Off we go…
My starting point was Victoria, BC on Vancouver Island and my destination the tiny community of Field, BC, just outside Yoho National Park, about 20 minutes from Lake Louise and only an hour from the famous Rocky Mountain resort community of Banff, Alberta. In all, the distance from Vancouver Island to Field is 855 km (530 miles) one way.
Timing the trip: how long does it take?
Yes, the trip can be done in one day. Be sure to take the first BC Ferry at 7 am!
However, given the choice, I prefer to enjoy the journey, make some stops and spend a night along the way. As this was my first time driving into the Rockies on this particular route, I also wanted daylight for the last part of the journey, the drive over Rogers Pass in Glacier National Park.
- Tip: Before you embark on a road trip through BC, check the Drive BC website for any info on the route you will be taking, including construction, avalanches, fire and smoke warnings and more.
The ferry trip from Swartz Bay, the terminal nearest Victoria, to the mainland was elating. On a beautiful sunny morning, passengers, including myself, lounged on deck, looking for ocean life along the shores of the many gulf islands. Did you know that the BC ferry to Vancouver passes through American waters? Follow the route along using your cell phone’s Google maps and GPS.
I was a little sad as we passed Portland Island in the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve, one of our hikers favourite day-trip. I had only one more trip planned to the scenic little island before the end of the 2015 hiking season, which also signals a good-bye-for-now to Brian Smiley, the owner of Ecocruising and a knowledgeable skipper who makes our water taxi rides to the islands so memorable and fun.
The fastest route from the BC Ferries Terminal at Tsawassen to the interior of BC has become easier and faster with recent changes to the road system just south of Vancouver. It requires a good eye for signage or GPS directions. I had neither and found myself on a somewhat longer trip than planned.
Traveling east on a clear day affords stunning views of Mt. Baker, the volcano-in-repose south of the Canada-US border. The 3285 metre or 10,777 foot high snowy peak is a beacon in the landscape along the Salish Shores Discovery Trail and makes for an even more impressive sight as one travels east along the Fraser River Valley.
The Cascade Mountain in Canadaf
The valley narrows. The Fraser River, whose watershed encompasses fully one-third of the province of BC, flows on your left, close to the Trans Canada Highway #1. Approaching the small community of Hope, you are entering the northern tip of the Cascade mountain range. This forested landscape with steep slopes, waterfalls and snowy peaks that often stay white well into the summer, is a major mountain range south of the border in the US states of Washington and Oregon. Only its northern tip extends into Canada and with it, the northernmost section of the famous Pacific Crest Trail. (Sadly, hikers cannot cross the border on the trail at this time, at least not legally.)
Tip: An alternate route with great hiking trails
- The drive along Highway 3, parallel to the US border, is a slower, but interesting route to the Okanagan Valley. A short side-trip to a mountain top at as you are driving through Manning Provincial Park affords fabulous views south into the mountains. In this park, hiking trails abound both in the valleys and on higher altitude. Trail maps are available at on the park website, at Tourist Information in Hope, and at Manning Park Lodge.
Hope – A little town on the mighty Fraser
A stop in the town of Hope is one of my personal traditions. It signals entry into another part of BC – away from the coast and into mountains and soon, into ranch country. Signage on the river banks as you enter the town tells you about the First Nations and the tumultuous gold rush years, a very interesting part of BC’s history! Half way down Main Street (you can’t miss it), a stop at Blue Moose Coffee is a must!
- Tip: Make time to take a closer look at this rugged landscape, stop at Coquihalla Canyon Provincial Park on the way out of Hope. A 45-minute walk will take you through the tunnels and over old railway bridges over steep canyons. Definitely worth the detour!
The big decision awaits right after Hope: should you stay on Trans Canada Highway 1 which follows the historic and dramatic route through the Fraser Canyon, the Gold Rush Trail along the Fraser River; or should you take the Coquihalla Highway 5, a newer and much faster road. On this trip, the distance I had to cover made the fast route an obvious choice. Either way, I relish the transition from forest and mountains into open grasslands, ranch country, horse country! After little over an hour on the Coquihalla, the ranch town of Merritt comes into view, surrounded by pine-trees on rolling hills. In spring and fall, the landscape is green. Summer is a light brown with temperatures between 30 and 40 degrees Celsius.
Ranch Country: Rolling Hills, Pine Trees and Sage Brush
Driving east towards the Rockies I skipped over this region, but I took my time on the way back to the coast. The areas around Merritt was the perfect location for an overnight stop. There are several perfectly good motels on the edge of town (and a Mongolian Grill right in town which I recommend, at least at the time of writing).
However, my choice is the sweet old Quilchena Hotel. Built in 1908, the hotel was part of the Quilchena Ranch until recently and is now owned an operated by the Douglas Lake Ranch, one of the biggest and among the oldest working BC cattle ranches. The Quilchena Hotel is located 23 km north of Merritt on Highway 5A, in the immensely scenic Nicola Valley. The drive through the Nicola Valley is slower than the parallel continuation of the Coquihalla, but if getting a sense of the real ranch land of BC is on your agenda, don’t miss this landscape! The Quilchena Hotel has both, simple rooms with shared bathroom – as was commonplace a hundred years ago – as well as modernized rooms with a bathroom ensuite. Dinner is served both in the restaurant and in the cozy bar, which is famous for the original bullet holes left a century ago by patrons with bad manners. In summer, outside seating in the garden is lovely and a nice stop during the day as well.
The next day, drive from here to Kamloops, a route favoured by those who appreciate the gentle pine forests and grasslands.
On to Kamloops, a much bigger town on the Thompson River. On this trip, I simply stayed on the highway which leads around Kamloops and made sure I followed the correct directions. For someone who has never been to Kamloops, its harsh, rocky and desert-like surroundings will surprise. Having visited several Canyons in the US earlier in the year, I was struck by how much this landscape resembles parts of Nevada, Arizona and Utah. For a closer look at this amazingly diverse landscape, spend time in Kamloops and take a day trip to Sun Peaks, a mountain resort at 2,000 metre or 6,800 feet altitude, which offers great access to trails through alpine meadows in summer. An excursion into a little populated area, such as “Dead Man Valley”, an immensely scenic, rugged valley north-west of Kamloops, beckons those who are not afraid to venture off the beaten path.
Changing Landscape: The Shushwap
The drive from Kamloops east leads through an area known as the Shushwap. It is named after the First Nations people who live in this mountainous, but gentler landscape, dominated by an array of lakes. The region is known for the Adams River Salmon Run, the river being one of the most important sockeye salmon breeding areas in North America. The Adams River offers fantastic river rafting and gentler explorations such as canoeing and kayaking on the lakes. Hikers find good info here. On this trip, darkness sneaked up on me, so stopped for the night in the lakeside town of Salmon Arm. Though there are several motels, they do fill up and are hard to find in the dark. Best to call ahead!
Little towns along the way…
On day 2, the landscape became ever more impressive as entered the Rocky Mountains. Almost all of British Columbia is mountainous and rocky, but these mountains are called “the Rockies” for a reason. I stopped in the small mountain town of Revelstoke (pop. 7,100) and was very pleasantly surprised. It had been a lot less attractive 15 years ago, when last I visited. The downtown was full of outdoors stores and inviting cafés along the way. A quick side trip to the ski area revealed a yet-to-be developed mountain village at the bottom of already operating ski slopes that promise a workout! Certainly, a ski-stop on the way from Alberta to BC would not go amiss. During the summer, a side trip to Revelstoke hydroelectric dam is worthwhile!
Between Revelstoke and Golden lies Rogers Pass, in Glacier National Park. The pass is a National Historic Site of Canada and there are may opportunities to stop and learn about the history and geography of this stunning area!
Further along, Highway 1 passes the town of Golden, BC (pop. 3,700). Golden, too has become a more welcoming place. In the following days, my daughter and her partner took me to ”ELEVEN22”, an excellent restaurant outside the downtown area – friendly staff and an inviting, artsy interior. I look forward to returning soon!
Past Golden, Highway #1 continues over a mountain pass. Though the road is wide and altogether excellent, I would not want to drive it at night or in bad weather. By now, high, steep mountains tower on both sides of the highway.
Along the way, I ventured into a valley north of the highway and just east of Golden. Signage for a Northern Lights Wolf Centre had peaked my interest and was well worth a visit! Wolves live all over British Columbia,
including on Vancouver Island. They are not usually seen along our hiking route, the Salish Shores Discovery Trail, but are a common sight not much further along the west coast and only a short ways north, in the Cowichan Valley and beyond. In the Rockies, they are – or at least, they should be – plentiful. The Wolf Education Centre provided information, both written and with an hourly presentation, about the risk to wolf populations. The centre’s knowledgeable staff also sought to correct notions that wolves are a danger to men. They are not. I was surprised to learn that there is really only one wolf species, namely the grey wolf. Other designations usually refer to location rather than species.
