Squamish, British Columbia
By: Tara Holland
Squamish, British Columbia is a community of about 20,000 people nestled at the north end of Howe Sound in the Sea to Sky Corridor. The word “Squamish” comes from the indigenous people of the region, whose name in their language is Sḵwx̱wú7mesh. Formerly a quiet town centered on primary industry like logging, Squamish started to boom when the 2010 Winter Olympics necessitated expanding the highway between Vancouver and Whistler. It is now one of the fastest growing municipalities in BC, with one of the main draws being its thriving outdoor activity-loving culture. As you drive into Squamish, you’ll see a sign touting it as the Outdoor Recreation Capital of Canada, and for good reason – you can experience pretty much anything here, from world-class mountain biking and rock climbing to kite boarding to back country skiing – but my personal favourite of all of the potential activities is, of course, the spectacular trail running.
When I first moved here in 2013, I was primarily a road runner, but I instantly was converted into a trail runner the first time I set foot on the trails. Squamish has everything from hundreds of miles of fun, rocky, root-filled cross-country trails through lush temperate coastal rainforest, to shorter lung-and leg-busting vertical grinds, to epic alpine routes. For the most part, the trails are runnable year-round, with usually a month or so in the winter when we get to dig out our microspikes and play in the snow (this past winter being a notable exception, when the trails were buried in snow for 3 months! We have La Nina to thank for that).
Where to Run
Some of my local favourites:
This is a cruisy, rolling 6k/4 mile loop that only gains about 200m/650 ft of elevation. It’s essentially in my backyard, so almost every run I do has this trail as part of it. As the name suggests, you run past four different lakes as you snake your way through gorgeous coastal rainforest single track. It’s a lovely run to do on its own, and is also a great starting point for venturing further into the maze that is the Squamish trail system. Alice Lake has great camping, and is a perfect home base for trail explorations. The Squamish 50k (part of the Squamish 50 weekend in August that includes 50k, 50 mile, 50/50, and 23k races) has its start line here. There are so many fun mountain bike trails that link from 4 Lakes Trail, all maintained by the Squamish Off-Road Cycling Association (SORCA) – all trail users are welcome and I have run on almost all of these trails many times, but mountain bikers always have the right of way! (Although, I have had bikers move over for me on more than one occasion). The best way to explore this trail network is to download the Squamish TrailMapps app for $10, pack snacks, and go on an adventure.
This is a 22k/13 mile out-and-back, non-technical run that sends you high up into the alpine of Garibaldi Provincial Park, gaining and losing about 600m/2000 ft of elevation. The trail starts out as gravel double track and it’s about a 4-mile uphill grind until you reach Red Heather Meadows, where you start seeing gorgeous vistas of the Tantalus and Coast Mountain ranges. Worth the huffing and puffing! The trail after the meadows is rolling and fun, and eventually takes you to Elfin Lakes Hut, which is a popular camping destination in both summer and winter (I’ve done this run in summer, fall, and early winter, and it is equally beautiful in each season). This is a great spot to have a snack and a dip in the lake and then turn around or, if you are looking for a longer day (closer to 40km/25 miles), you can continue on to run to several nearby peaks such as Opal Cone (which takes you to the rim of an extinct volcano), or the Gargoyles.
The trailhead for this run, in the Rubble Creek parking lot, is only a 20-minute drive north of Squamish, and it’s well worth the day excursion. The route is an out-and-back 30k/20 mile (mostly non-technical) trail that gains and loses about 1500m/5000 ft of elevation. The first 9k/5 miles take you up a series of switchbacks where you’re distracted from the climbing by beautiful tall trees and vibrant green moss. At the end of the switchbacks you reach Garibaldi Lake, a stunner of a turquoise glacier-fed lake. Continuing up beyond the lake, you run through Taylor Meadows, which open up into absolutely serene, cruisy alpine running (if you go in late summer, the meadows are bursting with colour. It’s insane.). After the meadows there’s a final push to the summit of Panorama Ridge, which is a steep rocky climb, and there you are rewarded with sweeping 360 degree views of Garibaldi Lake below, and countless surrounding mountains including the iconic peak of Black Tusk.
