Vancouver Skiing Overview
Vancouver has three local hills, located in the North Shore Mountains; from west to east, they are Cypress Mountain, Grouse Mountain, and Mount Seymour. The North Shore Mountains are the clearly visible mountain range looking north from downtown Vancouver across the harbour (the big windmill you can see up there is on Grouse Mountain).
For the two seasons that I lived in Vancouver, I was working at Cypress – one season as a lifty and another as an instructor – so that’s the hill I know best. I did my instructor licence at Grouse, and rode at Seymour when Cypress was closed for a month for the Winter Olympics (meaning I was out of a job!)
(*this is the greatest vert available for a single run, from Skychair down to the lodge. The lowest point, at the bottom of the Raven chair, cannot be directly skied to from Skychair)
Good and bad points of the Vancouver local mountains
All of these mountains have snow issues, due to their coastal location and fairly low altitudes; BC coastal snow is often wet and sticky, and Vancouver’s local hills sometimes just get straight rain… not much fun when you have to be out in a downpour teaching a bunch of school kids who are just miserable in the rain, while the snow turns to porridge around your feet and your boots fill with water. And the reporting on their websites tends towards painting the rosiest possible picture, so if they say it’s drizzling, light rain etc, don’t bother chancing it – it’s always worse than they say! All three mountains are also lots of fun on a good day, and the views of Vancouver and distant Mount Baker are great.
Despite their proximity to one another, the atmosphere and riding options are pretty different at each of these hills. Seymour and Grouse are both pretty small, while Cypress is a fair bit bigger in both vert and area. Seymour has a reputation for being the friendliest, most ‘local’ of the three, and definitely makes the most effort with its parks; if you’re a park monkey, Seymour’s the hill for you. Grouse has a similar-size ski area to Seymour (just slightly larger), but is a much bigger business operation – it’s open year-round, with skiing in winter and various sightseeing activities and fun & games for the kids in the summer, as well as being the location of the famous Grouse Grind hiking course. So think more of a family-oriented tourist destination; it’s probably the least interesting mountain of the three from a riding perspective (you want to hit Seymour for freestyle or Cypress for freeriding), but it’s also the easiest to access and has great views of Vancouver – if you’re in Van in winter and just wanting to hit a convenient hill for the day, or grab a warm-up day before heading up to Whistler, Grouse fits the bill. Cypress is the most expensive of the three, and has a reputation for being the most corporate; but you get what you pay for, and Cypress has the biggest vertical drop and the greatest quality and quantity of terrain on the North Shore.
Cypress sweet spots
Cypress has the better terrain of the Vancouver locals, but unfortunately as a result they tend not to make so much effort with their parks – which isn’t to say the park crew don’t work hard, those guys do a great job, but the mountain doesn’t prioritise freestyle and the park crew are limited in what they’re allowed to build. Unfortunately Cypress didn’t keep the Olympic halfpipe in place after 2010, it would have been the only resort in western Canada with a halfpipe other than Whistler… it was open to ride for the season preceding the Olympic season, and I had a great time scaring the shit out of myself in that halfpipe; a real shame they didn’t keep it… but anyway, if you’re in Vancouver and wanting to ride somewhere reasonably interesting without being limited mostly to the park, then Cypress is the best choice. It has some very decent tree skiing if you catch it when the snow’s good; the best bits are below Skychair, the trees off Panorama (marked as ‘Detention Glades’ on the map), and the trees around Slash and Moons (marked as ‘Crator Glades’ and ‘Under the Volcano Glades’). You can also get some awesome skiing on the actual runs under Raven chair – the handful of black runs there are left ungroomed all season and have a steep gradient. This of course means they get badly moguled, and they can be pretty icy with the freeze-thaw conditions that are common, but if you catch them when they’re just right – i.e. on a quiet weekday after a heavy dump – they’re absolutely brilliant (you can also get into the trees there, but the undergrowth is very dense in places so it’s not as good as the other areas I mentioned). If you’re at Cypress on a powder day, Raven is the first place to check out; if that’s no good, make for the trees elsewhere.
There is also some enticing looking but actually very sketchy out-of-bounds terrain, as well as one off-limits in-bounds area (between Top Gun and Humpty Dumpty); these really aren’t worth it. One of them (out of bounds off Collins) is named ‘Australian Gully’ after the two Australians who died there; the off-limits section next to Humpty Dumpty feeds into a steep, narrow gorge named after the British tourist who was the first person to die in it, a friend’s friends led us in there once and it was a fucking stupid place to be – lots of untracked snow, sure, but totally not worth the sketchiness. It’s grim but fascinating to hear about these fatal incidents from the old-time staff members. One night when I was working on the lifts, ski patrol had to go and save two drunken morons who’d fallen off a cliff out of bounds behind Skychair… it was pretty dramatic seeing them all charging off en masse to the rescue on their snowmobiles. Thankfully on that occasion they saved the two fools, including one with life-threatening injuries… but it left only one patrol team for the rest of the customers on the mountain for a while, which is clearly stretching things. So, in summary, Cypress has some good off-piste within the resort area, and you should be able to satisfy yourself with that as the backcountry is sketchy and not worth it; although it’s ‘only’ a local hill, there’s some treacherous terrain and you could find yourself in serious trouble out back… don’t put yourself and others in danger.
(For best photo ops at Cypress, Skychair obviously has the highest vantage point, but also the top of Raven chair has great views of the city and Mt Baker, and the run Horizon has nice views down into Howe Sound)
Access for Vancouver’s Hills
Grouse has a cable car and you can reach the lower station on Vancouver’s city streets either by car or public bus (number 236 from Lonsdale Quay in North Vancouver, which you can reach by Seabus from Waterfront station), so Grouse really is the easiest to reach especially if you don’t have a car. You can drive up to Seymour and Cypress in about 40 minutes from downtown Van, and both of them also have a shuttle bus. The Seymour bus also departs from Lonsdale Quay, as does the Cypress bus – but if you’re staying downtown you can also take their earlier Cypress crew bus which goes from Davie Street in the West End (see here for details)
Vancouver Skiing Summary
Cypress: best for freeriding
Seymour: best for freestyle
Grouse: most convenient, best for family outings
Resources and Useful Links for Riding in Vancouver
World Nomads has winter sports cover. World Nomads travel insurance has been designed by travelers for travelers. If you leave home without travel insurance or your policy runs out, you can buy or extend while on the road.
(This can be an important point, as I once found out the hard way in Bangkok)
Snow Forecast for Cypress (snow-forecast.com does exactly what it says on the tin, and is my usual go to for accurate snow forecasts)