British Columbia is Canada’s third-largest province in area, behind Ontario and Quebec. Covering 948,596 square kilometers (366,252 square miles), it’s four times larger than Great Britain, two and a half times as large as Japan, larger than all U.S. states except Alaska, and larger than California, Oregon, and Washington combined. The province is long north to south, relatively narrow east to west, and lies between the 49th and 60th parallels.
Its largest city, Vancouver, is on the same latitude as Paris and the same longitude as San Francisco. To the south are the U.S. states of Washington, Idaho, and Montana; to the west the Pacific Ocean and the narrow panhandle of southeastern Alaska. To the north are Canada’s Yukon Territory and Northwest Territories; to the east, across the Continental Divide, lies the Canadian province of Alberta. The land within those borders is dominated by mountain ranges, which trend northwest–southeast and are highest in the south.
Mountains dominate British Columbia; half of the land area lies more than 1,000 meters (3,300 feet) above sea level. The province occupies part of the mountainous terrain that runs down the entire western margin of the Americas. It lies mainly in the Cordilleran Region, which is composed of Precambrian to Cenozoic rock formed into mountain ranges, deep intermountain troughs, and wide plateaus.
The landscape is defined by parallel north–south mountain ranges and a series of parallel valleys. The steep Coast Mountains, an unbroken chain extending for 1,500 kilometers (932 miles), rise abruptly from the Pacific Ocean. Their high point, and the highest peak completely in British Columbia, is 4,016-meter-high (13,180-foot-high) Mount Waddington. The province’s highest point is shared with Alaska; 4,663-meter (15,300-foot) Mount Fairweather (sixth highest in Canada) is part of the St. Elias Range, a northern extension of the Coast Mountains that straddles the BC–Alaska border in the extreme northwest corner of the province.
The province’s eastern border is defined by the Continental Divide of the Rocky Mountains, which reach a high point north of the 49th parallel at 3,954-meter (13,000-foot) Mount Robson. In the south of the province between the Coast Mountains and the Rockies lie the Columbia Mountains, the collective name for the Cariboo, Monashee, Selkirk, and Purcell Ranges. These ranges rise to peak elevations of just over 3,000 meters (9,900 feet) and are separated by deep valleys and long, narrow lake systems.
Only the highest of the Columbia Mountains—including some glaciated peaks in the Selkirks and Purcells—are snow-covered year-round. In the northern half of the province, the ranges are lower, wider, and less well-defined, rising to vast plateaus that extend hundreds of kilometers in all directions. The least obvious of the province’s mountain ranges lies mostly underwater, off the west coast. The range rises above sea level at thousands of points, forming a string of islands, including Vancouver Island, whose high point is 2,200-meter (7,200-foot) Mount Golden Hinde.
The province enjoys more than its share of waterways. Some 24,000 lakes, rivers, and streams contribute to British Columbia’s two million hectares of freshwater surface area (approximately 2 percent of the province’s landmass). The largest watershed is drained by the Fraser River. With its headwaters around Mt. Robson, this mighty river drains 233,000 square kilometers (90,000 square miles), almost 25 percent of the province, on its 1,368- kilometer (850-mile) journey to the Pacific Ocean at Vancouver. The Fraser is not the province’s longest river, though. That title belongs to the 2,000-kilometer-long (1,240-mile-long) Columbia River, which follows a convoluted course through southeastern British Columbia before crossing the U.S. border and draining into the Pacific Ocean in Oregon.
The northern half of British Columbia comprises three major drainage basins: The 580-kilometer-long (360-mile-long) Skeena River flows westward through the heart of the province to the Pacific Ocean at Prince Rupert; the 1,900-kilometer-long (1,180-mile-long) Peace River, the only river system to cut across the Rocky Mountains, flows in a northeasterly direction into the Mackenzie River System, whose waters eventually flow into the Arctic Ocean; and in the far north, the Liard River drains a vast area of remote wilderness to also join the Mackenzie River.
British Columbia’s deeply indented coastline comprises 6,500 islands. While most of these are uninhabited and many unexplored, the largest, 31,284-square-kilometer (12,100-square-mile) Vancouver Island, is home to over 500,000 people and holds the provincial capital. (This island confusingly shares its name with the province’s largest city, which lies on the mainland 50 kilometers/31 miles to the east.) Between the mainland and Vancouver Island, 200 islands dot the Strait of Georgia, some of which are populated and all of which are protected from the wind- and wave-battering action of the Pacific Ocean by Vancouver Island. The other major island group is the Queen Charlottes, a remote archipelago linked geologically to Vancouver Island but with its own unique natural and human history.
© Andrew Hempstead, from Moon Western Canada, 3rd Edition