OK, this isn’t quite in Squamish, and definitely requires some planning, but I can’t stress enough how amazing this trail is. The HSCT is a 29k/18 mile point-to-point trail that travels along the spines of the mountains that flank Howe Sound. We often call it a “30k that feels like a 50k”, if that gives an indication of its difficulty. Doing the trail from south to north gives you an elevation gain of about 1800m/6000 ft and a descent of about 2600 m/8500 ft. The terrain is extremely rugged, and technical, and requires some scrambling and a lot of power hiking – and it is one of the most beautiful trails I have ever run. You’d need to drive about an hour from Squamish to start at Cypress Mountain in North Vancouver, and on your way drop a car at Porteau Cove, where the trail ends – but the extra organizing and time is well worth it. It’s a full day adventure of the best kind.
Where to Eat
Grab a coffee or tea and quick breakfast at Zephyr Café for delicious, healthy food including vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options. I have been known to fuel an entire run on one of their cookies. So good.
If you are an early runner and still want breakfast or brunch when you’re done, Fergie’s Café is a must (it’s only open until 3pm). Fergie’s is a cute little restaurant located at the confluence of the Cheakamus and Cheekye Rivers with mostly outdoor seating. The Avocado Benny and the Veggie Bowl are my favourites there.
If it’s pub food you’re craving, the Watershed Grill is a locals’ favourite. Located on the Squamish River, it has great views of the river and the Tantalus mountains, some good local beers on tap and a to-die-for Caesar (a Canadian cocktail similar to a Bloody Mary but made with clamato juice – it sounds so weird but you need to try one if you haven’t. Really.). The burgers are all great here – beef, salmon, and veggie, I’ve had them all, usually with the yummy sweet potato fries on the side.
If you want to grab a quick but delicious sandwich, the Locavore is my top pick. It’s a food truck that specializes in (predictably) locally-sourced food. Everything is fresh tasting and salivation-inducing, and in the summer there is always a line-up of muddy, very happy-looking mountain bikers and runners around lunch time. I literally love everything on this menu; if you forced me to pick my favourites I would have to say the veggie burger or the pork Banh Mi.
On your way out of town back to Vancouver? You need to stop at Mag’s 99. This restaurant doesn’t look like much and is right on the side of the highway in a former Taco Bell building beside a gas station, but it offers surprisingly delicious Mexican food. The chimichangas are ridiculously huge and amazing. I’ve known people to call in their order while still on a run, so that it would be ready to pick up when they were finished. It’s that good.
Where to Shop
Capra just recently opened its doors in Squamish last summer, and is the go-to for trail and mountain running. They are a small shop with big heart, and organize free group trail runs every Tuesday (interval or hill workouts), Wednesday (a ladies-only run, great for beginners), and Saturday (two separate runs; one for ladies only). The shop has a great selection of trail-specific shoes, packs, and clothing, as well as a well-stocked nutrition wall that I frequent at least once a month to replenish my stash.
There are so many! The best-known race is the Squamish 50 in August, which is was my first ultra and remains my favourite course that I’ve run. Gary Robbins and Geoff Langford, the race directors, also organize several course orientation runs between March and June (ranging in distance from 23k to 45k, for a $5 donation to SORCA per run), so if you happen to be in town for one of those, they are a great way to meet and run with over a hundred other trail runners. They also spearhead the Coast Mountain Trail Series, which has two non-ultra distance races in Squamish: Survival of the Fittest (May) and Sky Pilot (September). The 5 Peaks Trail Running Series has a race on the Alice Lake trails (short- and long-course options; April); Run Squamish organizes several races including a trail half marathon (May) and a vertical grind up the Sea to Summit trail (June); and Run Like a Girl organizes a trail half marathon, marathon, and 11k (June).
Trail Sisters Club on Strava:
Track Goals, Share Runs, Build Camaraderie – Click here to join.
About the Author
Tara has been running since high school cross-country, and is still going strong as a Masters runner. Since moving to Squamish in 2013, she has fallen in love with trail and ultra running and can usually be found gleefully galloping through the forest and up and down mountains with her amazing pack of trail sisters. She runs for the Distance Runwear Project team. In her off-trail life, she has a Ph.D. in Geography and teaches environmental science at the University of British Columbia.