Travellers heading west from Kamloops can either take the brisker Coquihalla Hwy to Hope or follow the Trans-Canada Hwy along the Fraser Canyon. This adds around 70km to the journey but the reward is seeing one of BC’s grandest waterways squeezed between the high ridges of the Cascade and Coast mountain ranges. Long regarded as impassable, the canyon has forced the highway to pass through seven tunnels and along a series of perilous rock ledges hundreds of metres above the swirling waters. The Canadian Pacific Railway and Canadian National Railway also pass this way. Beyond the town of Hope all road and rail routes combine to roll west along the Fraser’s lower reaches to Vancouver; before you enter its hinterland you might break your journey at the prim and dated resort town of Harrison Hot Springs.
Anyone travelling east–west in any sort of hurry, travels the 207km between Hope and Kamloops on the Coquihalla Hwy (Hwy-5). The scenery is unexceptional for the 68km west of the wind- and snow-whipped Coquihalla Pass (1244m) but things look up considerably to the east. Here, forests, mountains and crashing rivers add drama – despite being somewhat compromised by old mines, road-building scars, forest fire-ravaged landscapes and the devastating effects of the Pine Beetle infestation, which has often necessitated large-scale clear-cuts.
The Fraser River is named after Simon Fraser, one of North America’s most remarkable early explorers who, as an employee of the North West Company, established western Canada’s first white settlements: Fort McCleod (1805), Fort St James (1806), Fort Fraser (1806) and Fort George (1807). Having traced the route taken by fellow explorer Alexander Mackenzie across the continent, he set out in 1808 to establish a route to the Pacific and secure it for Britain against rival US claims. Instead, he travelled the entire 1300km length of a river – the Fraser – under the mistaken impression he was following the Columbia. “We had to pass where no man should venture,” he wrote, making most of the journey on foot guided by local First Nation people, pushing forward using ladders, ropes and improvised platforms to bypass rapids too treacherous to breach by boat. Reaching the river’s mouth, where he would have glimpsed the site of present-day Vancouver, he realized his error and deemed the venture a commercial failure, despite the fact he had successfully navigated one of the continent’s greatest rivers for the first time. Few people felt the need to follow Fraser’s example until the discovery of gold near Yale in 1858; prospectors promptly waded in and panned every tributary of the lower Fraser until new strikes tempted them north to the Cariboo.