The Sea to Sky Highway Photography Adventure

Andy was happy to enjoy the views from the passenger seat on this scenic highway.
By Andy Strote – follow Andy on Instagram

The Sea to Sky Highway (Hwy 99) twists its way north along the Pacific coast from Vancouver into the British Columbia wilderness. It’s a landscape and travel photographers’ dream come true.

On a recent trip, we started in Vancouver, stayed mostly in the Squamish area and then drove into the interior as far north as Duffey Lake Provincial Park.

Although it was more of a family get together than a pure photography trip, there were still many opportunities to capture the wild beauty of this region.

A favorite location: view of Stanley Park seawall from Lions Gate Bridge

Wilderness Right in Vancouver’s Stanley Park

The urbanity of Vancouver is offset by the rough and tumble forests found in the city’s 1,000-acre Stanley Park, next to some of North America’s most expensive real estate.

There are well-marked and manicured paths through the park, but wander off the path, and you could find yourself in a deep forest. Vancouver is a city that worships living life outdoors and Stanley Park symbolizes that ethos.

Parks, west coast Canada style. Not your trim and proper English park

Photographers and Filmmakers Favorites in Vancouver

Vancouver offers endless landscape and travel photography experiences. Here are a few:

  • Stanley Park’s ancient hemlock, fir and red cedar trees
  • The walk along the Stanley Park seawall with views under the Lion’s Gate Bridge, the ocean, cargo ships and mountains in the background
  • From the Stanley Park Drive bridge over Hwy 99, the view of Lion’s Gate Bridge especially lit up at night
  • Looking down on the seawall from the Lion’s Gate Bridge
  • The downtown beaches of English Bay (whales were recently spotted there!)
  • For street photography, the Granville Island public market, Gastown and the Richmond Night Market
  • Various views of the skyline and mountains from points throughout the city

The iconic seawall is always busy with tourists, cyclists and runners

Where to Eat in Vancouver

Vancouver takes its food seriously, especially anything from the ocean

We ate at Tacofino (taco truck food culture downtown), Ahn and Chi for the “real deal, not North Americanized” Vietnamese menu, and Stanley Park Brewing at the south end of the park, one of hundreds of craft breweries along the B.C. coast.

In the past, we’ve also had memorable meals from food stalls in the Granville Island market. We didn’t have time to eat at the Richmond Night Market. Next time…

Should we call this Evergreen fishing?

Geek Out on Vancouver Coffee Culture

You could get into fistfights over the best coffee in Vancouver. We went to Revolver, one of the first specialty coffee shops in the city and as nerdy as coffee gets.

Revolver is in an ideal location for street photography if you’re looking for contrasts. It’s near the trendy Victorian Gastown area, but also close to the very sketchy East Hastings Street. Watch your gear and lock your car.

Other coffee shops of note include Nemesis Coffee, Aubade Coffee and Pallet Coffee Roasters but really, that just scratches the surface.

Take this bridge out of the city to the Sea to Sky Highway

Where to Stay in Vancouver

Like any major city, Vancouver offers a broad choice of hotels, B&Bs and Airbnbs. However, Vancouver accommodation is incredibly expensive, among the highest in North America, so our recommendation is to stay outside of the city if possible.

On this trip, we made day visits to the city, while staying in Squamish.

Prepare Yourself for the Sea to Sky Highway

The Sea to Sky Highway, aka Hwy 99, starts in Vancouver and heads north, first along the coast to Squamish and then inland to Whistler and beyond.

This is one of the most scenic drives in Canada as the highway clings to mountain sides along the coast. What you see is the result of the highway upgrade for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

If you’re lucky, you’ll be a passenger and can take in the sights. You’ll see various forest-covered islands in Howe Sound on your left, and further on, mountains on both sides.

If you’re driving, you’ll keep your eye on the road as it frequently changes from two lanes to three to four, with speeds varying from 90 km / hr down to 30 through hairpin turns.

Island views along the Sea to Sky Highway

Don’t Stop on the Highway!

Witless tourists will sometimes pull over onto the narrow highway shoulders to take in the views. Don’t do this. It’s far too dangerous, and the police will soon be on their way.

There are towns and villages along the way where you can pull off for views, walks on wonderful Pacific beaches and numerous photo opportunities. Names like Sunset Beach give you a clue as to what to expect.

The Stawamus Chief looms over Squamish – climb it or hike it

Photograph Squamish – It’s Hardwired for Adventure

Originally a tough logging town, Squamish is now the headquarters for adventurous outdoor activities. For summer, that means serious rock-climbing, trail running, hiking, mountain biking, windsailing and kayaking. In the winter, world-class back country skiing and snowboarding are a short drive away.

For photographers, this rugged landscape surrounding an accessible river estuary, provides an endless variety of compositions.

