The Cariboo “Waggon” Road: Chasing History from Lillooet to Barkerville.

Andrea Cohen – author
Kaelen Cohen – photographer

It’s a summer afternoon and my fiancé, Kaelen, and I are driving north to the Cariboo Chilcotin region of British Columbia. Our trip, which we’re taking to capture video and photography along the historic Cariboo “Waggon” Road, is off to a promising start – we spot a black bear cub sprinting across the road and dozens of deer feasting on roadside grass.

The Highway 99 route to the South Cariboo is a leisurely cruise alongside rivers and creeks. I feel like I’m watching a movie unfold outside the windshield. First, we’re immersed in a vast valley… then the view changes to mountain peaks towering on both sides of the road. The landscape shifts from bushy forests to rocky cliffs, to colourful wildflowers and endless fields. It’s a long drive, but I never get bored.

We pass eight heritage pitstops from Lillooet to Barkerville. Each tells a tale, complete with a show-stopping view.

The Gold Rush Cariboo “Waggon” Road starts at 0 mile in Lillooet. Our first overnight rest stop is in the 100 Mile area, 174 kilometres away. We travel past green farm fields and yellow hayfields, western red cedars and Douglas firs. I can’t imagine how gold-thirsty miners once traversed this rugged passage – they were on foot, and the arduous trek would have taken at least 29 hours.

Cariboo “Waggon” Road

The gold-rich Cariboo “Waggon” Road led us from Lillooet to Barkerville, a 400-kilometre journey. Here, the gold rush era may have dwindled, but remnants of heritage and exciting tales remain. We plan to return soon so we can dive even further into this fascinating part of BC.

The 108 Mile Heritage Site

Around the 80-mile mark, we climb to a higher altitude – 600 metres above sea level – and the landscape gives way to marshland. To my surprise, evenings and mornings in the Cariboo Chilcotin are refreshingly brisk, a pleasant contrast to the heat of the day.

The 108 Mile Heritage Site is a worthwhile rest stop, featuring flushing toilets and a history lesson. The site is a conglomerate of buildings from the Cariboo central region, along with donated antiques and artifacts. The local artisan and farmer’s market takes place on Saturdays – sadly, we missed it, but rumour is it’s well worth the trip. However, I did find the original mailbox of the once-bustling 108 Mile Hotel, whose owners – Agnus and Jim McVee – allegedly stole gold from their lodgers, killed them and buried the loot (approximately $6,000 worth) throughout the area.

Station House Gallery

A brief one-hour drive, passing by picturesque Lac la Hache, brings us to the oldest building in Williams Lake and the first designated heritage site. The Station House Gallery is a railway station, gallery and gift shop. To my surprise, the railway is still active, which I learn as a train comes roaring through the station while we’re photographing the rails.

Potato House Project

Across the street sits the Potato House Project, a heritage building centred around sustainability. Taking a modest one-third of an acre in downtown Williams Lake, the site – which was built in the mid-1900s – is home to community gardens, school programming, a heritage building and drive-through food waste composting.

Museum of the Cariboo Chilcotin

Peering over Williams Lake is the Museum of the Cariboo Chilcotin, a trifecta of museum, visitor centre and rest stop featuring full-service washrooms, a gift shop and generously scooped ice cream. An enormous tree is centred in the building, with a spiral staircase wrapped around it. The museum has a vast array of exhibits covering the fur trade, the Cariboo’s Indigenous peoples, forest fire devastation, and the gold rush era.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the Stampede Royalty. These ambassadors, or mascots, of Williams Lake, compete in beauty and cowgirl competitions, such as barrel racing, and also star in destination promotions.

Chief Will-Yum Campsite

The Williams Lake First Nation, the T’exelcemc, has belonged to the Secwepemc Nation for over 6,500 years. They live near the eastern tip, on the Sugar Cane reservation. On the north side of Highway 97 is the Chief Will-Yum Campsite, a notable cultural experience. We point our cameras immediately at the Arbour, a sacred space to sit with ancestors, seek wisdom from Elders and share peace. Entering through the brightly painted entrances, I can imagine the circular amphitheatre alive with a roaring congregation seated in the wooden bleachers, watching performances take place under the stars. We take a stroll on the newly developed Cucwell Temelamen trail, a two-kilometre scenic walk through the forest to a cedar wooden platform overlooking Williams Lake and the Sugar Cane reservation. Here, the view is stunning: sun-kissed farm field and vibrant grasslands, cattle grazing the fields and a train speeding along the railway hugging the mountain.

Quesnel Forks

The drive from Williams Lake to the town of Likely is desolate. I count a handful of drivers passing us on the two-lane road. Likely is primarily a place of hunting and trapping, successful because of the Indigenous trails. It was named after John Likely, a gold-hungry miner that never found treasure, but was adored by the community nonetheless.

