Western Canada #04 – Vancouver to Continental Divide

October 12, 2017  •  1 Comment

May 2017

Western Canada #04 – Vancouver to Continental Divide

After leaving Granville Island in Vancouver, and navigating through downtown we made it out onto Canadian highway 1 – the Trans Canadian Highway.  The other end of this highway is in New Brunswick Canada on the island of Newfoundland in the Atlantic ocean, but exactly where the highway ends is a touchy subject.  Up until 2002, the end of the highway was in a town called St. John’s and in fact there is a marker behind city hall denoting “mile 0” of this highway.  But, it seems, in that year the Route 1 designation was moved to an entirely different road that doesn’t even go to St. John’s and is about 4 miles to the north of St. John’s.  It’s not clear why this change was made.  So now the “official’ end of Route 1 is along “Outer Ring road” where it meets Logy Bay Road.  So, what grand attraction enticed them to select this spot as the end (or more accurately, the beginning) of a road that leads 4,800 miles to the western edge of the continent?  Well, the official “mile 0” of the Trans Canadian Highway is at the Robin Hood Bay Landfill – much to the chagrin of the fine folks of St. John’s.  I don’t know what St. John’s did, but they really must have ticked off the Highway Commissioner at some point to have their claim to fame usurped by local dump. 

But, we’re at the other end of this road which officially is in Victoria but we hopped on in Vancouver and headed east.

Vancouver to Lake Louise
01 Map 9 - Vancouver to Lake Louise01 Map 9 - Vancouver to Lake Louise

We hit the highway around 2:00 in the afternoon and slogged along with the commute traffic until we cleared the eastern suburbs of Vancouver by which time most of the other cars had exited.  The road gently climbs up and down through low mountains and the pasture lands shortly give way to pine and fir forests as we traversed ever upwards through the rolling hills.  Although pretty to look at as you drive by, no real features to stop and photograph. So, not much to report as we proceeded on to Kamloops where we’d spend the night.  Our trusty GPS took us off of Route 1 in the town of Hope and put us on the quicker route 5 for the last 2 hours on up to Kamloops.  If I had been paying attention, I would have opted to stay on Route 1 through the much more scenic Fraser River Gorge which is how I thought the GPS was routing us.  So, we missed something I’d have liked to see and photograph again.

But, it’s just as well we saved this hour of drive time as we needed to do laundry in Kamloops and the coin Laundromat doesn’t stay open very late.  Even with the hour or more we saved on Route 5 we barely made it in time.  Another person who arrived with a basket of laundry 15 minutes after we did was locked out.

Not much to say about Kamloops other than it has grown quite a bit in the last 40 years.  It sits at the confluence of the North and South forks of the Thompson River and was a meeting place for the indigenous tribes.  Later it became a major factor during the construction of the railroads around 1883.  For us, it was a place to sleep.

The Last Spike

The next morning, we said goodbye to Kamloops and, once again back on Route 1, we continued heading east into the Rocky Mountains.  This stretch of road follows the South Fork of the Thompson River on up to the Shuswap Lakes where the road leaves the Thompson River and instead starts following the Eagle River where we find more sub alpine lakes such as Griffin Lake and Three Valley Lake until we eventually cross the Columbia River in Revelstoke. 

Ever since we left Vancouver, the impression has been that we’ve been steadily climbing as we followed various rivers up stream.  This was amplified by the vegetation changing from farm land to evergreen forests, with snowcapped mountain peaks all around.  But, what one forgets if you live farther south is that being farther north has the same effect as being higher.  So, the terrain and forests in the area we were driving through look much like the Sierras in California do at 6,000 to 8,000 feet.  So, it was quite surprising to realize that we had yet to top 2,000 feet.

One interesting thing along the road we came to was the “Last Spike” park.  This is the spot where the last spike was driven completing the Canadian Pacific’s coast to coast railroad.  You may be familiar with the Golden Spike at Promontory Summit, north of the Great Salt Lake in Utah where the Central Pacific tracks from the west met the Union Pacific tracks from the east completing the United States’ transcontinental railroad.  The Canadian version, at Craigellachie British Columbia, was driven on November 7, 1885. It was driven in by one of the financiers of the railroad and marked the end of a saga of natural disasters, financial crises, and even rebellion that plagued Canada's first transcontinental railroad from its beginning. 

