By Lisa Bland —
This summer, if you fancy heading out on a road trip with stunning scenery and extra ordinary adventure, why not follow a section of the old Cariboo Waggon Road, a route of days gone by that leads to hidden historical tourism gems tucked in the Cariboo Mountains. Taking a right-hand turn after Quesnel and driving 80 km east along the meandering Hwy 26, along the historical gold rush route, leads to the gold mining area of the Wells, Barkerville, and Bowron Lakes region. Here, the invigorating air of wild alpine vistas converge with ghosts of miners past in a rich medley of Cariboo Gold Rush history, modern day visual and performing arts, and extreme outdoor adventure.
The first gem you’ll encounter is the vibrant artists’ town of Wells. Its galleries, studios, and restored historical buildings in bright, funky hues of fuchsia, robin-egg blue, and lavender are a few of many visual clues that this place is a little out of the ordinary. Wells originally sprung up around the successful hard rock lode Cariboo
Gold-Quartz Mine in the 1930s and is named after prospector, Fred Wells. His determined search for gold in nearby Cow Mountain struck pay dirt. This local “motherload,” vein of gold was the source of the placer (smaller gold particle deposits) mining in the first wave of the Cariboo Gold Rush that created Barkerville and surrounding mines in the 1860s.
At the height of the Great Depression in the 1930s, the gold rush town of Wells was booming, and core community buildings such as the Wells Community hall, Wells Hotel, and Hill Meat Market building were constructed. Still in use today, these historic spaces helped the community flourish and became the backdrop for a thriving art scene. In 1977, the non-profit organization, Island Mountain Arts (IMA) opened its first Summer School of the Arts in Wells. Today, IMA programming continues to offer standards of excellence with workshops and classes throughout the summer with professional instructors in diverse areas such as pottery, literary arts, painting, and music. IMA projects include Canada’s longest running International Harp School, the Toni Onley Artists’ Project, and the fabulous ArtsWells Festival of All Things Art. View their programs here: www.imarts.com
Every summer, the epic four-day Artswells Festival transforms Wells and Barkerville and their tagline, “Expect the Unexpected,” says it all. The buzz in the air is reminiscent of ‘gold fever,’ as a diverse mix of world class jazz, electronic, world, hip-hop, funk, indie, pop, country, and folk music performances set the stage for a an experience you’ll never forget. Whether you’re hustling to venues to attend music, dance, theatre, or literary performances at historical hot spots like the Sunset Theatre cabaret and the Wells community hall, strolling down the colourful streets, or relaxing by the meandering creek in the townsite, ArtsWells offers something for everyone. Rain or shine, it’s not unusual to see crowds of festival goers dance-walking along the road, interspersed with accordion players, jugglers, poi fire dancers, violinists, stilt-walkers, acrobats, tri-cyclists, and bands of hula hoop dancers. Visit www.artswells.com to find out more. See more on the ArtsWells scene here http://vimeo.com/82163271.
Just a few miles down the road you’ll find the thriving Barkerville Historic Town, a bustling re-enactment of the 1869-1885 period and first wave of the Cariboo Gold rush. In 1862, prospector Billy Barker discovered an ounce of placer gold for every three pans of dirt from the Williams Creek area in Richfield near Barkerville. Within a short time Barkerville became the hub of the Cariboo gold fields, with its deep placers and rich hillside deposits. At its height, Barkerville was the largest city north of San Francisco and west of Chicago. In 1865, the 700 km Cariboo Waggon Road from Fort Yale ending in Barkerville was completed, transforming the dangerous mule pack-trail through BC Interior canyon country into an efficient gold transport route. Designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1924, Barkerville was recognized as a key influence in the economic and political development of BC. In 1958, the provincial government created the Barkerville Historic Provincial Park, reconstructing the town to mirror its appearance between 1869-1885.
Today, Barkerville’s live street performers dressed in the era’s fashion enact songs and stories from this rich period of gold rush history. Step back in time and roam around the town site visiting the historic displays and listening to the wooden floorboards creak while wandering inside many of the 107 original heritage buildings. Listen to the metal ringing as an 1870s working blacksmith smashes a hot iron and fashions a metal horseshoe. Stop by for a live theatre performance, 1870s style, at the Theatre Royal, dedicated to recreating gold rush entertainments of the day, or view exhibits about the areas’ gold mining history, including the significant role played by Chinese miners adapted to the rugged Cariboo region. You may want to catch a demonstration of an 1870s Cornish water wheel, or get a taste of gold fever, panning for a gold nugget of your own at the Eldorado Gold Panning and Gift Shop. A horse drawn wagon ride will drop you off at the beautifully restored Richfield Courthouse, the oldest surviving wooden building in BC, built in 1882. Here you can attend a live court session and listen to the famous Judge Begbie deliver sentences to Barkerville’s criminals and troublemakers. For more info or to plan your visit to Barkerville go to www.barkerville.ca or call (800) 994-3332.
