British Columbia (BC) is the westernmost province in Canada, bordered by the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Rocky Mountains on the other. In addition to mountains and coastline, forests dominate British Columbia's geography, creating a diverse and beautiful landscape to traverse by road trip.
Since the northern portion of British Columbia is largely unpopulated, extremely mountainous, and underdeveloped, the ideal tour would stick primarily to the province's lower portion. The two best options are to drive a loop from Vancouver, hitting the charming mountain villages that dot the Rocky Mountains along the way, or to spend your time touring Vancouver Island, known for its untamed, surf-centric beaches.
BC roads are, for the most part, well-maintained, safe, and clearly marked, but some routes are winding and mountainous. Visitors should be aware of weather conditions, especially between late October and April when snow, fog, and ice can affect the roads. Driving through the Rocky Mountains during this time is not advisable for inexperienced winter drivers.
Always check the weather forecast and the road report before traveling. For information on current road conditions, visit the British Columbia Ministry of Transportation.
Basic Rules of the Road
Driving in Canada is very similar to driving in the U.S. Canadians drive in the right lane, like Americans, but they measure distances in kilometers instead of miles. Consider these regulations:
- Drivers may not use hand-held electronic devices while driving. Talking on the phone or texting could earn you a ticket for distracted driving, which can cost upwards of $350.
- International visitors may drive in BC for up to six months with a valid driver’s license from your country.
- Driving under the influence of any substance, such as alcohol or drugs, is illegal, even though marijuana products are legal throughout the province.
- Seat belts and car seats appropriate for the age and size of your child are mandatory.
- Common speed limits in BC include 30 kmh (20 mph) in a school zone; 50 kmh (30 mph) in built-up areas; 80 kmh (50 mph) on rural roads; and 110–120 kmh (70–75 mph) on major highways and expressways. The maximum speed limit in BC is 120 kmh (75 mph).
Planning the Logistics
If you plan to fly into Canada and rent an RV or car for your road trip, the most logical place to start is either in Calgary in the neighboring province of Alberta or in Vancouver. Seattle, a two-hour drive away from the Canada/U.S. border, would also be a convenient takeoff point for a drive around British Columbia. Flying into the U.S. instead of Canada can sometimes be more convenient or affordable.
Calgary is a major airline hub that's about 118 miles (190 kilometers) from the BC border. If you arrive in Calgary and rent a car, you can make a splendid drive to Vancouver via Banff and Lake Louise, two of Canada's most stunning mountain destinations.
Camping is also an excellent option for accommodation during your trip; campgrounds in British Columbia are abundant and range in service level, from pit toilets and hand-pumped water to full washrooms with hot showers and electricity. If you plan to stay in hotels and lodges, it would be best to book far in advance, especially for summer.
Option 1: East of Vancouver Loop
This trip option, east of Vancouver, can take between five and 10 days, depending on whether you include the eastern cities of Revelstoke and Golden in your itinerary. In any case, you'll first want to get from Vancouver to Whistler along the stunning Sea to Sky Highway (Highway 99). This 750-mile (120-kilometer) route is extremely scenic, offering ocean views to one side and mountain panoramas to the other. At the end of it is the famous ski destination—Whistler—one of the best in the world and home to two mountains, Whistler and Blackcomb, that hover a mile above the village.
From Whistler, head northeast to Kamloops, (a four-hour drive). You'll see the terrain change from coastal mountains to near-desert. Worthwhile stops along the way include Nairn Falls Provincial Park, Pemberton, and Lillooet. The latter two towns were a hub of Gold Rush activity in the 19th century and are steeped in First Nations (indigenous) culture. But instead of staying in Kamloops, continue an hour past—still on the TransCanada Highway—to Salmon Arm, which is far more charming.
If you have the time, continue east to Revelstoke and Golden, two of BC's most beautiful destinations in the Canadian Rockies and home to some epic ski resorts. In this region, you can visit hot springs and provincial parks whose lakes are full of that azure-blue glacial water that Lake Louise is known for. Because of the mountainous terrain and limited roads, you'll likely want to head back the same way you arrived, on Highway 1. On the return, stop by places you might have passed the first time around, like Craigellachie and Sicamous, both sleepy-but-scenic resort and retirement towns.
At Sicamous, head south to Kelowna (a two-hour drive), also known as the gateway to the Okanagan Valley and its wine region. Sporty travelers love the wide array of outdoor activities here: hiking, golfing, boating, and more. From there, drive down through Penticton to Osoyoos, stopping at any winery that appeals to you. Mission Hill and Quails Gate are two of the better known and visually striking wineries, but there are dozens of others. You're now on the way back to Vancouver along the very southern part of British Columbia. From Osoyoos, hop onto Highway 3, through Hope and then on to Vancouver, about a four-and-a-half-hour drive.
Option 2: Vancouver Island
Known for its rugged, diverse, and beautiful geography, moderate climate, and unhurried way of life, Vancouver Island sits just off the mainland of British Columbia. It's home to the provincial capital of Victoria, but not the province's most populous city, Vancouver. Vancouver Island is fairly big, requiring about six hours to drive from its south end to its north end. It takes three hours to drive from Nanaimo (mid-island on the east) to Tofino (mid-island on the west) alone.
Victoria makes for a great stopover, with Butchart Gardens beckoning a half-day tour and Craigdarroch Castle requiring at least a few hours. There are plenty of museums to explore and whale-watching tours departing from here, too. After staying in Victoria for a night or two, road trippers can continue to Parksville (about a two-hour drive away) for sprawling, sandy beaches, then proceed for three hours to beautiful Tofino, a small coastal town with a major surf culture.
The hippie-ish town of Tofino is brimming with forests, trails, and beaches (that are slightly cold for swimming, but stunning nonetheless). It offers a diverse culinary scene and activities such as whale watching, black bear viewing, and sea kayaking. End your trip at the picturesque fishing village of Telegraph Cove or Port McNeill for a grizzly bear safari.