The mountain town of Wells, an 82km/51mi drive east of Quesnel, was built as a company town for Fred Wells’ Gold Quartz Mine, when the promise of more gold in the Cariboo gave many an opportunity to escape the unemployment of the depressed 1930s in what was then northern B.C.’s largest community and cultural centre.
Fast-forward some 80 years. While there are now fewer than 300 year-round residents, many heritage buildings have been restored, including the Wells Hotel and the Sunset Theatre. Other architectural landmarks sport bright rainbow colours in a nod to the town’s vibrant arts scene. The Island Mountain Arts Society’s celebrated arts school offers classes in visual, literary and performing art, while the wildly popular ArtsWells Festival of All Things Art is held annually the first weekend in August.
The region’s outdoor adventures include the popular 7 Summits Bike & Hike Trek that lures mountain bikers from across the globe. The area has hundreds of kilometres of stunningly scenic trails to suit all users; hiking, mountain biking, cross-country skiing and snowmobiling ‘ accessible right from town! Nearby Jack O’Clubs Lake boasts tranquil canoeing. In winter, try hut-to-hut cross-country adventures in the Mount Murray Area, sled dog adventures and the renowned Gold Rush Trail Sled Dog Mail Run. Straddling the Trans Canada Snowmobile Trail and part of the Gold Rush Snowmobile Trail, the Wells network of ‘sledder’ trails links you to Likely and the Prince George snowmobile clubhouse.
Just outside of Wells you will find the provincial historic site of Barkerville. Although many boomtowns sprung to life during the Cariboo Gold Rush, Barkerville’s collection of multi-purpose buildings squeezed against the bank of a mountainside creek was the largest and most resilient in the region. By 1958, when the provincial government declared the town a B.C. Heritage Property, Barkerville had been all-but deserted, and the last residents were relocated as work began on restoring the town’s ‘heyday splendour.’
Now one of Canada’s National Historic Sites, Barkerville is B.C.’s best known heritage destination and the largest historic site in western North America. Full of colour and vitality, with stagecoach rides, live theatre, saloons serving quaffs of sarsaparilla, a photo studio, cafe and bakery, a well-preserved 19th-century Chinatown and interesting cemetery tours, families love to visit Barkerville and enjoy costumed interpreters roaming the streets as historical characters, greeting newcomers as if they’d just arrived on a Barnard Express stagecoach. One hundred and thirty-five restored buildings are on display as ‘locals’ set off to work at the mine or otherwise bring a bygone era to life. See and hear what it was like to be a blacksmith, a school teacher, a seamstress – or a precocious child – 150+ years ago.
Bowron Lake Provincial Park
It is big, covering 121,000hec/298,997ac, as are the snow-capped Cariboo Mountains that rim this wilderness expanse. But it is the park’s most unusual physical feature that is the key to its popularity – a rectangular-shaped water-system and wildlife sanctuary that forms a 116km/72mi canoe circuit unique in North America. Where else can you paddle for 10 days without backtracking and end where you began? No other canoe circuit boasts the same combination of mountain scenery, lakes and diverse wildlife. The former home of the southern Carrier, Athapaskan and Dene Nations, who built kekulis (kik-will-ees), or pit houses, close to where Kibbee Creek flows into Bowron Lake, is now an international attraction – one so popular that canoeists must reserve their ‘paddle slots’ well in advance.