Explore Indigenous culture, heritage experiences, farm-fresh cuisine, and natural wonders along the legendary Fraser River.
Just a few hours from Vancouver lies a world rich with Indigenous culture, heritage experiences, and natural wonders—all centred around the mighty Fraser River. This vast river, which stretches from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Coast, is BC’s lifeblood and has played a major role in food harvesting, transport, and commerce for thousands of years.
Follow the Mighty Fraser Circle Route from Vancouver to Lillooet and back, and discover ancient traditions, historic sites, and outdoor adventures as you visit the small communities that call BC’s largest river home.
Vancouver to Pitt Meadows
Near Pitt Meadows, Pitt Lake is a popular place for kayaking and canoeing. You can paddle west from the boat launch to Widgeon Slough, where a six-kilometre hike to a gorgeous waterfall waits. Make your way to the south end of the lake, where you’ll find Grant Narrows Regional Park, a gateway to Pitt-Addington Marsh Wildlife Management Area. Use this as a launchpad to explore the wetlands on foot or bike—there are some 200 species of birds and waterfowl, and 29 mammal species to view along the way. (Note that the boat launch is temporarily closed during the summer of 2020.)
Be sure to stop by Osprey Village for a coffee or Buddha bowl at family-run Stomping Grounds Café Bistro, or treat yourself to an ice cream at Sweet Tooth Creamery (they have Keto, vegan, and gluten free options too).
If time permits, visit Golden Ears Provincial Park for swimming, horseback riding, biking, hiking, or bird watching. You must have a BC Parks day use pass to visit the park, which you can obtain at 6am the morning of your visit. The Malcolm Knapp Research Forest, which borders Golden Ears, offers 200 kilometres of forested trails to explore. Meanwhile, Kanaka Regional Park is home to 10 kilometres of hiking trails that take you through coastal rainforests, sandstone canyons, and waterfalls (Cliff Falls is a favourite).
Maple Ridge is home to its very own BC Ale Trail, so a growler fill or a flight tasting may be in order (if you have a designated driver). If you’re feeling peckish, enjoy seafood with river views at Kingfisher’s Waterfront Bar and Grill or sample hearty meals in an eclectic atmosphere at the Billy Miner Alehouse and Café, named for “The Gentleman Bandit” train robber who frequented the area.
From Maple Ridge, continue on Highway 7 to Mission. This area is of particular significance to the Sto:lo people, who travelled down-river to these waters to trade food and goods with coastal First Nations communities.
Mission is also known as the Sturgeon Capital of the World and makes for a prime spot to book a guided fishing expedition along the Fraser River, where you can catch and release these prehistoric creatures. Outdoor adventurers can stretch their legs with a hike, horseback ride, or ride in Mission’s many parks and along mountain bike trails. Head for an easy hike or swim at Rolley Lake Provincial Park. Or, venture over the suspension bridge to view a 30-metre waterfall at Cascade Falls Regional Park.
You can also enjoy a relaxing stroll through Fraser River Heritage Park, then sample West Coast fare at the Blackberry Kitchen Restaurant, a quaint log cabin located in the park where you can dine in or grab picnic goodies to go. The Mission Springs Brewery, one of BC’s oldest brewhouses, offers a fun and eclectic atmosphere to enjoy a pint and a bite overlooking the river.
There’s plenty of history to explore in Mission. To start, the 1912 Powerhouse at Stave Falls, a National Historic Site, offers an interesting look at early hydro-electric technology. Explore Mission’s fascinating and complex past at the Mission Museum, where you’ll learn about Indigenous culture, the 1948 flood, Japanese-Canadian history, notorious outlaws, industry’s impact on the community, and much more.
Harrison Hot Springs
Departing Mission, head to Harrison Hot Springs, an ideal place to stay for the night. Be sure to look up on your way to the village—Harrison Mills, just 20 minutes south, is known for its large population of bald eagles. Take your time on the way and follow the Harrison Circle Farm Tour, with visits to Kilby Historic Site, a lavender farm, an artisan cheesemaker, a coffee roaster, and more.
Harrison Hot Springs sits on the ancestral village of Qwó:ils, home of the Sts’ailes people who have long used the natural hot springs for medicinal purposes. Today, visitors can enjoy the healing benefits of the mineral pools at Harrison Hot Springs Resort (a great excuse to stay overnight). Note: for 2020 the pools are only open to registered guests and operating at limited capacity.
There is much more to the town than its namesake springs. Take, for instance, the mystery surrounding the Sasquatch (sa:sq’ets). According to Sts’ailes people, sa:sq’ets is a spirited being that watches over the land and waters, and often passed through the village in ancient times. Explore more at the Sasquatch Museum. Meanwhile, aptly named Sasquatch Provincial Park is a great place for a hike—keep your eyes peeled for these elusive creatures. If you’re looking for a relaxing beach day, Harrison Lake is perfect for for lounging, paddling, and swimming.
