Mountain bike season is here again, although honestly the season is year-round on the North Shore. Let’s say that the good weather mountain bike season is here then. If you’ve done any riding on the mountains of North Vancouver, you have likely rode on Fromme Mountain and the Old Grouse Mountain Highway. Few people know that the existing main road for access to mountain bike trails was built originally to accommodate motor vehicle traffic, transporting tourists to the top of Grouse.
The 13km gravel road takes you from the very top of the paved Mountain Highway (approx. 300m/1,000ft elevation) in Lynn Valley to the Chalet on the Grouse Mountain plateau (approx. 1160m/3,800ft). It is a fairly easy ride on a half-decent mountain bike taking between one and two hours (I did it twice last summer). However there are very little, if any clues remaining that this was once a tolled road for motor vehicles.
The Grouse Mountain Highway was the brainchild of William Curtis Shelly in 1926, a wealthy bakery magnate originally from Ontario. His fortune was made in bread, which he sold all across Western Canada, the most popular being the Four X Mills brand. Shelly formed Grouse Mountain Highway and Scenic Resort Ltd and purchased 1,800 acres of the mountain from private and government owners. With the Second Narrows Bridge having opened in 1925, Shelly saw a way to capitalize on automobile access to the North Shore.
Shelly’s company constructed a chalet to serve the many hikers that already used the mountain and planned a large hotel as well. The road to access his property would be built six metres wide and have a grade no steeper than eight percent to make it as easy as possible for the cars of the day to ascend the mountain. It was constructed of crushed rock to a depth of at least a half metre and in places the road was three metres thick. Built for a cost of $160,000, the newly named Mountain Highway was opened in 1927. The toll collection was done just after the, fifth switchback (seen in photo). In the terrific photos from the Vancouver Archives, one can see the surrounding forest was strikingly different some 90 years ago, with heavy logging visible. Today the tall trees have returned and skirt the road most of the way up the mountain.
Unfortunately for Shelly, due to multiple incidents of boats colliding with the Second Narrows Bridge, the span was closed to all traffic in 1930 and would remain so for four years. Even still, when the bridge re-opened the resort attracted 8,000 visitors each month but Shelly was by then too deep in debt. The buildings, utilities and the road itself became property of the district of North Vancouver in lieu of $20,000 in unpaid taxes. The road was officially closed to traffic.
Today, in addition to use by outdoor enthusiasts, the Grouse Highway is used only on rare occasions by motor vehicles. A gate at the entrance to the old road installed by the District of North Vancouver prohibits public vehicles from using it. A key is required to access the gate, a privilege given to very few. The Van Tan nudist colony, located at the second switchback, provides members with access, as well as employees of Grouse Mountain. A number of employees of the resort actually live in cabins scattered across the grounds at the top of the mountain. These employees are allowed access to the road to drive vehicles up and down as needed. Other than that and the rare over-sized delivery to the top of Grouse via large truck (the Eye of the Wind tower had sections brought up the road in 2009), only hikers and bikers use the road today.
It really is quite impressive that a road built 90 years ago in difficult terrain is still in fine and useable condition to this day. It is a true hidden wonder of engineering on the North Shore.