This 10-day Adventure Through British Columbia Was One of the Best Family Vacations We've Ever Taken — Here's How to Plan Your Own

Before her eldest son leaves for college, one travel writer heads to British Columbia with her family for one more epic summer adventure.

"You got this mom!” The voice floating down the Bella Coola Valley belonged to my firstborn, Ethan. To see him, I raised my gaze from the carabiners that were preventing me from falling more than 100 feet into the Great Bear Rainforest below. I took a deep breath, shielded my eyes from the sun, and looked up at the 19-year-old above me. Then, despite how precariously I was perched and how uncertain I was, I kept climbing.

This particular journey marked the end of an era. Ethan was about to leave for college a few hundred miles away, and his impending move had triggered a sense of panic in me that I never expected. Traveling together is as much a part of our family culture as Scrabble tournaments and backyard barbecues. But this trip — a 10-day adventure through British Columbia — was likely the last chance for me and Ish, my husband, and Cameron, our younger son, to spend time with Ethan before his next chapter began. It was my reprieve from the grief of losing him to the world.

The very act of climbing this mountain was a distraction. The via ferrata, a network of metal cables and rungs set into the rock face, is the first of its kind in Tweedsmuir Provincial Park. Our guide, Krista Gooderham, had helped calm my fears by suggesting I focus not on the distance I still had to go, but on the next rung in front of me. “Just keep going and don’t look back.”

<p>Max St John/Drink Tea & Travel</p> A grizzly-bear family ambles through the grounds of Tweedsmuir Park Lodge, in Stuie, British Columbia.

Max St John/Drink Tea & Travel

A grizzly-bear family ambles through the grounds of Tweedsmuir Park Lodge, in Stuie, British Columbia.

Ethan and I took our first trip together when I was pregnant with him. It was my first real assignment as a travel writer: a story about a new Texas spa designed specifically for pregnant women. Without Ethan in my belly, the opportunity would likely have gone to someone else.

Since then, we’ve been on numerous family trips across the United States, the Caribbean, and our home country of Canada — as well as a yearlong around-the-world escapade when he was eight that included 29 countries on six continents. And now here we were on the face of Mount Walker.

The route we’d chosen for this trip was circular. We would fly from our home in Toronto to Vancouver, then north to Port Hardy, on Vancouver Island; from there, we would follow part of the Inside Passage on a 10-hour ferry ride to Bella Coola, then get in an SUV and wind our way south along remote backcountry highways back to Vancouver. I chose the route selfishly: I didn’t want to share my family with crowds of people. This way was slow, covered long distances, and required countless hours in the car together. It included places that are hard to reach, where nature rules and quiet abounds. Places where we could savor one another’s presence and pretend our world wasn’t about to be forever changed.

<p>Ian Harland</p> A Coastal Rainforest Safaris vessel sails through the 'Nak̕’wa̱xda'x̱w First Nation territory of northern Vancouver Island.

Ian Harland

A Coastal Rainforest Safaris vessel sails through the 'Nak̕’wa̱xda'x̱w First Nation territory of northern Vancouver Island.

From the moment we left Vancouver, I felt my stress subside. The magic will find us, I thought. And it didn’t take long.

Before sailing north, we spent a day in Port Hardy for a wildlife tour with Coastal Rainforest Safaris. As we boarded Big Red — a rigid inflatable boat, or RIB­ — we warned our guide that, when it comes to whales, our family doesn’t have the best of luck. He smiled and pointed: humpbacks had already come out to play several feet away, against a backdrop of cedar and spruce forest in the distance. The boys began searching for the telltale sprays that primed us for the whales’ inevitable arched backs. My sons’ delight each time it happened was audible, and was repeated when a group of sea otters made an appearance. Nature was putting on an amazing show, but I spent an equal amount of time watching the two of them. Who are these young men? I wondered as I listened to their conversations run from the mundane to the philosophical.

The next morning, we began our journey on BC Ferries — the main service for transporting people throughout the province’s island communities — from Port Hardy to Bella Coola. As we neared our destination, Ethan and Cameron encouraged us to join them on the top deck to see the towering walls of the fjord. The boys are two years apart, but so emotionally close they almost seem like fraternal twins. They have a secret language of looks and smiles that always grows stronger when we are away from home.

Our next stop, Tweedsmuir Park Lodge, lies in the wilderness of the Great Bear Rainforest. I would see them chatting on the porch of their cabin, or walking together to dinner, deep in conversation. One day, the lodge arranged a helicopter tour, and they shared the front seat as we flew over the ice fields. They cracked jokes with our pilot and enjoyed each other’s company without even a backward glance at their parents.

Between late August and October, the Great Bear Rainforest attracts grizzlies to its rivers, where salmon have returned to spawn. At 16 million acres, it’s the largest temperate coastal rain forest in the world, and 85 percent has been off-limits to industrial logging since 2016, making it one of the most pristine natural regions of Canada. Tweedsmuir Park Lodge sits in the middle of it all, on a bank of the Atnarko River, and guides offer tours of the area on foot and by dinghy. On a walk with lodge naturalist Ellie Lamb, we learned about the mama bears who roam the park. A female raises her cubs until they turn three, when she pushes them out of the fold.

“She’s taught them everything they need to know,” Lamb said. “Now it’s their turn to find their way.”

The last days of any vacation always feel like a Sunday morning. Excitement for the day ahead; dread for what’s to come. As we began the leg that would take us back to the city, the conclusion of the trip felt like it was rushing toward us.

We all seemed to feel it. The brothers’ teasing was gentler. Ish was quieter. I distracted myself with the role of navigator as we made the long drive to our next stop.

The rest of our adventure was intentionally slower paced, as we drove back to Vancouver from Bella Coola. We stopped for a night at Ten-ee-ah Lodge, a collection of simple but very comfortable log cabins near the town of Lac La Hache. In the morning, Ethan and I sneaked away for a walk along neighboring Spout Lake, and the golden light sparked an impromptu photo session and a chance to voice how much this trip meant to us both. We drove 2½ hours south to Clinton and checked in to the blissfully isolated Echo Valley Ranch & Spa. The hotel’s owners, Norm and Nan Dove, have created a convivial property full of frisky puppies and horses that roam the wildflower-dotted fields, which are framed by the peaks of the Marble Mountains.

The plan was to spend our last three days basking in sunshine and busying ourselves with outdoor activities. But the rain set in shortly after we arrived, and suddenly there was time to think. Each morning Ethan and I took a meditation class; at one of them, Nan, who heard of his pending departure, offered some wisdom. “Live with gratitude and love,” she told him. “Think of those who love you and who need your love.”

And then, in what felt like the blink of an eye, it was over. We were back where we started our trip, where every joy now felt laced with sadness. Giggles and groans over dinner were a reminder that Ethan would soon be missing from our table. We laughed and played and teased and loved, but the refrain persisted: he’d be leaving us.

I kept remembering the climb in Tweedsmuir. How, before we reached the top, each of us had to step out on a wobbly aerial cable bridge and inch our way over a trench that was so deep we couldn’t see the bottom. How, despite going it alone, we all felt the support of the others cheering from the sidelines. And the jubilance we shared at the summit when, with the fear long forgotten, only the majestic view remained.

When I’d looked at Ethan in that moment, I had seen the pride in his face and his love for us, and my heart eased. He was ready. He will meet people who will love him as we do. He will find his confidence and keep his spark. We will miss him greatly. But he’s right. We’ve got this.

A version of this story first appeared in the June 2023 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline "Brave New World."

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