While you’re exploring the the village, visit Qwólts Park, which features striking Sts’ailes murals (including one of sa:sq’ets) and pays tribute to town’s deep Indigenous roots. There are plenty of eateries and restaurants in town to satisfy your appetite, including Muddy Waters Cafe (think: seasonal, farm-fresh fare) and the Village Pizzeria (think: artisan gourmet pizza).
Yale Historic Site and Alexandra Bridge
As Highway 1 winds north, you’ll come to the Yale Historic Site, which was once the largest city north of San Francisco. Its role as a Hudson’s Bay Company outpost and a main access point to the historic Cariboo Waggon Road, ensured this community was a bustling hub for fur traders and miners.
Explore the buildings constructed in the 1800s, pan for gold, learn about pioneer life, and dine at the The Ward Tea House (contact them directly for operating hours). Be sure to book your visit to Yale Historic Site in advance as space is limited.
Drive 20 minutes north of Yale to explore Alexandra Bridge Provincial Park, home to an ornate bridge that served as a Fraser River crossing for the Cariboo Waggon Road, which transported prospectors to the gold fields. When it was completed in 1865, it was dubbed the “eighth wonder of the world.” There is plenty of fun to be had at this stop, including salmon fishing, hiking, and biking.
Fraser Canyon and Hell’s Gate
With its dramatic gorges, towering canyon walls, and raging rapids, the Fraser Canyon is a visually striking drive. The vibrant Indigenous culture and pioneer history make this area as intriguing as it is scenic.
Long before the area became a fur trading and gold mining frontier, this was the home of the Nlaka’pamux people. You can learn about Indigenous culture and history by visiting Tuckkwiowhum Heritage Village, located just 30 minutes north of Yale in Boston Bar. Learn about harvesting, sample traditional fare, and take cultural workshops as you explore the ancient village site. (Note: this site is closed for the 2020 season.)
Ride the Hell’s Gate Airtram—one of the steepest, fully-suspended airtrams on the continent—to gain appreciation for the power of the Fraser River as you glide over the whitewater below. Extend your trip in Boston Bar by spending a night at REO River Rafting, who offer riverfront glamping, whitewater rafting, and yoga.
If you’re looking for a rugged wilderness adventure to break up the trip, visit the alpine meadows, cascading falls, and pristine old-growth forests of Mehatl Creek Provincial Park. This is a remote, undeveloped park so outdoor skills and experience are required and you will need to be self-sufficient to explore the park. To get there, drive northwest from Boston Bar along the Nahatlatch Forest Service Road.
Continue north to the Lytton, which is located at the confluence of the Thompson and Fraser rivers, creating a colourful canvas of swirling waters and a steppingstone to amazing hiking trails. Take the Fraser River Reaction Ferry to explore Stein Valley Nlaka’pamux Heritage Park, which has more than 150 kilometres of hiking trails, including Indigenous pictographs and petroglyphs (check for closures before you go).
To help support the local economy, stay at Kumsheen Rafting Resort for whitewater rafting and glamping. This is one of the few accommodations that survived the 2021 Lytton Creek Fire, which destroyed much of the village. Currently, efforts are underway to rebuild what was once a vibrant community with historic attractions and a thriving arts scene. Learn more about the Lytton Rebuild Fund and inspiring examples of how the community is taking steps toward recovery, such as this local cafe that is encouraging the creative arts as a path towards healing and celebrating the work of local artisans, online, at klowa.ca.
Onwards to Lillooet, a town for history buffs, wine-lovers, and outdoor adventurers alike. Though it was once one of BC’s largest cities during the Gold Rush era, the community now has a rural and laid-back feel with plenty on offer, if you know where to look.
For a taste of culture, visit some of the historical sites, like the Jade Walk along Main Street, the beautiful 1890s Miyazaki House, and the Mile “0” Cairn. You can also visit the East Lillooet Internment Site Memorial Garden, one of a number of BC heritage sites dedicated to the Japanese-Canadian families interned during the Second World War.
Discover more of the town’s intriguing past at the Lillooet Museum and Visitor Centre, located in an old Anglican Church. Soak up the history and living culture of the St’át’imc people, who have inhabited the land since time immemorial when you take an Xwísten Experience Tour. You’ll visit traditional fishing grounds, learn traditional ways of preserving salmon, and enjoy a feast. (Note: This experience is closed for the 2020 season.)
