Othello Tunnels may remain closed through 2023

Hope's most popular tourist attraction is not expected to open this summer, according to BC Parks. Sarah Brown, who runs the Hope Visitor Centre, knows the tunnels are a unique attraction and part of the province's history.

By Grace Giesbrecht | December 22, 2022 |5:00 am

The Othello Tunnels are one of the most popular inquiries at the Hope Visitor Centre (second only to road-weary travellers asking for the washrooms). But more than a year since the tunnels were closed after being damaged in last autumn’s storms, BC Parks officials still can’t say when the tunnels will be reopened.

The exact problems that kept the historic railway tunnels dangerous for the public last summer have not been outlined. The tunnels are always closed in the winter.

Engineers have finished examining  the tunnels, bridges, and trail according to BC Parks. They are currently writing a report that will tell the province where the problems are and ways to address them. That report, however, is not expected until late spring, 2023. No timelines for construction—and therefore no anticipated reopening dates—will be seen until afterwards.

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A big attraction in a small town

When pandemic restrictions were lifted this year, Hope didn’t get the number of visitors it had seen in previous summers. Hope Visitor Centre operations manager Sarah Brown attributes that, in part, to a continued post-pandemic decline in travellers—but also in part to the tunnel’s closure.

A short drive from Hope (population: about 6,890), the tunnels saw more than 175,000 visitors in 2017, and over 170,000 in 2018. Even though the tunnels were closed for a portion of the 2019 season for construction, the attraction still drew 153,000 sightseers. Engineers have been fighting various geological facts for years to keep the tunnels open for visitors.

The tunnels are popular, and for good reason. A short, flat trail leads away from the parking lot for a kilometre or so. Trees lace moss-laden fingers overhead. Turquoise water rushes through the bottom of the Coquihalla Canyon.

Gaping arches, blasted into sheer cliff faces, form the entrances to a series of five tunnels. Built for the howling steam engines on the Kettle Valley Railroad in 1914, the dripping, dark portals dwarf the visitors who disappear into the ravine’s granite walls. Since they opened to the public in 1986, students of history, road-weary travellers, and lovers of locomotives (as well as Rambo movie fans) have flocked to the site. Those visitors also frequently spend time in Hope, 15 minutes away.

Brown doesn’t blame the tunnel’s closure for lower tourism in Hope. The pandemic and pandemic travel restrictions make it difficult to attribute the drop in tourism to any specific closure. But once the tunnels reopen she’s expecting a massive boom in tourism.

“I think definitely we’ll see a big bump once it’s reopened. When that’s announced there’s going to be a huge number of people,” she said. While the Othello Tunnels have a sizable parking lot that can handle tour buses and RVs, Brown expects it to overflow.

“But we haven’t seen ‘Oh, there’s a huge drop because people aren’t able to see them,’” she said.

A unique combination of trains, nature, and history

The Othello Tunnels are the first thing Brown recommends to the thousands of visitors who pour through Hope every year on their way from one highway to the next.

Brown’s most common guests at the Visitor Centre are Europeans in rented RVs, Americans bound for Alaska or Jasper, and Lower Mainlanders looking to escape the city. Some know about the tunnels already and seek them out. Others are sent there by Brown and her colleagues.

“We recommend them normally because it is really a one-of-a-kind attraction,” Brown said. “A lot of places have very similar offerings, but [the tunnels] are something you couldn’t see anywhere else.”

The attraction is also particularly accessible, an advantage uncommon for interesting destinations that require even a short hike.

“It’s relatively easy to do—it’s pretty flat, and it’s relatively short. You could do it with kids, or with a stroller or somebody in a wheelchair,” Brown said.

The tunnels are also the first place she took her parents when they visited her in B.C. from the east coast.

“Here’s something that you’re not gonna see anywhere else,” she said. “It’s got that historical element to it. It’s just so specific and so unique.”

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Grace Giesbrecht

Grace Giesbrecht is a reporter with the Fraser Valley Current

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