My friend Eva (the Swedish mountain goat) pushes me slightly beyond my hiking comfort. That’s a good thing, and inevitably it turns into an epic day. This time she introduced me to the Sky Pilot Valley—Skyline Ridge loop, a backcountry route accessed from the top of the Squamish Sea to Sky Gondola (about an hour from downtown Vancouver). During our roughly 8-hour, 23ish km hike we scrambled up rocky slopes and snow chutes, traversed exposed ridges, and clung to branches as we “tarzaned” our way down precipitous terrain (plus a bit of easy stuff too). It was exciting, challenging, fun, and the scenery was out of this world.
The photo below, taken at the Sea to Sky Summit Lodge (the start and end of our hike) shows where we went. See the sharp peak above my head (I’m the short one)…the one that looks dauntingly far away? That’s Copilot. We hiked to the base of the triangular peak.
From the lodge, we headed out on the Shannon Basin Loop (yellow on map) and turned onto the Sky Pilot Valley Trail (blue). This is a relatively easy part of the hike as you slowly gain elevation. Much of this section is through the forest, and views only begin to open up near the end of the officially marked trail approaching the treeline below Sky Pilot. From there, you have gorgeous views of Mt. Habrich on the other side of the valley, and Sky Pilot ahead.
Beyond the marked Sky Pilot Valley Trail, we followed the mountaineering trail (dotted red on map) up towards Copilot. It’s not really a trail, but there are a few cairns and ribbons on the open and rocky slopes. The trail requires agility and navigation skills, and it takes you to seriously beautiful terrain.
As the relentless uphill scrambling continued, the views just kept getting better. On the one side is Mt. Habrich and the valley we had just hiked up (photo above), and in front of us, the Stadium Glacier and craggy sub-peaks (photo below).
We found the perfect lunch spot next to a shimmering turquoise pond, one of my favourite places along the route. I could have happily sat there for several hours, and was under the impression that we had reached our high point. Not a chance.
We had another section of rock, loose rubble, and snow to contend with. The cairns and ribbons had all but vanished and this section is particularly steep (a few parts requiring all fours). We plotted a zigzag course towards the ridge at the base of Copilot. I didn’t have my camera out for this, which is a shame, but my instinct was self-preservation.
I was both relived and a tad anxious as we finally got to our high point, just below the dark grey peak of Copilot. It’s fairly exposed with some nasty drop-offs. Eva kept asking me, “You OK?” I was so focussed on where and how I was stepping that I wasn’t doing a lot of talking. At one point, when I felt I had a bit more of a buffer around me, I pulled out my camera for a shot of the beautiful Skyline Ridge below us. I tried not to worry about how we were going to get down there. It isn’t obvious, and I was very glad that Eva had scoped this out on previous hikes.
So here comes the Tarzan part. Sadly, I don’t have any photos of us swinging from branches, but the image below shows our route off Copilot. See the large clump of trees clinging to the side of the mountain? Yup, that’s the route. It’s dreadfully steep, but there are tree branches and roots to grab onto (Eva’s gardening gloves are not just a fashion statement).
I admit, I was happy to be through the Tarzan section and on more forgiving terrain. Skyline Ridge is magnificent. Its pretty meadows are dotted with little ponds and the mountain views in all directions are fabulous. There are great ocean views further along the trail. The next four photos are all taken along the “unmarked” Skyline Ridge (before getting to the official trail marked in purple on the map). Route finding here is more straightforward and the occasional cairns and ribbons add extra confirmation. Overall, It was my favourite part of the loop.
Much of the marked Skyline Ridge Trail (except for the view spur) is through the forest with limited views. It’s a bit anticlimactic after the WOW hiking we had just done. We booted it down the trail and back along the Shannon Basin Loop where a refreshing rest stop at icy cold Shannon Creek was just what we needed for the final leg back to the lodge.
What a great way to end an epic hike—on a killer patio at the Sea to Sky Summit Lodge. Thanks Eva for introducing me to what we now simply refer to as “The Loop”.
IF YOU GO
This hike is amazing, with a great variety of outstanding scenery, but I don’t recommend it for inexperienced hikers and people unfamiliar with the area. It is long, challenging, and not without its hazards. It requires route finding skills (do not rely on my general route description). Budget at least 8 hours and check the gondola schedule for time of last ride down. I recommend the direction described above as the loose, rocky section from Sky Pilot Valley to Copilot is easier/safer going up than coming down.
My favourite part of the hike (beyond the marked Skyline Ridge Trail) would make a great out and back hike of up to 24 km (7-8 hours). The path is fairly easy to follow beyond the marked Skyline Ridge Trail, though it peters out from time to time. You can turn around at any point, but the scenery as you approach Copilot keeps getting better. There is nothing scary on this section, it’s just long and steadily uphill. Update: I did the out and back version a few weeks after writing this post. Check it out here.
There are lots of other hikes, for all levels, accessible from Sea to Sky Gondola in Squamish (about a one hour drive from downtown Vancouver). Check out their website and my earlier post about hiking Al’s Habrich and other trails.