A Guide to Sea to Sky Waterfalls
I don’t want to sound too hippy or anything, but there is something absolutely fantastic about taking a moment to relax beside a waterfall – that cool light mist that envelops and calms while the thunderous roaring drone of the pounding waters seems to wash away everything except the present moment.
Waterfalls are raging torrents of natural energy that can carve through solid rock and smash huge logs to splinters, yet they’re also somehow incredibly soothing to be around, peaceful even. That’s the duality of nature I suppose, and here in Whistler we’re lucky to have easy access to some ferociously beautiful waterfalls, most of which are right off the highway. From South to North, check out these key Sea to Sky waterfalls.
Located just south of the Squamish Chief and rising 335 metres above Highway 99, you literally can’t miss Shannon Falls. The third highest waterfalls in British Columbia, Shannon Falls also has one of the more interesting mythologies. Squamish First Nations tell of a massive two-headed serpent, Say-noth-ka, who lived in Howe Sound. According to legend, Say-noth-ka used to slither out of the ocean and up into the mountains, always taking the same route again and again. His massive, twisting body wore away the mountainside and eventually formed a grooved spillway for the waters above.
These days, Shannon Falls Provincial Park offers fine picnic spots and trails interwoven amongst lush forest and “notched” old-growth stumps, remnants of historical logging. Shannon is also the best Sea to Sky waterfall for getting up close and personal – you can let the spray wash right over you (highly recommended) or even rock climb right up the edge of Say-noth-ka’s old path (obviously not recommended unless you know what you are doing.)
No one is entirely sure how these falls got their name but one popular story is that a couple of railway surveyors/drinking buddies made a wager over who could more accurately estimate the height of this awesome 70-metre freefall. The stakes were a bottle of brandy (which back in the day used to also be known by its full name – Brandywine) and once the falls were measured with a chain, the two friends polished the entire bottle off right there and then named the falls.
Other than that ode to drunken creativity Brandywine Falls is noteworthy because from the observation deck you can really appreciate the time warp effect – the longer and further the water falls from the upper edge, the slower it seems to be moving. It spreads out and almost stalls before smashing into the canyon below. Check it out, it’s wild.
Brandywine Falls is located just 11 km (7 mile) south of Whistler on Highway 99 – look for the blue signs to the large parking lot at the trailhead. The actual walk in to the falls takes approximately 10 minutes. If you are feeling adventurous, you can take the Sea to Sky Trail from Function Junction in Whistler out to the falls – a 20 km hike one way.
Note that Brandywine Falls parking is closed during the winter months, opening early to mid-May depending on weather.
The least-visited of all Whistler’s main waterfalls (even though it’s just off the beaten path) Alexandra Falls is a stunning 43-metre tiered cascade located on Madelely Creek up the Callaghan valley. Turn west about 10 km south of Whistler and head towards Whistler Olympic Park. Look for the sign and trail about 1 km before you get to the lodge – this will give you a view from the top of the falls. Note that the parking lot is small, and the walk and viewing area is not winter maintained. For a different angle you can also snowshoe in to Alexander Falls from Callaghan Country when snow conditions permit, with the hike available in summer months.
If Alexander Falls whets your appetite for further exploration of the incredible Callaghan Valley, get ahold of Callaghan Country. They run a super posh alpine lodge up there and offer great hiking, nature interpretation tours, horseback riding and an end-of-summer Huckleberry Festival that’s the best on the planet.
This one is barely even a waterfall at all, more like a river in a narrow boulder field, but it is beautiful nonetheless and the Rainbow Lake trail continues up into some of Whistler’s best alpine hiking terrain.
Located just a half kilometer in the forest off Whistler’s Westside road, these falls make and easy half-day trip for anyone looking to get out of the village and into the forest. Follow the Rainbow Lake trail to the Water Treatment Centre, there’s a fork in the trail and direction sign, follow the trail that goes straight (not the one to the lake) and after a minute or so you should hear the falls.
Higher up, Rainbow Lake is one of Whistler’s more popular hikes but you’ll need to budget a whole day for that one. (Totally worth it.)
The least-accessible waterfall on the list, this one requires a trip up the Wedgemount Falls Lake Trail, one of Whistler’s most grueling hikes. The falls themselves tumble over 296 metres of ledged granite and are kinda-maybe visible from the main trail, about 5 kilometres along the lake trail (you’ll hear them before you see them.)
For a proper look at these dramatic, rocky falls you’ll need to bushwhack a bit but bushwhacking is what real adventures are made of though, so have fun and wear long pants. The Mountain Skills Academy & Adventures will take you up there, or to any of the falls on this list (or anywhere else you want to explore, they’re guides after all.)
The northern-most waterfall on the Sea to Sky journey is also the one you’d least likely want to go over inside a barrel. Nairn Falls tumbles and twists and roars through a narrow canyon just off the highway en route to Pemberton. It’s the tonal opposite of Brandywine’s straight shot and definitely worth the drive north. Note the Nairn Falls parking lot is closed during winter months.
The trail in follows the Green River for just over a kilometre before depositing you right alongside Nairn’s mighty torrent. Officially pegged at 60 metres, Nairn is churning, rushing maze of water pouring into and out of pools and eddies. There’s always been talk of underwater caverns that will trap and hold flotsam for months, years, maybe forever. Nairn Falls exemplifies the true majestic chaos of nature, water and gravity. Do not fall in.
Those looking for a fresh perspective on Nairn and the Green River can catch a ride almost right to the base of the falls with Whistler Jet Boating. It’s a fantastic half-day on the river.
The best thing about waterfalls is they are most spectacular when conditions are wet, making short walks to view them excellent rainy day activities in spring, summer or fall – just throw on your waterproof gear and go! Check out our other insider posts for more all-weather activities plus a selection of the best hikes and walks in Whistler.