Kettle Valley Railway and Walking Trails

By Bryn White   Penticton & Wine Country Tourism

I’m sure Andrew McCulloch never thought his life’s work would make so many people happy. As the chief engineer of the Kettle Valley Railway Project at the turn of the century, constructing a rail line through some of the most inhospitable terrain in all of North America was a challenging and colossal undertaking in itself. McCulloch and those who worked to lay Kettle Valley track, far from home and facing considerable hardship and danger on a daily basis, may have never known this engineering marvel would become a treasured conduit for recreation and relaxation for generations of people to come.

Like many of our unplanned national fortunes, the railway was rooted in a complicated history of conflict, competition and politics. The need to link the Kootenays and Southern Interior was due to the need to keep boundary areas rich in precious resources, Canadian. Fearing annexation by the United States, the race to establish an interior line was on, but its life was short. Like the pack trains and lake running sternwheelers, the usefulness of this steam locomotive line was diminished due to the boom-bust nature of resource markets and advancing transport technology.

The now abandoned rail bed is a cherished part of the Trans Canada Trail network, connecting the interior of British Columbia with millions of miles of pathway across Canada. Thousands of people arrive in the Okanagan every year to hike and bike various portions of the easygoing grade that became McCulloch’s back yard. Penticton enjoys its place as the hub of the Kettle Line and multiple day trips back in time are possible from this comfortable base.

Many of McCulloch’s historic trestles throughout Myra Canyon on the Kelowna side of the rail bed were burned in the 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park fire, much to the heartbreak of all who have surveyed the view from their decks. Those who proclaimed they would rebuild the trestles, just hours after fire had consumed them, are strengthened by the spirit and tenacity of all who had a hand in building the originals. It won’t be long before Kelowna and Penticton are re-joined on this eastern front and visitors are able to experience Myra Canyon’s incredible vistas once again.

Despite this small break in the trail, day trips from Penticton on the Kettle Valley continue to be a treat for visitors and locals. North, to the outskirts of the Okanagan Mountain Park fire, visitors can witness the regenerative strength of a fire dependent forest by foot or by bike. The KVR trailhead to Penticton runs through a mosaic of burned and unscathed majestic ponderosa pines. The unburned and newly greened areas provide habitat and refuge for many species left by this fire. Bunchgrasses, pine cones, sumac and other shrubs have been rejuvenated by this burn and will begin to green in the spring. Rounding the corner toward Naramata and Penticton proper, the views from the historic tunnels are breathtaking; rows of neat, lush vineyards and orchards, sparkling water and rolling golden bunchgrass hillsides.

Heading south towards the border, the KVR Line hugs the shore of beautiful Skaha Lake on its way to Okanagan Falls. Wander next to an ancient glacial bench and take in the perfect view of the east-side range where California bighorn sheep are often seen grazing. The wetland wildlife along this stretch of Skaha Lake is wonderful – you may spot a deer browsing in the lush grass, a merganser or osprey cruising for fish, or a coyote taking a drink from a quiet spot. Uncrowded and unspoiled, this peaceful length of the lake is a secret treasure in the Okanagan.

Westward, the trail winds through the West Bench bunchgrass and open, park-like ponderosa pine forest and leads to one of the greatest challenges McCulloch faced: Trout Creek Canyon. McCulloch’s trestle is 250 feet in length, and just as high from the creek below. After carefully crossing this span by foot, hikers are encouraged to make their way by road and back in time to the Kettle Valley Station to cruise Prairie Valley in style. From a wooden platform, tickets in hand, guests can hear the approach of a huffing, snorting, whistling steam engine, one of the last working engines in Canada. A conductor steps out of time in period costume to help guests aboard. This could be the only place in the world where people volunteer to be mugged. Depending on the season, one may find themselves at the business end of a revolver when the Garnet Valley Gang rides up on horseback in a hail of gunfire for The Great Train Robbery. Passengers willingly give up their loose change to these outlaws, as they know it is destined for charity.

Penticton is the perfect place to explore this gift from the past. By foot or by bike, the mystery and the history of the Kettle Valley Railway awaits you.

Penticton Features

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