Want a perfect day in Vancouver? Take a sea taxi or a quick drive over to world-famous Stanley Park, a 1,000-acre park attached at the hip to one of the Pacific Northwest’s most vibrant cities.
In most parks we’ve visited, you’re pretty well limited to walking around and looking at trees. Well. There are plenty of trees to be had here, but there’s so much more! Beaches, mountain views, wooded walking trails, paved walking trails, sea views, monuments, art… you name it, you can probably find it. Which makes sense, seeing as it wasn’t designed by a professional but simply added to over the decades. But if you’re looking for the high points, here are all the best things to do in Stanley Park!
Stanley Park totem poles
One of the highlights of a trip to Stanley Park is this copse of totem poles. We have been walking around for about an hour when we hung a right and found ourselves faced with a gift shop and these amazingly colorful monuments.
Replicas carved by First Nations craftsman in recent decades, they stand in tribute to the vibrant community that once populated the now-park. For those of as not well-versed in First Nations iconography, there are plaques around the edge of the display area, detailing who carved each pole, the context the original was used in, and what each animal is and represents.
Even with crowds around, neither of us minded 🙂
Oh, and if you’re in need of a practical stop, the gift shop – complete with the same types of souvenirs you can pick up at most spots in the city – also comes equipped with a pretty nice public restroom.
Boyfriend Perspective: Hey honey, wanna take a picture with the totems? Where did that tour bus come from??!! Never mind, just stick to pics OF the totems.
Stanley Park trails
Stanley Park has a little bit of everything – mountain views, water views, city views, and lots, and lots of forest! After venturing along the seawall for awhile, we turned inland and started criss-crossing the park via some of its many well-maintained trails. Many of these trails actually got their start as old logging paths, since the park was heavily logged for much of the late 19th century. For all the crowds Stanley Park can draw, we barely ran into anyone on these trails, and got to meander and enjoy the quiet.
Having never been to a place designated as a primeval forest, this is about the closest we’ve ever gotten – guys, these trees are gigantic. There’s having to look up, and then there’s having crane your neck wayyy back just to get close to seeing the canopy – this was mostly the latter. One of the coolest spots we stumbled upon on the Tatlow Trail was the site of the Seven Sisters, seven enormous trees that became fixtures of tourism in Stanley Park in the early 20th century. But as time and weather took their toll on these giantesses, they were either felled by man or nature, one by one, over the years. Now, there are just stumps left which, as you can see above, are still enormous, and give a whisper of an idea of just how tall these ladies once stood.
We used Google Maps to find our way around the trails, since they’re decently marked but it can be a bit difficult to know at the start exactly where each one will take you. If you’re researching ahead, check out the City of Vancouver’s official park trails map.
Boyfriend Perspective: These trails don’t offer whole lot in the way of terrain, but they have a serenity that is amazing to find in the middle of a bustling port city. It was quiet and calm, a great spot to run and escape the concrete forests we live in. Road runners can join in, too.
First Beach, Second Beach, Third Beach – pick one!
This may have been the best part of our day. After walking along the seawall and several wooded trails, we finally made it to Third Beach. Visiting in fall, as we did, meant the weather was still relatively warm (evidenced by the short sleeves!), but the sea breeze had a refreshing, chilly nip to it.
So, I spent awhile walking around, sifting through the mass of shells washed up on the sand, and Luke lingered nearby, taking photos. Finally, we settled on one of the many huge, halved logs laid out above the high tide mark and enjoyed watching the sailboats on the water and the kids playing down the way. I futzed around with our GorillaPod, trying to get a decent shot of both of us, and Luke looked at me like I was crazy. Someone a few logs over had music piping through a Bluetooth speaker. After what had a been a long (but enjoyable) trip, and a long (but enjoyable) day of exploring, I don’t think either of us could’ve asked for a better place to slow down and relax.
Boyfriend Perspective: This beach is more of a sandy park than a surfing beach. Bikers stopped for a break, picnickers lounged on blankets, and non-locals waited for the right picture. We weren’t supposed to talk about ourselves, eh?
Lion’s Gate Bridge
Walk across it, walk over it, or view it from the seawall – Lion’s Gate bridge is a lovely, scenic stop to make during your trip to Stanley Park. There are so many things to do in Stanley Park that are active, but this one just requires some good old fashioned sight-seeing. Finished in 1938, it’s named after a pair of mountain peaks north of the city, in whose direction northbound traffic on the bridge is headed. Bonus points if you spot the sculpted lions at the south end of the bridge!
Boyfriend Perspective: Some people like bridges. Other people like them so much they travel just to see them. I am not one of these people, but I acknowledge and marvel at the feat of engineering that is designing and building bridges like this one. Something to note, the middle lane of this bridge changes direction depending time of day to help rush hour volume of cars.
Walk (or run or bike) the Stanley Park Seawall
The Stanley Park Seawall is a fixture in this area. If there’s anything in Stanley Park you MUST do, it’s this. Park by the teahouse, and make your way down to the easy-to-access seawall. Enjoy (as we did) following the well-maintained, paved paths past local art, monuments, and landmarks, and seeing the sea planes take off from the harbor. Maybe even make a dumb face in front of the Vancouver skyline like I did 😛
We walked most of the seawall, and recommend you bring a snack and a bottle of water. Not that the exertion will be all that crazy, but you’ll be outside for awhile. Never hurts to be prepared! That said, if you’re not in much of a walking mood, there are bikeshares (which are a bit pricey, but probably worth it).
Boyfriend Perspective: The Seawall has such an amazing view! Walking the edge of the island can take an hour or two, but this is dependent on how many pictures you take. If you are in town and the weather is picture-perfect (look at us getting lucky with the weather!) definitely plan for some time here. Maybe even grab some food for a picnic 😉
Check out Canadian art and Brockton Point monuments
One of the coolest things to do in Stanley Park is investigate all of its monuments. Want to see a tribute to the influence of the sea on Vancouver’s growth? The Girl with the Wetsuit has you covered. More interested in a replica of the figurehead of one of the fastest trade ships in the Pacific? Check out the RMS Empress figurehead. Fascinated by the park’s gigantic trees and want to learn more? Head over to Hollow Tree for education and a photo op. There are monuments, statues, and various types of art scattered all over this park that are free to view and more than worth stopping to see.
One of the interesting things about many of the monuments here is that, when you actually read the plaques, many of them call attention to just how much of what we currently see in Vancouver came at the expense of former residents of many different backgrounds. First Nations residents were forcefully evicted, Chinese settlers were evicted by the burning of their homes – it goes on. Food for thought amidst an otherwise stunning series of artistic displays.
Have you been to Stanley Park? What was your favorite part of the visit?
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Also published on Medium.