Mountains and vineyards: On the road in BC

British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley may not be the world’s best-known wine country – but judging from the international awards increasingly raked in by the area’s 50-plus wineries, it may very well be producing some of the best wine.

It’s certainly one of the more scenic places to sip Merlot or ice wine: a chain of deep, blue, beach-dotted lakes line the valley floor, while orchards, golf courses, and vineyards blanket the surrounding hillsides.

The Okanagan Wine Country, centered around the town of Kelowna, is just the start of a seven- to 10-day, 1,221 kilometre (759 mile), self-drive tour of Southeastern BC. Called the Mountains & Vineyards circle route, and marked along the way with blue and yellow signposts, this journey takes you along Lake Okanagan, through Canada’s only desert, and past the peaks, glaciers and hot springs of the Rocky Mountains – with championship golf and outdoor adventure options at every turn of the road.

Kelowna, the largest city in the Okanagan Valley (with direct flights from Vancouver, Seattle, Edmonton, Calgary, Toronto, and Victoria) is the gateway to the Okanagan Valley. It also proves an ideal start to your trek, Circle Route maps can be picked up at the Kelowna Visitor Info Centre along Highway 97.

A brief detour along the lakeside takes you to Quails’ Gate Estate Winery, where you can sip Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in a century-old log house and admire lake views from the patio restaurant. Just up the road is Mission Hill Family Estate, a post-modern Tuscan-village kind of place, complete with a 12-storey bell tower, underground barrel vaults, and a natural grass amphitheatre. Organic wine and locally raised bistro fare are the focus at Hainle Vineyards, further south in Peachland. Summerland’s Sumac Ridge Estate Winery, where they’ve used locally grown grapes for more than twenty years, also has a bistro on site.

In Summerland, you can take a break from wine-tasting with a two-hour trip along the historic Kettle Valley Steam Railway, one of British Columbia’s few remaining fully-operational steam railways. Across the lake via the city of Penticton is the Naramata Bench, a place of great beauty and personality, and home to fourteen boutique wineries.

As you continue south along Skaha and Vaseux Lakes, the hills become increasingly arid. Although it looks forbidding, the landscape here is well-suited to classic red vinifera grapes, and some of BC’s best vintages are produced in an area known as the “Golden Mile”. Near Osoyoos, you’ll pass through the northernmost tip of the Great Basin Desert – Canada’s only true desert – home to cacti, rattlesnakes, and other life found nowhere else in the country. You can learn about these rare and endangered species at the NK’Mip Desert Centre in Osoyoos.

The route then turns east along Highway 3, the Crowsnest Highway, skirting the US border and rolling through the green hills of BC’s Boundary Country. Towns here, with their 19th-century houses and false-front streetscapes, recall the Old West. Further east, roadside signs offer borscht and perogies, a reminder of the region’s Russian Doukhobor heritage. This is especially evident in the town of Castlegar, home to the Doukhobor Village Museum and Zuckerberg Island Heritage Park, where a suspension bridge leads to a rustic log Russian Orthodox chapel.

You’ve now entered the Kootenay Rockies region, one of the most beautiful parts of the province, and home to mountain peaks, lakes, and lovingly preserved Edwardian architecture – all of which come together beautifully in Nelson, a lakeside town rich with heritage buildings and cultural life. Artists have settled here in droves, helping, at one point, to win Nelson the title of Canada’s number one small arts community.

In Nelson you can dine, shop, browse the galleries, and ride a restored streetcar along the waterfront before heading east to Kimberley, a mountain town with a Bavarian theme. Song, dance and comedy shows run free all summer in Kimberley’s town square (known as the Platzl) and a small-gauge railway runs a 15 km (9 mi) round-trip into the mountains.

From Kimberley, the route heads north along Highway 93/95, following the Columbia River and past some bizarre rock formations called Dutch Creek Hoodoos, which were formed by erosion. En route are several hot springs resorts and some of BC’s more scenic golf courses. The Columbia River Wetlands, near Radium Hot Springs, are home to countless species of birds, including large numbers of ospreys and blue herons.

At Golden, which is becoming a favorite adventure sports centre, you can take a gondola to the top of Kicking Horse Mountain for a meal at Canada’s highest restaurant, or try whitewater rafting, hiking or mountain biking in the surrounding wilds.

Golden is also where you join the Trans-Canada Highway (Hwy 1) and head east to Glacier National Park. Home to 3,000 metre-high peaks, black bear, moose, mountain goats, and more than 400 glaciers, this stunning wilderness park straddles Highway 1, so you can enjoy fabulous mountain views even if you’re just passing through. The Rogers Pass Discovery Centre (in the park) has fascinating displays about the park’s history.

Highway 1 then skirts the southern boundary of Mount Revelstoke National Park. Here you can take a 26-km (16-mi) detour along the Meadows in the Sky Parkway – a steep and winding road to Mount Revelstoke Summit, with its sweeping views of the Monashee and Selkirk mountains. To reduce the number of cars at the summit, a shuttle bus takes visitors up the last two kilometres of the road. The parkway is only open in the snow-free season, usually mid-July to mid-October.

At the town of Revelstoke, on the lake of the same name, you can stop at the Revelstoke Railway Museum to see historic rolling stock and get an idea of the amazing engineering involved in building a railroad through these mountains. There’s more railway history 44 km (26 mi) to the west at Craigellachie. That’s the spot where, in 1885, the last spike was driven into Canada’s first transcontinental railway, linking the country for the first time. The railway, and the Trans-Canada Highway running parallel, are still vital national transport links.

From Craigellachie, Highway 1 leaves the mountains and enters the pastoral green landscape of the Shuswap Valley. With 1,000 km (620 mi) of shoreline, the vast multi-armed Shuswap Lake is especially popular with houseboaters.

A turn south along highway 97 finds you back in the Okanagan Wine Country. Fortunately there are several more wineries, including Gray Monk Estate Winery in Okanagan Centre, to help you “re-acclimatize” en route to your starting point at Kelowna.

To receive a copy of the Circle Routes brochure, call 1-800 HELLO BC® (North America) or visit

Contact Information for Circle Route #5, Mountains & Vineyards:
Thompson Okanagan Tourism, 250/860-5999 or 800/567-2275:

Tourism Kelowna, 544 Harvey Ave., 250/861-1515:

Kootenay Rockies Tourism, 250/427-4838:

Quails’ Gate Estate Winery, 250/769-4451 or 800/420-9463:

Mission Hill Family Estate, 250/768-7611 or 800/957-9911:

Hainle Vineyards Estate Winery, 250/767-2525 or 800/767-3109:

Sumac Ridge Estate Winery, 250/494-0451:

Kettle Valley Steam Railway, 250/494-8422 or 877/494-8424:

Desert Centre, 250/495-2470 or 877/899-0897:

Doukhobor Village Museum, 250/365-6622:

Rogers Pass Discovery Centre, 250/837-7500:

Mount Revelstoke National Park:

Revelstoke Railway Museum, 250/837-6060:

Gray Monk Estate Winery, 250/766-3168 or 800/663-4205: