Getting Around: Circle Routes

Posted Monday, October 20, 2014

Cariboo Chilcotin Coast, Kootenay Rockies, Northern British Columbia, Thompson Okanagan, Vancouver Island, Vancouver, Coast & Mountains, Touring & Attractions

With its dazzling scenery and miles of open road, British Columbia is prime road trip territory; but where to start?

In 2005, the Provincial Ministry of Transportation made things easier by designating and signposting nine classic BC road trips.

Each of these self-guided tours takes drivers through a slice of BC along the most interesting and scenic route. Each is well-marked along the roadside with blue, white and gold Circle Route signs; maps and step-by-step details are also available on or through local Visitor Centres.

The idea is to end up back where you started, though, of course, drivers are free to start and finish where they like and to mix and match different routes.

#1:  Hot Springs

Seven days, seven hot springs. This 852-kilometre (529-mile) drive through BC's Kootenay Rockies region visits a string of natural pools, from lavish resorts to secret dips in the woods. En route, it cruises through some of the world's most stunning lake and mountain scenery, with plenty of railway history, mountain resorts, wildlife viewing and outdoor adventure thrown in. Cranbrook, served by Cranbrook Airport, is the nominal starting point.

#2: Great Northern

The legendary Alaska Highway is the stuff of many life lists. It's also just the beginning of this eight- to 14-day, 3,195-kilometre (1,985-mile) odyssey through Northern BC and into the Yukon. The route, which also takes in the less-travelled Stewart Cassiar Highway, even includes a detour to an out-of-the-way corner of Alaska. Stone sheep, moose, grizzly and black bear, a natural hot springs pool, ancient stands of totems, legendary fishing, glaciers, the Northern Lights, First Nations culture and Fur Trade history are just some of the highlights. The route starts and finishes in Prince George, which has road and air access to the rest of the province.

#3: Heritage Discovery

From Gold Rush and cowboy country to northern forests rich with First Nations culture, from a cruise among the fjords and islands of the Inside Passage, to days of Orca watching and beachcombing on Vancouver Island, this route showcases the sheer variety of BC's landscapes, seascapes and historic sites. Starting and finishing in Vancouver, or Victoria, this 2,423-kilometre (1,506-mile) route (excluding ferry distances), can easily fill one to two weeks.

#4: Coast Cariboo 

One of the more adventurous circle routes, the seven- to 10-day, 2,113-kilometre (1,313-mile) Coast Cariboo trip takes drivers from Vancouver to the Cariboo Chilcotin along highway 99, a less-travelled back road between Whistler and Lillooet. It then follows the Gold Rush Trail through the Cariboo before picking up the winding, scenic, and storied, Freedom Road to Bella Coola, at the head of a deep mid-coast fjord. From there, BC Ferries' Discovery Coast Connector and Inside Passage service sails among the islands and fjords of the Great Bear Rainforest, stopping at remote outposts and First Nations villages en route to Vancouver Island and its capital city, Victoria.

#5: Mountains & Vineyards

A truly hedonistic option, this delightful journey follows a visit to wine country with a tour of hot springs resorts. Starting in Golden, an outdoor adventure centre in the Kootenay Rockies, this a seven- to 10-day, 1,261-kilometre (783-mile), tour of southeastern BC takes drivers along the lakes and vineyards of the Okanagan Valley , through Canada's only true desert, and past the peaks and glaciers of the Rocky Mountains. Championship golf courses, lift-accessed hiking and mountain biking, historic towns, mountains resorts and, of course, hot springs and wineries encourage lingering.

#6 Lakes & Trails

Gold Rush history, guest ranches, canoe routes, glaciers, waterfalls, trout fishing and mountain hikes reward travellers on this seven- to 10-day, 1,346-kilometre (836-mile) overland journey through the Cariboo ranching country and into the Rockies. The route officially starts at 93 mile on Highway 97 (the Cariboo Highway), though it's convenient to start and finish in the town of Kamloops, which has air and road access to the rest of the province.  

#7 Ranchlands & Rivers

From the Fraser Canyon, where Highway 1 clings high above a deep gorge through the Coast Mountains, to the Fishing Highway, a quiet back road passing more than a hundred fishing lakes, this three- to seven-day, 836-kilometre (520-mile) journey leads to many of south central BC's hidden gems. Starting in Hope, the route follows the Gold Rush Trail into BC's Cariboo ranching country, past guest ranches and spas, historic Gold Rush sites, stunning parks and countless trout-stocked lakes. En route there's plenty of opportunity to explore on foot, bike, horseback or raft. 

#8 Pacific Marine

A good choice for time-pressed foodies, this one- to three-day, 255-kilometre (158-mile) route packs in surf-tossed beaches, old-growth forest, BC's second-largest wine country, some of Canada's best restaurants and all the delights of the capital, with just a few hours of driving. Starting in Victoria, on Vancouver Island's southern tip, the route heads west, past the culinary hot spot of Sooke, to the big surf beaches of the southwest coast. It then takes a little-known forest road past Lake Cowichan to the rolling vineyard-draped hills of the Cowichan Valley wine country, then turns south and returns to Victoria.  

#9 Coastal

It is seascapes, beaches, and driftwood all the way on this route up Vancouver Island's eastern shore and back down the Sunshine Coast. Starting in Vancouver, this 566 - kilometre (351-mile), three- to seven- day route includes four ferry rides — more if you opt to explore some of the smaller islands on the way — and visits many of the places BC's artists and artisans live, work and showcase their art. Galleries, studios, funky little arts towns, stunning gardens, intriguing First Nations sites, wineries, organic farms — and two major cities — are all highlights of this seaside odyssey.


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