The following guide was written by OpenSnow Forecaster Larry Schick. Larry has skied more than 60 ski areas in the Western US and British Columbia, including cat and heli-skiing.
Thinking about a Whistler road trip? Whether you're a veteran Whistler skier or a first-timer, here are a few tips!
I have skied Whistler dozens of times since my first trip in January 1973. Back then the road up from Vancouver was partially dirt. I have seen W/B evolve into a first class, a cosmopolitan ski resort with unmatched ski terrain and tons of snow. You’ll hear voices from all over the world when you visit. Plus, the Canadian’s are super nice and actually like Americans. You’ll meet a lot of young people from Australia and New Zealand who work there on Commonwealth exchange programs. They are an especially fun and carefree clan.
While Whistler is a wonderful place to visit and ski, the downside is it can be busy, pricy and the weather can be problematic. That said, the lift system is efficient and the mountain is big and able to disperse a lot of people. In addition, better pricing can be found on the shoulder seasons of December and April, with excellent skiing. As for the weather, it’s generally not bad and I have some tips so you can adapt.
Whistler continues to improve and has replaced several lifts, including constructing a new gondola from top to bottom at Blackcomb. The new lift will help keep you weatherproof from the dampness down low while easing the morning lift access congestion.
Driving from Seattle or Portland, go north up I-5 to the border.
Avoid Seattle and Vancouver commute traffic – especially Friday afternoon. Make sure you have a passport. The border can have variable wait times; it’s often a crapshoot, but generally not a problem. Did I mention? Do not forget your passport.
Cross the border at the truck border crossing (Hwy 15), not the Peace Arch crossing. Watch for signs on I-5. There is a sign over I-5, when you approach Bellingham, to give updates on border cross wait times which are typically 5 min - 40 min. If the wait is greater than 45 min, consider driving east 8 miles to less crowded Lynden or even farther to Sumas crossing. At the border, stopping at the duty-free store and buying something, can save you 15-20 minutes, by allowing you to cut ahead in line. But it’s a trade-off since you often waste that much time stopping & shopping for something you don’t really need -- like maple flavored, leaf shaped cookies.
If you travel a lot to Canada, consider a five-year NEXUS pass. You’ll get your own border-crossing lane with less hassle, plus the NEXUS pass ID number doubles as a TSA pre-check ID for flying in the U.S. I got one and it cost $50. The application is an involved process, including a personal interview with US and Canadian officials. Officials told me if you have the NEXUS card you do not need a passport, but I always bring my passport.
After the border, drive north to Hwy 1, then west to Vancouver, then Hwy 99 cutting through North Vancouver, heading west. Everything in Canada looks kinda the same but different (check Tim Horton, London Drug). You’ll be cutting north to Squamish and then W/B. Check out the granite climbing monolith at Squamish (little Yosemite) on your drive. Also, nearby Shannon Falls is an awesome waterfall, just off the road.
Five to five and a half hours is a typical drive time from downtown Seattle to Whistler. Best total drive time from downtown Seattle to the Village is about four and a half hours. That is with minimal traffic, 10 min at the border, good road conditions, getting most lights. You could get it near 4 hrs if you drove after midnight, without stopping, and sailed through the border, like the Dukes of Hazard yelling "I love the Canucks".
Be cool at the border…take off the sunglasses, roll down your back window so they can easily see into your car. Always answer the questions calmly, briefly and honestly.
When asked if you have anything to declare, enthusiastically singing out "I am awesome!" will get your stopped and searched.
So be cool, take it easy.
The drive to Whistler is beautiful, a mostly divided, four-lane highway drive and curvy. It takes 1.5 hrs from Van – (Van is what the locals call Vancouver). It’s not a classic mountain ski drive, but partially through a wonderful majestic fiord on a modern, newly improved road. It is uncommon to see snow on the road because of the low elevations and proximity to the water. If you can go during daylight (highly recommended), it is a memorable drive, very scenic and probably a tad safer.
Ditch The Car
Once you get to W/B, you will not need a car or even see a car if you stay in Village (recommended). Overnight parking is expensive at hotels. Try the parking lot under the Whistler convention center. Covered, it is $7.50 USD/24 hrs. There is free day use only parking in the main lot. Good, free local bus service is available – yet not generally needed if you are in the Village.
With the favorable dollar exchange rate and a typically reliable early season snowpack, augmented by snowmaking, Whistler continues to lure skiers from the US and the world. However, even with the exchange rate, I have noticed lodging prices edging upward as of last year, so bargains are harder to find.