The resident wolves, all of which had been born in captivity and could not be released into the wild, excitedly anticipated their lunch and thus provided me with a spectacle that left me in awe! How high can one wolf jump? The centre offers long photography walks with the wolves where the animals can move off leash and their distinct gait and movements can be captured on camera. I can understand the attraction! After feeding, the beautiful animals settled down for a nap in their generous enclosures, and I moved on.
Driving east along Highway 1 on the road to Lake Louise and Banff, I finally reached the tiny community of Field. It would be easy to miss were it not for the Alberta Tourist Information Centre, which also offers wifi access and facilities for travelers en route to Alberta.
- Note: wifi and cell phone access are not as commonly found in this region as many of us are used to!
Field is located in an wider, flat valley. In winter, ice skating is popular, and cross country skiing and snowshoe trails are well maintained right from Field through the valley and into the mountains. In September, the community’s B&B’s and vacation rentals were still full, as was its hotel and only restaurant “Truffle Pigs Bistro“. There is also The Siding Café, which serves light meals during the day and a gas station with a convenience store which is sometimes open – or so I am told.
The Truffle Pigs Bistro’s reputation precedes it and is a treat not to be missed. It was our dinner spot the following night and though we stood in line for a while, we were served drinks while waiting and chatted with others. A slower pace is definitely the rule here! I so enjoyed the community, its location and restaurant that I booked a log cabin for Christmas time. Back soon!
Emerald Lake and the Burgess Shale
The best known tourist attraction in the area is Emerald Lake in Yoho National Park. It is only a 15 minute drive from Field. I spend a few nights at Emerald Lake Lodge, where my daughter is currently employed as manager for staff housing. The lodge and its 40 or so cabins is completely on its own on the lake and is a very peaceful location. It has not seen major changes in probably some 40 years; the term ‘rustic’ describes it well. The restaurants were excellent, the atmosphere relaxed.
A stay at the lodge is not needed to take advantage of the superb hiking trails around the lake and into the back country. The walk around the lake, accessible to anyone from the parking area, takes little more than an hour. Even when the parking lot is busy, most people come to take pictures; few actually walk around the lake, much less onto trails leading into the valleys or up the mountain side. You can easily get into the mountain scenery and enjoy the solitude and quiet.
Towering above the lake is the Burgess Shale, famous for its unique fossils. To quote the Burgess Shale Geoscience Foundation “What makes them different from other fossil sites is that a series of geological factors resulted in these soft-bodied animals (mostly arthropods) having not only the hard parts of their bodies – bones, shells, teeth – but also the muscles, gills, digestive systems and other soft body parts preserved….”. The Foundation offers guided hikes during summer, an experience that has found a place on my must-do list!
On past road trips through the Rockies, I found it challenging to find places where shorter hikes into the mountains were possible. One year, most campsites and trails were closed due to bear activity. I am told that there are few bears around Emerald Lake as there are no fish in this very cold lake. Its light green colour is explained not only by the water temperature, but also by fine rock dust that finds its way into the lake. I would like to venture further afield with a hiking companion (though Lacey, photo at top, was a fine companion, sore foot not withstanding), having seen my daughter’s mouthwatering photos of her day-hikes right from Emerald Lake! Excellent hiking maps are easy to find; try the visitor centre for Yoho National Park in the town of Field, or the Alberta Visitor Centre at the entrance to Field.
This trip was not long enough to visit Lake Louise and Banff further to the east. However, the roads are excellent and easier to drive than the route to Golden. Calgary, on the other side of the Rocky Mountains, is only 200 kilometres away.
- Tip: When driving east to west, from the Rockies to the coast and on to Vancouver Island, keep in mind that the last ferry from Vancouver (Tsawassan) to Swartz Bay (Vancouver Island) leaves at 9 pm. The drive takes you through the busy ‘lower mainland’, the outskirts of greater Vancouver, where traffic can be heavy at times and delays should be expected. Rushing to catch the last ferry is more stress than I care for on a vacation, hence my decision to take two days for the return trip as well.
Posted Dec 12, 2015 23:46