Today, dear reader, I have a special treat for you. Leigh McAdam, of HikeBikeTravel fame, has kindly agreed to share her knowledge and love for Canada’s Big Sky country. This Western Canada road trip sounds and looks fantastic. Can’t wait to try it myself.
If you’ve never been to Western Canada you’re in for a treat. Summer or early fall is the best time to visit – particularly if you plan on a multi-day driving trip between Vancouver and Calgary. If time is of the essence you can drive between the two cities in as little as 10 hours. And it’s a scenic drive for about 80% of the route. But if you have the time, plan to take three to seven days so you can get out and explore Whistler, four national parks and the wonderful Okanagan Valley.
I’m going to assume you have time on your hands.
My suggested route for your Western Canada road trip
Instead of heading east out of Vancouver, opt for the incredible Sea to Sky Highway and head north towards Whistler. In 90 minutes you’ll be there. But what’s the rush – you’re on holidays so pull over and check out Stawamus Chief. You can’t miss it. The big hunk of granite is reportedly the second largest monolith in the world. Look for rock climbers or if you’re feeling ambitious take the hiker’s trail to the top and marvel at the views.
Next up is Whistler. Stay the night. There’s a lot to do. You can mountain bike or just watch the young ones race down the hill, take a gondola ride to the top of the mountain, go for a more ambitious hike or simply stroll through town. There are loads of fantastic restaurants and a good bar scene if that’s your thing.
Continue north through Pemberton where you’ll find wide open fields and big mountain views. This is farm country. In another 90 minutes – and after a lot of elevation change you land in the small town of Lillooet.
Lillooet is a town with a past. Back in the 1850’s and 60’s the Cariboo Gold Rush was on – and over 15,000 people came to seek their fortune. Now you can visit a museum with gold rush artifacts but there are beautiful lakes and outstanding hiking in the area should you be so inclined. You won’t have to worry much about rain either. You’ve entered a different climatic zone here – one that’s much drier and hotter than Whistler or Vancouver.
The drive from Lillooet to Cache Creek is a stunning one – jaw dropping views and colourful rocks. Once in Cache Creek pick up Highway 1 and head east towards Kamloops. The country is still dry and there’s enough visual interest with mountains and Kamloops Lake that you won’t fall asleep at the wheel.
Just past Kamloops you have a choice to make.
If you continue east on Highway 1 towards Salmon Arm you’ll miss the direct route to Vernon (Highway 97) and the Okanagan Valley. You have one more choice in Sicamous (Highway 97A) to head for Vernon but the drive is longer. Otherwise Revelstoke is the next major town on the route.
I think the Okanagan Valley is worth at least a few days of your time.
In the Okanagan Valley, one of Canada’s premier wine growing regions, you’ll find over 100 wineries along the bluffs bordering the lakes between Vernon and Osoyoos. You can spend days tasting your way through the wineries – which is a delight in my view – but if that doesn’t appeal there are plenty of other activities.
This area is known for its hot dry sunny climate so boating, windsurfing and swimming are big. So is tubing. And there are wonderful bike trails including the famous Kettle Valley Railway. A particularly great way to spend the day is to rent a bike and get dropped off at the Myra Canyon Trailhead. Cycle over a series of railway trestles and then down the Kettle Valley Railway all the way to Penticton – a distance of 80 kilometers – but it’s all downhill. Get picked up in Penticton and treat yourself to a great meal at one of the wineries.
The Okanagan Valley has loads of resorts – and is a favourite place for locals from Alberta and British Columbia to visit on a summer holiday. There are plenty of people that are quite content to park themselves by a pool for a week and relax – another option for you.
Back on the road again
You’re going to have to retrace your steps to get back to Highway 1. It’s worth it, for what’s in store is mountain scenery on a grand scale beginning around Revelstoke.
Mount Revelstoke National Park can be reached as a side trip via the 26 km Meadows in the Sky Parkway, just outside of Revelstoke. The road rises 1500 meters (5200 feet) and at the top you can see dozens of peaks that are part of the Selkirk and Monashee Ranges. Get out of the car and be greeted by a carpet – quite literally – of wildflowers. They’re usually at their best in the first two weeks of August. As you climb out of Revelstoke there are several pullouts, still in the National Park, that offer short interpretative hikes. Try the Giant Cedars Boardwalk Trail to get up close to old growth forest.
Next up is Glacier National Park. It’s best known for its spectacular mountain scenery which you can’t miss on a clear day at Roger’s Pass. If you need to stretch your legs, stop at the Hemlock Grove Broadwalk Trail and take a quick 400 meter stroll through more old growth western hemlock.
Once over Roger’s Pass, an area to be avoided at all costs during a winter storm, head for Golden about an hour’s drive away. As you climb out of Golden you enter Yoho National Park, famous for its incredible hiking trails with world class scenery and the beautiful Takakkaw Falls.
Pull over in the quaint town of Field for the night – or stay in one of the beautiful Rocky Mountain lodges – Emerald Lake or Cathedral Mountain Lodge and take the time to hike some of the more famous trails like the Iceline. You could easily spend a week or two hiking in this park.
When you leave Yoho National Park you enter the province of Alberta and Banff National Park. Banff needs no introduction. You’ve probably seen the pictures. Now you’ll see the real McCoy. And wild animals – like elk, big horned sheep and bears. Plunk yourself down for a few days in Banff or Lake Louise and take in the vistas. Drive the highway up to the Columbia Icefields. Hike the trails. Drink the local beer.
The Prairie Sky
And then it’s only a two hour drive to Calgary. Some of you will be underwhelmed by the landscape once you’re out of the mountains. But I have come to love the prairie sky; it’s big and it’s blue. And the hills are rolling as you head into Calgary.
Welcome – and if you make it to Calgary between July 6th and 15th you’ll be in time for the 100th anniversary of the Calgary Stampede.
Leigh McAdam runs HikeBikeTravel, and is an enthusiastic adventurer with a bucket list that gets longer with each passing year. Be sure to check out her blog. You can reach her on Facebook or Twitter.
For even more travel photo fun, head over to another Canadian for this week’s Travel Photo Thursday.