Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Hope to Princeton to the Coquihalla

Trip Report Hope to Princeton to the Coquihalla

Hosted by Ed Pedersen

In Attendance:
Cheryl ( CJ ) Steele from Everett
Ed Pedersen from Maple Ridge BC

Pictures can be viewed at:
in the album titled Hope to the Coquihalla.

TIP: right click on the link and from the drop down menu choose:
Open in another window. That way you may view the pictures and read the story at the same time!

Well, the one good thing about a small crowd is that it's very flexible, and seeing that it was just CJ and I along for the tour today, that made changes to the agenda easy. The first one I made was to reverse the route, that way we would avoid the 35 mile long ascent up the steep Coquihalla Highway to the summit. That is a _very_ long climb and hard on vehicles, and I decided I would rather be coming down than going up.

So the route for the day was Princeton to Coalmont, then north to Tulameen, continue north past Otter Lake through the Otter Valley, then turn west along a side valley to the hamlet of Brookmere. Then rejoin the Coquihalla Hwy (Hwy #5) and follow it back down the long hill to Hope.

So CJ and I met at the rendezvous point, dilly dallied over coffee while we waited to see if any late arrivals would show up, then gassed up the Jeeps and made a bee line for Hope. Now, at this point you're asking, "why would they take both vehicles if there are only two of them? "Plain and in numbers. We were heading on a long day's journey with many miles in between towns, plus we would also be traversing 3 or 4 Forest Service Roads that put us 40 miles or so from the nearest town. If one vehicle broke down the other could go for help.

This was one of those days where we really appreciated the CB's. CJ and I talked constantly throughout the day, (OK, I did most of the talking) and at no time during the trip did we feel alone in the vehicles. We headed straight past Hope and continued driving to the lodge at Manning Park. Here we made our first stop of the day for a rest break and an early lunch. It was a little cooler up in the mountains, and we put our jackets on to keep the chill out. CJ was good enough to feed the Gray Jays that love handouts from the tourists, and after one had taken a tidbit out of her hand, it flew to the table and grabbed the small left over piece of her sandwich and took off up into the trees with it's prize.

Back on the road I mentioned to CJ that it was odd to be in the middle of the mountains, and not see much wildlife. Well, little did we know we were to get our fill by the end of the day. As we rolled along we kept watch in the fields and stream banks that bordered the road, and eventually we saw a deer or two grazing at the edge of the bushes. Who knows how many we missed!

Eventually we crested Sunday Summit and began our descent down the mountains to the town of Princeton. Being on the leeward side of the coast mountains, Princeton is a lot drier and hotter than the coast is, and certainly warmer than the alpine setting of Manning Park we had just left.

Princeton is also where we would pick up the old KettleValley Train route. In Canada they have started a program called "Rails to Trails". As old railways are discontinued, rather than tear up the right of way and build on it, the governments at all levels have banded together with local concerned citizens and have turned the old railway beds into trails. This one we were to follow was part of the "Trans Canada Trail" .It stretches from the Maritimes right across Canada to the West Coast.

The part of the TC Trail we were interested in was part of the former Kettle Valley Railway line.

In Princeton the first tour stop I wanted to make was a KVR tunnel right in town. Now, I've been to Princeton many times over the years, and I've never seen this so called "tunnel". Well, I found out why....CJ and I poked around the small town in the general vicinity of the tunnel as we tried to find it. We knew we were close cause we found the Trans Canada Trail, but, how hard can it be to find a tunnel ? I mean, come on!

Well, we finally found it, right under highway into town!! No wonder I've never seen the tunnel before, I always drove over top of it ! As Hwy #3 drops down into Princeton, it descend salong a narrow ridge of land that straddles gulches on either side. The tunnel was very long, longer than we expected; we estimated that it was at least a quarter of a mile long, and when we finally got to the other end of the tunnel, we realzied we had gone below the highway, through town, and were now on the banks of the Tulameen River!

Here we found an old railway bridge that was still in use as part of the Trans Canada Trail. We walked along the trail for a short ways, but decided that we should head back to the vehicles to continue our journey. For the rest of the day, we would be criss crossing the TC Trail at various points; sometimes we would be right beside it, other times we would be looking down into a canyon at the trail below us. All the time aware that the trail was actually the old railway bed, and it was easy to see set among the landscape as the smooth, raised bed stood out in the mountainous scenery.

Back in the vehicles we traveled out of town heading north west for Coalmont. The road soon skirted along the top of a canyon, and down below us was the picturesque Tulameen River, with the road bed and trail far below us.

As you can tell by the name, Coalmont's chief employer was the many coal mines in the area. The railways, especially the Kettle Valley Railway (KVR), bought most of the coal mined in the area. The whole area was a miners, silver, and copper ore were the main minerals in the area, and many small towns sprung up and died out as the seams of coal ran out.

Coalmont is one of the few towns to survive. A sleepy little town where every one knows your name, it looks like it's chief industry today is retirees. A close second is winter activities; every one has a ski doo or two in the back yards. The historic Coalmont Hotel, built in 1911, is still in use today, and caters to the winter crowd who love to ski doo and cross country ski.

One of the highlights of the day were the old ghost towns of Blakeburn and Granite City. We found the signs pointing us in the right direction, so CJ and I began to follow a Forest Service road as it ascended the mountains. A sign had said 8 kilometres to Blakeburn, and as we gained altitude we came across several forks in the road, some of which had directional signs keeping us on the correct heading. Along the FSR we had great views of the valleys below us, and at one point the road was cut into the side of a steep bluff; over the edge of the road was a two thousand foot drop, and the few trees on the way down wouldn't do much to stop your fall. Being the safe one I said "CJ, watch your step"!

After a few more forks and no more signs, we had reached kilometre 13 and no Blakeburn, meaning we had taken a wrong branch or two in the road. We decided to discontinue our search for Blakeburn, and headed back down the mountain, content with our short diversion along a steep FSR that gave us plenty of wonderful views.

Back down at the bottom of the Forest Road in a clearing off to the side of the road, I noticed a white cairn, and as we turned into the clearing we saw old log cabins that were falling down. We had found the old town of Granite City.
On the way up the mountain we had stumbled across the Granite City cemetery, and had wandered around looking at the old graves, but I thought that the city was higher up in the mountains like Blakeburn was. Obviously I was wrong!

We spent some time wandering around the old town site. There wasn't much to see by today's standards, but back in it's heyday the town had over 2,000 people, 200 buildings, 13 of which were saloons to entertain the miners from the surrounding mine and smaller towns.

The local heritage society is in the process of raising funds to begin restoration and salvation of the remaining buildings, but I fear they have lost more than they will ever save. However, for me this was a highlight of the trip. I have read about this place in many books over the years, and now I could cross it off of my list of places to visit.

Back down into the town of Coalmont, over the Tulameen River, and on out of town on Tulameen Road we went, heading for the much smaller town of Tulameen. Tulameen is one of those places that you can really call a backwoods hamlet. It sits right at the southern edge of Otter Lake, and is a favourite of boaters and campers who flock to this beautiful place. Interspersed along the lake's edge are old cabins and shacks that look like Ma and Pa Kettle should live in, complete with the beat up old pickup truck out the front.

Along the eastern shore we could see the railbed/TC trail etched into the bluff at water level as it stayed on the opposite side of the lake from the road. Along the western shore are newer log houses and large cabins, ones that you and I would LOVE to own.

As we traveled north along the western edge of Otter Lake, the pavement ended and a wide gravel road began. This is the main haul road south for the logging companies, so it was well maintained, but I hate dust!

Soon we reached the northern end of Otter Lake and as the lake ended marsh flats and the meandering Otter River began. The scenery in this area was beautiful, and here and there along the valley were farms and hayfields with bales of hay sitting ready for the barn. We past a cattle guard and saw a sign that we were entering the property of the Nicola Ranch. The ranch is part of the holdings of the historic Douglas Lake Ranch, one of the largest in North America. We were surprised to be this far south of the Merritt area and still be on their land, but when we remembered that the ranch has over 500,000 acres, it wasn't such a surprise.

We stayed along the edge of the bluffs on the western shore of the lowlands, and here and there small brooks and creeks flowed under the road to join the marsh area. As the road went along it oscilatted between the bluff on one side and the marsh on the other, never sure whether it wanted the safety of the dry land or the openess of the marsh land. After one bend in the road we were surprised to see a black bear in the centre of our path ,patiently waiting for us to decide what we should do. I radioed CJ to slow down and come up slow on my position so she could see him as well. I positioned the Jeep so I could snap a few pictures of him, and he alternated between running a few feet, then looking back at us to see what we were doing. After a few times playing this game, he got bored and slipped into the bush at the side of the road.

We carried on and came across a picture perfect ranch belonging to the Thynne family. They were one of the first white settlers in the area around the 1860's, and it was neat to see that the family still owned the ranch.

Another five minutes further and the road entered a small canyon, and we came upon some free ranging cattle on the road. For the next few miles we would meet more cows, and had be forced to a crawl as they criss crossed in front of the Jeeps trying to decide which way to go. Around one bend was 5 or 6 cows, and then 100 feet further down the road and around another bend was another bear ! And then another 100 feet were more cows. Whether the bear knew the cows where there, and didn't care, or whether he was looking for a meal, I don't know, but we scared him away anyways. But both CJ and I thought that was pretty neat, two bears only 10 minutes apart....most of the time if you spot a bear you're pretty lucky. My average is one a year, and I think that's good!

Further along the road one photo opportunity had me wishing for a camera that was as good and as quick as the human eye : as we passed by a small brook under the road, 30 feet off the road and lying down is a small clearing was a mule deer, just watching the traffic go by. What a picture that would have been!
It looked just like Bambi at rest.....

By now it was getting on in the day, and we were many miles north of Tulameen. I needed to find the road that would take us west over the mountain pass to the old railway town of Brookmere, and at this point I was having my doubts that my trusty instincts were to be trusted. We had passed several FSR's heading west, but none of them seemed to me to be the right one; they were either not a mainroad, or they were not far enough north of Tulameen according to the maps and books I have read. And, of course, you know I NEVER bring a map with me! "We don't need no steenkin map! "I radioed to CJ that we were at the make it or break it point; if we didn't come across the road pretty darn soon that meant we had missed it, and we would have to do a loop all the way up Hwy# 5A to the Coquihalla Connector, the head west to Merritt along the main 4 lane highway, and then south down the Coquihalla 40 miles to reach the turn off for Brookmere.

The road now travelled in a broad plain between low rolling hills, and sure enough, right in the middle of the valley was another farm taking advantage of the natural grasslands that were prime for feeding cows and horses. We stopped on a rise to take pictures of the idyllic setting, and not wanting to take too much time, jumped back into the Jeeps to continue on. No further than half a mile up the road a side road took off to the left across the valley through the grasslands, sign posted"Brookmere Road". HOORAY, we found it !!

As we ambled across the valley I noticed a colourful bird sitting on a farm fencepost. It was the size of a small hawk, and I was happy to say that I correctly identified it as an American Kestrel, a small bird of prey who loves hunting for mice and small birds in the wide openness of the grasslands. But by no means was this the only bird we saw; since we had entered the Otter Valley we were bewildered by the array of birds we had seen as we drove along, definitely more than I could name, let alone even count. And now, thinking about it, the Otter Valley is written up in the local bird guides as one of the best places to go twitching, which is what bird watchers call observing birds.

As the Brookmere Road leaves the valley it enters into an old forest, and the road was a pleasant change to drive on. Instead of dusty gravel, the road was now a small one car wide pathway covered in dirt and old leaves, and the trees created a sheltering effect as we drove along. It was such a peaceful setting that I stopped and took some more pictures. It was cooler amongst the trees, and we enjoyed the quietness of the forest, broken only by the sound of birds in the bushes as we drove past them.

After being in the Princeton-Otter Valley area for the day you tend to forget the geographical nature of the area. When we left Princeton we climbed all the way through Coalmont and Tulameen, and in retrospect we realized that we were ascending onto the Thompson Plateau. The Plateau is one of the many in BC that are the remnants of mountain ranges scoured down by glaciers thousands of years ago, and the whole area from just south of Merritt north to Prince George is all that is left of mountain range that once stood over 7,000 feet tall.

The boulders in the farmer's fields are evidence of the long gone glaciers that covered most of North America. As the glaciers melted, rivers ran down through them, and where the river deposited sediment it formed hummocks called moraines. Once we thought what to look for we realized that the entire Otter Valley area was scoured by glaciers, and the natural rolling hills were really huge moraines left by the retreating glaciers. So it was no surprise when we began our descent down the other side of the long gone mountain range's plateau towards our objective of Brookmere, to realize we had been so high in altitude.

Coming around a corner at the bottom of the mountain we came upon a speed zone sign, and we knew that we had made our final destination; Brookmere, once one of the main stops on the Kettle Valley Railway. There is a small village here still, as some of the people who hate the big cities find solace in this small setting. Best of all, right smack in plain view was the water tower of the long abandoned KVR. This is one of the few, if not the only one left standing, and rail buffs appreciate it for it's distinct design. While most water towers were sitting on legs above ground, the KVR towers look more like windmills from Holland.

The Brookmere station also had the distinction of being the only station shared by two railroads. Canadian Pacific Railroad and the Kettle Valley Railroad had a bitter feud for years over who would build along this section of southern BC. Fights in the court room were the norm, often accompanied by men from either side fighting right on the tracks themselves. Only at Brookmere did they manage to co-exist; the KVR built the water tower in their own design, and installed two water spouts, one on either side for each railroad.
One set of tracks on one side of the tower were CPR, the other side was KVR.

This was the unofficial last stop of the trip; the day had gone by quickly, and a glance at the clock said it was now 8.00 pm...another long day for CJ and I.
But I was extremely happy!!!
Even though we didn't find the Blakeburn mine,we still saw a lot of places on my wish list. We had followed the KVR line from Princeton to Brookmere, we had seen Granite City, Coalmont, Tulameen, Otter Valley, and capped the day off with a drive through a peaceful forest that lead us out to the old train town of Brookmere....ALL WITH NO MAP !!!!

CJ and I covered the short distance to join Hwy #5, the Coquihalla Hwy, and headed south back down themountains to Hope, the town from which all great roads begin!

A late dinner in Hope for us, then back on the freeway and homeward bound we were, both very happy with another day of backroad driving.

Birds, deer, field mice running across the road, Red Tailed Hawks, Northern Goshawks, American Kestrels, free range cows, bears, field swallows, old barns standing alone in the field, isolated farms, country roads, colourful butterflies, dragon flies, and views ranging from deep river canyons to peaceful, meandering rivers..WE SAW IT ALL, and we were that much better for it....

Long story this time, thanks if you read it all, and sorry you weren't there with missed a life time of views, some spanning over 150 years of life.....


Michelle said...

I've always wanted to do this route! Is it do-able in a car? PLEASE let me know!

Eddie said...


I can't respond to you directly as your blog is not set up to allow people to send you emails.

The route is doable by car, however I would have a spare tire in good shape as you cover many miles of gravel that could casue you a flat. the route is itself is mostly flat, not many hills and those that you will traverse, are not that steep.