Driving around in circles

  • Aug. 28, 2020 11:00 a.m.
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~Bruce Cameron~

While the COVID-19 crisis has caused a lot of painful disruption, one pleasant side effect is the unusually peaceful roads during what is normally a busy tourist season.

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 driving 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 discover, or re-discover, the beautiful place we call home.

From the Okanagan

Those living in the Okanagan may question whether or not to even travel elsewhere given the glorious summer weather and abundance of wineries, farms and markets to sample here. But if you want to do a multi-day driving tour, here are a couple of great routes:

Okanagan Kootenay Circle Tour

(1,100 km, about 4-7 days)

Head north out of Kelowna toward Vernon, making a first stop at the Kangaroo Creek Farm, and 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 and head down through 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’ll approach Osoyoos by descending a steep switchback with breathtaking views of the Southern Okanagan desert. From here drive through the Okanagan back towards Kelowna, stopping at any of the many wineries and fruit stands along the way.

Kootenay Rockies Hot Springs Tour

(800-900 km, about 3-5 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 spots—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, you’ll find Radium Hot Springs, Fairmont Hot Springs Resort and the wild and wonderful Lussier Hot Springs, where the spring tumbles down into pools next to a freezing cold mountain river.

Take the Crowsnest Highway 3 back to Vernon via the scenic Highway 33.

From Vancouver

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, 3-6 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.

Kootenay Rockies Hot Springs Tour

(800-900 km, about 3-5 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 spots—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, you’ll find Radium Hot Springs, Fairmont Hot Springs Resort and the wild and wonderful Lussier Hot Springs, where the spring tumbles down into pools next to a freezing cold mountain river.

Take the Crowsnest Highway 3 back to Vernon via the scenic Highway 33.

Travelling up the Sunshine Coast and taking another ferry, you’ll arrive at Powell River, where a nearby recreational spot enjoyed by locals, Powell Lake, extends deep inland into the coastal mountain valleys.

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. Visit the lovely seaside town of Sidney, right near the Swartz Bay terminal, before grabbing a ferry back to the mainland.

From Victoria or Vancouver

Discovery Coast/Inside

Passage Circle Tour

(1,400-2,000 km, 7-14 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, or 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). During the COVID era, 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.

Take a ferry to Bella Coola, located deep in the inlet of Bentinck Arm. Be sure to stop at Tweedsmuir Provincial Park, and nearby Tweedsmuir Lodge, which 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 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, boating through the fjords of the Inside Passage, before heading inland to Prince George and through the Cariboo region back south to the Lower Mainland.

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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