostel, so I picked up the pace.

Duffy Lake and Pass

I was blown away by the beauty of Duffy Lake. The view came up all at once, with no warning – a beautiful alpine lake lined with flowers, and rising in the distance, a rocky, ice-covered summit. I was officially in the Cascade Range.

Descending the Duffy

The road followed the lakeside with wonderful views the entire way, and then went through a couple more false summits before the final rise. It was getting dark – maybe only another 15-20 minutes of visible light – but the descent would be very fast, dropping 3,500 ft in about 8 miles. It was time to go for it! I pulled hard on the brakes as I passed a sign saying “Caution. Extreme Grades Next 13 km. Brake Check.” The road really dropped at this point, and my hands were staining under the effort to pull my brake levers, trying to keep my speed reasonable for the hairpin turns that I knew were coming.

Before I knew it I had descended from 4,200 ft to 750 ft above sea level just as it got dark. From here on the road was completely flat, and I raced to Pemberton in the fading light. Just as it seemed about to get pitch black, the sun came out from behind some thick clouds behind the horizon, and lit up the smooth, velvety clouds in the sky and creating one of the most impressive sunsets I have ever witnessed. The sky was an errie green-blue at the horizon, a silhouette of mountain peaks. Above this layer of color was a smooth sheet of clouds covering the sky and glowing fiery orange, gold, pink, and red as the sun set, fading into the blackness of the night sky above as one looked higher. I could hear the angels singing, so to speak, as this beacon of light shown above my destination for the night.

Mt Curie Sunset

I thought my day was over, but there was still more to come. As it turned out, the directions I had printed out from Google Maps to the hostel were incorrect. As I rode along in the dark, I found the road it was supposed to be on, only to reach a dead end and fields beyond. Just as I came to this, realizing that there was no hostel here, I looked to me right to see the backlit silhouette of a woman, waving to me from her front porch.

“Great,” I thought, “maybe she can help give me directions to the hostel.”

I turned around and rode up to the house to explain my situation. The blonde woman was in her early 30s and very outgoing, probably aided by the drink in her hand. I explained my problem and she said that that address was actually on the other side of the highway, but there was a good shortcut through the field at the end of the road. Great, I would just head over there. But just then the woman’s younger blonde sister, in her early 20s, and her perky friend popped up at the door, also very outgoing and mildly drunk.

“What are you doing out here? . . . Really?! Wow, that is sooooo cool (imagine some valley girl talk here) “

I said I should get going to the hostel since I needed to get dinner and some sleep so I could press on tomorrow and one of the girls said “oh, come on. Come to the bar with us! You can get food there!” The older woman suggested we call the hostel to make sure there was room.

“Yes, they have space, but the lady sounded crazzzy. I don’t think you should stay there – she sounded really off and a little grouchy. You can stay here! Really!”

“Oh yes!” said the two younger girls. “You should stay with us! It’s just the three of here, so we have space – a hide-a-bed in the living room. You can get your food and some drinks at the bar with us and then come back here! Pleeeassse!”

Ummmmmmmmm . . . . is this for real?

"Welcome to the Castle Anthrax. My name is 'Zoot'. Just 'Zoot'."

I felt a little bit like Sir Galahad the Pure in “Monty Python’s and the Holy Grail” being tempted into staying over, almost by force, while trying to politely refuse. Ultimately I gave in, as this was just too strange to pass up.

What followed was a feast of food and alcohol as I ate several heaping plates of virtually free chicken wings, about 4 or 5 beers, and several shots with the girls and their friends at the bar. No, nothing else happened – it was a sweet innocent night of R&R, mingling with locals in the bar. By the time we got back to the girls’ place, I was dead tired and fell right asleep.

Day 18 – Running Out of Steam - Pemberton to Whistler

By Bike:
Distance: 23.5 miles

Elevation Gain: 2,440 ft
I slept soundly last night, utterly wasted from my ordeal on the Duffy. This morning I awoke with a mild headache from dehydration and last night’s drinking. Ugggg . . . I felt better after chugging water, but I was still completely exhausted and very sore, half-limping around the kitchen as I gathered my things. Today would normally be an easy day, cycling about 20 miles and gaining 2,500 ft to Whistler, where I planned to spend the next few days climbing out of the Lake Garibaldi area. I felt so sore and weak that I dreaded the thought of more hills, but excitement for hiking and scrambling in the Coastal Range drove me onward.

In an attempt to recover, I ate two full breakfasts at a restaurant in town, taking my time and starting out stuffed at around 11 am. As I cycled out of town, despite the ground being flat, it was slow and painful pushing the pedals – my legs felt as if they were seizing up. Although I had made it over the Duffy, the +300 miles covered over the last 3 days had been too much, and my physical condition was definitely deteriorating - definitely a good time to wrap up the trip! About a mile out of town I heard a sudden “whump!” behind me and my rear wheel locked up. Unable to peddle further, I stopped cold, turning around to see that my rear rack had just broken, dropping all of my gear onto the rear wheel.

