The Story of the Highway 97 Alphabet

Highway 97 Lettering

Scan around Canada’s highway system and you’ll find that BC is the only province to have an A, B, C and D version of a highway.

In this province, those letters are tagged onto Highway 97 – as in Highways 97A, 97B, 97C and 97D. But why is that?

It turns out that in the Okanagan, locals view Highway 97 as intrinsic to the region’s identity. (After all, another name for Highway 97 which stretches from the BC/US border near Osoyoos through to Kamloops is the Okanagan Highway). When plans were afoot to link that section of Highway 97 with the new Coquihalla Highway around the 1990s, municipalities and chambers of commerce wanted to embrace “97” in the new highway’s name, rather than have a newly numbered route.

We met with the communities and they told us it was important to keep the number and add a letter for the sake of branding. They wanted visitors from beyond the area, to see the locale as one region. The “97” would keep them on track.

Thus, the route which links Highway 97 and Highway 5 (the Coquihalla Highway) and extends from Merritt to Ashcroft, became Highway 97C.  Coincidentally and conveniently, the “C” also helps identify the highway’s “connector” role. Fittingly, Highway 97C’s other name is the Okanagan Connector, and it’s also often referred to (unofficially) as the Coquihalla Connector.

Similar forces were at work for other Okanagan area highways – Highways 97B and 97D – as they connect communities in this popular vacation destination.

How About that “A”, Eh?

Merritt Highway Going back to the start of the alphabet, “A” is the most common letter attached to a highway number, for example Highways 17A, 1A and 3A.  We add the “A” to a highway, when new alignments are built, and the original road is still viable and travelled but is no longer considered to be the main route. The new route has the number alone, while the first highway gets the addition of “A”.

An “A” can also be a cue that it’s an “alternate” route and can sometimes be a more scenic or leisurely drive. And as Canadians, we all find a certain appeal to “A,” eh?

Letters More Popular in the Past

Once upon a time, BC had a small alphabet soup of “letter only” highways. “A, B, C, N, R, S, T and U” were attached to such roads as the Pacific Highway and the Banff-Windemere Highway. These letters were later converted to numbers. (There was once also a Highway 97E and 97W).

How Highways are Named Elsewhere in Canada

Numbers and letters are used a variety of ways across Canada.

Albertans add an “X” to their numbered highway names for routes that are new alignments or spurs of existing highways. Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, and Yukon, NWT, Newfoundland and Labrador don’t attach any letters to their numbered highways. New Brunswick has no letters attached, but has numbered routes that extend all the way up to Highway 970. (BC’s biggest number is Highway 395).

Prince Edward Island sticks to “A” and Ontario has a few “As” and “Bs” attached to their numbered routes. Quebec once operated numbered highways accompanied by the letters “A” to “C” but in the 1970s the names were changed to numbers only.

If you’re driving in Nunavut you don’t have to keep track of highway numbers at all. There are only eight highways, which all together total about 850 kilometres, and none connect to any other parts of Canada. They go by descriptive names like Coral Harbour Airport Road, or Niaqunngusiariaq Road which links the capital of Iqaluit with the community of Niaqunguut, five kilometres away.  If you want to travel from one community to the next by motor vehicle, in most instances, you’d need to put your vehicle on a barge (or make a long and likely arduous journey by all-terrain vehicle or snow machine.)

Whatever routes you drive in BC or Canada – numbered, lettered or not – please mind your Ps and Qs and drive safely!

For information about the Okanagan and other fun and fascinating vacation routes, check out:

We gratefully acknowledge Wikipedia, and all who contribute to it, as one of our sources of information for provincial highways in Canada.


Page 1 of 27 comments on “The Story of the Highway 97 Alphabet”

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  1. Highway 97 could also be the Cariboo highway or the Alaska highway. How did the number 97 come to be the name for over 2000 km of road stretching from Osoyoos to the Yukon border? The Okanagan portion makes sense as a continuation of US highway 97, but why did it not terminate in Sicamous or Salmon Arm rather than having an awkward East-West connection to the Cariboo highway, which is more directly in line with highway 99 than with the Okanagan section of 97?

    • Hi Jason,

      Yes, Highway 97 does have alternate names as it travels through the province. It’s the longest highway in BC! In addition to sections being known as the Okanagan, Cariboo and Alaska Highways (depending on the location), it’s also called the John Hart Highway between Prince George and Dawson Creek. I’m not sure how the names were chosen, but will check with one of our people here, to see if they have that historical information.

      • The Cariboo and John Hart Highways were at one time also numbered Highway 2 in addition to Highwway 97. Why was the Highway 2 desination dropped for the Cache Creek to Dawson Creek segment of highway when this could be considered the primary north-south route?

        • Hi Graeme,

          Thanks for your question about previous names for the John Hart Highway section of Highway 97.

          I’m going to check into the past Highway 2 designation, with one of our people who has a long history with the ministry. I’ll get back to you here, with what I am able to find out.

        • Hi Graeme. The government got rid of the Highway 2 designation in 1962. Not sure of the reasoning, but generally it’s never a good idea to have two different names for the same highway. As such, calling it Highway 97 from border to border makes sense. Highway 2 still exists, but now ties into Dawson Creek to the Alberta border.

  2. Maybe one day the remaining 2 lane sections of the unimproved 1962 Trans-Canada Highway will become Highway 1A. Oh, is that a pig I see flying past my window…

  3. Finally, an answer to 97C (and others). When it was being built, I thought for sure the Okanagan Connector would just be a natural extension of Highway 8 (Spences Bridge to Merritt), and 97C made no sense to me at the time.

    • Hi Greg,

      Glad this solved a puzzle for you. Community desires to have the route named 97C, over-ruled earlier plans that it be called Highway 8.

  4. Might also be worth mentioning that BC’s 97 is a continuation of US97 from Washington state, as are 395, 97, 99; and 93 from Montana and 95 from Idaho. I have wondered if 101 fits into this pattern?

    • Hi Brendan,

      I’m not sure how Hwy 101 in the U.S. links with BC Hwy 101. I’ll check with some of our people here about that, and let you know here what I find out.

      • Highway 101 is the coastal route in the USA, thus BC 101 was numbered the same way.
        One must research and understand the USA highway numbering system prior to the Interstate system as to why most north/south highways in British Columbia were/are numbered they way they are. Trying to “reverse engineer” the system will not seem logical otherwise.
        USA Highway system: N/S are odd numbered, starting from East to West. E/W highways are even numbered, starting from North to South. Triple digit numbers are spurs or alternate; and the first number being odd or even denotes the type.