Updated Friday, June 21, 2013 at 10:28 AM
I learned to ski as a little kid at Mount Seymour on the edge of Vancouver, B.C. Rope tows reigned in those long-ago days, relentlessly shredding my mittens and tugging my skinny little arms almost out of their sockets. The drafty, cold day lodge smelled of wet wool clothing and baloney sandwiches. Long lines of shivering, desperate-to-pee children waited for the outhouses.
No wonder it was a long time before I returned.
But on a spring trip to Vancouver, I packed my skis and spent three happy days swooping down the slopes at three ski areas — Cypress Mountain, Grouse Mountain and, yes, Mount Seymour. All three are just a half-hour north of downtown, perched atop the North Shore mountains that rise steeply more than 4,000 feet above the city and its suburbs.
These days the ski areas have big, comfortable day lodges, with pubs and even fine-dining restaurants, high-speed chairlifts and extensive night skiing.
What they don’t have are gung-ho, super-long runs for expert skiers or boarders; for that, keep going north to B.C.’s massive Whistler-Blackcomb.
What the Vancouver ski areas do offer are convenient and family-friendly slopes and lots of other snow play, from cross-country skiing and terrain parks for boarders to snowtubing and snowshoeing. All three have spectacular views, too, of the city and harbor glimmering far below, and south to Washington’s San Juan Islands and the snowy mass of Mount Baker.
So the next time you go to Vancouver in winter, head for the hills for a few hours, day or night. Here’s a rundown on the three areas, from west to east:
The place: Remember the 2010 Winter Olympics, when daredevil boarders and freestyle skiers catapulted into the air? That was at Cypress Mountain, the biggest of the three Vancouver ski areas, which was expanded and spruced up when it hosted some Olympic events. It (and Grouse) have already opened this winter.
Dozens of runs are spread over two facing mountains that make up Cypress, with a high-quality day lodge, all wood and glass, nestled in the narrow valley between them.
Choose between Strachan Mountain and Black Mountain, each served by an express quad chair with lots of runs (and four older, slower chairs) spread out across the mountains.
I liked Strachan best because it gets more sun; has longer, more challenging runs; and lots of tree glades. And I loved the view from the 4,720-foot top of Strachan. Crane your neck to enjoy a panorama of snowy peaks, the city and waterways, including a dizzying look down to Howe Sound, a fjord around the corner from Vancouver.
The numbers: Cypress has 53 runs, a vertical drop of 2,010 feet and 600 acres of skiable terrain. (Washington’s Summit at Snoqualmie, by comparison, has 1,981 acres spread over its four ski areas and a vertical drop ranging from 2,280 feet at Alpental to 765 feet at Summit West.)
Cross-county skiing: Cypress offers nordic skiing on 19 kilometers of groomed trails winding through the woods. Ski to the wonderfully creaky Hollyburn Lodge for a snack or hot chocolate; the little lodge was built in 1926 when the area already was popular for winter play and summer hiking. Some vintage log cabins, reached by skis or foot only, still dot the woods.
More snowplay: Cypress has terrain parks (helmets mandatory) for freestyle play; 10 kilometers of groomed snowshoe trails; a big snowtubing area with six chutes and a tow lift; plus a sliding area for young children.
Lodge: The big, comfortable Cypress Creek Lodge is by the 3,000-foot-elevation parking lots. It includes the Crazy Raven pub, with excellent burgers, salads and local brews (19 and older to enter); other eateries; and a shop.
Hot tip: If you have an upper-tier season pass to Washington’s Crystal Mountain or Summit at Snoqualmie, you get 10 free days of skiing at Cypress because the same company, Boyne Resorts, owns all three ski areas.
More info, tickets: An adult lift pass is $60 Canadian (the U.S. and Canadian dollars are almost par). Cypress, like all three resorts, has discounts for teens and children and offers lighted night skiing.cypressmountain.com or 604-926-5612.
The place: This is the middle mountain, between Cypress and Seymour, with the bright night-skiing lights visible from all over Vancouver.
There’s no public road up Grouse. Instead, the Skyride aerial tram, which holds about 100 people, zips up the steep mountain in 4.5 minutes from the base area in North Vancouver. It’s like an airborne bus, packed with happy skiers and boarders chattering and sipping lattes.
The tram disgorges everyone at 3,700 feet where Grouse, less than half the size of Cypress, has lots of winter fun and amenities, making this mountain a good choice for easygoing skiers and nonskiers who want to come along for the fun. (I watched one South Asian sightseer tiptoe through the snow in her sandals and sari.)