Unlike the Golden Spike in Utah, this one was just like all the others used to make the railroad and was made of iron.  It seems that there was a silver spike that was to be used for the occasion but it, along with the Governor General from Ottawa, couldn’t get there on the train due to weather.  So, he and the silver spike went home and the folks at the ceremony just grabbed a substitute out of the spike box.  But then they didn’t have to worry too much about someone stealing the silver one from the track bed.  But nonetheless they removed the last and second to last spikes anyway to keep them from being stolen.  What else is interesting is that the monument and the little section of track by the monument where the last spike was driven is not the spot where it happened.  The actual spot is a bit of a hike from the highway, so they just recreated “the spot” by the parking lot for easy access.  You just can’t trust anybody anymore.

Shuswap Lake
Shuswap Lake, BCShuswap Lake, BC

Near Sicamous
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Last Spike Monument
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Revelstoke, Glacier NP (Canada) and Columbia River (again)

The next town of any note we came to was Revelstoke which sits astride the Columbia River.  Yes, the same river that divides Washington from Oregon and flows next to Portland.  If you start in Portland and head upstream, the Columbia heads pretty much due east.  But before it gets to Walla Walla it takes a 90 degree turn to the north and then goes up into Canada where the head waters are.  And, right through Revelstoke.

Griffin Lake near Revelstoke
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Griffin Lake near Revelstoke
Griffin Lake reflection, BCGriffin Lake reflection, BC

Griffin Lake near Revelstoke
Green on Green, Griffen Lake BCGreen on Green, Griffen Lake BC

Once we passed through Revelstoke we actually did start to gain some altitude as the road ascended the western side of the Rocky Mountains.  The road passed along the south edge of Revelstoke National Park, through the middle of Glacier National Park (the Canadian one), through Yoho National Park and on up to the Continental divide where you leave Yoho and enter Banff National Park.

We didn’t stop in Revelstoke National Park but did make a quick stop in Glacier National park at a nondescript pull off to grab a few shots of the impressive wall of mountains in front of us. 

Imposing wall of mountains in Glacier National Park (Canada)
Highway and Peaks in Glacier NP, BC CanadaHighway and Peaks in Glacier NP, BC Canada

From this photo stop at the 3,600 ft. elevation, the road went up and down a bit and then dropped down into a valley and into a small town called Donald where we hit the Columbia River – Again.  Wait a minute. Didn’t we cross the Columbia in Revelstoke over 70 miles and several mountain ridges ago?  As it turns out we did.  It seems that the Columbia starts at a lake appropriately named Lake Columbia near Canal Flats about 80 miles north of the US border.  But from there it flows due north through Golden and Donald and 180 miles from where it started it makes a U-Turn and then heads south again through Revelstoke and on down into Washington State. 

So we followed the Columbia down to Golden where the road turned east again for the final push to the continental divide. 

The Rockies, Glacier National Park, Canada
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Yoho National Park

The Canadian government has done a fine job of protecting this vast mountain range with a series of interconnected national parks.  There is Yoho to the west of the divide, Banff to the East, Jasper to the north and Kootenay also on the west side but below Yoho.  All of these parks border each other so in essence form one large park roughly 50 miles wide and nearly 370 miles long running up the spine of the Rockies.  Like in the US, the Rockies are actually a conglomeration of many smaller mountain ranges that all together have become known as the Rockies – but we’ll just refer to the all of them as “The Rockies”.

Yoho National Park got its start when the CPR (Canadian Pacific Railroad) built a piece of the first Canadian Transcontinental Railroad through a pass here.  As we’ll talk about below, rather than blasting a tunnel as originally designed, to save time and money they just went over the top.  This decision resulted in a very steep track grade which was difficult for locomotives to climb with heavy loads.  So, thinking out of the box, the CPR built a luxury hotel and restaurant at the western base of “The Big Hill” as they called it.  Once built, they could feed their passengers in the hotel and not have to pull the heavy dining cars over the mountain.  This hotel laid the ground work for creating Mount Stephen Reserve, renamed in 1901 to Yoho National Park

The name of the park stems from a Cree expression of awe and wonder.  It lies on the western slope of the Canadian Rocky Mountains and at 507 square miles is the smallest of the 4 contiguous parks mentioned above.  It boasts vertical rock walls, waterfalls and dizzying peaks. As many of the roads to interesting features of the park were still closed from the winter during our visit, we only saw a couple of places in this park.   One was “Natural Bridges”

Natural Bridges is quite modest compared to natural bridges in other places around the world.  This one sits in the Kicking Horse River.  As the river cut down through softer rock, a section of harder rock wound up forming a sort of dam across the river.  For a long time this natural dam formed a lake with a waterfall where the river went over this ridge of harder rock.  But, the river was at the same time undermining this hard ridge and eventually punched a hole through the harder rock near the bottom of the lake.  Once the hole formed the lake drained out through it and over time erosion widened it. 

