The road less traveled is perfect for exploring British Columbia. This gorgeous Canadian province is a study in contrasts, from the cosmopolitan chic of coastal Vancouver to stretches of rolling wine country and the jagged glacier-draped peaks of the Northern Rockies.
While the Trans-Canada highway is the most direct route of choice for most drivers, consider dipping in and out of smaller byways, including Crowsnest Highway 3, a sturdy two-laner that twists and turns past plenty of reasons to get off the highway and explore. Here are 10 to get you pointed in the right direction.
1. Quirky Nelson
Downtown Nelson oozes quirky charm — Photo courtesy of Destination British Columbia
Imagine a college town without any students and that about sums up this oddball burg nestled in the rugged Selkirk Mountains. Once a haven for thousands of American draft resisters, off-the-gridders and commune dwellers, Nelson still has a significant crunch factor.
The main commercial drag reflects the town’s 19th-century silver mining roots, with a mix of colorful Victorians and low-rise red brick shops and cafes. Despite its small population (less than 11,000), Nelson claims more bars, restaurants, and cafés per capita than any town in Canada – just one more reason to stay a while.
2. Vancouver's amazing food scene
Art on the plate: a flower-garnished dessert at Forage in the Listel Hotel — Photo courtesy of Beth D'Addono
Vancouver deserves to have an attitude. After all, it’s just about perfect, delivering everything a big city should – including a setting that is simply jaw-dropping. But this is a city with zero pretension, despite having one of the best foodie scenes on any coast.
If you have only one day, spend it eating and drinking. Munch your way through the Granville Island market and check out downtown food trucks on a Vancouver Foodie Tour. Drink an avocado gimlet at Salt Tasting Room and dine on silky halibut and wild mushrooms at Forage, chef Chris Whittaker’s hyper-local table that celebrates all things B.C. in the art-filled Listel Hotel.
3. The great outdoors
Forested Stanley Park is a green gem in downtown Vancouver — Photo courtesy of Destination British Columbia
A second Vancouver day is best spent on the move. The city is laced with sandy beaches, wooded hiking trails, kayaking blueways, seawall bike lanes and urban gems like Stanley Park. A truly wild downtown green space with towering trees, rose gardens and lots of walking paths, the park is best explored by bike. Rent from Cycle Vancouver or take one of their well-one tours to get a local’s view.
4. Local wineries
Tasting Okanagan wine with vineyard views at Nk'Mip Cellars — Photo courtesy of Beth D'Addono
Follow a ribbon of road along fingerlike 84-mile-long Okanagan Lake into Canada’s answer to Napa Valley. Stretching 155 miles to Osoyoos on the U.S. border, the Okanagan Valley is home to 173 licensed wineries, quite a jump from the 12 that showed up for the first Okanagan Valley Wine Festival in 1981.
Tap into the province’s native culture with a stop at Nk'Mip Cellars owned by the Osoyoos Indian Band, which oversees a thriving terraced vineyard, tasting room and lovely patio restaurant overlooking the vines. The patio is ideal for sipping a glass of Dreamcatcher, a crisp white blend bright with notes of citrus and melon.
The Nk'Mip Desert Cultural Centre, off 45th St and north of Hwy 3, is a worthwhile stop for cultural demonstrations and tours of the arid ecology.
5. Splendid hot springs
Soak away in geothermal B.C. — Photo courtesy of Destination British Columbia
Geothermal therapy is just what the doctor ordered to soothe road-weary muscles. Lucky for us, the province has springs of all styles, from steamy dips tucked deep in the woods to resort pools pumped with natural, healing H2O.
Lussier Hot Springs – a top pick for beauty au naturel – is an undeveloped pool in a wilderness setting alongside the Lussier River in Whiteswan Lake Provincial Park. Ainsworth Hot Springs offers more of a resort setting with a 150-foot horseshoe cave, complete with a stream-fed cold plunge.
Radium Hot Springs, surrounded by the red walls of Sinclair Canyon, is another good option. Basically any time you see a sign that says "Hot Springs," it’s worth the detour.
6. Free ferry rides
Ferry with a view – and it's free! — Photo courtesy of Destination British Columbia
A nice alternative to driving Kootenay Pass, the Kootenay Lake Ferry is a brisk 35-minute crossing from Kootenay Bay to Balfour (north of Nelson), and it’s free!
You’ll have time to grab a coffee while you soak up jaw-dropping views of one of the largest lakes in B.C. with a bonus backdrop of the stunning Selkirk Mountains. The ferry runs year-round and is the longest toll-free vehicle ferry in North America.
7. Thrills at Kicking Horse Mountain Resort
On top of the world at Kicking Horse Resort — Photo courtesy of Leslie Veen
Situated outside of Golden, this ski resort is a real kick in summer. Take the gondola up to Eagle’s Eye restaurant – at 7700 feet, this is one of Canada’s most elevated dining experiences. You can also visit Boo the bear at the resort’s on-mountain Grizzly Bear refuge, or spend the afternoon hiking or biking on the many mountain trails.
If you’re feeling brave, take a tour along the suspension bridge which is part of the Via Ferrata climbing course along Terminator Peak’s north face.
8. The other Rockies
High in the Kootenay Rockies — Photo courtesy of Destination British Columbia
Although not as famous as Banff National Park, the rugged Kootenay Rockies are every bit as gorgeous – a pristine region of rivers, lakes, waterfalls, beaches, mineral hot springs, alpine meadows and snow-capped mountains. Travel through the National Park along the 60-mile Kootenay Parkway that traverses the western edge of the Rockies, one of Canada's preeminent destinations for hiking, mountain biking and whitewater rafting.
9. Stunning lake views
Sweet dreams at Emerald Lake Lodge — Photo courtesy of Destination British Columbia
The startling green of the aptly named Emerald Lake is the first surprise at Emerald Lake Lodge in Yoho National Park. The other is just how difficult it is to leave this charmingly rustic mountain inn, with its hand-hewn beams and massive stone fireplaces dating back to 1902.
Enjoy a game of pool, drink at an oak bar salvaged from a 19th-century Yukon saloon, savor dishes like potato gnocchi with pulled elk short rib and oyster mushrooms. A good night’s rest in one of 24 two-story cabins is the ultimate reward, each with balcony views of the jade green lake and mountains beyond.
10. Smart hiking
A guided hike with Joel Hagen delivers a real Rocky Mountain high — Photo courtesy of Beth D'Addono
Although they work on the Alberta side of the Rockies, Joel Hagen and Nadine Fletcher are two of the smartest hiking guides in any province.
Their company, Great Divide Nature Interpretation, hikes out of Lake Louise and Moraine Lake in the Valley of the Ten Peaks with full-day guided group trips offered on moderate trails – all accented by tons of interesting insight into local flora and fauna along the way. Glaciers, vaulting peaks, avalanche paths and high mountain wildlife including the occasional marmot will make this trek the best detour of all.