The Highway Tunnels of BC’s Fraser Canyon

As a child growing up in Surrey 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 7 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 in length (187 feet) to 610 metres (2,000 feet).

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 – Michael Kluckner has an excellent page on this Vanishing BC Web site that shows the changes in the road and what can be seen of the old road today.

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 first photo shows 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.

The entrance to the longest of the highway tunnels in the Fraser Canyon, China Bar
Driving through the China Bar tunnel.

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

Approaching the Ferrabee tunnel, Fraser Canyon
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.

Nearing the south end of the Ferrabee tunnel, Fraser Canyon
The Hells Gate tunnel is the only one that doesn’t have overhead lighting.

Hells Gate highway tunnel, Fraser Canyon, BC
The views coming out of most of the tunnels – in this instance the Hells Gate – is spectacular.

Coming out of the Hells Gate tunnel, Fraser Canyon, BC
Approaching the Alexandra tunnel, which is also curved and has cyclist-activated warning lights. It is 290 metres (951 feet) long.

Approaching the Alexandra tunnel, which is curved and has cyclist-activated warning lights. Fraser Canyon, BC
A closer look at the entrance and cyclist warning lights in the Alexandra tunnel.

The entrance and cyclist warning lights in the Alexandra tunnel, Fraser Canyon, BC.
Driving through the Alexandra tunnel.

Driving through the Alexandra tunnel – Fraser Canyon, BC.
The Sailor Bar tunnel from the south in February 2015 during one of my many drives between Vancouver and Whitehorse. The Sailor Bar tunnel is 292 metres (958 feet) long.

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

Sailor Bar tunnel from the north
The oldest of the modern tunnels, Saddle Rock, is 146 metres (479 feet) long.

Saddle Rock highway tunnel, Fraser Canyon, BC
One of the stunning views south of Saddle Rock.

One of the stunning views south of Saddle Rock, Fraser Canyon, BC

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

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.

Yale tunnel, Fraser Canyon, BC
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!

Yale tunnel, Fraser Canyon, BC

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.



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