A half-dozen hairpin turns are your first clue that this isn’t the tourist-choked Sea-to-Sky Highway any more. Not that the ski resorts of Whistler aren’t charming places, it’s just that they look best in the rearview mirror. If you truly want to explore British Columbia, you’re going to have to go just that little bit farther, and head for Duffey Lake Road.
Here’s the ideal start. Wake up early and get yourself to the Mount Currie Coffee Co. shop in Pemberton while the sun is still trapped behind the coastal mountain ranges. If you’ve brought along a convertible, even in the cooler weather, now’s the time to drop the top and crank up the heated seats; either way, get something warm and grab your breakfast to go.
Move slowly through the rest of town, making sure to keep to the low posted limits. Often, fellow early-risers will include cyclists, especially on weekends. Pemberton, like Squamish south of Whistler, is filled with people who work as guides and other support staff in Whistler. It’s also home to a unique microclimate that supports several farms, and is famous for its potatoes – we’ll be back to sample their most potent efforts.
For now, note how the road seems to pick up its pace, lolloping along beneath poplars and alders. Depending on the time of year, these last turn into bursts of yellow and orange, their leaves fluttering down like rains of golden coins.
If you’ve timed it right, the sun will just be piercing the gap formed by the long finger of Lillooet Lake. For braver types with more time on their hands, fair weather and a vehicle capable of handling rougher roads, there’s a natural hot springs about 50 kilometres southeast along a forest service road.
But you don’t need to drive that far to get a little off the beaten path. About 20 minutes farther along the way is the Joffre Lakes Provincial Park. Now extremely popular with tourists, it’s best to arrive here early if you want to get a full hike in to all three of these beautiful aquamarine alpine lakes. For a quick stop, the first of the lakes is just minutes from the parking lot, and provides a view of the first lake and a nearby glacier.
For a road with a somewhat unromantic name, the Duffey is utterly spectacular. If it was pretty before you reached Joffre Lakes, it just keeps getting better the farther you go. Now fully in the alpine region, stop at the eponymous Duffey Lake boat ramp to take in your breakfast-to-go and the stunning scenery.
From here, the mountains begin their change from lush, coastal forest, to arid desert. Lillooet, our eventual destination, is part of the same semi-arid area as the Okanagan wine-growing region. The slopes surrounding you become sparse and rocky, and there are a few places where it's good practice to expect a rock or two in the road when going around a blind corner.
For most of this stretch, there’s also no cellular service. If you’re used to snapping photos and then posting them on Instagram, you won’t find instant electronic gratification on the Duffey. Instead, you’ll get a little slice of what motorized adventure was a few decades ago, when skills like map-reading were useful, and when a rest stop meant a chance to rest. The Duffey doesn’t just provide beautifully wild scenery to look at, it also forces you to unplug from technology for a time.
By the time your car is slipping down the road into Lillooet, hopefully you’ve forgotten you even have a phone. Here you’ll find fuel and a choice: split off down the equally scenic Fraser Canyon toward the small town of Hope, or retrace your path back toward Pemberton.
I’d recommend the latter. Not only does the Duffey present further delights on second viewing, but Pemberton is worth a second visit for lunch or an early dinner. Mile One Eating House is a great place for fresh B.C. produce, or The Pony nearby offers hearty pub fare.
No trip would be complete without stopping at the Pemberton Distillery, open from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., Friday to Sunday during the fall. Co-drivers will be able to sample their potato-based spirits, carefully crafted to preserve a little earth flavour.
When you return home, a little libation on the rocks is the perfect way to toast a day well-spent. Taking the road less travelled. Leaving the phone in your pocket. Filling your lungs with mountain air.
The Duffey Lake Road is a distillation of all that’s best in British Columbia. It’s right there for the taking, for those willing to go just that little bit farther than the ordinary.