The wildness of the North beckons
True road explorers – those with a yen to experience far-flung, lonely routes – head north. There is no finer example of an untouched landscape than Northern British Columbia – and if you follow the blue and gold Circle Route signs, you will certainly never be lost in the wild. From Prince George, located roughly in the middle of this western province, the Great Northern Circle route covers 2,632 kilometres (1,635 miles), encompassing a vast, diverse territory that whispers of promises. This eight- to 14-day odyssey promises of adventure – you are practically guaranteed to see wild animals, climb high mountains, discover geological wonders, cover daunting distances and bask in some down-home hospitality.
The journey begins in the city of Prince George. Tucked into a flat basin near the junction of two mighty rivers – the Nechako and the Fraser – this is a city with an authentic blend of both activity and adventure. Fort George Park and The Exploration Place mark the site where voyager Simon Fraser built an outpost in 1807. This is a landscape in which First Nations have lived for thousands of years. Visit the Native Art Gallery located ithe Native Friendship Centre, then head to the Prince George Railway and Forestry Museum that relives the early days when steam engines chugged through the land in the early 1900’s.
Departing Prince George for the first leg of your journey, keep alert for wildlife. Don’t even consider embarking on this trek without excellent binoculars – black and grizzly bear, elk, moose, coyote, wolf, Arctic hare and various birds are among the viewing possibilities. When you stop at rest areas to stretch your legs, breathe crisp, clean air and enjoy the scenery, take care not to get close to wildlife.
Follow Highway 16 – also known as the Yellowhead Highway – west from Prince George and you soon arrive in Vanderhoof. Its unusual moniker means “of the farm” in Dutch, appropriate as it was one of the first agricultural settlements in the province. Particularly if you are traveling in spring or fall, just north of town, visit the Vanderhoof Bird Sanctuary along the Nechako River. Some 50,000 birds migrate along this route, including Canadian geese and even pelicans.
Enjoy the landscape of the interior plateau – with its rolling hills spangled with spruce, pine and fir forests. You’ll pass pretty Fraser Lake; there are campsites and sandy beaches at Beaumont Provincial Park. Just outside the tiny village of Lejac, notice the reddish hue of the hillsides due to lava remains of a 25-million-year-old volcano.
If the great outdoors is your playground, spend time around Burns Lake. It’s considered the gateway to Tweedsmuir Provincial Park, one of the province’s largest swaths of untamed wilderness. Experienced backcountry enthusiasts can fly or boat in. This region is also a haven for anglers, as it is dotted with countless lakes. Pick up information on the fishing, camping, canoeing, hiking, and horseback riding options at the Burns Lake Visitor Info Centre.
Along this route, you’ll soon realize that small towns that appear sleepy are often teeming with adrenalin-packed adventures. Next up are Houston, home to the world’s largest fly-fishing rod — which says a lot about the angling possibilities here! – and Smithers. The latter, an alpine-style townsite, boasts the towering Hudson Bay Mountain as its backdrop. Take a self-guided walk to enjoy murals, play golf amid astounding mountain views or fish five rivers rich in salmon and steelhead.
Travel on to Hazelton, situated at the confluence of the Bulkley and Skeena rivers. Although small in size, this is home to the ancient Gitxsan culture. Visit the ‘Ksan Historical Village, a model community that depicts the life and times of First Nations some 7,000 years ago.
Now the adventure truly begins as you follow Highway 37, known as the Stewart-Cassiar Highway (it eventually connects to the Alaska Highway) through some of the province’s most pristine wilderness.
Heading towards Meziadin Junction, you follow the Nass River – one of the province’s richest resources of salmon. If you turn west just beyond the Nass River Bridge, you soon view the Meziadin Fish Ladders where, July to mid-September, thousands of salmon use the ladders to reach their spawning grounds.
Along this route, bask in the views, as you are now in mighty mountain country. A diversion along Highway 37A to Stewart showcases breathtakingly beautiful glaciers – earning its moniker as the Glacier Highway. Continuing north, the rugged Coast Mountains are west and glaciated Skeena Range are east. You wind up dramatic passes like Ningunsaw, with its summit at 466 metres, and stunning views of deep, moody, emerald valleys.
In this region (just before reaching Dease Lake) are two of the province’s most astounding sections of protected park land. Turning east to Telegraph Creek, Mount Edziza Provincial Park and Recreation Area can be accessed. Guided trips can be arranged to view the eerie ‘moonscape’ of cones and craters left from the eruptions of Mt. Edziza. In contrast to these muted tones, you ogle the Spectrum Range – where hues of purple, yellow and red rocks have been formed due to lava flows. A remote landscape, this tour must be experienced with a skilled guide or backcountry aficionados. This advice also applies for a visit to Spatsizi Plateau Wilderness Provincial Park, on the east side of the highway. Only accessible by foot, horseback or floatplane are more than 656,000 hectares of quintessential wilderness. Spatsizi, in the Tahltan language, means ‘red goat’ and refers to the local ones that roll in the reddish iron oxide dust. This wild plateau, studded with mountains and lakes, teems with wildlife from grizzly and black bear to woodland caribou and Stone’s sheep.
On the road again, revel in the striking scene of the mighty Stikine River, as its foamy waters surge through high volcanic cliff sides. Then you come to sleepy Dease Lake, once a hub for fur traders and goldseekers, now the centre for dozens of outdoor adventures. The highway borders the scenic lake – known for its deep, cold waters – heading for the Yukon border. By the way, this driving route is not for sissies; there are several sections of gravel, making even the most adventuresome driver realize that he or she is a long way from a freeway.
