Beyond Vancouver: Exploring British Columbia and the Rockies
Vancouver frequently ranks in the top five cities in the world for quality of life, but it’s the land and water surrounding it which is the major draw for adventure seekers. Canada’s wild west is a beguiling patchwork of mountain peaks and rivers, forested valleys and creeks, lakes and ski resorts running down to the Pacific Ocean. We explore this dramatic piece of the world.
Not exactly being Bear Grylls, but wanting to get the most out of the wilderness and national parks without getting eaten by a grizzly bear or lost forever in a forest, we joined up with West Adventures to get the most out of this extraordinary natural environment on a two week trip. Here are some of our highlights.
FRASER CANYON AND THE LOWER THOMPSON RIVER
Straight out of Vancouver, you realise that in British Columbia you travel on Mother Nature’s terms. The walls of Fraser Canyon rise up to 1,000m above the river rapids, and it’s a stark, dramatic drive.
If you’ve never white water rafted before, motorised rafting on the Lower Thompson River is the ideal introduction. The rafts are larger than a conventional raft, and feel more stable. It’s the guide, not the waters, who dictates your pace.
We donned oh so flattering wetsuits to take on the turbulent waters. The cold spray as you hit the rapids brings everything into sharp focus, even as your heart is racing. Sitting so close to the water and feeling its incredible energy beneath you, is a reminder that you are at the mercy of the river.
Returning to the shore, still shivering with excitement, we camped the night at Lytton, a village founded on the Gold Rush route. It’s the self proclaimed river-rafting capital of Canada. The Lytton First Nation people call this place Camchin, which means “where the rivers meet.”
Once the darkness had fallen and our group had retreated to the tents, we sat outside a while. It had been a long time since we’d been somewhere so completely peaceful, where the only sound was the whooshing wind in the the trees.
Shuswap is a jewel of a lake, an “X” shaped body of water fed by numerous creeks and dotted with islands. The multiple species of salmon and trout make it a favourite spot for fishing; and other visitors come in the hope of spotting Shuswaggi, the Nessie-esque Shuswap Lake Monster.
Our home for the night was not besides the lake but upon it, onboard the aptly named Remote Escape. This gorgeous modern houseboat sleeps up to 18 guests in comfortable cabins and, best of all, has a hot tub on the deck.
You can slide off the back of the boat into the cold lake waters, or jump from the deck with a shriek. The water is more than refreshing, and when you can no longer feel your fingers and toes it’s time to climb back aboard and soak in the warmth of the hot tub.
Relaxing on the boat after nightfall is especially magical, as the clear night sky is pin pricked with a million bright stars. When you climb into bed, the gentle rocking of the boat leads you to a deep and dreamless sleep.
YOHO NATIONAL PARK AND LAKE LOUISE
The drive from Shuswap’s marina through the mountains is, in our opinion, one of the most spectacular on earth. You can’t possibly hope to soak in every view. Every mountain looks different in the changing light, and every bend in the road gives you a new perspective on the terrain.
We stopped to stretch our legs at the Takkakaw Falls, the second highest in Canada. The power of the water crashing onto the rocks below is humbling, the noise like the rumbling roar of a dragon.
Lake Louise is arguably the most beautiful lake in the Rockies, a photogenic, turquoise gem. It’s hard to believe that the colour of the water comes naturally.
The best way to appreciate the views is to climb, hiking high up along the trails. In a half day it’s possible to circuit Mirror Lake, Lake Agnes, and the Big Bee Hive. The physical exertion can be tiring, but the freshness of the air, and the stunning natural landscapes around you keep you pushing onwards.
The lakes here are perfect for canoeing, and indeed, that’s one of the best ways to see wildlife. In a canoe you can move quickly across the water, making little noise save for the occasional splash of the blade as it hits the water. On the lookout primarily for birds, we were blown away by the sight of a black bear. He was sat on the edge of the lake, clearly contemplating fishing but not quite ready to do it. Incredible.
BANFF NATIONAL PARK
Banff is the heart of the Rockies, and one of the very best ski resorts in Canada. But even outside of ski season it’s a paradise for active travellers; you can bike, hike, horse ride, paddle, and climb. The town of Banff is rather attractive, too.
We’d been travelling for a week, and as much as we’d loved the active, outdoor lifetsyle, some R&R will never go a miss. Enter, Banff and its natural hot springs.
Banff Upper Hot Springs sit within the national park and have views overlooking Mount Rundle. You won’t find a better location for a bath! The water is usually around a balmy 37 Celsius, and unusually there’s only the slightest smell of sulphur.
