By Crai Bower
From 5-star dude ranches to unparalleled views of grizzlies plucking salmon from a rarely visited river, the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast is well represented in Canadian Signature Experiences (CSE), a brand that promises the very best of Canadian travel with a selection of over 200 experiences. In fact, one could easily fill a bucket list of once-in-a-lifetime opportunities when selecting from nine CSEs from this vast and varied region.
Imagine embarking on a grizzly bear safari, settling down for a 4-hour, four-handed Thai massage treatment after a morning on horseback, or sailing through the Great Bear Rainforest. This is what Canada is all about, and visitors to the region can rest assured they’ve embarked on a curated signature experience with the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast. Tweedsmuir Park Lodge sits in Bella Coola, the heart of BC’s bear country. Originally opened as a remote fishing lodge, bear enthusiasts seek out the lodge tours from September through mid-October. Boats make the best blinds for viewing grizzlies in their natural habitat, so strap into a McKenzie Drift Boat for a non-motorized float down the Atnarko River with a local bear expert. Your guide will also take you deep into the Great Bear Rainforest, site of the largest biomass density on the planet. While walking through the old-growth forest your guide will point out daybeds, scratch trees and other indications of the bear’s ubiquitous presence in Bella Coola. Of course, your Tweedsmuir Park Lodge concierge will also arrange heli-hiking, heli-sightseeing, fishing and horseback pack trips among other signature activities.
Like Bella Coola, Knight Inlet is famous for its concentration of bears. Knight Inlet Lodge (reopening in 2022) provides the perfect launch point to observe bears gorging on salmon to build fat reserves for the coming winter. More than 40 bears have been known to show up on one autumn day. Spring sees black and grizzly (brown) bears emerging from their hibernation in search of berries and grass shoots to prepare for the summer mating season. From our boat blind, we observe brown and black bears feasting on mussels, barnacles and sedge grass, often with newborn cubs in tow. And like Tweedsmuir Park Lodge, guests can totally relax inside or on the deck of the floating Knight Inlet Lodge.
The Great Bear Lodge also offers exclusive access to grizzly habitat and behaviour. The fly-in, floating lodge sits at the mouth of the Nekite River estuary. It is not unusual in spring to survey a female brown bear as she paddles from shore to shore, sniffing and surveying her surroundings. Eventually, she will find who she is looking for, a large brown bear boar casually eating sedges on a different embankment. It is not uncommon to watch several brown bear pairs mate during the spring season. Great Bear Lodge also runs an excellent fall season taking guests upriver to watch from several platforms as multiple bears fish for spawning salmon before a small waterfall.
The Great Bear Rainforest is also home to one of nature’s greatest phenomena, the Kermode or ‘Spirit bear,’ a black bear that, due to a recessive gene, appears with white fur. The Kitasoo Xai’xais people, who operate Spirit Bear Lodge (reopening 2022) believe the Spirit bear possesses special powers as told through stories passed down by generations of storytellers. When visiting Spirit Bear Lodge guests not only enjoy the best opportunity to see Spirit bears, they enter a cultural immersion into the customs of their hosts, while enjoying the comforts of a luxury property. Visitors to Spirit Bear Lodge will also embark on expeditions in search of grizzlies, black bears and rare coastal wolves. It is not uncommon to spy humpback whales and otters, among other marine mammals, from the boats or even from the lodge’s waterfront deck.
The best place to see grizzlies is by the river. Ecotours-BC is situated on the sublime Quesnel River, a go-to bear habitat in the summer and fall during the salmon runs. The Pyna-tee-ah Lodge is home base for daily explorations with well-known guides including the “Bear Whisperer.” Guides follow the bears throughout the seasons and their knowledge of the bear’s ecology and local wildlife is immense. Exploring Quesnel Lake provides the potential for discovery in its own right. The deepest fjord lake on earth, the area surrounding the lake is known for grizzly and black bears, moose, mountain caribou, mountain goats, wolves and wolverines. More than 250 species of birds have been noted in this region in the foothills of the Cariboo Mountains. Ecotours-BC takes us upriver, along the bear trails and into the estuary to observe this astonishing wildlife throughout its annual life cycle.