Hiking the Chief? This is the easy part with stairs

Top Squamish Photography Sites

For easy walks or short drives from the town, you can photograph:

  • The surrounding mountains, including majestic Mt. Garibaldi, will have snow on top by September
  • The Stawamus Chief, the world’s second largest monolith (a single massive rock), looms over the town
  • You can hike up the Chief for stunning views of the Squamish River estuary as it empties into Howe Sound – but be warned, it’s an arduous trek so pack lightly
  • From the estuary, photo-worthy views of Shannon Falls, the Chief and the wetlands
  • Walk to woodlands and trails along the Squamish River, or the temperate rainforest of Coho Park
  • Note that the popular Sea to Sky gondola is currently out of service
  • All of these provincial parks are free of charge with free parking

Mt. Garibaldi is visible throughout Squamish

Coho Park is a dense jungle, an easy walk in from a residential street

More Landscape Photography Sites Nearby

With Squamish as a base, you can be at these sites in minutes:

Alice Lake – easy trails, beautiful lakes, mountain vistas

Where to Eat and Drink in Squamish

For a small town, Squamish offers a surprising variety of restaurants and craft breweries. We’ve eaten at:

The Howe Sound Brewing (brew pub and hotel), the place that started it all

The Watershed Bar and Grill – casual but very good, excellent craft beers, wonderful views from the riverside patio over the Squamish River

Pepe and Gringo’s aka Pepe Chophouse offers Mexican, Italian and steakhouse fare. Yup, sounds confusing, but they pull it off.

Essence of India was a feast! Loved it, great service, cold beer. If it’s time for a curry after a hard day of photography, this is the place.

Velvety rocks in Smoke Bluffs Park overlooking Squamish

Fergie’s is a very popular “secret” breakfast and brunch restaurant up Paradise Valley (off Hwy 99, opposite the entrance to Alice Lake Provincial Park) where the Cheekye and Cheakamus Rivers meet. You’ll find many river and forest photo opportunities.

The Xoco chocolate shop was voted the best chocolate in all of B.C. That’s all you need to know.

Hipster coffee shops include the 1914 Coffee Company and The Ledge Community Coffee House. Damn fine coffee!

Sometimes there are signs, but not always

Staying Safe Around Squamish

Two words – bears and cougars (the mountain lion variety). You’re in bear country here. We’ve seen black bears on town streets, and fresh bear poop on trails. Learn more about bear safety here.

Although we’ve never seen a cougar, in recent years, forest fires have occasionally driven them out of their natural habitat, closer to humans. They will attack if they feel threatened or you look like lunch. More about cougar safety here.

Our recommendation: if you’re on a photo hike in the wilderness, go in a group, and talk, make noise, be attentive to your surroundings. Animals generally want to avoid you.

Also, be very aware of the time when you hike. You’re often in forests or areas shaded by mountains. You’ll lose daylight earlier than you expect. You don’t want to be caught on some of these trails in the dark.

On top of Whistler, first day of summer

Whistler is a Beautiful Ski Resort Village

Whistler Village is designed for skiers, snowboarders and hikers. Pay for parking, otherwise it’s free. Coffee geeks will be happy at Mount Currie Coffee.

For landscape photographers, there is abundant natural beauty on the many trails. Even before you get to Whistler, turn off the highway for the raw natural beauty and views from Callahan Lake Provincial Park This is real B.C. backcountry, with a lake high in the mountains.

Near Whistler, a woodlands scene, B.C. style

Another unique landscape location – the train wreck in the forest near the Cheakamus River. Here are directions and background information. When a train derailed in the 1950s, they left the freight cars in the forest for nature and graffiti artists to take over. Now there are paths, and a suspension bridge over a river for easy access. Plenty of compositions to be found here.

Higher into the B.C. interior, scenes like this

North to Pemberton and Beyond

Thirty minutes north of Whistler is the village of Pemberton. This is a frontier goldrush town, surrounded by mountains, lakes and streams. Electricity came in 1951, the paved highway in 1969. 

The area is easily worth a week-long photography trip. There are vistas and compositions galore if you’re prepared to hike for them.

This is the other location for Mount Currie Coffee – look around, you’re in the shadow of Mt. Currie here.

The trail between Joffre lakes one and two – serious hiking

Joffre Lakes Provincial Park – Insanely Popular

One of our key destinations was Joffre Lakes Provincial Park which features a series of three lakes, one above the other, that are linked by a steep trail. Hiking boots are recommended. All around us were snow-covered peaks and deep valleys.

Depending on atmospheric conditions, the lakes are sometimes crystal-clear emerald green. It was snowy and overcast on our visit, so the water wasn’t quite brilliant.

“Oh I see you have some tasty sheep food in your hand!”