A man made swimming pool has also been built around the springs, turning it into an upmarket spa. The hot, steamy mineral water is thought to have healing properties. It certainly soothes aching muscles and relaxes a tired mind.
When you are in Banff, be sure to try poutine, Canada’s unofficial national dish. It’s a mouthwatering mixture of chips, gravy, and melted cheese, and exactly what you want at the end of an active (or spa-induced relaxed) day.
Due to the altitude, there are parts of Alberta which remain frozen, even in the summer months. The Icefields Parkway is a short drive from Banff, and is often named as one of the best drives in the world. We can see why.
The beauty of this drive comes from the glaciers, valleys, and mountain peaks which sweep for more than 200 km either side of the highway. Wherever you stop, there are stunning vistas to capture on camera.
A glass walkway -- Glacier Skywalk -- has been built in the Sunwapta Valley, allowing you to step off the edge of the cliff and look straight down on the scenery below. Here, you’ll find waterfalls and forests, wildlife, and interpretive storytelling to help you make sense of your environment.
Having seen the glaciers from above, we wanted to walk on them, to feel the crunching of ice underfoot. Experienced guides lead ice walks on several of the glaciers, including Athabasca.
The attractions of these walks is that not only do you see the glaciers up close, you learn how they were formed. Looking down into gaping chasms is the perfect starting point to learn about the Rockies’ geology, and to appreciate the tremendous power of the moving ice.
JASPER NATIONAL PARK
Every time you think that you’ve seen enough, that you couldn’t be any more impressed, Canada pulls it out of the bag once again.
Jasper’s Maligne Lake is a jewel; it sits in a glacier carved valley with many a bald and golden eagle eagle circling its skies. And, though they are harder to see, you may also spot grizzly and black bear, caribou and moose amongst the lakeside trees. Keep your eyes peeled for footprints and discarded feathers, damage to the undergrowth, and every now and then a flash of fur up ahead.
If you’re not scared of heights, Maligne Canyon is a major draw. Water has cut a 50 m deep crevasse through the limestone. You can hike your way down or, with equal bravery, stand and look down from the edge. It’s nail biting but well worth it to see the waterfalls from above.
WELLS GREY AND CLEARWATER LAKE
Having premiered our paddling abilities (or lack thereof) in Lake Louise, they were put to a rather more demanding test at Wells Grey Provincial Park. The only way to reach our campsite here was across Clearwater Lake by canoe.
We packed our luggage into dry bags, and had a reminder session of how to steer and paddle. It felt as if the trip had shifted a gear: we were definitely now in expedition mode. The rain gave way to sunshine, and for two the next two hours we revelled in being in this watery wilderness.
Our campsite at Wells Grey was simple; we had to transport everything we needed with us in the canoes. In a tent in the woods, you don’t actually need much. We cooked over an open fire and all agreed that we couldn’t remember at time feeling so at peace.
Our last stop on this incredible journey was Whistler, and unexpectedly we awoke to a wintery wonderland outside. We’d planned a horse ride which took on a new dimension as the horses stepped through ankle deep snow. Luckily, they’re used to it.
Whistler hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics, and the town is far more developed than anywhere else we’d been since Vancouver. They call it “Canada’s adrenaline capital”, and with everything from zip lines to bungee jumping, that moniker is not misplaced.
Whatever you do in and around Whistler by day, by night you’ll likely end up in a bar. If you don’t, you’re missing out; it is very much a party town.
In a matter of metres you can move from a swanky cocktail bar, to pub, to classy lounge - and later in the night it’s time to get your groove on to the tracks of international DJs. While British Canadia and the Rockies are certainly an antidote to our often hectic lifestyles, partying the night away in a selection of Whistler’s 40 plus bars might just be the perfect way to end your trip and ease yourself back into city life.
- By Steph Adams and Sophie Ibbotson
- Explore more of Canada with our Insider’s Guide to Calgary
I WANT TO GO - WHAT DO I NEED TO KNOW?
Date: West Adventures has regular scheduled departures in BC and Alberta throughout the summer months.
Price: 2019 departures of the British Columbia and Rocky Mountain Spectacular start from CA$3,119 per person.
Accommodation: All accommodation is included. You’ll spend seven nights camping, six nights in hotels, and have one night sleeping on a houseboat!
Fitness level required: The hiking, horseback riding, and kayaking can all be done by beginners, but you’ll need to be fit, healthy, and enthusiastic to get the most out of the trip.