Vancouver's far shore offers a trail haven and all the amenities of home. From world-class international fare to cafés catering to the most discerning coffee snob to miles of snaking singletrack, you'll find night life, day life and trail life all wrapped up in a convenient package
Running the Brothers Creek Loop, Hollyburn Mountain. Photo by Rich Wheater
This article appeared in our March 2011 issue.
As many folks witnessed during the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, Vancouver is a stunningly beautiful city. From snow-covered, jagged mountains jutting out of the glistening Pacific Ocean, to lush green rain forests hiding massive, old-growth trees, to dozens of sandy beaches within the city’s center, to countless destination islands within striking distance, Vancouver provides a colorful palate to satisfy creative imaginations.
What many do not realize, though, is that the awe-inspiring mountainous landscape, the craggy cliffs that carry your eye from white-capped water to white-capped peaks, are in fact within the boundaries of North Vancouver’s North Shore. The North Shore is an encompassing name given to the three communities—West Van, North Van and the City of North Van—that outline this trail-runner’s haven. Within minutes from downtown Vancouver, you can access The North Shore via a short commute across one of two historic bridges or by hopping on a Sea Bus (water taxi). (Vancouver also boasts one of the smoothest transit systems in the country, so you could easily forgo the rental car.) The North Shore has a population of just over 150,000 and is often referred to as one of the fittest communities in Canada.
The rugged landscape of The North Shore erupts straight out of the sea, thanks to its placement within the northern reaches of the most active volcanic area on the planet, The Pacific Ring Of Fire. As such, options for 3000-foot-plus climbs and descents are nearly endless, and many of these take you among now-dormant, snow-covered volcanoes.
Outside of the most-popular routes, foot traffic is minimal and solitude easy to find. Three mountains with multiple aspects, also doubling as winter ski resorts, provide well over 200 kilometers of singletrack—even seasoned trail aficionados will marvel over the ease of access and variety of terrain. Best of all, almost all runs can be completed in a door-to-door fashion, as it’s rare to find yourself more than a mile from a trail access point within the city limits.
“Even while residing in a thriving metropolis, you can run all day on singletrack without seeing another soul,” says Keith Nicol, owner of the local Run The North Shore running series (www.runthenorthshore.com), which consists of 13 races ranging from 5K to 50K. “We’ve got everything from fast, flat groomed trails to gnarly, technical, vertical ascents, and all right out our back door.”
º º º Grouse Grind º º º
As with every true trail town there are the “must dos.” At the top of North Vancouver’s list is undoubtedly Grouse Mountain’s Grouse Grind. “The Grind,” as it is fondly known, is a staircase to heaven, or hell depending on your definition. The stats alone are sure to get your heart pumping—with 853 meters of elevation gain in 2.9 kilometers and a mere 2830 stairs to conquer en route, this workout is not for the faint of heart. A guy by the name of Jonathan Wyatt (six-time World Mountain Running Champion and two-time Olympian) once held the speed record of 24:22, set in 2004, until in August 2010 local Sebastian Salas smashed it. The new mark now stands at 23:48; the average hiker takes well over an hour to complete the journey.
The trail commences straight out of a parking area, where you are initially teased by a 50-person gondola, built in 1966, that would deposit you at the 30,000-square-foot Mountain Top Lodge in under 20 minutes. Once you overcome your “easy-way-out” thoughts, you are lulled into the climb with a few hundred meters of lower-angled terrain before you are thrown into the leg-torching fire with a nearly vertical ascent. The trail is often referred to as Mother Nature’s version of a Stairmaster.
“The Grouse Grind is one of the most challenging hill-climbing courses in the country,” says Salas. “And I’d wager that it would hold its own against even some classic European climbs. It’s an absolute must do for any visitor.”
The Grind is a local favorite, and by 7 a.m. on weekends the parking lot is already jam packed. If you’re interested in a head-to-head battle against the best local runners, an annual race, held in September, attracts nearly 500 participants and offers a $5000 purse. The event is held on a slightly longer course, due to the number of participants, and adds two smaller loops (25:24 course record by Salas).
Also, Grouse Mountain offers a unique opportunity, issuing its “Grind Cards” for a small fee (not mandatory), which you swipe at timing stations at the bottom and on top. You are automatically entered into the system, so it will take more than a simple Facebook-status-update to claim the record. The second you complete your journey, on TV screens inside the bustling chalet, you can view your exact stats, and how you stack up against the fastest climbers.
The tram features extensive views out over Vancouver, the Stanley Park green space, Lion’s Gate Bridge and the hundreds of islands that dot the Georgia Strait, which is the body of water separating Vancouver from Vancouver Island. Many runners choose the tram ride down to salvage their quads and knees from the pounding descent, and also tack on a well-deserved brew or two from either the Altitudes Bistro or the Observatory Restaurant.
º º º Howe Sound Crest Trail º º º
If adventure running and peak bagging are more your style, then the Howe Sound Crest Trail will undoubtedly satiate your thirst with a true mountain experience. At "just 30" kilometers in length, it may be difficult to grasp why most groups take a full day to complete the route. When you throw in the mandatory photo stops and an optional scramble up the most famous rock in the lower mainland of B.C., The West Lion, which the Lion’s Gate Bridge was named after, you’ll be looking at over six hours, even for the fastest runners.
From downtown Vancouver two protruding sisterly peaks snag your attention as you gaze up at the alpine environment. The Howe Sound Crest Trail takes you straight through the middle of these outstanding natural features and provides ready access to one summit via a slightly exposed rock scramble. Along the way you’ll be rewarded for your efforts with a panorama of peaks as far as the eye can see. You’ll also be rewarded with clear sight lines as far north as Whistler, and as far south as Washington State. Completing this perfect postcard setting is the sprawling Pacific Ocean below.
“The Howe Sound Crest Trail is one of the most challenging and rewarding mountain runs I’ve ever done,” says Peter Watson, manager of the premiere running store on the North Shore, North Shore Athletics (www.northshoreathletics.com). “I took over 100 pictures the first time I completed the route!”
Adding to the full-day time frame for this point-to-point run is a necessary car drop. Just remember to pack your emergency supplies and leave the whiners at home. With 6000 feet of climbing, 9000 feet of descent and some exposed rock sections, this adventure is for experienced mountain runners.