The Chilcotin Coast provides access to the largest intact coastal temperate rainforest in the world. This habitat is ideal for many of Canada’s marquee species such as grizzlies and wolves. Bluewater Adventures has been conveying guests through the Inside Passage and Desolation Sound for 43 years. Often listed among the “Best Trips in the World,” Bluewater Adventures provides an intimate sailing experience into the Great Bear Rainforest. Travelling with Bluewater Adventures provides breathtaking access to breaching whales, Spirit bears and First Nations’ customs. The operators will happily customize your excursion to focus on your party’s exact interests.
The voyage is definitely part of the fun when exploring with Maple Leaf Adventures. The signature 92 ft Maple Leaf sailing ship is now joined by the 88 ft Swell, a converted tug, and the 138 ft catamaran, Cascadia. These intimate vessels, hosting from 12 to 24 guests, allow for expeditions to the smallest inlets of Desolation Sound and the Inside Passage. Guests can hop in a kayak to paddle beside orca pods, seals and other marine mammals; take in several Coastal Salish cultural sights; and hike within the Great Bear Rainforest to search of bears and other wildlife while learning about this fascinating ecosystem from certified naturalist guides. No luxury has been spared aboard the three ships, and Maple Leaf Adventures is well known for exceptional local cuisine, spacious cabins and plenty of places to observe the mist rising each morning from the calm waters of the Inside Passage and Desolation Sound.
The Cariboo Chilcotin Coast contains an astounding variety of cultural activities to match its magnificent wildlife population. Siwash Lake Wilderness Resort has developed an unparalleled equestrian program in the shadow of the Cariboo Mountains. The SiwashSynergy™ program offers guests the opportunity to spend two complete days with a custom-selected horse. This experience includes care for the animal as well as lengthy trail rides through the Cariboo bush each day. The River Ride takes riders on a full-day excursion along the river and into the mountains. There are overnight trail rides available, leaving the Siwash Lodge for a rustically elegant cabin. In addition to luxuriating at this 5-star ranch, you and friends or family can fly cast for 10 lb rainbow trout, test your marksmanship and archery skills, learn wilderness survival skills, take numerous hikes or embark on a private helicopter safari.
Even among premier guest ranches, there is no spread quite like Echo Valley Ranch. The 160-acre property is home to the Baan Thai, a Thai design crafted from BC conifers considered to be one of the most beautiful structures in Western Canada. Designed by the king of Thailand’s personal architect, the Baan Thai is hardly for show; it houses elegant spa treatment rooms that capture this Cariboo-Thai fusion effortlessly. This merger comes to life when settling in for a 4-hour, four hands Thai wellness treatment after a 4-hour trail ride through the shrub-steppe environment. You can also cast your fly rod here, swim and go hiking on several trails that depart directly from the property to access the grasslands, boreal forests and canyons.
Like riding the foothill trails or watching grizzlies feed, a visit to Barkerville is a must for someone seeking a comprehensive understanding of the region’s profound social history. The best-preserved western townsite in North America, well over 100 buildings have been restored to their original condition. Historical interpreters lead guests down main street and to the mine, but you also encounter living history in the form of all sorts of characters such as school children, merchants and miners heading to work. You might want to take in an 1860’s theatre performance, pan for gold yourself or hop on a stagecoach. Billy Barker discovered gold nearby in 1862 and Barkerville, a Canadian National Historic site, has been exploring ever since.
The Cariboo Chilcotin Coast region embodies the very definition of a “land without limits.” Wildlife enthusiasts will find numerous tour operators and wilderness lodges to accommodate bucket-list goals of seeing grizzly bears feast at the river’s edge to taking a 5-day horse packing trip along an alpine trail. It was not easy for Destination Canada to curate a list of the premier activities and amenities in a landscape that runs from the interior Cariboo Mountains to the Inside Passage. In doing so, they have eliminated our guesswork when choosing the very best experiences to visit. You will not be disappointed when you select any of the Canadian Signature Experiences described above.