Guaranteed Rugged Rail Journey On The Kaoham Shuttle
(This article was published in the June 2019 edition of Globerovers Magazine)
The Kaoham Shuttle is Canada’s most breathtaking hidden Train Journey from Lillooet to Seton Portage, British Columbia
The train adventure starts in the small town of Lillooet, a special place surrounded by towering mountains, deep canyons, roaring rivers, and crystal clear lakes. This unique piece of heaven situated along the mighty Fraser River captured my heart the first time I was in town. Lillooet is accessible via the famous Sea-to-Sky Highway from Vancouver.
Please check the latest comments below for updated information on the shuttle!
The rich history of Lillooet began with the people of the St’àtäimc Nation that continue to live in the area today. Much later during the British Columbia gold rush of 1860, Lillooet was Mile “0” on the Cariboo Pavilion Road, the first wagon road to be surveyed in BC and the route to the Cariboo goldfields.
When you travel through Lillooet in July and August you notice the rock shelf in the Fraser River near the town dotted with orange and blue tarpaulins. The site belongs to the Aboriginal people who still come every summer to gather their salmon for the winter as the fish make their way upriver to spawn. You will notice old drying racks scattered around the banks of the river canyon.
The Journey from Lillooet to Seton Portage
The train journey on the Kaoham Shuttle is something you won’t experience anywhere else. For the local people, it remains a vital service in an area where backcountry roads are often impassable. If you’re fortunate enough to get on the ride you will be amazed.
The train runs along the edge of Seton Lake next to impressive rock faces and cliffs and connects passengers between Lillooet and Seton Portage, every day of the week. Most of the passengers travel between the two towns for work, for family visits and for shopping.
What You Need To Know
The Kaoham Shuttle is not meant to be a tourist attraction and priority to board the train is given to the local people. Therefore, getting a spot on this train is a privilege.
How I got a seat on the train
I soon found out that patience and plenty of time were necessary if I wanted to venture on this iconic train journey. At the Lillooet Railway station, I was told to phone the reservation number listed at the door to get on the shuttle the next day, but no one answered my call. Booking ahead doesn’t always seem to work and I waited around until noon when finally the Kaoham Suttle arrived from Seton.
I was happy to talk to the friendly train driver before he headed back towards Seton at around 3:30 pm the same day. “I’ve been running the shuttle for sixteen years and would like to retire”, he said, “but no one wants to take over my job”. That made me think and wonder how much longer this train journey will be available. I made sure to let the driver know that I wanted to get on the shuttle the next day, whatever it takes.
Apart from Friday’s, there is only one train run per day, Seton Portage to Lillooet and back to Seton, so I had to look for accommodation.
I finally got ahold of the Lil’tem’ Mountain Hotel to find out that it was fully booked by BC Hydro workers but was promised that there was an empty trailer in town I could rent for a night.
The Epic Journey
The next day at 3:30 pm I boarded the train with a few locals. There wasn’t much space in the tiny passenger train this afternoon. The space next to the driver was filled with packages, groceries and other supplies and was also used by the driver to do his paperwork.
The one-car carriage followed the old train tracks along the base of one of the sheerest mountain rock cliffs with a view of the beautiful jade green shimmering lake. The little train puffed through the spectacular backcountry and made a few whistle and photo stops along the way. The driver slowed the train to point out eagles, mountain goats, and even a black bear far in the distance. The final highlight before arrival at Seaton Portage was the 1.2 km hollowed tunnel dug into the base of the mountain. The impressive journey lasted just over an hour.
After arrival in the small town of Seton Portage, I stopped in at the Lil’em’Mountain Hotel to get the directions to my trailer accommodation. Later I checked out the Highline Pub & Restaurant, found a small grocery store, and met friendly locals. This tiny community is a piece of heaven in the deep backcountry of British Columbia, a special place to explore.
The Road Back To Lillooet
For a different adventure, I caught a ride with friendly locals back to Lillooet along Mission Road the next morning. The steep gravel road cut into the edge of the mountain took us to the tiny community of Shalalth and past the massive Bridge River Generating Station. From the top of Mission Mountain, the road dropped down to Carpenter Lake with plenty of switchbacks and incredible views. The drive back to Lillooet was 72 km journey and took just over two hours.
Is it worth the hassle?
I know for sure that for the five dollars the train journey cost me I would have never been able to experience a more breathtaking train ride anywhere else. It was worth every second of waiting around at the train station.
Places to stay
Seton Portage Accommodation
The Lil’tem’ Mountain Hotel – the only hotel in town. If the hotel is booked out, they will be able to find accommodation for you somewhere else in town.
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Please leave a comment below if you have been on the Kaoham Shuttle or driven the road to Seaton Portage and have any tips to share.
Yrene lives in the Okanagan, British Columbia, Canada, and is the founder of BackcountryCanadaTravel.com. She was born in Switzerland, lived and worked on different continents and has travelled the world. Yes, that's me, an Entrepreneur, wilderness nut and animal lover who prefers off-the-beaten-track places. I write about things I love. Mostely.
Great article and thanks for posting!
Thanks, Richard, very much appreciated. I hope you’re doing okay. I’m still up in the Yukon.
Are you still in the Yukon? Hoping to make it up there mid to late Sept. Do you know how the weather is at that time of year? I have been reading all of your articles on Northern BC and the Yukon to help plan our trip. You write really nice articles!
Thanks Kim! How long a trip are you planning? This is not the best time of year, that’s why I’m on the way south. Especially this year the weather seems have changed earlier than usual.
I will update all the Yukon and NWT information in the next few weeks. Lots of new information and new places to add. And, I’m already planning to be up in the north again later next spring. 🙂
The wife and I rode the Kaoham Shuttle back in March 2016. No clue how they are operation during the pandemic, as I suspect the small communities up around there are closed off to non-residents. It does take some planning beforehand so you don’t get stranded in Seton Portage (Fridays is when most “tourist” riders aim for, as they have a second return run to Lillooet that day) – but if you can pull it off, it is totally worth it. The crew running it when we went were aware of the increase in attention they got after BBC ran a travel article about it around 2015. Prior to then, it really was a local-knowledge operation.
Thanks Dave for the additional info and article link. It is definitely a special adventure and I hope to check on the current situation this summer.
Is train running
I just checked on it when I was in Lillooet a couple of weeks ago. At the time, it didn’t run because of repair. I suggest inquiring at the Lillooet visitor centre if you can’t get through to the station.
My grandfather drove the PGE gas car that connected Lillooet to Seton from 1928 until he retired in 1943. I have that trip on my bucket list, but life (and Covid) keeps interfering. Maybe next year!
That’s definitely another good reason to do this trip. Make sure to find out whether the train is running before you get to the station. When I was in Lillooet this summer, it didn’t run because of repair. Good luck and let us know about your experience.
Hi…..a Local here, updating the info for folks curioys about the shuttle. The shuttle is now running on a regular basis, Monday to Friday. It is now a ‘high rail bus’ but still goes along the railway tracks. The shuttle leaves Lillooet most mornings, goes to Seton to pick up the highschool kids and brings them into Lillooet before school starts. The shuttle then goes back to eton for the public run. So it is now possible to do a return trip in a day, for $10 return trip. Call 250-259-8300 for reservations. This number is only monitored Monday to Friday, and closed for lunch. Just leave a message and they will put you on the reservation list. You may not hear back from them. 🙂
Thank you Teressa for the updated information. This is very much appreciated. I will update the guide.