If you’re looking for a rugged off-road adventure, spectacular alpine vistas offer excellent options for summer hiking in the wild expanse of the Cariboo Mountains. An extensive network of trails surrounds the region with trails suitable for day hikes or longer journeys. Feature trails include the Cornish Mountain network and meadow route, the ‘Barkerville Boneshaker’ route, part of the Cariboo Waggon Road route between the ghost towns of Stanley and Barkerville, and exhilarating mountain treks on Two Sisters Mountain, Mount Murray, and Yanks Peak. For more information on area maps, guided hiking, mountain bike, and horseback trips visit
www.wellsbarkervilletrails.com or call (877) 451-9355.
For serious eco-adventurers that want to plan ahead, nearby Bowron Lakes Provincial Park is an internationally recognized wilderness area with a canoeing route on the Bowron Chain of Lakes and its network of 116 km of lakes, rivers, and, portages offering 2 to 10-day route options. Paddling the canoe circuit requires pre-registration. More information: http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks/explore/parkpgs/bowron_lk/.
So get out there and explore your backyard this summer! Mystery and adventure await when you follow the gold trail to the Cariboo Mountains.
Wells: The Bear’s Paw Cafe – More than a dinner cafe… it’s an experience. Offering frequent live music on the outdoor patio, fresh, delicious food, great micro-beer selection, and friendly staff. (866) 994-2345. www.thebearspaw.ca.
Barkerville: Long Duck Tong Restaurant – Fresh, authentic Chinese cuisine served in a beautifully restored 1800s building. Some say it’s the best Chinese food in BC! Excellent service. Hong Kong trained chefs. (250) 994-3458.
Barkerville: Wake Up Jake Restaurant and Coffee Saloon – An 1870s, 60+ seat, Victorian-style restaurant with authentic good rush food from the era. Great for the whole family. Miners breakfast spread, Western fare, and featured high tea on Victoria Day for the past 16 years. (250) 994-3259.
Hitting the Hay
Wells: The Wells Hotel – This heritage country inn built in 1934 features a lovely fir wooden staircase leading you to a range of unique cozy rooms for recharging, relaxing, or romancing. With 16 guest rooms, a restaurant, and a pub, the Wells Hotel is well worth the stay. www.wellshotel.com (800) 860-2299.
Barkerville: Kelly and King House Bed and Breakfast – Restored homes in the heart of Barkerville historic town are perfect for family comfort. Feather duvets, claw footed tubs, and antique furnishings add creature comfort to everyday modern conveniences. (250) 994-3328 www.kellyhouse.ca.
Barkerville: St. George Hotel – The famously haunted hotel is an 1890s restored saloon and brothel turned bed and breakfast boutique hotel in middle of Barkerville. The Victorian-style St. George is charmingly filled with antique furniture and curious and magical breakable things. (888) 246-7690
Barkerville: Louis Blanc Photograhic Gallery – Visit one of the most popular venues in Barkerville and bring home a keepsake to treasure forever. In 1868, Louis Blanc began a tradition of preserving miners’ photos to send home to loved ones. Today, with a full selection of Victorian era costumes provided by Pioneer Clothing, Louis Blanc Studio will capture your image in The Highest Style of the Art of the bygone era with beautiful sepia photos of your friends and family. Large groups and family bookings available. www.barkerville.ca/louisblanc.htm (250) 994-3235 (May-Sept), (250) 392-7119 (Oct-Apr)
Barkerville: Mason & Daly General Merchants Store – A 19th century style general store with an eclectic mix of historic paraphernalia and extraordinary selection of goods from fasteners, feathers, stationery, and straight razors to an incredible selection of hats. A huge selection of licorice, chocolates, fudge, and cheese in big rounds. No kitchy tourist stuff here. (250) 994-3227.
Barkerville: Barkerville Cowboy and Drover Jubilee – Hit the dusty trail and celebrate BC’s rich cowboy heritage with a three-day cowboy festival with seven acoustic performers and four stages. Featuring spoken word, music, dance, singing competition, and more. September 5 to 7. (888) 994-3332 www.barkerville.ca.
Wells: 7 Summits Bike and Hike Challenge – Seven mountains, seven stages, 7,000 feet up – one day. 20 km total hiking distance and 40 km total biking distance. September 13. Hosted by Friends of Barkerville to raise awareness of the fragile local alpine ecosystem. http://www.7summitsbikeandhike.org/