Since we’re all staying close to home this year, now is a great opportunity to explore all those nearby places we’ve never had the chance to visit before.
The small town of Squamish is less than an hour’s drive from Vancouver up the poetically-named Sea to Sky Highway and located where the coastal mountains meet the Pacific Ocean. This whole region boasts some of British Columbia’s most awe-inspiring terrain and is known for its recreational activities and family-friendly attractions year round. Squamish is the perfect day trip destination with active kids!
Britannia Mine Museum
Every time we head up to Squamish or Whistler, we drive by this eye-catching, stair-step building built on the side of the mountain. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve passed it through the years, but I never knew what is was. What better time to finally check it out?
It turns out that mysterious building is a gravity-fed concentrator mill and part of the Britannia Mine Museum in Britannia Beach, about 10 minutes south of Squamish. Copper mining has a long history in this area which sounds like it would be boring, but somehow manages not to be!
In the 1920s and 1930s, Britannia Mine was one of the largest mining operations in Canada, and at one time it was the largest copper producer in the entire British Empire. Nowadays, the mine is a National Historical Site of Canada and a hands-on museum offering visiting families a fascinating glimpse into our local history.
The main event at the Britannia Mine Museum is the underground tour. We all grabbed hard hats and took a short ride in a transport car into the tunnels to learn about copper mining, see the machines they used, and get a glimpse into what it was like to work here. Our guide was Marshall Tichauer, a former miner who was employed at this very mine until its doors closed in 1974.
Once underground, we took a short walking tour through the tunnels. We were able to watch and hear a real pneumatic drill and mucking machine in operation, as well as get a glimpse into what it might have been like for miners working in the dark of a tunnel equipped with only a candle or acetylene head torch. It’s a cool 12 degrees Celsius in there so bring a light sweater.
After the 45-minute tour, we headed over to that imposing 20-storey mill to catch the BOOM! show. BOOM! is a multimedia presentation that brings the old mill back to life with video, sound, visual effects, olfactory effects, and a detailed recreation of the mine’s original skip, a 3-tonne rail car that hauled every piece of equipment 360 feet up and down the mill’s 45-degree angle track.
We learned how they used to transport the rock from the mine to the mill and then how they processed all the rock and ore to get the copper out. It was an impressive operation!
Several other buildings and exhibits in the Britannia Mine Museum complex display historical artifacts, machinery, mine carts, and some of the many uses for copper.
Don’t forget to stop by the gold panning activity in the courtyard by the Admin building. The kids loved panning for real gold dust and semi-precious stones, and they were even more excited to find out they could take home anything they found.
Expect to spend a couple of hours at the Britannia Mine Museum, or longer if your kids don’t want to stop gold panning!
Sea to Sky Gondola
Just a few minutes up the highway from the Britannia Mine Museum is the Sea to Sky Gondola in Stawamus Chief Provincial Park.
You may remember the Sea to Sky Gondola was temporarily shut down in August 2019 when someone cut the haul rope. We’ve been looking forward to seeing the gondolas back in commission ever since. The re-opened line is about 2 kilometres long and takes visitors 886 metres (2900 feet) above sea level in just 10 minutes. 39 gondolas hold eight people each, though right now each group gets their own gondola for the scenic journey up the mountain.
Up at the top, you’ll find a nature lover’s paradise. You can spend all day up here exploring a network of trails of varying lengths and difficulties. Each trail winds through lush, coastal rain forest offering stunning vistas of nearby Stawamus Chief, the Tantalus Mountain Range, Sky Pilot and Co-Pilot peaks, and shimmering Howe Sound below.
Inbound trails are all well-marked and range from easy to intermediate difficulty. Most won’t take longer than an hour with the exception of Sparky’s Spin, a steeper single-track trail that goes under the gondolas.
For families looking for an easy stroll, the wide, graded, gravel-paved Panorama Trail leads to the Chief Overlook Viewing Platform cantilevered over the side of the mountain for an amazing view and photo opp. The entire trail is 1.3 kilometres long and takes less than an hour round trip at a very gentle walk, including stops at several lookout points along the way.
Alternatively, you can bypass the first part of the Panorama Trail by taking the kid-friendly Alpine Alley trail instead. The kids found this a much more interesting hike, part scavenger hunt and part adventure park. They can crawl through the “animal burrow” tunnel, try the slide, and go “rock climbing”. Keep your eyes peeled for the 10 pieces of gear hidden along the trail and learn about local wildlife along the way.
The self-guided interpretive Spirit Trail is only 400 metres long and details the history of the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) Nation in this area. This trail also leads to the thrilling Sky Pilot Suspension Bridge. The swaying suspension bridge is approximately 100 metres long and offers a spectacular view of the mountains all the way down to the ocean thousands of feet below.
When it’s time for a break, the Summit Lodge boasts a large octagonal viewing deck and houses the Sky Pilot Restaurant and Co-Pilot Cafe. Around the side and down the stairs is Bodhi’s Sugar Shack for ice cream cones, screamers, and other treats. There’s also a playground and slackline for the kids to play on, and a patio with tables to sit and enjoy a snack.
More adventurous hikers can explore one of the longer, steeper, and more advanced back country trails. Bring water and expect to spend several hours on the trail. At 24 kilometres, the Skyline Ridge Trail is the longest and will take you all day. The free Sea to Sky Gondola Maps app has maps of all the trails, but I can’t vouch for how well it works on the back country trails.
And then there’s Shannon Falls, just a few minutes from the base of the Sea to Sky Gondola. In the summer, Shannon Creek runs a lot lower than in the spring, but it’s still a lovely forested area to visit and walk through.
If you’re up for a challenge, you can hike the trail that winds from the base of the falls all the way up to the Sea to Sky Gondola summit. We certainly are not those people, but it’s a lovely spot to admire the falls and splash your tired feet in the water either way.
Travelling in BC
There’s so much more to see and do in Squamish and the surrounding area, and now is a great time to get to know your own backyard! As per Phase 3 of British Columbia’s Restart Plan, if you decide to travel, you must take the same health and safety precautions as you do at home:
- Wash your hands often.
- Practice safe distancing – 2 metres.
- Spend time in small groups and open spaces.
- Clean spaces often.
- If you are feeling sick, stay home. No exceptions.
- If symptoms develop while travelling, self-isolate immediately and contact 8-1-1 for guidance and testing.
Disclosure: I was provided with complimentary admission to facilitate this post. Nevertheless, all opinions expressed are completely honest and my own, based on my personal experience. Your experience may differ.