Adventurists will enjoy fishing and hiking in the area. For a fun day trip, take a quaint two-car train through the dramatic mountain passes between Lillooet and Seton Portage on the Kaoham Shuttle. (Note: this service is temporarily closed.)
Lillooet’s unassuming foodie scene might surprise you. It’s home to two wineries: Cliff and Gorge Vineyard and Fort Berens Estate Winery (be sure to dine at their restaurant). And, the coffee’s great too. Visit Abundance Artisan Bakery and D’Oro Coffee Lounge for your java. The arid climate in Lillooet is perfect for agriculture and there are a number of farms to visit in the area.
Make this your turn-around point as you head toward Hope.
Hope is a picturesque community, set against the backdrop of the Cascade Mountains and fringed by the Fraser River and Kawkawa Lake. This is well worth the stop for home-cooked meals and outdoor adventure.
Pay a visit to the Japanese Friendship Garden in Hope Memorial park and view the 80-plus chainsaw carvings that are scattered throughout downtown as you make your way to grab giant apple fritters at the Rolling Pin Bakery (pre-orders are recommended). And, if you’re a Rambo fan, you can visit the locations featured in the blockbuster film First Blood (including a newly minted statue of Rambo himself). Since you’re still in gold country, try your hand at DIY gold panning down by the river. Speaking of rivers, you can also take a jet boat tour to experience the Fraser’s fury up-close. Pay a visit to check out Hope’s new brewery, Mountainview Brewing Co. (opening September 2020).
Capture panoramic vistas of the Fraser River from high atop the Hope Lookout Trail. Nearby Coquihalla Provincial Park is a popular stop to visit the Othello Tunnels, which were blasted out of solid cliffs. (Note: this park is temporarily closed.) Silver Lake Provincial Park, located just 12 kilometres southwest of Hope in the Skagit Valley and offers a spectacular mountain setting for outdoor fun. Adrenaline-junkies can also check out the new Syéx̱w Chó:leqw Adventure Park, just 10 minutes south of town in Ruby Creek, which is home to a bike park, hiking trails, a viewing platform, and children’s play park.
E.C. Manning Provincial Park is an outdoor playground in heart of the Cascade Mountains where you can enjoy wildlife viewing, hikes, fishing, paddling, and colourful seasonal foliage. During summer, many of the meadows are carpeted with colourful wildflowers, while the fall brings out the vibrant larches.
The park’s pristine forests are lined with hiking trails for all ability levels. For a moderate pace, explore Lightning Lakes Loop or Rhododendron Flats. You can tackle the challenging Windy Joe Mountain for a steep elevation gain with spectacular alpine views at the summit.
Opt to stay the night in the park’s campsites or the lodge or cozy cabins at Manning Park Resort. Away from the city lights, this is a great place to practise your dark sky photography.
From Manning Park, return back along Highway 3 as you make your way toward the Fraser Valley.
After exploring Manning Park, backtrack west along Highway 1 to the south side of the Fraser River and lush valleys of Chilliwack.
The abundance of fertile agricultural land is a boon for foodies, who can explore artisan foods, farms, gifts, and goodies along the Chilliwack’s Circle Farm Tour. For the hop-minded, the Fraser Valley Ale Trail boasts at least six breweries between Chilliwack and Abbotsford; Old Yale Brewing Co.’s Sasquatch Stout is an apt choice after your visit to Harrison Hot Springs.
If you visit in the spring, you’ll wander through a colourful array of tulips, while the summer months bring the Chilliwack Sunflower Festival. Festivals may look a little different this year, so know before you go.
But it’s not all farm and games—there is plenty of adventure to be found in the forests, mountains, and lakes. Head for a swim or paddle in Chilliwack or Cultus lakes, or try your had at rafting with Chilliwack River Rafting. Mount Cheam and Mount Slussey are also popular hikes in the area.
This is the home of the Stó:lō Nation, whose name means “people of the river” for their deep connection to the Fraser River. Learn more about their history and living culture by taking a guided tour, departing from Chilliwack.
Abbotsford, Fort Langley and Return to Vancouver
With so many hidden gems along the way, you’ll want to journey along the Abbotsford and Langley Circle Farm Tours. Think: breweries, a distillery, a goat farm, and mead in Abbotsford; and berries, an alpaca farm, and cheese in Langley. Oh, and don’t forget the wine—there are plenty of wineries to choose from (if you have a designated driver, of course).
Step back in time with a visit to Fort Langley National Historic Site, with its quaint streets lined with boutique shops. While you’re in the area, you can fit in a horseback ride or check out the Canadian Museum of Flight. Langley is also home to a staggering array of bakeries, bistros, and eateries with farm-fresh fare on the menu.
It’s now time to head west on your way back to Vancouver to complete the circle route.