Stanley Park is Vancouver’s crowning glory. Its dense rainforest and pristine coastline belie its location at the doorstep of one of Canada’s largest cities. I visit the park often, usually for cycling, but I rarely take the time to truly appreciate how the park came to be and what it has to offer. I realized how little I knew about the park, including who this Stanley guy is. So, last week, I spent a slow, relaxed day in Stanley Park, on and off my bike, stopping at monuments, reading plaques, strolling through gardens, riding along lesser used trails, and finding Stanley, among other notable people.
A walk or a cycle on the Stanley Park Seawall—an 8.8 km (5.5 mi) paved path around the peninsula— is the park’s most popular activity and a great way to see many of its landmarks and views. I’m always awed by the scenery, but today I’m contemplating the creation of the seawall (it took over 50 years to build) and the contributions of Jimmy Cunningham—the man responsible for constructing a large portion of the seawall. A master stone mason, Jimmy spent 32 years of his life (starting in 1931) heaving massive granite blocks. Even after he retired, he regularly returned to monitor the wall’s progress until he died at 85. Thank you Jimmy! The last stone was finally laid in 1971 .
Fittingly, Jimmy Cunningham and his wife’s ashes are buried by Siwash Rock, a beautiful and much-photographed sea stack along one of the most picturesque portions of the wall.
My favourite section of the seawall is along the sandstone cliffs on the northwest side of the peninsula. I love the smooth cliff walls and the way the path hugs their rounded contours.
The seawall brings ever changing scenery. There are wonderful views to downtown Vancouver, mountain panoramas looking toward the North Shore, and lovely beaches; even the industrial scenes of the Port of Vancouver provide an appealing contrast to nature and slick-looking downtown.
I’ve cycled past the wire mesh-enclosed cannon countless times and now I finally stop to read the plaque. The 9 O’Clock Gun, as it is called, was cast in England in 1816. In 1894, under the direction of the Department of Fisheries, it was brought to Stanley Park and originally fired at 18:00 on Sundays to announce the close of fishing. The daily 21:00 (9 p.m.) firing was later established as a time signal for the general public and for ships in the port. With few exceptions, it has been fired every night for about a century. For several months at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was changed to fire at 19:00 in support of essential workers.
The totem pole display at Brockton Point is a good reminder that the Stanley Park peninsula was once home to the largest indigenous settlement in B.C.’s Lower Mainland. The park sits on the traditional land of the Coast Salish First Nations, including the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil Waututh. Usually I cruise right by, but today I take a closer look at the intricately carved poles that tell stories of a nation’s or family’s history.
The seawall path that skirts the three sides of the peninsula is connected on its “neck” side by a trail along Lost Lagoon. It’s a magical place filled with birds—herons, ducks, Canada Geese—and flowering gardens. I check out the gardens along the gravel paths between Lost Lagoon and the Stanley Park Pitch & Putt, which, by the way, is so beautiful that I could be tempted to try golf. My timing in early May is impeccable; the rhododendrons and azaleas are at their peak.
I’ve done a full circuit of Stanley Park’s perimeter and now I’m about to explore the interior. But first, I stop at the Stanley statue, slightly hidden away at the park’s original south entrance. Strangely I had never given any thought to who Stanley was… perhaps some old British admiral? Lord Fredrick Stanley was the Governor General of Canada (The Queen’s representative) from 1888 to 1893. While the park was largely the vision of the City of Vancouver’s Park Board, under then Mayor David Oppenheimer (who also has a statue), the park was dedicated by Lord Stanley in 1889 and bears his name. But that’s not the interesting part, and perhaps I’m the only dummy (in Canada) who didn’t get the connection. Yup, Lord Stanley, an avid ice hockey fan, gave Canada its treasured national icon, the Stanley Cup—the championship trophy awarded every year in the National Hockey League.
Some of the park’s biggest attractions like the Vancouver Aquarium and miniature train (closed now due to COVID-19), and hidden gems like Beaver Lake, old-growth trees and spectacular gardens are located in the middle of the park. Until now, I’d never been to these spots on my bike— what a mistake.
The spring colour palette of the Shakespeare Garden is dreamy. Soon the rose garden will be in bloom. With no functions currently being held at the Stanley Park Pavilion, the grounds are ultra peaceful.
Although the aquarium is closed, I’m happy to take a break at its entrance and marvel at the bronze killer whale sculpture created by Bill Reid, Canada’s most renowned Northwest Coast Haida artist.
There are 27 km (17 mi) of trails through Stanley Park’s dense coniferous forest with trees towering over 50 m (164 ft) tall. While this area was logged prior to it becoming a park in 1888, many giant trees were spared because their massive size or location precluded their felling with axe and blade. Most people spend their time on the ocean view seawall, so the impressive forested trails are serene, as is pretty Beaver Lake.
Stanley Park’s most famous tree is just a shell of its former self. Known as The Hollow Tree, this deceased 1000 year-old Western Red Cedar left a huge hollow stump with a circumference of about 18 m (60 ft). People have been posing for photographs inside the tree since cameras were first available. In 2006, a massive windstorm caused major damage to the trees in Stanley Park. The Hollow Tree was left leaning at a dangerous angle and the Vancouver Parks Board considered cutting it down. A public outcry resulted in a huge fundraising effort that enabled the construction of a metal support that holds up the Hollow Tree.
My exploration of Stanley Park was on bicycle and on foot. For those who prefer to drive, Stanley Park Drive runs along the perimeter of the park, adjacent to the seawall. Many of the same views can be had, except where the steep cliffs make it impossible for the road to directly skirt the coast. On the flip side, the awesome views high up on Prospect Point and over the Stanley Park causeway are best seen from the road access.
Many of the landmarks mentioned in this post are pinpointed on the map below.
I felt deeply satisfied after a day of exploring the park and discovering things that I’d only previously rode by, or never thought to take a closer look. And, having been on bike and carrying a packed lunch, the entire great day didn’t cost me a cent.
No visit to Vancouver is complete without a trip to Stanley Park. For detailed information about the park, including access, parking, maps, etc. visit the City of Vancouver’s park website.