Where to Eat and Drink Near Pemberton

Just outside of Pemberton, off the highway, we stopped for lunch at the North Arm Farm. This is a 60-acre working organic farm, open daily 9 – 4 from mid-May through to the end of October.

Aside from fruit and vegetables, they raise their own cattle, sheep, chickens and pigs. It was the epitome of the back-to-the-land communal aesthetic.

For photographers, you’ve got the farm buildings with livestock set in a valley surrounded by snow-capped mountains.

Our second stop was at the Beer Farmers – a few kilometers up Pemberton Meadows Road. Here the fourth-generation descendants of the original Scottish settlers grow everything they need to make their beer onsite with the local mountain water – “from grain to glass”.

Beer Farmers should be on every beer lovers bucket list.

Spectacular islands in the stream. Visit if you have time

Take the Ferries to Photograph the Islands

The many islands accessible from terminals in Vancouver and along the Sea to Sky highway are magnets for landscape photographers.

Just the panoramic vistas from the top deck of the ferry make the trip worthwhile. You may get pods of dolphins or killer whales swimming alongside. Popular islands include Salt Spring, North and South Pender and Galiano. Here is the B.C. Ferries schedule.

Duffey Lake Park, as far north as we went

Cameras and Gear to Bring

Knowing I would be doing a lot of hiking, I brought my smaller bag. Most days I was shooting with my 18 – 105, but also used my 50 – 200 and 10 – 20.

Most importantly, bring rain gear. Much of the west coast is a temperate rain forest. Bring hiking boots. You’ll thank me later.

Weather in British Columbia

B.C. weather can change fast and dramatically. In general, Vancouver and all up the Sea to Sky Highway get the most rain, often just mist, especially from October through the winter. Dress for it and you’ll enjoy it.

Weather also depends on altitude. We had sunshine in Squamish, and as we drove into the mountains we encountered snow (in September!). Mountaintops and nearby valleys were snow covered.

Is it Legal to Fly Drones in British Columbia?

In Canada, drone flying laws are regulated by Transport Canada. Currently, for any drone over 250 grams you need a drone pilot certificate and registration for your drone. If you’re Canadian, you can do the exam and registration on the Transport Canada site.

This site gives a good explanation of drone laws in Canada, including requirements for non-Canadians.

How to Get to Vancouver and the Sea to Sky Highway

If you’re flying, you’ll be coming into Vancouver International Airport. Keep in mind that there are no expressways from the airport, so getting to the Sea to Sky can take more time than you think. Try to avoid rush hours if possible. You’ll have to drive over bridges which become traffic choke points.

Renting a Car? Consider a 4×4

If you want to photograph real British Columbia wilderness, you’ll end up on bumpy unpaved roads. We had a truck that easily handled the potholes. I wouldn’t want to drive there in a car.

Best Time of Year to Go

Anytime is a good time, but note that British Columbia has robust tourism advertising campaigns, so summers can be very crowded, especially with tour groups.

In the winter, roads near ski hills will be busy. Also keep in mind that some remote roads will be inaccessible during winter months due to snow.

Best Sunrises, Best Sunsets

This obviously depends on your location, but if you’re near the ocean, that’s where your sunsets will be. In many locations, you’ll have sunrises coming over the mountains.

Use one of the popular apps like PhotoPills or Photographer’s Ephemeris to give you the sun’s position in specific locations.

Andy Strote

In Andy’s career as a copywriter and creative director in advertising and marketing, he has created numerous campaigns for corporate clients in all media. On these projects, he worked closely with leading photographers and commercial directors.

Along the way, Andy was the co-founder of two successful marketing agencies. The first, which he started in partnership with Simon, often featured Simon’s photography and videography in our campaigns. We grew that company to 30 people before it was acquired by a multi-national IT firm.

Sixteen years after starting his second marketing firm, Andy sold his interest and now has more time to devote to travel which fuels his photography.

Today, our love of photography, filmmaking and the creative communities that surround these passions has brought us together in ExploreDiscoverShoot.

There has never been a better time to be a photographer or filmmaker. Now the onus is on you to grab your camera and go!

Andy Strote


In Andy’s career as a copywriter and creative director in advertising and marketing, he has created numerous campaigns for corporate clients in all media. On these projects, he worked closely with leading photographers and commercial directors.

Along the way, Andy was the co-founder of two successful marketing agencies. The first, which he started in partnership with Simon, often featured Simon’s photography and videography in our campaigns. We grew that company to 30 people before it was acquired by a multi-national IT firm.

Sixteen years after starting his second marketing firm, Andy sold his interest and now has more time to devote to travel which fuels his photography.

Today, our love of photography, filmmaking and the creative communities that surround these passions has brought us together in ExploreDiscoverShoot.

There has never been a better time to be a photographer or filmmaker. Now the onus is on you to grab your camera and go!

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