This feature is easy to see as the parking lot is right next to it and they have built a pedestrian bridge across the river just below from the natural bridge allowing you to see it head on as well as from both sides of the river.

Kicking Horse River above Natural Bridge
Yoho River above Natural BridgeYoho River above Natural Bridge

Kicking Horse river through Natural Bridge
Natural Bridge, Yoho National Park, CNNatural Bridge, Yoho National Park, CN

Emerald Lake, Yoho National Park
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Kicking Horse Pass

The road up to the continental divide is not a difficult drive.  Not too curvy but you do gain some altitude as you are at 5390 ft. when you cross over the divide at Kicking Horse Pass.  This elevation isn’t much compared to the Sierras and other mountain ranges but it sure does look high.  When we came through they were doing a lot of construction around the summit so the visitor center, picnic area and all the parking lots were closed off curtailing photo ops.

Kicking Horse Pass is a National Historic Site (what isn’t these days).  The pass was first explored by Europeans in 1858.  Both the pass and the river valley it uses on the west side were named after James Hector, a naturalist, geologist, and surgeon who was a member of the expedition.  It seems that poor James was kicked by his horse while exploring the region and thus the name of the pass was made.

This pass is where the first Canadian transcontinental rail line crossed the continental divide.  The rail line was constructed by the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) with this section between Lake Louise, Alberta and Field, British Columbia was built 1886.  The original plan was for the railroad to cross farther north over the much lower Yellowhead pass at 3711 feet with gradual approaches and which was much more conducive to building a railroad – not to mention 1679 feet lower.  But, the Kicking Horse route was more direct so won out.  But only for a bit.  By 1910 two rival railroads had laid track over Yellowhead pass which quickly became the preferred route.  Trains still use both passes but by far more opt for the easier (but longer) Yellowhead route.

However, the Kicking Horse is way more entertaining.  In order to save time and money during construction a decision was made to “temporarily” go over the top rather than to build a 1,400 foot tunnel through mount Stephen.  This required the single track to take a circuitous path to reach the summit on both sides and even so the ruling grade was 4.5% which made it the steepest stretch of downhill mainline on the continent.  The desired grade is 2.2% so this was over twice the recommended slope. 

The original route between the summit of the pass near Wapta Lake and Field (to the west) was known as "The Big Hill"  This steep grade required the addition of many extra engines to pull and push the trains up over the top.  But that was the easy part.  The hard part was to keep the trains from going too fast down the other side and flying off the tracks – which they did with startling regularity.  The first construction train to go down the pass ran away flew off the tracks and landed in the Kicking Horse River, killing three.  To remedy this they soon added three “runaway” sidings on the way down which were short spurs with that went up a steep slope.  The switches to these spurs were kept in the uphill position until the operator was satisfied that the train descending the grade towards him was not out of control. Speed was restricted to eight miles per hour for passenger trains and six for freight, and elaborate brake testing was required of trains prior to descending the hill. Nevertheless, disasters occurred with dismaying frequency.

But, we North Americans are an enterprising sort and in 1909 they opened the solution.  Two spiral tunnels were constructed.  These tunnels were dug inside of the mountains where they curve around 270 degrees and come out about 50 feet higher than they went in.  In each case the tracks literally cross over themselves near the entrances.  These tunnels each added around 3,000 feet of track and resulted in a much less aggressive grade of 2.2%. 

However, that part about going over the top being a temporary thing?  Well, with the Yellowhead route taking most of the traffic, boring the originally planned tunnel sort of never happened.

The Trans-Canada Highway was constructed here in 1962 essentially following the original CPR route. It reaches its highest point at the Kicking Horse Pass – the continental divide - with an elevation 5,390 ft.

Black Bear walking the CPR track over Kicking Horse Pass
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I hope you enjoyed reading this episode of our Western Canada trip and that you’ll come back for the rest of our journey.  Next time we’ll be entering Banff national Park and will be visiting Lake Louise as well as other Banff attractions.


This blog is posted at: 


Or, this whole series at:


These and other Images of this trip are posted in a New Zealand Gallery on my website. 

          https://www.danhartfordphoto.com/western-canada-2017-05   (all images)

          https://www.danhartfordphoto.com/western-canada-favs-2017-05  (subset of images)

Thanks for reading – Dan

(Info from Wikipedia and pamphlets gathered at various sites along the way along with attraction websites)



Bruce McGurk(non-registered)
Great shots, Dan! That is an area I've been wanting to get back to. I was in the Banff area a few years ago and our tour took us up 93, the Icefields Parkway. Wonderful snowy shots of every kind of glacier you could want!
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