BC road trip: Merritt to Kamloops Highway 5A
Explore the past along Highway 5A Merritt to Kamloops (Princeton-Kamloops Highway), a road less travelled. Road tripping at its best packed with history, scenery, lakes, and options for wilderness side trips and camping.
About the Merritt to Kamloops Route
When travelling from Merritt to Kamloops, there are two routes that take you there – Colquihalla Highway 5 or the lower road Highway 5A, also known as the Princeton Kamloops Highway, or the old Merritt Highway, which starts at Highway 3 in Princeton and ends in Kamloops.
Highway 5A got designated as a secondary road when Coquihalla Highway Phase 2 opened up a few decades ago. If you prefer slower travel, and you try to avoid the sterile Coquihalla Highway 5 over the mountains, you will experience one of the most beautiful road trips in British Columbia. Heading north on Highway 5A will take you on a winding route along the shores of Nicola Lake.
Highway 5A Road Information
- Distance: 97.5 km
- Highway condition: Paved 2-line highway
- Driving time: Approximately 1 hour 20 minutes without traffic
- Plan to spend at least a day on the drive. Possibly take a side road to one of the forestry camps and spend a night in the wild.
- Highway 5A has a speed limit of 90 km/hr, compared to the Highway 5 Freeway (Coquihalla) which has a speed limit of 120 km (75 mi/hr. It is a two-line Highway, usually not too busy and but it is extensively used by long-haul semi-trucks.
- This is a secondary highway, watch out for fallen rocks.
- Be aware that snow plows might not respond quickly to heavy snowfall.
Highway 5A – a brief history
Human history in this region goes back 8,000 to 10,000 years to when the Interior Salish, ancestors of the First Nations people, first arrived here. Their trails were later used by the fur traders when they arrived in the region in 1813. The traders turned the route into a “highway” used by the Hudson’s Bay Company to transport the furs and bring in trade goods a few times a year.
Later, the road was used by miners heading north to the Cariboo Gold Rush. In the 1880s ranchers drove their cattle over the historic trails to the markets.
The first wagon road connected Kamloops to Merritt in the 1880s. There was little change regarding the route over the next century. But then, Expo 86 was important enough to have a new road built over the plateau, the current freeway Highway 5 (Colquhillala).
How to get to Highway 5A starting point in Merritt
I began my highway 5A road trip in Merrit, the cowboy town in the Nicola River Valley, British Columbia. Merritt is where the Old West culture is still alive. Surrounded by ranching country and beautiful Provincial Parks, Merritt is known as the “Country Music Capital of Canada” for its wealth of country music attractions, activities, and events.
I arrived in Merrit from Penticton in South Okanagan via Highway 97C.
Merritt is situated in an excellent location with major highways connecting from all directions. Therefore, it acts as the gateway to all other major highways to the B.C. Interior.
- Highway 5, and Highway 97C intersect at Merritt with Highway 97C East connecting the city to Kelowna and Penticton.
- Highway 97C Northwest to Logan Lake
- Highway 8 to Spences Bridge and Lillooet
- Highway 5A South to Princeton
- Highway 5A North to Kamloops
- Highway 5 South to Hope
- Highway 5 North to Kamloops
Merritt, the Country Music Capital of Canada
A lake a day as long as you stay, is the old slogan of Merritt!
The downtown core of Merritt is pretty small and therefore walkable. The town has a real western feel to it. A major landmark of Merritt is the century-old Coldwater Hotel. There are many options for how to spend your time in Merritt before heading out on your road trip to Kamloops.
I left the farm where I stayed during my Merritt visit mid-morning on the second day of October by beautiful sunshine and warm temperatures. A short time later I stopped on the side of the road at Lower Nicola to take pictures of old buildings and huge, yellow sparkling hay fields, before I continued to old town Merritt along Highway 8. While filling up my gas tank I noticed that the gasoline price had nearly reached the $2/litre mark.
There was enough time for a quick stop at the Kekuli Coffee shop for a cappuccino before leaving town and heading out on Highway 5A.
My first stop was approximately 10 km north of Merrit on Highway 5A at the historic Nicola Ranch surrounded by huge alfalfa and corn fields.
The historic Murray Church was built at Nicola in 1876 and was one of the oldest BC churches still standing in its original location. Unfortunately, it burned down in January 2019 caused to arson. Funds were raised, and it has since been rebuilt and reopened on October 1, 2022, which was yesterday.
There is also the old courthouse dating back to 2013 which today is used as a private residence. The souvenir store was closed at the time I stopped at Nicola.
Monck Provincial Park
The next stop, Monck Park is set on the western shore of Nicola Lake, 22 km northeast of Merritt. Turn off at the Pioneer community of Nicola and drive 11 km along the narrow paved road to get to this beautiful Provincial Park.
The drive to the park can be a bit of an adventure. This is semi-arid desert country with balsamroot, sagebrush, rabbitbrush, and prickly-pear cacti on the hillsides and at the park. Swans, pelicans, and a variety of waterbirds are often seen at Nicola lake. If you’re super lucky you might see an eagle circling high above checking on things.
Monck Park Provincial Park has beautiful campsites for overnight camping and plenty of picnic tables for day use, with a rocky beach on one side and a sandy beach around the corner. The park offers recreational activities including canoeing, swimming, fishing, boating, windsurfing, and hiking.
Across the lake from Monck Provincial Park, you get a view of the historic Quiochena Hotel
Only a couple of families were left walking along the shoreline and their kids playing in the sand and water. The park was about to close for the season. I was told, that a month earlier this park was packed and extremely busy.
Back on Highway 5A, the road skirts Nicola lake with a pleasant rest area and boat launch a bit farther down the road. Make sure to pull over and walk down to the dock to enjoy some spectacular views of this lake.
My next stop was at Quilchena, the small community located on the south shore of Nicola Lake.
Quilchena Hotel is one of the Valley’s most historic buildings. It first opened its doors in 1908 and it served the carriage trade between Nicola and Kamloops. Nicola Lake was a popular tourist destination, and the hotel was an overnight stopover for stagecoaches.
Also, drop in at the historic Quilchena General Store that has served the local community since 1912.
Gas pumps have now replaced the hitching rails from the early days. Quilchena General Store offers local art and jewelry, groceries and gifts, outdoor wear, and cowboy hats. Don’t miss it!
From Quilchena you get a view of Monck Provincial Park across the lake, where I was a couple of hours earlier.
Douglas Lake side trip
The Douglas Lake road turnoff is approximately 28 km north of Merritt, near the beautiful Lady of Lourdes Log Church.
The last time I drove on Douglas Lake road was in 2002. At that time, we trailered our horses from our home in Lumby BC to Nicola Ranch, the staging place for the famous Kamloops cattle drive at the time.
Douglas Lake Road is a scenic alternative route to the North Okanagan and Shuswap areas, joining Highway 97 at Westwold.
The drive along the paved road travels through ranching grasslands. When you come to the Douglas Lake Indian Band reserve and offices on your left, you have also arrived at the lake.
Douglas Lake is the headquarter of Douglas Lake Cattle Ranch, one of Canada’s largest ranches. Step back in time and look around you. Just like I did, head to the old post office/general store for ice cream and have a then walk around the area.
Douglas Lake road turns into gravel after this point and continues all the way to Westwold. I made a U-turn and drove all the way back to Highway 5A to pursue my adventure.
Beaver Lake Flats wildlife viewing area
No drive along Highway 5A would be complete without stopping at Beaver Ranch Flats wildlife viewing area, just past the north end of Nicola Lake.
This marshland area is dedicated to Lawrence Guichon (1944 to 1999), a rancher and conservationist in the Nicola Valley who realized the importance of protecting the water and grassland of this region. It is a magic spot to have a break and to look out for swans, geese, and ducks.
Peter Hope Lake
From Merritt, the turnoff to Peter Hope Lake is 49 km north along Highway 5A. Drive past Nicola Lake and past Beaver Ranch Flats until you come to the signs for Peterhope Lake Road on the right. Travel 7.5 km up the maintained gravel road that takes you to the recreation site.
