With fun, low-cost things to do — and the “exchange-rate discount” — it makes for a quick, family-friendly escape from Seattle.
FRASER CANYON, B.C. — Todd Baiden doesn’t seem like a stereotypical small-town guy — because he isn’t. Wiry, tattooed and brimming with buzzing energy, he used to own a popular Vancouver speak-easy-style restaurant.
But when he learned about a derelict motel and restaurant in Fraser Canyon, he saw past the lapsed maintenance to something that’s hard to find in a big city: the freedom to do whatever he wanted.
Now, he grows his own vegetables, serves in the dining room of his restaurant, Fat Jack’s, and even makes his own furniture in the wood shop out back. “There’s a lot of pride on the plate,” he told me as I sat down for lunch at his place, where the menu resembles that of a traditional diner but the preparation doesn’t. (Don’t leave without a homemade cookie and hand-pulled espresso.)
Baiden is one of a handful of entrepreneurial types joining those who’ve been here all along, building a new destination based on the cornucopia of recreation the canyon’s geography makes possible.
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Baiden’s Mighty Fraser Motel, near Boston Bar, is one of a slew built during the canyon’s tourism heyday in the mid-20th century.
When the new Highway 5 provided a faster route from Vancouver to points north and east in 1986, Fraser Canyon declined. Now it’s seeing new interest from those seeking a dose of laid-back recreation and history not far from Vancouver.
With many easily accessible, fun, low-cost things to do — and the “exchange-rate discount” — it makes for a quick, family-friendly escape from Seattle, too.
History for the modern traveler
Directly north of North Cascades National Park, Fraser Canyon is about a three-hour drive from Seattle. I first discovered it when my co-author Steve Zusy and I were researching for our book “Motorcycle Touring in the Pacific Northwest.” Ever since then, I’ve wanted to return to the roiling Fraser River — B.C.’s largest — and the mountains surrounding it.
A few things stood out about the canyon: the Hell’s Gate tram, which descends into the canyon’s narrowest point; lots of First Nations and mining history; its place in cinema history as the place where they filmed “First Blood”; and camels. Yes, camels: In the 1860s, some miners came up with the brilliant idea of using camels as pack animals in the canyon. The experiment was not quite a success, but rather than ship the camels back, the miners just let them loose. The last camel roamed the area in 1905.
And yes, the original Rambo movie, “First Blood,” was filmed 35 years ago in Hope, at the canyon’s south end. The locals feel a bit about it the way Seattleites feel about Nirvana: While it’s not the worst thing to be known for, we wish people would notice what we’ve done lately. Still, the tourism office will be happy to provide you a walking-tour map to “First Blood” sites around town.
This year, another story from history piqued my interest: the Othello Tunnels, which celebrate their 100th anniversary this year. The Canadian Pacific Railway wanted to cut a route through the Coquihalla Gorge, where the Coquihalla River tumbled through a narrow, S-shaped, 300-foot-deep granite chute. Engineer Andrew McCullough’s solution: blow tunnels into the cliffs and connect them with bridges, a feat that cost five times the normal per-mile rate. In a touch of whimsy, the Shakespeare-loving Scotsman named his tunnels for characters in the Bard’s plays. The most famous is Othello, completed in 1916.
Now, the tunnels are features of a rail trail through Coquihalla Canyon Provincial Park — and since B.C. provincial parks don’t charge fees, it, like all the hikes around here, is free. A short walk on a level gravel trail leads to the tunnels, where the engineer’s folly is a traveler’s gain. The tunnels and bridges lead right up to and over the cliffs, with boiling cataracts below.
I stayed at the peaceful Eco Retreat B&B at Kw’o:kw’e:hala, a bed-and-breakfast within walking distance of the tunnels. The oldest building on the property, now a cozy guest cabin, was built at the same time as the tunnels themselves.
While the tunnels and other well-maintained flat trails make for easy, kid-friendly jaunts, locals tend to like their hikes steep. Many of the stair-climbers here resemble Mount Si, but without the people. When I hiked the Spirit Caves trail (which gains 1,640 feet in 1.5 miles), I was the only person I saw on the way up or back. The shorter but even steeper Hope Lookout trail, with a trailhead right near downtown Hope, is a bit more popular. Pick up a hiking guide at the tourist information office in Hope.
Hiking is only the beginning. You can also do mountain biking, river rafting, sturgeon fishing and even gliding here (the Vancouver Soaring Association is actually based in Hope).
It’s not all about human-powered recreation, though. The Hell’s Gate Airtram is a bit of a tourist trap, but it’s also a great way to get a look at the Fraser River’s narrowest, and therefore deepest, point. When I was there, the river was 141 feet deep; our tram guide told us that it can run at up to 200 million gallons per second.
The Tuckkwiowhum Village, a reconstructed First Nations settlement near Boston Bar, and the historic old mining town of Yale make for educational stops. My guide at Tuckkwiowhum Village, Jody Phibbs, summed up both this place and the canyon itself: “The whole point is to bring the history and modern times together.”
The modern reasserted itself when I went to dinner at Hope’s most talked-about restaurant, 293 Wallace Street (293wallace.com), where groundbreaking chef Hiro Takeda fuses local ingredients with a few surprises, including the signature dessert item: frozen ants (they taste like citrus).
If you go
Fraser Canyon: travelthecanyon.com
Hell’s Gate Airtram:hellsgateairtram.com
Historic Yale: historicyale.ca
Mighty Fraser Motel:themightyfrasermotel.com
Eco Retreat B&B at Kw’o:kw’e:hala:eco-retreat.com