Exploring British Columbia: two itineraries for the ultimate road trip

Whether it’s getting to know the coastal, cosmopolitan city of Vancouver or whiling away time in a rejuvenating hot spring in the Rockies, there’s plenty to experience in British Columbia.

Okanagan Valley is home to mountain lookouts, biking trails, watersports and a lively local food scene — not to mention some of Canada’s warmest weather. This is Vaseux Lake, popular for both watersports and fishing. 

Photograph by Destination BC/Grant Harder
By Trailfinders
Published 21 Sept 2021, 17:46 BST, Updated 23 Sept 2021, 15:36 BST

British Columbia is big, beautiful and captivating. At 365,000sq miles, Canada's westernmost province is almost four times the size of Great Britain, and abounds with blockbuster landscapes — think ancient forests, glistening lakes and hulking mountain peaks. But planning the ultimate road trip can be daunting, so where do you start?

We turn to travel experts Trailfinders for two adventure-packed, fly-drive itineraries that encapsulate the very best of this exciting province.

ROUTE ONE HIGHLIGHTS

Vancouver to the Okanagan Valley
Number of days: 17

This route starts in Vancouver and takes in Vancouver Island, the Sunshine Coast and the Okanagan Valley wine region.

Vancouver
Look elsewhere for your pent-up urban jungle. Vancouver famously enjoys a reputation as a kind of West Coast lotus land, an image helped in no small part by the mountains, bays and harbours that sit on its doorstep. This is a city where the big-name sights are few, but the enjoyable diversions are countless, whether you’re exploring by bike, ducking into museums or simply strolling between coffeeshops and independent stores. Don’t miss the 5.5-mile seawall stroll around Stanley Park and expect to eat well — the dining options are every bit as enjoyable as you’d expect from this city of 2.6 million.  

Sunshine Coast
This 110-mile stretch of super-sized, come-hither coastline begins across the Howe Sound from Vancouver, a little way north of the city. Covering the traditional territories of four different Indigenous groups, it combines classic BC scenery — imposing mountains, thick temperate rainforest, deep inlets — with the chance to understand more about some of Canada’s oldest cultures. You’ll be staying at the cliff-perched West Coast Wilderness Lodge, which serves up exactly what it says on the tin: the opportunity to experience the area’s wildlife-roamed scenery first-hand, with kayaking and hiking both on offer.

Whistler, the province's adventure capital, is ringed by giant peaks, drawing winter sport devotees in the colder months and trail-hungry outdoor-lovers when the snow clears.

Photograph by Tourism Whistler/Justa Jeskova

Whistler
You know what you’re getting with Whistler. The province’s adventure capital is ringed by giant peaks, drawing winter sport devotees in the colder months and trail-hungry outdoor-lovers when the snow clears. The journey here from the coast — along the scenic Sea-to-Sky Highway — has become an attraction in itself, while the resort is well geared to visitors of all interests and abilities, from serious downhill bikers and whitewater rafters to those who just prefer to wallow in the mountain scenery. And Whistler’s unusual name? It comes from the high-pitched calls of the marmots that find a home on the area’s alpine slopes. 

Cariboo
Also named after a native animal — in this case the once-abundant caribou — the Cariboo region stretches across a vast mountain-backed plateau and offers a completely different taste of British Columbia. This section of the itinerary includes three nights at the Big Bar Guest Ranch, an Indigeneous-owned ranch where you’ll have the chance to saddle up and sample the cowboy lifestyle, with daily rides into the surrounding widescreen scenery. Expect warm hospitality, big views and a touch of Wild West adventure.     

Okanagan Valley
Thirsty? You’re in luck. Hundreds of wineries line the fertile Okanagan Valley, clustered around a string of scenic lakes. You’ll have three nights in the region, staying in your choice of either Kelowna or Osoyoos (handily, both are prime locations for oenophiles). The valley is particularly renowned for its dry red and white vintages, but there’s more to the place than award-winning wines. As well as fruit orchards, you’ll also find mountain lookouts, biking trails, watersports and a lively local food scene — not to mention some of Canada’s warmest weather.       

The lakeside city of Kelowna is home to more than 30 local vineyards. 

Photograph by Destination BC/Andrew Strain

ROUTE TWO HIGHLIGHTS

Canmore to Emerald Lake
Number of days: 15

Starting over the border in Alberta, this route then heads into the Rocky Mountains, before making its own stop in the Okanagan Valley and finally travelling north to Emerald Lake.

Canmore
After arriving in Calgary and spending the evening there, the first stop on the road is Canmore, a handsome little settlement backdropped by the serried summits of the Rockies. The town sits on the edge of Banff National Park and has traditionally been seen as one of the region’s best-kept secrets, offering visitors plenty of opportunity for wilderness walks and mountain adventures. Local tours visit one of Canada’s longest caves and there’s even the chance to take a scenic helicopter flight above the majestic Rockies. The town started life as a mining hub — Canmore Museum explores this past — but its plum location has turned it into a magnet for everyone from mountain bikers to rock climbers.   

Kelowna
More than 30 local vineyards surround the lakeside city of Kelowna, meaning your time here gives the chance to sip and savour, as well as sightsee. The city itself is considered the ‘capital’ of the Okanagan Valley, but it’s a long way from being a heaving metropolis. City Park offers an attractive swathe of waterfront greenery (with its own sandy beach, no less), and the so-called Cultural District is lined with theatres, museums, galleries and public art. The sweeping outdoor scenery that backdrops daily life, meanwhile, makes Kelowna the perfect place to combine wine, wilderness and watching the world go by.

Nelson, slung along the shore of Kootenay Lake and surrounded by the peaks of the Selkirk Mountains, is home to art galleries, street musicians and craft breweries, as well as a colourful spread of independent stores.

Photograph by Kootenay Rockies Tourism/Mitch Winton/Kootenay Lake

Nelson
Slung along the shore of Kootenay Lake and surrounded by the peaks of the Selkirk Mountains, the town of Nelson feels pleasingly remote. The town’s cafes and cultural attractions fizz with life, to the point where Nelson was named the Number One Small Town Arts Community in Canada. Expect art galleries, street musicians and craft breweries, as well as a colourful spread of independent stores and more restaurants per capita than San Francisco. For outdoor nuts, meanwhile, the hiking, biking and kayaking are all top-notch.

Osoyoos
One of the prettiest towns in the Okanagan Valley, Osoyoos stretches across a narrow isthmus that bisects a large, glassy lake, the whole scene overlooked by rolling green hills dotted with vineyards. As the setting suggests, it’s a place for taking it easy. Take a wild swim in the lake, try stargazing on nearby Mount Kobau or visit Spotted Lake, a sacred Indigenous site. Back in town, meanwhile, you’ll enjoy excellent food and drink, with the valley’s widely renowned wines just waiting to be sampled.       

Emerald Lake
With its vivid turquoise waters framed by pencil-thin pines and jagged mountainscapes, Emerald Lake is the kind of ludicrously photogenic spot that has become Western Canada’s stock in trade. The largest of the 60-plus lakes in Yoho National Park is beautiful — and these days an understandably popular visitor destination — and first found fame in 1882, when a mountain guide stumbled upon it while rounding up horses. Today, the hour-long walk around its perimeter is one of the most manageable hikes in the Rockies. The lake’s remarkable colour is down to the limestone ‘dust’ in the glacial meltwaters.

These routes are highlights from the Best of British Columbia and Kootenay Rockies & Okanagan Valley Loop itineraries available to book with Trailfinders.

Read more about British Columbia.

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