Talk to travelers who have visited Vancouver recently and chances are good they’ve been to Capilano Suspension Bridge, the iconic 100-year-old landmark on the city’s North Shore. The bridge, swaying 230 feet above the Capilano River, is Vancouver’s tourist attraction par excellence – rooted in nature, rich in history, interactive and just a little bit scary. 700,000 people visited last year, making it one of the most popular attractions in the entire country.
But precisely because it’s so famous and so popular, the Capilano Suspension Bridge sometimes slips off people’s radars: dismissed as too “touristy” by locals or too “tame” by intrepid travelers. This is a shame because there’s a lot going on at Capilano these days – the big bridge is just a small piece of the action.
I stopped by yesterday, on a warm morning when a cool breeze was blowing down from the North Shore Mountains. At 10 a.m., the entrance gates were already busy with tour bus traffic – visitors speaking German and French eager for a glimpse of the BC wilderness. Admission is $30.95 for adults; kids 6-12 get in for $10 (A little known perk: BC residents can get a year-long pass to Capilano for $25).
Inside, the Capilano park is divided into two main sections, with the 450-foot-long suspension bridge spanning between. On the east bank of the river is the “heritage” side. Here, enthusiastic guides in costumes from the late 1800s lead groups through a series of exhibits on local history. You learn, for instance, that the bridge is Vancouver’s oldest tourist attraction, having drawn curious travelers since 1889. There is also a First Nations carving demonstration and the largest collection of privately-owned totem poles in North America. Next to the Trading Post Gift Shop, musicians in period dress belt out old-timey tunes.
But all this stuff is really just a teaser for the real action. The fun starts when you step onto the suspension bridge itself, which seems to hang like a delicate thread above the yawning Capilano Canyon. When you’re about three or four steps in, the whole thing starts to shudder and shimmy, leaning heavily to one side and then the other. It’s safe, of course – with chest-high wire railings and enough strength to support the weight of a fully-loaded 747 jet plane. But when you’re clinging to the swaying railing, looking 20 stories down at the river below, there’s still an adrenaline factor. Maybe a video could do the experience more justice: Here’s a random one (and pretty silly) that I found on YouTube:
Once you’ve made it across the bridge – which takes a good minute or two – you enter the newer section of the park, the “rainforest” zone – a gorgeous tract of never-logged, old growth forest filled with 1,000-year-old Douglas firs, cedars and hemlocks. Considering the various ways that park planners could have used this space – turned it into a woodland Disney, filled it with tawdry exhibits, riddled it with gimmicky ziplines – what they’ve done is quite noble and also quite spectacular.
A low footprint wooden pathway leads through the forest, beneath the towering trees and beside quiet ponds stocked with lake trout. The scene is calm and primeval – an almost unmediated glimpse into a remarkably preserved bit of West Coast rainforest. At one point, the path ascends into a two story wooden treehouse, built from reclaimed logs. This marks the start of the Treetops Adventure – a unique canopy walk and arguably the highlight of the park. Seven bridges totalling 650 feet in length wind through the canopy, climbing to more than 100 feet above the forest floor. These bridges connect a series of viewing platforms, suspended with ropes and pulleys (but no nails or screws) midway up the trunks of massive Douglas fir trees. It’s a bird’s-eye view of the forest – something that would be almost impossible to experience elsewhere.
And there’s more. The creative minds at Capilano are hard at work finishing a new attraction: the Cliffhanger. From the rim of Capilano Canyon – hundreds of feet above the water – engineers have hung a narrow, two-foot-wide pathway. It extends for 700 feet, following the contour of the canyon walls but hanging in midair – supported only by steel brackets screwed into the sheer face of the cliff. Cliffhanger opens in April 2011 and hopes to offer visitors a bit of a thrill and a new perspective on the unique canyon ecosystem at the same time.
For more information on Cliffhanger and other projects, check out Capilano’s Twitter feed: @CapSuspBridge. You can also go to their website: www.capbridge.com
Any other favorite attractions at Capilano Suspension Bridge that I missed? I know it’s not exactly a hidden gem, but I was surprised to find out how much is going on there.