PHOTOS: The Highway Tunnels of the Fraser Canyon

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As a child growing up in Surrey, British Columbia in the 1950s and ’60s, the Trans-Canada Highway through the Fraser Canyon was a regular route for our family road trips, and I’ve never lost my fascination with the seven tunnels that were built between 1957 and 1964. Located between Boston Bar and Yale, they each have their own character and range from 57 metres (187 feet) to 610 metres (2,000 feet) in length. If you’re looking for a scenic drive rich in history and engineering, this one’s for you.

Some of my earliest memories of the Fraser Canyon were actually not very pleasant, as the road before the modern tunnels were built was very scary in places – a narrow, winding, cliff-hanging beast of a road with a couple of short tunnels. Every time my father drove us through the canyon, though, another tunnel had been added and before long, the scary sections were gone and it had become one of the most dramatic sections of highway in North America. My father, now 92 years old, first travelled through the canyon with his parents in 1929, and has similar memories, both from that trip and later pre-tunnel drives. He says that the most unnerving sections were the lengthy wooden trestles, some of them only wide enough for one vehicle, which stuck out from the cliffs in several places, notably south of Alexandra Bridge. Many sections of the old road can still be walked.

Today’s tunnels from north to south are: China Bar (opened in 1961), Ferrabee (1964), Hells Gate (1960), Alexandra (1964), Sailor Bar (1959), Saddle Rock (1958) and Yale (1963). With one exception, the photos below were shot in December 2014 travelling south, the first time in 50-odd years that I’d been a passenger in a car going through the canyon so I could take pictures.

The highway continues into a tunnel through a mountain.

This is the entrance to the longest of the tunnels, China Bar, which is about 610 metres (2,000 feet) long. The yellow sign above the road has warning lights that are activated by cyclists before they enter the tunnel, which is curved so has reduced sight lines. The building contains equipment for ventilation of the tunnel – China Bar is the only one that is ventilated.

Driving through a dimly lit tunnel.

Driving through the China Bar tunnel.

A winding highway leads into a tunnel built into a rock face.

Approaching the Ferrabee tunnel, which has a slight curve to it. It’s about 300 metres (985 feet) long.

A semi truck exits one tunnel and heads into another.

Nearing the south end of the Ferrabee tunnel, with the shortest of the tunnels, Hells Gate, ahead. The Hells Gate tunnel is 57 metres (187 feet) long.

View of a very short highway tunnel.

The Hells Gate tunnel is the only one that doesn’t have overhead lighting.

The view of a dense forest as you come out of a highway tunnel.

The views coming out of most of the tunnels – in this instance the Hells Gate – is spectacular.

Approaching a highway tunnel aglow with overhead lighting.

Approaching the Alexandra tunnel, which is also curved and has cyclist-activated warning lights. It is 290 metres (951 feet) long.

Entrance to a highway tunnel with a sign that reads “Alexandra Tunnel”.

A closer look at the entrance and cyclist warning lights in the Alexandra tunnel.

A jeep drives through a glowing highway tunnel.

Driving through the Alexandra tunnel – Fraser Canyon, BC.

View of a highway tunnel that takes you through a rocky landscape.

The Sailor Bar tunnel from the south in February 2015 during one of my many drives from Vancouver to Whitehorse. The Sailor Bar tunnel is 292 metres (958 feet) long.

View of a highway tunnel nestled at the base of a rocky hill.

Back to December 2014, this is Sailor Bar tunnel from the north.

Approaching a highway tunnel that cuts through a rocky cliff dotted with pine trees.

The oldest of the modern tunnels, Saddle Rock, is 146 metres (479 feet) long.

A highway winds past a stunning rocky landscape, complete with a dense forest.

One of the stunning views south of Saddle Rock.

In all of these photos you can see the biggest advantage of driving the Fraser Canyon off-season – there’s very little traffic.

A highway tunnel travels through a rocky mountain.

At Lady Franklin Rock, the Fraser River is forced through a 50-metre-wide slot, and both the highway and railway lines required tunnels to get past it. The highway goes through the Yale tunnel, which is 286 metres (938 feet) long.

View of a dense forest upon exiting a highway tunnel.

At this point, about to exit the Yale tunnel, I often have a strong desire to do a U-turn and drive through all the tunnels again. Some kids never grow up!

Whether your interests are in scenic photography, history or engineering, the Fraser Canyon has a great deal to offer in any season. Beyond the highway scenes I’ve posted, there are many superb places to go hiking and exploring, many of them on old sections of highway such as at Alexandra Bridge, so offering very easy walking. Interpretive centres at each end of the Fraser Canyon – the Tuckkwiowhum Heritage Interpretive Village in Boston Bar and the Yale Historic Site and Museum in Yale – can add even more depth and colour to your exploring.