Coast Mountain Circle Route

Winter on BC's Coast Mountain loop

Combining some of BC's most stunning scenery, the Coast Mountain Circle Route is a fantastic roadtrip. From the lush coast and forests around Vancouver to the towering mountains of Whistler to the arid ranchlands and sculpted canyons of Lillooet and Lytton, there's an adventure waiting around almost every bend of highway. At only 700km (430 miles) it's possible to tackle it in a long day's drive, but with numerous sights and stops and side trips we recommend at least 3–7 days.

This winter we teamed up with BMW Canada to take the exhilarating new X3 out for a spin. It was the perfect car for the varied terrain and conditions — from the city to icy freeways to dusty backroads, it was nice driving something so comfortable and capable. And with the snow-packed passes and frosty deserts we couldn't have appreciated the heated steering wheel more. Onward!

Driving the Duffy Lake Road with BMW

Vancouver to Whistler

While you can drive the loop in either direction, it just felt right to start on the Sea to Sky Highway. Crossing the Lions Gate Bridge to the North Shore, you're out of the city in fifteen minutes — it's always satisfying to round that last corner and see nothing but forests and mountains and green-grey sea spreading out before you. Hugging the shore of Howe Sound, the towering granite face of Stawamus Chief soon comes into view, then the snow-covered flanks of Garibaldi and the Tantalus Range as you begin the long climb into the massive ice-capped mountains of Whistler.

As you approach Squamish, stop by Galileo for a hot drink and take the Sea to Sky Gondola up for some spectacular views over Howe Sound. In the winter months hundreds of bald eagles gather along the Squamish River, and make sure to swing by Fergies for a bite.

There's almost no end of things to do once you reach Whistler. One of the world's most beloved ski destinations, you have a great selection of restaurants and attractions to check out. Wanting to try something new, we booked a snowmobile tour with The Adventure Group. It was fun! And I'm happy to say we only crashed once. Ok... twice.

Breakfast at Fergies, Squamish BC
Eagles and mountains on the BC Coast
Cold morning in the mountains of Whistler, BC
Snowmobiling into the mountains with The Adventure Group, Whistler BC
Snowmobiling in the mountiains

Whistler to Lillooet

Probably the most scenic section of the loop, the drive from Whistler to Lillooet is truly magnificent. Leaving Whistler, you pass through the towns of Pemberton and Mt Currie and the silt-coloured Lillooet Lake before quickly climbing a set of hairpin curves onto the mountainous Duffy Lake Road. As you ascend the forests change from thick coastal firs to hemlock to scattered pine as you cross the rainshadow and start descending into the arid interior. Broad valleys are replaced by narrow canyons, avalanche chutes by tumbling rockfalls, sloping mountains by steep rock faces. By the time you leave the Cayoosh Mountains you've entered into a whole new country.

There are many great hikes along this section, but few so famous as the sparkling summer blues of Joffre Lakes (which are decidedly white in winter). Stop at Duffy Lake and the scenic Seton Lake lookout at the entrance to Lillooet.

Smashing frozen puddles
Morning in the mountain valley, Pemberton BC
Driving up the Duffy Road
Snowy winter highway up near Joffre Lake, BC
At the second lake on our snowy hike up Joffre
Snow crystals dancing in the light at Joffre Lakes, Pemberton BC
Hiking to Joffre Lakes in the snow
The magnificent Duffy Lake Road in winter
Last light on the mountains above the Duffy Lake Road
Duffy Lake was just beginning to freeze over
Last hint of light on the Duffy Lake Mountains
Snowy winter drive
Driving through the Cayoosh Mountains
Cayoosh Creek
Descending to Seton Lake, Lillooet BC
Mountain layers of Seton Lake, BC

Lillooet to Lytton

The landscapes between Lillooet and Lytton offer a startling change from the coast: bare rocky hills, rangey fields, sagebrush scrub, and cactus-lined canyons. This is the start of the historic Goldrush Trail, and where the coast mountains meet the arid interior plateau. Continuing on Hwy 99 you pass the Fraser River Benchlands, natural shelves of ancient riverbed left stranded high above the river as it slowly carved out deep canyons, and turning down the Cariboo Hwy onto the Trans-Canada you follow the Thompson River as it tumbles towards Lytton. This is some some truly beautiful country.

Be sure to take in all the scenic pullouts as you approach the town of Pavillion. Stop in at the historic Hat Creek Ranch (sadly, only open in the summer) for a taste of the old gold rush wagon routes, and marvel at the barren landscapes around Cache Creek. Stop in at Goldpan and Skihist Provincial Parks, and marvel at the confluence of the clear blue Thompson and the muddy Fraser at Lytton, which offers some world-class rafting in the warmer months.

Old bridges in the desert outside Lillooet BC
Friendly roadside horses in the Fraser Canyon
Driving the Goldrush Trail to Cache Creek
Evening in the snowy rangeland on the outskirts of Cache Creek
Winter on the range
Driving through Cache Creek, BC
Winter in the Thompson Canyon
Exploring BC's backroads with BMW
Winter roadtrip through BC's arid interior
Winter in the scrubland of the Thompson-Fraser
Exploring the Thompson River
Winter roadtrip through the Thompson
Dry grassland and blue pine mountains in BC's interior
Dirt roads through the drylands, Cache Creek, BC
Nice viewpoint of the winding Thompson Valley, BC
Crack canyon
On the lip of the canyon
Roadside bighorn sheep outside Lytton, BC

The Fraser Canyon

At one time the primary highway linking the coast to the interior, the Fraser Canyon Hwy has seen a sharp decline in traffic since the breezy Coquihalla Hwy opened. It's a shame, really, as this is one of our favourite drives. The highway hugs the curving banks of the Fraser Canyon, the mountains rising sharply to dizzying heights and looming larger and larger as you approach the coast. The narrow valley begins to open up at the historic townsite of Yale, at one time the largest city north of San Francisco and west of Chicago, but you don't get a true sense of scale until you hit the vast Fraser floodplain at Hope, the charming mountain town that marks the beginning of the rich farmland that extends all the way to Vancouver.

In summer, stop at the Hells Gate Airtram for a closeup view of the rapids which stymied early explorers and prospectors with 200 million gallons of water thundering through a 33 meter gap every minute. Visit the Tuckkwiowhum First Nations heritage site for a glimpse of life before European contact, and stroll through the engineering marvels of the Othello Tunnels.

Continuing down the highway the city slowly begins to swell around you, almost imperceptibly at first, the farming towns slowly merging one into the next. The mountains become gleaming glass towers, and traffic begins to build. You cross the mighty Fraser one last time and disappear back into the city.

Driving the historic Fraser Canyon Hwy
Evening drive down the Fraser Canyon towards Boston Bar, BC
Frosty forest-tips
Descending below the snowline as we approach the coast
Frosty trees
Blue hour in the Fraser Canyon
Thick evening fogs rising off the river
Walking down to Hells Gate, BC
The tunnels of the Fraser Canyon
On the old Alexandria Bridge
Frosty ferns in the Fraser Canyon
Stunning mountain views near the goldrush-era town of Yale, BC
Towering mountains reflected in the car
The bridge to Hope, BC
Exploring the riverbanks near Hope, BC
Hiking the hills above Hope, BC
Looking down the Fraser River as it meanders to Vancouver and the coast

Big thanks to BMW Canada for helping make this trip possible

BMW Canada