A shoulder season visit to Whistler, BC

I have been visiting Whistler, BC ever since I moved to Seattle in the mid-1980s. It was a much more laid back area 30 years ago but it still has a great deal of appeal now, particularly during the quieter shoulder seasons of fall and spring.

Whistler offers a plethora of outdoor sports ranging from golf and disc golf to biking, zip lining, skiing, snowboarding and skateboarding. Many of those activities are available the majority of the year.

View from our room at the Delta Whistler Village Suites, BC British Columbia
View from our room at the Delta Whistler Village Suites

It also offers a wide range of shops and stores, spas, restaurants, bars and nightclubs. Visitors range in age from new parents with their infants to people who could be those little ones’ grandparents. The area also appeals to a broad cross-section of international tourists, so there are many languages heard and spoken.

One of my adult sons and I recently spent three nights there during the fall shoulder season and found many things to recommend about a visit at that time of year.

While skiers and snowboarders will prefer the height of the winter season, neither of us hits the slopes, so we took advantage of the more moderate weather to enjoy other outdoor activities including hiking and biking.

Whistler has some 300 kilometers of paved and unpaved bike trails with difficulty ratings like those of the area’s ski runs. They range from Green Circle (easy) to Black Diamond runs with names like Shit Happens, No Girly Man, White Knuckles and Industrial Disease; not for the faint of heart ... or a Baby Boomer who hasn’t been on a bike in at least five years.

Virtually all of the trails have names and many were no doubt inspired by the music favored by hippies who moved to the area in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. Several trails in the Lost Lake riding area are named after the Frank Zappa songs: Pinocchio’s Furniture, Peaches en Regalia, Toads of the Short Forest, Zoot Allures, Central Scrutinizer and Grand Wazoo.

Graffiti on wrecked train car, whistler BC British Columbia train wreck
Graffiti on wrecked train car

Another trail north of Whistler Village is named for a Pink Floyd song. The 24-kilometer run called Comfortably Numb takes its name from a cut on the album The Wall and is a fairly grueling and technical single-track trail, according to those who know. The name could also describe the state of one’s backside after an hour or so on the scantily padded saddle of a rental bike.

One could make the case that A Momentary Lapse of Reason might also have been an appropriate moniker.

My son and I rented bikes from Mountain Riders, one of the independent rental shops in lower Whistler Village. Sticking to the easy trails, we managed more than 10 kilometers around the Whistler Golf Course, through residential areas and to the Meadow Park Sports Centre in a little over an hour.

The shoulder seasons are also excellent times to visit attractions that are a bit outside the established villages, include the Whistler Train Wreck. Located about seven kilometers west of Whistler village, the site marks the resting place of about a half-dozen box cars that were heavily damaged in a 1956 accident.

Suspension bridge leading to the Whistler Train Wreck, BC
Suspension bridge leading to the Whistler Train Wreck

The trail-head of the path leading to the site is easily accessible by paved road, with parking just off the road. The trail itself is rated “easy” though there are some optional segments that offer a bit more challenge for the more experienced. A recently completed suspension bridge crosses the Cheakamus River near the end of the trail and the wreck “site.”

Visitors to the site are often puzzled to observe that the cars seemed to reach their resting places without knocking down any of the surrounding trees. That is because, although located a few dozen meters from an active rail line, the site is not precisely where the wreck occurred; it happened in a rock cut down the line.

According to information recently unearthed by the Whistler Museum, three boxcars loaded with lumber jammed into the cut and blocked the line. Equipment operated by the Pacific Great Eastern Railway, as BC Rail was known prior to 1972, could not budge the cars so the railway turned to a family that ran a logging operation.

Crews took two Caterpillar D8 tractors to the site, hitched them to the boxcars, and pried them out. They then dragged the cars up the track and into the forest where they lie today. The cars are regularly repainted by graffiti artists who often date their work, so the scene is ever-changing.

Wrecked PGE boxcars, Whistler train wreck, BC British Columbia
Wrecked PGE boxcars

In addition to offering hiking that is a bit more comfortable and less treacherous than in winter, another distinct advantage of visiting during the shoulder seasons is that the crowds are smaller and the area becomes more manageable. There is less competition for tee times or space on the biking and hiking trails, shorter waits for a table at the area’s restaurants.

The entire area is dog-friendly with many establishments welcoming guests’ furry companions on their patios and outdoor venues. As well, many businesses offer water bowls for their use, and pet clean-up stations are everywhere.

Disadvantages include ski lifts that only operate on the weekends, making it more challenging to get to the mountain top and enjoy the view.

Another downside is that all locations are not created equal.

While Whistler’s Lower Village was fairly bustling during our mid-September visit, the upper village, which is home to the Fairmont Chateau Whistler, the Four Seasons Resort Whistler and Glacier Lodge among other accommodations very much resembled a ghost town. Because it is only a six-minute walk to the lower village, that type of atmosphere could be exactly what certain visitors are seeking. If not, the lower village may be the place to stay.

A facet of the area that I consider a negative is that, unlike most places in the U.S., children are allowed into the areas of pubs, bars and restaurants where alcohol is served.

While I am as fond of children as anyone, there are times many adults would like to enjoy a cocktail, happy hour or dinner without little people around. In Whistler, such an environment is a challenge to find. Because it is a resort environment, many establishments allow children in all areas including bars and pubs until some specified hour later in the evening.

Olympic rings at Olympic Celebration Plaza, Whistler, BC
Olympic rings at Olympic Celebration Plaza

During the 2010 Winter Olympics, Whistler was the site of several competitions including alpine skiing, biathlon, cross-country skiing, Nordic combined, ski jumping, bobsleigh, luge and skeleton. The area’s Olympic Celebration Plaza was the site for the ceremonies and award presentations for the events held in Whistler.

Today, the Olympic Celebration Plaza contains a large sculpture of the Olympic Rings and a significant amount of open space, which makes a great year-round play area.

Vancouver won the bid to host the 2010 Olympics in 2003 and locals told me the character of the Whistler area started changing about that same time, likely in anticipation of the crowds that would come with the games and the notoriety that would follow. Where Whistler had a reputation as a fun, funky and intimate place to congregate and ski up until the late 1990s, one local told me it has since become what he called “Industrial skiing.”

While hard-core skiers and aging hippies may long for more bucolic days gone by, Whistler today is decidedly 21st century modern and, we found, thoroughly enjoyable.

Whistler is located about two hours north of downtown Vancouver, B.C. by car along the Sea-To-Sky highway. It is also served by private vehicle charters, Greyhound bus, shuttle buses, helicopters and float planes.

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Photos by Carl Dombek
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