Riding alongside British Columbia’s Kettle Valley Railway
Story and Photos by Trevor Marc Hughes
I exited Highway 3 and rolled into the small community of Midway on my Kawasaki KLR650. The border town was quiet on an overcast Sunday, barely showing any of its population, except at the grocery store where a few folks were carting their sustenance for the coming week to their cars. I thumped through its dry, dusty streets, my search for my intended destination becoming increasingly desperate. I decided to pull over in my full hi-viz riding gear to ask for directions. A bespectacled lady in her 70s was walking her poodle. To my delight, she didn’t scuttle away from my motorcycle, but smiled as I asked loudly over my engine noise where the museum was. She pointed northwest and said it was just off the highway. I thanked her, holding my gloved hand out to her dog, before rumbling along Hwy 3 to Mile Zero of the Kettle Valley Railway.
In the early part of the 20th century, the Kettle Valley Railway (KVR) helped transport gold, silver, copper and passengers closer to the B.C. coast. It’s gone now. Many sections of the railway have recently turned 100. I decided on my way back from the Kootenays to trace the old line, hoping to gain a sense of the rugged country that a railway had to punch through to deliver its goods. My route would begin at Midway and take in Rock Creek to the west before heading north to Kelowna, then south to Penticton, west to Princeton and Coalmont, and then descend steeply into Coquihalla Canyon near Hope.
Before me stood a restored red caboose, with cursive writing reading “Canadian Pacific” on its side. Beside it, just beyond my motorcycle, was the original station house of the Kettle Valley Railway.
The ride into Rock Creek would take me from the level road of the Kettle Valley, with grassy hills leading me to a climb into dry ponderosa pines. The twists and turns were more pronounced and the air cooler nearer the eastern shores of Okanagan Lake.
The tall buildings and vineyards of Kelowna appeared. There’s nothing less appealing on a motorcycle for me than exercising my clutch hand in gridlock. I was wishing the KVR route bypassed Kelowna altogether. The slow midday traffic inched me forward in 30-degree heat across Okanagan Lake. I then gladly opened up the throttle to head south, riding high over the lake past the fruit stands of Summerland, and pulled over north of Penticton at Kickininee Provincial Park. Just to the west is the Kettle Valley Rail Trail, where the old railbeds of the KVR have been turned into an outdoor sports destination for hikers and cyclists. Picnic tables rim the shores of Okanagan Lake here; I found a shaded one nearby and parked the KLR650 where I could enjoy a sandwich and the cool breeze coming off the lake.
Out of the Hills
The gentle curves of Hwy 3a would rejoin me with Hwy 3, the Crowsnest Highway, and the valley floor where the fruit stands and orchards of Keremeos make their home. Evening settled. The sweeping bends became more dramatic. The approach to the Similkameen Valley featured felt-like beige hills, forests of ponderosa pines and bunchgrass decorating the steep valley walls. The last town before Princeton was Hedley. The fading gold mine structures of the Nickel Plate clung precariously to the side of the mountain bearing its name.
There was nothing left to do but follow the fading sunlight and the Similkameen River to my right as I approached a town where several last reminders exist of the days when steam whistles pierced the dry valley air with their lonely cries. I turned my handlebars left into the Princeton Motel to give both me and my KLR a well-deserved rest from a long day in the saddle. But there was one thing left to do before shut-eye.
A short hike after dinner gave me a glimpse into the route of the KVR as it made its approach into Hope. Now a paved trail that is also part of the Kettle Valley Rail Trail, the old railbed forms part of a historic walk. I passed the original Princeton Kettle Valley railway station (which now houses a Subway and Booster Juice) and a restored caboose. Then my footfalls echoed as I strolled through the Princeton tunnel. Finally, I crossed the Tulameen River bridge.
Next day I was up early, cinching my luggage down with extra care to ride to where the engines would get their fuel. Coal was discovered northwest of Princeton around 1858, and the town of Coalmont would eventually become an important station for the KVR. Originally thinking I was in for a gravelly ride on my dual-sport bike, imagine my surprise when I discovered an enjoyable, curvy 20 km ride along a paved secondary road following the Tulameen River. I pulled the motorcycle over onto the dusty gravel shoulder next to some of the most creative and original welcome signs I have ever seen getting into a new town. Coalmont is now a bedroom community of Princeton and popular camping destination. The most prominent building is the 1912-built Coalmont Hotel, painted in CPR red, just as it was the day it opened. I rode slowly through the lonely and dusty streets of the fading town before aiming the bars back along Coalmont Road.
As I headed west from Princeton, I encountered one massive highway expansion project that slowed me down. But after that, I rode on through the precarious switchbacks and elevation changes of Hwy 3 where the road hugs the edges of cliffs. For much of the morning ride, I was riding uninterrupted through these many predictable curves, but later had to accommodate the occasional slow RV before a passing lane would relieve me. The riding environment became greener and the road straightened as I began seeing an increasing number of distinctive lodgepole pine spires on my approach to…