On a recent visit to Vancouver, I had the opportunity to indulge in a variety of outdoor activities that truly revitalized me after a long flight. In just a short amount of time, you too can partake in these 8 great things to do that will allow you to see British Columbia’s natural beauty without traveling very far outside of Vancouver.
At the same time, everything we mention below is practically free — as long as you go about it the right way. Each destination offers free aspects (such as many of the hikes), but at the same time there are offerings that are paid and could suck you into a tourist trap. This brief guide is designed to help you navigate the best things to do and ensure you don’t overpay for something that isn’t worth it.
Do note that some of these activities will require transportation, and if you’re visiting British Columbia to enjoy the outdoors I strongly suggest renting an automatic transmission SUV to make the most of your experience.
Hike Around the Capilano River (North Vancouver)
A short 15 minute ride from Downtown Vancouver, and literally 5 minutes from North Vancouver, the Capilano Highlands region offers an extensive river, a suspension bridge, fishing opportunities, breathtaking mountain views and much more. Depending on what it is you’re interested in, any or all of the above can be enjoyed.
First, let’s talk about the Suspension Bridge. While the bridge itself offers a somewhat breathtaking and a little bit scary experience hanging hundreds of feet in the air above the Capilano River, it’s not free to enjoy. It’s not cheap either, at $39.95 per adult ticket (children and senior prices are cheaper). What most unsuspecting tourists don’t realize is that just an extra 1 minute drive up the road will lead you to a free parking lot with free hiking trails past the Cleveland Dam and a chance to explore the wilds of North Vancouver at no cost.
I strongly recommend heading to the Cleveland Dam parking lot, just past the Capilano Suspension Bridge park entrance about one mile up the road on the left. Here, you can enjoy a truly dramatic view (pictured above) of the Capilano Watershed, which is North Vancouver’s main source of drinking water. In addition to the view, walk towards the dam and take a look down. It’s as good if not better than the experience at the Suspension Bridge. Continue over the dam once you’ve had your fill of the view and proceed to one of the several hiking trails. Immediately following the dam, proceed down the trail on the left to head towards the river and explore Coho Loop. If you head right at the same junction, you’ll head uphill into the forests of the Capilano Highlands. Both trails lead through heavily wooded areas, beautiful landscapes and rock structures. You can’t go wrong.
Hike Grouse Mountain (North Vancouver)
Grouse Mountain is a much more well-known outdoor destination to enjoy in North Vancouver. It’s also only 1 mile beyond Capilano Suspension Bridge Park, making it exceedingly easy to access and potentially making it easy to accomplish both the Capilano experience and Grouse Mountain in one day. You basically have two options when visiting Grouse Mountain. The paid experience, and the semi-paid, more immersive experience. In either case, you WILL need to pay a small fee for parking at one of the parking lots spread out beneath the mountain.
Avoid the Grouse Mountain Skyride (Gondola). This is the definition of a tourist trap at its finest. For $50, you’ll be taken high into the mountain in an extremely packed and tight space, and then dumped off into what they claim is a beautiful view and amazing experience. Instead, what you get is a whole lot of not much to do and extremely overpriced food. The view, however, is pretty nice (on a good day). If there’s fog or low cloud cover on the particular day you decide to ride the Gondola, you won’t see anything at all. However, if the day is somewhat clear, there’s a good chance you may get to experience some unique bird watching with a guided tour (this area of Canada is known to be one of the best places to bird watch, especially for eagles). At the same time, there are Grizzly Bears on Grouse Mountain. Yes, you heard that correctly. Taking the Gondola up to the top MAY also afford you the opportunity to witness Grizzly Bears roaming the mountain at elevation.
Now while everything I described above may not sound too bad, why pay $50 for an experience that isn’t worth that price? Instead, you should hike up Grouse Mountain via the “Grouse Grind” hiking trail. This is a grueling, one-way, 3-kilometer uphill climb at an 850 meter gradient. It’s also one of Vancouver’s most popular hiking trails, but don’t worry — it’s not so crowded that it can’t be enjoyed. The Grouse Grind really is a one-way trip, and due to the elevation gain and trail usage, for safety reasons hikers are encouraged not to head back down the mountain. Instead, you’ll need to push through the elevation gain to the top, where you can then experience everything we mentioned above, but at no cost for the ascent. You will however be required to pay $10 to take the Gondola back down to the bottom.
Along the bay in North Vancouver, you can find Jericho Sailing Centre. A great one-stop-shop for anything watersports related in Vancouver. They’ve got a nice beach you can enjoy, great views from the restaurant and second floor AND you can rent a number of boats at a low hourly rate. This is really a great place, and it’s actually a community center. It’s basically a Yacht Club without the stuffyness. Renting sailboats and windsurfing equipment isn’t expensive at all. You can rent a windsurfer for $20 an hour.
Drive to Whistler, British Columbia
A beautiful drive, good food, skiing, snowboarding, hiking, fishing and more all await you less than two hours away from Downtown Vancouver. Whistler, British Columbia is one of the premier ski and snowboard regions in North America. But even if there’s no snow on the ground, Whistler offers tourists an opportunity to be one with nature. What is almost exactly a two hour drive North from Vancouver certainly doesn’t feel that way as you traverse winding roads along carved mountain-scapes, ocean and river scenery. Be sure to stop along the drive at Tantalus Mountain Range viewpoint for an opportunity to capture some amazing wide-angle or panoramic photos.
Go Bungee Jumping & Ziplining Near Vancouver
Need I say more? Whistler Bungee is hands down your best bet for an adrenaline rush if you’re visiting Whistler BC during the Summer, Fall or Spring months. It’s actually open all year round, but I feel like it would be a tad bit chillay in the Winter! You can call or book your Whistler Bungee experience online.
Hike Cheakamus River & Lake
If you decide to stay in Whistler after bungee jumping or other outdoor activities, there are a few great hiking and fishing options that are easy to access right outside of Whistler Village. If you head back South from Whistler village, you’ll have an opportunity to hike up Cheakamus River and then ultimately all the way to Cheakamus Lake. This is a beautiful trail that traverses over various suspension bridges, fast flowing river water and ultimately leads to a vast, beautiful lake. You can turn on Cheakamus Road and park near the start of the trail and begin to explore. This is a good option for short distance hikes or if you’d like access to the river.
However, if you’d prefer to hike all the way up to Cheakamus Lake, you’ll want to drive up the dirt road for several kilometers until you reach the plateau trail-head. From this parking lot, you’ll have another several kilometers to go before you hit the lake. It’s a beautiful trail through thick forest and occasional breaks that offer dramatic views of the nearby mountains. Hiking to the lake is a long walk, so before you have enough time and if you intend on camping that you’re prepared to stay overnight. Keep in mind that this is bear country and I did come across some bear scat on some of the trails by the river.