From western Canada's waterfront cities to the Coast Mountains' glacier-draped heights, this tour has a bit of everything—first-rate museums, strait crossings, and spectacular scenery mixed with history and the currents of strong and distinct cultures of the Northwest Coast tribes, the Far East, all parts of North America, and, of course, Britain.
This five- to seven-day tour commences in Vancouver, hops a ferry to Victoria, skips along the coast of Vancouver Island and returns to the mainland for a sojourn among the glaciers at Whistler. It then scrambles through rough country inland along a gold rush trail to Kamloops, in the heart of cattle country. The route detours to the mighty Fraser River canyon before finally drifting back downriver to Vancouver.
Start in Vancouver
Vancouver is a coastal city blessed by dramatic geography. Ocean water washes its shores, while close inland, mountains rise to snowcapped heights. Top city sights include the flower gardens of Queen Elizabeth Park, the VanDusen Botanical Garden (5251 Oak St.; 1 604 878 9274; fee), the Vancouver Maritime Museum (1905 Ogden Ave.; 1 604 257 8300; fee), and the Museum of Anthropology (6393 N.W. Marine Dr.; 1 604 822 5087; fee) with its collection of art by Northwest Coast First Nations peoples. The city’s crowning urban glory might well be the green peninsula of Stanley Park with its winding drives, towering cedars, and footpaths. Allow several hours for the park and Vancouver Aquarium (845 Avison Way; 1 604 659 3474; fee).
Take Highway 99 across the Lions Gate Bridge to North Vancouver and Capilano Canyon, where the Grouse Mountain Skyride (tel. 1 604 980 9311; fee) climbs almost 3,000 vertical feet (914 meters) to a view of city and inlet. To stay closer to sea level, follow Marine Drive west to Lighthouse Park. Established in 1881 as a lighthouse reserve, it contains a remnant stand of old-growth Douglas-fir. Trails lead through the cathedral-like shadows of the ancient cedar and fir trees to the lighthouse on a rocky shoreline.
Ferry to Victoria
Drive south on Highway 99 to the Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal (tel. 1 604 943 9331) and take passage to Victoria. Crossing the Strait of Georgia, you realize that for all its water, Vancouver is not an oceanfront city. It stands protected by numerous small islands and one very large one: Vancouver Island itself. An hour into the passage, a long chain of snowcapped peaks comes into view: the Olympic Mountains in Washington State. The white dome to the east is Mount Baker, also in Washington. The ferry docks at Swartz Bay, and you make your entry to Victoria by driving south on Highway 17 to the southeastern tip of Vancouver Island.
The heart of the city is its inner harbor, a delightful place to spend an afternoon among seagulls, artists, and musicians. Take tea at the grand Empress Hotel (tel. 1 250 384 8111), explore the Royal British Columbia Museum (675 Belleville St.; tel. 1 250 356 7226; fee) and the Maritime Museum of British Columbia (28 Bastion Square; tel. 1 250 385 4222; fee). Make time for an excursion outside the city: See the lavish floral displays of Butchart Gardens (800 Benvenuto Ave., off Hwy. 17; tel. 1 250 652 4422; fee).
From Victoria, follow Trans-Canada 1 as it rolls north toward the ferry dock in Nanaimo. Along the way, ride a train and hear the story of what is still the province’s largest industry at the B.C. Forest Discovery Center (2892 Drinkwater Rd., Duncan; tel. 1 250 715 1113; fee). Explore the rocks and coves of Newcastle Island Provincial Marine Park (by passenger ferry, tel. 1 250 754 7893), or visit The Bastion, a wooden gun tower built in 1853 to protect the harbor. Learn about coal mines at the Nanaimo District Museum (100 Museum Way; tel. 1 250 753 1821; fee).
Head to the ferry dock (tel. 1 250 386 3431 or 888 223 3779) and back to the mainland for an excursion among glaciers. Disembark at Horseshoe Bay, turn north, and follow the coast road along spectacular Howe Sound, one of British Columbia’s trademark fjords. The glaciers that carved this narrow channel also smoothed the rocks on both sides, exposing valuable ore near Britannia. The copper mine here once employed 60,000 people and turned out over 50 million tons of concentrate. Now it houses the B.C. Museum of Mining (Britannia Beach; tel. 1 604 896 4044; fee).
Shannon Falls Provincial Park
A few miles (five kilometers) farther, at Shannon Falls Provincial Park (tel. 1 604 986 9371), walk the short trail to British Columbia’s third highest waterfall (1,100 feet/335 meters). The lookout point is set among tall cedar and fir, which seem big enough except for the huge stumps that tell of even greater giants that once grew here.
Past Squamish, rock climbers appear like spiders on the monolith of granite called Stawamus Chief. From here, the road begins a long climb toward the mountain and ski resort of Whistler (tel. 1 604 904 8134), also a full summer destination with restaurants, golf courses, river-running, hiking, and more. A chairlift ride to the top of Blackcomb Mountain takes you through forest and meadow to a rocky ridge a mile (1.6 kilometers) above the valley floor. At your feet, Horstman Glacier is crowded with skiers even on the warmest day. Garibaldi Provincial Park, a wilderness of glacier-clad peaks, stretches into the distance. Trails lead in that direction, and also back down the mountain.
