A densely forested, 1,000 acre green space only 1km from the heart of a city is a rare find, so it's easy to see why Stanley Park is recognised as one of the world's finest urban parks. Add to that its beaches, numerous walking and cycling trails and a world-class aquarium, and it's no wonder the Park attracts more than eight million visitors a year.
Located on a peninsular north west of downtown Vancouver, Stanley Park's long history of occupation, first by indigenous peoples, then by the British during the 1858 Fraser Canyon Gold Rush and finally by European settlers, has done little to spoil its natural beauty. Half a million cedar, fir and hemlock trees are the Park's main residents today, thanks to a decision by the city fathers in 1886 to turn the land into Vancouver's first park. It was named after Lord Stanley, Canada's Governor General at the time.
Almost entirely surrounded by water – English Bay to the west and Vancouver Harbour to the east – Stanley Park has two main swimming beaches. These are Second Beach on the south side where there is a heated, freshwater outdoor pool, and Third Beach to the west, which is more secluded. There are also two lakes in the Park – Beaver Lake, a freshwater lake covered in water lilies in the summer months, that is home to a colony of beavers, and Lost Lagoon, a man-made lake to the south of the Park.
Apart from one major road running through it, which connects downtown Vancouver to North and West Vancouver via the Lion's Gate Bridge, Stanley Park's interior is largely pedestrianised, vehicular traffic being limited to the minor roads running round its periphery and connecting to the Aquarium in the southeast of the Park. Segregated cycle lanes run alongside the interior roads, which are one-way for both cars and bicycles, clockwise round the Park on the west side.
The view from Prospect Point, Stanley Park, Vancouver
There are 27km of cycling and walking trails throughout the Park, all signposted, where you can spend hours exploring the forest and wondering at the height of some of the cedars which have been there for hundreds of years. Features of the park accessible via the trails include Siwash Rock, a rocky outcrop on the northwest side of the Park and the viewpoint at Prospect Point on the north shore of the Park from where you can see Lion's Gate Bridge and look over the bay to West Vancouver.
If you'd rather walk or cycle where there is a sea view, rather than in the Park's interior, you can circumnavigate the historic seawall, created in 1917. This is an 8.8km paved route which circles the Park and connects to downtown Vancouver via other seaside pathways, continuing round False Creek and the city's other seafront areas. We used the seawall as our route into Stanley Park when we cycled in from the city and it proved to be a safe, easy way into the Park avoiding traffic.
Walking and cycling aren't the only ways of exploring Stanley Park. You can go on a one-hour horse-drawn carriage ride that leaves every half hour or so in the summer months from Coal Harbour parking lot near the Georgia Street entrance to Stanley Park. This leisurely, narrated tour stops at the Park's famous monuments, such as the Girl in a Wetsuit Statue, the Empress of Japan Figurehead and the Totem Poles near Brockton Point at the southeast tip of the Park.
Children will enjoy the miniature railway which winds through 2km of woodland, starting near Stanley Park Pavilion in the southeast of the Park. There are also a number of playgrounds in the Park, including the city's first at Ceperley Meadow near Second Beach.
All members of the family will enjoy the Vancouver Aquarium in Stanley Park, which is worth a visit in its own right. Canada's first and largest aquarium, it was opened in 1956 and today is a leading centre for marine research and conservation. The 100,000sqft facility has a daily programme of events including a beluga show, behind the scenes tours and animal encounters with aquarium interpreters, biologist and trainers.
Meanwhile, if all this exploring is making you hungry, there are four refreshment stops in Stanley Park ranging from more refined dining at The Teahouse to the rustic ambience of Stanley's Bar & Grill. The latter is the latest addition to The Stanley Park Pavilion built in 1913, which is one of Vancouver's most outstanding historical landmarks.
If picnicking is more your style, there are three designated picnic areas in the Park, all of which can be booked in advance for large parties.