Precious and Protected: BC’s UNESCO Sites

Precious and Protected: BC’s UNESCO Sites

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In the hushed light of dusk a guide lowers a lantern, spilling low-angled light across a flat stretch of rock, casting shadows that reveal a trail of shallow dinosaur footprints so detailed it’s possible to see the exquisite texture of the ancient creatures’ skin.

Stumbled upon by a pair of youngsters in 2002 while tubing down a nearby river, the trackway was the first significant find in the Northern BC Rockies foothills near Tumbler Ridge. Dozens have been found since, along with a wealth of the province’s first and Western Canada’s oldest dinosaur bones, and an abundance of Triassic fish and marine reptiles. These can be seen at the Tumbler Ridge Museum’s Dinosaur Discovery Gallery, a departure point for hiking tours to the area’s two dinosaur tracksites.

Tumbler Ridge Geopark. Photo: Louis Gabriel Kéroack

Tumbler Ridge Geopark. Photo: Louis Gabriel Kéroack

Prompted by the boys’ discovery, BC’s only vertebrate palaeontologists moved to town and created a research centre. This convinced the small town’s physician, Charles Helm, alongside about 20 passionate locals, to promote the fossil-finds that regularly were being discovered — including a 10-metre, 75-million-year-old duck-billed hadrosaur — as well as their region’s spectacular mountain landscapes with its rock formations, canyons and numerous waterfalls.

They built a network of trails to 50 geosites to attract visitors and prevent Tumbler Ridge — recently suffering the shutdown of its last coal mine — from becoming a ghost town. “New finds are constantly coming to light,” says Helm. “We explore, discover, our palaeontologists do a scientific assessment and next thing it’s exhibited in the museum,” he says. “This rapid rate of discovery and presentation creates a dynamic and exciting atmosphere.”

Helm, his colleagues and palaeontologists applied for their unique destination to be declared a UNESCO-sponsored Global Geopark, a designation that promotes geo-diversity through community-led initiatives and celebrates 4.5 billion years of Earth’s history, supporting conservation as well as sustainable development.

In September 2014 Tumbler Ridge became the world’s 111th Global Geopark and only the second in North America’s after Stonehammer, NB. UNESCO has long recognized British Columbia’s dynamic and diverse cultural and natural treasures and Tumbler Ridge is the latest; it joins a roll call of extraordinary sites across the breadth of the province.

1. Burgess Shale

A 505 million year-old fossil in Yoho National Park's Burgess Shale. Photo: @meeshull via Instagram

A 505 million year-old fossil in Yoho National Park’s Burgess Shale. Photo: @meeshull via Instagram

Another hotbed of Earth’s early life is an ancient seabed perched on a high mountain ridge in the Canadian Rockies’ Yoho National ParkBurgess Shale is one of the planet’s most significant fossil sites. Lace up your boots, join a Parks Canada interpreter/guide and hike to discover and hold in your hand rare 505-million-year-old fossils of often bizarre soft-bodied organisms.

You can see not only the bones, shells and teeth of “stone bugs” as they were called by railway workers who discovered them in the 1880s, but also muscles, gills and digestive systems which allowed scientists an unprecedented opportunity to learn how these creatures — mostly arthropods — lived and interacted in a sea whose bed has faulted, folded and uplifted over millennia onto what is now a mountain top. Finish the trek with a fossil rubbing to take the memories home.

2. Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks

While the Burgess Shale makes its home within Yoho National Park, it’s important to note that all of Yoho is, in fact, part of one vast UNESCO World Heritage Site called the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks; this area is made up of several contiguous national and provincial parks straddling the Rocky Mountains that form the boundary between BC and Alberta. It’s a wide swath of towering peaks, icefields, glaciers, lakes, waterfalls, limestone caves, canyons, wildlife-filled forests and geological riches. In summer this string of preserves is a hiker and paddler’s paradise; in winter it is a blissful refuge for backcountry skiers and snowshoers.

Yoho National Park offers dramatic landscapes on the Rockies’ western slopes. Hike to roaring Wapta Falls or make your way to Takakkaw Falls, one of Canada’s highest. Paddle and picnic at the surreal-turquoise Emerald Lake, and gaze across at the Natural Bridge where ancient stone has been carved by the rushing waters of Kicking Horse River. And, at an elevation of 2,000-plus metres (6,562-plus feet), the alpine jewel of Lake O’Hara is a glorious trekker’s playground of hanging valleys and panoramic views.

Taking in the views at Lake O'Hara in Yoho National Park. Photo: @calsnape via Instagram

Taking in the views at Lake O’Hara in Yoho National Park. Photo: @calsnape via Instagram

Right next door, Kootenay National Park is diverse, from glacier-draped peaks to semi-arid cactus country. Watch for shaggy white mountain goats on the road-trip along the park’s 94-kilometre (58-mile) scenic Banff-Windermere Highway. It’s colourful here, from the green gem of Olive Lake nestled near the Sinclair Pass Summit to the white dolomite walls of Marble Canyon and the rust/orange Paint Pots, mineral springs that were an important source for First Nations ochre paints. Then finish up with a soak in the soothing waters of Radium Hot Springs.