Leaving Whistler, the highway drops scenically toward Pemberton. Take the trail at Nairn Falls Provincial Park to where the Green River’s glacial waters explode through a narrow canyon. The road lingers in the relative openness of the Pemberton Valley, then begins an ear-popping climb to Duffey Lake Pass. At Joffre Lakes Provincial Park, take a five-minute walk through the cool forest to Lower Joffre Lake and, if you continue down a steep path, thundering views of the Matier Glacier and surrounding peaks. Then it’s down and down as the road plummets to the valley of the Fraser River.
Occupying flat benches above the river, Lillooet was the largest city north of San Francisco and west of Chicago in 1860, with nearly 16,000 miners searching for gold. For a short time, Lillooet marked Mile Zero of the original Cariboo Wagon Road, commemorated now by a cairn on Main Street. At the Lillooet Museum and Visitor Center (790 Main St.; tel. 1 250 256 4308), ask for information on visiting gold rush landmarks, like the historic "Hangman’s Tree" on the hill above town, and the neatly "Chinese cock pilings" left by Chinese miners who created the piles to avoid reprocessing.
Thompson River Valley
Highway 99 crosses the mighty Fraser, then rolls through dry grassy hills to the Thompson River Valley. This is Canada’s dry belt, the parched interior, where summer temperatures rise above 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius). About seven miles (11 kilometers) north of Cache Creek, Historic Hat Creek Ranch (tel. 1 250 457 9722 or 800 782 0922; fee) was once a roadhouse and supply point on the Cariboo Wagon Road. Hop on the restored stagecoach for a ride around the grounds, which include a traditional Shuswap native winter home and the original log cabin that grew into a two-story rambling and ramshackle hotel.
Continue east through brown hills, ponderosa pine, and occasional prickly pear cactus to Kamloops. At the Kamloops Museum and Archives (207 Seymour St.; tel. 1 250 828 3576; donation), exhibits describe the city’s first days as a Hudson’s Bay Company post, and follow events through the gold rush to more recent times. For a glimpse of First Nations’ culture, go northeast across town to Secwepemc Museum and Native Heritage Park (355 Yellowhead Hwy.; tel. 1 250 828 9749; fee). View the artifacts, then step outside to an archaeological site and a reconstructed village. If the high country is on your mind, head for the ski lifts and alpine flower meadows of Sun Peaks Resort (N on Hwy. 5 to Heffley Creek, then E on Tod Mountain Rd.; tel. 1 250 578 5474 or 800 807 3257).
Empire of Grass
Leaving Kamloops, Highway 5A climbs south over the gentle hills of what settlers called the Empire of Grass. This is cattle country, where huge ranches were established starting in the 1870s. Stop in for a drink or a meal at the 1908 Quilchena Hotel (Quilchena; tel. 1 250 378 2611), and ask about the bullet holes in the bar.
At Merritt, Highway 5A joins the Coquihalla Highway, the four-lane toll road to the coast. Coquihalla Canyon is the shortest route from Vancouver to the interior. In 1914 the Kettle Valley Railway was forced through with great difficulty and expense. At Coquihalla Canyon Provincial Park, walk the abandoned rail bed to a series of four tunnels above the river. If time allows, drive up the canyon, where a footbridge offers a white-knuckled view directly above boiling rapids. Just downstream, picnic in Alexandra Bridge Provincial Park.
Harrison Hot Springs
From here, it’s back down the Fraser River Valley to Vancouver. Stay northwest of the river and follow Highway 7 to Hot Springs Road and Harrison Hot Springs Resort and Spa (tel. 1 604 796 2244), a lakeside resort with outdoor and indoor mineral soaks. The steamy water feels good on a cold day, but in summer the woodland lakes of neighboring Sasquatch Provincial Park may be more appealing.
Cross the Fraser and take Trans-Canada 1 to Langley and Fort Langley National Historic Site (Mavis St.; tel. 1 604 513 4777; fee). Formerly a distribution point for the Hudson’s Bay Company, the fort is now a living history museum set up to re-create conditions in the 1850s.
As a last stop before Vancouver, consider New Westminster, once the capital of the Crown Colony of British Columbia. Head for the waterfront and step aboard the S.S. Samson V Maritime Museum (tel. 1 604 522 6894; donation). Last of the sternwheel snag boats and deadhead grubbers, the Samson V worked to keep the Fraser River free of obstructions from 1937 to 1980, when it retired in working condition.
May through September is the ideal time to drive this 550-mile (885-kilometer) route. For general British Columbia travel information, see www.hellobc.com/en-CA/default.htm. For Vancouver sights, see www.tourismvancouver.com/visitors or visit the Vancouver Visitor Center (200 Burrard St.; tel. 1 604 683 2000). For attractions in Victoria, see www.tourismvictoria.com or visit the Victoria Visitor Centre (812 Wharf St.; tel. 1 250 953 2033). For information about the Whistler resort area, see www.tourismwhistler.com. For local weather conditions, see www.weather.com.
—Text by Jeremy Schmidt, adapted from National Geographic's Driving Guides to America: Canada