Great Roads of Western Canada - The Nicola Highway
Great Roads of Western Canada – The Nicola Highway. Click image to enlarge

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Article and photos by Russell Purcell

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Great Roads of Western Canada

I recently had the opportunity to drive across Western Canada in a high-powered sports car – a 2010 Porsche 911 Turbo Cabriolet to be exact – and during my near 5,000 kilometre road odyssey I managed to discover several roads that proved most entertaining.

British Columbia offers some of the most spectacular scenery in the country and includes everything from snow-capped mountains and lush rainforests to sandy beaches and arid desert landscapes. One of my favourite drives during the spring and summer takes me up the Fraser Canyon via the Trans-Canada Highway (Highway 1) from Hope to the small community of Spences Bridge.

Great Roads of Western Canada - The Nicola Highway
Great Roads of Western Canada – The Nicola Highway. Click image to enlarge

The sinewy highway rides along the tumultuous Fraser River and features rugged mountain scenery and lots of tunnels, so make sure your headlights are in working order. The highway is said to parallel the network of trails employed by the fur traders of both the North West Company and Hudson’s Bay Company a couple of hundred years ago. The discovery of gold in the mid 1800’s lead to the construction of the Cariboo Wagon Road and eventually, railway lines on both sides of the canyon. Both the CPR and CNR run heavy traffic through this region day and night, so spotting incredibly long trains along the route is commonplace. During the daytime keen observers may also spot recreational kayakers and commercial rafting groups challenging the Fraser River’s angry rapids as you approach the Hell’s Gate region.

Great Roads of Western Canada - The Nicola Highway
Great Roads of Western Canada - The Nicola Highway
The Hell’s Gate airtram (top), and A church at Spences Bridge, B.C. (bottom). Click image to enlarge

Once you reach the town of Lytton, the Fraser River is left behind as the Trans-Canada turns northeast along the smaller Thompson River, and for 40 kilometres you pass by steep rock cliffs, sporadic stands of evergreen trees, and small fields of wildflowers until you reach the small community of Spences Bridge. It is here where the true fun begins.

Spences Bridge is a sparsely populated community with a long history rooted in the Cariboo Gold Rush. The Cook’s Ferry First Nation (Nlaka’pamux) make up the majority of the residents, and the small church situated in the centre of town makes for a great photo opportunity. The area is famous for growing fruit and cattle ranching, but many visitors come to the region for the world-class steelhead fishing. A visit to the Inn at Spences Bridge is worth a stop as it is one of the oldest operating hotels in British Columbia, and very photogenic.

Highway 8, also known as the Nicola Highway, is a relatively short highway connecting Highway 1 and the Coquihalla Highway (Highway 5). It begins in Spences Bridge and follows the Nicola River for about 60 kilometres. This road has received significant upgrades in recent years, but seems to be somewhat of a hidden gem. I have explored its many tantalizing curves, dips and chutes in a wide variety of cars, and must admit that few highways can compare when it comes to delivering an exhilarating driving experience.

As you weave through the increasingly arid landscape admiring the sagebrush and hoodoos, you will relish the fact that there is very little traffic even when travelling in the middle of the day. On the rare occasion that you do encounter other vehicles they tend to be similarly minded enthusiast drivers or small packs of adrenalin hungry sport bike riders.

Great Roads of Western Canada - The Nicola Highway
Great Roads of Western Canada - The Nicola Highway
Great Roads of Western Canada - The Nicola Highway
Great Roads of Western Canada - The Nicola Highway
Top to bottom: The Inn at Spences Bridge; hoodoo rocks; a picnic stop along Highway 8; scenery near Merritt, B.C. Click image to enlarge

It had been several months since my last visit and I noticed that there had been significant repairs to areas where the road surface had degraded due to weathering. Another obvious upgrade was the addition of K-rail barriers along those sections of the highway where rock falls can happen as well as along the perimeter of sections bordered by steep drop-offs. I always come away impressed with the exceptional use of signage to alert motorists to road hazards, speed regulations, and of course, tight radius corners. The lack of vegetation and the relatively constant elevation of the highway as it follows the river makes visibility very good should you find the need to pass a slower vehicle or scan the road ahead for potential hiccups.

The scenery is very rustic and you will no doubt spot the ruins of old buildings and bridges along the route, adding to the western movie atmosphere. As you get closer to the community of Lower Nicola the evidence of the damage caused by the Mountain Pine Beetle becomes immediately evident as huge portions of the groves of Lodgepole and Ponderosa Pine trees native to the area appear to be dead. Farming activities become large scale and the arrival of roadside mailboxes and long stretches of fencing mark the arrival of civilization. This area is a haven for sportsmen (fishing and snowmobiling are popular activities), but after topping off with gas and a nice meal in nearby Merritt (pop. 8,000), I usually retrace my steps and tackle Highway 8 for the return trip home, as Highway 5 from Merritt to Hope tends to get congested with convoys of motor homes and heavy trucks.

Weather and road conditions through the canyon can prove treacherous during the winter months, so it’s best to explore this route during the spring and summer months. The round trip from Vancouver takes between seven and eight hours to complete.

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