By Bruce Cameron
Roads, lodges and ferries throughout BC are quieter these days. With American and international tourists staying home, many places that were almost impossible to reserve are open now and welcoming of fellow British Columbians.
My wife and I have had the good fortune to visit many incredible places in BC, and we especially love circle routes, where we can explore and travel at our own pace. Here are some of our top picks for driving tours that will allow you to start in differnt parts of the province and discover, or re-discover, the beautiful place we call home.
FROM THE OKANAGAN
Okanagan Kootenay Circle Tour (1,100 km, about 4 to 7 days)
Head north out of Kelowna toward Vernon, making a first stop at the Kangaroo Creek farm (so cute!), continuing on to the small town of Sicamous, known as the Houseboat Capital of Canada.
Go east on the Trans-Canada highway, with potential stops at The Enchanted Forest, Crazy Creek Resort and Hot Pools, and Three Valley Gap.
Once you get to Golden, turn south down the Columbia River Valley, where you can visit Fort Steele, a recreated old west town, and St. Eugene Mission, with its fascinating history and recent rejuvenation by the Ktunaxa First Nation.
Further west you come into Osoyoos down a steep switchback with breathtaking views of the Southern Okanagan desert. From here drive back towards Kelowna.
Kootenay Rockies Hot Springs Tour (800-900 km, about 3 to 5 days)
Just east of the Okanagan, dotted throughout the Slocan, Kootenay and Columbia valleys, there are amazing natural hot springs where you can stop, soak and stay.
Head east from Vernon along Highway 6, taking a free ferry across Upper Arrow Lake to Nakusp Hot Springs. Just north up highway 23 is one of our favourite hot pool spot, Halcyon Hot Springs.
Travelling south from Nakusp, Highway 6, takes you through New Denver (site of a beautiful Japanese garden commemorating Japanese Canadians who were interned during the Second World War), on to Kaslo and ultimately Ainsworth Hot Springs, on the shore of Kootenay Lake.
Further east in the Columbia Valley there are Radium Hot Springs, Fairmont Hot Springs Resort and the wild and wonderful Lussier Hot Springs, where the hot spring tumbles down into pools next to a freezing cold mountain river.
Take the Crowsnest Highway 3 back to Kelowna via the scenic Highway 33.
Starting in the Lower Mainland, there are dozens of routes to take east, north or west of Vancouver.
Sunshine Coast and Vancouver Island (400-500 km, 3 to 6 days)
Take a ferry out of Horseshoe Bay to Langdale, near Gibsons, where older readers may recall the popular CBC series The Beachcombers was filmed.
Travelling up the Sunshine Coast and another ferry later, you’ll arrive at Powell River, and a nearby recreational spot enjoyed by locals, Powell Lake, which extends deep into the coastal mountain valleys inland.
Further north, the highway ends at Lund, a picturesque town that is the unofficial start (or end) of the world’s longest highway (called 101 in the US and Mexico); it stretches from Lund all the way to Castro on Chile’s south coast.
From Powell River, take the ferry to Comox, and from there drive south down Vancouver Island, with hundreds of great spots to discover.
A few highlights include Shelter Point Distillery, just north of Comox, the Cumberland Brewing Company, discovered in a quaint old retired mining town, The Grotto Spa at Tigh-Na-Mara, and for oyster lovers, the Fanny Bay Inn on the Old Island Highway.
If you have more time, there are a number of small islands off the east coast of Vancouver Island to explore, including the gorgeous Gulf Islands, and of course, there’s the lovely town of Sidney, right near the Swartz Bay terminal, before grabbing a ferry back to the mainland.
As route travels further north, the road narrows through Pemberton and Lillooet, following the creek and river valleys deeper into the Coast Mountain range. As you carry on along Highway 99, though Cache Creek towards Kamloops, the landscape changes to higher, drier cattle country.
From Kamloops, you can either head south down Highway 5 back to the Lower Mainland, or continue further east to Highway 97 into the Okanagan. From here, drive all the way south to the Okanagan connector near Summerside, which links back to Highway 5 near Meritt, BC, home of a popular country music festival most years.
FROM VICTORIA OR VANCOUVER
Discovery Coast/Inside Passage Circle Tour (1,400 to 2,000 km, 7 to 14 days)
This ambitious route can be taken in either direction from Victoria or the Lower Mainland. But starting in Victoria, head north up the Vancouver Island Highway, stopping along the way at Telegraph Cove, and visiting via ferry Sointula Island (formerly a secretive Finnish colony), and one of our favourite places in the world: Alert Bay on Cormorant Island (home to the Kwakwaka’wakw people whose carvings and art are world-renowned).
Check with both communities to ensure visitors are welcome.
At the tip of the Island Highway sits Port Hardy, jumping-off point for the wild and majestic North Coast Trail and the port where the ferry takes you to a number of destinations, from Bella Coola to Prince Rupert and even remote Haida Gwaii. For this circle route, ferry to Bella Coola, located deep in the inlet of Bentinck Arm. Be sure to stop at Tweedsmuir Provincial Park. Nearby Tweedsmuir Lodge offers popular bear-watching river tours in the the fall.
Further east on Highway 20 is Anahim Lake, the birthplace of Olympic Gold Medal-winning Canadian NHL goaltender Carey Price.
For those with a little more time on their hands, extend the trip by taking the ferry from Port Hardy to Prince Rupert, through the fjords of the inside passage, before heading inland to Prince George and through the Cariboo region back south to the Lower Mainland.
Pacific Marine Circle Route (275 km, 2 to 4 days)
This route takes you west of Victoria through towns on the edge of the Juan de Fuca Strait, separating Canada from Washington State. The highway winds through small towns like Sooke and Port Renfrew and past spectacular beaches and trails.
China Beach and Botanical Beach stand out, as does Avatar Grove near Port Renfrew. Heading north from Port Renfrew, arrive in the idyllic Cowichan Valley, with its many wineries, craft brewers and farms to visit near Duncan.
South of Duncan, en route back to Victoria, you drive up and over the Malahat with its breathtaking views.
Consider stops at Averill Creek Vineyard near Cowichan Lake, Red Arrow Brewing Company in Duncan and the Villa Eyrie Resort, perched on the mountains overlooking the Saanich Inlet near Goldstream Provincial Park.
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