Rack Damage

Fortunately, this wasn’t a repeat of the dreaded screw-shearing incident. This time the metal underwent a clean, brittle fracture. My best guess is all of the bumpy riding (especially on the Duffy) caused a fatigue fracture in the metal, since the fracture wasn’t initiated by any sudden shock to the system. Unable to move the bike with 60 lbs of gear on the rear, I filled up my Andanista pack with as much as I could, balanced the rest of my gear on the bicycle seat, and walked back into town.

Once again I had a breakdown that would have been impossible to fix on the road, and once again I got very lucky. I saw a bike show in Pemberton on my way out, so I walked back there, purchased a new rear rack (which barely had sufficient capacity for the weight) and replaced the broken one. I thought it was interesting to see that I had beaten up my broken rack so badly that the screw threads in the clevis head was stretched from the heavy weight that had been bearing on the screw. Repairs went straightforward, and I continued a long, uneventful slog up into Whistler.

The canyon wasn’t too scenic, and once again I was riding on the shoulder of a highway, with traffic screaming by. It turns out that British Columbia also has a bad habit of marring scenic views from the road by strategically stringing high voltage power lines across the views. I then hit major construction as I reached Whistler. Apparently Whistler is next in line to hold the Winter Olympics (I had no idea!) and I found out that the Whistler area and the entire highway into Vancouver was undergoing major construction in preparations for the Olympics.

Tonight I planned to stay in the Whistler Hostel, which is across Alta Lake from the town. Picturesque yes, but also fairly isolated. I cycled over 2 last painful humps, and as I coasted up to the garage for the hostel, took a spill as I caught my feet trying to take them out of the toe-clips. I was tired.

At the hostel I found that it was full! M.C., the desk guy there, was really great as although there weren’t any vacancies, it was late in the day and there was a private room who’s occupants still hadn’t arrived. He thought it a safe assumption that they weren’t going to show, so he gave me the room for the night.

As I checked the weather that night, I was disappointed to see that the earlier forecasts for clear weather in the area had been replaced by a week of stormy weather starting in 2-3 days. Not good for mountain climbing, and I didn’t want to be caught in the rain when cycling along the Sea-to-Sky Highway, which was now one long construction zone. I would have to nix my plans to scramble up the Black Tusk and other peaks in the Lake Garibaldi area.

I decided that I would have a casual day around town tomorrow to recover, and then head into Vancouver early to beat the rain.

Day 19 – Hiking on Mt. Whistler - Rest Day

By Bike:
Distance: 4 miles

Elevation Gain: 200 ft
On Foot:
Destination: Whistler Mtn, Piccolo Summit, Flute Summit

Distance: 9.5 miles

Elevation Gain: 3,180 ft
Today I slept in, wandering down to the dining hall at a comfortable 11 am. I took my time enjoying breakfast and admiring the nice view of Alta Lake and Whistler Peak rising above. I wasn’t in any hurry to get moving, and I was still unsure what to do with the remainder of my trip. I was too tired to do much today, and the imminent rainy weather put a stop to all of my plans for hiking and scrambling in the Coastal Range, leaving me in a downer mood. Also, I needed to figure out how I was going to get into Vancouver.

As I worked my way across Western Canada, I learned more about the Sea-to-Sky highway from locals, and the news wasn’t good for me, especially after my close call crossing Roger’s Pass. First, the entire length of the highway from Whistler to Vancouver was essentially one long construction zone in preparation for the upcoming Winter Olympics. Second, the road before the construction had very tight turns and bad shoulders. Apparently enough cyclists are hit by drivers rushing between Whistler and Vancouver that some people call the highway the “Sea-to-Die Highway”. On top of that, the forecast was for rain in 2 days, which could possibly break while I am en route to Vancouver.

Upon hearing my debate on what to do, one of the guests in the hostel strongly warned me not to do it. He was driving a van for hire and was already taking some clients into the city today. I could play it safe and join him. Still, he did have a conflict of interest since I would be paying for the ride. Also, it seemed a real shame to have come all this way only to stop short of reaching Vancouver, or even the West Coast.

M.C. helped me out here, suggesting that I could at least cycle to Squamish, and if the weather got bad or construction was too bad, I could then bus the last stretch along the coast. As to my reservations about the highway, a lot of the judgments I had heard were second-hand and casual observations from drivers and not cyclists. Yes, it could be dangerous, but was it really any worse than many of the miles I had already cycled? Although most cyclists in the area were mountain bikers, M.C. knew of a bike shop in Squamish rid employees that were into road cycling, and a call there confirmed that yes, the road was a little tight, but from the point of view of one guy who cycled it regularly, it was perfectly safe in good weather if you were careful and highly visible (e.g. my tall orange flag would help a lot). In the end I decided to go for it, and if the weather deteriorated early, then I would take a bus from Squamish as a backup.

