Set in the heart of the Frontier, amid lakes and rolling ranchland, Williams Lake has been the focal point and service centre for the ranches of the Cariboo and Chilcotin regions since the turn of the century.
The founding of Williams Lake can be traced back to a single building in the Glendale/Comer area, a tiny chapel built in a Shuswap settlement in the 1840s. With the influx of European fur traders and gold prospectors, the church and the encampment flourished to become a small service centre.
Initially bypassed in 1863 by the Cariboo Wagon Road, and all the lucrative traffic that passed along it, Williams Lake’s recovery was launched with the arrival of the Pacific Great Eastern Railway in 1919. A village soon appeared, and prospered, around the train station, which still stands at the foot of Oliver Street.
Williams Lake persevered to become the modern commercial centre and transportation hub of the historically famous Cariboo. The town retains that magical ‘western frontier character’, in a relaxed and friendly atmosphere. Its central location, at the junction of Highway 97 to the north and the Bella Coola highway (Hwy 20), makes it an excellent place from which to foray into the surrounding regions.
From here you can explore the cedar forests of the gold rush country to the east, travel west to the Pacific Ocean over the vast expanses of the Chilcotin Plateau, venture north to Prince George and beyond to Alaska, or head south to the Okanagan and the Lower Mainland.
Location: Situated at the junction of Cariboo Highway 97 and the Bella Coola Highway 20, Williams Lake is located 74 miles (119 km) south of Quesnel, 151 miles (241 km) south of Prince George, 282 miles (451 km) east of Bella Coola, and 343 miles (548 km) northeast of Vancouver.
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Williams Lake Stampede: Williams Lake is home to the famous Williams Lake Stampede, one of the largest in North America, featuring local, national and international contestants. Normally held over the Canada Day weekend (July 1), this four-day event is the hub around which dozens of homegrown events circulate, including The Pony Express Race, The Wild Cow Milking, The Team Cattle Penning, and the Pony Chariot Races.
The city of Williams Lake takes on its ‘western ancestry’ during the stampede, and false facades decorate the businesses; the interiors take on an early nineteenth century decor, and the citizens don their best western garb. The colourful and exciting spectacle is not to be missed, so bring your hats and boots and jump into all the excitement.
Saddle up and ride into the ranching and rodeo history of the Cariboo at the Museum of the Cariboo Chilcotin. Walk in the moccasins of the First Nations people, dipping fish from the rivers and gathering gooseberries along the trails. Gold lured the first settlers to the area, but ranching kept them here. Find out how Williams Lake came to be the Stampede Capital of BC, and marvel at the rhinestone crown of the first Stampede Queen.
No visit to Williams Lake is complete without seeing the historic Pacific Great Eastern Railway Station. Built in 1919, this “Standard No. 3 Station” is one of the city’s oldest buildings. Now a B.C. Rail Station, travellers can board trains for a romantic rail journey across Canada to Nova Scotia. It also houses The Station House Art Gallery, which exhibits a variety of contemporary works by local, regional and touring artists.
Experience the spiritual and cultural magic of the native Xats’ull Heritage Village. This Shuswap heritage village has been occupied for over 4,000 years, and is today inhabited by less than 1,000 people who live nearby the site. Xats’ull Village has arranged a one-day cultural program that includes a tour of the village, lunch, mini workshops on toolmaking, basketmaking, story telling and traditional food preparation. This exceptional tour puts you in close contact with the lifestyle of Native peoples of the Shuswap area. Traditional overnight stays are available in Pit Houses or Tee Pees.
Scout Island Nature Centre on Williams Lake offers a unique opportunity to view shorebirds and waterfowl that populate the wetland marsh. Enjoy exceptional viewing opportunities in spring and fall. Visitors will encounter ospreys, bald eagles, black-capped chickadees, yellow-headed blackbird, marsh wren, Brewer’s blackbird, great blue heron, hooded merganser, swallows, flycatchers, gulls, hummingbirds, and songbirds.
Animals include red foxes, mink, river otters, beavers and muskrats. The Scout Island Nature Centre includes marsh and lake, grassland, small forests, 1.5 miles (2.5 kms) of trails for great wildlife viewing, viewing platforms, and the Nature House that features natural history displays where you can study local ecosystems. The centre also has a boat launch, providing easy paddling around the island and marsh areas. Scout Island is located at the west end of the community of Williams Lake, connected to the mainland by a vehicle causeway.
Fishing: The Cariboo-Chilcotin region boasts a plethora of lakes and rivers, inviting exploration, outdoor adventure and fishing. Fish for kokanee on McLeese Lake, or for rainbow and char on Quesnel Lake, east of Williams Lake. If you insist on having the whole lake to yourself, take a floatplane to one of the remote lakes in the Chilcotins.