We have the pleasure of touring the Cedar Creek Museum with Pat Baron. Pat wears her mother’s wedding ring, which she explains was forged from the gold her father mined in Likely; she also wears a gold nugget necklace. She takes us behind the museum and points out Cedar Point Provincial Park, home to Quesnel Lake and a campground filled with old-growth cedar. There’s also an outdoor mining museum displaying mock shafts and old machinery.

Pat joins us on the drive from Likely to the ghost town, Quesnel Forks, which is 20 minutes along a steep gravel road. We park where the Cariboo and Quesnel rivers meet and devour fresh bannock and homemade huckleberry jam, packed by the High Country Inn Motel.

Quesnel Forks is the oldest town in the Cariboo, and also where Pat’s parents met. As I stand at the Hermit Cabin gazing at the mineral-rich rock riverbed, she explains that before the landslide submerged the town, her parents locked eyes in front of Sing’s Saloon, which is just ahead of us. The rest, as they say, is history.

Xatśūll Heritage Village

That night, we rest our heads at the Likely Lodge, across the street from the Quesnel River. As I sit on the patio, surrounded by flower planters and watching a brilliant sunset, I understand why the few people in Likely refuse to leave: it’s a pure, tranquil place warmed by genuine hospitality.

The next morning, we visit the Xatśūll Heritage Village, which sits in a vast canyon. Elder Ralph Phillips’s granddaughter, Brandi, lets us tag along on a summer camp field trip. We learn about the history of the site and the Xatśūll Nation’s ways: cooking in underground oven pits, cleansing in sacred sweat lodges, beading, and foraging for natural remedies. It’s refreshing to witness the Xatśūll Nation’s community-centred approach to life – in fact, the term “volunteer” comes from European settlers who were inspired by this group-oriented lifestyle.

Antique Machinery Park

Travelling north along the Fraser River brings us to an indoor/outdoor museum, the Antique Machinery Park in South Quesnel. Here, a volunteer association proudly preserves and restores the machinery that once helped develop the region. The volunteers are retired, passionate about antique machinery, and have incredible spirit despite the challenges they face. For example, locals donate the machinery, but restoration costs are high. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, visitation has been sparse and grants limited. And, with temperatures during the Cariboo winters plummeting to –30˚C, the machinery has to be stored in covered or closed areas; however, due to minimal funds, it remains outside and exposed to the elements. Regardless, they’re a cheery bunch, and we enjoy a pleasant chat before continuing our journey.

Quesnel District Museum & Archives

Our next stop is downtown Quesnel, where we visit the Quesnel District Museum and Archives. In 1909, bathing facilities were sparse and the manager of the Royal Bank insisted his staff maintain a high standard of cleanliness; so, he installed a hot water tank and bathtub in the bank. Word spread, and soon locals were dropping by for quick transactions and a scrub. The bathtub from the Royal Bank is one of many exhibits featured in the museum. We happily join in on a scavenger hunt to learn more fascinating facts.

Behind the museum sits LeBourdais Park, where there’s a playground and spray park, as well as The Den by Moonshine Coffee Roasters, a mouthwatering pastry shop and café. Visitors can also stroll through the Pioneer Cemetery, which overlooks the park – listen carefully and you might hear a headstone chirp.

Wells Museum

Quesnel marks the furthest northern point of our trip. Once we’ve seen the sights, we head east on Highway 26 toward Bowron Lakes. A brightly painted township catches my eye, so we take a hard left and find ourselves at the Wells Museum. Stepping inside is like entering a time capsule of the 1930s, when this gold-mining town sprung up and thrived during the Great Depression.

Barkerville Historic Town & Park

Our final Cariboo stop is the famous Barkerville Historic Town and Park, the largest historic site in western North America. We lodge at the Kelly House Bed and Breakfast, which boasts ample space, charm, and immaculate cleanliness. I’m particularly enchanted by the old-fashioned bathrooms, complete with claw-footed tub. For dinner, we gorge at Lung Duck Tong Restaurant, located in the Chinese quarter of Barkerville. I’m a foodie, and of Chinese descent, so I can be picky; however, Lung Duck Tong exceeded my expectations. Afterward, I settle on the porch and watch the town fall asleep. Evenings in Barkerville are truly magical: the visitors have left, horses roam freely, and the sunsets below the mountains in complete silence.

The following day, we visit the Goldfield Bakery on Main Street, whose comprehensive menu spans freshly baked sweet and savoury pastries, sandwiches, soups, and coffee. Afterward, we join Miss Florence Wilson’s township walking tour to burn a few calories and learn about the land. Miss Florence plays a character out of the Victorian era, and I’m impressed by her acting skills and the sheer amount of knowledge she relays. Sadly, the tour marks the end of our adventures in the Cariboo.

Heritage Experiences

108 Mile Heritage Site

Museum of the Cariboo-Chilcotin

Xatsull Heritage Village

Wells Museum

Lone Butte Water Tower Park

Station House Gallery

Chief Will-Yum Campsite

Quesnel Antique Machinery Park

Felker Homestead

Potato House project

Likely, BC

Quesnel & District Museum & Archives

Barkerville Historic Town & Park