World famous canoe routes, cattle ranching, Gold Rush trails, rainforests and spirit bears, the diverse makeup of the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast is an explorer’s dream. For its vast area, there are few main highways or paved roads running through the region. However, thousands of kilometres of backroads abound and it would be easy to lose yourself for days, or even months, discovering this unique part of British Columbia.
From the metropolitan Vancouver area, the Sea to Sky Highway heads north through Whistler to meet Highway 12 at Lillooet, continuing and connecting to the main north/south route through the Cariboo, Highway 97. Our ultimate road trip begins here. Following the highway, travellers pass through 100 Mile House, a major roadhouse and supply point for gold seekers during the Cariboo Gold Rush. Just before Williams Lake, at 150 Mile House, venture off the highway and begin to explore secondary and backroads.
Horsefly to Barkerville
Picking up the Horsefly Road, the route heads northeast to Horsefly. While here, plan to check out Moffat Falls, just a short 7 km drive from town. Leaving Horsefly, the Horsefly Likely Forest Service Road makes its way north past Quesnel Lake to Likely, the beginning of the Gold Rush Circle Road. While this 140 kilometre (87 mile) route can be done in a little over four hours, plan to take your time and explore all this area has to offer.
The backroad trip makes its way along Keithley Creek Road, crossing the Cariboo River and following the 8400 Road. Plan a stop at the Browntop Mountain Trail, a 3.5 km (2.2 mile) hike gaining 500 metres (1,640 ft) to just below the summit. The Ladies Creek Recreation Site, a short distance further up the road, makes a good first night’s destination. Sitting right on Cariboo Lake, cast a line and nab a wild rainbow, lake trout, kokanee or dolly varden for dinner.
More hiking is on the agenda today as the road trip continues. Just north of Meaford Lake, explorers will find the trailhead to the Cameron Ridge Trails. The main hike is a 14 km (8.7 mile) trek that climbs along Cameron Ridge to the Cariboo Mountains Lookout, with a view over the north arm of Quesnel Lake. Stunning alpine meadows, glaciers, old growth forests and plenty of wildlife, including grizzly, black bear, moose and mountain goats, make this the perfect daytrip. Once back at your vehicle, continue north to the Ghost Lake Campsite at Cariboo Mountain Provincial Park. Check out Matthew River Falls and Ghost Lake Falls, while an unmarked trail from the campground leads to the lakeshore where you can launch a canoe or kayak and try fishing for dinner once again. The lake holds both rainbow and kokanee.
From Ghost Lake, the route picks up the 3100 Road heading to the historic town of Barkerville. Plan a stop at Whiskey Flats and check out the remains of a Kafue Dredge boat. Just before the end of the backroad tour at Barkerville, a road heads north to the Bowron Lake Campground, the start of the world-renowned backcountry canoe circuit. With canoe rentals available, why not spend a night here and paddle around the lake in this beautiful backcountry?
Barkerville is a historic site well worth checking out. Home to 125 restored heritage buildings, period displays, museums, pan for gold, restaurants and shops one can spend hours wandering through the old townsite and mine workings, a must see place for kids. Be sure to visit the Visitors’ Reception Centre to book a campsite or check into a quaint heritage hotel or B&B in the area.
Williams Lake to Bella Coola
From Barkerville, it is back to paved roads, following Highway 26 as it makes its way west to Quesnel. Enjoy a meal here before continuing south on Highway 97 to Williams Lake. Part two of our ultimate road trip picks up Highway 20 and heads west to Bella Coola through the Tsilhqot’in and Ulkatcho Nations’ territories. Once again, this drive can be done in under six hours, about 4 hours to Nimpo Lake and a further 1.5 hours down to Bella Coola but who’s in a rush.
The first 320 kilometres (200 miles) from Williams Lake to Anahim Lake are paved, making its way through the Chilcotin plateau. Watch for cattle and other wildlife on, and along, the road in this rancher’s paradise. If you want to spend the night here, there are guest ranches in Anahim Lake offering horseback riding excursions. Once entering Tweedsmuir South Provincial Park, the driving fun begins. Known as “The Hill”, this section of road features 11 km (6.8 miles) of switchbacks at a maximum grade of 18% as it drops into the Bella Coola valley from Heckman Pass. Those travelling with a trailer that do not plan to spend the night in the valley are advised to leave it at Anahim Lake. Note also that there is no cell service after you leave Williams Lake.
Of course, there is plenty to see along this route including a lookout at the Hanceville Rest Area and stops at Nimpo and Anahim Lakes. At Nimpo Lake, it is possible to head along backroads to Charlotte Lake where a recreation site offers a basecamp to explore the trails spread over the Charlotte Alplands. Once at the bottom of “The Hill” in Tweedsmuir, the Bella Coola Valley welcomes you as you make your way to Bentinck Arm. Hiking trails and viewpoints abound along this stretch of road leading to Bella Coola. While there are a couple of commercial campgrounds in and around the community, consider heading south on the Clayton Creek Forest Service Road (a four-wheel drive vehicle recommended) to the rustic Blue Jay Lake Recreation Site. From the campground, a trail heads north to a lookout over fjord-like Bentinck Arm or a longer trek south leads to the shores at Larson Bay.
Now on the coast, the best way to see this area and avoid driving back up “The Hill” is to book onto BC Ferries and enjoy the Discovery Coast Passage from Bella Coola to Port Hardy. The trip takes about ten hours and the ferry slows for orca whales! Check out the coastal rainforests, watch for wildlife, including the elusive Spirit Bear, and relax after exploring all the unique features the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast has to offer!
Once in Port Hardy, it is a straight run back down to Vancouver, or, is a Vancouver Island Ultimate Road Trip in the cards? Stay tuned!
Backroad Mapbooks is your partner in any and all outdoor adventures. Pick up a copy of the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast Mapbook or download the BRMB Maps web map and app and start planning your perfect road trip.