The Ultimate Thompson Okanagan Road Trip

The Thompson-Okanagan region of British Columbia is a spectacular exploration destination. From the prairie ranchland in the south, through the big recreation lakes of Kelowna and Salmon Arm, to the massive waterfalls, old growth forests and rugged mountains in the north, there are landscapes and adventures suited to everyone’s taste.

Coquihalla Highway

The Coquihalla to Kamloops

Being located in the south-central area of the province, there are numerous roads crisscrossing the Thompson-Okanagan, but for this journey, the road trip begins at Hope. This small community sits about two hours east of downtown Vancouver and is a hub for three major routes, Highway 1, Highway 5 and Highway 3, which all converge here and lead east.

Heading up Highway 5, also known as the Coquihalla (of Highway Thru Hell fame), our first stop is at the Coquihalla Summit Recreation Area. This area was established to protect the Coast-Cascade dry belt landscape and to provide a great spot to stretch after the drive from Vancouver. Depending on how long you wish to stop, there are many great hiking trails found here. Shorter treks include the 1.5 km Falls Lake Trail leading to a scenic mountainous lake from Exit 221 or travel a bit further and visit Little Douglas Lake, which is also set in the shadows of towering mountains. Rustic camping is possible at both lakes for those so inclined.

The Coquihalla continues north through Merritt to Kamloops. Those into architecture will enjoy the Merritt Heritage Walking Tour which visits over two dozen historical sites. Pick up a map at Baillie House at 2202 Voght Street. It is also possible to pick up the much quieter Highway 5A that leads through ranch country and winds past a number of pretty lakes, as it makes its way north to Kamloops. Along the way, there are some early 1900’s structures that can be spotted at the foot of Nicola Lake and Quilchena.

Kamloops features a desert like landscape with wide-open grasslands, ponderosa pine forests, sandstone canyons and chiseled hoodoos. Numerous trails wind their way up and through the hills around town for hikers and mountain bikers to explore. The community boasts a number of museums and the BC Wildlife Park (, a rehabilitation centre hosting over 200 animals and 65 species native to British Columbia. West of town, off Highway 1, a short 1.5 km trail leads to a unique hoodoo known as the Balancing Rock, while a 2 km hike makes its way to the Savona Caves, home to rock formations full of green opals and agates.

Overlanding is a growing recreation segment. Simply put, these folks travel in fully self-contained off-road vehicles, looking to explore off the beaten path, where the journey, not the destination is paramount. North of Kamloops, there is a wealth of logging roads, easily accessed off Westsyde Road leading west into the Tranquille Plateau. Numerous small lakes, perfect for wild camping, or rustic BC recreation sites offer quiet solitude, and usually some great trout fishing.

Map Courtesy of Thompson Okanagan Backroad Mapbook

Well Gray Waterfalls

From Kamloops, it is a 135 km drive north on Highway 5 through Little Fort, home to some impressive whitewater rafting on the North Thompson River, and on to Clearwater. The community is the gateway into Wells Gray Provincial Park, and some of the most spectacular waterfalls in the province. Those looking to hike can pick up the Clearwater River Trail right from town which passes Triple Decker, Candle Creek, Kettle, Spahats Creek and Moul Falls, all of which are accessible via short trails off the road leading into the park. Roads leads to the extremely popular Helmcken Falls as well as past Dawson Falls, Bailey’s Chute and to the trailhead for Osprey Falls. Plan a couple days to take all these sights in.

Helmcken Falls, Wells Gray Provincial Park

Overlanding to Revelstoke Lake

Leaving Clearwater, it is possible to head north through Blue River, Valemount and up to McBride, all worthwhile destinations with great trails climbing into the Cariboo and Monashee Mountains. Halfway between the communities of Valemount and McBride, Highway 16 heads east into Mount Robson Provincial Park, and the famous Berg Lake Trail, home to another series of scenic waterfalls. To hike this trail, a reservation is needed, booked well in advance. However, if you chose to explore this area, it means either retracing your route back down to Clearwater or making a large loop into Alberta. Passing through Jasper, Banff and Yoho National Parks and back into BC, through Glacier and Mount Revelstoke National Parks before re-entering the Thompson-Okanagan region. The Rocky Mountains are a great destination, but maybe one best left for its own adventure (

Speaking of backtracking, those without a high clearance four-wheel drive will also need to head back down Highway 5 to Kamloops, but prepared overlanders have the option of heading off the beaten path. Continuing east on Highway 5 to Vavenby, forest service roads lead down to the top of Adams Lake and through Momich Lake Provincial Park to Seymour Arm. Heading north on the Seymour-Ratchford FSR leads over Pettipiece Pass to Pettipiece and Parmater Lakes and from here, a switch backing trail leads to the western shores of Revelstoke Lake. Featuring absolutely stunning scenery, both Pettipiece and Parmater Lakes, offer great wild camping and hold delicious rainbow trout.