Look out for large logging trucks that frequently use this road.
Peter Hope Lake North is a popular site for fishing and camping. Because of the amazing late fall weather and mild temperatures, most spots along the lake were occupied by mostly big rigs. Most sites were in the hot sun without shade. There are two boat launches available for use and a rustic playground.
It was only early afternoon when I looked at all the huge campers, trucks, and ATVs parked at Peter Hope Lake and decided to drive back to Highway 5A and continue my trip.
A few minutes back on the Highway you come to the eight-kilometre-long Stump Lake, another popular lake for fishermen. Tucked away on the shores of Stump Lake is Stump Lake Ranch, established in 1883. This is ranching and cattle country!
While driving through a diverse wonderful countryside of rolling hills, grasslands, rocky areas, forests, and wetlands look out for wildlife like moose, deer, eagles, black bears, and coyotes.
In 2020, Stump Lake residents were in the news because they had to deal with devastating floods.
The string of lakes continues
The road winds north to the Napier Lake “Sea of Grass” viewpoint, another must-stop along the way.
Napier Lake Conservation Area is located on the plateau. It can be reached via a rough single-line road that starts just north of Jackson’s ranch buildings. Native grassland habitats and gently rolling hills covered by tall grasses make it a paradise for birds and other small animals.
Watch out for hawks and falcons circling in the sky above. The steep rocky slopes are also favourite habitat for hibernating snakes and bats.
Highway 5A continues and winds along Richie and Trapp Lakes.
Roche Lake side trip
Look out for Roche Lake Road turnoff at the north end of Trapp Lake, approximately 75 km north of Merritt and only 23 km south of Kamloops. Follow the gravel road and watch out for potholes. I was hoping to find a perfect place to camp for a night at Roche Lake Provincial Park, which I did.
Roche Lake and the surrounding lakes are considered world-class trout fishing lakes.
There are three separate campgrounds, Roche North, Roche West, and Horseshoe Campgrounds.
I ended up staying in the North Campground for a night which is basically an open area about a short distance before you get to the Roche Lake Resort. It is the easier of the three campgrounds to get to.
I found a private spot next to the forest with a view of the lake and an old outhouse nearby. It’s hard to find a level spot and some sites are nearly impossible to access with a car. The place was fairly busy with fishermen launching their boats from there.
West Campground has also good sites but the road in is full of potholes and boulders and is not recommended for big rigs.
I checked out Horseshoe Lake Campground the next day before leaving the area. Horseshoe Lake is located between the other two campgrounds and is easy to get to. It’s a lot smaller with only a few sites in a treed area, but this would have definitely been my preferred place to camp.
There are pit toilets and garbage receptacles that are maintained daily.
Avoid long weekends for your camping trip. Because being so close to Kamloops, it can get extremely busy when all the weekend warriors and high school kids come out.
Back on Highway 5A, it’s only a short distance to the next photogenic turnout at Shumway Lake. The lake is known for the Kamloops Canoe and Kayak Club races happening every year.
The pullout at Separation Lake was my last stop before Kamloops. This lake is 2 km in length and is a favorite spot for birds and birdwatchers. Looking at the hills east of the lake I notice a couple of abundant homesteads.
A fantastic view to finish up road-tripping along 5A!
Kamloops – Highway 5A endpoint
Before Kamloops on the south side of the city, you will reach Knutsford, a small community. Look out for old farm buildings in the surrounding hills dating back to early settlers.
At Knutsford, you have the choice either to continue on Highway 5A to Kamloops or turn onto Long Lake Road for a backcountry route ending at Colquahala Highway 5.
Backcountry Route: Follow Long Lake Road, the route of the original HBC Brigade Trail for about 15 km travelling south. Take Goose Lake Road which branches off to the right and takes you to Lac Le Jeune Rd. Turn left again and continue southwest to the Coquihalla Highway.
Where to find a place to stay if you’re not into camping
- Booking.com for finding budget, mid-range, and luxury hotels
- How to find free campsites in Canada
- Backcountry Camping Guide
- Best camping apps