Overlord Mtn

Some more problems to deal with were where I would stay the next few days. All of the hostels in Vancouver were full for the weekend (doh!) but some persistent internet searching eventually turned up a vacancy in the Gastown district downtown. Also, tonight there would be no room available at the hostel, but M.C. was fine with me sleeping discretely behind the employee cabin in my bivvy sack as long as I didn’t get caught by the manager.

M.C. was also very generous in giving me suggestions of what to do in town that wasn’t too taxing, since I wanted to get out but wasn’t sure how much I could do. He gave me some maps and said at the very least I should take the gondola to the summit of Whistler Mountain to hang around. The summit had excellent views of the area, including the peaks I had wanted to climb. I read up in some guidebooks at the hostel, M.C. lent me a trail map for the area, and I took off to salvage the day.

The ride into town as only 4 miles, but it felt much longer. I really hoped I recuperated soon, since I had 80 miles to cover the next day. Whistler was bustling with activity when I rode it. There was a BMX tournament going on and the area was packed with spectators and sponsors – quite the zoo! I enjoyed watching some of the acrobatics before taking the gondola up.

I really felt like I was cheating taking the gondola to a summit, and riding up in a crowded car with tourists really felt strange after hiking and cycling alone for the past few weeks. But I had no choice but to tolerate the crowds and enjoy the mountains in spite of them. One benefit of taking the gondola was that it gave great views of the Whistler ski resort. For summer the ski runs had been converted to mountain biking runs, with tight twisting tracks winding through the trees, and various obstacles set up for aerial tricks. Even the ski lifts had been modified to carry up mountain bikes! It was really entertaining watching the occasional mountain biking come flying out of the trees, take a jump, and then disappear back into the woods below.

Whistler seen from Whistler Pk

I arrived on the summit without any real plan of what to do. I figured I would just see what felt good. In a desire to escape the crowds, I hike hard and fast the remaining few hundred feet to the summit. As I had experience during my time in the Canadian Rockies, even though I was wasted for cycling, and in general physically I felt kind of ‘blah’, my legs where plenty fresh and strong for hiking and scrambling. I lounged for a while on the summit enjoying the panoramic views, and then decided to take the most remote trail I could find to get away from the crowds.

The Musical Bumps Trail

The Musical Bumps trail traversing above Cheakammus Lake
Castle Mountain
The Black Tusk

The Whistler area felt like one gigantic amusement park, with disclaimers galore and everything nicely packaged for a controlled environment of fun - even the trails were well signed, and rated according to a color-coded difficulty scheme like ski runs. According to the map, I was taking the black line, which was an ‘alpine‘ trail rated ‘most difficult,’ like a black diamond ski run. I was used to such ratings for skiing as

Castle Mtn

I grew up skiing in resorts, but seeing trails signed and mapped as such seemed very strange. I decided to link this trail with a route called “Musical Bumps” that followed the network of trails over Piccolo and Flute Summit. Just as I had wanted, the trails on this route were just long and rugged enough to deter most of the tourists from coming this way. Soon I was in a more natural and serene environment again. The route was just perfect for my rest day. Not too hard, and surrounded by blooming wildflowers. The views south to rugged Mt Garabaldi, the Black Tusk, and Castle Mountain rising out of the glaciers were incredible. Cheakamus Lake spread out below, its colors a uniform and unreal sheen of deep blue-green.

Cheakammus Lake

Before long I made it to Flute Summit, and then took loop back, this time following a network of trails on the east side of the ridge back to the gondola. I grabbed another full dinner in town, cycled back to the hostel just in time to catch the last of the alpenglow on Whistler Mountain fading away. I set up camp between the lake and employee cabins and went to sleep early, as I planned to sneak out early the next day.

Whistler Peak at sunset

Day 20 – Sea-to-‘Die’ Highway - Whistler to Vancouver

By Bike:
Distance: 82 miles

Elevation Gain: 4,830 ft
Today I hoped to beat the approaching rainstorms and cycle the last leg of my cycling tour, from Whistler to Vancouver via the Sea-to-Sky Highway. In my direction, the highway descends 2,000 ft from Whistler through the mountains, reaching Squamish and the Pacific Ocean.

The Sea to Sky Highway seen from Horseshoe Bay

From sea level, the highway straddles the steep mountainsides as it travels along the Howe Sound from Squamish to North Vancouver, crossing various seaside settlements along the way. Finally, the highway crosses the Lions Gate suspension bridge, passing through Stanley Park and right through downtown Vancouver. Today’s ride would take me from the mountains to the coast to a miniature Manhattan – quite the variety for 80 miles!

