Soaring mountains, rushing rivers, spectacular gorges, desert panoramas and sparkling wineries dot the landscape in western Canada. The best way to see it all is by rental car. We took five days to travel from the Rocky Mountains to the west coast but it could equally have taken us five weeks.
Banff is a resort town and one of Canada’s most popular tourist destinations. It is surrounded by spectacular mountains and the Banff National Park. There are numerous hotels, restaurants, shops, spas and everything else required by visitors. We spend our day browsing, eating, and visiting the Cascade Gardens, the Parks Museum, and the terminal of the Banff Gondola.
The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel is an opulent 1888 Scottish baronial-style resort where we spend an hour or so exploring its myriad nooks and crannies. The class of the hotel is seen in its detail and we vow to come back and experience it for ourselves. Bow Falls provides a pleasant interlude just a kilometre or so out of town and the short trip along Tunnel Mountain Drive provides great views and some animal sightings.
# DAY 2 – 285km
We are on the road early with the aim of seeing bears. The Bow Valley Parkway to Lake Louise is very scenic and is a well-known wildlife drive. After 10 minutes we have seen an elk and deer. As we come around a corner two cars are stopped on the road and as we approach we see a black bear grazing just off the roadside. Fifteen minutes later the number of cars has swelled to a dozen but the bear is still there. We are satisfied.
Back on Highway 1 we climb Kicking Horse Pass, the point where the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Trans Canada Highway cross the continental divide between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and at the same time go from Alberta to British Columbia. After the top, we stop at a viewpoint to see the famous spiral loop on the railway and are rewarded by a view of an enormous freight train crossing over itself.
Field, an historic railway town with a dramatic river outlook, gives us a reason to stop as does Golden, a tidy town just off the highway. We have already passed through the Yoho National Park and now we enter the Glacier National Park. The country is spectacular and it is tempting to stop at every turn. We do stop at the Rogers Pass Discovery Centre and learn about the intrepid railroaders who built the railway through this wilderness and the avalanche scientists and others who keep this wintery pass open today.
Further on, the Hemlock Grove Trail, an interpretive boardwalk through the world’s only non-coastal cedar-hemlock rainforest, and the Skunk Cabbage Trail through a unique wetland, let us stretch our legs before stopping at Revelstoke for the night.
# DAY 3 – 320km
West from Revelstoke is the historic site of the Craigellachie Last Spike, hammered into the Transcontinental Rail Line that united Canada from coast to coast in 1885. At Sicamous we leave Highway 1 and travel south through the Okanagan Valley to Vernon. There are more than 100 lakes within a one-hour drive, world-class golf, mountain and wellness resorts, great beaches and trails, and outstanding mountain biking, but for us it is the start of Canada’s best wine country.
Kelowna, the largest city in BC’s interior, fronts Okanagan Lake and there are beaches and parks along the shore but we are not into cities at the moment so continue to tiny Peachland for a stroll along the lake edge and to grab something to eat.
The next few hours are a pure delight as we pass through orchards and explore some of the wineries. Greta Ranch is attractively set high above the lake. At Dirty Laundry Winery you pass under a washing line hung with underwear to get into the tasting room and restaurant. Poplar Grove has a beautiful building high above Penticton and a great cabernet franc wine. In Penticton we catch a glimpse of the old stern-wheeler boat but have no time to explore the Naramata Bench wineries before pushing on to Osoyoos for the night.
Here we find the splendid Waterfront Beach Resort and decide to stay for two nights in absolute luxury. The resort has lake frontage and the views from our huge balcony are stunning. This is Canada’s warmest lake and the area calls itself Canada’s only desert but to us it is paradise. We lap up the space, have a great meal in the restaurant and sleep happily.
# DAY 4 – 50 km
After a lazy start we explore some of the local attractions. The spectacular Desert Cultural Centre which is at Nk’MIP has a museum and interesting walk with First Nations guides. The Desert Centre is a not for profit boardwalk that meanders through the desert and provides an opportunity to learn about this ecosystem. The Model Railway with more than 40 computer controlled trains running through European style towns and landscape is quite remarkable and well worth the stop.
The wineries call us back this afternoon. We go to Oliver, which calls itself the wine capital of Canada, before visiting Hester Creek winery, Road 13 winery with its spectacular tasting room, Church and State winery with its dramatic indoor/outdoor tasting area, and Black Hills winery with its award winning tasting area and wine shop. We finally stumble back to the resort, enjoy a massage and sleep like babies.
# DAY 5 – 395km
Reluctantly we leave Osoyoos and make a stop after 20 minutes at cute Keremeos, a vibrant agricultural community located in the beautiful Similkameen Valley. There is a grist mill here with well tended Heritage Gardens and a tea room. Just outside town is a hundred year old covered bridge.
Highway 3 bounces along the USA border with Manning Park the highlight as it winds through the Cascade Mountains. The park has wet coastal rain forests, jagged snow-capped peaks, alpine meadows filled with wildflowers, a chain of small lakes, and broad river beds along the valley floors. For awhile we think we were back in the Rockies but on reaching Hope and returning to Highway 1 it is clear that most of the mountains are behind us.
Bridal Falls is our last stop before the traffic volume increases and Vancouver appears ahead. It has been a wonderful 5 days that could have easily been extended for weeks.
Photo Credit – Phensri Rutledge