Driving the entirety of BC, from bottom to top is no small undertaking. We’re talking nearly 2,000 km (1,242 mi), and that’s just one way. The rewards for the driving hours are huge: incredible scenery, quirky towns and attractions, historic homesteads, wildlife sightings, and, if you’re road tripping with friends, hours and hours of an endless stream of jokes, conversations, and sing-a-longs. Oh, and a shot of moonshine… if you dare.
I started the trip leaving from Victoria. After a ferry ride through the Gulf Islands and across the Georgia Strait (also known as the Salish Sea), I picked up my co-pilots in Vancouver and we carried on through the farmlands of the Lower Mainland, over the Coquihalla summit of Highway 5, descending into the arid valleys of BC’s southern interior. We spent the night in Kamloops, a city about four hours east of Vancouver. Not only does Kamloops sit at the confluence of the North and South Thompson rivers, it also serves as a junction for some of the major highways in BC. We rose early the next morning, ready to get on Highway 97 and head north for a long day of driving to Terrace.
The drive from Kamloops through the interior is marked by golden grasslands, roadside lakes and marshes, plateaus cut with winding rivers, and tiny towns that echo of the gold rush trail we followed north. As we stopped to stretch our legs throughout the day, I couldn’t help but think of the pioneers who cut their way through the province in search of riches or a new home. By the time we were eating fresh made sandwiches at Granville’s Coffee in Quesnel, I was struck by the distance we’d covered in half a day in a car, and could scarcely imagine doing it for months on foot, breaking new trail, hauling supplies and surviving the elements.
We had our first glimpse of what seemed like a proper northern set of mountains around the settlement of Hazelton. The setting sun washed the peaks in a warm alpine glow and when we pulled over for a break, our shadows were long, the summer solstice approaching and the days already ending later and later the further north we drove. We wanted to make it to Terrace that night, so we skipped New Hazelton but I was sad to miss the First Nations totem poles there.
From Terrace, we took a slight detour west on the Nisga’a Highway up the Nass Valley to visit Anhluut’ukwsim Laxmihl Angwinga’asanskwhl Nisga’a, known in English as Nisga’a Memorial Lava Bed Park. The landscape here changes dramatically from forest and mountains looming over lakes to the stark and desolate fields of jagged, solidified lava flow. We did a short hike through some older lava flow, the uneven rock dotted with young trees, its surface covered in a pale, dry lichen. At one point we crested a hill and upon descent, came down into a vast plain of lava rock, the ground twisted with the shapes of its once liquid form. It was very eerie, the lava having flowed here as recently as 250 years ago.
You can get back to Highway 97 north via the Cranberry Connector, a fairly well maintained logging road. While we didn’t encounter any logging trucks, there’s no harm in driving slowly and “honking for safety” while rounding blind corners.
We couldn’t help but make another detour to Stewart, a small community that’s reached by driving through some spectacular coastal range scenery. The mountains are so accessible that you can view glaciers from the comfort of your vehicle – Bear Glacier can be seen off the side of the road just before reaching Stewart, and Salmon Glacier is a short drive away.
Stewart is charming, with old wooden buildings lining the main street, snow capped mountains, and the marshy expanse of the entrance to the Portland Canal, a long finger of water reaching up from the Pacific Ocean, as backdrop. The Portland Canal straddles the USA/Canada border, its geography isolating a small US settlement called Hyder, which is only accessible by land via Stewart.
For the sheer novelty of it, we parked our car on the Canadian side, checked in with the border guard, and strolled into Hyder, Alaska. If you don’t have time to visit Alaska on your own trip north, this is a great opportunity to check it off any travel checklist. Plus, you can get Hyderized in Hyder. This rite of passage takes place at the Glacier Inn, a delightfully kitschy hotel and dive bar located mere steps from the Canadian border. Getting Hyderized involves downing a shot of 150 proof alcohol, for which you’ll be rewarded a card canonizing you as such, and the dubious honour of submitting yourself to such an activity in the first place.
We had big plans to drive from Terrace to Boya Lake Provincial Park to camp that evening, but road exhaustion caught up with us and we spent the night at the Northway Motor Inn in Dease Lake. And while we were very ready to climb under the cozy duvets, we couldn’t help but marvel at the brightness of the sky at 11:00 p.m. We knew traveling north for summer solstice would mean long days, but we were still surprised at the wonderful disorientation of so much daylight.
One of our final stops before the BC/Yukon border was at Boya Lake Provincial Park. The legends we had heard about its clear water and stunning turquoise colour were all gloriously true, and we pulled into an empty camping spot and had lunch with a view.
Driving from Victoria to the Yukon border took us about three and a half days, but there were still plenty of places we missed in our rush to get north. Next time I’d like to take BC Ferries from Port Hardy (on the northern tip of Vancouver Island) to Prince Rupert, and take in more northern sights, such as the totem poles at Kitwanga and the canyons around Telegraph Creek.
If you decide to tackle the Stewart-Cassiar route to the Yukon, don’t forget you’re often driving in very isolated areas – expect limited cell service and always be prepared to fix a flat tire or have extra gas on hand. There’s usually plenty of wildlife to see on the side of the road too, such as bears and deer. An excellent mix of music and podcasts is essential… and someone available as designated driver after the inevitable shots of moonshine in Hyder, Alaska.
Explore the Stewart-Cassiar Highway Driving Route and start planning your BC road trip.
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