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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
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.”
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.
Howe Sound Crest Trail
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.
Kristina Jenei on the Baden Powell Trail between Grouse Mountain and Lynn Valley. Photo by Rich Wheater.
The Knee Knacker
Traversing the three local faces of Cypress, Grouse and Seymour mountains is an unparalleled, point-to-point, mostly singletrack route. The Baden Powell Trail goes all the way from Horseshoe Bay in West Vancouver to Panorama Park in Deep Cove, a distance of 30 miles, and all within the North Shore’s boundaries. Virtually all of North Vancouver’s trails lead to the Baden Powell (BP), as the BP virtually transects the midline of the entire network.
“I live three houses away from a trail that gives me direct access to the BP and some of the most amazing wilderness on the planet,” says Ean Jackson, who is half of the partnership behind a local running club known as Club Fat Ass (www.clubfatass.com). “There’s no place I’d rather live than in North Van. Show me another place where a person can have bears in their backyard and a 15-minute commute to the financial district, and I’ll run my next 100-miler backwards!”
An annual race occurs in July along the BP, and locals toss around Knee Knacker times like marathon PRs. The route is also infamous in the Canadian ultrarunning scene and was labeled “Canada’s Knarliest 30-Miler” by co-race founder Enzo Federico. Debuting in 1989, it’s considered one of the best races in the country. Says male course-record holder (4 hours 39 minutes), Aaron Heidt, “The Knee Knacker is the most grueling 50K I’ve ever run—even the descents are full of nasty climbs!”
And recent 100K World Champion and female course-record holder (5 hours 6 minutes), Ellie Greenwood, says, “I have yet to come across a trail race that compares to the Knee Knacker in terms of technical difficulty.”
The race has attracted a few top U.S. runners over the years, such as William Emerson, but has never been won by an “out of towner.” It is held just two weeks after the Western States 100-miler, yet that doesn’t stop the B.C. runners from coming out en mass. It is considered a badge of honor to have pulled off “The Double”—running both Western States and the Knee Knacker back to back—with Peter Findlay owning the lowest combined time. In 1994 he ran a 17-hour-3-minute WS and followed that up with a 4-hour-47-minute Knee Knacker. The race employs a lottery system, with the cutoff for entries happening in February.
Lynn Headwaters is a local hotspot you can customize for any kind of trail experience. A short scenic drive down a slightly exposed road adds to the rugged and wild atmosphere, and will eventually deposit you smack dab in the rain forest. Alpine routes are fully accessible, although most runners choose the riverside, dog-friendly, groomed trails. Numerous bridges, including a 50-meter-high suspension bridge, and wildlife encounters make for great photo opps along the way. Black bears and whitetailed deer are common in the summer months, and bald eagles hunt the waterways in the fall; in fact if you venture onto the lesser-traveled trails you may encounter more wildlife than people.
If you’re looking for an easy, non-technical run, try the Lynn Headwaters Connector Trail to Varley Trail for a five-kilometer forested and undulating river run. It’s a favorite amongst walkers and those not wanting to stray too far from home.
To truly thrash your legs, the 30-kilometer Hanes Valley Loop can be completed in less than three hours by speedsters and offers significant climbing and descending capped off by views across the volcanic summits south of the border. You can even attach the Grouse Grind for a really big day out.
Or, while easing into your technical trail initiation, pack a camera and check out Norvan Falls. The trail is a wonderful out-and-back of 12 kilometers with minimal elevation gain, a suspension bridge, a waterfall and its fair share of rocks and roots to test your proprioception skills.
For a lung burner with a little less traffic, head to Lynn Peak. A technical 3000-foot ascent stands between you and a sun-drenched rocky plateau with a view—see the glorious summit of the volcanic Mount Baker, and all of Vancouver and neighboring Burnaby sprawled out in a vast silence below.
Says local speedster and 2010 11th-place WS finisher Nicola Gildersleeve, “Lynn Peak is a favorite training route. The climb and descent demand attention and condition your quad strength, the views are fantastic and, 90 percent of the time I’m the only one on it.”
The Headwaters also act as a central intersection along the Baden Powell Trail, which means that with only limited trail knowledge you can easily enjoy an entire day of pure singletrack.
Nowhere is the balance of life more evident in North Vancouver than during the winter. As if blessed by the snow gods, the city itself sees very little snowfall, yet the mountain tops glisten with fluffy white stuff all winter.
In less than 30 minutes, you can go from enjoying an ocean-front coffee to a world-class winter playground (the Olympics were the exception to our local mountain snowfall, yes, really). Three separate resorts offer a full spectrum, from downhill and Nordic skiing to an 8000-square-foot outdoor skating surface. But the trail runner in you is going to be drawn to the snowshoe running.
The snowshoe series, called The Yeti, consists of three events, one in North Van, one in Whistler and one on Vancouver Island. Says Marc Campbell, owner of The Yeti Snowshoe Racing Series (www.theyeti.ca), “North Vancouver is such a special place. It’s rare to find an area where you can run a snowshoe race in the morning and follow up with ocean kayaking or mountain biking in the afternoon.”
There are also nighttime snowshoe-running clinics in conjunction with the series. Nothing is quite like following a beam of light through a silent, snow-covered forest on a bed of cushy powder, among people who will attempt to rip your lungs out, and follow that up by paying for your first post-run pint.
This article appeared in our March 2011 issue.