Grouse is good for beginners or intermediate skiers and boarders who can enjoy the cruiser runs fanning out from the Screaming Eagle high-speed quad — and the sweeping views of the city shimmering far below. Skiers coming off the Peak chairlift (which tops out at 4,100 feet) will pass by The Eye of the Wind, a 215-foot-tall, electricity-generating wind turbine that, on clear days, can be spotted from downtown Vancouver.
Grouse has a long history. It has lured hikers — these days the intrepid race up the fearsomely steep “Grouse Grind” trail — and skiers since the early 1900s, and got its first rope tow in the 1930s.
The numbers: Grouse has four chair lifts, including two long high-speed quads, and a vertical drop of 1,210 feet. Twenty-six runs are spread out over 212 skiable acres.
More snowplay: Five short snowshoe trails loop peacefully through the woods, for a total 13.4 kilometers. Grouse offers zip-line rides, winter and summer. Ice-skate on an outdoor pond. And nonskiers can glide down the slopes in a “snow limo,” a special sled guided by an expert skier.
The lodge: Warm up by the fireplace in the comfortable Peak Chalet day lodge. Eat at its casual and elegant restaurants. (After an excellent seafood lunch at the Altitudes Bistro, and a table with a jaw-dropping view of the city 3,700 feet below, I had to cajole myself into more skiing.) Or watch nature documentaries in a theater.
Hot tip: Want snowy Christmas fun? Grouse offers “The Peak of Christmas” celebration with sleigh rides, family Christmas movies, Santa visits and real reindeer from Nov. 24-Dec. 24.
More info, tickets: An adult daily lift ticket is $58 Canadian; grousemountain.com or 604-984-0661.
The place: Smallest of the Vancouver ski areas, it tries hard with a big ski school, terrain parks and special events for snowboarders who flock to Seymour.
Most runs are short. But they’re sweet — wide open with lovely views. Even the black-diamond runs from the 4,150-foot summit are relatively easy, making children and teens feel daring and accomplished as they zoom down. (More-accomplished skiers, however, may find themselves yearning for more challenge.)
This season Seymour is opening its first, and much-needed, high-speed quad that replaces the Mystery chair, its main lift. The new chair will slice the lengthy lineups and cut the ride from 10 minutes to four.
The numbers: Three chairlifts, including the new high-speed quad, serve 39 runs (some very short) on 200 acres of skiable terrain, with a vertical drop of 1,082 feet.
Lodge: The Three Peaks Lodge is less fancy than the day lodges at Cypress and Grouse, but includes a pub and cafeteria.
Cross-country skiing: BC Parks lays out two cross-country skiing trails in Mount Seymour Provincial Park, the main one about 7 kilometers round trip (snowshoers also can use it and a shorter trail); see env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks/. There’s no fee. Backcountry skiers can go deeper into the Seymour wilderness, including snow camping.
More snowplay: Seymour is very snowshoe-friendly. As well as the BC Parks trails, the ski area has 10 kilometers of groomed snowshoe trails ($9 trail pass) plus snowshoe rentals and guided snowshoeing tours. For sledding fun, there are four snowtubing lanes (with a tow lift) and a toboggan area for young children.
Hot tip: Go skiing late in the day, then join Seymour’s Chocolate Fondue snowshoe tour. Offered on Saturday evenings, it’s 2½ hours of snowshoeing under the night sky with a treat of chocolate-dipped fruit in an outdoors “snow lounge.”
More info, tickets: Adult lift ticket is $51 Canadian. mountseymour.com or 604-986-2261.
Kristin Jackson: email@example.com.
Know before you go
Some things to know about Vancouver-area skiing.
• Although some runs are above 4,000 feet in elevation, Cypress, Grouse and Seymour are close to the sea and subject to relatively mild, wet weather. The snow can be heavy. It can rain. Double-check the weather before you go. But Cypress, in particular, has extensive snow-making.
•Kids swarm to ski schools on weekends. Go on a weekday or later on weekend days to avoid the crowds. Holiday periods and Vancouver school-break weeks also are busy (winter break is Dec. 24 through Jan. 4, 2013, and spring break is March 18-22, 2013).
Photos by Kristin Jackson / The Seattle Times
On a sunny, good-snow day at Cypress Mountain, it's hard to believe that downtown Vancouver is just a half-hour drive away.
A skier at Mount Seymour pauses to take in the view of downtown Vancouver, B.C. Mount Seymour, Cypress Mountain and Grouse Mountain ski areas are just a half-hour north of downtown, perched atop the North Shore mountains that rise steeply more than 4,000 feet above the city and its suburbs.
Cypress Mountain is the biggest of the three ski areas on the outskirts of Vancouver, B.C., with 53 runs and a comfortable day lodge.
Skiers relax by the fireplace in the Peak Chalet, the day lodge at Grouse Mountain.