December and April have better rates, often with fine skiing. Those months are often surprisingly good, unlike resorts in the US, I ski W/B almost every year during December or April or both. There are a ton of options, but staying in the Village on your first visit will help anchor and orient you.
The Village is really cool, lots of shops/food/bars/clubs, everything is walkable, even in ski boots. There are heated sidewalks. I like the rock shop, with some amazing museum quality fossils. Elevation of the Village is 2000ft - very low. If it is raining or wet snow in the Village, don’t be overly concerned. The gondolas will keep you dry up to the usually snowy alpine. If it is snowing in the Village, it means great quality powder in the alpine. Always bring goggles that help in flat light. Sun angles are low, snow is white, the sky is gray/white (lots of clouds) – there are not many trees up top for contrast.
Be sure and check out beyond the main Whistler Village, to the Upper Village (Blackcomb). It’s an easy and pleasant walk over the Fitzsimmons Creek bridge. The Blackcomb base is another nice place to stay, less active than the Village, with great mountain access. The third main area to stay with good mountain access is Creekside. It’s a mile or two away from the Whistler and Blackcomb Village. It’s quiet, as it is separated from Whistler and Blackcomb Village, with less activity. But again, it has easy and excellent access to the mountain.
Avoiding the Crowds
The weekends have become very busy at Whistler Blackcomb. I try and come on Wednesday or Thursday and leave after skiing on Saturday - avoiding the Sunday day crunch when leaving. Try and ski weekdays as much as possible. The other bottleneck is in the morning at the base, getting everyone up the mountain. The new gondola at Blackcomb will help with that congestion. Also, eating at lunch on the mountain is very busy: eat early or late -- or ski down and eat at the bottom. The mountain is huge. I think, even on a crowded day, once you are on the main part of the mountain, you can avoid some of the weekend lift lines.
If it gets congested, make your own adventure on the slopes less traveled. Head up the Horseman Glacier t-bar and a short 10-minute hike to Blackcomb bowl, it’s a spectacular bowl with fabulous skiing, but it’s not groomed until the bottom runout. Sometimes I just like skiing the run adjacent to the t-bar. The snow in there is often incredible, with no people – but yes, riding t-bars is a bit of a pain, especially on a snowboard.
Whistler / Blackcomb is two massive mountains. Don’t worry if there is only minor snow in the village. The alpine is 4,000-5,000ft higher and a different world. You’ll mainly ski the upper 2/3rds of the mountain. The lower lifts and gondolas are mainly for transportation to the mid and upper lifts for the real skiing. I’ve never skied W/B where I didn’t go straight to the top. The alpine upper lifts will have deep snow on top of several glaciers. Whistler Blackcomb has an excellent lift system – one of the best in all of skiing.
Consider the "First Tracks" program with a breakfast and early start on the mountain, especially on a powder day. The gondola ride up as the sun rises over the mountainous BC coast range is unforgettable.
Many believe wet snow or rain is the primary weather problem. Yes, it can be annoying, but it’s not that frequent. I think fog, with occasional mist or icing, is the main weather issue. Visibility can sometimes be challenging. Watch for blue and red makers to guide you in the treeless upper elevations. If fog is blinding, you change the elevation or aspect you are skiing. As a result, sometimes you can get out of the fog that way. Lots of times, it’s just flat light, so bring a flat light lens (yellowish) for the goggles.
Extreme cold is uncommon, but I have been there at about five degrees Fahrenheit – ouch! Typically it’s in the upper teens and twenties in the alpine, but higher humidity can make it feel colder, especially when it’s windy or overcast and it’s overcast a lot! You’ll come to understand the meaning of "sunbreaks" in the forecast.
Snow Forecast & Report: Whistler
Daily Snow Forecast: Whistler
Mountain food is good to excellent, a tad pricey – but isn’t that true everywhere? You should consider your discount from the favorable exchange rate, it will soften the prices. The Roundhouse is great but very busy (love the Asian bowls). Try Crystal Hut for a tasty waffle (or turkey chili). The Hut is perched at a less skied location on Blackcomb, at the top of the Crystal lift.
Once in a while, I’ll ski to the bottom to avoid the crowds who are eating on the upper mountain at lunch. I pick a nice place, close to the snow in the Village (or Creekside) to eat. This option does take up some time but avoids the crowds. The tradeoff is many choices, with a shorter wait. I like a custom sandwich at Portobello (Blackcomb) - reasonably priced and great food. The bakery there is to die for. I challenge you to resist buying something at the bakery after your lunch. Garibaldi Lift Company is another Whistler option – right on the snow.