Follow a glacier-formed, undulating route past the peaceful village of Good Hope Lake; Boya Lake Provincial Park offers camping, swimming, boating and canoeing. Take pictures of the peaks of the Horseranch Range that overlook the lake – hurray, you have reached the 60th parallel that divides BC from the Yukon! Less than 10 km north of the border is Watson Lake, a logging and transportation centre. If you are into collecting road paraphernalia, get your camera out at the famous “sign post forest” where more than 42,000 road shields, community signs, homemade signs and license plates are displayed. Now you are driving the famous Alaska Highway as it meanders along and over the border before swirling south. In preparation for the drive to Fort Nelson, pull into Liard Hot Springs Provincial Park. Ease into steamy waters, enjoying Mother Nature’s spa, and perhaps take in the scene of moose dining nearby at the water’s edge.
Refreshed, drive on, soon realizing that the route between Muncho Lake and Stone Mountain (both provincial parks) is arguably one of the world’s most impressive gatherings of eye-catching mountain vistas. The Rocky Mountains, glazed in snow, showcase a seemingly ongoing panorama of peaks and pinnacles. The road twists, turns and climbs, displaying moment after moment of grandeur. This section is the heartland of the Muskwa-Kechika Management Area – its 6.3 million hectares are known as the ‘Serengeti of the North’ as it is so rich in wildlife. You may catch a glimpse of a few extraordinary creatures – like moose, bison, sheep and even the occasional bear.
After you bask in the beauty of the Rockies, the ribbon of road winds into Fort Nelson. Surrounded by forests of poplar, aspen and lodgepole pine, is this friendly town with its roots in the trading days; a fort was first built here in 1805. The Fort Nelson Heritage Museum offers glances at these early days, as well as a delightful collection of vintage automobiles.
Welcome to Peace Country, where a rolling golden landscape – in summer, fields of feathery wheat whisper in the wind, in some places patches of bright yellow canola grow – seems to go on forever. After the drama of driving the mountains, this soft landscape welcomes. It is an easy stretch from Fort Nelson to Mile ‘0’ of the Alaska Highway at Dawson Creek – some 454.3 km (283 mi) of paved and scenic roadways. (The Alaska Highway, which began construction in 1942, totals 2,288 km. About 1,000 of them are in British Columbia and a similar amount in the Yukon, with some 320 km in Alaska).
Surrounded by prairie, Fort St. John (located north of the Peace River) marks the locale where the first of six forts was built in 1794. This destination is the oldest non-native settlement on the British Columbia mainland. A hub for the oil and gas industries, this town booms and is always friendly and welcoming. Don’t miss the Fort St. John-North Peace Museum, or take in the view from the Peace River Lookout to truly appreciate the soft beauty of this land.
Continuing south, you will come to Taylor, a small community tucked into the river valley just north of Peace River. Should you be traveling in fall, you’ll be dazzled by the kaleidoscope of colours displayed by the surrounding poplar, cottonwood and spruce forests.
Celebrate at Dawson Creek and have your picture taken at Historic “Mile 0.” As well as being the beginning of the Alaska Highway, the Hart Highway and Highways 49 and 2, all meet here. Stroll the Walter Wright Pioneer Village which relives the spirit of the 1940s, and don’t miss the Dawson Creek Art Gallery, where local art is displayed in a towering wheat pool elevator.
Southwest, outside of Tumbler Ridge, is Monkman Provincial Park with wilderness trails, camping and memorable Kinuseo Falls – reached after a short hike, they are higher than Niagara. If you are intrigued by man-made wonders, turn off to Hudson’s Hope to visit and, in summer, tour the W.A.C. Bennett Dam, one of the world’s largest hydroelectric reservoirs. Diversions aside, you are now on the last lap of your driving odyssey as you follow Highway 97, also called the Hart Highway after BC premier, John Hart (he held office from 1941-47). You drive southwest through big sky country, then foothills yield to higher heights as you cross the Rocky Mountain Trench – a steep concave formed by volcanic and glacial forces, that ranges five to 13 km wide.
The distance from Dawson Creek to Prince George is 406 km (252 mi); at Chetwynd admire 40 wood sculptures created by chainsaw (seven artists have contributed to this collection) throughout the town, or stretch your legs on a gentle hike up Mt. Baldy. On to Mackenzie that sits roughly half-way to Prince George. The town of about 5,000 is named after Alexander Mackenzie, the first white man to reach the Pacific Coast, who camped here during his 1793 excursion. Go to the InfoCentre to survey the vast number of outdoor activities accessible from this town, including fishing, hiking, swimming and wilderness excursions.
Back on the highway, forested terrain opens to farmland before you complete your epic journey and arrive back in Prince George. Relax in a downtown hotel or B&B, and reflect upon your last eight to ten days – the sights you have seen and the people you have met in the untamed countryside of Northern British Columbia.
To receive a copy of the Circle Routes brochure, call 1-800 HELLO BC® (North America) or visit www.HelloBC.com/circleroutes
Contact Information for Circle Tour # 2, The Great Northern Route:
Northern British Columbia Tourism Association, 1-800-663-8843: www.nbctourism.com
Prince George Native Friendship Centre, 250/564-3568: www.pgnfc.com
Prince George Railway & Forestry Museum, 250/563-7351: www.pgrfm.bc.ca
‘Ksan Historical Village, 250/842-5544 or 1-877-842-5518: www.ksan.org
Fort Nelson Heritage Museum, 250/744-3536: www.fortnelsonmuseum.com
Fort St. John – North Peace Museum, 250/787-0430: http://collections.ic.gc.ca/north_peace
BC Parks: www.bcparks.ca
Fishing in BC: www.bcfishing.com
BC and Canadian heritage: www.heritage.gov.bc.ca
Photo: Tourism BC