Heading back over the Pettipiece Pass, overlanders can pick up the North Fork Forest Service Road, following it south to the Trans-Canada Highway at Craigellachie. Check out the Last Spike Monument and the Malakwa Suspension Bridge before reaching Sicamous and Shuswap Lake. At this point, pick up Highway 97A which heads south through Vernon and Lake Country to Kelowna. Those looking to stay on the backroads can travel east on the Trans-Canada after exiting the North Fork FSR. Head to Three Valley and pick up the Wap Lake FSR, which turns into the Three Valley FSR leading to Kingfisher. From here, follow the Mable Lake Road west to Enderby.

At Enderby, plan a stop at the Enderby Cliffs Provincial Park, home to massive cliffs of volcanic rock and fossil sites. A 6.5 km (4 mile) return hike climbs 700 metres, passing a number of scenic viewpoints. Leaving the park, turn south and make your way to Kelowna.

Courtesy of BRMB Maps App

Exploring Kelowna

Plan for a few days in Kelowna as there is plenty to see and do. To the south of town, the most scenic and popular section of the Kettle Valley Railway passes through Myra Canyon, crossing 18 trestle bridges and making its way through 2 tunnels. Rent a bike and spend the day along this incredible section of rail trail.

Kettle Valley Railway

On the west side of Okanagan Lake, a series of logging roads lead through the Bear Creek Motorized Area. Climb Terrace Mountain or visit Christie Falls, an eerie spot, where a hike leads through dead-standing burnout trees to the falls. Ropes allow access to the base of the falls. Pro Tip: if you see dangling ropes at the base of the falls, watch for falling rocks caused by climbers above.

Eerie dead standing trees at Christie Falls

Found north of Kelowna, just east of Vernon off Highway 6, explore the Camel Hump and Eagle Crest Cliff Trails. But hiking is just one of the many great adventures at enjoy around Kelowna. The Aberdeen Plateau, which covers a huge swath of land in an area northeast of Kelowna and southeast of Vernon, is dotted with lakes, many stocked with rainbow trout. Or relax at one of the many beaches along the shores of Okanagan Lake and be sure to visit one of the countless wineries spread around the region.

Leaving Kelowna there are a few different options. Looking to do more backcountry exploration? Head north to Vernon and east along Highway 6 to Needles and down to Edgewood. The Burrell Creek FSR heads south, eventually reaching Grand Forks but multiple offshoots are perfect for exploring and wild camping. From Grand Forks, head west on Highway 3.

Map Courtesy of Thompson Okanagan Backroad Mapbook

Cathedral & E.C. Manning Provincial Parks

Those not taking the backroad route can head south on Highway 97 through Peachland and Penticton, picking up Highway 3A to Keremeos. Sitting to the southwest of the community is Cathedral Provincial Park. This park is home to jagged mountain peaks, azure lakes and flower-covered alpine meadows. Multiple hiking trails lead up into the mountains with routes ranging from 2 km to up to 28 km, requiring overnight treks. Pro Tip: Consider a mid-week visit as this is a very busy spot on summer weekends.

Continuing west, Highway 3 passes through Hedley and over to Princeton and south to E.C. Manning Provincial Park. This area was home to heavy mining operations and many trails running off the highway lead to old mine sites.

At Princeton, overlanders can head west through Coalmont and Tulameen, picking up forest service roads over to the Coquihalla and back down to Hope. Those continuing on Highway 3 can explore the many great trails at E.C. Manning, check out the visitor centre or drive to the Blackwell Fire Lookout before making their way back to Hope.

Cathedral Provincial Park

While brief, this road trip highlights the many unique areas spread over the Thompson-Okanagan worthy of exploring. Paddlers will find some great lakes and rivers and 1,000’s of kilometres of backroads await ATVers and snowmobilers. Wildlife abounds and there are hundreds of backcountry recreation sites, perfect for setting up an extended basecamp, with most on lakes offering some exceptional fishing.

Are you ready to explore the Thompson-Okanagan region? If so, grab a Thompson Okanagan Backroad Mapbook and log into the BRMB Maps app & web map and start planning your adventure. And don’t forget the Backroad BC GPS maps or Thompson Okanagan Fishing Mapbook when ready to hit the road!