River Rafting is big here. The Chilko-Chilcotin-Fraser system is one of the best-known river systems in British Columbia for adventure, thrills and spills. Lava Canyon on the Chilko River is a world-class run with continuous Class IV rapids, and a very high level of risk.
Canoeing & Kayaking: Novice kayakers can try the Lower Horsefly River to Quesnel Lake. The more experienced are in for a real adventure, on the Quesnel River from Likely to Quesnel Forks, and the Cariboo River, putting in at Quesnel Forks. There is no limit to the opportunities for canoeing in the area. You need look no further than Williams Lake itself, or the Chimney Lake Chain, Blue Lake, and McLeese Lake. Check with the Cariboo-Chilcotin Voyageurs Paddling Club for details on lake, river and canoe camping.
Fraser River: Flowing west of Williams Lake, the 1,368-kilometre long Fraser River is the longest river entirely within British Columbia, and is considered to be the world’s greatest salmon stream.
Golf: Surrounded by the hills of Chilcotin Country, the beautifully maintained course at the Williams Lake Golf Club overlooks the community of Williams Lake, offering scenic views, rolling terrain, and a variety of holes. Golf Vacations in British Columbia.
Cross-country Skiing: Cross-country skiers can head for the 30 kilometres of well maintained trails at the Bull Mountain Trails, 20 km north of Williams Lake, and to the Corner Lake Ski Trail, 7 km southwest of Horsefly.
Skiing: Downhill skiers and snowboarders are catered for as well, 24 kilometres east of Lac la Hache. The Mt. Timothy Ski Area operates a family ski hill featuring a snowboard park and a seven-minute scenic t-bar ride up the 1,635-metre hill. Overnight RV plug-in sites are available.
Snowmobiling: Wide open wilderness and frozen lakes invite snowmobilers to the area during winter to participate in snowmobile races, or to venture out for the pure adventure of it.
Dog Sledding: Experience the romance and thrill of Dog Sledding through Cariboo Country, where the heavy and reliable snowfalls provide excellent backcountry trails. Local companies will take you on a short tour, or set you up to mush your own team of enthusiastic and friendly huskies.
Biking: Bike riders and enthusiasts flock to Tour de Cariboo, held in September. The Tour is a 76km/47mi bike ride from Williams Lake to Gavin Lake, across mostly paved roads and past spectacular scenery and across varied terrain.
The Williams Lake Harvest Fair is an annual event held in September. The fair takes pride in being a country fair, where the focus is showing visitors the importance agriculture plays in the lives of the residents of Williams Lake.
In August, the return of the salmon is celebrated with the annual Salmon Run, which takes place in the nearby community of Horsefly.
Horsefly Lake Provincial Park, set in the heart of what were once goldfields, is located northeast of Williams Lake, and 13 km northeast of Horsefly. The large Horsefly Lake is now mainly used by anglers, providing a good fishing spot for rainbow trout. Facilities include 23 vehicle/tent campsites, a picnic/day-use area, and a boat launch. And, yes, the biting-insect population here is the reason for the lake’s name.
Gold Rush: In 1859, local Indians showed gold seekers the location of gold deposits in nearby Horsefly, sparking the great Cariboo Gold Rush. Today Horsefly is a forestry centre and the gateway to fabulous camping, hiking and fishing in the surrounding area.
The Chilcotin, sometimes called “BC’s last frontier”, lies between the Fraser River and the Coastal Mountains, and is traversed by the 450 Km long Bella Coola Highway 20, which runs from Williams Lake in the interior to Bella Coola on the coast. Interesting places to explore along the route include a side trip from Tatla Lake into Tsyl’os Park and Tweedsmuir Provincial Park.
The route of Highway 97 from Williams Lake to Quesnel follows the Fraser River, passing points of interest such as McLeese Lake, First Nations attractions at Soda Creek, and the trip across the Fraser River via the Marguerite Ferry.
Circle Tours: See the best of the Cariboo, Chilcotin and BC Coast on the Discovery Coast Circle Tour. Cross to Vancouver Island from Vancouver and head north, boarding the Queen of Chilliwack in Port Hardy. Return to the mainland at Bella Coola, and enjoy the grassy plateaus, rolling meadows, picturesque canyons and high mountain peaks of the Chilcotin. The old Cariboo Wagon Road will lead you back to Vancouver through the heart of the Cariboo region. The Inside Passage Tour, the Native Heritage Tour, and the Circle Tour of Northern BC all incorporate the Cariboo Highway 97 for the journey between Prince George and Vancouver.
Circle Tours in British Columbia.