To give a sense of how rugged the terrain is that the highway passes through, until the 1950s the coastal settlements were only accessibly via ferry. The highway didn’t reach Whistler until the 1960s, creating Whistler’s first physical link with the outside world. The cliffside above the how sound is steep and unstable enough that the road is regularly shut down from landslide damage. In fact, at the start of my trip a landslide had wiped out a stretch of the highway, which had since been rebuilt before I made it to Whistler.

Alta Lake

I woke in time to watch the sun rise of the still waters of Alta Lake, and then quietly gathered my gear that was stored inside the hostel and was on the road by 7am. Although I was still really sore and tired from the previous day’s wear and tear, once I got moving on my bicycle I gradually loosened up, feeling better as I moved on. There was a light rain falling as I left Whistler, which cleared up as I lost elevation.

Coastal Range West of Whistler

About halfway to Squamish I hit road construction. Although it was slightly more stressful, the traffic along the highway was never too bad, and traffic was light. Unlike my experience with drivers on the interior of British Columbia, the drivers here were courteous and drove safely enough – no one came up from behind me honking their horns here! By the time I reached Squamish, the sun was shining in full force and the threat of rain seemed far away.

As I passed through Squamish, the Chief loomed high above.

The Chief

This is a large granite wall, a miniature El Cap, that has many excellent climbing routes on solid granite. As I neared the far end of town near the Chief, a road cyclist turned onto the road in front of me. Dressed to race, this guy looked ready for a nice workout riding to Vancouver. He turned off the road just before the Howe Sound, but later he caught up and passed me again.

The Howe Sound

I was blown away by the beauty of the Howe Sound. The mountains are gorgeous, and the water an almost tropical shade of light blue. Here and there, sailboats dotted the water – I would LOVE to sail here! The road would climb up a steep grade, traverse high on the cliffs, and drop down to the water at each beachside town. Every inch of the highway was scenic.

Porteau Cove

To my surprise, I caught up to the cyclist again as I neared Porteau Cove. He was just barely pulling in, and I followed to check out the area. There was a sunken ship here and apparently some good snorkeling (cool). The water here was warm enough to wade in, really not any colder than the water off the coast of San Diego. As the waters off of San Francisco are frigid, I was really surprised to find such mild water this far north. I guess the water is shallower here and protected by the cold currents of the Pacific by Vancouver Island.

I continued on, making excellent time and stopping regularly along the way to take photos. The day was bright and sunny – absolutely perfect. As I neared Lions Bay I caught up with my cyclist friend again. It was almost as if we were jockeying for position as we headed into Vancouver. This time I guess he finally noticed me and didn’t appreciate me in my big burly touring rig catching up to him on his light racing bike. He seemed startled and then took off at a sprint to get away.

The Howe Sound and Coastal Range

I pulled into Horseshoe Bay just as my right knee and quadricep started to burn out. It ached in the joints and deep in the muscle. It was sensitive enough that I had to switch to using my left leg for my starting stroke, and I became lopsided in my pedaling. I was finishing my cycling tour not a moment too soon.

Horseshoe Bay is a major ferry departure/arrival point for traveling from Vancouver to Vancouver Island and the numerous other islands along the West Coast of British Columbia, so it was really active. I enjoyed the hustle and bustle of Horeshoe Bay while I enjoyed my late lunch on the side of a fountain, and then pushed on to finish the last few miles. Here I left the highway as it became a double-decker freeway and instead followed roads along the coast.

As I rode along the dips and turns along the coast, I made sure to stop by Lighthouse Park. This park is on a promontory in West Vancouver and it contains some nice groves of coastal rainforest. Although cycling wasn’t allowed, I didn’t want to leave my bike unattended. I figured no one would have a problem if I walked my bike in rather than riding it. I dismounted and wandered around the lush forest, pushing my bike carefully along the way, up and over the occasional rocky section. I wandered around to the east side of the promontory and found an excellent rock slab to eat a snack on. Beyond, the modern high-rises of Vancouver rose up above the Burrard Inlet, itself an area of frenetic activity as dozens of cargo, tanker, and cruise ships passed in and out of the busy port.

The last few miles of my ride were just perfect. Terrain was easy, traffic light, and route finding straightforward. I paralleled the beach of West Vancouver, walked my bike up onto the Lions Gate Bridge, and then rode across as the sun set, coasting through the air over the Burrard inlet and the sea wall surrounding Stanley Park, passing right through the heavy forest, still in the air on the bridge.

West Vancouver from Lions Gate Bridge
Stanley Park's Sea Wall

The separated bike path remerged with the highway as I wound through Stanley Park, coming right out of the thickly wooded peninsula straight into the downtown. Tall buildings galore, but despite density the traffic was light and cycling on the city streets was a breeze. The people here were very friendly too, helping me to direct me to the hostel. I rode in to the hostel just after dark.

Vancouver at Dusk


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