A hiker on a moraine above Floe Lake in Kootenay National Park. Photo: Kari Medig

A hiker on a moraine above Floe Lake in Kootenay National Park. Photo: Kari Medig

To the south, the roadless wilderness of Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park is the domain of hikers, skiers and horseback riders who explore alpine meadows beneath glistening glaciers and the impressive peak of 3,618-metre (11,870-foot) Mount Assiniboine. The 1928 log Assiniboine Lodge — the Canadian Rockies’ first ski lodge — is a charmingly rustic mountain base in summer or winter.

Mount Robson Provincial Park protects another summit, the Canadian Rockies’ highest. Mount Robson towers 3,954 metres (12,972 feet) above the headwaters of the mighty Fraser River. It’s a vast preserve accessible along the Yellowhead Highway for outdoor adventures including fishing, caving, camping and hiking in a remote wilderness rich with grizzly bears and caribou, mountain goats and big horn sheep, and moose in lowland marshes.

Reflections from Berg Lake in Mount Robson Provincial Park. Photo: @paulzizkaphoto via Instagram

Berg Lake, Mount Robson Provincial Park. Photo: @paulzizkaphoto via Instagram

3. Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park

Confluence of the Tatshenshini and Alsek Rivers. Photo: Bruce Kirkby

Confluence of the Tatshenshini and Alsek Rivers. Photo: Bruce Kirkby

Squeezed into BC’s northwestern corner, Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park is part of another contiguous UNESCO World Heritage Site — Kluane/Wrangell-St Elias/Glacier Bay/Tatshenshini-Alsek — 9.8 million hectares of glacier-cloaked peaks, unbridled rivers, endangered wildlife and unique vegetation sprawling across the Alaskan and Yukon borders. Together, they make up a massive protected area that is home to the world’s biggest non-polar icefields.

BC’s wildest rivers, the Alsek and Tatshenshini, churn through grand glacier-carved, U-shaped valleys, a place of staggering beauty where grizzly bears, caribou and Dall’s sheep roam. These valleys are vital to the eco-system as a migration route through mountains and ice from the interior to the Pacific. It’s a dynamic landscape with ice-clad peaks like Mt. Fairweather, at 4,663 metres (15,300 feet) the province’s tallest. This pristine wilderness has no roads, but outfitters like Canadian River Expeditions make it an accessible adventure destination, offering rafting, paddling and hiking; mountain bikers can explore challenging terrain and old mining roads.

4. Clayoquot Sound Biosphere Reserve

Reflections from Clayoquot Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Photo: @achilts via Instagram

Reflections from Clayoquot Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Photo: @achilts via Instagram

British Columbians have often fought hard to keep their natural landscapes wild. Clayoquot Sound on Vancouver Island‘s west coast was the focal point of grass roots protests against old-growth forest logging which led to the establishment of the Clayoquot Sound Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO designation of terrestrial and coastal ecosystems that promote reconciling conservation with sustainable use.

It’s a lush, diverse region of alpine peaks, temperate coastal rainforest and rocky shorelines where Steller and California sea lions are common. The gateway is the seaside community of Tofino where visitors can join outfitters for whale and bear watching, sea kayaking among grey and humpback whales, dolphins and porpoises to hidden coves, hiking rainforest trails amid towering 1,000-year-old cedars, and slipping into the warm waters of Hot Springs Cove. Eager to overnight? Savour the experience of staying within the biosphere in luxury at the gloriously tented Clayoquot Wilderness Resort.

5. SGang Gwaay

Ancient totem poles in SGang Gwaay. Photo: @freeluftsliv via Instagram

Ancient totem poles in SGang Gwaay. Photo: @freeluftsliv via Instagram

On BC’s northern coast, steeped in misty mystery, are the remains of the 19th century Haida village of SGang Gwaay Llnagaay, a haunting site where the last carved mortuary or memorial poles still stand on a tiny island in the Haida Gwaii archipelago. Fallen, decaying longhouses lie half-buried in lush moss amid giant red cedars once used to build ocean-going canoes and trademark poles that displayed the symbols of family history and held the bones of ancestors.

Every summer Haida Watchmen keep vigil over this World Heritage Site. They greet and inform visitors who arrive via Zodiac, kayak or on small luxury cruise or sailboats operated by outfitters like Maple Leaf Adventures, about their people’s 10,000-year-old traditional relationship with the land and sea, and about the oral traditions of a thriving coastal people with a rich culture that has seen a robust resurgence in recent decades.

For more on British Columbia’s UNESCO sites, visit