Dusty’s is another option, on the Creekside area at the base of Whistler mountain. Dusty’s is a good option for a burger. Take the Peak to Creek run from the top of the Peak Chair. It’s often groomed to the bottom (check groomed today morning list), you’ll be continuously flying through 5,000 vertical and be ready for lunch.
There is plenty of intermediate to advanced skiing, on the mid to upper mountain – so no one will be whining. The advance/expert skier will not be bored. Start your expert adventure at Spanky’s Ladder/Ruby Bowl at Blackcomb for a reality check. This is NOT like many lame ski areas, with inflated black diamond runs (groomed) for grandma from Iowa to ski, all to boost their self-esteem and bragging rights. Yes, you better bring your A game when you ski Couloir Extreme – and don’t forget to set an edge, it’s a long slide.
W/B is such a big mountain you can hire a tour guide/instructor from Extremely Canadian to really get to know the territory – you’ll be blown away! This is a great deal if you wanna to get to know the mountain and improve your skiing. They will show you secret powder runs, steeps that will make you tremble or the slope less traveled – lots of insider's local information. Plus ski instruction. I had been skiing there for decades and they showed me so much more – like a whole new mountain, I had no idea.
Is Whistler or Blackcomb better?
These are two huge mountains, ski one per day. It’s a waste of time to go back and forth. Many people download to the bottom at the end of the day, but you can ski – it’s fun and puts a nice exclamation point end to your ski day!
Your ticket allows you to ski both mountains. Much to my surprise, I recently met people on the chair that didn’t know this, but in their defense, it was true many years ago. Both mountains are great fun. Don’t forget to take the Peak to Peak Gondola to go from one to another, at least once. One gondola has a clear bottom if you like to get an extra thrill on the ride.
I prefer to ski Blackcomb, but I always ski both on multi-day trips. For me, Blackcomb seems to have fewer people. Also, there seems to be more diverse terrain. I love all the skiing in or near Blackcomb Bowl. I just like the look of the textbook u-shaped glacial valley with all the associated glacial features; like moraines, couloirs and cirques. The run at Blackcomb Glacier entrance called Blowhole offers a slightly different formation and snow quality, every time I ski it. It is a unique windblown, sculptured snowdrift producing an ever-changing "barrel" of fun. The Seventh Heaven side of Blackcomb can have fog visibility issues, but it is fantastic, especially when it’s all groomed up or completely untracked and deep.
The Peak chair on the Whistler side can claim similar glacial terrain and challenging lines. You can ski Whistler and Bagel bowls off the Peak Chair. Both are large perched cirques with terrific skiing – do not miss. I have been on the first dozen chairs there on a big powder day there and it was pretty awesome. Another time I found the wrong line and ended up in a very cliffy area, down lower. See cliff area on the map – avoid! I had to slog upslope, sidestepping deep powder upslope to weasel my way out of that terrifying problem. Very unsettling. As you know, I can barely ski groomed, green runs – heck, even sitting watching people ski from my secure front row seat, sitting upright at the Longhorn Saloon can be a challenge. Another Irish coffee, please.
The crown jewels are the Whistler back bowls of Harmony, Symphony and Flute – and what a song it is. There is just so much there from groomers to steeps with every aspect and steepness you can imagine. You feel you are on another planet. Explore and discover – it’s all for you to make your ski song.
The best deal is probably the Epic Pass, depending on your length of stay and your overall ski season plans with other ski areas. But if that won’t fit consider the EDGE card. Also, you can often get lodging/ticket deals combinations, which almost duplicate the EDGE card deal, in my experience. Best bargains are in December and April, no surprise. Some lifts can be closed at those times, so there are tradeoffs. I love early April with long days, great deals and deep snowpack. Ask any local, some of Whistler’s best powder days are in April.
On the way back, if you've never checked out Vancouver, it's a great city. Check the Elbow Room for breakfast/lunch. Just hope and pray you get the original "soup nazi" guy as your server. Grandville Island, Stanley Park, Yaletown, walk Robson street, so much more. You’ll find some of the best restaurants in the world, especially Asian food. And the Northwest food, with local seafood, is outstanding. There is a cool street with many outdoor stores on it (Broadway). MEC is there and it's their version of REI. The same, but a little different.
Snow Forecast & Report: Whistler Blackcomb
Daily Snow Forecast: Whistler
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