10 Must-Have Experiences in British Columbia

Expand your travel horizons in British Columbia, a wild-and-scenic wonderland perched at the edge of the Pacific.

The 530-mile Hot Springs Circle Route in the Kootenay Rockies connects eight of British Columbia’s most scenic hot springs.
Bryan Smith

British Columbia is where the Canadian Rockies meet the Pacific Ocean, creating an enticing mountains-to-ocean mix of awe-inspiring backdrops, outdoor adventure options, and seafaring First Nations history and traditions. Sample it all by using British Columbia’s 10 Must-Have Experiences as a guide to embracing B.C. life the best way possible—outside.

Explore Ancient First Nation Sites

Voyage by boat or sea plane to Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site, located at the southern end of the remote Haida Gwaii archipelago. The lush rainforest preserve protects Haida First Nation ancestral lands and traditions, such as weaving and tree carving. See an eerie stand of weathered cedar mortuary poles, cedar longhouses, moss-covered canoes, and other ancient Haida village sites and artifacts on a guided sea kayaking, boating, or sailing trip.

<p>SG̱ang Gwaay (Anthony Island) is located in the southwest corner of Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve in Haida Gwaii, British Columbia, Canada. The Haida name means "wailing island" and is based on a sound created at certain tides when air is pushed through a hole in a rock on the island.</p>

SG̱ang Gwaay (Anthony Island) is located in the southwest corner of Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve in Haida Gwaii, British Columbia, Canada. The Haida name means "wailing island" and is based on a sound created at certain tides when air is pushed through a hole in a rock on the island.

Photograph by John E Marriott, Getty Images

Plunge into Lift-Accessed Mountain Biking

Pump up the adrenaline level on pedaling by trying lift-accessed mountain biking on an actual mountain. Sun Peaks Resort, interior British Columbia’s largest ski resort, is a mountain biker’s paradise in summer. The Sun Peaks Bike Park’s 40 lift-access trails gives mountain bikers of all abilities—including beginners—the chance to experience the rush of riding down a mountain. Rent gear and take a lesson before tackling the Smooth Smoothie: the wide top-to-bottom downhill mountain biking trail designed for rookie riders.

Go Kayaking with Wildlife

Paddle the pristine waters surrounding Vancouver Island North on a wildlife-watching sea kayaking tour. The area’s forested coastline, offshore islands, and saltwater inlets are teeming with wild things, such as seals, sea lions, bears, eagles, humpback whales, and the largest of the dolphins—orcas. North Island Kayak, Sea Kayak Adventures, and other local adventure outfitters offer a wide array of guided kayaking tours, from half-day trips suitable for kids (ages 5 and up) to multi-day, paddle-and-camp wilderness expeditions.

Orca glides off the coast of Vancouver Island.
Orca glides off the coast of Vancouver Island.
Photograph Courtesy Destination British Columbia

Ride the World Record Breaking Peak 2 Peak Gondola

Soar high above rainforests, glaciers, and ancient volcanic peaks on the PEAK 2 PEAK Gondola. Connecting the high alpine terrain of Whistler and Blackcomb mountains in only 11 minutes, the sky-high Gondola breaks two Guinness Book of World Records for the longest and highest lift. The PEAK 2 PEAK Gondola runs in both summer and winter but summer visitors get access to a network of walking and hiking trails plus the new Cloudrraker Skybridge and Raven's Eye Cliff Walk with breathtaking views from the peak of Whistler Mountain.

Soak in Eight Scenic Hot Springs

Follow the 530-mile Hot Springs Circle Route to relax and recharge in eight of British Columbia’s most scenic hot springs. The route starts and ends in Cranbrook and winds through the rugged Kootenay Rockies. Book a stay in a cedar chalet at Nakusp Hot Springs. Luxuriate in the restorative waters of Halcyon Hot Springs. Pool hop in Lussier’s gravel-bottom springs before taking a cleansing plunge into the adjacent river. The route’s last springs are in Ainsworth, where a horse-shoe-shaped tunnel leads to a mineral water cave pool.

Shop Local at Vancouver’s Granville Market

Try and buy organic caviar, Okanagan cherries, fresh cheese curds, maple pecan ganache, spicy mango chutney macarons, and other local flavors at Vancouver’s Granville Island Public Market. The indoor market is open seven days a week and is the place to shop for foodie treats and hand-crafted souvenirs that are made, grown, or otherwise from British Columbia. Venture just outside the market to browse First Nations art galleries, participate in an artisan sake tasting, and visit local ceramic studios.

Photograph the Elusive Spirit Bear

Journey into the primordial Great Bear Rainforest on a wildlife photography safari possible only in British Columbia. The province’s 19-million-acre Pacific coastal rainforest is home to the Kermode bear, a white-fur black bear called the spirit bear by the Gitga'at First Nation. The bear, which is exclusively found in British Columbia, primarily lives in Great Bear Rainforest, a protected expanse of fjords, old-growth forests, islands, and channels that’s teeming with wild things. To see and photograph the rainforest’s spirit bears, grizzlies, black bears, whales, and other wildlife, embark on a multi-day Spirit Bear Quest Tour.

A Kermode bear mother climbs a crab apple tree to grab its fruit in the Great Bear Rainforest, British Columbia.
A Kermode bear mother climbs a crab apple tree to grab its fruit in the Great Bear Rainforest, British Columbia.
Photograph by Paul Nicklen, Nat Geo Image Collection

Drive the Legendary Alaska Highway

Take an epic road trip on part of the Alaska Highway, or ALCAN. Widely considered among North America’s top wild-and-scenic drives, the historic highway connects Dawson Creek, British Columbia to Delta Junction, Alaska. The first 613 miles of the 1,387-mile route are in B.C. From milepost 0, cruise northwest through wilderness past jaw-dropping natural wonders, such as Sikanni Chief Falls. Watch for wildlife in Muskwa-Kechika, a protected region that is home to some 2,000 grizzlies, 22,000 moose, 7,000 Stone’s sheep, and several species of bison.

Liard Valley on the Alaska Highway.
Liard Valley on the Alaska Highway.
Photography Courtesy Destination British Columbia / Emanuel Smedbol

Savor the Flavors of the Dumpling Trail

Follow the taste-tempting aromas along Richmond’s Dumpling Trail, a 20-restaurant self-guided tour filled with all manner of boiled, pan-fried, and deep-fried stuffed goodness. Arrive hungry so you can sample the dumpling bounty: traditional wontons, taro-stuffed wu gok, salmon-roe siu mai, lotus and sesame jian dui, pork-stuffed xiao long bao, and guo tie pot stickers. Some dumplings only are available during dim sum lunch hours. Check menus in advance to chart your course. Continue to expand your palate at the Richmond Night Market, brimming with over 500 international food choices.

Dim Sum at the Richmond Night Market, River Road.
Dim Sum at the Richmond Night Market, River Road.
Photograph Courtesy Destination British Columbia/Kezia Nathe

Watch Coastal Winter Storms Roll In

Experience the raw power and natural beauty of winter storms on Vancouver Island’s West Coast. November to February is prime storm-watching season and Tofino is a top spot for watching the ocean squalls, churning clouds, and generally wild weather. For front row views of the action stay at the Wickaninnish Inn, where guests can don hotel-provided rain gear to watch storms from the beach. Staying dry indoors also is an option since every room comes with an ocean view as well as binoculars to use during your stay.

Maryellen Kennedy Duckett is a frequent contributor to National Geographic Travel. Follow her journey on Twitter.

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