The Fraser River courses through more than one half-dozen distinct geo-climactic zones, North America’s most diverse indigenous landscape and the essence of British Columbia (B.C.) history. B.C.’s longest river begins within the Canadian Rockies foothills in the shadow of majestic Mount Robson, carving canyons and nurturing land until it drains into the Strait of Georgia near Vancouver, some 854-miles away. When you venture beside the majestic Fraser, you see, feel and absorb the spectacular landscape and mythical tales of Western Canada.

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Along the Fraser River near Lillooet, British Columbia. Photography: Rocky Mountaineer

The railroad remains the best viewing platform to marvel at much of the Fraser River. One train company, Canadian operator Rocky Mountaineer, provides a luxurious means to explore much of this grand river’s vast watershed. In northern B.C. one of the train’s routes meets the river at Lillooet, B.C., shadowing for miles through Quesnel and Prince George before taking a southeastern turn to hug the Fraser’s banks into the Canadian Rockies to Jasper, Alberta.

Two more routes in the south follow the Fraser from Vancouver to Lytton, B.C. before coursing onward to Banff and Lake Louise in Alberta. These southern routes reveal the Fraser Canyon and Hell’s Gate, a ferocious narrowing of the Fraser River that Scottish explorer, the eponymous Simon Fraser, portaged around, famously writing, “surely we have encountered the gates of hell.” Over 200 million gallons of water surge through Hell’s Gate every minute, more than twice the volume that flows over Niagara Falls. It’s just one of scores of natural and cultural features that spread like evergreen forests across B.C. and the Canadian Rockies.

Once named “New Caledonia” by Fraser, Europeans considered this part of the B.C. mainland a remote fur trading territory of the Hudson’s Bay Company - that is, until word spread in the late-1850s that gold had been extracted from the banks of the Fraser River Canyon. By 1858 more than 30,000 prospectors had poured into the Fraser River Valley. This mass incursion would soon lead the British government to establish British Columbia as a crown colony of the Empire.

Farther north, the Cariboo Gold Rush began on the banks of the Fraser two years later leading to prosperous times for Quesnel and Barkerville, the latter a preserved heritage site named for successful prospector Billy Barker. As the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush faded, miners decamped from Yale, at the time the most populous city west of Chicago and north of San Francisco, for the arduous 380-miles long “Cariboo Trail” to Barkerville.

“The Fraser River is an incredible geography,” observes Daniel Marshall, PhD, adjunct assistant professor of history at the University of Victoria and leading Fraser River Canyon Gold Rush expert. “Not only does it pass so many different climatic environmental zones, Kamloops is the northern most extension of the high heat great American desert. Additionally, the main stem of the Fraser has never been dammed so when you travel the Fraser Canyon you witness what the pre-dammed Columbia River must have looked like. It’s just magnificent!”

The miners who rushed up the Fraser were likely too blinded by gold dust to appreciate the astounding natural setting through which they traveled. From the coastal rainforest populated with ancient cedar, Douglas firs and hemlocks to the northern reaches of desert and then into the Canadian Rockies, the Fraser traverses a diverse swath of breathtaking scenery unparalleled by all but a few watersheds on earth.

Though British Columbia wouldn’t come into being until 1871 when it joined the Canada Federation, the birth of this magnificent province, among the most environmentally and culturally diverse places on earth, began with the 1858 Fraser Canyon Gold Rush.

“You travel through an ancient world when you follow the Fraser River,” declares Professor Marshall. “From the Coastal Salish to the Interior Salish regions, these indigenous territories are occupied by people who have been here 8,000 to 10,000 years!”

And it isn’t just the natural splendor that will have you reaching for your camera as you travel along the river. Cisco Crossing contains two trestles over the Cisco (for Siska – unpredictable) waters. The Canadian Pacific Railway (CP) engineers arrived three decades before their Canadian National Railway (CN) counterparts, so they naturally built the CP trestle in the safest section of the canyon. The CN engineers had no choice but to construct their truss bridge on the more challenging opposite side. Perched 220-feet high and spanning 812-feet, the CN bridge is the largest single span bridge on the line.

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The Canadian National and Canadian Pacific Railway bridges meet at Cisco Crossing. Photo: Rocky Mountaineer

“All of human history is compressed into this canyon, not one but two transcontinental railways running on the banks, native trails and history – so tied to the salmon, all the history is here, squeezed into this one linear corridor,” states Professor Marshall, whose book, Claiming the Land: British Columbia and the Making of a New Eldorado, will be published this spring.

The Fraser River is also littered with scores of sandbars. Often treacherous to navigate, each bar held out hopes of easily accessed gold in 1858. Many of these same sandbars remain visible today from the train’s track, a marvelous route that conveys passengers high above the mighty Fraser’s path before bending to shadow its largest tributary, the Thompson River, into Kamloops.

The Secwepemc Nation has occupied this confluence of the North and South Thompson Rivers for thousands of years. The early fur traders established their central B.C. trading posts here, eventually building Fort Kamloops. In the mid-19th Century, Kamloops became a natural outfitting post for miners who had traveled the strenuous land route all the way from California via the Cascade Mountains and Okanagan Valley.

Desperate to get downriver to the Fraser, the vision of golden riches often blinded these prospectors from the dire reality of traveling upon the wild Thompson River to Cache Creek and into Marble Canyon before joining the Fraser.

In 1828, Sir George Simpson, Governor-in-Chief of the Hudson’s Bay Company, had attempted unsuccessfully to navigate the Thompson River: “The banks now erected themselves in perpendicular mountains of rock from the water’s edge, the tops enveloped in clouds, and the lower parts dismal and rugged in the extreme; the descent of the stream very rapid and at the close of many of them, the Rocks.”

Of course, when viewed from the comfort of a train rolling leisurely through the landscape, these “foaming waters, pent up, to from 20 to 30 yards wide, running with immense velocity...” as described by Simpson are sublimely beautiful to behold, as is all of the vibrant landscape between Vancouver and Kamloops.

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Fraser Canyon near Cisco Crossing. Photography: Rocky Mountaineer

On Rocky Mountaineer, guests can choose their views of these forceful rivers: either from the top of a bi-level coach that has domed windows and an outdoor viewing platform, or through the oversized windows of single-level coaches. Entertaining and informative commentary from onboard Hosts tell tales that bring to life indigenous and mining cultures, and describe the many distinctive characteristics of the route’s natural splendor.

Traveling by rail, you can easily envision the miners’ excitement as they were struck with gold fever. More importantly, you’ll absorb the provenance of the Coast and Interior Salish who built trails along every mile of the Fraser River. It’s a fabulous way to cherish the majestic environments that surround B.C.’s greatest waterway, indigenous home for millennia and birthplace of Canada’s sixth province.

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