July 15, 2018
Going, Going, Gondola-ing
By Brandon Fralic
NW Trails is Sponsored by …
British Columbia is a land of natural beauty and gondolas galore.
For hikers, this melding of Mother Nature and modern technology means easy access to several of Canada’s most spectacular outdoor spaces. Descend to a raging river canyon by airtram near Hope; glide from sea to summit in Squamish; hike the famous Grouse Grind before downloading via gondie in North Vancouver.
To top it all off, Whistler and Golden gondolas access elevations above 6,000 feet for summer hikers and mountain bikers. From low to high, here are five of my favorite gondola rides in B.C.
Hell’s Gate Airtram
Top Elevation: 850 feet
This gondie goes against the grain, dropping 500 feet to a roaring river canyon. To get there, my partner and I road-tripped northeast up the Trans-Canada Highway from Bellingham, crossing the border at Sumas with a couple roadside trail stops along the way (don’t miss Bridal Veil Falls Provincial Park).
After spending a restful night in Hope at the modern and genuinely charming Evergreen B&B, we set our GPS for Hell’s Gate Airtram in the morning, bellies full of made-to-order Belgian waffles and coffee.
The thunderous sound of the Fraser River greeted us as we stepped up to board Hell’s Gate Airtram. Explorer Simon Fraser described this section of his namesake river as a place “where no human being should ever venture, for surely we have encountered the gates of hell.”
It’s not so bad from the comfort of an airtram. Dangling over the narrow gorge, we crossed from the Cascades to the Coast Mountains with 200 million gallons of water per minute rushing below us.
Food and family fun await by the riverbank — everything from homemade salmon chowder for sale to leisurely gold panning opportunities. One-way fares are available; hikers can save loonies by hiking in, out, or round-tripping via forest road and a suspension bridge over the river.
Sea to Sky Gondola
Top Elevation: 2,900 feet
Hike or ride from Howe Sound to the Summit Lodge in Squamish. We chose to hike up the Sea to Summit Trail 4.6 miles, scrambling over terrain so steep that fixed ropes and chains are in place for assistance. At the top, walk across the Sky Pilot Suspension Bridge for soaring views of the sound and surrounding mountains. Miles of trails provide backcountry access from here.
Don’t miss The Stawamus Chief viewing platform, easily accessed via the one-mile Panorama Trail. When you’ve had your fill, ride the gondola down to save your knees from a jarring 3,000-foot descent.
Grouse Mountain Skyride
North Vancouver, B.C.
Top Elevation: 3,700 feet
Most Northwest hikers have heard of the legendary Grouse Grind. Gaining 2,800 feet in just 1.8 miles (one-way), they don’t call it Mother Nature’s Stairmaster for nothing. Test your stamina on this grueling trail or skip it entirely; the gondola provides an easy way up Grouse Mountain for all.
We did the grind once, geocaching along the way, and were embarrassed to answer when the border security officer asked how long it took (average time is 1.5 hours; we were closer to three).
There’s plenty to do at the top, from guided eco-walks, zip lines and disc golf to ranger talks about Grouse’s resident grizzly bears. Downhill hiking is not permitted at the Grouse Grind, so plan on riding the gondola back down the mountain.
Peak 2 Peak Gondola
Top Elevation: 6,100 feet
When you get to take two gondolas to reach your destination, you know it’s going to be epic.
Such is the case at Whistler-Blackcomb, where the Whistler Village Gondola whisks you up to Roundhouse Lodge atop Whistler Mountain.
Upon reaching the lodge at 6,000 feet, a summertime smorgasbord of hiking trails awaits.
We started out on the High Note Trail, a stunning 5.8-mile loop whose musical theme will have you singing “The Hills are Alive” in no time. Hopping aboard the record-shattering Peak 2 Peak gondola allows access to Blackcomb Mountain trails as well.
Hanging between Whistler and Blackcomb, the Peak 2 Peak gondola is both the longest unsupported lift span in the world (1.88 miles) and the highest lift of its kind with an elevation of 1,427 feet. It’s easily the most exhilarating gondola ride I’ve ever experienced.
Golden Eagle Express Gondola
Top Elevation: 7,700 feet
This one tops my list in terms of sheer altitude.
From the Day Lodge at Kicking Horse Mountain Resort, the Golden Eagle soars more than 3,700 feet to Eagle’s Eye Restaurant — Canada’s highest dining experience with astonishing views of five national parks.
With endless panoramas from the wraparound deck, I didn’t feel the need to hit the trail during my visit. But you certainly can.
Two difficult ridge line hikes — Dogtooth and Terminator — provide countless hours of exploration for experienced hikers. The 2.2-mile Bowl Over Loop is an excellent intermediate option with Rocky Mountain and valley views all around.
It’s A Ten Trail drops 6.2 miles to the Day Lodge (only available for top-to-bottom hiking). Or simply breathe in your share of Alpine air before descending on the wings of the Golden Eagle.
Must-See Northwest Gondolas
You don’t have to head north of the border to enjoy summertime gondola fun.
Mount Rainier Gondola, Washington: Climb more than 2,000 feet to Crystal Mountain’s Summit House, the highest restaurant in Washington state. Experience great views of Mount Rainier and the Cascade Range along with access to miles of scenic hiking trails.
Wallowa Lake Tramway, Oregon: Rise 3,700 feet above Wallowa Lake for wonderful views at the summit of Mt. Howard.
Oregon Skyway: Take the ride up 1,520 feet at Willamette Pass for a stunning look at South Diamond Peak and Odell Lake.
Portland Aerial Tram: For a change of pace, take a look at the Rose City as you ascend 500 feet from the Willamette River basin. NOTE: The tram will be closed until July 30.
Silver Mountain Gondola, Idaho: Take a 3.1-mile trip on North America’s longest gondola ride.
Sun Valley Roundhouse Gondola: A beautiful trip to the top of Bald Mountain.
Brandon Fralic writes about hiking, craft beer and travel in the Pacific Northwest. His first guidebook, Beer Hiking Pacific Northwest, is available this spring. Follow along at www.brandonfralic.com